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.


Vincent said...

very inspiring, thanks. will study & respond!

Arash Farzaneh said...

Great! Looking forward to it...

Vincent said...

I don't have any argument with what you say, the more I read, the more I get from it. These are some reactions which your essay inspired.

Science, theology, religion and every other system of thought (including philosophy) are shaped by two things: reality and history. In daily life, we rely upon reality being predictable. Systems of thought, we may say, are based on observed reality, but then they get carried away with explanations and proprietorial defensiveness. They are influenced by their history, which is being constantly added to.

Observed reality is limited by what we are physically able to observe, and what we choose to look at.

And thus there are different systems of thought coexisting and often competing.  I can imagine a science restricting itself to testable predictions, with no particular concern for explanations, which are often indistinguishable from cherished beliefs, resulting in a hoo-ha when they are seriously challenged.

When I mention beliefs within the context of science I could visualize indignation from Sceptics, those attack-dogs of atheism & science. Science (including of course medicine) is evidence-based, the sworn enemy of mere belief. Which flies in the face of the tried and trusted placebo effect.

I ought to point out that those economies which can afford to fund scientists are dependent on marketing and advertising so as to persuade people to buy the stuff on offer. On the basis of simple need and desire to be surrounded by beauty, there'd be no need to generate such fantasies of possession, that demonstrably false belief that the promised goods and services will customers will produce happiness.

In this way, orthodox science depends on belief, floats on oceans of belief. It is riddled with its own image, hubris and collegiate competitiveness. I don't say this disdainfully. The anomalies of which you speak are not surprising at all, for its subject-matter, material reality, is forever inchoate, incomplete, chaotic as in chaos theory. Attempts to make sense of reality are forever limited by human nature; within which is a mystical core, accessible only when the cloak of individual selfhood is let fall and universal oneness, in that moment, is perceived.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Great observations here, Vincent!This is to a large degree my viewpoint also, and I too respect, accept, and appreciate both views and aspects of reality.

I especially love these lines:

"Science (including of course medicine) is evidence-based, the sworn enemy of mere belief. Which flies in the face of the tried and trusted placebo effect"

Placebo is the thorn in the side of self-assured cocky science but no less true than their evidence-based research. And belief is probably one of the strongest forms of placebo / force / healing effect that's out there.

Yet the dichotomy remains. The problem is when science tries to infringe upon the other realm, dismissing and disdaining fields that do not fit into their belief system and designating and delegating them to the unenviable position of pseudoscience. Science is not always wrong in the classification, but in some cases they are.

Yet the dilemma is how can we have a cohesive system, one that is not fragmented or schizoid? One that does not distinguish the tested reality from the "other" reality. Is that even possible?

I view the world as you do in that regard: The two exist side by side, are interconnected, different and yet similar. But then again this view is frowned upon by mainstream science...