Quantum Physics and Reality: a preemptive response

(For someone who is offering to prove that quantum physics is spiritual.)


The idea that quantum physics could describe or point to spiritual reality is a claim of the grossest positivism. Positivism, the notion that all that is true is captured by the methods of science, is the product of a rationalistic delusion. It has proven itself completely unable to describe human existence in any satisfactory manner. Plato was correct when he described physical reality as the shadows on the back wall of a cave – not even a copy of primary reality, but a copy of a copy.

Before Being, comes Freedom; groundless and indeterminate – the Ungrund. Only in Freedom is creativity, imagination, and love possible. Creativity necessarily involves freely taking something unknown and nonexistent and dragging it into being. The results of creativity have a certain objective and therefore illusory status. As objects in the phenomenal world they represent a cooling and hardening of Freedom and thus become at most symbols of the spiritual. Subjectivity is where the spiritual and thus Freedom resides.

The positivist, rationalist, materialist imagines that the human brain generates consciousness, though it is interesting to note that even such people now have the decency to refer to this as the “hard problem.” This recognition indicates a subliminal awareness that the ground is falling out from beneath them and perhaps all is lost for their rationalism.

Nevertheless, they continue to think that consciousness emerges from the brain. The brain is a purely physical mechanism and as such, they think, it should be reproducible in silicon or some other material and it should be possible to analyze it in terms of cause and effect.

This notion that the brain produces consciousness, but that some man-made mechanism could reproduce all the functionality of the brain, means consciousness is being conceived of as fundamentally immaterial; a dualism where this nonmaterial phenomenon can be realized by completely different physical substrata. The mind would be independent of its concrete instantiation, as pointed out by Roger Penrose.

So, physicalism is wedded to the dogma that consciousness must be reproducible and that once we truly understand the brain, we will understand consciousness. Understanding consciousness – subjecting it to positivism and rationalism – would mean the end of man and the emergence of the mechanical. Mystery, Freedom, creativity, imagination, and love, would all cease once the fundamental principles of human cognition were laid bare; to be examined and manipulated at will. As always happens with science, whatever distinctly human thing it examines it destroys. Morality? It is a mechanism designed to optimize the interaction of biological automata to maximize survival and facilitate reproduction. Art? It activates the pleasure center in the brain – though, since this activation is the result of interacting with good art, the pleasure center activation is the effect, not the cause of enjoying art. It leaves unexplained why we enjoy art.

2The language of quantum physics is mathematics, and at the core of mathematics are proofs, demonstrations, and equations. This thing on the left equals that thing on the right, and vice versa.

Quantum physics itself is not “proved” in the manner of mathematics, since, ideally, like all science, it should retain a tentative quality, open to revision. Still, there is some kind of antinomy between religious faith and scientific theories. Perhaps this could best be captured by the notion that the equations and assertions of quantum mechanics must be accepted by all who can understand them, whereas religious faith implies no such consensus forced upon anyone. As it happens, what exactly the equations of quantum mechanics imply is hotly disputed. Presumably, however, unlike religion, the answer is not to be settled by affirmations of faith in the face of mystery.

The novel that most inspired both Brave New World and 1984 was Zamyatin’s “We.” Zamyatin, who started out as a communist true believer, was reacting to the positivism and rationalism of Soviet communism and the communists’ attempt to produce a wholly rational society operating on scientific principles. In We, each person has been reduced to an impersonal combination of letters and numbers which have replaced names. Sexual encounters involve submitting a chit and an appointment being made with your chosen partner, or rather, living sex doll. Wild nature has been anathematized as counter to the rationalistic impulse and the human imagination is correctly seen as messing up this exercise in pure rationalism. Designing the perfect society means submitting humanity to the design. Each person becomes a disposable nothing to be sacrificed for an ideological fantasy; “progress,” “science,” “efficiency.” The rulers want to stuff people into a box, to control their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and creativity and imagination make this impossible. The solution is the surgical removal of the “node” responsible for these ineffable capacities.

