Prologue of "Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer
" by Henry P. Stapp
Does nature care about how you feel? Do her actions indicate any attentiveness to your joys and sorrows? Prevailing scientific theory says ‘No’, but recent experiments suggest that contemporary science may be wrong on this particular point, and that nature does, in fact, respond to people's emotions
Prior to the rise of modern science it was widely believed that nature, while often acting in ways disastrous to human welfare, occasionally responded positively to our emotional states. But then, early in the eighteenth century, physical scientists, building on the ideas of Isaac Newton, proclaimed nature to be a purely mechanical process that grinds out our destinies with utter disregard for all mental realities.
This mechanistic conception of nature arose from an earlier recognition by René Descartes that certain properties of nature are particularly open to mathematical description and analysis. These features are called “physical properties”. They are the aspects of nature that we describe by attaching mathematical properties to points in space at instants of time.
Descartes distinguished these physical attributes from mental qualities. A typical physical property is the location in three-dimensional space of a tiny particle at a particular instant of time,. A typical mental reality is your experiencing of pain when you touch a hot stove; or your experiencing of the color “red” when you see a red-painted fire engine; or your feeling of moral revulsion when witnessing a senseless cruel act.
Descartes accepted the idea that the mental events occurring in a person’s stream of consciousness are related to the physical events occurring in that person’s brain. But he also believed that these mental realities were fundamentally different in kind from physical properties. This difference is essentially the famous Cartesian separation between mind and body.
Isaac Newton, building on this Cartesian separation of nature into these two kinds of things, focused his attention on physical properties. He formulated mathematical laws of motion that accounted in a detailed way for the motions of the planets in the solar system, for the orbit of the moon around earth, for rising tides and falling apples, and for a host of other observed features of the physically described universe.
By virtue of these laws, a classical Newtonian-type universe is “deterministic”. This means that the entire history of the physical universe is fixed for all time, once the initial physical conditions and the mathematical laws of motion are specified. The effective inputs into the physical universe are thus limited simply to the choosing of the initial physical conditions, and the selection of the (assumed timeless) laws of motion. These two inputs then determine the evolution of the physical universe for all eternity: nothing is left to chance, or to the willful intent of either Man or Nature. This way of understanding nature is called “materialism”, and its detailed mathematical structure is called “classical physics”.
Philosophers were tormented for 200 years by this apparent verdict of science, which reduced us to mechanical automata. Our rational thoughts and moral sentiments were rendered incapable of deflecting, in any way, our bodily actions from the path ordained at the beginning of time by the purely physical aspects of nature alone.
Then, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, a host of experiments were performed that were sensitive to properties of the atomic constituents of matter, and their results were essentially incompatible with basic precepts of classical physics. To cope with this breakdown of the old classical ideas a new theory, called quantum theory was created. It is based on radically different concepts, but provides highly accurate procedures for predicting the outcomes of both the old and the new experiments.
To deal with the failure of the classical concepts the founders of quantum mechanics abandoned a very basic idea of classical physics: the notion that a deep physical theory should be fundamentally about the mechanical properties of the physically described universe. The founders adopted the contrary view that science, properly conceived, is basically about statistical correlations between experienced “empirical events”. These events are increments in “our knowledge” that reside in our streams of conscious experiences. Thus the mental aspects of nature, which had been reduced by classical mechanics to causally inert by-products of physical brain process, became the core realities upon which the new theory was built.
In defence of this shift it can be urged that these mental happenings are the only things really known to exist. Moreover, they are the things of primary interest to us: who cares about things that will never affect the experience any human being, or any other experiencing entity?
This philosophical shift is a recognition, or affirmation, of the thesis that science is about what we know, or can know; and that what we can know about the world consists exclusively of the content of our experiences. What is going on behind the observed phenomena are things that we can speculate about, and argue about, but the scientifically secure aspects of our theorizing are what we learn from our observations. They are not the invented or conjectured processes imagined to lie behind our experiences.
This shift of viewpoint takes our conscious experiences, which had been treated in classical mechanics as essentially superficial side effects, and elevates them the status of the core realities. Moreover, the new theory gives these mental events an essential role not only in specifying what is real, and what is of human interest, but also in determining, via the quantum dynamical laws, the course of empirical events: our mental events become not mere consequences of the dynamical processes, but also causes!
The quantum dynamical laws are expressed partly in terms of mental inputs, but also partly in terms of physically described properties. Thus the question naturally arises: What reality carries these physically described properties that seem to exist when no one is watching?
A rational answer to this question was provided by the Austrian mathematician and logician John Von Neumann. He created a mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics that allows the physically and mentally describecd aspects of nature to be combined in single a rationally coherent dynamical structure. Von Neumann’s formulation allows the evolving quantum state to be not merely some useful idea in the minds of physicists but a representation of an aspect of reality itself, namely the physically described aspect. This von Neumann formulation of quantum mechanics, which is called the “orthodox” interpretation to distinguish it from original “Copenhagen” interpretation, thus partially reverses position of the founders. But the mathematical structure of this orthodox formulation is such as to allow our conscious experiences to play an important causal role in the determination of the course of both the physical and mental aspects of nature. In this orthodox formulation every conscious experience is associated with a probing action -- an physical inquiry initiated by a conscious agent -- that leads to a corresponding change in the physical reality. And this change depends crucially upon the agent’s choice, which thereby enters causally into evolution of reality.
