Updated: May 11
The history of the quantum
The word quantum was derived from Latin around the year 1600. A quantum refers to a quantity or unit of something. A quantum of water, for example, would be a specific quantity of water. A quantum of wood would be a certain amount of wood. And so on. But we never hear the word quantum used in these contexts. That’s because the word is now very strongly associated with the context of physics, as in quantum physics. How did this happen?
About 300 years after the word quantum was coined, physicist Max Planck was trying to figure out the relationship between an object’s radiation and its temperature. He came up with a solution, but the only way he could make it work was to assume that energy came in discrete chunks, and not as a continuity. He decided to call these discrete chunks of energy quanta, the plural form of quantum. With this single decision, the now famous phrase quantum physics was born.
Since then, quantum physics has gone on to reveal seemingly astonishing facts about the nature of our world, such as the fact that communication can occur instantaneously between objects separated by vast distances. The mathematical success of quantum physics, its unexpected strangeness, its contribution to technology, and the wide ranging press it receives has made it nearly impossible to now separate the word quantum from the understanding of physics.
This brief history is incredibly important to understand for the following reasons.
The concept of a quantum precedes the ideas of quantum physics by several centuries.
The concept of a quantum is not limited to its common use in quantum physics.
The incomplete understanding and application of the concept of a quantum in physics is what leads to the range of interpretations of quantum physics.
The incomplete understanding of a quantum in physics is now being applied to other fields, which threatens to limit the perspective of new fields like quantum biology.
What exactly is a quantum?
We already know that a quantum is a discrete quantity or unit of something, but what exactly is it that defines a discrete unit? Let’s take some common objects for consideration.
A refrigerator is a discrete unit. What defines it as a unit? Since all aspects of the refrigerator are designed to cool its contents, we could say the cooling function defines it as a discrete unit. The kitchen counter that is adjacent to the refrigerator would not be considered part of the unit that is a refrigerator because the counter’s function is not to cool. That’s pretty straightforward.
Another answer to what defines the refrigerator as a unit might be its physical boundary. We can measure the dimensions of the refrigerator and find that it is 33 x 30 x 70 inches. The external lines of that refrigerator then define it as a unit. We might place a box on top of the refrigerator, but it would not be considered part of the unit since it falls outside the lines of the physical boundary. This concept of a boundary is immensely important. It is essential to understanding what a quantum fundamentally is, within and beyond physics.
Let’s go back to the example of the refrigerator’s cooling function for a moment. If we say that the kitchen counter adjacent to the refrigerator is not part of the unit because the counter doesn’t cool anything, what we have done is identify another kind of boundary—a functional boundary. So whether we’re talking about physical boundaries, functional boundaries, or any other kind of boundary, it is a boundary of some kind that defines a unit.
Let’s consider another discrete unit—a dozen eggs. What is the boundary that defines a dozen eggs? In this case, the boundary is entirely conceptual. It does not relate to physical dimensions because the size of the eggs is irrelevant. It does not relate to a function because the function of the twelve eggs is irrelevant. The only boundary that matters here is the conceptual boundary of “twelve things.” Any twelve eggs, regardless of size, shape, color, function, quality, or any other condition, would qualify as a dozen.
Boundaries are everything, literally
In the preceding examples, we identified three different types of boundaries—functional, physical, and conceptual. Although the type of boundary varies in each case, it is clear that in each case the detection of some kind of boundary is the very reason we perceive a discrete unit.
Note also that if this boundary were to be violated or invalidated, we would no longer detect the unit as is. For example, a refrigerator that has no cooling function is not a refrigerator, but rather a storage shelf that is no better than the adjoining kitchen counter or closet. We might still call it a refrigerator if the cooling function breaks down, because we still associate it with the function of cooling and we still expect it to cool again when it’s fixed, but if there were no cooling system installed to begin with, we would not consider it a refrigeration unit.
If the physical dimensions of the refrigerator were to melt away, leaving an amorphous mass that melts into its surroundings, we also would not detect a discrete unit that we call a refrigerator.
And finally, if I tried to sell you eleven eggs while calling it a dozen, you would not accept my offer, just as I would not accept your offer if you asked me for twenty eggs in your dozen. In both instances, we’ve violated the accepted boundary of “dozen.”
These examples demonstrate that the presence of a boundary defines a unit of anything. A human being is a unit. A family is a unit. A liter of milk is a unit. An atom is a unit. The electromagnetic field is a unit. All of these can be considered quanta in the most fundamental sense of the word. In the context of physics, however, only things recognized by physicists as indivisible bundles of energy qualify as quanta. The quantum of physics is a subsidiary of the original quantum.
