Reconciling Karma with Materialism: The Many Lives of Schrödinger’s Cat
The indeterminate nature is the true nature of all things. Determinations and divisions are the constructions of imagination. —attributed to Nāgārjuna
There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted to them, he cannot free himself from them. —Albert Camus
What the new physics clearly implies, and has shown to be true at subatomic levels, is that there can be no such thing as a purely objective viewpoint. —Malcom Godwin
It is the theory which decides what we can observe. —Albert Einstein
First and foremost, I suppose I should apologize for publishing this post, as the overriding theme of this blog is political incorrectness, and this post is not particularly politically incorrect at all. It is on a spiritual theme, however, which in and of itself is anathema to Marxism…so that may be good enough.
This post is a kind of aftershock to my earlier longish series on atheism and materialism. This one, though, will not exactly be arguing against materialism as a valid explanation of reality. I will play devil’s advocate and allow, for the sake of argument, that scientific realism, and thus an objective physical universe, is more or less real. Here I will attempt to give a plausible explanation of how karma, or kamma in Pali, can be reconciled, hypothetically, with that same hypothetical physical universe. So I’ll be attempting to harmonize a kind of spiritual metaphysics, with physics.
I have already attempted elsewhere to explain the Buddhist idea of karma in a way that even a hard-headed scientific realist could accept, for example HERE, and, more recently, HERE. But that was mainly regarding what karma itself is (the momentum of our mental energy, which serves as a kind of autopilot to those of us who are not fully awake, rather similar to Schopenhauer’s conception of Will), merely touching on some of the more obvious ways in which it can reach fruition in a godless material world—for example, a person afraid of getting sick is more likely to get sick because of her stress, a violent person is more likely to have violence perpetrated against him because of his lifestyle, and so on. This essay places much more emphasis on kamma-vipāka, or the fruition of karma, how our karma, an essentially volitional mental state, actually makes things happen in our external environment. Thus it will attempt to explain how, for example, some act in our past, some latent karma, could cause us to be struck by lightning, or win the lottery, or be in a plane crash, or be the only survivor of a plane crash, or to experience any other event that ostensibly is not under our conscious or even subconscious control.
As far as I have seen even orthodox Theravada Buddhism, in its Abhidhamma philosophy, does not attempt a serious explanation of the mechanics of how karma/kamma, a mental state, influences physical matter (even science has trouble with that one: how mind and matter interact), relying as it often does on ancient Indian metaphysical fiat—“it just happens that way”—with the Mahayana Buddhists going farther into the realm of simple idealism (there is no physical matter at all and it’s all just a dream). So this discussion may be useful, or at least intriguing, to any philosophical Theravada Buddhist out there, if only as a hypothesis for consideration. It may also be of some interest to scientific realists who nevertheless are openminded about psychic phenomena…and the fruition of karma would qualify as a very common psychic phenomenon, as it literally happens all the time.
It is obviously true that our conscious mental states and habits condition our environment to a great extent: where we live, what job we have, which person we marry, who our friends are, even how likely we are to get sick, or robbed, or in a car accident…and so on. That is all an obvious and superficial description of how karma, a volitional mental state, influences events in our lives. But it is not just our conscious mental states and habits that condition what happens to us; and according to Buddhist philosophy, every sensation or feeling that we experience is the fruition of karma, including the sight of our computer crashing, or the sound of a barking dog at night keeping us awake, or even the sound of the refrigerator running in the kitchen. So if what ancient Buddhist philosophers say about karma is true, then our own mental states are somehow influencing everything around us, including the behavior of other people, and including such “acts of God” as storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. And if we accept the reality of physical matter and reject something like Yogacāra subjective idealism, then the Buddhists have got some serious explaining to do.
Fortunately for orthodox Theravada Buddhists who accept physical matter as ultimately real, the science of physics is no longer strictly mechanical. Physics for over a century has no longer described matter as solid little particles with exact sizes and positions interacting with each other like hard little billiard balls. Now we humans, including human scientists, live in a world of quantum physics, which includes such arcana as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the observer effect, and quantum superpositions. It is true that the theories and hypotheses of science are essentially just intellectual models that have not yet been persuasively disproven, and thus science itself does not necessarily present the truth about the universe, but the followers of scientism are likely to accept its theories, including the theories of quantum physics, if only for dogmatic reasons, and that is good enough for the purposes of what follows.
Also, before I proceed any further, I should remind the reader that I am a Buddhist monk with a degree in Marine Biology, and am not a physicist, so I do not speak with absolute authority with regard to quantum physics, although I have taken some interest in the subject and am not totally ignorant with regard to what I intend to discuss. But of course I can be wrong, as can anyone else.
