Reality ‘Out There’ And Quantum Physics



“Is Dr. Singh there?”

Sure, he is.”

“Is he not in New York?”

Certainly not.”

Not in London either?”

No, he is definitely here in Delhi.”

“Is he sleeping?”

What?! …….  Sleeping? …….  No, he is in his office and very much awake.”

Dr. Singh’s Assistant, though a bit bewildered, sounded very confident in his replies. But I remained unconvinced.

If the probability of Dr. Singh being in New York is zero, and his being present in Delhi is one hundred percent, there must be some probability of his being in London in-between!  Further, his Assistant asserts that Dr. Singh is awake. How does he know Singh’s state so definitely without actually seeing him?  Don’t think that I lost my wits or I am an over the top Vedantin.

Let me explain.  Suppose you are lecturing to a roomful of people, how do you describe what the audience is doing? You will say that they are listening to your speech.  Can you vouchsafe that every individual in the room without exception is surely listening to you?  Honestly, you cannot.  Some may be in sync with your lecture. But many others may have been wandering away in thoughts about – the crease in your dress, high tea at the end of the talk or the spat they had with their girl or something. What you can at the best say is that the group is in general listening to you.

So is the case with the trillions and  trillions of cells and zillions of atoms and subatomic particles in our bodies. All of them are on constant move. They don’t sit idly at one place. Nobody can for certain say where a particle is at a given time. It could be anywhere in the universe. That is the weird uncertain world that atomic and subatomic particles live in as Quantum Physics found out from experiments with electrons and particles of light called photons.

Now, think of all the particles in Dr. Singh’s body. From Quantum Physics angle they cannot all be at one place in his office. Hence his Assistant can only say that there is a high probability of finding Singh in his office, and that there is some small possibility of his existing in London or in New York or on the moon or even in the Andromeda galaxy – all at the same time!  This means that Singh exists as if smeared around the entire universe with a denser smear at Delhi. Or alternately, his Assistant can say that a longer lasting smear of Singh occurs at Delhi.

If you come this far, let us examine his state. You think that what you observe “out there” is reality happening independent of you. You consider yourself as an observer standing aloof having no role in deciding the state of the reality you see ‘out there.’  But it is not true. Let us imagine Singh is miniaturized to one particle instead of considering the zillions of particles in him. Quantum Physics tells that Singh could be both sleeping and awake at the same time. Not merely these two states.  He could simultaneously be in a number of many other states. A specific state of his comes into being only if you observe him. You do not know where and in what state Dr. Singh is unless and until you actually see him.

Dr. E. Schrödinger who was himself responsible in developing Quantum Physics was also puzzled by this counter-intuitive prediction.  So he thought what’s true for particles should be true for cats.  Thus evolved the famous thought experiment, “Schrödinger’s Cat.” If a cat is put into a closed box with a 50-50 chance of being hit by a poisonous molecule, will it be alive or dead? Well, the answer is that it exists in both states of being dead and alive at the same time. Only at the moment you look at it, it would get into one definite state – dead or alive!

All this is not just mental acrobatics and theoretical jugglery.  In December of 2005, Physicists from Innsbruck did put eight calcium atoms in multiple states. These atoms were each spinning clockwise and counter clockwise at the same time! The atoms are lovingly said to be in ‘Cat state’ by Physicists.

So there is no reality until you perceive it. Reality assumes a firm form and state only after your perception. In other words, you are no more a distant observer but a participant in creating the reality that you notice! Does it imply that the moon does not exist until you look at her? That’s a doubt even celebrated scientists like Dr. Einstein expressed. Arthur Koestler famously asked ‘whom does the mirror see when you do not look at it?’  Can you ever find out?

Hence until we consciously observe, “whatever-that-is-there-around” could only be a fuzzy cloud of frantically swirling atomic and subatomic size particles. How does that cloud get reduced to be the reality that we see – the computer in front, the chair you sit on, the room, the lights, the noises, you and me?

Quantum Physics has no unique answer for this question.  There are a range of explanations. Some even go to the extent of questioning if any reality  exists there at all.  One view invokes Shri Aurobindo’s philosophy. A majority opinion says our consciousness (or measurement) plays a role in reducing the haze of cloud into the objects that we see.  This viewpoint strikes a chord in  Vedantins – particularly those who contribute to the dRRishTi-sRRishTi vAda (Doctrine of Perception Based Creation).

sruti holds that it is not possible to express in any concrete terms “whatever-that-is-there-around.”  Its intrinsic qualities cannot be comprehended or expressed by us, because it becomes “The World” the moment we are conscious of it (Remember, the moment you try to look into the mirror to know whom does the mirror see when you are not around, ……..).  Vedas named that unknowable  “whatever-that-is-there-around” as “Brahman.”  They attempt to convey  a sense of Brahman by pointing out to three of Its tentative qualities – creation, sustenance and dissolution – which Brahman assumes when we observe It.

