What If Everything Is Quantum

When I use the word “quantum” I am not thinking of the miniscule aspects of quantum physics but of how it reveals a very “squirrelly” physical reality. I will start with a quite old, in physics, illustration of this.

The physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 created a famous thought experiment to illustrate the strangeness of quantum mechanics. The experiment involves a cat placed in a box, in a way it cannot be observed, along with a radiation source and a vial of poison. The radiation source has a 50% probability of emitting a particle during the time of the experiment. If it does emit a particle, the vial is broken and the cat dies. The emission or the non-emission of the radioactive particle represents potentialities for the cat. But the actuality of what happens to the cat cannot be determined until the event occurs and the state of the cat is observed.

The point of Schrödinger’s illustration was that the cat was in a state of quantum superposition, simultaneously dead and alive during the experiment, until the box is opened and the cat observed. At this point the cat is either dead or alive and thus back to being a part of the world we live in. It has not been noted by anyone I have read who described the experiment that it could have been an actual experiment. The only reason for it being a thought experiment is not to put a cat at risk just to illustrate a physical principle.

Superposition is a hard concept to grasp but what if it is the key to understanding all of physical reality. Let me explain my idea by presenting analogies to the objects in Schrödinger’s experiment. Think of the cat as any object, from the smallest subatomic particle to the universe itself. The radiation source and the vial represent the potentialities for the future state of the object. The object as it is seen when the box is opened is the extent of our available knowledge of physical events. The box represents the inability we have of knowing both the future outcomes and the available potentialities regarding all physical existence.

Schrödinger could have added other possible outcomes to his experiment. A mouse could have been released into the box or the cat could have been provided with food, water and kitty litter for a kinder, gentler outcome. The point here is that the potentialities in regard to a given event are always suited to the nature of the object but it cannot be known regarding any occurrence that the potentialities include all possible outcomes.

Where does this get us in regard to what happens in all of physical reality? If all of physical existence is the result of the actualization of potentialities, then we have to concede that if there could be something that controls the available potentialities then the physical reality we experience is the result of the generation and control of the potentialities available for any given event. This idea I have of everything being quantum invokes the principle of superposition developed by quantum physics and extends it to all events. What happens in Schrödinger’s box is unknowable until an event is observed. This uncertainty is not a lack of knowledge of potentialities that will someday be overcome by an advance in scientific knowledge. It is inherent in physical reality.

This idea of quantum everything is not a version of the God of the Gaps idea proposed by some Christians. It suggests that there is an uncertainty in our knowledge of physical events that is, to use a technical term, invincible.

To illustrate this let me turn to the world of sports. This is a good place to look for uncertainty because the essence of sports is uncertainty of outcome. There is an important figure, Chris Berman, at ESPN who does a swami routine to pick the weekly winners of NFL games. The funny part of it is not his shtick but that you or I could do as well in selecting winners by flipping a coin. This is not to say that the outcomes are random but that there are a large number of variables involved. Materialists would claim that the problem is lack of sufficient data and may think that in the era of Big Data the problem can be solved. This thinking brings in two levels of belief. One is that all the data can be known and properly used to arrive at knowledge of a certain outcome of a particular game, and two is that there are no relevant variables outside their knowledge. The reason this thinking involves faith is that Schrödinger’s box is opaque. What potentialities are in the box and what will certainly happen as a result of these potentialities are, scientifically, I think, unknowable.

It would be belaboring my point to go through every type of occurrence, not only physical but historical, economic, cultural and so forth, and show they all look quantum. It is remarkable that in their quest to get to the bottom of physical reality quantum physicists have become, as some will admit, philosophers. It may be even worse than that. I think string theory and M theory, and the mathematical need for 11 dimensions, has led physicists in the direction of becoming metaphysicists. This is dangerous ground for materialists because it brings them closer than many of them would like to theology.

Science can study the potentialities, although their origins are unknown, and their totality (for example dark energy and dark matter) still not established. Science can observe the actualizations that come out of the box. However, what is in the box and what occurs there must remain a mystery as far as scientific understanding is concerned. Thus it is not unreasonable or irrational to think there is a place in the box for God to act to accomplish his purposes for the universe he created by controlling the potentialities in the box. I think most times these potentialities consist of natural laws and probabilities. However, we cannot show whether this is always the case.

