Reality Has To Be Visualized In Its Contradictory And Complimentary Aspects

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Discussion Returns To The Tao Of Physics

“Complimentary what?” said Don.

“That was one of Bohr’s main contributions to quantum mechanics,” replied Jade. “He basically said that there are no waves out there. There are no particles running around, either. That strange animal that interacts with the experiments, the quantum of action, is all there is. Because Bohr believed that, he introduced the idea of complementarity. He considered the particle picture and the wave picture as two complementary descriptions of the same reality, each description being only partly correct and having a limited range of application. For Bohr, the entity ‘electron,’–just like the other elementary entities of physics—had two irreconcilable aspects, which must be invoked in order to explain, in turn, the properties of the entity. To give a full description of atomic reality, each picture is needed, and both descriptions are to be applied within the limitations given by the uncertainty principle. In fact, when the queen of England knighted Bohr for his work in physics, he was forced to pick a family coat of arms, and so he picked the Chinese symbol of Tai-chi. Because, for Bohr, reality had to be visualized in its contradictory and complimentary aspects, but not at the same time, he felt that, at least on the level of the quantum of action, the basic idea of Eastern mysticism’s yin/yang reality had been confirmed.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I said, “I remember reading somewhere, maybe in Capra, that in the Buddhist relationship between form and emptiness, a cooperation exists. That relationship cannot be conceived as a state of mutually exclusive opposites because it represents two aspects of the same reality. From one perspective it appears to be contradictory, but from another perspective it becomes the unifying aspect of that very same reality. Just like at the quantum level, where an event, in order to be wholly an event, exhibits both contradictory and complimentary aspects, so too in Buddhism, the void and the forms that are created from it, exist in a dynamic unity. But, there’s something that still bothers me. What about that observer-generated reality stuff that Capra talked about in his book? How does that fit in with the quantum of action? What’s that all about, anyway?”

“That’s just another aspect of how phenomena manifests at the quantum level,” responded Jade. “The classical notions of space, time, causality–objective reality, break down at the quantum level. Remember there are no waves propagating. According to most physicists, the wave function is not quite a thing, it is more like an idea that occupies a strange middle ground between idea and reality, where all things are possible but none are actual. An electron is not a particle either, it is more like a process, always forming, always dissolving. It can’t be detected until it interacts with a measuring device and even if it does interact we don’t know if it interacts with the device per se, or if it interacts with the last link in the chain of events that define the experiment—the consciousness of the human observer.”

“Fellows,” Don interjected, “you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen an elephant fly! Come Saturday night-Shit, those dissolving particles ain’t got nothing on my vanishing elephants. If you want to see those mouse hating critters pop out of existence all you have to do is close down a couple bars with me.”

“That’s interesting Don; I mean that you should bring up a vanishing act to illustrate your point,” Jade replied, “because the physicist, Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment that kind of illustrates his point with a similar vanishing act, only he wasn’t talking about mice haters, he was talking about mice lovers. According to Schrodinger, if you put a cat in a box with some poison gas and release the gas the cat dies. But here’s the catch, for Schrodinger the gas release is triggered by radiation decay, which is a random occurrence. In classical physics, the cat dies at the time of the decay, but in quantum mechanics the cat dies when the observation is made, when the last link in the chain of events that defines the experiment occurs. At the time of observation when the box is opened the wave function collapses and possibility becomes actuality. Of course, common sense tells us that can’t be true, but that’s precisely the point, common sense breaks down at the quantum level, things are ‘different’ at that level. So the question remains, ‘Is it, or when is it, necessary to include human consciousness in our descriptions of the world?’ Or, put another way, ‘what role does measurement play in an experiment?’ Does it provide a description of the world under study or does it actually create that world?’ Quantum Mechanics has a hard time answering questions like that.”

“I’m out of beer,” said Don, “Anybody got an extra one?”

“Maybe one day that situation will be better understood,” I said. “But until that day comes, talk about ‘objectivity’ is probably best left to the Buddhists. They don’t have a problem with ‘independent reality’ because for them there isn’t any. For them, everything is co-dependent. My subjective world, and the objective world, is, for an enlightened Buddhist, just words referring to mutually conditioned relations woven into one fabric. For the Buddhist, subject and object are not just inseparable, they are indistinguishable.”

“Funny you should point that out,” responded Jade, “I mean, that words interfere with reality, because many physicists believe the same thing. Many physicists believe that the wave function is not an accurate representation of what’s really going on ‘out there.’ Rather, they believe the wave function is an abstract creation whose manipulation somehow yields the probabilities of real events that happen in space and time. But that’s only part of the story, and perhaps a small part, too. In fact, the mathematician von Neumann, the same guy who developed a mathemat
ical proof rejecting the notion of hidden variables in quantum mechanics, believed the problems surrounding quantum phenomena had nothing to do with nature, but, rather, they had everything to do with language. We impose, with our symbolic thought processes, the categories of ‘either-or.’ Language does not allow a mixture of A and not A. The boundaries of discourse, rather, are set by discriminating A from not A. Outside that boundary nonsense rules. Where ‘separate parts’ are not applicable, language cannot go. Classical physics discriminates between A and not A, therefore, moving particles and waves can be analyzed. A pictorial description of nature is never a problem there. At the atomic level, however, it is not possible to visualize or describe waves because they are not there—they are purely mathematical constructs. Where things are not things, the quantifiers of inside, outside, before, after, between, and connected are not applicable, either. Where language and logic do not apply, nothing more can be said.”

“It seems that physicists,” I replied, “at the quantum level at least, find the same road block that the Eastern sages discovered long ago. At that point, the language of neti neti, the language of not this, not that–is all that’s left. At that level, all investigations end, at that level we are left with mere words that say nothing.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite so negatively,” Jade responded, “after all, at that level, something else comes into play; that is, if you are a sage–infinite wisdom and infinite creativity. Right?”

“Okay,” I said, “then maybe we’ve come full circle. We’ve come back to the endless transformation of energy that the yin, yang symbol represents.”

“For sure, Neil’s Bohr would agree with that,” Jade replied, “but I think a little poetry is more appropriate here. After all, who better to entrust a description of the indescribable then the poet! If my memory holds, in some Upanishad it says, ‘He on whom the sky, the earth, and the atmosphere are woven, and the wind, together with all life-breaths, Him alone know as the one Soul.’”

“Yo! Fellows,” Don shouted, “We’re out of beer. No more beer, no more poetry, pleeease. Thanks for the beer, though. Somehow listening to you guys makes me feel like I’m waiting for Godet. If you ask me, it ain’t going to happen. Goodnight, see you in the morning!”

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