Future Visions

Future Visions

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Metaviews 069. 2000.08.21. Approximately 2141 words.

Below is another installment in preparation of the Future Visions consultation in New York City. This essay is from Henry Stapp from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Henry Stapp did his doctoral work under the direction of NobelLaureates Emilio Segre and Owen Chamberlain. He created thetheoretical framework for analyzing proton-proton scattering data,and made the first large-scale computer analysis ofelementary-particle data. Subsequently he worked closely withWolfgang Pauli in Zurich on parity violations. When Pauli diedunexpectedly in 1958, he turned his attention to the work of John vonNeumann on the mathematical foundations of quantum theory, and wrotean essay entitled “Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics”. This essaydeveloped into a book of the same title published 35 years later.During the sixties he was a principal spearhead of the S-Matrixapproach to quantum physics. This approach was a development ofsuggestions of Werner Heisenberg and John Wheeler. He worked inMunich with Heisenberg on the problem of the interpretation ofquantum theory, and later in Austin with Wheeler on the same subject.His paper “The Copenhagen Interpretation” is widely recognized as aseminal work on this subject. In recent years his attention hasfocused on the nonlocal aspects of quantum theory, and itsimplications for our understanding of both nature, and of man withinnature, and of the social ramifications of the quantum revolution ofour understanding of man and nature.

In the essay below, Stapp explicates the social and metaphysicalimplications of quantum mechanics as an important bridge betweenscience and religion. He calls for general science education to movebeyond the false mechanistic conceptions of nature and consciousness.Stapp writes:

This initiative would involve, for example, encouraging theintroduction into curricula, at all levels, of an emphasis, not oncreationist ideas that run counter to scientific belief, but ratheron the twentieth-century conception of nature in terms ofinformation… The progress of science is inhibited by imbuing youngminds with a false idea of the nature of nature, and religious viewsare falsely maligned by teaching as scientific fact something thatscience has in fact proved false.

As we get closer to this exciting consultation, I am getting aback-log of postings waiting to be distributed. I hope to be able torun some reader feedback sometime in September. Thanks for yourpatience.

— Billy Grassie

From: Henry Stapp <stapp@thsrv.lbl.gov>Subject: Harnessing science and religion: Societal ramifications ofthe new scientific conception of human beings.

A revolution occurred during the twentieth century in our scientificunderstanding of the nature of the physical world. This change isenormously important to religion, for it eliminates a basic conflictbetween science and the core religious belief.

Prior to this change, our scientific beliefs were based on anapproach that was initiated in the seventeeth century by Galileo,Descartes, and Newton, and was completed early in the twentiethcentury Einstein. The basic conclusion fromthat 250 years of sciencewas simple: we live in a mechanical universe, and we, ourselves, arejust complex machines. Science proclaimed that every motion of everypart of the physical world is completely fixed by mechanical contactbetween adjacent tiny parts, and that our human bodies and brains areincluded in this mechanical world order.

This scientific notion that man is a purely mechanical systemcontradicts what is probably the core religious belief, namely theidea that mind-like or spirit-like factors can make a difference inhuman behaviour: the religious outlook assumes, I believe, that ahuman being, acting on basis of conscious choices, is NOT causallyequivalent to a mechanical automaton whose every action is completelydetermined by direct interaction between tiny neighboring bits ofmatter.

The question of whether man is, or is not, just a complex mechanicaldevice is not just an idle academic issue. Differences in beliefsabout this matter lead directly to divergent rules of conduct. Are wejust machines created by genes to promote their own survival? Or arewe integral parts of a deeper world order. Accepting the firstalternative leads rationally to the treatment of other human beingsas Pavlovian dogs to be conditioned to serve one’s own desires:accepting the second alternative can lead to a more caring behaviour.

The key point for religion is this: Twentieth century science hasshown the earlier mechanical conception of physical reality to beincompatible with the empirical facts.

To cope with this failure of the earlier ideas physicists made atruly revolutionary change. Physical theory was converted from atheory about the physical world itself into a theory of WHAT ONECOULD KNOW about the physical world: human experience was introducedinto the theory, and was made fundamental.

The initial formulation of this new approach was called theCopenhagen interpretation. It had a serious drawback: it broughthuman knowledge into physical theory, but at the very stiff price ofrenouncing the possibility of understanding the underlying physicalreality. However, the eminent mathematician John von Neumann andnobel laureate Eugene Wigner were able to reincorporate physicalreality by casting the new physics into a theory of the interactionbetween our conscious thoughts and our physical brains.

The von Neumann-Wigner theory of mental-physical reality wasformulated in the early thirties. It encompassed all of the validresults of the earlier physical theories, and it rationallyincorporated also our conscious thoughts into the basic dynamics.However, this theory was far ahead of its time: physicists were notyet ready to think seriously about the problem of the interactionbetween our thoughts and our brains. Moreover, the available data wasthen insufficient to make pursuit of the theory scientificallyfeasible. Now, however, there is a huge and rapidly growing fund ofexperimental data on this question of the connection between mindsand brains, and this data supports the von Neuman-Wigner theory inmany significant ways. Consequently, the serious exploitation anddevelopment of the von Neuman-Wigner formulation of quantum theoryhas now begun in earnest.