How do we detect boundaries?
If we are talking about a physical boundary, you might say our eyes (and ultimately the brain) detect the boundary. If we are talking about a functional or conceptual boundary, you might say the brain alone detects the boundary. Regardless of the type of boundary, the brain is typically considered the ultimate detector of the boundary since the brain is thought to be the epicenter of cognition. This suggests that boundaries are inevitable and intrinsic to the world, because they exist in the form of discrete objects out there and are merely picked up by the brain. But is this the case?
The idea that discrete objects are intrinsic to the world and exist independent of observation is not a scientific conclusion, it is a philosophical interpretation called realism. Even though realism is the most common academic view, all the evidence we have gathered is also perfectly compatible with a much simpler, though less familiar, interpretation—the world is mental in nature, and discrete objects are experienced as they are only in relationship to an observer. The last two lines deserve a second read.
If we consider the simpler notion that the world is mental (an interpretation consistent with monistic idealism and advaita vedanta, also supported by some quantum physicists), we can engage a more comprehensive explanation for how and why we detect boundaries, as follows.
Two configurations of the mind
Boundaries are not intrinsic to reality. Rather, boundaries are projections or renderings of the mind. When the mind takes an individuated form (meaning when it walls off a segment of itself and appears as an individual mind like yours or mine), it projects that individuation on everything we experience. Therefore, as long as you and I experience ourselves only as individuals and separate people, we will see a world of individuation and separate things.
This configuration of mind can be called the First Mind, because this is the mind we are first trained in by the adults around us after we are born. They tell us our name over and over, point out our head, shoulders, knees and toes, and generally convey the idea that what we are is a separate, individuated thing. They do it simply because it’s how they were trained. The First Mind configuration then dominates our experience for most of our lives.
Look around you now. If you primarily detect discrete, separate objects, sounds, textures, thoughts, and feelings, then you will notice that the feeling of individuality and separateness is also primary. The two go together. They are not all-or-nothing, but rather occur on a continuum. The extent to which a person experiences something out there that is separate and bounded, whether it's a building, a thought, or an electron, is the extent to which the sense of identity is separate and bounded. This boundary circumscribing, limiting, and defining the individual identity is the source that reflects itself as the concept of a circumscribed, limiting, and defining unit—the quantum. In spirituality, this quantum is often called the ego. It is the sine qua non of the First Mind.
A few questions come to mind immediately.
How can a person live without seeing discrete objects?
Isn't a person a discrete being by definition?
Doesn't this conversation require the use of discrete words and ideas?
Is there anything other than the First Mind?
How does this relate to quantum physics?
More on the First and Second Minds
Whereas the First Mind configuration detects a world of separate, discrete objects, the Second Mind configuration detects itself first, and only secondarily interprets apparently discrete objects, thoughts, etc. It is something like seeing circular ripples in a large body of water. The First Mind detects only concentric circles called ripples. The Second Mind detects water, and secondarily also the apparently bounded form of water appearing as concentric circles called ripples.
Similarly, the First Mind detects objects such as sofas and dishwashers by noting their harsh boundaries. The Second Mind detects the ingredient the boundaries defining forms are made of, namely itself. Whereas the First Mind believes that it lives in the physical head of a person and is dependent on that person’s brain, the Second Mind recognizes that the person, as well as all persons, objects, and experiences, “live in” or are aspects of the Second Mind. Because of its broader perspective, the Second Mind configuration retains context and is still functional as and in the world. It is not oblivious to the view from the First Mind configuration even if it doesn’t experience it first-hand.
The First Mind view is the view from which most science is conducted, simply because this is the dominant perspective taught in our society, and therefore it’s the dominant experience of almost everyone. Higher levels of education do not address the difference between the First and Second Mind because most educational programs do not study the notion and experience of identity and how it relates to how we experience the world and how we conduct research. In fact, higher levels of education usually cement the First Mind in place because they add to the sense of individuated identity and accomplishment. This is not to say we should avoid higher education, but rather that higher education must aspire to even higher—to being more complete. This can begin in elementary school itself by bringing the mind and sense of identity to the foreground of our awareness.
Quantum + Physics
With this deeper and more complete understanding of the quantum, let’s turn our attention to quantum physics. What makes quantum physics flabbergasting is that, to put it simply, things that aren’t supposed to happen, do happen. To take one example, things that are supposed to be discrete and separate (for example, sub-atomic particles separated by vast distances) should not be behaving as though they are connected and even non-different to begin with. They should be behaving like two separate, unconnected pieces, because that’s how everything works, right?
