Friday, June 12, 2020

The End of Quantum Reality: A Private Conversation with Rick DeLano

Documentary Poster with circle drawn in middle and man in a tie in the corner

I would like to state that I do not know all that much about quantum physics. I am not a physicist or mathematician, and I am not a scientist either. Although I believe in science, I am equally aware of its limitations. This is the main reason why when quantum physics first hit my radar during my undergrad years, I had to pounce upon it.

It attracted me so much because it defied logic. As I am interested in Zen Buddhism, I drew immediate parallels between the koan and the baffling discoveries of quantum mechanics, where P had the liberty to be or not be itself, where Schrodinger’s cat was both dead and alive and where two and two did not always make four. This frightening, terrifying, and disconcerting outcome for the scientific mind – it gave Einstein nightmares - was a cause of celebration for mine.

As you can see, I am using quantum physics for philosophical purposes, but I am certainly not the only one who has tried to fuse the two; during those aforementioned undergrad years, I remember reading physicist Fritjof Capra’s outstanding book The Tao of Physics. The following quote from the book says it all, while also summarizing my own belief system on the matter: “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science. But man needs both.”

Moreover, I must admit that I am not (yet) familiar with Wolfgang Smith’s work. However, last year, I was contacted about an upcoming documentary entitled The End of Quantum Reality. I was intrigued, and my heart skipped a beat. After reading the synopsis, I knew I had to see it and was given the opportunity to do so recently. I was also given the option for an interview with its creator Rick DeLano.

At first, I wanted to speak to Wolfgang Smith, but I soon realized that this was not possible. The main reason was that this renowned mathematician was reclusive, and it was hard enough to get him to speak about his theories and ideas on camera. I was told that Rick DeLano would know as much about quantum mechanics, and I was indeed able to confirm that statement after talking to him last week.

That interview made two things clear to me. Thanks to Rick, I was able to better understand the mechanics behind the quantum and why it posed such a significant existential threat to the scientific community and classical physics per se, while I also found out how Wolfgang Smith had indeed changed Rick DeLano’s life. Both points are entangled and intricately woven together.

Ever since the apparition of quantum physics, science has been at a crossroads. The physical world, brought forth by the apple dropping on Newton’s unsuspecting head, later philosophically established and grounded by Descartes and further elaborated by Einstein’s theories, had suddenly reached an unexpected cul-de-sac. What we took for reality has been put on its head and twirled around for good measure.

This is the dilemma: The quantum world is not compatible with the scientific method. Science, since the advent of Descartes, had proposed that everything can be quantified and would hence be measurable. In fact, Descartes went so far to claim that anything that cannot be described is an illusion. What we end up with then is, in Rick Delano’s words, an ideal “physicist’s world” and one that is inherently and philosophically different from Aristotle’s form and matter, while worlds apart from Plato’s idealism.

The Cartesian system has taken hold of - if not infected - our way of thinking and has strongly influenced our conception and practice of science. As such, “spooky” ideas of entanglement, of two particles having an effect upon each other albeit physically apart and the discovery that atoms cannot be pinpointed to a specific location and can be at different times simultaneously combined with the fact that light is both a wave and a particle, all of this has shaken and uprooted science to the core.

In fact, quantum physics may be akin to the great discoveries and revolutions of human history from Galileo and Copernicus to Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein (although Rick and I seem to part minds vis-à-vis those named individuals). They all brought about a seismic shift in the conception and understanding of the world and our place in it.

It is this apparent incompatibility of the quantum world in relation to the material world that forces science to either pick a side or to make serious adjustments, which in turn would compromise its own worldview. 

There is no doubt that science has brought about immense success. Technology, a direct offspring of scientific endeavor and aspirations, has been one of its greatest inventions alongside leaps in medicine, health, and lifestyle. And there is so much more that it can accomplish down the road.