We are comfortable when we see a purpose to our lives and a solid connection between cause and effect but these do not always accurately describe our experience of life. The human condition, just like all the rest of physical reality, is far more complex than we can possibly understand. The quantum idea of everything, though, allows us to pursue science to its utmost limits while at the same time giving those who chose it a confidence in a higher reality—a divine reality beyond our understanding.

 

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Self-Actualization or Creation

I think the two choices for explanations of physical reality boil down to self-actualization or creation. The people who argue for self-actualization (and do they argue) assume that the universe contains in itself properties that caused all that has happened in it since its very beginning. This brings us to the initial difficulty.

The initial difficulty is that before the universe came into being it had no existence we can recognize, at least in terms of something observable or measurable, in other words something subject to science. Some people get around the initial difficulty by postulating an oscillating universe, one that expands and contracts but that is nevertheless self-existent. In this view, the Big Bang was the beginning of the current phase of expansion. Again, there is nothing left from past oscillations for scientists to measure or observe.

One argument for self-actualization that was new to me was the suggestion that what we call the positive part of the universe is balanced exactly by the dark energy and matter that exists so the universe is a net nothing. The person who wrote this possibly was unaware that both traditional Jews and Christians believe that the universe was created out of nothing. If in fact this suggestion were shown to be true, it would be a vindication of some religious beliefs, and undoubtedly require a major expansion of astrophysical knowledge.

Before the Big Bang was accepted as the correct explanation for the beginning of the universe, scientists and philosophers all the way back to the early Greeks had thought the universe to be static and self-existent in its attributes. This thinking is still carried over into present-day understandings. For example, one person dodged the issue of the origin of life by stating that it had nothing to do with the validity of the theory of evolution. For that person evolution was an explanation of almost all of life. The trouble with this older mode of thinking is that science has made our knowledge of everything physical far more complex.

In mathematics, solutions to problems generally begin with a set of initial conditions. It is just these initial conditions that pose more of a problem for science and philosophy than the working out of answers to how physical reality operates. This is because the initial conditions are established by one-time unobservable events. This results in sometimes conflicting ideas. For instance, we are told that all life on earth came from an original biological event. We are also told by some biologists that life will arise in the universe anytime conditions are right. You can probably see the contradiction. Since life has emerged on the earth the conditions are obviously right. So, how come it only happened once in five- billion years.

The space-time continuum is also a great mystery. It would seem to be in a chicken-and-egg relationship with the energy and matter that constitutes the universe. So, did it exist before the Big Bang or was there something in the Big Bang that brought it into existence? And how is it a property of the space-time continuum that it is almost infinitely elastic and that this elasticity produces what we call the force of gravity as a result of the space-time continuum being deformed by matter? The same kind of question applies to the weak force and the strong force. Where were they when no particles existed? Did they exist before particles or were they brought into exist by the formation of particles?

There are more questions for physics, and we have not even reached biology. Where did the properties of quantum mechanics come from? What formed the particular atoms that we arrange into the Periodic Table. Now we can go to biology. Why are there right-handed and left-handed molecules and why are organic molecules shaped in particular ways for specific functions? How did it come about that a genetic code was necessary for life and how did that code come into existence?

The idea of self-actualization becomes even more unlikely as we consider the things that make us uniquely human, such as culture, speech, music, art, abstract thought, technology, agriculture, imagination, conceptualizing and so forth. So why does self-actualization seem very attractive to many people. I think it has to do with two things: ego and rebellion. Our egos are another of our immaterial characteristics. We all seem to have one of either smaller or larger size. It seems to be that people who strongly believe in one of the various forms of self-actualization are people with large egos. I think that one such type, atheists, have egos so large they think they can push God clear out of the universe. That being the case, they typically are sure they are more intelligent than people who believe in creation.

Rebellion comes into the picture as a result of certain temperaments encountering authority figures, normally in their family or in a church where they were taken as children. One way of resistance for such people is to adopt contrary views. When this resistance meets with support in peer groups or educational institutions, it brings ego gratification and a source of identity that is hard to forego. That being the case, it is hard for people in this situation to abandon the idea of self-actualization despite the fact it requires the acceptance of large improbabilities. Self-actualization is in truth a harder belief than faith in creation. This is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of the human race has always accepted that there was some spiritual entity that brought them and everything else into existence.