That said, according to established theories of modern physics, a particle, let’s say an electron, travels from point A to point B not by a single route, but by an infinite number of possible routes, all equally real. In other words, that particle, in its natural state, so to speak, exists in a state of ambiguity, an indeterminate state sometime referred to as the state vector. It somehow requires the observation of a conscious mind to collapse the state vector down to one particular route for that particle, almost always one of the most statistically likely routes. What is supposed to happen to all the equally real and valid possible routes taken by that particle I do not rightly know, although my guess is that they are simply ignored, and our consciousness fixates on just one of an infinite number of (equally real, or unreal) possibilities. So a conscious mind in physics, as in Theravada Buddhism, has a profound influence on presumably mechanical systems; and although the effects in physics occur at the subatomic level, our entire material universe, presumably, is composed of an accumulation of subatomic events subject to this same consciousness-conditioned collapse of ambiguity.
A classic illustration of this influence of mind over macroscopic accumulations of submicroscopic events is the case of Schrödinger’s cat. A cat is placed in a box with a radioactive isotope, a geiger counter, and some sort of cat-killing device hooked up to the geiger counter. If the isotope randomly emits a particle at a certain time and the geiger counter detects it, it triggers the mechanism, which then kills the cat. But it requires a conscious observer to collapse the state vector to determine whether the particle, which results in the cat’s tragic death, was “randomly” emitted. (The idea that the cat itself is conscious and could determine whether it dies or not is overlooked by Schrödinger in a very anthropocentric and speciesist manner.) Consequently, until someone looks into the box and collapses the state vector with their perceptual observation, that cat exists in a state of quantum superpositions and is both alive and dead simultaneously. And it may even be that the mental state of the person who opens the box will determine whether the cat is alive or dead. Furthermore, the semiconscious habitual attitude of the person who opens the box may determine whether the cat survives or dies.
Schrödinger’s cat was a purely theoretical thought experiment, but actual research conducted by a fellow named Helmut Schmidt appears to corroborate the idea that supposedly random quantum events may be influenced by the human mind. Dr. Schmidt (1928-2011) was an instructor of theoretical physics, for a time a senior research scientist at a Boeing laboratory in Seattle, Washington, and eventually a parapsychologist. While at Boeing there was a lull in work being done there, so he requested permission to do some research into the effects of human consciousness on mechanical systems, and the request was granted. So, he developed an ingenious series of experiments which should be a hell of a lot more well known than they are.
He made a random number generator made from a geiger counter, a small sample of the radioactive isotope strontium 90, and a mechanical counter. The counter would simply count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 over and over, or else just 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2, and whenever the geiger counter detected a particle emitted by the strontium, the number on the counter would be recorded, providing a quantum-random series of ones, twos, threes, and fours, or just ones and twos. Then he got humans to try to influence the series as it was being generated. In one series of experiments he used just ones and twos, with ones being translated into clicks in one side of a set of stereo headphones and twos as clicks in the other side, and he would instruct his subjects to try to make more clicks happen in one ear than in the other. He would mix it up and switch sides to prevent any potential bias caused by the machinery. He found that people were able to influence the quantum-random clicks at a level of between 1 and 2% better than random chance. In other words, if they tried to make more clicks happen on the left, they’d be able to do it about 51-52% of the time instead of only 50% as would be expected by a militant materialist. Some particularly talented subjects could manage around 54% A few percent may not seem like much, but the tests didn’t take very long and could be conducted in large numbers, resulting in a huge sample size; and the odds of 2% better than random happening by chance were minuscule. So it was evident that the human mind really was influencing, to a small but statistically significant degree, the output of clicks from a geiger counter.
Even more interesting to me is a modification of this experiment: Dr. Schmidt would record the clicks onto a cassette tape, conduct the same tests with subjects wearing headphones, and the results were similar to those of “live” clicks, so long as nobody had listened to the tape previously. It seems that the cassette tapes, though macroscopic, contained audio that was still in the uncollapsed, indeterminate state vector until some conscious mind finally perceived and collapsed it. He used these tapes as challenges to his militant materialist “skeptic” critics, sending them copies of the tapes to keep in a safe place, and allowing them to decide which side most of the clicks should be on. When one copy of the tape collapsed into something determinate, all the other copies did the same, in the same way.
It seems to me, so long as no one comes forward and exposes him as a fraud, that Helmut Schmidt ought to be a hell of a lot more famous than he is. He has the potential, at least, to become known as the Galileo of the 20th century. Why has almost nobody ever heard of him? I assume mainly because what he found in his studies goes radically against the orthodox narrative promulgated by the high priests of our materialistic, scientistic culture. Race realism is another similar case—true and supported by substantial evidence, but absolutely forbidden to acknowledge it. But I digress, and will continue with this discussion of human perception, and karma, conditioning physical systems next time.
|inside the box, Schrodinger's cat plans his revenge|