I hosted an online VR/video chat with with physicist and “quantum activist” Amit Goswami, a sometime controversial scientist who wrote an excellent textbook on quantum physics and many popular books. Goswami, prominently featured in the cult film “What the Bleep Do We Know!?,” is persuaded that consciousness shapes physical reality. Full video, slides, and first impressions below.
Amit Goswami will participate in the forthcoming India Awakens Conference in Kolkata, on February 12, 2017. Please watch the India Awakens Conference presentation video and consider contributing to the soon to be announced fundraising campaign to make the conference happen.
“Quantum physicists have been unable to eliminate the concept of collapse from the theory,” says Amit Goswami in “God Is Not Dead: What Quantum Physics Tells Us About Our Origins and How We Should Live.” According to Goswami, John von Neumann was the first to propose that the observer’s consciousness is what causes the collapse of the quantum wave function.
“[Von Neumann argued that] quantum mechanics has two distinct laws of time evolution,” explains Goswami in “Quantum Mechanics,” a good textbook that, besides teaching college-level quantum mechanics, gives more space and emphasis than usual to interpretative issues. “The first is the Schrödinger equation, which gives a deterministic continuous prediction of the future states of the system if the initial state is known. The second is the reduction postulate, which operates whenever the system is subjected to measurement; now probability enters, for the reduction postulate is a probabilistic statement describing a discontinuous, acausal change in the system. Before measurement there is the coherent superposition, after measurement only the eigenstate of the measured observable. But this reduction cannot be described by the Schrödinger equation.”
The reduction – aka collapse – postulate says that a typical quantum state, which is a superposition of possible states resulting from the dynamics of the Schrödinger equation, “collapses” upon measurement to only one of the initial states. The outcome of the collapse seems random, and only the relative probabilities of different possible outcomes is predicted by the Schrödinger equation.
Interestingly von Neumann’s original formulation in the seminal book “Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics” used the opposite order. “We therefore have two fundamentally different types of interventions which can occur in a [quantum system],” said von Neumann. “First, the arbitrary changes by measurements (Process 1)… Second, the automatic changes which occur with passage of time (Process 2).” Von Neumann indicated with Process 2 the ordered, deterministic evolution of a quantum system predicted by the equations of quantum mechanics, and with Process 1 the unpredictable, random collapse that happens upon measurement. The order used by von Neumann seems to indicate a special concern with measurement (What is a measurement? Where and when does it happen? Does it require a conscious observer?). In fact, the last two chapters of von Neumann’s book are dedicated to problems and issues in the quantum theory of measurement.
A visual example frequently used by Goswami is “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” an optical illusion created by British cartoonist William Ely Hill in 1915 and published in Puck magazine with the caption “with the caption “They are both in this picture – Find them.” In fact, the sketch contains both a young woman and an old woman, and the viewer can bring one or the other to the forefront of perception. Interestingly, different people see one or the other first: I saw the old woman immediately but it took a few minutes to find the young woman. Goswami uses the sketch – an artistic version of the Necker cube – to illustrate how consciousness can choose to make “real” one of many possible outcomes of a quantum event.
It’s important to bear in mind that, while the von Neumann-Wigner “consciousness causes collapse” interpretation enjoyed a certain popularity in the past, today many physicists consider it outdated. In particular, it’s found that quantum superpositions are very delicate and vulnerable to disruption (and more so for large systems): “decoherence” effects caused by subtle interactions with the environment (the rest of the world) are sufficient to cause the apparent collapse of the wave function of a quantum system Q. No real system can be considered as isolated from the environment, and even the cosmic microwave background is sufficient to rapidly cause decoherence and apparent collapse. Apparent, because the wave function of the total system (Q plus measurement equipment and environment) continues to evolve according to the deterministic equations of quantum mechanics (Von Neumann’s Process 2). Q taken alone appears to undergo a quantum jump, which appears as effectively random.
