The Alchemy web site on Levity.com
Adam McLean ©
The hermetic tradition has long been concerned with the relationship between the inner world of our consciousness and the outer world of nature, between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the below and the above, the material and the spiritual, the centric and the peripheral. The hermetic world view held by such as Robert Fludd, pictured a great chain of being linking our inner spark of consciousness with all the facets of the Great World. There was a grand platonic metaphysical clockwork, as it were, through which our inner world was linked by means of a hierarchy of beings and planes to the highest unity of the Divine.
This view though comforting is philosophically unsound, and the developments in thought since the early 17th century have made such a hermetic world view untenable and philosophically naive. It is impossible to try to argue the case for such an hermetic metaphysics with anyone who has had a philosophical training, for they will quickly and mercilessly reveal deep philosophical contradictions in this world view.
So do we now have to abandon such a beautiful and spiritual world view and adopt the prevailing reductionist materialist conception of the world which has become accepted in the intellectual tradition of the West ?
I am not so sure. There still remains the problem of our consciousness and its relationship to our material form - the Mind / Brain problem. Behavioural psychologists such as Skinner tried to reduce this to one level - the material brain - by viewing the mental or consciousness events from the outside as being merely stimulus-response loops. This simplistic view works fine for basic reflex actions - "I itch therefore I scratch" - but dissolves into absurdity when applied to any real act of the creative intellect or artistic imagination. Skinner's determinism collapses when confronted with trying to explain the creative source of our consciousness revealing itself in an artist at work or a mathematician discovering through his thinking a new property of an abstract mathematical system. The psychologists' attempts to reduce the mind/brain problem to a merely material one of neurophysiology obviously failed. The idea that consciousness is merely a secretion or manifestation of a complex net of electrical impulses working within the mass of cells in our brain, is now discredited. The advocates of this view are strongly motivated by a desire to reduce the world to one level, to get rid of the necessity for "consciousness", "mind" or "spirit" as a real facet of the world.
This materialistic determinism in which everything in the world (including the phenomenon of consciousness) can be reduced to simple interactions on a physical/chemical level, belongs really to the nineteenth century scientific landscape. Nineteenth century science was founded upon a "Newtonian Absolute Physics" which provided a description of the world as an interplay of forces obeying immutable laws and following a predetermined pattern. This is the "billiard ball" view of the world - one in which, provided we are given the initial state of the system (the layout of the balls on the table, and the exact trajectory, momentum and other parameters of the cue ball, etc.) then theoretically the exact layout after each interaction can be precisely calculated to absolute precision. All could be reduced to the determinate interplay of matter obeying the immutable laws of physics. The concept of the "spiritual" was unnecessary, even "mind" was dispensable, and "God" of course had no place in this scheme of things.
This comfortably solid "Newtonian" world view of the materialists has however been entirely undermined by the new physics of the twentieth century, and in particular through Quantum Theory. Physicists investigating the properties of sub-atomic matter, found that the deterministic Newtonian absolutism broke down at the foundation level of matter. An element of probability had to be introduced into the physicists' calculations, and each sub-atomic event was in itself inherently unpredictable - one could only ascribe a probability to the outcome. The simple billiard ball model collapsed at the sub-atomic level. For if the billiard table was intended as a picture of a small region of space on the atomic scale and each ball was to be a particle (an electron, proton, or neutron, etc.), then physicists came to realise that this model could not represent reality on that level. For in Quantum theory one could not define the position and momentum of a particle both at the same moment. As soon as we establish the parameters of motion of a body its position is uncertain and can only be described mathematically as a wave of probability. Our billiard table dissolved into a fluid ever-moving undulating surface, with each ball at one moment focussed to a point then at another dissolving and spreading itself out over an area of the space of the table. Trying to play billiards at this sub-atomic level was rather difficult.
In the Quantum picture of the world, each individual event cannot be determined exactly, but has to be described by a wave of probability. There is a kind of polarity between the position and energy of any particle in which they cannot be simultaneously determined. This was not a failing of experimental method but a property of the kinds of mathematical structures that physicists have to use to describe this realm of the world. The famous equation of Quantum theory embodying Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is :
Planck's constant = (uncertainty in energy) x (uncertainty in position)
Thus if we try to fix the position of the particle (i.e. reduce the uncertainty in its position to a small factor) then as a consequence of this equation the uncertainty in the energy must increase to balance this, and therefore we cannot find a value for the energy of the particle simultaneous with fixing its position. Planck's constant being very small means that these factors only become dominant on the extremely small scale, that is within the realm of the atom.
