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.
Having explored the nature of consciousness, the mind-body problem, and her quantum understanding of the personal self, in chapter 9 Zohar turns her attention to the nature of relationships, specifically those experiences when we do not feel self-contained, when two people can overlap so that they participate in an identity bigger than their individual selves.
As examples she offers:
- motherhood: “During the pregnancy with my first child, and for some months after her birth, I experienced what for me was a strange new way of being. In many ways I lost the sense of myself as an individual, while at the same time gaining a sense of myself as part of some larger and ongoing process” (p123).
- moments of great intimacy between lovers when “neither can tell where one ends and the other begins” (p107).
- the phenomenon of projective identification in psychotherapy “where often the therapist finds himself feeling feelings or thinking thoughts which are really those of the patient”. This “involves the undoing of boundaries”. “The two seem at moments… to share a common identity, to be of one body and one mind” (p108, p109).
She therefore wonders whether such experiences are in any sense real or whether they are illusory, as some suspect about consciousness and the self. She says that “in any classical approach to the philosophy and psychology of persons, this question has no answer”. As examples of those who would reject the reality of such experiences, she mentions Descartes, Newton (or at least his physics), Heidegger, Sartre, Freud, and Melanie Klein. She says that such thinking “has made its way into the general culture and contributed in no small measure to the sense of alienation felt by so many”, so that it is “little wonder that other thinkers — (philosopher Derek) Parfit, (Fritjof) Capra, (Gary) Zukav, (David) Bohm — have attempted to transcend this alienation by denying the existence of the isolated and isolating self altogether”.
As we would expect by now, she again turns to quantum physics to explain this phenomenon. She affirms once again the reality of the self, and of close relationships. We therefore “need to ground the reality of ‘we’ in a new conceptual structure which gives equal weight to individuals and to their relationships, a structure which rests on the physics of consciousness… Such composite individuals are not possible in classical physics, but we know that they are the norm in quantum physics”.
She explains this in the same way that she explained consciousness and the reality of the personal self, “in the tensions within the wave/particle duality and the ability of an elementary particle to be both a wave and a particle simultaneously. The particle aspect of quantum matter gives rise to individuals…The wave aspect gives rise to relationships between those individuals… Because wave functions can overlap and become entangled, quantum systems can ‘get inside’ each other and form a creative, internal relationship of a sort not possible with Newtonian billiard balls. Quantum systems ‘meet’, and through their meetings, evolve” (p113). She sees the wave/particle duality as “a tension between being and becoming” (p114). As within one self “we are speaking of overlapping wave patterns”; in relationships there are again overlapping wave patterns which may be non-local.
Her conclusion to this chapter is as follows: “The notion of a quantum self which is both a self in its own right and a self-for-others cuts a new path through the more familiar dichotomy between seeing the self as all (i.e. the philosophers mentioned above whom she rejects) or seeing the self as nothing (e.g. Buddhism). In its ‘particle aspect’, the quantum self can be seen to have an important individual integrity and yet, through its ‘wave aspect’, to be simultaneously in relation to other selves and to the culture at large. This lays the basis for both personal identity and personal responsibility and at the same time for intimacy and group identity. It also suggests a new way of looking at the whole question of personal survival after death”. That’s an interesting place for her to end, and will be the subject of her next chapter.
In addition to the examples she gives of motherhood, intimacy and projective identification, she might also have mentioned ESP phenomena, the most obvious being telepathy, but other possibilities would be clairvoyance and remote viewing. In all these the personal self/consciousness is clearly not confined within the brain/body, and is part of some greater process.
Whether or not her quantum explanation is the whole truth, I believe that Zohar is onto something very profound here. She is talking about something for which Arthur Koestler, intellectual giant of the 20th century, coined the term holon. This means exactly what Zohar is talking about, an entity which at the same time is both a self-contained individual and part of a larger whole.
Her idea resonates with what in biology is called a superorganism, for example an ant colony, which mysteriously acts as one despite being made up of thousands of individuals, to the puzzlement of biologists, who find it difficult to come up with a satisfactory scientific explanation. It also resonates with the foundational idea of various spiritual systems, that there is an ultimate source of all being, a Oneness, of which everything that exists is a manifestation. This is what Hinduism calls Brahman, and what the Tao Te Ching calls the nameless eternal Tao, “the beginning of heaven and earth” which is “the mother of ten thousand things”. Everything that exists is a holon participating within this cosmic oneness.
There is no doubt that such superorganisms exist, for every human being is one, being made up of various holons. We are comprised of individual atoms, which are part of individual molecules, which are part of individual cells, which are part of individual organs or bones etc., which all contribute to the constitution of one individual human. The atoms, molecules, cells, organs are therefore all examples of holons. The problem with humans is that in general the process stops there. We clearly recognise ourselves as separate individuals, made up of the holons I mentioned, but fail to appreciate that we are part of much larger groups and processes, thus that we are also holons. If we contemplate the state of the planet and the world of politics, it is easy to see that many people recognise themselves as holons within the larger group of their own nation-state, but have failed to appreciate that, beyond that, each nation-state and therefore each human being is a holon within the planetary family. This is also a holon, part of the superorganism of the Earth, called Gaia by the scientist James Lovelock.