If quantum physics ever came to describe spiritual reality the immediate murder of all living 3creatures would be the result; physics as gas chamber for the soul. It would be the biggest disaster humanity ever faced because humanity would be eliminated. Mystery is what makes us human. A perfected psychology, as Behaviorism once aspired to be, would make everyone predictable. To find the perfect present for someone, simply take out your pad, start scrawling equations, add a three, minus the one, and hey presto – a stainless steel barbecue is coming your way! Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky would be revealed as out of date, having nothing to say about the human condition, and as being part of a benighted obscurantism.

Monism and pantheism are similarly hostile to the Person – and without the Person, there is no love, Freedom, creativity, or imagination. In fact, they rule the individual out of existence as being fundamentally unreal. There are people who acknowledge that love can only exist if there are two – a lover and the beloved – and who want and even celebrate love – but then a minute later return straight back to Monism. All is spirit they say. Well, which is it? Love or not love? Freedom or determinism? Monism destroys the Person and it is in the Person and between Persons that love is to be found.

4Monism and pantheism are the result of a misguided philosophy of Being. Parmenides and Plato made the mistake of centering their thought on Being and thus ontology. For the Monist, the question is what is everything made of? Is it all thought? All spirit? This is just a benighted mirror image of the positivists who ask the same question; with their answer being atoms and molecules. The question of what everything is made of is fundamentally misguided.

Before Being comes Freedom and the Ungrund; causeless groundlessness. The Person must determine himself. Freedom is complete Mystery. God is Mystery, not Being. Stop trying to rationalistically explain God and trying to discover out of what everything is made.

God the Father is the Logos, the Holy Spirit is the Ungrund that precedes God the Father and out of which God continually emerges. And the Son means God takes on the suffering and tragedy of the human condition. God suffers and bleeds in man. Christianity is Trinitarian, not Monistic. Thus, God can be Love. Love must be voluntary. Love is connection, but it is a voluntary going out beyond oneself and communing with another. Quantum entanglement is not voluntary, but mechanical, and Monism destroys love.

Quantum physics is a matter of evidence compelling assent, and compulsion is anathema to Freedom. It is proof, in the sense of undeniability, that Jesus rejects in the Temptations of Christ. He will not throw Himself down from the tower and force God to reveal Himself and thus to destroy faith and Freedom to believe or not believe. He will not turn stones into bread and enslave the people who prefer a full stomach to Freedom and are wont to do whatever the bread provider says. He will not rule the earth as its political leader and again, enslave humanity.

The mental image that comes to mind when people think quantum physics proves the spiritual is of those movies where the Nazis are ransacking an apartment looking for signs of hidden Jews. The innermost, subjective, and spiritual would be invaded by something completely antithetical to its existence – proof, equations, rationalism, evidence, positivism, necessity, determinism – and thus merciless, unsparing destruction. Arguments offering proof of God’s existence are all diabolical. If they succeeded, they would fail, having destroyed the Mystery that is God.


33 thoughts on “Quantum Physics and Reality: a preemptive response

  1. Pingback: Physics and Reality: a preemptive response | Reaction Times

  2. Nice pic at the head of the post. I take it that this is the process by which feminist professors and female college administrators are produced. Well… and male college administrators too. (Exact same matrix.)

  3. Thanks for this piece, Professor Cocks. I almost entirely agree. My one quibble is with your characterization of the Trinity:

    God the Father is the Logos, the Holy Spirit is the Ungrund that precedes God the Father and out of which God continually emerges. And the Son means God takes on the suffering and tragedy of the human condition.

    This is not the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. On that orthodox doctrine, the eternal only begotten Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Logos; in Jesus he was made man; was made corporeal (Saint John explains all this in the prologue to his Gospel). He is corporeal also in the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, and in the Church – i.e., in the bodies of all Christians who communicate him in the Mass (and, perhaps – revelation does not reveal this to us certainly, one way or the other – in many other sorts of bodies, too).