Taittiriyopanishad declares that the world emerges from, is sustained by and absorbed into Brahman. Hence we may say “Perception (because of which the world arises – otherwise there is no world) activates the tentative attributes of Brahman.  In the absence of sensory (+ mind) perception It stays as “whatever-that-is-there-around.” Sankara expressed this elegantly and in simple words: ‘Thought  is the creator of various things’ (AparokshAnubhUti,  sloka 14).

(The above article is  from the Book: Religion Demystified, 2008.  Three more articles will be posted in this series).

2.  We are all an entangled web:

3.  The Weird World Of Small Things:

4.  Invisible Energy In Empty Space:

4 thoughts on “Reality ‘Out There’ And Quantum Physics

  1. Actually, in ‘real life’, in an actual (un-ethical) experiment, on opening the box the cat would be either alive or dead, not in an in-between state, and this is due to decoherence (as I read in ‘Paradox’, by Jim Al-Khalili, in my flight back from Toronto to Barcelona). I cannot myself explain what decoherence is, but what I read is, “Quantum mechanics dictate that many trillions of atoms that make up the measuring device must also exist in a superposition [doing two or more things at once, or being in two or more places at once]. However, these delicate quantum effects become too complex to be maintained in such a large macroscopic devise and leak away, almost like heat dissipating from the body”.

    What concerns Schrödinger’s cat and quantum mechanics is more complex than what the short quotation above includes, but at least I understand how two wave disturbances in a superposition can cancel each other out. More difficult to understand, as Ramesam explains, is why, when we are not looking things (particles, atoms, etc.) can be in a state of superposition, doing two or more things at once, but when we look, “they are immediately forced to make a choice between the various options and behave sensibly” (Khalili). Intentionality, and thus consciousness, come to mind, but this cannot be accommodated by empirical science.

  2. Pingback: We are all an entangled web | Advaita Vision

  3. As I understand wave/particle complementary, it is not true that light is simultaneously both a wave AND a particle, but rather either a wave OR a particle depending upon the experiment and experimenter. Once observed, one or the other is revealed to be true. Expanding that notion to Schrödinger’s cat, the cat is never both dead or alive or in some in between state. While in the box, there is no observer. Until the box is opened and the wave function collapsed, nothing can be said about the cat, including its very “existence”. Upon being observed, it then exists either as a dead cat or a live cat, depending on who collapses the wave function.

    Advaita goes beyond quantum theory, being realisation that the observer and the observed, Creator and Creation, are not one, two, both, either, or neither, rather precisely not-two. That cannot be “known” as knowing is duality, separation of subject/object. No separation in advaita. Form is indeed void and void form; they are not two.

    • Thank you Knot 2 for your interest and kind Comments.

      I agree in a general way with what all you say.

      However, just for the record, I may be allowed to make the following observations:

      Knot 2: “……… it is not true that light is simultaneously both a wave AND a particle, but rather either a wave OR a particle depending upon the experiment and experimenter.”

      R: About a year ago, Physicists had experimentally “shown light behaving like both a particle and a wave simultaneously, providing a new dimension to the quandary” on the true nature of light.

      Knot 2: “Expanding that notion to Schrödinger’s cat ……”

      R: The thought experiment of a cat in the box by Schrodinger is not, strictly speaking, based on extending the concept of wave-particle duality. This thought experiment alludes more to the “quantum state” of a particle. Very roughly expressing, we can imagine the ‘state’ to be something like the “on” or “off” positions of an electric switch. The switch can be only either on or off, but not both at the same time. On the other hand, a quantum system can exist in multiple states simultaneously. (Please bear in mind, the quantum state is much more abstract than the approximate analogy given here).

      Knot 2: “Form is indeed void and void form…”

      R: This statement reflects more the Nihilist’s view. Advaita does not contribute to this view of “voidness.” Advaita says what IS, is formless indescribable and inexpressible some “Thing.” The word Brahman is used as a pointer to It. When that “Thing” takes a form (and a name), it becomes the world.


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