This shift in science is important to religion in at least four ways.First, it removes the basic contradiction between the olderscientific claim that human beings are essentially mechanical robotsand the religious idea that men are not ruled by matter alone.Second, the new physics, both in its original and von Neumann-Wignerforms, dynamically entangles our conscious thoughts with the quantumphysicist’s mathematical representation of the physical world. Third,the von Neumann-Wigner formulation provides the basic logicalprinciples that govern the interaction between thoughts and brains.Fourth, the new physics presents prima facie evidence that our humanthoughts are linked to nature by nonlocal connections: what a personchooses to do in one region seems immediately to effect what is trueelsewhere in the universe. This nonlocal aspect can be understood byconceiving the universe to be not a collection of tiny bits ofmatter, but rather a growing compendium of bits of information.

This profound shift in what science says about the nature of physicalreality , and of human beings, has not yet sunk into our culture.Thus one important thing that could be done to reduce the perceiveddisparity between the scientific and religious outlooks would be topromote the infusion into public awareness of an understanding of theradical shift wrought by quantum theory in our understanding of bothnature, and the nature of man.

This initiative would involve, for example, encouraging theintroduction into curricula, at all levels, of an emphasis, not oncreationist ideas that run counter to scientific belief, but ratheron the twentieth-century conception of nature in terms ofinformation. False mechanistic ideas inculcated into tender minds atan early age are hard to dislodge later. If our children are taughtthe false doctrine that the actions of human beings are necessarilycompletely controlled by contact interactions between tiny mechanicalparts then both science and religion are damaged. The progress ofscience is inhibited by imbuing young minds with a false idea of thenature of nature, and religious views are falsely maligned byteaching as scientific fact something that science has in fact provedfalse.

One might think that the ideas of quantum physics are toocounterintuitive for young minds to grasp. Yet students have notrouble comprehending the even more counterintuitive classical ideathat the solid chairs upon which they sit are mostly empty space.Children and students who, through their computers, deal all the timewith the physical world conceived of as a repository and transmitterof information should grasp more easily that the quantum concept ofthe physical world as a store of information than the classicalconcept of the physical world as a horde of unseen particles that cansomehow be, or control, human experience. A thoroughly rationalconcept into which one’s own experiences fit neatly should be easierto comprehend than a mechanical scheme that has no natural place forone’s efficacious thoughts, and which has confounded philosophersfrom the day it was invented, and which has now pushed somephilosophers to the point of trying to convince us thatconsciousness, as we know it, does not exist, or is an illusion, andother philosophers to the point of making truth a social construct.

The fact that philosophers find themselves forced to such extremitiessuggests that they have been building on false premises, and thatsuggestion is now validated by the downfall, at the fundamentallevel, of the mechanistic science from which they started.

One problem stands in the way of pursuing this updating of thecurricula. Most quantum physicists are interested more inapplications of quantum theory than in its deep implications. Hencethey normally endorse the `Copenhagen’ philosophy of renouncing thequest to understand reality, and settling, instead, for practicalrules that work. This desertion by physicist of their traditionalgoal of trying to understand the physical world means that there isnow no official statement as to the nature of reality, or of theplace of man within it. Still, I believe that there will be generalagreement among quantum physicists that, to the extent that arationally coherent conception of physical reality is possible, thisreality will be informational in character, not material. For thewhole language of the quantum physicist, when he is dealing with themeaning of his symbols, is in terms of information, which one may ormay not choose to acquire, and in terms of Yes-or-No answers thatconstitute BITS OF INFORMATION. And I believe that most quantumphysicist will also agree that our conscious thoughts oughteventually to be understood within science, and that when properlyunderstood our thoughts will be seen to DO something: they will beefficacious.

Having been burned once—by the downfall of the seemingly secureclassical conception of the physical world— physicists areunderstandably reluctant to be drawn into speculation about thenature of reality. The vacuum thus created has undoubtedly been amajor obstacle to the introduction of the new ideas into ourcurricula. However, silence is not a satisfactory alternative, forthis leaves the field in the possession of those who promulgate thecertainly false mechanistic conceptions, and those who, noting thedesertion of the scientist from the search for the truth aboutnature, reject to whole concept that there is any real truth aboutanything, except the truth that there is no other truth. This opensthe way to a descent into moral relativism.

Given the importance of bringing ideas from contemporary science intoplay I think certain ontological claims are warranted, and aregenerally in line with what quantum physicists believe;

1. The “physical world”, as understood in quantum theory, is astore of information, and this information is NOT imbedded in hordesof tiny particles, as they were conceived of in classical physicaltheory. The information is stored in a mathematically describedstructure that specifies also propensities for certain events tooccur. These events include, paradigmatically, the acquisition ofinformation by human agents.

2. Conscious events should eventually be understood in science, andthese events should be efficacious: they should have real effects onour actions.

Not many scientists yet realize how beautifully and naturally thevon Neumann-Wigner formulation of quantum theory achieves these ends.But this is just a matter of dissemination of information about atopic that has never been seriously broached in science, not becauseit was considered unimportant, but because it was deemed toodifficult, and because the pertinent data seemed insufficientlyrestrictive. But these problems have now been overcome by fifty yearsof diligent experimentation by psychologists, and by a littledevelopment on the physics side.

Henry StappLawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryBerkeley, CA

[Refs. 1, 2, 3]

1. http://www-physics.lbl.gov/~stapp/stappfiles.html From quantum nonlocality to mind-brain interaction

2. http://www-physics.lbl.gov/~stapp/stappfiles.html A quantum theory of mind

3. Numerous published papers, references to, and copies of which, can be found at the above website

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