So we see that the Quantum picture of reality has at its foundation a non-deterministic view of the fundamental building blocks of matter. Of course, when dealing with large masses of particles these quantum indeterminacies effectively cancel each other out, and physicists can determine and predict the state of large systems. Obviously planets, suns, galaxies being composed of large numbers of particles do not exhibit any uncertainty in their position and energies, for when we look at such large aggregates as a totality, the total quantum uncertainties of the system reduces to zero, and in respect to their large scale properties can effectively be treated as deterministic systems.
Thus on the large scale we can effectively apply a deterministic physics, but when we wish to look in detail at the properties of the sub-atomic realm, lying at the root and foundation of our world, we must enter a domain of quantum uncertainties and find the neat ordered picture dissolving into a sea of ever flowing forces that we cannot tie down or set into fixed patterns.
Some people when faced with this picture of reality find comfort in dismissing the quantum world as having little to do with the "real world" of appearances. We do not live within the sub-atomic level after all. However, it does spill out into our outer world. Most of the various electronic devices of the past decades rely on the quantum tunnelling effect in transistors and silicon chips. The revolution in quantum physics has begun to influence the life sciences, and biologists and botanists are beginning to come up against quantum events as the basis of living systems, in the structure of complex molecules in the living tissues and membranes of cells for example. When we look at the blue of the sky we are looking at a phenomenon only recently understood through quantum theory.
Although the Quantum picture of reality might seem strange indeed, I believe the picture it presents of the foundations of the material world, the ever flowing sea of forces metamorphosing and interacting through the medium of "virtual" or quantum messenger particles, has certain parallels with with nature of our consciousness.
I believe that if we try to examine the nature of our consciousness we will find at its basis it exhibits "quantum" like qualities. Seen from a distant, large scale and external perspective, we seem to be able to structure our consciousness in an exact and precise way, articulating thoughts and linking them together into long chains of arguments and intricate structures. Our consciousness can build complex images through its activity and seems to have all the qualities of predictability and solidity. The consciousness of a talented architect is capable of designing and holding within itself an image of large solid structures such as great cathedrals or public buildings. A mathematician is capable of inwardly picturing an abstract mathematical system, deriving its properties from a set of axioms. A solo cellist is able to hold the whole musical structure of a Elgar's Cello Concerto or Bach's Cello Suites in his or her consciousness when preparing for a performance.
In this sense our consciousness might appear as an ordered and deterministic structure, capable of behaving like and being explicable in the same terms as other large scale structures in the world. However, this is not so. For if we through introspection try to examine the way in which we are conscious, in a sense to look at the atoms of our consciousness, this regular structure disappears. Our consciousness does not actually work in such an ordered way. We only nurture an illusion if we try to hold to the view that our consciousness is at root an ordered deterministic structure. True, we can create the large scale designs of the architect, the abstract mathematical systems, a cello concerto, but anyone who has built such structures within their consciousness knows that this is not achieved by a linear deterministic route.
Our consciousness is at its root a maverick, ever moving, jumping from one perception, feeling, thought, to another. We can never hold it still or focus it at a point for long. Like the quantum nature of matter, the more we try to hold our consciousness to a fixed point, the greater the uncertainty in its energy will become. So when we focus and narrow our consciousness to a fixed centre, it is all the more likely to suddenly jump with a great rush of energy to some seemingly unrelated aspect of our inner life. We all have such experiences each moment of the day. As in our daily work we try to focus our mind upon some problem only to sudddenly experience a shift to some other domain in ourselves, another image or emotional current intrudes then vanishes again, like an ephemeral virtual particle in quantum theory.
Those who begin to work upon their consciousness through some kinds of meditative exercises will experience these quantum uncertainties in the field of consciousness in a strong way.
In treating our consciousness as if it were a digital computer or deterministic machine after the model of 19th century science, I believe we foster a limited and false view of our inner world. We must now take the step towards a quantum view of consciousness, recognising that at its base and root our consciousness behaves like the ever flowing sea of the sub-atomic world. The ancient hermeticists pictured consciousness as the "Inner Mercury". Those who have experienced the paradoxical way in which the metal Mercury is both dense and metallic and yet so elusive, flowing and breaking up into small globules, and just as easily coming together again, will see how perceptive the alchemists were of the inner nature of consciousness, in choosing this analogy. Educators who treat the consciousness of children as if it were a filing cabinet to be filled with ordered arrays of knowledge are hopelessly wrong.