Decoherence explains why the world seems classical instead of quantum – why we never see quantum superposition of macroscopic everyday objects – without requiring ad-hoc additions to the equations of quantum mechanics (such as Von Neumann’s Process 1). The collapse of the wave function is apparent but not real: there is no Process 1, only Process 2, and the apparently lost information is not lost but “leaked into the environment,” sort of. Therefore, bearing in mind that decoherence is not a separate theory, or an interpretation of quantum mechanics, but a mathematical consequence of the known equations, some physicists claim that decoherence invalidates the “consciousness causes collapse” interpretation of quantum mechanics, as well as other interpretations that invoke Process 1. Other physicists, including Goswami, don’t consider decoherence as a complete account of quantum measurement, but incorporate it in other interpretations. The issue is far from being settled. “Decoherence is a decoy,” says Goswami in the video.
Who makes the choice?
If the observer’s consciousness is what causes the collapse of the wave function happens, the questions that come to mind are, which observer? Whose consciousness? According to Goswami, the consciousness that chooses is not a local individual consciousness, but a nonlocal, cosmic “unitive consciousness” that all observers share.
“We don’t choose in our ordinary state of individual consciousness that we call the ego, the subjective aspect of ourselves that the behaviorist studies and that is the result of conditioning,” says Goswami. “Instead, we choose from an unconditioned, objective state of unitive consciousness, the non-ordinary state where we are one, a state we can readily identify with God.”
“In the state from which we choose, we are all one: we are in God-consciousness.”
Here, there are interesting parallels with Daniel Kolak’s philosophy of Open Individualism: every consciousness is fundamentally the same, and we are all the same person.
It’s worth noting that the collapse happens also in the brain of the observer, which is entangled with the quantum system observed. In fact, the mental state of the observer after an observation contains the awareness of having observed a specific outcome, rather than a superposition of states in which the observer is aware of having observed different outcomes. It seems very likely that such a superposition would feel quite different from ordinary states of awareness. Therefore, consciousness defines the physical world by collapsing the quantum wave function, but it’s the collapse of the quantum wave function that makes ordinary awareness possible. As in the Escher’s sketch where the right hand draws the left hand, which draws the right hand in turn, so mind and matter generate each other in turn in a “tangled hierarchy.”
Life is Special
Goswami didn’t talk about God in his first books, but he does in later books. However, his God is different from the “personal” God of popular Christianity. Speaking about whether the God of quantum physics is the personal Christian God or an impersonal Deist God, Goswami noted that, contrary to the Old Testament, Jesus never claimed that God is personal. According to Goswami, Jesus “understood quantum physics” (all great mystics did) and described – in a format accessible to his contemporaries – God as a transcendent consciousness beyond conventional space and time.
Our memories are stored in our physical brains, but quantum non-locality implies that some memories are also stored in the non-local quantum reality beyond space and time. Therefore, according to Goswami, quantum physics supports a diffuse, ethereal version of reincarnation: others will be able to use those memories and inherit what we have learned in this life, including aspects of our personality.
I am especially interested in “Akashic Engineering” – the possibility that future scientists could learn how to “read” quantum reality and develop technologies able to precisely control quantum phenomena and even, in the far future, to bring the dead back to life, with their memories intact. I probed Goswami’s imagination about Akashic Engineering, but he doesn’t think we can say much about long-term developments in science and technology – as he correctly points out, many technologies that we have today wouldn’t be understandable to people alive only a few centuries ago.
Goswami is persuaded that life is special. For example, while it seems impossible to use quantum entanglement to transmit information, living systems can exploit the vantage point of the non-local unitive consciousness to exchange information behind the scene of material reality. This could be the physical basis of “paranormal” phenomena and the “morphic fields” studied by Rupert Sheldrake.
Therefore, according to Goswami, there are limits to what “material” technologies based on the manipulation of inanimate matter can achieve, and those limits will be especially evident when facing the subtler aspects of quantum reality. On the other hand, the possibilities of living systems are much wider, and we could (and should) learn how to work with living systems, develop human potential, and make better use of the intrinsic “spiritual” abilities of humans. We can, in fact, think of evolution from human to superhuman.
Goswami’s position is certainly coherent, but I don’t share his conviction that only life as we know it – the carbon-based organic forms of life that exist on this planet – can use quantum weirdness to work around the limitations of ordinary space, time, and causation. On the contrary, I am persuaded that, if quantum weirdness plays a critical role in the “paranormal” abilities of the human brain (I am thinking of the ideas of Hameroff and Penrose), future scientists will be able to engineer materials that exhibit the same quantum behavior. Of course, the best way to describe such materials could well be “living.”
Slides with questions and discussion themes, used in the Q/A: