The Matter of Bodies: Quantum Physics and Ecological Spirituality

*This is an extract from chapter 3 of my Phd dissertation, ‘The Body as Fiction / Fiction as a way of Thinking’ (Beth Spencer, University of Ballarat, 2006, pp 32-35.)

The ‘New Science’: Quantum Physics

However, towards the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, experiments began to be devised that enabled observation of sub-atomic particles, and these showed surprising interactions and states that couldn’t be made to accord with classical physics. It seemed that at the subatomic level (the level of the ‘quantum’ – or the space within and between atoms) the perfectly predictable machine-like material universe might in fact be something much more subtle, complex and flexible than classical physics could allow.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the key findings of quantum physics that have implications for epistemology in general and for our understanding of materiality in particular. For if, as I have argued, classical physics is a form of structuralism, quantum physics, as a form of post-structuralism, may be able to offer some valuable insights for post-structuralist feminism’s project of deconstructing the mind/body split.

Quantum physics is also important to this discussion of the influences on my research directions and outcomes in the novel in the way that it offers a form of scientific support (albeit tentative and contentious) for many of the tenets and practices of holistic medicine, especially insofar as these are influenced by eastern, indigenous and premodern traditions of knowledge and spirituality.

Three of the key observations that underscore the new physics are the wave/particle paradox, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Bell’s Theorem.

The wave/particle paradox and the dual nature of light
The wave/particle paradox concerns the way that it is possible to demonstrate that light (or more generally, electromagnetic radiation) is a wave, and yet it is equally possible to demonstrate that it is a particle, even though within classical physics these are two mutually exclusive properties. Indeed, even though one excludes the other, both are needed in order to understand light.

As light produces the interference phenomenon, it must be waved. Yet (using a different experiment) it also produces the photoelectric effect, so it must be particles (that is, solid). It depends entirely on the choices made by the observer (what instruments or experiment is used) which aspect it will manifest.

Which is to say that the perceived reality of the phenomena depends on what you are looking for, and how you look.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
In classical physics, in order to apply Newton’s laws of motion to an object (some would say, even to know that an object is an object ) we need to know both its precise initial position and its momentum. However at the subatomic level we can never accurately measure both the position and the momentum of a moving particle. Indeed, the very act of observing a moving particle changes it.

The more we confine a particle to observe its position, the more uncertain, or less defined, its momentum becomes as a result. While if we affect it so we can track the momentum, then its position becomes uncertain.

At a macro or gross level we can make measurements that are close enough not to matter, and so the cornerstones of classical physics – causality and predictiveness – are generally effective. But at the subatomic level – with such minute particles moving at such high energy – the time it takes to shift from one form of observing – or one concept of the object – to the other is so significant that a precise measure of both qualities is in principle impossible.

The Uncertainty Principle, for which physicist Werner Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1931, is the mathematical expression of this relationship of uncertainties. It also suggests that we have to rethink our relationship to what we perceive as ‘reality’. Classical physics regards the world as being able to be broken down into smaller and smaller component parts that can be objectively observed. But at the subatomic level, it seems that these parts can’t be observed without changing them in one way or another – without making a decision about what will be observed, or what quality will be made to manifest.

‘What we observe,’ Heisenberg wrote, ‘is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.’

Or as Fritjof Capra describes it, ‘The properties of subatomic particles can only be understood in a dynamic context; in terms of movement, interaction and transformation’, as ‘a fundamental “restlessness” of matter’.

At this level then, knowledge always has a level of uncertainty or contingency about it (contingent on the observer’s position, intention and choice of observational tools); is always an approximation, a purposeful compromise: our ‘knowledge’ and our ‘reality’ inextricably linked in an interactive and consensual relationship.

Or as physicist John Wheeler commented: ‘One has to cross out that old word “observer” and put in its place the new word “participator”. In some strange sense, the universe is a participatory universe.’

