This is the latest in a long series of articles about the relationship between the quantum physics revolution and a spiritual worldview. For what has preceded, see the top of the Blog Index Page. I am currently summarising the book The Quantum Self by Danah Zohar, and what follows will only make sense if you have read at least the two preceding articles.
The title of her fourth chapter is ‘Are Electrons Conscious?’. Here she picks up again the theme she left at the end of the preceding chapter: “Whereas what the observer sees can be described in the equations of quantum mechanics, the observer himself cannot. We don’t have any equations for observers, human or otherwise. They are outside the quantum system”. Quantum physics is therefore incomplete and needs to take into account the consciousness of human observers. She believes that “the behaviour of fundamental reality as expressed in the new physics almost demands that we reassess the whole question of consciousness… perhaps even to the most elementary constituents of matter”. It becomes impossible to ignore the possibility that, as suggested by physicist David Bohm and philosopher Albert North Whitehead, “even elementary subatomic particles might possess rudimentary conscious properties”. It is here that Zohar first introduces the term panpsychism, which is the philosophical term for this belief.
She gives a brief history of the idea; we discover that, even before the discoveries of quantum physics, panpsychism in various forms had its advocates. From ancient Greece she mentions Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato, the latter in connection with the Great Chain of Being, which is the viewpoint of physicist David Bohm, and advocate of the Perennial Philosophy Ken Wilber, as discussed in an earlier article in this series. From more recent times she mentions Spinoza, Leibnitz, William James, and Teilhard de Chardin.
One especially interesting quote comes from the 18th century German philosopher Hermann Lotze: “If we are panpsychists, we no longer look on one part of the cosmos as but a blind and lifeless instrument for the ends of another, but, on the contrary, find beneath the unruffled surface of matter, behind the rigid and regular repetitions of its working, the warmth of a hidden mental activity”. Such a viewpoint seems remarkably prescient; Lotze was clearly someone well ahead of his time. His contemporary Gustav Fechner “saw the earth as a living creature, ‘a unitary whole in form and substance, in purpose and effect… and self-sufficient in its individuality’ ”. He therefore was a predecessor of James Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis.
Zohar is cautious, and advocates merely a limited form of panpsychism, since she believes that “there is nothing whatsoever about modern physics to suggest that mountains have souls or that dust particles possess an inner life”. However, we are confronted by the obvious fact that “there is only one basic kind of matter. It follows then that all things — animate and inanimate — are made of it, that some of this matter has the undoubted capacity for conscious life, and that at the quantum level at least there is a creative dialogue between matter and consciousness such that the observer’s conscious mind actually influences the material development of that which he observes”.
Furthermore, “the inanimate matter that we conscious beings are made of keeps changing — in the case of human beings, it changes totally every seven years…. Our living bodies are in constant, dynamic interchange with other bodies and with the inanimate world around us. So how can the very same atoms be part of a conscious structure at one point in their history and of an inanimate object at another?” She suggests therefore that we are forced to conclude, quoting philosopher Thomas Nagel, that: “unless we are prepared to accept… that the appearance of mental properties in complex systems has no causal explanation at all, we must take the current epistemological emergence of the mental as a reason to believe that the constituents have properties of which we are not aware, and which do necessitate these results”. In other words, “we must accept that unless consciousness is something which just suddenly emerges, just gets added on with no apparent cause, then it was there in some form all along as a basic property of the constituents of all matter. As Karl Popper says, ‘Dead matter seems to have more potentialities than merely to produce dead matter’ ”.
She continues: “(Nagel) argues that both these proto-mental properties and the elementary matter with which they are associated might derive from a common source, from a more fundamental level of reality that itself has a two-sided potential to become both the mental and the material. ‘Such reducibility to a common base would have the advantage of explaining how there could be necessary causal connections in either direction, between mental and physical phenomena’ ”. She says that such an idea is “compatible with what is known about quantum reality and the wave/particle duality”, and the viewpoint is shared by David Bohm, whom she quotes: “The mental and the material are two sides of one overall process that are separated only in thought and not in actuality. Rather, there is one energy that is the basis of all reality”.
Therefore, “for Bohm, as for Whitehead and de Chardin before him, this process view of reality leads him to consider the presence of proto-conscious properties at the level of particle physics… He compares the movements of electrons in the laboratory to those of ballet dancers responding to a musical score, the score itself constituting ‘a common “pool” of information’ that guides each of the dancers as he takes his steps”.
Zohar would seem to be getting close here to the idea of the Great Chain of Being, thus Ken Wilber and the Perennial Philosophy. However, at this point she is cautious about incorporating such views: “To say that a limited panpsychist view is compatible with quantum physics is not to say that it is necessitated by it. There is nothing in quantum theory as it has been developed so far that has anything whatever to say about the origins of consciousness in quantum reality nor about there being possible proto-conscious properties associated with elementary subatomic particles”. However, “such possibilities are suggested by the uncanny behaviour of photons and electrons in the laboratory and the participatory nature of the observer/ observed relationship, but quantum theory per se, has yet to take them on board — and indeed it has no way to do so until we achieve a better understanding of the nature of consciousness itself”.
The mystery continues! We will have to wait to see where this journey into the nature of consciousness will take her.