Change is now, change is now Things that seem to be solid are not.
It’s amazing how sometimes a poet, or even a rock star, can say in just a few words what others would take several pages to say. That’s what seemed to happen here when Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds summed up in two simple lines of a song the profound implications of the discoveries of quantum physics for our understanding of the nature of reality (1). They were suggesting that the advent of quantum physics would provoke a revolution in our consciousness, and social attitudes; the last line of the song is “keep in harmony with love’s sweet plan”. This doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
This article follows on from the introduction to this series, and it would be helpful if readers were familiar with it. In a nutshell my view is that, in order for humanity to move forward in the fields of cosmology, science and metaphysics, we need a reunification of science and religion, a synthesis of the best of both. That was how it was in the past, when people spoke of natural philosophy, until the two were driven apart by so-called ‘Enlightenment’ science with its rejection of religion. It is often said nowadays that the two are irreconcilable. In order to heal the rift, we need better religion and better science.
Quantum physics is at the cutting edge of new-paradigm thinking, and is therefore leading the way to this reunification. I’ll outline how this came about in this and subsequent articles.
The world view of quantum physicists defies common sense, and seems absurd to the layperson. “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it”, and “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”, are quotes attributed to physicists Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman (although these may not be the exact wordings). Despite this, however, in the opinion of the scientists involved, “quantum theory has been the deepest description that physics has available of the nature of reality”(2). “Quantum mechanics is the theory of physics. It has explained successfully everything from subatomic particles to stellar phenomena. There never has been a more successful theory. It has no competition” (3). It underlies nearly all of modern science and technology, governing the behaviour of transistors and integrated circuits, the essential components of electronic devices.
The primary finding of quantum physics was that solid objects are not real, at least not in the way they seem to us. This discovery was the culmination of the classical physicists’ relentless search for the ultimate building blocks of matter. At one point these were thought to be atoms, but it was then discovered that atoms were made up of smaller particles. So far so good. Unfortunately, at this point problems started to develop, as further research suggested that these particles were not material at all, but in a sense were only ‘probability waves’ with ‘tendencies to exist’. Then, add to this the fact that they do not remain in existence, but are born, collide with each other and die, all this within an extraordinarily short time span, and we can understand, although we cannot see, that matter is not what it seems.
Here are some examples of physicists and one science writer explaining at greater length what the Byrds said so succinctly:
Fritjof Capra: “…the whole question of the division of matter appeared in a new light. When two particles collide with high energies, they generally break into pieces, but these pieces are not smaller than the original particles. They are again particles of the same kind, and are created out of the energy of motion (‘kinetic energy’) involved in the collision process… We can divide matter again and again, but we never obtain smaller pieces… The subatomic particles are thus destructible and indestructible at the same time.
“This state of affairs is bound to remain paradoxical as long as we adopt the static view of composite ‘objects’ consisting of ‘basic building blocks’. Only when the dynamic, relativistic view is adopted does the paradox disappear. The particles are then seen as dynamic patterns or processes, which involve a certain amount of energy appearing to us as their mass”.
“All particles can be transmuted into other particles; they can be created from energy and can vanish into energy. In this world, classical concepts like elementary particle, material substance, or isolated object, have lost their meaning. The whole universe appears as a dynamic web of inseparable energy patterns”(4).
Fred Alan Wolf: “We might say that God’s will is exercised in the world of the qwiff… It is a causal world of exact mathematical accuracy, but there is no matter present” (5).
Danah Zohar: “Niels Bohr, and Heisenberg himself, argued that there is no clear, fixed, underlying ‘something’ to our daily existence that can ever be known. Everything about reality is and remains a matter of probabilities”(6).
Gary Zukav: “A dust particle is a thing, an object. A subatomic particle cannot be pictured as a thing. Therefore we must abandon the idea of a subatomic particle as an object” (his italics).
“The photon is a relationship between two observables. This is a long, long way from the building-brick concept of elementary particles” (his italics).
“ ‘Matter’ is actually a series of patterns out of focus. The search for the ultimate stuff of the universe ends with the discovery that there isn’t any. If there is any ultimate stuff of the universe, it is pure energy, but subatomic particles are not ‘made of’ energy, they are energy… What we have been calling matter constantly is being created, annihilated and created again. This happens… literally, out of nowhere” (7).
(That matter was merely a form of energy had been revealed just before the quantum revolution by Einstein in his famous equation E=mc².)
I’ll move on to the spiritual implications of all this in a later article.
(1) The song Change Is Now is on the album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Online versions of the lyrics say ‘seemed’. Listening to the track for years, I’ve always heard ‘seem’ and, listening to it again, I still hear ‘seem’. It doesn’t make any difference to the meaning.
(2) BBC Radio 4, Quantum, December 1st 1999
(3) Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Fontana, 1980, p217
(4) The Tao of Physics, Fontana, 1976, p82, p83
(5) Taking the Quantum Leap, Harper and Row, 1989, p249
(6) The Quantum Self, Flamingo, 1991, p11
(7) as (3), p57, p94 and p212