Science and spirituality - The Physics of Spirituality
by Chris Clarke
In July 2000, I, along with other scientists and philosophers, was listening to Professor Raymond Chiao from Berkeley describe an experiment that his team had just performed to investigate the mysterious phenomenon of 'non-locality'. For some time it had been known that the elementary particles of physics could show signs of being somehow connected with each other, even though separated by several meters, and Professor Chiao had achieved one of the most dramatic demonstrations of this.
The basic tool in his experiment was based on the effect of interference, which produces the colors we see in a soap bubble. The light reflected from one side of a thin soap film 'interferes' with the light reflected from the other side, the two streams of light either canceling each other out or reinforcing each other, depending on the color of the light and the thickness of the film. For many years physicists have been measuring the properties of light by using a more sophisticated version of the soap film called an interferometer, in which light of a single color can be split into two beams which travel along separate paths and are then recombined. The lengths of the paths can be precisely varied. As one adjusts the length of one of them, the recombined beam alternately darkens and brightens, as waves of light first cancel then reinforce each other.
Professor Chiao had set up two interferometers next to each other, and he then fed into the darkened laboratory enclosure single particles of light (called photons). Each photon was then split into two 'daughter' photons, with one entering each interferometer. We were enthralled to hear the result. Amazingly, though predictably for some of us, when the length of the pathway in one interferometer was steadily varied, the number of photons leaving the other interferometer periodically increased and decreased! The twin daughter photons responded in harmony, each being affected by what happened to the other. It was the most beautifully clear example of non-locality yet demonstrated.
Perhaps the place where we sat was as surprising as the topic we were examining. We had gathered at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Here the Vatican Observatory had convened the meeting in conjunction with the Berkeley Center for Theology and Natural Science, to examine "scientific perspectives on divine action". Links between modern science and spirituality, for some years a feature of popular New Age writings, were now being analyzed by a mainstream Church and mainstream academics.
Professor Chiao's experiment, and similar ones that preceded it, was much more than a curiosity, for it marked the end of a whole era of science that had begun with the philosopher Descartes in the early 17th century. His was a philosophy of separation: there were only two basic principles, matter and soul, which were quite separate from each other, having only the most subtle interaction. Moreover, matter itself was divided into 'corpuscles' (known then as 'atoms' and now 'fundamental particles') which were quite separate from each other, interacting only occasionally through mathematical forces. The advent of quantum theory, and in particular the phenomenon of non-locality, swept away the separation of particles of matter, and now was beginning to undermine the separation of matter and soul.
Two months later, I was at another conference sponsored by the University of Southampton, in Winchester - the seat of the first kings of England and a city almost as venerable as Castel Gandolfo - on 'Psychosis and spirituality: Exploring the new frontier'. The title pointed to a link between psychosis, which had been regarded as a medical disease to be treated by drugs, and spirituality, the province of the soul. A wide spectrum of clinicians, academics and those with personal experience of both areas of the title, had met to lay Descartes firmly in his grave. Isabel Clarke, a clinical psychologist, based her presentation on the work of Philip Barnard's team in Cambridge. Through many years of meticulous experimental psychology, they have demonstrated that the human mind works as a single system embracing many subsystems. Making sense of the whole thing is not a separate soul, but the two main subsystems working closely together and exchanging information. One, the 'propositional' is based on language and fine distinctions, and has no direct access to our senses; the other, the 'relational', receives input from our senses, including input about the state of our body, and establishes our relationship with the world - identifying opportunities or threats and building a holistic picture of our situation.
These experimental results then started to make sense of much that had been mysterious about the human mind, such as why it is that, for many patients, psychosis is preceded by a spiritual experience which then "goes wrong". Our mental state depends on how these two meaning-making subsystems are working together. The relational subsystem opens up to the spiritual dimensions of life, into a view of the world beyond the threshold of the narrow propositional subsystem, a view Isabel Clarke terms the "transliminal" ('limen' means threshold). If, however, we lose touch with the propositional and are unprepared for this experience, then we become lost in the transliminal, and our desperate struggles to recover our footing lead us into psychosis. Other lines of investigation reinforced this picture: Professor Gordon Claridge had developed a personality measure, termed 'schizotypy' which was found to have high values both in creative artists, and in those liable to forms of psychosis. It now looked as though these were precisely the people who could move more easily into a stronger connection with the world through their relational subsystem.
Psychology and physics had shaken up all our old concepts, but coming from very different points of view. The questions which have occupied me in the intervening years are, how do these different bodies of work fit together; what do they tell us about spirituality, and how do they teach us what it is to be a human in the world?
Let me go back again to Descartes and his picture of matter and the soul. In his view, the soul is a rational, discriminating observer and matter is the observed. The soul is completely immaterial and outside the structures of space, matter is completely mechanical and fills up space with its corpuscles. Everything that 'I' (my soul) perceive comes to 'me' through a chain of mechanical impulses that are finally brought together onto the pineal gland. Here my soul perceives it as a whole, and it can then move this gland so as to control the mechanics of my body. This idea was quite radical in Descartes' time, but it was quickly accepted.
Although the details have altered and refined, and Western philosophers have criticized the possibility of actually knowing anything about reality by these means, few in the West have questioned Descartes' basic division into the observer and the observed - and now, with the spread of science, this view has spread worldwide. The severance of the world into separate observers and observed has become a wound that Western thought has inflicted onto the whole of our increasingly globalized society.