But philosophically speaking, can science still maintain its iron grasp on reality? Einstein struggled with this himself. How could he possibly accommodate his findings with the puzzling and eerie aspects of quantum mechanics? 

This was the koan that the mathematical genius was presented with and that he had to grapple with for the rest of his life. Einstein would have to introduce hidden variables alongside the ominous and cryptic assumption of “no-spooky-action-at-a-distance” to try to solve the matter.

So far, the spooky aspects of quantum physics are still alive and thriving. As this poses an existential threat to the status quo, we are presented with different options: we can ignore and repress it and continue going on as before; we can deny it claiming that it is not valid or inaccurate, or we need to drastically change our worldview. 

Personally, I have tried to come to terms with the fact that our logic is limited and that we need to accept and live with and within a certain level of ambiguity, even when it comes to the so-called hard sciences, but this does not represent an integrated and cohesive worldview.

The problem is that you cannot measure quantum physics as it seems to carelessly float on its own plane of existence. The physical world has three potential causes: they are either random, deterministic, or stochastic (basically random but with levels of probabilities). 

But none of them can provide a satisfying answer to the paradox posed by quantum mechanics. In fact, it represents a formal discontinuity, a break from and collapse of the physical system in which none of the causes can be proven to be true. That leads to a metaphysical and ontological shift.

This was already apparent to Heisenberg, which is referred to as the Heisenberg Cut. Heisenberg, who had already pinpointed the problem with his eponymous Uncertainty Principle, tried his best to invent a mathematical language to incorporate and integrate this shift. 

There is, on one hand, the quantum system, and, on the other hand, the “environment,” which is comprised of the measuring device, the experimenter with his eyeballs and scientific brain (I am using Rick DeLano’s expressions here and love the inclusion of eyeballs).

How can we combine the two? We would need to break the world into two parts first: there is the quantum world of potentiality, which seemingly becomes actuality through measurement. Schrodinger’s cat is in a state of limbo until we open the box and, for better or worse, seal his fate. But before we do so, he is potentially dead or potentially alive. We will not know the actual outcome until we take a peek.

Before talking to Rick, I used to believe that it is the subject’s interaction – the experimenter - with the object – the cat – that brings about the existence of both. It is the riddle of the tree falling in the forest and the person hearing and perceiving it. 

In my view, the actuality used to be the intermingling and middle point, the common ground between the observer and the observed, the interaction of the person with the other, the marriage of the signifier with the signified. But that is not the case here.

You and I may talk and have coffee in the evening and not be aware of what is going on around us, but the world keeps happening around us, with or without our knowledge or consciousness. We look up at the sky and notice the moon. But did the moon just come into being there and then or has it always been there, and did we only now notice and see it?

And yet, between potential and actuality, there must be an actualizing force. Put differently, there is something more than and beyond the quantum particles (the moon) and the experimenter (the person looking at it). The material causes are processes that are all set in time, while the actualising force is timeless and instant-less, and this leads to the paradox of the mind-bending vertical causality.

This vertical cause is located outside of time and does not exist on this plane of existence. Our observation of the world cannot be random but must have been organized by someone or something. This is what mathematician William Dembski would call complex specified information.

Rick gave me an analogy to explain this to me. Imagine you take a walk in the forest and you stumble upon a target that has an arrow in it. This target and arrow cannot have come out of nowhere and cannot be random but must have had someone or something intentionally putting it there. It comes down not to a differential equation but rather a quantification of specified information that must be timeless or outside of time.

We will have come full circle. The world of quantity is only the shell of a world as it is only the material aspect of it. What we need is another force, one that is quality, that is subjective and that is imbued or charged with being. Left to its own devices, the world could not have potentially come into being and developed into its current state by and of itself.

All of this can be demonstrated mathematically, and I trust Wolfgang Smith to have done so and take his word for it. But the implications would be indeed ground-breaking, if not earth-shattering. If true, it would not only pull the rug from under the scientific method but would be a blow also to the theory of evolution as it would significantly alter - and even eliminate - our view and understanding of a world that hitherto had been grounded on cause and effect.