    Again, the Holy Spirit is not to be identified with the Ungrund, but with the Third Person of the Trinity, who proceeds from the Father – and, given the necessity of an offspring to the essence of paternity, implicitly from the Son. This is why the Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, rather than the Second (as he might have been if he proceeded only and directly from the Father, who is First).

    The Ungrund, then, is not to be identified simply with any of the 3 Persons. He is rather the Suprapersonal Godhead of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. The Godhead is not manifestly actual; he is manifest, and actual, in and as the 3 Persons.

    The 3 Persons cannot of course be disaggregated ontologically, but rather only in thought. There are 3 Persons in one integral substantial being, God: the Suprapersonal Godhead. And their circumincession means that all of them share the same essence, which is the essence of the Godhead. So in a sense each of the 3 Persons is the substantial, and indeed complete, actualization of the Ungrund.

    Also because of circumincession, all 3 Persons do partake the Logos essentially; so that although the Second Person is the Logos, all three share in his nature. Which is to say no more, really, than that all three of the Persons are equally intelligible.

    As I put it to an interlocutor the other day, we might say that the Father is the possibility of being, and is thus the being of being; that the Son, reflecting upon his Father and apprehending his nature, is the logic of intelligible being; and that the Spirit, reflecting upon the Father and the Son, is the completion of the divine act of being, without which there would be no being of God in the first place; and is then the act of intelligible being as such, and thus derivatively in particular, of and in and for all creatures.

    To put that into the terms of discourse upon physics, the Father is the possibility that there should be intelligible equations; the Son is the equations; and the Spirit is the fire in the equations that completes the being of the Trinity, and so effects creaturely being (this is the Spirit moving across the face of the Deep).

    The Ungrund is beyond all intelligibility; for, he is the limit thereof, and the possibility thereof; so likewise is he beyond all being, the limit of all being, and so the possibility of all being.

    There’s lots more interesting stuff to say, but such is a brief sketch of the orthodox dogma of the Trinity.

    None of this at all vitiates the arguments of your post, of course. As to that argument, the only thing I would say is that, once we have realized that a spiritual act is prior to each corporeal actuality – each actual event – and that by spiritual acts are corporeal things actualized, so as to become in their definiteness fit objects of study for physicists, then by those realizations might we interpret physics spiritually, and so baptize it. Until we enjoy those realizations, and so long as we continue blindly to take physics as a complete and consistent formalization of all reality – a complete and consistent Gödelian calculus – we are misled.

    • Yes. I make no claims to orthodoxy about the Trinity. The Godhead and the Ungrund can be connected. Thanks, Kristor!

  4. F R Leavis used to write about this, albeit in his usual clumsy way; he hated ‘technologico-Benthamism’, as he termed it. His books are still in print, and still worth reading.

  5. At least those clever men who originated Quantum Physics were aware that it was a limiter rather than a confirmer of physical reality. Bohr said the quantum world was not real; Heisenberg that it occupied that position between potential and actuality, an echo of Aristotle. Schrodinger was notoriously uncomfortable that physical ‘reality’ was reduced by his equations to mere probability. In truth, this science has nothing whatsoever to do with the transcendence that it cannot grasp, but it has emphasised the unbridgeable distance between science and Transcendent Reality. A major step in the demise of the superstition of matter over mind.’

    I am confused by your statement that you have a problem with consciousness being regarded as fundamentally immaterial. That it is immaterial makes it no less real. The maldirection of dualism is that it has led to the conclusion that being is only material and soul has come to be dismissed, because science, hopelessly materialistic, can tell us nothing of it. At least QM has apparently reached the conclusion that materiality can at best only be described in terms of probability, with the certainty of vector collapse requiring an act of consciousness. As Scrodinger’s Equation, being restricted to probabilities, cannot describe that probability-eliminating act of consciousness it is reasonable to assume that the latter is immaterial, but this conclusion is due to the limitations of QM, not to any insights it might possess.

