The links between quantum mechanics and Eastern metaphysical philosophy

Updated: Sep 8, 2018

“Every one who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble” Einstein, 1936.

The similarities between quantum mechanics and Eastern metaphysical philosophy may not seem immediately obvious. However, today’s modern physicists are increasingly aware of the wisdom of Eastern traditional thought – a development most strikingly demonstrated by the dancing statue of Lord Shiva - the creator, preserver and destroyer - displayed prominently at the Cern hydron collider, said to represent the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles. This essay will seek to compare the two, focusing on three elements fundamental to human existence: the creation of the universe; what the universe is made from; and the nature of reality.

The most natural place to start the comparison is the creation of the universe itself. The oldest of the Vedic texts, the Rig Veda - thought to be the earliest surviving scripture of mankind – deals with this very topic. The Vedas believed that it was revealed to man through the ancient sage, Agni, through the yoga of meditation. The Rig Veda gives a startling image of the pre-universe state: “Darkness was hidden in darkness. All was fluid and formless. Therein, in the void, by the fire of fervour arose the one.”

Similarly, modern physicists such as David Tong, believe that at beginning of the universe, there was just empty space: quantum fields in a vacuum, and accordingly to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, these fields were randomly fluctuating, 'fluid' yet 'formless'. This as a mathematical equation has not yet been fully understood, meaning that the seemingly simple nature of empty space is extremely difficult to define from a quantum perspective. Modern science holds that, during the first 300,000 years of the universe, the ingredients of atoms were formed through the collisions of matter and antimatter, causing cosmic annihilation - an energetic fireball - that brought everything into existence. Matter then clumped together to make atoms, before expanding into our Universe.

The ‘Big Bang’ theory does not completely comply with physicists’ current Standard Model (“the theory of everything”), as neither the initial rapid expansion of the universe, still happening now, nor the fact that very little antimatter exists is explained within the equation. As such, from quantum perspective, we still know very little about how the universe was created. This is prefigured in the Rig Veda: “Who knows the truth? Who can tell whence and how arose this universe?” 5,000 years and centuries of scientific research later, modern physicists still ask the same question.

The second prominent metaphysical philosophical comparison concerns what the universe is made from. This is discussed in the Prasna Upanishads, in which a dialogue between a pupil and a sage explains that the ‘Creator’ formed beings: “He remained in meditation, and then came Rayi, matter, and Prana, life… These two will create beings for me” Therefore: “All that has form, solid or subtle, is matter… form is matter.” In Tantric cosmology, which has its roots in The Sankhya school of thought, the divine Father and Mother, Shiva (also interpreted as ‘Perusha’) and Shakti (also interpreted as ‘Prakriti’), created the world: it is through their dance, their union that the universe was born. Together, these two are the fundamental principles underlying everything: Prakriti is the principle of mind, matter and energy – everything we know; Purusha is the principle of pure spirit, ‘Atman’, or pure consciousness. The Sankya school of thought specifies: “The union of these two eternal, fundamental forces sets in motion the creation of the world as we know it.”

Within modern physics, scientists are confident of defining just 5% of our universe as atomic matter. The rest – thought to be 27% dark matter and 68% dark energy – confounds accurate definition. From a quantum perspective, atomic matter is defined as four fields in which energy clumps together to form particles; in essence, then, we are essentially interconnected fields of energy. Matter that makes up the physical universe that we can currently see are: electrons, up quarks, down quarks and neutrino fields. However, what scientists currently struggle to explain is that each field particle seems to have two heavier cousins and a “mirror twin” (antimatter) that disappear within fractions of a second after being created. So, in total, we have 12 matter field-particles. We also have four forces: gravity, which is not measured at a quantum sub-atomic level because it is so weak at that scale; the electromagnetic field; the ‘weak nuclear force,’ which is important in the decay of particles into smaller particles; and the ‘strong nuclear force’, or ‘Gluon’, the strongest force, which binds the positively charge protons (‘quarks’) together.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012, which is what gives particles their mass, meant that scientific findings brought us no closer to finding the make-up of the Dark Universe. The two opposing theories – ‘super symmetry’ and ‘the chaotic multiverse’ were both left unproven by the experiment. Throughout history the Western approach has been to split, separate and analyse elements individually. In contrast, The Upanishads taught: “Who sees variety and not the unity wanders on from death to death”. New quantum physics theories now seem to be following this advice: physicists are theorising the unification approach where there is one force as opposed to four forces, and one matter-field as opposed to 12, suggesting that they are only separated because of our perception.

