By Amir Suhail Wani
Weird, bizarre and incompressible – that’s how one can best describe Quantum Mechanics, a theory of microscopic realm, with subsequent implications on Macrocosm that has dominated the turf of physics for over a century now. Starting as a response to a simple question of atomic spectrum and stability of atomic systems, the theory soon emerged as parallel epistemological model with its ramifications on everything under the sun and beyond. The theory demands a basic shift in how we look at the universe and our own consciousness, and this shift is so dramatic that scientists and philosophers are yet to come in terms with it. So deep are its implications, that when Quantum theory was emerging and our previous understanding of the universe was about to fall, Einstein wrote pessimistically that,”I still believe in the possibility of model of reality – that is to say of a theory that represents things themselves and not merely the probability of their occurrence”.
This was actually a Critique of Quantum Mechanics that had forced the scientists to give up the rigid, classical and mechanical understanding of the universe, and to re-evaluate it in terms of probability, uncertainty and indeterminacy.
What quantum mechanics has at heart is easy to state, but difficult to come in terms with. It starts with the empirically based statement that matter at atomic and subatomic levels, tends to behave differently, rather weirdly, then how we expect it to behave. Material particles down the scale tend to exhibit wave- like properties. What this means, has been interpreted differently, the most wide interpretation being the one now known as the Copenhagen interpretation, which maintains that when an observer intervenes with subatomic systems, the particles seem to occupy no definite and specific position in space – they are rather smeared, like waves, probability waves to be precise, throughout space time. It is difficult to locate a specific region of space and say that particle is residing here, what quantum mechanics gives us, is a recipe in the form of Schrodinger’s equation to calculate the probability of existence of particle in a particular region of space, and surprisingly, though the probability goes down as we move away from the particle, it never goes to zero. It means that there is a probability of existence of particle anywhere in the universe. This is as weird as it can be, but this is how it is. This quandrum is best brought to fore by the famous double slit experiment, that Feynman described as the only problem of Quantum mechanics. In this experiment, electrons tend to behave both as waves as well as particles depending on configuration of the experimental set up. What this experiment reveals, a shocking revelation indeed, is that the behaviour of electrons is seriously determined by the presence of an observer at slit openings. This brings us face to face with one of the weird facets of reality as described by quantum mechanics, and that is, as Paulson stated it,
“An observer doesn’t merely observe reality, rather he creates it”.
In quantum mechanics, reality is not something objectively lying there independently in space time, it is rather created by interaction of the observer with the system, and it is only in presence of the observer that a particular event of quantum probability turns into a physical reality. This is what is meant by the collapse of Quantum States. This involves and brings in torrent of subjectivity and squarely brings us back to Hermeneutic interpretation of life and universe. In the continental – analytic split that occurred in philosophy in the beginning of twentieth century, Quantum mechanics has swung pendulum in the direction of continental tradition, so to say. Quantum mechanics posits the fact that we as individuals and as carriers of our own subjectivity chose subjectively from the objective field of reality. This view, along with quantum model of consciousness has diluted the Cartesian mind-body and inner-outer dichotomy and has been trying to ground being in consciousness. The quantum emphasis on consciousness and its subsequent acceptance of the fact that consciousness is something beyond the grasp of scientific structures and it can never be quantified and theorised in a structured pattern has brought this theory, circularly, very close to views held in the East since millennia. The three fold formulation of Sat-Chit-Anand seems to be fitting well in quantum scheme, though it remains debatable as to how long shall it take for quantum mechanics and therefore for entire physics to completely agree with the picture that has come to us from Eastern religious and metaphysical traditions. Neils Bohr wasn’t entirely hyperbolic when he noted that in order to come in terms with epistemological issues raised by quantum mechanics one must return to the questions raised by Hindu Anna Buddhist monks, centuries ago. The resemblance between Quantum mechanics and traditional metaphysics becomes more acute when we listen masters from both camps crying that “We can’t describe what we see. Language is inadequate to describe our experiences”. This indescribability of both episteme brings them further close.
The philosophy of determinism that Newtonian mechanics has tethered us to, and thereby rendering our moral responsibilities, accountability before divine redundant is also falling apart in the wake of quantum theory. The theory is based on the very premise that matter and therefore universe is governed by indeterminacy and a sort of free will at atomic and subatomic scale. This observation and its consequences on macro world is surely going to establish the theory of free will and human accountability as a rational and well proven proposition. Additionally, the quantum Maxim that things aren’t as they appear to be is going to throw open doors of fresh thinking and is surely expected to awaken die hard materialists to subtler levels of reality. People have already came up with scores of good and bad books on the subject which lay bare the philosophical underpinnings of quantum mechanics and subsequent boost that religion can have had from these underpinnings. Of all the diverse interpretations that philosophers have extracted from the postulates of Quantum mechanics we are bound to make a transition from our classical, rigid, deterministic and material picture of universe to its Quantum, in deterministic and subtle picture of universe. Frithjof Capra has thus summarised this paradigm shift in our thinking that “In modern physics, the image of the universe as machine has been replaced by that of an interconnected, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interdependent and have to be understood as patterns of cosmic process”. What this entire episode has to offer to us and why is it important for us to understand because it touches upon our basic existential, epistemological and ontological issues and with convergences so profound, a seeker can afford no longer ignorance neither of traditional metaphysics nor of modern physics.
(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: [email protected]