Bell’s theorem
Fundamental to classical physics is the idea of the universe as comprised of spatially separate parts joined by local connections, with the parts determining the operation of the whole through a series of physical (i.e. local) causes-and-effects that operate as immutable laws. It was this view of universal objective and predictable reality that Einstein refused to give up, even though his theories of relativity and his early experiments with light fed directly into the development of quantum physics. Einstein remained convinced that hidden local variables would be discovered to explain the apparent contradictions to these laws, such as that involved in the EPR (Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen) thought experiment.

The EPR paradox as proposed by Einstein regards a thought experiment in which twin protons are given matching opposite spins, so that their total measured spin is zero. If one changes direction or speed when measured, the other must change too so that the spins continue to match oppositionally. What was unexplainable was that, within the theory of quantum mechanics, no matter how far apart the protons were located (whether separated by a few metres or by millions of kilometres) a change in one would instantaneously result in a corresponding change in the other.

In classical physics no signal can be transmitted faster than the speed of light, and yet in quantum physics this change in the twin proton’s spin would always be instant, regardless of how vast the distance between them (one proton could be on earth and the twin in outer space and the theory was that this would still happen).

The EPR paradox (or ‘spooky action at a distance’) suggested for Einstein that there was a missing variable yet to be discovered to explain this, or that quantum theory was simply wrong.

For David Bohm, however, who further developed the experiment towards making it testable in the 1950s, what it suggested was that there must be some deeper (superliminal) level of communication, interconnection and interdependence between the protons that is beyond what can be explained in terms of classical physics and local effects.

In 1964 John Bell published his mathematical proofs that showed that if the statistical predictions of quantum theory (based on this notion of the existence of such superliminal interconnections, or ‘irrational’ behaviours – behaviours that go outside the laws of classical physics) are actually correct, then the fundamental principle that there must always be local causes must be false. As the statistical probabilities or predictions of quantum physics were subsequently shown to be consistently accurate, not just in the microscopic but also in the macroscopic world, some see Bell’s Theorem as, in effect, the final nail in the coffin of the deterministic world-as-machine view of the universe. In 1975 physicist John Stapp described it as ‘the most profound discovery of science’.

Since that time, the EPR paradox has been demonstrated as technology has become available to test it. Indeed, the increasing weight of evidence – derived from applications of quantum theory – continues to support the existence of a system of ‘non-local effects’, a web of connections, a fundamental interdependence that informs and underlies all the apparently separate components of the universe.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of 1927 and the idea of a relational, interactive universe
The Copenhagen Interpretation, formulated by a meeting of a group of physicists in 1927, said in effect that quantum theory is about ‘correlations’ in our experiences. It is about ‘what will be observed under specified conditions’ – as opposed to what ‘is’ in some kind of objective ultimate way existing apart from our observations and participation.

An essential feature of the Copenhagen Interpretation was Niels Borh’s principle of complementarity: that reality is relational and interactive. For these physicists, the only way light can be explained as both wave-like and particle-like is that these are not properties of light ‘itself’, but of our interactions with light. In this view, observer and observed are always related in dynamic ways; there is no external world available to us to be measured and observed without our changing and influencing it by that measuring and observation. Indeed, it could be said that it is only through a complex of interactions that what we think of as ‘reality’ comes into (or gets its particular) being.

‘Tendencies to exist’
The smallest object we can see under a microscope contains millions of atoms. But the next step down to subatomic particles reveals that what we think of as solid objects are predominantly empty space. To get an idea of the scale of subatomic particles – the amount of space between the particles that make up an atom – Gary Zukav presents the following image:
‘The dome of Saint Peter’s basilica in the Vatican has a diameter of about fourteen stories. Imagine a grain of salt in the middle of the dome of Saint Peter’s with a few dust particles revolving around it at the outer edge of the dome. This gives us the scale of subatomic particles.’ (57)

However, Zukav continues, a subatomic particle is not an object like a speck of dust. It is a ‘tendency to exist’ or a ‘tendency to happen’ (57). At the subatomic level ‘mass and energy change unceasingly into each other’ (58).

