The mysteries of quantum physics have proved baffling to many people. I don't presume to have solved them, of course. But I do find there's a particular way of looking at them that can be helpful. It involves seeing quantum phenomena as directly analogous to the process of thought.
It's pretty well known that a given quantum entity, such as a photon, can sometimes behave like a particle and at other times like a wave. Many explanations, or "interpretations," have been offered to account for this strange fact. One of the more compelling is that the photon exists only as a probability wave until it encounters an obstruction or a measurement device or a conscious observer, at which point the probability wave collapses down to a single specific position. This is called the collapse of the wave function.
Physical objects in the macroscopic world don't behave this way, at least as far as we can tell, so the whole phenomenon seems quite bewildering. And yet we do have an example from our everyday lives that dovetails neatly with the behavior of photons and other quantum entities.
Let's say we're engaged in a process of thought. Maybe we ask ourselves: What am I going to have for lunch? As soon as the question is raised, a myriad of possible answers is presented. These answers range from more probable (a hamburger) to less probable (pheasant under glass). In our minds there is a probability wave – a cloud of "potentia" representing all possible outcomes or decision points (i.e., all nonzero probabilities), with the greater probabilities densely clustered in the middle, and the lower probabilities more sparsely distributed along the periphery.
Now, I realize that in practice our limited minds cannot really encompass such a vast range of possibilities. But if our minds were sufficiently broad in their scope, they could imagine every possible choice.
Our next step is to choose. The means by which we make a selection is actually quite mysterious. One moment we are undecided; the next moment we are decided. How this happens, nobody can quite say, which is why free will remains enigmatic and controversial. In any case, we do reach a decision. Let's say we choose a tuna fish sandwich.
The very fact of making this decision effectively compresses the probability wave – the cloud of potential outcomes – down to a single point, namely tuna. We have collapsed the wave function.
Thought is unceasing, so we are immediately faced with a new question: What beverage do I want? Again, as soon as the question is raised, a cloud of potential choices arises, ranging from more probable (milk) to less probable (champagne). All of these choices exist as possibilities that are unrealized until we home in on a selection – say, Coca-Cola. At that instant the wave function collapses down to a single decision point: Coca-Cola.
Our thought processes, in other words, also can be visualized as either a wave function or a decision point. But never both at once - which brings us to the famous Uncertainty Principle formulated by Heisenberg.
Heisenberg said we can know the position of a subatomic entity or we can know its momentum (meaning essentially its direction of travel), but we cannot know both at the same time. And even in terms of our analogy, this is true.
When we ask the question: What do I want for lunch?, we know our thought's direction of travel. It is directed toward answering that particular question. We do not, however, know where it is going to end up – its specific position. Once we have settled on a tuna sandwich, we know the specific position, but at that point we do not know what direction our thought process will take next – not until the next question is asked. Once we have asked: What beverage do I want?, then we again know the direction of our thought, but not the decision point we will reach. And once we reach that decision point, we know its position, but not where we will go from there.
So we can know the “location” (specific position) of our thought at any given time, or we can know the “momentum” (direction) of our thought at any given time, but we cannot know both at the same time.
All of this suggests that the astronomer Sir James Jeans may have been correct when he suggested that “the universe begins to look less like a great machine and more like a great thought." It also has implications for the idea of an information matrix as the underpinning of physical reality, a notion we’ve explored in earlier posts.
While the information matrix idea makes it easy to visualize the ramifying pathways that proceed from any given decision point, it is perhaps unnecessary. The same pathways could exist in the imagination of any sufficiently comprehensive mind. In other words the so-called information matrix could simply be the total knowledge and imaginative extrapolation of a Cosmic Mind. Think of a chessmaster who studies the board and can imaginatively spin out the likely consequences of any possible move, without actually making any of the moves. The Cosmic Mind could be a universal grandmaster, able to survey the total possible ramifications of any decision point through sheer imaginative power.
If this were the case, then consciousness as such, and not any sort of information matrix or cosmic software program, would be the true ground of being – the underlying structure of what we call physical reality.
And then the ancient mystical insight – that we and all that exists are merely thoughts in the mind of God – would be seen as literally true.