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 (click here). I am currently summarising the book The Quantum Self by Danah Zohar, and what follows will make most sense if you have read the most recent articles, which deal with her earlier chapters.
Zohar is attempting in her book to answer the big questions of life from a strictly quantum physics point of view. Having explored the nature of consciousness and the mind-body problem, in chapter 8 Zohar turns her attention to quantum identity. She feels very certain that she does exist as a person, but wonders whether this might be what the Buddhists call the illusion of self. She asks some familiar questions on that theme, and then this really important one, “If persons are real, what holds them together?” It’s worth quoting her understanding of the problem in full:
“Each of us is an organism made up from billions of cells, with each cell in some sense possessing a life of its own. Within our brains alone some ten thousand million neurones contribute to the rich tapestry of our mental life. Another ten thousand million or so cells keep our hearts beating, the same number again give us a liver, and so on. How, given all this complexity, are we, in sum total, one thing? Or indeed, as some philosophers wonder, is it even true that we are?” “If our brains consist of all those myriad neurones, from whence emerges ‘a person’ and how really solid or basic is he?” (A simple answer to her question, how we are one thing given all this complexity, is that we are the equivalent of what in biology is called a superorganism.)
She says that “the apparent impossibility of answering that question on the basis of known science” has strengthened the dualist case. However, “fairly recent research done on the effects of split-brain surgery raises what appear to be insurmountable objections to any theory which tries to separate the person from his brain”. It suggests that a self “can be divided into two selves and then patched together again under the right circumstances. The person is now one person, then two people and then again only one”. She concludes: “Certain split-brain phenomena are proof that the self is not an eternal, indivisible whole as Descartes argued, no more than particles are the tiny, solid and indivisible billiard balls that Newton’s physics supposed. Both selves and particles… flow into and out of existence, now standing alone, now wedding themselves to other selves or particles, now disappearing altogether — teasing us with their dancing forms and shadows”.
We are therefore back to the familiar dilemma of the Hard Problem; consciousness appears to be inextricably linked to the brain, yet science cannot account for this. Having discussed some of this research, she concludes that it is easy to think that, “not only does the self reduce entirely to the mechanics of the brain, but that, stronger still, the existence and continuity of various brain states is all that is meant by the self in the first place”, therefore that the sense of personal identity is a chimera.
One possibility is therefore that our sense of personal identity is an illusion, as Buddhism claims. In that context she mentions the philosopher Derek Parfit who subscribes to the Buddhist viewpoint, which he thinks “has liberated him from the prison of self”, and compares him to Capra and Zukav and their leanings towards Eastern religions, both of whom were discussed in previous articles.
At this point, her thinking takes an interesting turn, going in a direction different from some of those who preceded her. She says: “I want to argue that looking too hard for parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism distorts our perception of matter, just as being drawn too much towards a Buddhist view of personal identity distorts our perception of the self”. She quotes Arthur Lovejoy, author of The Great Chain of Being, who thinks that such attitudes reflect “an emotional rebellion against the externality of things and… a craving to escape the burden of self-consciousness”. She agrees, saying that “they leave out a whole side of both reality and human existence”; she believes that both particles and selves do indeed exist. (These Eastern religions might say that she is trying to hang on to the reality of what they call illusions.) This is a significant alternative to the ideas of Fritjof Capra.
Since she has this firm belief in her sense of identity, she therefore has to find a credible scientific explanation for how this self emerges. Having discussed the idea of sub-selves – otherwise known as sub-personalities – saying that “no psychotherapist would argue that because the self is a house with many mansions it is in any sense less of a thing in itself”, she goes on to say: “It’s just that the self must be defined in some new terms that can take into account its composite nature without denying its substance. What can be the physics of this?”
Her explanation is quite complex and takes several pages, so I’m going to try to extract the essential idea. She compares the fact that “elementary particle systems are wholes within wholes, or ‘individuals’ within ‘individuals’ ”, to the relationship between aspects of the self (the sub-personalities) and the individual (the sense of ‘I’), thus the wave/particle duality, saying that “the dynamics of the two are much the same”. The quantum self “now behaves like a new entity in its own right, with its own wavy aspect and its own capacity for further relationship on its own terms… A whole created through quantum relationship is a new thing in itself, greater than the sum of its parts”. Regarding subpersonalities, “we are at times more fragmented… and at times more ‘together’, some more integrated self that binds together the sub-selves more completely”.
My interpretation of what she is saying is that, just as the human body is indisputably an integrated whole, despite being composed of billions of independent cells, as I quoted her above, there is no reason not to believe that the same process of coming together might be true of the psyche. She says that we have good reason to believe this on the basis of the wave/particle duality at the heart of quantum physics. She concludes therefore that:
- “ ‘I’ am an ever-present witness to the dialogues between my selves… This is the most basic definition of the self at any given moment — the most highly integrated unity of all my many sub-unities”
- in contrast to Buddhism, “because of the quantum mechanical nature of consciousness and the relational holism of quantum unities, this shifting, composite ‘I’ is not nothing, it is not an illusion”.
This is obviously a very complex topic. Zohar is attempting to explain in the language of physics (thus matter) certain aspects of the psyche, which some might say is an impossible task. My observation along those lines is that she is attempting to explain the self (consciousness) from the bottom up, assuming that it emerges as a complex unity from simpler quantum processes. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that the fragmentation and separation of the psyche she describes might be the consequence of a pure consciousness (the soul?) acquiring these aspects during its descent into the body. Her book is, however, a fascinating attempt by one open-minded scientist to come to terms with these big questions of life. More to follow in subsequent articles.