Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Dr. Henry Stapp on Compatibility of Quantum Physics and Survival of Death

Just thought to post one more look at Dr. Stapp's work, the part that deals with how physics allows for survival of physical death (article here). I'm sure the physicists in the room are cringing at this point :)

But Stapp's work is really too good to be dismissed out of hand. He is not saying that quantum physics proves survival of the mind after physical death, or even the existence of the mind. What he is advocating, however, and what to me seems perfectly reasonable, is "examining whether the phenomena in question, if assumed to be veridical, could be reconciled with contemporary physical theory in a natural and reasonable way."

To me, this is really the crucial point. The mind is a veridical phenomenon and so which branch of science are we going to turn to to explain it, if not physics? The problem is efforts to explain the mind have ever been relegated to the realm of biology and neuroscience, which are structured in such a way as to deny the existence of the mind as a philosophical axiom. To this end, the best they can do is show half of the picture, dismissing the veridical perception of conscious causal efficacy (i.e. karma) as an illusion.

What Stapp points out throughout his work, making it such a pleasure to have discovered him as a Buddhist, is that "quantum theory is built upon the practical concept of intentional actions by agents. Each such action is a preparation that is expected or intended to produce an experiential response or feedback." (source). And for the many who have derided his ideas as non-standard or so on, it is interesting to point out that he is not alone in his assessment of what quantum theory is all about. He quotes Heisenberg as saying of quantum physics that

The conception of the objective reality of the elemen-
tary particles has thus evaporated not into the cloud
of some obscure new reality concept, but into
the transparent clarity of a mathematics that represents
no longer the behavior of the particle but rather our
knowledge of this behavior.

and Wolfgang Pauli as saying,

The only acceptable point of view appears to be the one
that recognizes both sides of reality—the quantitative
and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical—as
compatible with each other, and can embrace them

I won't go into the messy science of it all, though it is a fascinating look at ionic interactions at nerve terminals, smeared out brains and the Quantum Zeno Effect, the point is that, as Stapp says, his conception of of quantum physics (which he bases this work on) is "reasonably well defined, and is deeply rooted in solid mathematical works of extremely reputable scientists." He continues by saying, however, that "there has been no hint in my previous descriptions (or conception) of this orthodox quantum mechanics of any notion of personality survival." He does, nonetheless, show pretty decisively that "the structure of quantum theory indicates the need for a non-mechanistic consciousness-related process", in the face of other theories like the "many-minds" or "pilot-wave" theories that twist and turn in hopes of "evading the problem of how to tie the formulae of quantum mechanics to human experiences." If ever one was in doubt that people go to absurd lengths in order to prove absurd things, these other theories should set that to rest, and yet they have taken hold and are now being promulgated as "standard theory" along with 11-dimensional space and so on, boldly denying the blatently obvious fact that physics doesn't explain everything.

This is important, because once one allows for the existence of conscious causal efficacy, one has to explain the interactions between the physical and mental scientifically. This point should be duly noted by scientists who try to stick their heads in the sand saying that quantum physics has nothing to do with consciousness. The truth is that since consciousness is the only rational (and by this I mean empirically observable and not requiring unnecessary complexity in defiance of Occam's razor) explanation for what classical deterministic physics leaves unexplained, orthodox (i.e. vonn Neumann) quantum physics has everything to do with consciousness, being its perfect counterpart. To put it simply, the only thing missing from quantum physics is, unsurprisingly, consciousness.

So how does this all relate to survival of death, or indeed Buddhism? The point, I think, is summed up nicely by Bhikkhu Bodhi in an article I found this morning:

In contrast to the non-dualistic systems, the Buddha’s approach does not aim at the discovery of a unifying principle behind or beneath our experience of the world. Instead it takes the concrete fact of living experience, with all its buzzing confusion of contrasts and tensions, as its starting point and framework, within which it attempts to diagnose the central problem at the core of human existence and to offer a way to its solution. Hence the polestar of the Buddhist path is not a final unity but the extinction of suffering, which brings the resolution of the existential dilemma at its most fundamental level.


This, to me is the profound shift that Heisenberg, Pauli, and Stapp are talking about, from what is "out there", to what is experienced. Once we shift our focus from what is "out there" to what is "here and now", we develop a profoundly different view of reality from our Newtonian forefathers, one which is far better supported by empirical experimentation in both physical and mental frameworks. Experience has two aspects to it; one is physical, the other mental. To remove either from the equation is to introduce unwarranted and totally unnecessary complication. We have the science and the observations to tell us that both of these aspects of reality are "as real as it gets" (whatever that means). There is nothing "out there", and there never will be any proof to the contrary.

Once we understand this fact, we can easily understand things like rebirth, though it takes a bit more explaining. As Stapp points out, observations suggest the existence of purely physical interaction, and though some Buddhists might raise an eyebrow at such a statement, his point is well-founded in experience. As he cites William James as observing, and as we can easily verify in our meditation practice, "even under normal human-based conditions, our attention is initially caught by a process with purely physical inputs, and is only thereafter influenced by mental inputs." So, for Stapp, the next step is to ask whether purely mental cause-and-effect relationships can exist, to which I think the answer is obviously, from a psychical point of view, yes. And in this, I think material scientists fail in accounting for all of reality; they have painted themselves into a corner, so to speak, wherein all they can talk about is the physical because their whole system of investigation is, well, physical. In a classical Newtonian world, they sit quite comfortably. In quantum reality, however, they are sitting ducks.

The observance of purely mental interaction - one thought leading to another, for example, or lucid dreams and out of body experiences (especially near-death experiences after the brain has shut down) - leaves open the possibility of rebirth, though doesn't necessitate it, obviously. But I suspect that if you've made it this far, you'll agree that given the nature of empirical reality, there is little reason to assume otherwise (i.e. that the mind dies at physical dissolution), especially given the many observations (NDE being one, past life memories another) that would contradict such a theory. If the mind can exist on its own, what is to say that it will cease on physical death?

In this I am amazed at the depth and precision of the Buddha's teaching; as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, he never intended to provide a substratum for ultimately existing particles; quantum physics shows that there was never any need to do so. The Buddha's expositions on the arising and ceasing of phenomena in accordance with laws of cause and effect, including how mental states can and do support each other in absence of their physical counterparts, is, it seems, perfectly in line with current quantum physics and, in fact, probably the best explanation available.

(Psst... here's where the real physicists come and tell me how wrong I am. I refer them to Stapp's writing itself. He is, after all, an expert in quantum physics and well-respected by his peers.)