The Formation of Physical Reality

I think I will use the word formed instead of words like created, evolved, or designed for describing how physical reality came into existence. This is because I think that the formation of physical reality has two aspects, potentiality and actuality. Potentiality is the capacity for the coming into existence of some form of actual physical reality. Let me get my explanation off to a rather presumptuous start by considering the forming of the universe.

The universe is the place where physical reality exists. This seems obvious, but what is not so evident is that the universe is the product of two potentialities. The first potentiality is for something that contains everything and the second potentiality is for what is contained. The finding of large amounts of dark energy and dark matter in the universe will most likely change our thinking about many things but will not eliminate the necessity of a container for all the energy and matter in the universe. This container is, of course, the space-time continuum. The vast amount of energy contained in the singularity of the Big Bang did not come from the potentiality of the space-time continuum. Nor was the space-time continuum at the moment of the Big Bang an empty vessel of some kind just waiting to be filled. The space-time continuum had to be actualized to provide the first instant of time and first volume of space as the place for the Big Bang to occur.

Just as the space-time continuum and the Big Bang resulted from paired potentialities, so also particles and electromagnetism became actualities. The next step, after all kinds of particles had been set to doing their thing was the formation of matter. When the potentiality for the first hydrogen atoms became actuality, quantum mechanics was also actualized along with the formation of the strong and weak forces. You can begin to see already that potentialities and actualities allow us to avoid thinking that quantum physics was brought into existence simply by the existence of atoms and the other particles. The matter that came into existence actualized an additional potentiality of the space-time continuum. As matter came into existence it deformed the space-time continuum thus causing physical things to come together—this, of course, is what we call the force of gravity. This coming together of objects caused consequences which required the actualization of two other potentialities—nuclear and chemical interactions.

The nuclear reactions in the stars formed by gravity produced larger atoms from particles and smaller atoms and these eventually filled the periodic table—the picture of atomic potentiality. Atoms of all types then interacted in the ways for which they had potential and the actuality of the molecules that form ordinary matter came into existence. You can see that the existence all of the basics of physical reality is a really remarkable coming into being and it took a stirring of the pot over a very long time to get all the matter and energy where it needed to be so that other things could be actualized.

The potential for what could come into existence in physical reality was not exhausted by the formation of molecules and inorganic compounds. It continued on to the actualization of organic chemistry and from there to the formation of organisms. If the name archaea (derived from the Greek for ancient things) truly means that the domain Archaea is the oldest form of life then these single-cell organisms are the first instance of cellular existence. The coming into being of these (if they are) original cells involved many other subsidiary actualizations. These include cell walls, cell membranes, DNA and RNA, genomes, a genetic code and perhaps the most marvelous thing of all—a way to duplicate themselves by cell division.

The other two types of cells that were actualized later are those of bacteria and those of multicellular organisms. These cells share some of the formations of archaea but differ in many respects from archaea and from each other. The multicellular organisms are objects of mind-boggling diversity and complexity. Each of the “boggles” represents the actualization of several capabilities. Blood, for example, is not a homogeneous liquid but a mixture of many types of molecules and cells. Nerve cells are not only differentiated in their form from other cells but came to have unique capabilities so that minds could come into existence. It seems minds are not an accidental property of organic chemistry but were the result of an intentional potential before they came into existence.

The actualization of minds takes us outside physical reality and into a different realm. This is the area of immaterial things—the realm of inventions. Your computer is the result of a large number of inventions. Each one of which was an immaterial idea in a person’s mind before it was physically actualized in some device. It is appropriate that a light bulb is the symbol in cartoons of a person getting an idea. Thomas Edison had the idea for a light bulb some 1,000 attempts before he made one that was satisfactory. Art and literature are also inventions as they have their origin in someone’s mind. The thoughts that produce immaterial things such as politics, economics, cultures, languages and all the rest are inventions as they bring into being what had not existed before.  Our minds are thus the carriers of potentiality. What is actualized by us has the possibility of almost infinite variety, just as molecular biology has resulted in more than a million species of living organisms.

I think the best explanation for our potentialities is that we received them from the Creator God who formed all the potentialities that brought physical reality into existence. I hope my understanding, such as it is, will encourage you to look deeper into the nature of all things.