Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Quantum Dao

It is an uncanny coincidence that around two and a half millennia ago, ancients from civilisation apart, unaware of each other, told us remarkably similar things about existence, reality, stuff like that. They relied on nothing more than the power of human perception and contemplation.

The Buddha, aka Siddartha Gautama (c. 563 - c.483 BCE) realised without microscope or telescope that there are tens of thousands of bugs in a single drop of water, and that there are countless worlds out there. These amazing realisations took us another two thousand years to verify. A central tenet of his philosophy is that reality isn’t what it seems to be, and that all dharma is the result of our “heart”, perception, desire. The Buddha taught us repeatedly that there really — or not really — is nothing out there. The concept must have been wildly incredible before quantum mechanics.

His contemporary way over in China Lao Zi (aka Lao Tsu, c. 571 - c.471 BCE) gave a similar worldview in 5000 words — all that he had left in writing. The opening sentence in his Dao De Jing is “The Dao that can be explained is not the real Dao.” Nature’s way, the Dao, absolute reality, is far beyond the paltry capabilities of human languages. Dao just is, but sorry, not necessarily the way we think it is. We might laugh, as he predicted: “On hearing the Dao, a wise man would practice; an average man would be baffled; the idiot would laugh it off.”  Ha.


The eloquent and prolific Daoist writer Zhuang Zi (aka Zhuang Tsu, c.369 - c. 286 BCE) invested many more words to pass on the wisdom to us, in fables and dialogues, just like what Plato (c.427 - c.347 BCE) did with Socrates’ (c. 470 - c.399) teachings. Socrates was often stuck in a trance like meditation. Surpassing Lao Zi, he did not leave a single word in writing. He did not deny being wise though, for he at least knew that he knew nothing.

Socrates, and Plato, like the Buddha, told us that our true essence doesn’t die. It keeps learning, accumulating wisdom from one incarnation to the next. At this rate, we might all expect enlightenment one day. Unfortunately, the wheel of wisdom seems to have been stuck in a perpetual loop. Two and a half millennia later, we manage to know less than Socrates did.

Lao Zi, Socrates, Plato, Zhuang Zi all appeared to have foreseen modern politics, and warned emphatically against the poisonous empty words of moralists and sophists. 

About  850,000 Days later, as we approached the 20th century . . .

There was another eruption of genius. Einstein was born in 1879, the year Maxwell died. Six years later, Niels Bohr who contributed to the fundamental “understanding” of quantum mechanics incarnated. He was soon followed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1887. As the new century began, Werner Heisenberg was born in 1901. He eventually gave us the mind-boggling Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Being a genius must have felt nearly normal those days. All of them would be awarded Alfred Nobel’s prestigious recognition long before it degenerated into a cheap political tool. 

What does reality mean to these monumental scientists? 

1.  Bohr and Heisenberg famously maintained that there was no real world out there and that quantum properties were brought into existence by the very act of measurement. To Bohr, not only was reality based upon observation, but it did not exist independent of observation. Were they Buddhists?

2.  Heisenberg: “The reality we can put into words is never reality itself.” I wonder if he had read Lao Zi’s Dao De Jing.

3.  Richard Feynman, born in 1918, summed up the understanding of quantum mechanics in understandable terms: “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Notwithstanding his honest admission, they gave him a Nobel Prize in 1968 anyway. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding. He also remarked that “the ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.” Funny enough, except this inordinate cluster of physicists, most people seem to know without hesitation what reality ought to be.

4.  Erwin Schrödinger called the idea that particles can be linked in such a way that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously affects the other, even if they are light years apart, the “defining trait” of quantum theory. Einstein could not bring himself to believe in it at all, and called it spooky action at a distance. The spooky action has now been experimentally verified. In 2008, Nicolas Gisin of Geneva showed that, if reality and free will hold, the speed of transfer of quantum states between entangled photons held in two villages 18 kilometres apart was somewhere above 10 million times the speed of light (Nature, vol 454, p 861). Chinese scientists have in May 2012 set a new world record of separating entangled particles by 97 km. I suspect the famously polygamous Schrödinger had more personal insight into the nature of entanglement than Einstein.

Meanwhile, language remains just as mystifying as physics. Ancient philosophies consistent with modern science are still mysticisms while the Bible, a collection of fantastic little tales such as Genesis and Noah and Revelation, continues to be a synonym of indisputable truth and authority. 

Weird? Most uncertainly yes.

Chinese version: 物理道可道



1 comment:

Ernest Blakewood said...

Well, as a matter of a fact, an idea can spread through the public mind not by being truthful, but instead by serving some psychological needs of the people it infects.

I guess the idea of heavens or a god from whom one could get protection is more soothing (and thus more appealing) than some complicated Philosophical topics that the general public - terribly honestly - may not even have the intelligence to grasp.