And so, there must be another force at work. In genetics, we often have tendencies and probabilities. There is a certain probability that you may become a person with such and such traits as well as a certain fluctuation or probability that you may suffer from a certain disease.

Let us say that you have an eighty percent chance of developing cancer. Yet there seems to be twenty percent that is unaccounted for. There is a large potential and high probability of becoming afflicted with the disease, but the actuality may differ depending on certain circumstances. 

We claim it could be different factors - lifestyle, nutrition, and life experiences - but, in many cases, it may come down to just a matter of pure luck or misfortune; in the meantime, certain diseases may just skip a generation, and we do not know why or how.

Add to that, the random fluctuation that occurs in each person. You cannot bake the same cake twice nor shall you enter the same river twice. It is these allegedly random differences that give us our individuality. At the same time, they are proof to me that the world cannot be pre-determined as the same conditions will not lead to overlapping outcomes.

If I travel back in time and do everything exactly the same way, the end result will always be slightly different. If I clone myself, there will be significant differences between me and my copy. This is also the reason why identical twins are never exactly alike, but there are necessary physical and psychological differences between the two.

If everything is not determined, then that means there is leeway, and there is randomness. But what if that same randomness is not so random as initially thought, but that it is caused by another force that interacts with it, influences, and perhaps guides it? In that case, the world of actuality may not be created by chance but by design.

This would lead us to a path of intelligent design, of a potential deity conceiving, planning, and creating the world. That was my concern when I finished watching the documentary and my worry when I was about to talk to Rick. What if he turned out to be a religious fanatic and that all these elaborate philosophical premises are used merely as a deliberate ploy or tool to convert people to their respective brand of religion?

There were some potential warning signs in the documentary itself. I questioned the choice of interviewing the ultra-conservative and self-proclaimed polemicist Olavo de Carvalho. 

Carvalho was not only closely tied to the current far-right-wing Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, but he also endorsed and promoted some dangerously unscientific and unproven views and conspiracy theories, such as vaccines can kill or cause autism, that global warming is a hoax and that the Covid-19 pandemic would be an “invention” and supposedly “the most extensive manipulation of public opinion that has ever happened in human history.”

I strongly condemn all these views, and I think Carvalho’s inclusion and brief interview essentially distracts from, diminishes - if not undermines - the valid points that Rick’s fascinating documentary is making about quantum mechanics, science, and philosophy. Does Rick himself have or promote an anti-science and anti-intellectual stance?

But talking to Rick, I noticed two things that reassured me. One, as mentioned previously, he has a profound knowledge of quantum mechanics, and he also knows his philosophy. Furthermore, he embraces science, but, not unlike me, he believes that it has its limits and limitations. 

How and why else would he rely on mathematician-philosopher Wolfgang Smith, who uses the ultimate and arguably purest form of science, mathematics itself - a discipline practiced and praised by the great ancient Greeks Plato and Pythagoras - to demonstrate that science was on the wrong path.

Wolfgang himself is a Catholic; another scholar who was interviewed is the Muslim Sayyed Hossein Nasr whose erudite inclusion brightened the documentary and who stood in direct contrast to Carvalho. 

Moreover, I believe that Rick himself is a Christian, and I have no idea where I am on the spectrum, except as someone who loves and appreciates philosophy, psychology, Buddhism, science, and mysticism – and not necessarily in that order. However, the troubling aspect here is that I firmly believe in evolutionary psychology and psychoanalysis, both of which Wolfgang Smith is opposed to, and both of which he seems to deny.

Is what is portrayed in Rick’s documentary the truth? I do not know, and I cannot say. What I do know, however, is that I enjoyed watching the documentary, and I very much enjoyed talking to its creator. In fact, he ended up clarifying many doubts and details, and he managed to answer, in rather great detail, one of my most important questions: How did Wolfgang Smith change your life? 

