Reprinted with permission from Journal of Scientific Exploration,
11:1, pp. 69-78, Spring 1997
Quantum theory is open to different interpretations, and this paper reviews some of the points of contention. The standard interpretation of quantum physics assumes that the quantum world is characterized by absolute indeterminism and that quantum systems exist objectively only when they are being measured or observed.
David Bohm’s ontological interpretation of quantum theory rejects both these assumptions. Bohm’s theory that quantum events are party determined by subtler forces operating at deeper levels of reality ties in with John Eccles’ theory that our minds exist outside the material world and interact with our brains at the quantum level.
Paranormal phenomena indicate that our minds can communicate with other minds and affect distant physical systems by nonordinary means.
Whether such phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of nonlocality and the quantum vacuum or whether they involve superphysical forces and states of matter as yet unknown to science is still an open question, and one which merits further experimental study.
Some of the issues involved are explored below.
An accurate measurement of the position of an orbiting electron by means of a microscope, for example, requires the use of light of short wavelengths, with the result that a large but unpredictable momentum is transferred to the electron. An accurate measurement of the electron’s momentum, on the other hand, requires light quanta of very low momentum (and therefore long wavelength), which leads to a large angle of diffraction in the lens and a poor definition of the position.
As the late physicist David Bohm (1984, p. 87) put it:
Bohm (ibid., p. 95) took the view that the abandonment of causality had been too hasty:
Most physicists, however, are content to accept the assumption of absolute chance. We shall return to this issue later in connection with free will.
Then, when the next measurement is made, this wave packet is supposed to instantaneously "collapse," in some random and mysterious manner, into a localized particle again. This sudden and discontinuous "collapse" violates the Schrödinger equation, and is not further explained in the conventional interpretation.
A cat is placed in a box containing a radioactive substance, so that there is a fifty-fifty chance of an atom decaying in one hour. If an atom decays, it triggers the release of a poison gas, which kills the cat. After one hour the cat is supposedly both dead and alive (and everything in between) until someone opens the box and instantly collapses its wave function into a dead or alive cat.
A more extravagant approach is the many-worlds hypothesis, which claims that the universe splits each time a measurement (or measurement-like interaction) takes place, so that all the possibilities represented by the wave function (e.g. a dead cat and a living cat) exist objectively but in different universes. Our own consciousness, too, is supposed to be constantly splitting into different selves, which inhabit these proliferating, non-communicating worlds.
This means that the whole universe must have existed originally as "potentia" in some transcendental realm of quantum probabilities until selfconscious beings evolved and collapsed themselves and the rest of their branch of reality into the material world, and that objects remain in a state of actuality only so long as they are being observed by humans (Goswami, 1993). Other theorists, however, believe that nonselfconscious entities, including cats and possibly even electrons, may be able to collapse their own wave functions (Herbert, 1993).
Since the very idea of wave packets spreading out and collapsing is not based on hard experimental evidence but only on a particular interpretation of the wave equation, it is worth taking a look at one of the main alternative interpretations, that of David Bohm and his associates, which provides an intelligible account of what may be taking place at the quantum level.
Instead, it assumes the real existence of particles and fields: particles have a complex inner structure and are always accompanied by a quantum wave field; they are acted upon not only by classical electromagnetic forces but also by a subtler force, the quantum potential, determined by their quantum field, which obeys Schrödinger’s equation. (Bohm & Hiley, 1993; Bohm & Peat, 1989; Hiley & Peat, 1991)
Bohm points out that the existence of an energy pool of this kind is recognized, but given little consideration, by standard quantum theory, which postulates a universal quantum field -- the quantum vacuum or zero-point field -- underlying the material world. Very little is known about the quantum vacuum at present, but its energy density is estimated to be an astronomical 10^108 J/cm³ (Forward, 1996, pp. 328-37).
For Bohm, the probabilities calculated from the wave function indicate the chances of a particle being at different positions regardless of whether a measurement is made, whereas in the conventional interpretation they indicate the chances of a particle coming into existence at different positions when a measurement is made. The universe is constantly defining itself through its ceaseless interactions -- of which measurement is only a particular instance -- and absurd situations such as dead-and-alive cats therefore cannot arise.
He suggests that there may be an infinite series of implicate orders, each having both a matter aspect and a consciousness aspect:
The concept of the implicate domain could be seen as an extended form of materialism, but, he says,
The opposing standpoint is that all systems are continuously participating in an intricate network of causal interactions and interconnections at many different levels. Individual quantum systems certainly behave unpredictably, but if they were not subject to any causal factors whatsoever, it would be difficult to understand why their collective behavior displays statistical regularities.