We can I believe go a step further than this recognition of the quantum nature of consciousness, and see just how this overlays and links with the mind/brain problem. The great difficulties in developing a theory of the way in which consciousness/mind is embodied in the activity of the brain, has I believe arisen out of the erroneous attempt to press a deterministic view onto our brain activity. Skinner and the behaviourist psychologists attempted to picture the activity of the brain as a computer where each cell behaved as an input/output device or a complex flip/flop. They saw nerve cells with their axons (output fibres) and dendrites (input fibres) being linked together into complex networks. An electrical impulse travelling onto a dendrite made a cell 'fire' and send an impulse out along its axon so setting some other nerve cell into action. The resulting patterns of nerve impulses constituted a reflex action, an impulse to move a muscle, a thought, a feeling, an intuitive experience. All could be reduced to the behaviour of this web of axons and dendrites of the nerve cells.
This simplistic picture, of course, was insufficient to explain even the behaviour of creatures like worms with primitive nervous systems, and in recent years this approach has largely been abandoned as it is becoming recognised that these events on the membranes of nerve cells are often triggered by shifts in the energy levels of sub-atomic particles such as electrons. In fact, at the root of such interactions lie quantum events, and the activity of the brain must now be seen as reflecting these quantum events.
The brain can no longer be seen as a vast piece of organic clockwork, but as a subtle device amplifying quantum events. If we trace a nerve impulse down to its root, there lies a quantum uncertainty, a sea of probability. So just how is it that this sea of probability can cast up such ordered structures and systems as the conception of a cello concerto or abstract mathematical entities ? Perhaps here we may glimpse a way in which "spirit" can return into our physics.
The inner sea of quantum effects in our brain is in some way coupled to our ever flowing consciousness. When our consciousness focusses to a point, and we concentrate on some abstract problem or outer phenomenon, the physical events in our brain, the pattern of impulses, shifts in some ordered way. In a sense, the probability waves of a number of quantum systems in different parts of the brain, are brought into resonance, and our consciousness is able momentarily to create an ordered pattern that manifests physically through the brain. The thought, feeling, perception is momentarily earthed in physical reality, brought from the realm of the spiritually potential into outer actuality. This focussed ordering of the probability waves of many quantum systems requires an enormous amount of energy, but this can be borrowed in the quantum sense for a short instant of time. Thus we have through this quantum borrowing a virtual quantum state which is the physical embodiment of a thought, feeling, etc. However, as this can only be held for a short time, the quantum debt must be paid and the point of our consciousness is forced to jump to some other quantum state, perhaps in another region of the brain. Thus our thoughts are jumbled up with emotions, perceptions, fantasy images.
The central point within our consciousness, our "spirit" in the hermetic sense, can now be seen as an entity that can work to control quantum probabilities. To our "spirits" our brain is a quantum sea providing a rich realm in which it can incarnate and manifest patterns down into the electrical/chemical impulses of the nervous system. (It has been calculated that the number of interconnections existing in our brains far exceeds the number of atoms in the whole universe - so in this sense the microcosm truly mirrors the macrocosm!). Our "spirit" can through quantum borrowing momentarily press a certain order into this sea and this manifests as a thought, emotion, etc. Such an ordered state can only exist momentarily, before our spirit or point of consciousness is forced to jump and move to other regions of the brain, where at that moment the pattern of probability waves for the particles in these nerve cells, can reflect the form that our spirit is trying to work with.
This quantum borrowing to create regular patterns of probability waves is bought for a high price in that a degree of disorder must inevitably arise whenever the spirit tries to focus and reflect a linked sequential chain of patterns into the brain (such as we would experience as a logical train of thought or inward picture of some elaborate structure). Thus it is not surprising that our consciousness sometimes drifts and jumps about in a seemingly chaotic way. The quantum borrowing might also be behind our need for sleep and dream, allowing the physical brain to rid itself of the shadowy echos of these patterns pressed into it during waking consiousness. Dreaming may be that point in a cycle where consciousness and its vehicle interpenetrate and flow together, allowing the patterns and waves of probability to appear without any attempt to focus them to a point. In dream and sleep we experience our point of consciousness dissolving, decoupling and defocussing.