    I look on QM not as explaining reality, but as greatly weakening the certainties and determinism of Newtonism. ‘Proofs’ of the existence of God are not necessarily diabolical. This would be to condemn no less than Aquinas and many other good men. Our limited intellects cannot ‘prove’ the existence of the Perfectly Unlimited, but such arguments can be very helpful in convincing one of the reasonableness of belief in God.

    • @mickvet – Thank you for your comments. I do think consciousness is fundamentally immaterial and absolutely real. Many of the great quantum physicists were really insightful men well aware of the limits of physics and wrote books on the topic.

      I wrote “This notion that the brain produces consciousness, but that some man-made mechanism could reproduce all the functionality of the brain, means consciousness is being conceived of as fundamentally immaterial; a dualism where this nonmaterial phenomenon can be realized by completely different physical substrata. The mind would be independent of its concrete instantiation, as pointed out by Roger Penrose.” Here I am not criticizing the notion that consciousness is immaterial. I am pointing out the contradiction that certain materialists, despite themselves, effectively share my immaterialist views of consciousness, a point I have taken from Penrose.

      • This is an absolutely crucial distinction. Moderns miss it completely because they have never read Aristotle, so they don’t know the difference between matter and form. If a mind can be instantiated in more than one sort of material substrate – a common assertion of materialists who assert that the mind is nothing but the arrangements and interactions of material particles – then the mind is, precisely, *not material,* but *formal.* I.e., it is *immaterial.* The materialists then are arguing vehemently for immaterialism.

      • Hello Professor Cocks. Reading this makes me wonder if you have come across the work of Wolfgang Smith, and if so, what you make of it.

      • Hi, A wayfarer: I had not heard of Wolfgang Smith, but have tried to garner a sense of him just now. It seems like he was trying to reconcile science and the spiritual? Science is really consistent with perennial wisdom kind of thing? I was attracted to that sort of view when I was much younger, but these days I am interested in cordoning off science from the spiritual and regard the two as quite irreconcilably different things. I’m back to seeing science as dealing with the shadows on the back wall of Plato’s cave where people are regarded as very clever for guessing which shadow will succeed which shadow. My current view is most influenced by Berdyaev, but E. F. Schumacher’s “A Guide for the Perplexed” also considers science to be a rather jejune study of the lowest levels of reality. The really interesting stuff is not amenable to third person replication and is totally dependent on the spiritual level of the person. The truths of science can be understood by moral midgets.

      • You are quite correct that materialistic cognitive science, despite its claims to have overthrown more traditional views of mind, has instead largely replicated the mind/body dualism it received from Aristotle and Descartes. Computational intelligences (real or imagined) are divided up into material hardware and immaterial software, in mimicry of humans who have long been seen as comprising both bodily and spiritual components.

        There are a range of possible reactions to this realization:

        – it proves the whole enterprise is a misguided sham (you guys).

        – Shrug, and keep going. if both mind and software are immaterial, who cares? We can still try to replicate minds with machines, it doesn’t matter what you call material or immaterial. The strength of the computational approach is that computers have a foot in both worlds, just like people (old-school AI).

        – The cognitive revolution didn’t go far enough in killing off bad old ideas, which have just crept back in a new guise, and stymied efforts at understanding how minds work. We need to think more deeply about the real naturalistic structure of intelligence (embodied/situated/enactive/Heideggarian AI).

        My personal feelings are an unstable mix of all of the above, although the third is definitely the most interesting.

      • Hi, a.morphous: I’m with Goedel and Turing (halting problem) in considering CTM to be dead in the water before anyone started noodling on their writing pad or trying to program anything. There is no naturalistic basis for intelligence.

