Physics and Consciousness
An abridged transcript from the THINKING ALLOWED Television Series
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove

JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Quantum Physics and Consciousness," and my guest, Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, is certainly an authority in this area. He's the author of several books, including Taking the Quantum Leap, which is a winner of the National Book Award; Star Wave, a book describing Fred's own theories about quantum physics and consciousness; and also The Body Quantum.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here, Fred. Let's talk about consciousness for a moment, because before we can talk about quantum physics and consciousness we need to start with a definition. What is consciousness to you, as a quantum physicist?

WOLF: Well, first let's talk about it in general -- not just as quantum physics, but what does it mean to be conscious? There are a thousand people writing books about consciousness, and not one of them really knows exactly what consciousness is. To tell you the truth, I don't know what it is either. So even though I've written several books about it and have been studying it for many, many years, to tell you exactly what consciousness is, is something that's beyond my grasp.

MISHLOVE: It's Goedel's theorem. A system can never understand or explain itself in any case.

WOLF: It's kind of like a mathematical theorem, or if you like, it's so much a part of ourselves that we can't recognize it. However, we shouldn't be so discouraged by such a remark as this, because in reality we don't know what anything is. If we ask, "What is this? What is that?" all you really do is try to describe how it behaves, or what it does, or what it looks like, or what it smells like, or what your sensation of it is. You really don't know what something intrinsically is. So it's really a philosophical question as to what consciousness could be, because that's the ultimate mystery. What I'm trying to describe, and what I've learned to describe, is what consciousness does.

MISHLOVE: All right. What does consciousness do, Fred?

WOLF: What does consciousness do?

MISHLOVE: It sounds like you were describing it in a way, when you said we try to discriminate, we try to understand what things are. That is what consciousness is about.

WOLF: The best way I can describe it is to speak of it in terms of some kind of huge metaphor, like an ocean of consciousness; or that consciousness is everything, it fills the universe. What it does I think is very interesting. Before quantum physics, people knew that human beings were conscious. We knew that animals were conscious. Some of the ancient traditions, particularly some of the Hindu traditions, or the Vedic traditions of ancient Indian religion, speak in terms of everything being conscious. Rocks are conscious; your thumbnail is conscious; the television cameras that are recording this show are conscious. So they speak about consciousness pervading everything. But with the twentieth century and with quantum physics, we began to see what might be called a new role for consciousness -- something that we know happens, but remained inexplicable until we began to realize that what we were talking about was the action of consciousness. So what I've been doing in my work is talking about something I call fundamental acts of consciousness. I call them FACS -- please forgive the pun. What is a fundamental act of consciousness? It's an action in which something is perceived. Now, in ordinary physics, or in ordinary physiology, or in most of the classical realms of science, perception is something which is taken to be outside the realm of physicality. In other words, if you perceive something, you know that you see something. Light will strike your retina; you'll get an idea, or something will pop off in your brain, or something of that sort. But we never got the notion that somehow the act of seeing something was affecting what you were seeing or what you were looking at. But in quantum physics we've learned that when you're looking at very small objects, subatomic particles for example, the very action of looking at them disturbs them to such an extent that we never really get a complete picture as to what they actually are. Now, this has led me to think that consciousness may be at the core of this problem as to how perception can affect and change reality, and that maybe what we're doing when we're thinking or feeling or sensing or even listening to a conversation is using this action of consciousness, this fundamental act, which sort of what I call pops the qwiff -- that suddenly alters the physical reality of, say, the human body.

MISHLOVE: In other words, in subatomic physics, if I want to look at a particle, I literally have to touch it. I have to bounce a photon or something off of it in order to do that. What you're suggesting is that consciousness acts in this way; it touches the things that it perceives.

WOLF: That's right.

MISHLOVE: It almost becomes one with them, merges with them a little bit, in the process of perceiving.

WOLF: Right. The way I kind of look at it is that consciousness is a huge oceanic wave that washes through everything, and it has ripples and vibrations in it.When there are acts of consciousness, the wave turns into bubbles at that moment, it just turns into froth...

MISHLOVE: And this is your whole point, that we're composed of this stuff. We're composed of this frothy little ocean. If we could see ourselves under an electronic microscope, it's about all we'd look like, I suppose....

WOLF: What I'm getting at, is that possibly we can't really address the question of what consciousness is, if we purely look at it in its objective, causal framework.

MISHLOVE: You're a physicist, and a theoretical quantum physicist. And when we get to that level of quantum physics, it seems as though the mechanical notions of the universe break down completely. Everything's fuzzy, it's frothy, it's foamy, it's probability waves. Doesn't that sort of seem to be like consciousness?