The central point of our consciousness when actively thinking or feeling, must of necessity jump around the sea of patterns in our brain. (It is well known through neurophysiology that function cannot be located at a certain point in the brain, but that different areas and groups of nerve cells can take on a variety of different functions.) We all experience this when in meditation we merely let our consciousness move as it will. Then we come to sense the elusive mercurial eternal movement of the point of our consciousness within our inner space. You will find it to be a powerful and convincing experience if you try in meditation to follow the point of your consciousness moving within the space of your skull. Many religious traditions teach methods for experiencing this inner point of spirit.
I believe the movement of this point of consciousness, which appears as a pattern of probability waves in the quantum sea, must occur in extremely short segments of time, of necessity shorter than the time an electron takes to move from one state to another within the molecular structure of the nerve cell membranes. We are thus dealing in time scales significantly less than 10 to the power -16 of a second and possibly down to 10 to the power -43 of a second. During such short periods of time, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which lies at the basis of quantum theory, means that this central spark of consciousness can borrow a large amount of energy, which explains how it can bring a large degree of ordering into a pattern. Although our point of consciousness lives at this enormously fast speed, our brain which transforms this into a pattern of electro/chemical activity runs at a much slower rate. Between creating each pattern our spark of consciousness must wait almost a eternity for this to be manifested on the physical level. Perhaps this may account for the sense we all have sometimes of taking an enormous leap in consciousness, or travelling though vast realms of ideas, or flashes of images, in what is only a fleeting moment.
At around 10 to the power -43 of a second, time itself becomes quantised, that is it appears as discontinuous particles of time, for there is no way in which time can manifest in quantities less than 10 to the power -43 (the so called Planck time). For here the borrowed quantum energies distort the fabric of space turning it back upon itself. There time must have a stop. At such short intervals the energies available are enormous enough to create virtual black holes and wormholes in space-time, and at this level we have only a sea of quantum probabilities - the so called Quantum Foam. Contemporary physics suggests that through these virtual wormholes in space-time there are links with all time past and future, and through the virtual black holes even with parallel universes.
It must be somewhat above this level that our consciousness works, weaving probability waves into patterns and incarnating them in the receptive structure of our brains. Our being or spirit lives in this Quantum Foam, which is thus the Eternal Now, infinite in extent and a plenum of all possibilities. The patterns of everything that has been, that is now, and will come to be, exists latent in this quantum foam. Perhaps this is the realm though which the mystics stepped into timelessness, the eternal present, and sensed the omnipotence and omniscience of the spirit.
I believe that these exciting discoveries of modern physics could be the basis for a new view of consciousness and the way it is coupled to our physical nature in the brain. (Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of Quantum theory which puzzles amd mystifies contemporary physicists is the way in which their quantum description of matter requires that they recognise the consciousness of the observer as a factor in certain experiments. This enigma has caused not a few physicists to take an interest in spirituality especially inclining them to eastern traditions like Taoism or Buddhism, and in time I hope that perhaps even the hermetic traditions might prove worthy of their interest).
An important experiment carried out as recently as summer 1982 by the French physicist, Aspect, has unequivocally demonstrated the fact that physicists cannot get round the Uncertainty Principle and simultaneously determine the quantum states of particles, and confirmed that physicists cannot divorce the consciousness of the observer from the events observed. This experiment (in disproving the separabilty of quantum measurements) has confirmed what Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg were only able to philosophically debate over - that with quantum theory we have to leave behind our naive picture of reality as an intricate clockwork. We are challenged by quantum theory to build new ways in which to picture reality, a physics, moreover, in which consciousness plays a central role, in which the observer is inextricably interwoven in the fabric of reality.
In a sense it may now be possible to build a new model of quantum consciousness, compatible with contemporary physics and which allows a space for the inclusion of the hermetic idea of the spirit. It may well be that science has taken a long roundabout route through the reductionist determinism of the 19th century and returned to a more hermetic conception of our inner world.
In this short essay, incompletely argued though it may be, I hope I have at least presented some of the challenging ideas that lie behind the seeming negativity of our present age. For behind the hopelessness and despair of our times we stand on the brink of a great breakthrough to a new recognition of the vast spiritual depths which live within us all as human beings.