      • Oh, yes. I’m sure Turing would not approve. That is just the conclusion I came to after studying the halting problem for several months, kind of with the blessing of Roger Penrose, though he is still hopeful of a naturalistic explanation. There can be logical implications of people’s positions that would horrify them to admit.

    • Mick, you have long been a valuable commenter here, and many of your insights have pushed our discussions forward, but I must say that this comment is your best ever. I have but one quibble. You suggest that the modern valorization of matter over mind is superstitious. While understanding what you mean, and agreeing, I would say rather that it is substitious.

      I bet you’ll agree to that!

      • Thank you, Kristor. I struggle out of my depth in the rarified company here, in truth. Regarding your final point, I can’t disagree. There is little about the modern world that is ‘super’; it is ‘sub’ all the way.

        In response to A wayfarer, I can certainly declare my fondness for Wolfgang. The latter has a great talent for integrating physics and philosophy. And being an orthodox Catholic to add to his credentials.

  6. Professor Cocks: “Hi, A wayfarer: I had not heard of Wolfgang Smith, but have tried to garner a sense of him just now. It seems like he was trying to reconcile science and the spiritual? Science is really consistent with perennial wisdom kind of thing?”
    If I understand correctly, what Smith is trying to do (and I confess to not having read all, or even enough of his work) is to show that the findings of QM do not/cannot ‘make sense’ within a scientific framework. They only ‘make sense’ in light of traditional metaphysics (as expressed in perennial wisdom)…His work tries to revivify traditional metaphysics in order to illustrate the proper limits of science, and thereby help us (or the scientists at least) better understand its rightful contribution to total knowledge of the Real. (The true nature of the shadows on the wall is only made apparent in light of the Light outside of the cave…)
    Sorry about the rambling nature of my thoughts…

  7. Professor Cocks: Hi, A wayfarer: I had not heard of Wolfgang Smith, but have tried to garner
    a sense of him just now. It seems like he was trying to reconcile science
    and the spiritual? Science is really consistent with perennial wisdom kind
    of thing?
    As far as I know, and I must confess that I have not read all or nearly enough of his work, what Smith is saying is something like the findings of QM do not/cannot make sense from within the modern scientific paradigm. Sense can only be made of them in the light of traditional metaphysics (as conveyed in perennial wisdom). If I understand correctly, Smith is working to restate (or demonstrate, to scientists at least) the importance of traditional metaphysics in order to understand the proper limits of science and thereby understand further QM’s rightful contribution to total knowledge of the Real. While you say, following Schumacher, that “science…[is]… a rather jejune study of the lowest levels of reality”, Smith would agree but probably add that QM is not thereby insignificant (again, at least in so far as having something to say about the nature of Reality in its totality). I know that Smith argues that Rene Guenon for example was too quick to dismiss as irrelevant, the findings of modern science. While one might characterise modern science as dealing with shadows on the wall, the shadows are, in a sense, a part of the Whole. QM might just ‘show’ or at least ‘point to’ as far as empiricism can, the mysterious Prima Materia/Pure Potentiality of traditional metaphysics, and thereby illuminate the proper relationship (?) between science and ‘the spiritual’…

    • Hi, wayfarer: I associate “Whole” with some kind of Monism and Monism as incompatible with Personalism. I’m afraid I am much more of a Platonist than an Aristotelian and, going beyond Plato probably, put Freedom before Being. If God really is a Mystery, then having a fully worked out quasi-naturalistic system that has all the answers to every possible question is ungodly. Both rationalistic metaphysics and science are anathema to the Mystery that is God following the probably more Eastern Orthodox tradition of apophatic theology. So, Wolfgang Smith and I probably wouldn’t get along. The more the systems explain, the tinier and tinier God gets and the bigger and bigger the pretensions of man get.

      • I agree with you that God is a Mystery, and is necessarily so. The entire universe is merely His Creation and cannot explain Him or anything near it. The notion of any kind of a naturalistic system that can answer all the questions is certainly ungodly and the height of hubris. Only God possesses all the answers. Only He has all the questions. The universe is limited and restricted, God is the wholly simple, unrestricted and unlimited Being. The lesser (and by an incomprehensively large margin) cannot explain the Greater.