But if this indeterminism is interpreted to mean absolute chance, it would mean that our choices and actions just "pop up" in a totally random and arbitrary way, in which case they could hardly be said to be our choices and the expression of our own free will. Alternatively, quantum indeterminism could be interpreted as causation from subtler, nonphysical levels, so that our acts of free will are caused -- but by our own selfconscious minds. From this point of view -- sometimes called "soft determinism" -- free will involves active, selfconscious self-determination.
Francis Crick (1994), for example, who believes that consciousness is basically a pack of neurons, says that the main seat of free will is probably in or near a part of the cerebral cortex known as the anterior cingulate sulcus, but he implies that our feeling of being free is largely, if not entirely, an illusion.
However, if it were not associated with any form of energy-substance whatsoever, it would be a pure abstraction and therefore unable to exert any influence on the physical world. This objection also applies to antireductionists who shun the word "dualist" and describe matter and consciousness as complementary or dyadic aspects of reality, yet deny consciousness any energetic or substantial nature, thereby implying that it is fundamentally different from matter and in fact a mere abstraction.
According to this view, nature in general, and all the entities that compose it, are formed and organized mainly from within outwards, from deeper levels of their constitution. This inner guidance is sometimes automatic and passive, giving rise to our automatic bodily functions and habitual and instinctual behavior, and to the regular, lawlike operations of nature in general, and sometimes it is active and self-conscious, as in our acts of intention and volition. A physical system subjected to such subtler influences is not so much acted upon from without as guided from within.
As well as influencing our own brains and bodies, our minds also appear to be able to affect other minds and bodies and other physical objects at a distance, as seen in paranormal phenomena.
This phenomenon is known as nonlocality, and is open to two main interpretations:
If nonlocal correlations are literally instantaneous, they would effectively be noncausal; if two events occur absolutely simultaneously, "cause" and "effect" would be indistinguishable, and one of the events could not be said to cause the other through the transfer of force or energy, for no such transfer could take place infinitely fast. There would therefore be no causal transmission mechanism to be explained, and any investigations would be confined to the conditions that allow correlated events to occur at different places.
For if nonlocal connections are propagated not at infinite speeds but at speeds greater than that of light through a "quantum ether" -- a subquantum domain where current quantum theory and relativity theory break down -- then the correlations predicted by quantum theory would vanish if measurements were made in periods shorter than those required for the transmission of quantum connections between particles. Such experiments are beyond the capabilities of present technology but might be possible in the future. If superluminal interactions exist, they would be "nonlocal" only in the sense of nonphysical.
As already pointed out, if nonlocality is interpreted to mean instantaneous connectedness, it would imply that information could be "received" at a distance at exactly the same moment as it is generated, without undergoing any form of transmission. At most, one could then try to understand the conditions that allow the instant appearance of information.
For if ESP phenomena do involve subtler forms of energy traveling at finite but perhaps superluminal speeds through superphysical realms, it might be possible to detect a delay between transmission and reception, and also some weakening of the effect over very long distances, though it is already evident that any attenuation must be far less than that experienced by electromagnetic energy, which is subject to the inverse-square law.
Bohm says that such foreshadowing takes place "deep in the implicate order" (Talbot, 1992, p. 212) -- which some mystical traditions would call the astral or akashic realms.
Experiments at the PEAR lab at Princeton University have yielded a smaller shift of 1 part in 10,000 (Jahn & Dunne, 1987). Some researchers have invoked the theory of the collapse of wave functions by consciousness in order to explain such effects. It is argued that in micro-PK, in contrast to ordinary perception, the observing subject helps to specify what the outcome of the collapse of the wave function will be, perhaps by some sort of informational process (Broughton, 1991, pp. 177-81).
Eccles follows a similar approach in explaining how our minds act on our own brains. However, the concept of wave-function collapse is not essential to explaining mind-matter interaction. We could equally well adopt the standpoint that subatomic particles are ceaselessly flickering into and out of physical existence, and that the outcome of the process is modifiable by our will -- a psychic force.
Such phenomena clearly involve far more than altering the probabilistic behavior of atomic particles, and could be regarded as evidence for forces, states of matter, and nonphysical living entities currently unknown to science. Confirmation that such things exist would provide a further indication that within the all-embracing unity of nature there is endless diversity.
Such investigations could deepen our knowledge of the workings of both the quantum realm and our minds, and the relationship between them, and indicate whether the quantum vacuum really is the bottom level of all existence, or whether there are deeper realms of nature waiting to be explored.