Quantum Theory and Mysticism

I have often written about the impact of Quantum Physics, not only on our understanding of the physical world but also on our philosophical understanding of the nature of the universe.

Now I don’t pretend to understand Quantum Physics, and I suspect many who write about it in popular literature have no greater understanding than I do.

We have been led astray by some of those who have written popular books purporting to take the principles of Quantum Physics and employ them more broadly such as Fritjof Capra with his book The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukov, who wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters. And of course other popular writers (particularly in the management genre) have tried to capitalise on other scientific innovations such as Chaos Theory. Many of these writings are unashamedly taking very shallow understandings of scientific theory to advance very speculative theories about human behaviour.

But if you look at the writings of the Quantum Physicists it is readily apparent that many of them were what we might call “mystics”.

They knew that they had discovered something that stood outside of the material explanation of the universe. It is probably fair to say that their discoveries showed that the universe could not be described in purely physical terms. Indeed they showed that there were always facets of the physical universe that were just beyond physical understanding. Try as we may, there were parameters that would always remain uncertain.

Ken Wilber, the American philosopher and explorer of transpersonal psychology, has used Plato’s famous analogy of the Cave to illustrate the respective roles of physics and mysticism. Wilber writes:

To use Plato’s analogy of the Cave: physics gives us a detailed picture of the shadows in the Cave (relative truth), whereas mysticism gives us a direct introduction to the Light beyond the Cave (absolute truth). Study the shadows all you want, you still won’t have light.

While not strictly a Quantum Physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington (whose work involved further elaboration of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity) also utilised Plato’s Cave when explaining the conclusion he had come to with respect to the limitations of physics:

The frank realisation that physical science is dealing with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances.

Mysticism might be defined as a belief that at the very centre of all of us there is a common Spirit which we all share so that essentially we “all are as One”. What’s more that Oneness is the ultimate reality, but not wanting to recognise this this, our agent of separation, our egos, create a shared illusion which we identify as the physical world.

If this sounds implausible to you, here is what Nobel prize winning, Quantum Physicist, Erwin Schrodinger had to say:

It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling, and choice that you call your own should have sprung into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. ……………….

Inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you – and all other conscious beings as such – are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence but it is, in a certain sense the whole.                  This is the sacred, mystic formula which is so clear: ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am above and below, I am this whole world.’(Emphasis added.)

In the mystic traditions, when we go beyond or transcend the self (indeed the separateness) that the ego creates, we discover a universal Spirit, and as Wilber asserts “infinite and all-pervading, eternal and unchanging”.

According to this philosophy, we live our lives in a delusion created by our egoic selves. It is by any description a truncated life where we are mainly unaware of our inherently divine nature.

As Einstein explained:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.”

One of the most influential of the Quantum Physicists was the American, David Bohm. Bohm decried the reductionist approach which was to try and understand the physical world by dividing it into smaller and smaller segments.

He asserted:

Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today.

In this statement we can see a very Buddhist like approach to the world, encouraging us to think in a holistic way and leaning toward a non-dual approach, counter to the viewpoint of traditional physics.

And further:

Aside from what I feel to be the intrinsic interest of questions that are so fundamental and deep, I would, in this connection, call attention to the general problem of fragmentation of human consciousness. It is proposed that the widespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, profession, etc., etc.), which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, and ‘broken up’ into yet smaller constituent parts. Each part is considered to be essentially independent and self-existent. When man thinks of himself in this way, he will inevitably tend to defend the needs of his own ‘Ego’ against those of the others; or, if he identifies with a group of people of the same kind, he will defend this group in a similar way. He cannot seriously think of mankind as the basic reality, whose claims come first. Even if he does try to consider the needs of mankind he tends to regard humanity as separate from nature, and so on. What I am proposing here is that man’s general way of thinking of the totality, i.e. his general world view is problematic. If he thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments, then that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border (for every border is a division or break) then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole.