Nobody expects a sofa and a dishwasher on opposite sides of the country to communicate instantaneously at faster than light-speed and influence each other’s behavior. That would be strange to say the least. Yet, quantum physics says this happens regularly with small enough objects.
Such a phenomenon seems strange based on our perceptions of objects like sofas and dishwashers, but it would seem quite normal if we detected and perceived (not just believed or thought) that a sofa and dishwasher are not essentially different, and that there is an underlying substance from which and in which both appear and are being sustained. If this were the case, instantaneous communication would not be strange, but rather expected. In fact, we wouldn’t even call it communication, because fundamentally there wouldn’t be two discrete and separate objects to begin with.
To draw another analogy, if a friend wants you to move your car, she would have to suggest that action to you through some communication. But if you felt like moving your car, you do not need to suggest it to yourself. The communication is instantaneous, or rather, there is no real communication happening between two things because the intention and the action are aspects of the same being—you.
If you are open to the descriptions of monistic idealism and advaita vedanta, it should be clear that assumptions revealing a separate and disconnected view of reality are derivations of the First Mind. It’s important to know the First and Second Mind configurations are not strictly binary. They occur along a continuum. Accordingly, the extent to which the sense of identity is quantized is the extent to which our experiences, understandings, interpretations, and assumptions are incomplete. You will see this reflected in the range of interpretations regarding what quantum mechanics might be telling us.
The Second Mind view and interpretation of the world does not clash with the apparent surprises that quantum physics has uncovered. The Second Mind expects such discoveries, because they formalize what is in plain sight beyond the veil of the First Mind, and therefore aid the First Mind in recognizing what is happening more clearly. Physics has a tremendous role to play in this process, because it makes the apparent strangeness of the Second Mind digestible to the First Mind by providing well-accepted conceptual stepping stones that aren’t too far apart. This helps introduce the Second Mind to a broader audience in a “safe” context and makes it possible to develop technology from these thoroughly explored stepping stones.
In short, quantum physics is a bridge between the First and Second Mind configurations, which is why people obsess over its meaning. They are learning about themselves. This can be an arduous journey that challenges the First Mind to its core, because its very sense of identity must be put into play as clarity sets in and perception shifts. This can feel like an existential threat in a society whose norms are deeply entrained in the First Mind.
Why is everyone talking about quantum physics and consciousness?
There is lot of conversation today about the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness. Book after book is being written about it. It has become a pop culture phenomenon. Some of it is clear-minded, and there is also a lot of material that seems to want to link the two prematurely in any way possible.
A key question that remains to be answered in order to elucidate the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness is What is consciousness? We know what quantum physics is—it’s science, a system of thought based on the systematic evaluation of perceptions and concepts occurring in consciousness. But what exactly is what we call “consciousness?” We must answer this question in progressively more complete ways.
Can we scientifically study First and Second Mind perspectives of physics?
The only way to do this is to include the mental configuration as part of the study. One possibility is to enroll PhD physics students interested in quantum mechanics in a program to reconfigure the mind from First to Second. It would have to be a multi-year program that is concurrent with their training in physics. Two cohorts could be created—those undergoing the mind training and those who are not (all would be studying physics). The cohorts’ interpretations of quantum mechanics and perceptual experiences could then be studied and compared.
Such a study would be laden with difficulty for many reasons, including the following.
We cannot assume a training program will actually facilitate a reconfiguration of the mind.
A Second Mind program that starts in graduate school is running far behind the First Mind program we all receive starting Day 1 of this lifetime.
It could be difficult to detect an actual reconfiguration of the mind. Anyone within a training program can learn the right words to say.
Reconfiguration is not an all-or-nothing process. Perspectives would fall along a spectrum.
Nevertheless, perhaps the idea can be developed. In the meantime, we must be careful with how we use the word quantum and in what context. Biology, for example, is the science of life processes. “Quantum biology,” then, is a deep study of life, not merely how the ideas of physics can be applied to biology.
The quantum of physics is subsidiary to the very conception of a quantum. The latter inescapably informs and shapes the former via the sense of localized identity.
The First and Second Minds are two different mental configurations that respectively veil and reveal the nature of boundaries that define the quantum.
To truly understand the quantum is to recognize oneself beyond the confines of a body and the sense of being a localized entity. This irrevocably changes our experience of ourselves and everything else.