But now, suppose we start again, beginning with the new picture of physics. Instead of separated particles, we have a constantly changing dance of manifestation and change, in which the events are both, separated in space and at the same time linked through invisible threads of connectivity (called 'entanglement'). In the right circumstances, this connectivity can manifest itself in the non-local effects that Professor Chiao had explored. Woven into this fabric is a relationship which used to be called (under the spell of Descartes) 'observation'; but that term has outlived its usefulness. It makes more sense to talk about a 'context/contained' relationship.
In a physics laboratory, a particular experimental apparatus sets a context, and the rippling sea of potentiality that it contains responds to this context. If the context supplies a framework for detecting particles, the contained produces particles; if the context supplies a framework for waves, then waves are produced, and so on with a host of different alternative frameworks. We might go further and speculate that in the development of living creatures - in the growth of an embryo or the regeneration of an injured part - the context of the wider whole guides the emerging form in the same way. This picture sets a continuous process of creation at the heart of physics: on each occasion it is radically uncertain what will be manifested within a given context.
In the mechanistic picture of Descartes (and even more so with Newton,) there was a rigid chain of causality proceeding upwards, starting from the forces between particles, which determined the motions of molecules, which determined the motions of organisms, which determined changes on the planet, and so on. In the new picture, causation is flexible and flows both ways. The fundamental forces provide the raw material out of which the larger context is constructed; but the larger context itself reacts back on the contained to influence what manifests and emerges at a smaller level.
Within all this is consciousness, the awareness which is the being of each one of us, ebbing and flowing through night and day. And expanding and contracting: the world of my awareness can flow out to the stars, or in problem solving contract to a concentrated world of propositions, or in meditation sink to an inner sea. Only in the second of these do I see anything like Descartes' separated soul. How widespread is consciousness? Our forebears would have spread consciousness through the animals and plants, the rocks and the winds - as do those who live in many oral cultures today. It was the contemporaries of Descartes who restricted it to human beings, and so could carry out vivisection on animals without scruple.
Return of Integration
Over the last few years, the idea has been growing that consciousness is not imported into the physical system by an extraneous soul, but is a universal aspect of the fluid interlinked universe that I have just described, much as the philosopher Spinoza had suggested later in the 17th century. The idea fits well with the ideas of the Oxford physicist Roger Penrose. Over the last 15 years he has found increasingly many theoretical pointers to the idea that it is the structure of space-time itself that brings about the creative step of manifestation in response to context. When the fluid, uncertain 'quantum state' which precedes manifestation has sufficient energy, its gravitational field extends to produce an uncertainty in the curvature of space-time itself, which then triggers a resolution of the uncertainty through the emergence of a particular form. Penrose argues that consciousness is an aspect of this decisive creative step.
Experiments are being planned to test this theory. If it is right, it places consciousness as a universal property of systems lying on the borderline between the quantum realm and the classical realm - at the length scale in between atoms and planets that is the realm of living organisms. This then links together physics and psychology. Penrose's theory would suggest that the propositional and relational systems of our mind correspond to quantum states in the brain that have extended to this critical size. Of these, the relational quantum state, because of its links with the senses, will be entangled with other quantum states in the world around us, like the states investigated by Professor Chiao. Everything that Descartes separated has been brought together again.
This new picture brings with it a new concept of spirituality. In the West there has long been a tendency to see spirituality as a retreat from a lifeless and degenerate material world into a separate pure world of the soul. Now we can see that life and consciousness are integral aspects of a world that is both physical and mental. The gateway to spirituality lies through our relational mind, which is in direct connection with the physical world of our fellow beings on the planet, as well as opening to other dimensions not encompassed by science. Opening more to our relational mind typically brings recognition of our oneness with this whole community of beings, a compassion for them and a thirst for justice towards them, as we recover the older vision that was lost at the time of Descartes. Compassion and justice are then seen not as optional extras that might be added to spirituality, but natural and inevitable parts of becoming fully human.
What I have described is only an outline whose details remain to be filled in by future work; but the outline is clear enough for us to see how our understanding is transformed. The living world becomes the context for our creativity and our values. Science has a part to play, not just in providing machines and drugs, but in helping us to understand our true place in the world. Mental health is seen to depend on a balance between rational analysis and spiritual connectivity. Much of this has already been grasped and expounded for millennia by many faith traditions, so that using their wisdom we can immediately begin to live in the light of this new vision, but now supported by a new conception of science. Nothing is going to be the same again!
Chris Clarke is Visiting Professor in the School of Mathematics at
the University of Southampton, UK. His most recent books are
Living in Connection: Theory and Practice of the new World-view,
Creation Spirituality Books, ISBN 0952799219, and (as Editor)
Ways of Knowing: Science and Mysticism Today, Imprint
Academic, ISBN 1845400127
Subject: mental illness and spiritual experience - 29 September 2011
I was diagnosed with bi-polar psychosis and was psychotic for quite a long time. I had significant spiritual experiences that illuminated my life and healed an excruciating schism I had endured most of my life. Feeling dis-embodied, my spirit-self longed to be at home in the world while my More...
Subject: physics of spirituality - 26 June 2009
Excellent essay. The observer does in fact affect the observed by the very act of observation. Everything in our universe is naturally connected. It is one unit working with many smaller units. We are one. No doubt about it. Truth can be found in all disciplines.
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