And now I understand and feel compelled to read up on this great mathematical mind. Not only does Rick promote Wolfgang’s ideas, but it is the most lasting and profound document of this great mind captured on film.

I recommend that you check out Rick’s initiative and project Philos Sophia, the quest for truth for all lovers of wisdom. You may not agree with it, but in a world driven by division and strife from all accounts and many places, it is certainly comforting and reassuring that all creeds and religions are accepted and have a voice within the same space.

It is refreshing to see that it is not a matter of one religion trying to subdue, attack or convert another. When it comes down to it, they may use different signs and signals, but, all in all, their message is essentially the same and that is what mystics have been telling us since time immemorial.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Stress Levels and Performance at the Workplace

Sign of the webinar with a professional blond woman in a white shirt
Moderate amounts of stress are good for your health and performance. Keeping busy and being on your toes in the workplace can increase productivity, while without a necessary dose of stress, you would either feel bored or you would achieve less or obtain lower results. 

This is the good kind of stress (eustress) that is situated in the Goldilocks zone and that ideally neither under- nor overwhelms you but rather pushes you in the direction of achieving more and better results.

Yet more often than not, we become taxed and overwhelmed by stress. Whether it is that we take on more than we can chew or handle and juggle too many responsibilities, whether it is that stress accumulates over time or whether it is due to high expectations of ourselves and others, such as bosses or colleagues, we often feel driven into an endless cycle of continuous work and end up feeling the brunt of it. 

Stress can overwhelm us, and in its chronic form, it can deplete us and be the cause of a variety of conditions and illnesses ranging from diabetes, hypertension and depression, to strokes, heart attacks, and even suicide.

In many cultures around the world, stress is not only seen as an essential and necessary part of life, it is also something that is worn as a badge of honour. When we are stressed, it may signify and mean that others are counting and depending on us; in other words, we feel needed, sought after, and feel indispensable as an employee. 

In those cases, we see and define ourselves as hard-working and as someone who is striving for excellence and see it as something to brag about and to be proud of. The idea is that the more and the harder we work, the more success as well as monetary rewards will flow to us. Although this may be true in some instances, the downside cost that comes with it is too immense to make it a worthwhile endeavor: a decline in and loss of health leading to potential early death.

Although I have been studying stress and its effects on our body and psyche, it was during a recent webinar by Kiki Vreeling from the RotterdamSchool of Management, Erasmus University that I gleaned additional vital information about the harmful effects of stress on our health and well-being. 

Kiki aka Ki² is a consultant and trainer of Personal Leadership for companies, and she advises not only on how to effectively deal with stress but also provides tips for business leaders and executives on how to create a better and more productive work environment for themselves, their employees, and their company as a whole.

Generally, people feel stressed when they are facing a change. This could be a new work situation or also different work conditions, such as the current changing and volatile working environments due to the Coronavirus. This causes a strain not only on employees and their managers but also on the clients as well. When situations or parameters are unknown or indefinite, and when results or definite outcomes are hard or difficult to come by, our stress levels will naturally rise.

Stressors cause a reaction in our brain, which then causes a body response. Our body becomes ready for fight or flight, and in some cases, we merely freeze. On its own, this does not necessarily cause harm, but when we are in a constant state of stress with little time to rest or recover, this can lead to an untenable situation and wreak havoc on our health.

Most of the threats we experience are not of the physical kind - unless we work as essential service providers, such as police officers, fire fighters and paramedics - but for most of us the threat or stressor is merely a thought, either about the past or the future, and sometimes a combination of both. In either case, while our body is in the present, our mind rarely is. We may remember previous experiences, or they may unconsciously influence our current states and feelings, or we may worry about the future, what might occur or happen down the line.