WOLF: Well, let me quote from Newton about this, even though we're talking quantum physics. Literally, I feel like a child at a seashore, when it comes to seeing where quantum physics is pointing. I feel like we're on the verge of a gigantic discovery -- maybe the nature of God, maybe the nature of the human spirit. Something of that sort is going to emerge from this, because our normal notions -- in fact the notions upon which we think science makes any sense at all, the notions of space and time and matter -- they just are breaking down, they're just falling apart, like tissue paper before our eyes. Wet tissue paper; it isn't even good tissue paper. It doesn't hold anything up anymore. So we're beginning to see that -- for example, in classical physics the idea that the past influences the presence is pretty normal. Everybody says, "Oh, of course."

MISHLOVE: One-way causality.

WOLF: One-way causality. Everybody says, "Oh yeah, naturally." I mean, that's what Newton said, that's what they all say. OK, but there's another notion. What about the future influencing the present? Is such an idea just an idea that comes about through parapsychology, or through mystical insight? Quantum physics says no, it says that definitely there is a real mathematical basis for saying actions in the future can have an effect on the probability patterns that exist in the present. In other words, what takes places now, what choices are being made right now, may not be as free to you as you think they are. To you it may seem uncertain -- well, I'll do this or I'll do that. But if you realized that what you did in the future is having an effect now, then it wouldn't be as obvious. So it's hard to talk about it because the future's yet to come, right?...

MISHLOVE: Isn't that interesting?

WOLF: We need to recreate the past. I mentioned this in an article I wrote about time, saying that the past is not fixed, that there's no absolute past. I'm sure there are events that we would all agree on. For example, we could agree on the Nazi Holocaust. OK, fine, but can we agree on what was going on in the German mind during the Nazi Holocaust? Can we agree on what was going on in our minds when we were ten years old? I mean, can we really come to grips and say, "OK, when I was ten years old I was really this bubbling kid, or I was just --"

MISHLOVE: But now there's a difference between interpreting the past and creating it, and I think as a physicist you're talking about creation here, aren't you?

WOLF: I'm talking about that interpretation is equivalent to creation -- that there really is no fixed, solid past, and that when you go back and look at the past, what you're doing is making an interpretation which will best rationalize the present position you're now holding.

WOLF: Yes. You can't really do that. So what you can do, is you can create that past so that it serves your purposes now. In other words, that past is not fixed. It's not an absolute past. In physics we have the principle called the principle of uncertainty, or the principle of indeterminism. And that principle says that you can't specify the movement of an object through space and its position in space simultaneously. You can't say both...  because according to quantum physics you can't say where every little particle is, at exactly the same time.

MISHLOVE: And that's all we have in the now.

WOLF: And that's all we have in the now, is that constant creation of whatever happened in the past. You know, George Orwell realized this was true when he wrote 1984. He was trying to wake us up to the fact that yes, we are controlling the past....

MISHLOVE: Well, are you suggesting at a deeper level that reality changes, or are we just looking at the changes of the mind?

WOLF: Yes. I'm saying that the reality changes. I'm saying that what was real in that past has actually been created by the minds of today, and what's being written down is modifying and changing that. It is 1984. It's very subtle, ...

MISHLOVE: Would you say that they'd realize that we are each other? 

WOLF:  Ultimately that is the great vision -- to recognize that everything is one. There's just one basic being, one basic consciousness, of which we're all parts in some mysterious way -- but not in the simplified way of "You go your way, I go my way, and I don't care what you do, you don't care what I do, as long as we go our separate ways, everything's hunky-dory." It doesn't work that way. If we go our separate ways on a round planet, we're bound to clash as we come around the other side, right? No matter what direction you go off in, you're going to come back together. 

MISHLOVE: I think you're talking about something more than a round planet. You're talking about quantum interconnectedness here.

WOLF: I'm talking about global consciousness. I'm talking about the fact that what one being does in some way affects everybody on the whole planet. It's not just separate beings all going their own ways. We are interconnected in ways that are very subtle and not easy to appreciate.

MISHLOVE: That's your basic sense of consciousness.

WOLF: That's my basic sense of it, yes. And it goes beyond that, by the way. It goes off into space too. I mean, everything is basically consciousness.

MISHLOVE: I gather from what you're saying that you would therefore see your world view as very compatible with what parapsychologists are researching.

WOLF: I have no problem with what parapsychologists are researching at all, because what is parapsychology? Parapsychology is the workings of science in areas which are very difficult to test. It's called fringe areas. I work in fringe areas myself, so I understand the nature of the problem. It's difficult to test it, and it's difficult to objectify it because we're working on things which break the paradigms of normal mechanistic thinking. So we have to go beyond those paradigms if we're going to have any success at all. So I'm very much a supporter of anything which gives people a new vision of how the universe works....
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