THE QUANTUM SELF
D A N A H Z O H A R
T h e l i n k b e t w e e n q u a n t u m r e a l i t y a n d c o n s c i o u s n e s s s u g g e s t s t h a t o u r m i n d s a n d b o d i e s a r e t w o s i d e s o f t h e s a m e c o i n .
O UR PRESENT ecological crisis is, more deeply, a spiritual crisis. It has its origins in a distinctive Western mind-set that has dominated both our thought and action. I f we hope to achieve a more positive relationship with Nature, we must change radically our attitude to the place of human nature within the wider nature o f the universe itself. For this, I believe, we need a new physics of the self.
Our present attitude towards nature and the human has its roots in Platonic philosophy. Plato drew a sharp distinction between the realm of Forms (thinking) and the realm o f experience (the body). The Forms, pure and eternal, were the source o f truth, and we could perceive this truth most clearly through disembodied mind. The body, which trapped us in the natural and the experiential, led to distraction and confusion. “ So long as we keep to the body and our soul is contaminated with this imperfection” , warned Socrates, “ we are lost to our pursuit o f truth.”
In our more modern times, Cartesian philosophy and Newtonian physics have acted together to distance the human (consciousness) from the natural (matter, animals and bodies). Newton’s physics portrays matter as lifeless, purposeless, inert, and circumscribed by deterministic laws. Mind, on the other hand, is free, spontaneous, filled with purpose and God-given. The destructive hubris of modern technology is rooted in this distinction. So is the spiritual aridity of modern culture.
I f our minds, or conscious selves, are wholly different from our material selves, as Descartes argued, and if consciousness has no part to play in the universe, as Newtonian physics implies, what relationship can we have to Nature and to matter? We are aliens in an alien world, set apart from and in opposition to our material environment. Thus we set out to conquer Nature, to overwhelm her and use her for our own ends, never minding the consequences.
TH O U G H MECHANISTIC physics is silent on the subject of consciousness and the self, Newton’s bleak vision became the central model for almost the whole o f modern psychology. Freud greatly admired Newton’s work and hoped to discover the laws o f the psyche that would mirror those of physics and chemistry. His hydraulic model of the self as the product o f the push and pull of instinctive forces reflects this. By Freud’s own admission, the result is a psychology that leaves no room for intimacy, love or relationship. Its goal is to rise above the “ natural” .
Behaviourism, too, adopted the mechanistic model. Human beings were viewed as so many Pavlovian dogs, conditioned to respond in predictable ways to given stimuli. Consciousness itself was brushed aside as irrelevant. In our own times, cognitive scientists expert in artificial intelligence compare us with our word processors. We are “ mind machines” .
None of these mechanistic models of self will work. They are not true to our experience or our intuitions. Newtonian physics is determinist, atomistic, reductionist and without purpose. We experience ourselves as free, spontaneous, imaginative, whole, and purposive. Newtonian Man is at once adrift in a world of alien matter and alienated from his or her own higher instincts and values. We long to feel at home in the universe and to recover what we believe to be our human potential.
I think that people were quite right to look to physics for their model of human nature and behaviour, but those who looked to Newtonian physics looked to the wrong physics. The new physics, modern quantum physics, is radically different. And it is different from classical physics in several important ways that bear directly on its providing a suitable physical basis for consciousness.
Quantum reality is indeterminate, leaving open the possibility of free will in a quantum-based consciousness. It is acausal, spontaneous and creative. The quantum realm is a world of surprise. Where Newton’s world was atomistic and reductionist, quantum reality is essentially holistic and emergent. The ultimate “ bits” of quantum reality are defined through overall relationship; they cannot be if they are independent o f it; and literally they come into being through it. This holism might very well be the physical basis for the unity of consciousness.
MORE TH AN FORTY years ago the physicist David Bohm first suggested that the many similarities between characteristics of quantum processes and those of human thought processes suggested some link with consciousness. More recently, predictions by the physicist Herbert Frohlich led to discoveries that the right sort of quantum phenomenon exists in biological tissue. The very latest developments in neurobiology suggest a quantum basis for what neuroscientists call “ the binding problem” — how conscious mind unifies its experience. New experimental evidence seems to verify a quantum element in conscious task performance.
There is, then, good reason for proposing a new physics of the self, derived from the link between quantum reality and consciousness. This “ quantum se lf ’ tells us that our minds and bodies are two sides of the same coin. The same physical processes that give rise to biological coherence also give rise to conscious processes. As these processes are found in all living tissue, it tells us that in some very important way we are at one with the
20 ResurgenceNo. 156