These choices of probing actions influence course of physical events via well defined laws. Yet the theory does not determines what those choices will be. Thus these choices, made by conscious agents, are, in a very specific sense, ‘free choices’: they are not determined by any law or rule of the theory. Nor are they constrained by any known statistical rule. This freedom constitutes a ‘causal gap’ in the theory. It is this ‘causal gap’ that allows our free choices to influence the evolution of the universe.
Recognition of the power in the physical world of one’s conscious intentional acts is, of course, the rational basis of a person’s active involvement in the physical world. A denial of this power jeopardizes rationality itself: how can one rationally summon the energy and effort to defend ones values while truly believing that everything that happens -- and will ever happen -- was determined already at the birth of the universe by a mechanical process that totally ignores every mental input?
A main purpose of this volume is to explain in simple but accurate words the vast difference between the orthodox quantum mechanical conception of reality, in which our thoughts and efforts can be causally effective in the physical world, and the classical mechanistic conception, which still today, almost a century after its demise, dominates the commonly accepted public understanding of the scientific world view, and even the understanding of many philosophers.
The free choices discussed above are not the famed quantum elements of “randomness”. This statistical element of chance enters the quantum dynamics only in conjunction with the answers to the above-discussed inquiries. The experienced answers to these quiries are, according to orthodox quantum mechanics determined by what is called a “choices on the part of Nature”. According to the orthodox theory, these choices of answers conform to statistical laws analogous to the statistical laws about the the flipping of coins, or the roll of dice: the theory does not specify what an individual choice of answer will be; It says, merely, that the answers are “random”, with the probabilities of the various possible answers specified by the theory.
A second main purpose of this book pertains to the entry of randomness into quantum dynamics. Pure random chance is the idea that, in an individual actual instance, at the basic dynamical level, a definite choice can just “pop out of the blue”, with no reason at all for the choice to be what it turns out to be; and yet, when taken in conjunction with many other similar instances, it satisfies a statistical constraint. Such a conjunction of ideas is, I believe, not concordant with the demand for rational coherence that characterizes Western Science. This opinion is an expression of Leibniz’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason”, and it is epitomized by Einstein’s famous dictum: "God does not play dice with the Universe!"
This issue of quantum randomness is tied to some recent experiments performed by Daryl J. Bem, a Cornell psychologist, that seem to reveal a certain systematic failure of the quantum laws. This failure is expressed as a certain slight systematic effective biasing of the orthodox statistical laws in favor of choices on the part of nature that favor the occurrence of emotionally positive experiences of the probing agent, and disfavor negative experiences.
There is a long history of attempted scientific investigations of “rogue phenomena” that do not appear to conform to the demands of either classical, or of orthodox quantum, physics. The methodologies of these attempts have often been criticized, and the reported effects are so diverse, and so alien to the ideas of mainstream physics, that the phenomena has not seemed a fertile topic for serious theoretical work.
Bem’s work changes the situation. It strongly suggest that the supposedly “random” choices on the part of nature – governing outcomes of experiments on human subjects – are sometimes biased, relative to the predictions of contemporary orthodox quantum mechanics, in a way that depends on the emotional consequences, in the mind of the subject, of the chosen outcome. For example, an emotionally pleasing outcome is empirically favored over an emotionally neutral outcome, even though the orthodox quantum dynamical rules demand that the two alternative possible outcomes be equally likely. Bem’s article describing these results reports nine very different experiments, eight of which give, individually, statistically significant indications of essentially the same biasing. The experiments are designed to be easily reproducible in university psychology labs, where, if successful, interesting variations can be performed to tease out more detailed information about the nature of underlying dynamics.
Of course, one single paper reporting effects of this kind could not be taken seriously, if taken alone. But the reported experiments were stimulated by, and can be regarded as refinements of, a long line of prior experiments that reported anomalies of the kind reported.
The article in question gives an account of a collection of seemingly high-quality psychology experiments. It has passed the tough scrutiny of a top-level psychology journal, and was authored by a highly reputable senior psychologist, Daryl J. Bem, working at a prestigious university, Cornell.
The indicated biasing of nature’s choices in favor of positive emotions, and against negative emotions, is only a 2% or 3% effect, overall -- though it was roughly twice that large in subjects pre-defined as “stimulus-seeking” on the basis of answers to a questionaire given prior to the main part of the experiment. The smallness of this effect suggests that responsiveness to human emotions is far from the overriding cause of nature’s choices. Hence this biasing can be reasonably considered to be too small to ward off the calamities that sometimes befall us, collectively and individually.
A biasing of nature’s choices in the way indicated by Bem’s experiments would, nevertheless, if borne out, presage a discontinuity in our science-based understanding of nature, and of our role in it, comparable to the jump from classical to quantum mechanics.
A chief purpose of the present volume is therefore to explain how these reported results, which appear to imperil the entire basic forward-in-time causal structure of orthodox quantum mechanics, can be naturally explained, without violating the normal ideas about causation, by merely relaxing the demand that nature’s choices be strictly random. Relaxing this demand allows nature’s choices to be slightly biased by reasons related to human emotions. There is nothing intrinsically unnatural, irrational, or unscientific either about allowing the choices on the part of nature to have sufficient reasons to be what they turn out to be, or about allowing these choices to be related to mental realities, which are, from the quantum mechanical perspective, integral dynamical parts of the total reality.