Friday, September 24, 2010

Ethics and Quantum Physics

There is never enough time to learn everything; that is not a reason to learn nothing.

So, I'm learning a little quantum physics... and so what if it happens to be that version of quantum physics that agrees with my own understanding of reality? Here, have a listen:

The proposition, foisted upon us by a materialism based on classical physics - that we human beings are essentially mechanical automata, with every least action and thought fixed from the birth of the universe by microscopic clockwork-like mechanisms - has created enormous difficulties for ethical theory. These difficulties lie like the plague on Western culture, robbing its citizens of any rational basis for self-esteem or self-respect, or esteem or respect for others. Quantum physics, joined to a natural embedding ontology, brings our human minds squarely into the dynamical workings of nature. With our physically efficacious minds now integrated into the unfolding of uncharted and yet-to-be-plumbed potentialities of an intricately interconnected whole, the responsibility that accompanies the power to decide things on the basis of one's own thoughts, ideas, and judgments is laid upon us. This leads naturally and correctly to a concomitant elevation in the dignity of our persons and the meaningfulness of our lives. Ethical theory is thereby supplied with a rationally coherent foundation that an automaton account cannot match.

But beyond supplying a rational foundation for Western culture, the rooting of ethics in science, with its universal character and appeal, shifts values toward the ecumenical, and away from those aspects of religions that are hostile to, and preach violence against, followers of other faiths. Such a shift is sorely needed today.

Henry Stapp, Mindful Universe

I know what you're thinking... quantum physics; brain candy, useless in the practice of meditation. I disagree heartily. Just reading Mindful Universe gives great insight into the everyday workings of the mind and the brain. It helps to clear up a lot of confusion about what's really going on. The amazing thing for me is how precisely it fits with what is already clearly perceived to occur, even allowing one to see the actual occurrences more clearly than before. Certainly, this is a great help for both practice and teaching of meditation, highly recommended.


  1. Pooja6:04 PM

    If materialism is a true child of classical physics is diiciullt for me to grasp. However, leaving aside the author's mechanics of arriving to the fact that Ethics have a universal character ... I mean we could as well say truth has a universal character. It is as we grow in this understanding of truth, by experience, and not through points of view, that we become a mindful universe

  2. Pooja6:09 PM


    A very natural way to move towards truth is through ethics. Conceit, lies, ill-will, cloud the mind, 'skillful' actions (one could forget the word 'ethics' now, ... its more appropriate for lay people), an enquiry of truth through skillful actions leading to crystal clear perception of reality, such a practitioner, mobile like a true scientist, is the monk!

  3. Guido8:31 AM

    Hello Yuttadhammo,

    usually you have great advice about getting rid of attachments and live a life free of suffering. This post made me (as senior year physics undergraduate) cringe. The thing you call 'quantum physics' is merely a extremely vague and biased intepretation of quantum physics. You cannot know quantum physics if you don't do the math and solve equations like Schrödinger's and Dirac's for specific problems.

    The correspondence principle (given enough particles, quantum mechanics reproduces classical physics) is valid, this makes that QM has practically no influence on the scale of human beings, organs, cells or cellular parts. The claim that QM gives an 'rationally coherent foundation that an automaton account cannot match' shows great misunderstanding and delusion of the theory.

    We would all like to see a rational basis for lofty ideals like ecumenical values and non-violence... but this really is not it. Please be mindful of the confirmation bias you seem to show here, Yuttadhammo.

    May everyone be happy,


  4. Dear Guido,

    I am sorry you have reacted so violently to this post. You will, however, have to direct your criticism towards Dr. Stapp himself, since what you are reacting to is a quote taken directly from his book. Considering his work with Nobel Laureates Emilio Segrè and Owen Chamberlain, as well as with Pauli and Heisenberg themselves, I am not sure your judgment of "confirmation bias" is terribly well-founded.

    His book, which the quote above is from, received positive reviews by a Physics Nobel Laureate (Tony Leggett), the editor of "Mind & Matter", Dr. Harald Atmanspacher, and editor of "Mind in Time", Allan Combs. He lists many of his own peer-reviewed articles in the bibliography, and several on his website ( ) have been peer-reviewed, including one joint paper in "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society". The quote is actually the end of an interview with Dr. Atmanspacher published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, found here:

    So, and because they fit surprisingly well with what is empirically observable in meditation, I'm inclined to maintain my position of admiration for his ideas, even in the face of your cringing response to them.

    If you are interested in the details of Stapp's theory, it has to do with the Quantum Zeno effect, which allows the decoupling of a system from its decohering environment, given the application of "a series of sufficiently strong and fast pulses with appropriate symmetry" (Wikipedia). Since brain function at an ionic level is subject to quantum uncertainty (e.g. at nerve terminals), applied attention in the conscious realm (a verifiable phenomenon in contemporary scientific research) can easily be supposed to create the changes in brain activity that we already observe on a macro level at every moment, especially in activities such as meditation.

    I recommend this article, especially:

    if you are truly interested in learning about this, and not just reacting to an idea because it is foreign to what you have been taught by your professors. After all, reactionism is one of the things I teach people to let go of.

  5. Guido9:40 AM

    Dear Yuttadhammo,

    soon I will look more deeply into the articles you're citing and the work of the physicist you cite and give a more informed reply, although I do think dr. Stapp has to come with some exceptional evidence and observations to support his extra-ordinary claims. We'll see and time will tell.

    I'm not a native speaker of English and this, combined with my tendency to be quite outspoken, might give the impression of an angry and violent state of mind on my behalf. My intention was to make clear quite sharp that these ideas are (to say the least) quite a far-stretch from the 'usual' intepretation. Later more on this.

    May everyone be happy,


  6. Dear Guido,

    The evidence and observations are quite clear; we observe consciousness intervening in the physical realm at every moment. The only question is whether that intervention is real or imaginary. Stapp shows that quantum physics describes this mental-physical relationship quite well.

    I accept that you are not an English speaker... you seem to write okay, and it is clear you have a different take on QP than people like Henry Stapp. The problem is that it seems the "usual" interpretation is one that has strayed far from what Stapp calls "Orthodox" quantum theory, based on von Neumann's formulation, and which offered a sound theory on consciousness's role via "process 1" interventions.