Most of the time, our thoughts are negative. This has an evolutionary background as negative events tended to become more salient and important for our survival. No matter how many times we may enjoy the singsong of birds and the beautiful view of the forest, if we encounter even once a tiger down that path, we are doomed. 

Nine times out of ten nothing may happen on our trail, but that one negative event could indeed cost our lives. Hence, that one negative experience we had, if we managed to survive it, could easily erase and dissolve all the other nine beautiful ones we had previously experienced.

In modern life, as there is rarely a physical or existential threat - barring the current pandemic of course - most of our threats are imaginary. They are the cause of our stress and more often they are not based on facts, but they reflect our own levels of anxiety. A mistake or misstep at work may not necessarily lead to our dismissal or a demotion, but in our mind, we tend to focus on the worst, and we tend to exaggerate the outcome and make it seem worse than it really is.

In fact, our own attitude could also be the source of stress, or at least add to it. When we refuse to accept a situation, we may feel frustration and be overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness, which may have its roots in our early childhood experience, and then we feel blocked, stagnant, and stressed. We become stubborn and refuse to move or budge and that increases our stress levels.

Of course, our work or living environment may be a cause of stress as well. It may even be family members, colleagues, bosses, or the company itself.  Stress can be emanating from work and from our personal lives; we often experience stress from a combination and variety of sources that simply add up and make us feel even more helpless when facing difficult circumstances.

Although I started off with the idea that stress can be good for us, most of the time, this is not the case. Stress has not only negative effects on our health, but it also negatively affects our performance. The bottom line is that people under high levels of stress do not perform well. They are generally nervous and less creative and less resourceful. In fact, they are also less open to new ways of thinking, of thinking outside of the box, and they are less effective at solving problems.

Why does this occur? We need to look at the brain to better realize the effects of stress. The stress hormone that is released within our body is cortisol, and our experience of stress affects the hippocampus of the brain. 

As this part of the brain becomes overworked, it will influence memory and learning. In other words, we would not only be unable to take in new information but may also forget the information we had in the first place. This is certainly not an ideal situation for the employee who wishes to perform well.

Add to this, the effect that stress has on the frontal lobe. This region is called the CEO of the brain, and it is responsible for attention, self reflection, empathy, and regulating impulses. When the frontal lobe is impaired due to stress, it will become more difficult to focus and pay attention, and one will easily get frustrated or angry and snap at others. Since our headspace is filled with stress and worry, we cannot take in anything else and will burst and explode at minor triggers and events.

Finally, with the frontal lobe basically out of the picture, the amygdala is activated and does as it pleases. Negative emotions are stored in this part of the brain, and this is why we tend to become more negative when we are stressed. The amygdala scans for danger and may perceive it where it is not present. One’s levels of control and concentration will drop, and inversely, irritation and worry will increase.

This is the vicious cycle of stress. When we are stressed, we tend to over control things, we overdo things and then old unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms surge up seemingly out of nowhere. This state of stress, if repeated over long periods of time, will lead to burnout, for which we have no medicine, and then your body and mind will break down as a result. In some cases, it can lead to irreversible harm and damage to both body and mind.

What can we do about stress? One of the most important things is mindfulness. Once we are aware of the stress and how and in what ways it affects us, we are better able to process, steer and influence it, and with practice and experience, we could also learn how to stop it. This is a much more cumbersome and time-consuming path than presented here, but the first step starts with mindfulness and awareness.

The other thing to keep in mind is the significant distinction between acute and chronic stress. We need to ask ourselves how often we have stress and how long does this state last. Occasional bouts and spikes of stress can be handled and dealt with and might fall into the category of the good kind of stress mentioned earlier. But if it is constant and never-ending, we are basically setting ourselves up for failure and disaster.

We must also keep in mind that stress is cumulative. When stress starts to take its toll, we can see the first signs of its effects. Our body will feel tense, our heart rate goes up and our breathing becomes shorter and faster. 