        I have read a bit of Smith and have never gained the impression that he was attempting to explain Reality through science. Rather, he is prepared to give science its due at scratching the surface, but that Reality in Total is not accessible via science. For example, he strongly questions if physics has any real existence in Reality as experienced, suggesting that physical potentialities have no existence beyond wave vector collapse and are only a probability before that. He says that while a table or a chair are definitely forms that we experience, he denies that they are merely the sum of a very large number of protons and electons buzzing around. He also speculates that the Consciousness that induces the great majority of vector collapses (a clumsy expression for a coming into being) is the Divine one, a process hardly distinguishable from an ongoing Creation. So maybe there’s not such a gulf between your ideas and (the utterly unscientistic, but modestly scientific) Smith.

        I don’t think, either, that rationalistic metaphysics is necessarily anathema to the Mystery. God is Reason, among His other qualities. Our tiny attempts to deploy the miniscule reasoning power we have been gifted in His likeness have the ability, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church (as I understand it) and in accordance with an acceptance of what has been Revealed, to present us with a small degree of limited comprehension of that Mystery. After all, there’s a bit of mystery about every one of us. The error would be to overestimate our powers of insight.

  8. I enjoyed this but you lost me somewhere. In defence of a materialist interpretation I would say we are much further from having the least understanding of consciousness than we think we are so its a bit early in the game to draw conclusions… I would bet that there is a material explanation of consciousness but I would change my mind if the evidence changed. I feel a bit nervous when you say that an explanation would be a great disaster because I feel that biases you away from such an interpretation. I expect there to be a materialist explanation but it doesn’t greatly bother me if I am wrong except that I think it would imply the existence of something we don’t know anything about. A materialist explanation might include… in fact I think its likely to… previously unknown material factors.

    • Hi, martinz69: thanks for reading and your response. In one of my articles I suggest that it might be better programmatically for a scientist to keep trying to see if he can discover a material basis for consciousness, and certainly how the interface between consciousness and the brain works, while a philosopher has more leeway to be open minded about the actual truth. If I as a philosopher surmise that consciousness is fundamentally nonmaterial no research programs are forestalled. The trouble is convenient (possible) fictions tend to devolve into dogmas, and with scientists claiming to know the neuronal (or whatever) basis of consciousness when they do not. Behaviorists started out explicitly pretending minds didn’t exist since they were not amenable to analysis, only for this pretense to become purported fact – only for the who edifice to collapse when the stimulus/response model failed spectacularly but only after five decades of flogging a dead horse.

      • Thanks for taking the trouble, Let me start by saying that consciousness is still almost completely or completely inexplicable in terms of brains. There is a powerful bunch of evidence from brain injured people to suggest that there is some relationship between brain and consciousness. I must say that it occurs to me that the relationship will never be explained because any explanation would be in consciousness which is the thing itself being “explained.” Also it might be like trying to explain sight to a blind person. I guess that there are some things that can be explored such as for example consciousness in animals and what we think we know suggests that there is a spectrum… some animals surprisingly and furthest from mammals… magpies seem to have self consciousness which is different from consciousness. But I’m going on… I think the gist of what I’m saying is that we can know more about consciousness whilst being very far from explaining it. Thanks for taking the trouble.

      • Thanks, martinz69. I tentatively subscribe to the transmission theory of mind in which case mind and brain are correlated, other than for NDEs, etc., rather than the brain causing mind. So, having a damaged brain is like having a damaged TV – your reception is imperfect. The placebo effect, hypnosis generating physical symptoms like blisters from imaginary burns, and brain plasticity related to strokes, etc., indicate rather amazing mind over body phenomena, but I regard all those things as suggestive rather than conclusive. Thanks again for your comments.


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