Erwin Schrödinger was a Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist whose ground-breaking wave equation changed the face of quantum theory. Schrödinger believed in a unified consciousness and was inspired by the ancient Indian philosophy/religion of Vedanta.  He wrote a number of books, but in his final book My View of the World he attempted to reconcile his scientific and philosophical viewpoints. To give you an example of his mysticism, he wrote in this book:

Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi*, this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world’.
Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.

(*Normally translated from the Sankrit as “Thou art that”.)

Wolfgang Pauli was another pioneer of Quantum Physics and also a Nobel Laureate. Although he seems to have been a little more pragmatic than some of his peers developing this new bewildering field of physics, he also seemed to connect this mysterious world that he had helped unearth with mysticism.

He wrote:

It would be most satisfactory if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.


And also:


A synthesis embracing both rational understanding and the mystical experience of unity is the mythos, spoken or unspoken, or our present day and age.


Werner Karl Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics. I have referred to him and his famous Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in previous essays. His thinking was certainly influenced by Eastern mystical philosophy.

Heisenberg wrote:

The reality we can put into words is never reality itself.

Compare this to one of the fundamental tenets of Taoism:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

Like his peers he saw the physical world as something less tangible than traditional physics would allow.

I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favour of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.

And like many of them, he understood that primary dualism was a problem.

In classical physics, science started from the belief – or should one say, from the illusion? – that we could describe the world, or least parts of the world, without any reference to ourselves.

There are many more such quotes that I could instance which indicate our most famous physicists, those who arguably understood the physical world best, also understood that their science could at best provide only a partial explanation of the universe.

Ken Wilber wrote:

Physics is a limited, finite, relative, and partial endeavour, dealing with a very limited aspect of reality. It does not for example, deal with biological, psychological, economic, literary or historical truths; whereas mysticism deals with all of that, with the Whole.

While Wilber is probably right in this regard, it is hard not to believe that these explorers of the physical universe understood more than anyone that mysticism could help us provide a more complete explanation of the “way things are” than science acting alone.

More than this, these ground breaking scientists seem generally to agree that the essential “stuff” of the universe is more than just matter. They largely concur with the mystics that lying behind the façade of matter is Mind, not just the individual minds of each of us but a Universal Mind which each of us share in part in our own, paltry, unique way.


3 Replies to “Quantum Theory and Mysticism”

  1. The physicists and philosophers have never been in more agreement than today and as you say Ted, it is quantum mechanics that has been the main catalyst for this. Our egos require meaning so we will continue to seek it, but we can of course never find it. Why? Because purpose or meaning can only ever be found at a level above the searcher. We look for purpose in a God, collective consciousness or what ever. Even if we discover this higher power the next question will be, what’s its purpose or meaning? Until we accept that there is no need for purpose or meaning the arguments will go on. Not an easy thing to accept, not being special.

  2. If we define God as the collective thing that lets everything hang together then we can reconcile many religious contentions. Jesus can be the son of God, because we are all sons of God. We can all be made in his image (my translation… from the same “stuff”). I cannot understand why the church does not spend more time exploring the nature of God. Its clearly not a man sitting in a cloud, but the idea of God(s) has persisted over millennia. I believe its because the concept of God is a metaphysical shortcut to explaining all those things that we cannot see/don’t understand but which nonetheless matter.

  3. You seem to have got yourself into a regressive loop, Greg.

    You remind of the medieval debate about what holds the world up (bearing in mind people thought it was flat in those days. An old lady ventured she knew what held the world up. When she was queried about it she said that the world rested on the back of a giant turtle. But they asked, “What does the turtle rest on.”

    “Well,” she said, “It is turtles all the way down!”

    It seems to me that the universe is going somewhere. (It is useful to read the book by the Jesuit scientist, Teilhard de Chardin “The Phenomenon of Man”). That direction is, contrary to what one might think in light of the theory of the Second Law of thermodynamics, actually a unifying one.The meaning and purpose of all life is governed by this.

    It seems to me how many turtles there might be they ll point in the same direction!

    Thank you also David for your comments. I will contact you personally with some challenging reading for you.

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