This then leads to headaches and migraines and will affect our sleep pattern. As it becomes more difficult to get rest, and we nonetheless keep pushing ourselves to the brink, we will not be able to shake off the stress, and it keeps getting worse.

A good method to release it is to share our emotional states with others. This can be with trusted friends or family members, and in these times of the pandemic, it can also be done virtually. We can connect with others through facetime, Zoom, Skype or any other online resource to communicate our needs and feelings and to share how we are coping with stress and with the difficulties in our lives.

We also need to make time to listen to others. After we have shared what we are going through, we ought to take the time to also listen to them and to see how they are doing and faring as it cannot be only about us. Stress tends to narrow our view and focus, and we ought to broaden it to include others as well. In fact, stress should be an open topic to talk about with friends and co-workers. 

The employer also has a vital role to play when it comes to stress management. First off, they need to manage their own stress levels and emotions. They are human too, and they also will feel the effects of stress. However, because of their position in the company and the influence they have on their employees, they need to try their best to manage their own emotions first.

Many employers may consider and dismiss managing emotions as a soft skill, but this is not true. Managing stress is a power skill because it is important for performance, both one’s own and that of others. Companies need to take that into consideration and make it a priority in the workplace. They should also lead by example by showing their employees that they have and maintain their own emotions under control as much as that is possible under the circumstances.

This is significant because stress is contagious. Not unlike yawning where people catch on and follow suit, we also tend to notice and feel stress vicariously. This is because of mirror neurons that copy the other person’s emotional state. Similarly, the managers’ and board’s level of stress can be felt by the employees both physically as well as mentally. 

The flip side is also at play here. People who are calm and can lead with a steady hand will have a soothing effect upon others and that can lead to an overall reduction of stress for everyone involved.

Moreover, people in a company need trust, stability, compassion, and hope. For employees to trust the company, the employer needs to be transparent. They do not need to have - and often they do not have -  all the answers, especially in volatile and uncertain times such as Covid-19, but they can still be clear about timelines and decisions. 

Furthermore, they need to make sure they show compassion and empathy for their workers and demonstrate that they care about them by periodically checking in on their employees’ needs and concerns.

Employees need to be involved and need to feel part of the solution. When an employer does not simply order their workers about but seeks and values their input and makes them part of the decision process, not only does it make the employee feel validated and part of the team, but it also reduces their stress levels; they see themselves with at least some autonomy and power within the organization. 

To make this more effective, the employer needs to not only take their worker’s input into consideration, but they also ought to act upon it, to make a policy out of some of the given suggestions or recommendations and to commit to them.

The employer can also put programs and conditions into place that reduce stress levels at the workplace. This could be reducing noise and stimulation levels so that the employees can work in a calm and relaxed environment. 

When this is not possible or feasible, the company can create a separate calm and quiet space for their employees where people can take a short break from the hustle and bustle of the day and recharge for the next shift or for the subsequent hours of work. Social events and programs during which employees and employers can freely mingle is also a great idea and can be a useful bonding experience for all involved.

Moreover, like professional athletes, employers and employees also need time off to recuperate. We would not ask an athlete to perform constantly without time off; likewise, our minds and bodies also need that well-deserved rest to recover and to replenish their energy. In fact, once the stress levels go down, which can occur during a short break or vacation, one ends up not only feeling better, but one also has more energy and creativity at one’s disposal.

Business people need to keep in mind that time may be money, but downtime is equally necessary to ensure personal maintenance, which leads to more productivity and better quality of work. We should not always be on the go but need that necessary “me time” to relax and recharge our body and mind. By taking care of oneself, one is also taking care of the team, and vice versa. 

We should not stuff our days, but we need that designated work and stress-free day where we can switch off our mind and body and focus on other important things in life, such as one’s friends, one’s family or even simple and well-deserved time for oneself. 

If you think, you are wasting time, this is simply not true. The time gained in terms of productivity and creativity will surely make up for it and will pay dividends in the end.