Is there a relationship between quantum physics and consciousness?

While scrolling through my Twitter feed a couple days ago, I noticed a conversation between Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy and author, and Deepak Chopra, a physician and author. This particular tweet caught my eye.

Interesting, unfortunate. And little to do with your quantum mysticism baloney
-Massimo Pigliucci

I've seen similar sentiments about the "baloney" of quantum mysticism many times before. As a friend of Deepak's and co-author of several articles with him, I have a general idea of his position on mysticism, but I didn't know anything about Pigliucci's position. So I tweeted him the following question.

After a couple exchanges, this was the ultimate reply:

Ask Chopra. For me there is no coherent definition of it
-Massimo Pigliucci

I post these tweets here because I think they are emblematic of the narrow-mindedness we see in science and philosophy. A lack of understanding is not enough to dismiss another point of view.

Let's look into what the phrase quantum mysticism might mean. Both words are heavily laden with connotations from science, spirituality, and even popular culture, so we'll consider them individually in the first two parts, then together in the third part of this exploration.

I. Quantum

The word quantum simply means a defined portion or part of something. The word has been in use for several centuries. About 100 years ago, physics borrowed the word quantum to describe energy and other entities that were restricted to specific, defined values. With that, the term quantum physics was born.

The word quantum was also used in a sci-fi TV series called Quantum Leap twenty-five years ago. In the show, a scientist is able to time travel by leaping through spacetime. Here, quantum refers not to a discrete energy value as in physics, but rather a discrete slice of spacetime. It is a different and entirely appropriate use of the word quantum.

II. Mysticism

Here are three definitions of mysticism as defined by Merriam-Webster:

  the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
  the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight)
:  vague speculation :  a belief without sound basis
b :  a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power

According to the first two definitions, mysticism is beyond the scope of intellectual comprehension. The first definition suggests this by saying that communion is "reported by mystics" and the second by saying "ultimate reality" is attained subjectively through "intuition or insight." The first part of the third definition (3a) presents a more skeptical view--that mysticism is "vague speculation" and "without sound basis."

But the most valuable and relevant definition is given in part 3b, which states that mysticism is "a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power." While the other definitions offer some value for those who may believe or not believe in mysticism, the final definition given in 3b is of greatest value to thinkers, because it is a theory that can be tested.

The "ineffable knowledge" referred to in 3b is of a unique type.

All the knowledge you and I have acquired in our lifetimes has come via a particular device. Just as you might use a fishing rod to reel in fish, all our knowledge is reeled in through a device called subject-object relationship.

This subject-object relationship is fundamental to how we are taught to learn. When I study chemistry, I am the subject who is studying, and chemistry is the object of my study. When you learn what time it is by checking your smartphone, you are the subject who is checking, and the smartphone display is the object. This fundamental subject-object relationship is unavoidable in all aspects of learning. Even in meditation and introspection, the subject-object relationship lives in subtle form. My personality is the subject that meditates, and a thought or a feeling may be the object it perceives.

I invite you to test this for yourself. Is there anything you know that is not an object of your awareness, however subtle or gross that object might be?

There is only one place the subject-object device cannot reach--the domain beyond individual identity. The final and most subtle subject in the subject-object device is individuation itself. How could you possibly see beyond yourself? Wouldn't "you" still be there, looking within?

To see beyond yourself is to go beyond individuation itself. The mask of individuality is released along with any objects it is in relationship with. This isn't about giving up house and car and running to the mountains. It is simply an undoing of the mind.

The result is--yes--mystical union, ultimate reality, and ineffable knowledge. But whether someone believes that or not doesn't really matter. What matters, again, is that it is testable by you in the laboratory of your own mind.

When the subject-object device is bypassed, the knot of individuation in the mind is undone, and the full nature of the mind reveals itself. Mind is not just a reflection of the brain, it is all experience, including the subset we call "physical" experience. Furthermore, this mind is recognized as nothing but the apparent movement of something more fundamental--consciousness itself.

Today, science and much of philosophy conflate mind and consciousness. This is understandable. When we do not yet know the nature of so-called "physical" matter, how can we hope to know the difference between mind and consciousness? Mind is an apparent movement of, modification of, and aspect of consciousness. Mind changes. Consciousness is changeless. This too is testable.

III. Quantum mysticism

The leap from mind to consciousness can accurately be described as a quantum leap, just as the leap from the experience of a physical world to that of a mental world can also be termed a quantum leap. In both cases, quantum refers to a specific state of consciousness. There is no state in between physical and mental. One can go back and forth, but it's still one or the other. These states are quantized. Similarly, in consciousness proper, there is no experience of mind. This is the peace that passeth all understanding. It is a quantized "state," with no mental transgressions.

Aspects of quantum physics remain mysterious to this day. One example is entanglement, in which two particles separated by large distances appear to coordinate their behavior at speeds much faster than the speed of light, perhaps even instantaneously. Albert Einstein famously referred to this as "spooky action at a distance."

But mystery isn't mysticism, right?

Remember that the most relevant definition of mysticism here is that of "a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power." That ineffable knowledge is knowledge of reality itself, knowledge beyond the subject-object device, knowledge beyond the mind. That ineffable knowledge is consciousness.

Is it possible that mysticism as a theory postulating consciousness as ultimate reality can shed light on entanglement and other mysteries in quantum physics? My answer is yes. If in fact the world is a mental experience, then we know there is something fundamental that connects two particles even at great "physical" distances. I am not nearly alone in my thinking.

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
-Max Planck
 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, discovered energy quanta

What is the nature of mind according to physics?  How can it be represented?
How does mind interface with matter?
Can consciousness even be accounted for by physics?
What are the other important questions to ask?

Until we routinely ask such questions alongside those about entanglement, nonlocality, and wave/particle duality, our understanding will remain dramatically incomplete. We will still be able to develop better technology and more complex theories because the errors and incompleteness in science and philosophy are consistent and widespread, but the big answers, including a unified map of reality, will elude us.

Before I wrote this article, I didn't even know quantum mysticism was a thing. It probably still isn't. But for at least one philosopher, and likely many more, it was real enough to name despite having "no coherent definition of it." For fun, let's investigate what quantum mysticism might mean, not because we're creating a new field of study, but simply to show that such a phrase can indeed have meaning if we are willing to consider possibilities other than the ones we are used to.

"Quantum mysticism" can refer to a theory postulating knowledge of consciousness as ultimate reality, testable by decoupling the subject-object device and experiencing the resultant leap from one state of consciousness to another.

Having said this, we can also put the phrase quantum mysticism to rest, whether one considers it baloney or not. We already have the terms we need for a clearer understanding of reality, providing we take the time to understand them and each other. There are some things that may require a lifetime of study or more to fully appreciate. Reality is surely one of them. 

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare. He is a practicing emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area.