This duality of matter and force can be linked to the duality in the The Bhagavad Gita, “The Field and The Knower of the Field”, image below. ‘The Field’ is Prakriti: the body and mind; awareness, from the quantum microcosm to the cosmic macrocosm; time and space – everything in our universe. ‘The Knower of the Field’ represents higher consciousness, ‘Atman’, and is personified as the hidden knower Krishna, who lives hidden in the heart. The Upanishad’s non-dual approach explains how the individual spirit, Atman, and supreme consciousness, Brahman, are One by the transcendence of self-realisation, “As rivers flowing towards the ocean find there final peace, their name and form disappear, and people only speak of the ocean.” When applying that to Quantum mechanics, their new non-dual approach will eventually lead to scientists to non-dual equation, where matter and force are One.

Unfortunately for quantum physics is within Prakriti, Purusha is “beyond all thought… cannot be seen by the eye, and words cannot reveal,”. That refers to the ‘immeasurable’, which goes against the very nature of science. However, Quantum physics takes into account the Quantum Zeno effect or watchdog effect, in which the process of ‘measurement’ has an effect on the wave function of a particle. Physicists accept that in order to experiment, the measurement has to be coupled with its environment, time, energy, space and observation, meaning that process of measurement disturbs the quantum system: they cannot remove it, but they are aware of it.

As such, scientists still cannot currently explain what our Universe, Prakriti, is made of and how the effect of measurement effects their findings. In quantum mechanics and science in general, it is not only the process of measurement that can influence results, but also the act of the human observation. Should first state consciousness be an extra physical system that we should also consider in our results?

The final metaphysical philosophical question to consider is the nature of reality. In the quantum world, particle fields behave unlike the physical universe that we know as “reality”. Particles can travel through walls and morph from particle to wave. They all have two heavier and mirror versions of themselves that disappear within fractions of a second all under observation. Mathematician and Physicist John Von Neumann and many more thought that we, as humans are an extra physical factor that we need to take into consideration when considering the chain from measurement to ‘subjective perception’ of the human observer. The nature of human consciousness, observation and measurement are all variables within every experiment.

The famous ‘Photon through two-slit experiment’ shows that the human observer becomes entangled in the experiment and causes the wave function to collapse (change from wave to particle) under observation.

A more recent, five-sigma experiment, adapted the classical two- slit wave-particle experiment, by sealing it away from view and by introducing meditators and non-mediators to the experiment. They were told to focus their mind’s eye on the electron showing a ‘particle-like’ formation on the back screen, instead of wave. The results showed that focussed consciousness from the meditators collapsed the wavelength, showing a particle formation. Non-mediators could not focus for long enough due to “mind wanderings”; their results were close to chance. They then removed the proximity variable and opened the experiment up across the world via the Internet with over 5,000 participants across 2 years. The results showed the same outstanding results.

Max Planck, the originator of quantum theories stated, “the mind is the matrix of all matter.” The pioneering mathematician and astronomer Sir James Jeans a stated “The universe begins to look like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder in the realm of matter… but rather the creator and governor.” In a similar vein, The Upanishads said, “for what a man thinks that he becomes.” This was echoed in the teachings of the Buddha, he explained: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts; it is made of our thoughts.” Many spiritual religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism encourage empiricism and quantum physics, believing that the union of both with support their intuitive consciousness teachings. The Dalai Lama says, “no credible understanding of the natural world or our human existence—what I am going to call in this book a worldview—can ignore the basic insights of theories as key as evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics.” It is possible that over the next few years, spiritual guides will team up with quantum physicists to understand the true nature of reality in our universe.

From the three above comparisons, it is clear that there are as many parallels between quantum mechanics and Eastern metaphysical philosophy as there are differences. Despite years of experimentation and scientific advances, current quantum physics isn’t any closer to defining the truth behind the creation, make-up or reality of the universe. Eastern metaphysical philosophy is full of mythical interpretations, contradictions and vagueness, that is not easily digestible by the sceptical West; but, as modern scientists are clearly discovering, there is a significant amount that we can learn from it. The ancient Upanishads said that Ultimate Reality “cannot be grasped”, “not through much learning… not through the intellect” and there may be a lesson for us in this. The nature of reality, and the universe itself, may be too complicated for humans to comprehend. Or, that we are busying ourselves and simply looking in the wrong place, The Upanishads went on to say of the Ultimate Reality “TAT TVAM ASI” (“Thou art That”).