In this view, contrary to what was assumed within classical physics, the world cannot be decomposed into its smallest units or base building blocks. At the smallest level there are no objects, only what could be conceived as ‘tendencies’ – tendencies to occur – and which become performed a certain way when they interact with an observer. Which is to say that observation is a part of the process whereby things assume their thingness as such.

The quantum soup, the Real, the Impossible,
and the ‘implicate order’ of eastern spiritual traditions

In reading this view of quantum physics, I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s image of the Lacanian notion of the Real through his description of a scene from an science fiction story. In this a man is in a car and as long as he looks through the window he sees the world as usual, but if he winds the window down suddenly and terrifyingly the outside reveals itself as the unfiltered, unedited Real (the Impossible): a ‘grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life’.

Deepak Chopra says: ‘It’s as if, behind your back, there’s a constantly flowing quantum soup, and the moment you turn and look, it’s transformed into ordinary material reality through the projection of your consciousness.’

Or David Bohm: ‘All matter, including ourselves, is determined by “information”. “Information” is what determines space and time.’

While in Hinduism the material world is ‘Maya’: an illusion. And in Buddhism, ‘Dharmadhatu’: the emptiness of phenomena. ‘All phenomena,’ writes Tenzin Palmo, ‘although they exist on the relative level, are devoid of inherent existence. They exist only in dependence on causes and conditions.’

Physicist David Bohm, working from the implications of Bell’s Theorem, suggests that as well as the ‘explicate order’ that operates at the atomistic level, and which we can measure and track as a system of individual separate local causes and effects, there is also at a deep level a (hidden) ‘implicate’ order: where everything involves, is connected to, and is ‘enfolded within’, everything else.

Bohm uses the metaphor of a hologram to depict this ‘unbroken wholeness’ that he sees as the fundamental structure of the universe. A hologram is a three-dimensional image created and viewed with the aid of lasers and which – unlike an ordinary two-dimensional photograph – is by nature indivisible. If you illuminate only one section of a hologram, it contains within it all the information of the whole but in less intense detail. So if you have a hologrammatic image of a human body and tried to separate out the head or an arm, or the area around the heart, you would still end up with an image of the whole body.

Bohm’s work provides just one example of where quantum physics meets eastern spiritual traditions. For Bohm, ‘everybody not merely depends on everybody else, but is everybody else.’

As Fritjof Capra suggests, ‘…Eastern thought, and more generally, mystical thought provide a consistent and relevant philosophical background to the theories of contemporary science,’ both conveying ‘the unity and interrelation of all phenomena and the intrinsically dynamic nature of the universe.’ Capra quotes the Tantric Buddhist Lama Anagarika Govinda: ‘The Buddhist does not believe in an independent or separately existing external world…The external world and his inner world are for him only two sides of the same fabric, in which the threads of all forces and of all events, of all forms of consciousness and of their objects, are woven into an inseparable net of endless, mutually conditioned relations.’

Likewise, said a Japanese Zen master upon attaining enlightenment: ‘I came to realise clearly that Mind is not other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.’

Other physicists who noted this similarity include Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Julius Oppenheimer, as well as a host of contemporary scientists and biologists . Oppenheimer wrote in 1954: ‘The general notions about human understanding…which are illustrated by the discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or even new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement and a refinement of old wisdom.’

While quantum physics may still be largely unknown outside of physics departments, many of these ideas have strong connections with those that have emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century in the form of a spiritual ecology, or in the notion of the ‘New Age.’


[This is an extract from The Body as Fiction / Fiction as a Way of Thinking: On Writing A Short (Personal) History of the Bra and its Contents, by Beth Spencer (PhD thesis, University of Ballarat, Australia, 2006, pp 32-5)]

Also available at the University of Ballarat theses online program.

For references, see the full version of this chapter available as a pdf here. For the bibliography, click here.

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