Can Reality Set Us Free? The Puzzle of Complementarity
by Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University
We promised at the outset to explain the nature of reality by going to its very heart. To all appearances reality is dual. The objective world exists “out there” to be measured, but its existence is known only through subjective experience, which is “in here.” Both worlds need each other, and to be trapped in only one is unsatisfactory. The world turns into a dream only if you are conscious of your inner feelings, moods, sensations, and images. Yet if you rely only upon the physical world, you may wind up with meaningless data that don’t provide any link to what is truly important in everyday life. This point is easy enough to see, but joining the two worlds into wholeness isn’t easy.
Indeed, the task is so difficult that science proceeds as if it can exclude the mysterious, unreliable world “in here,” preferring measures of reality that can be reduced to quantifiable numbers. As a result, all of us have become used to balancing two versions of reality, and we do it almost without thinking. A summer day can be 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a fact, or it can be warm, which is a sensation. The two are not synonymous. “Warm” is a purely subjective statement, and it has no correlation to the thermometer. (After a subzero winter in Antarctica, 32 degrees F. feels warm, whereas compared to the inside of a volcano, 90 degrees F. is cool.)
Is there a way to join these two halves of reality? Most people aren’t concerned with such a question, but we posit that wholeness — seeing reality exactly for what it is — would set the human mind, and human life itself, free. The cosmos is a cold prison measured as meaningless data extracted from random events. To be human is to crave meaning, and yet intellectual honesty compels us not to accept easy answers. It is too easy, for example, to say that God created the universe, and since God loves us, the universe is our loving home. Such answers once sufficed, but four hundred years of scientific theories and data to back them up have swamped us. Overwhelmed by facts about the world “out there,” it is a struggle to give the world “in here” the validity it deserves.
Our trek to wholeness, as outlined in the first two posts, involves the quantum principle of complementarity, whose purpose is to make some of Nature’s seeming paradoxes compatible. (Please refer to the previous posts to see how this repair job on duality works.) Essentially, complementarity holds that opposites need each other — they cannot be complete in themselves without the other “half”. The classic example is the opposition of particle and wave, which look and act totally different but which are the inescapable reality of quanta. Complementarity is critical because it asserts that there is only one reality, and no matter how much it shifts its shape as we look from different perspectives, all the angles from which reality can be seen must ultimately fit together. This is comparable to all the tourist photos taken of the Grand Canyon. No matter how many there are, what time of day or night when they were taken, and irrespective of the million aspects of the canyon that were chosen, the whole collection of photos can’t depict different Grand Canyons — there is only one in the first place.
Unfortunately, things aren’t this simple when we substitute “reality” for “Grand Canyon,” because from the perspective of “in here” there is no proof that the external world exists independently of conscious awareness. At the same time, using only scientific data gathered “out there,” there is no proof of the subjective world, either. An MRI scan can show the brain centers for pain lighting up, yet if you ask someone “How much does your arthritis hurt today?” only their subjective report is valid. Even consciousness itself is only inferred by watching the brain light up. A brain scan is actually a very complicated version of those cartoons where a light bulb goes off when somebody, usually an egghead professor, has a bright idea. The light bulb can’t tell you what the bright idea actually is, and neither can an MRI.
Thus in order to see reality as a whole, we have to ask something incredibly basic: Why did creation split into subject and object in the first place? They are so wildly incompatible that this split has dogged and troubled humankind for centuries. Couldn’t God or the multiverse or random chance have come up with something much simpler, a reality that holds together properly? It doesn’t seem all that much to ask.
The two worlds “in here” and “out there” are either split for a reason or it just happened that way. If it just happened that way, fine. Science will go on, and so will subjective experience, and the two will uneasily meet somewhere in the brain. But if “in here” and “out there” are split for a reason, that’s a new story. There have been many versions of the story so far. In many cultures, there was once a Golden Age that was innocent, pure, and untroubled (in other words, whole) while now we live in a fallen age, and our separation from God or the gods has resulted in a fragmented world. Good is forced to come to terms with its opposite, evil, and therefore a reality of light and darkness envelops us. Needless, to say, such a story has not been satisfactory in a rational, scientific age. It persists as myth and religion, which billions of people still prefer to science.
We come closer to a rational story via complementarity, because when complementarity holds that opposites have a hidden unity at the limit of observation (revealed through mathematics), a complete view of quantum physics is satisfied. An opposite pair light wave and particle arise from the same source, and even if this source is beyond the five senses, lying in some invisible virtual domain, quantum mechanics can link the opposites and thus make every measurement turn out right. By extension, can we say the same about “in here” and “out there”? Do they spring from a common source?
Our answer is yes, and we point to the only source that could unite them, which is consciousness. The universal model for any experience needs three parts, commonly called the observer, the observed, and the process of observation. “Newton saw an apple” fits this model, as does “the collapse of the wave function produces a particle.” In the first case, the observer is named — Newton. In the second, the observer is implied. A great many physicists would balk, however, claiming that the collapse of the wave function doesn’t need an observer. It can happen even with automated experiments that carry out observations of the quantum system. It’s an objective event that occurs trillions of times throughout the cosmos, like countless other events (colliding hydrogen atoms, exploding stars, protons getting sucked into black holes) that came along before observers ever existed.
But this argument, which seems so common-sensical, is fallacious. The principle of complementarity tells us that “in here” and “out there” aren’t just compatible; they are necessary to each other, intertwined aspects of the whole. You can’t have one without the other. Grasping this fact is hard. Classical Western science, from the ancient Greeks through Newton and beyond, was based on atoms, molecules, and other physical “stuff” that exists on its own. But just as there cannot be particles without waves; “out there” needs consciousness, “in here.” This is a participatory universe, and leaving the participant out cannot be valid. In a fundamental sense, the universe is human, because we aren’t just isolated observers like kids pressing their noses to the window of a bakery shop. The three-part model needs all three parts: observer, observed, and process of observation.
Many thinkers have tried to wriggle out of this apparent trap, but without success. Our position is that their denial serves only to keep the human mind encaged, creating further and further problems for our collective and individual selves. We entitled this series of posts “Can Reality Set Us Free?” to underscore that by its very nature, the human mind is not limited, not even by its own short-sighted concepts. Boundaries and edges, the things that separate one thing from another, are always conceptual, manmade. Where does your body stop? From the everyday level of scale, your boundary is your skin. From the atomic level of scale you and the planet are linked — every atom in your body comes from water, earth, and air taken in from the planet. From this perspective, human beings don’t liver on the planet, we are the planet. Reality itself is a seamless flowing process where all phenomena are linked. There are no actual boundaries.
Likewise, what we call an event constitutes another manmade boundary. The universe is constantly bubbling at the quantum level. Where we live, this bubbling looks linear as event A leads to event B, what we call A causes B. However, at finer levels of bubbling, time emerges, which means that below that level, getting very near the source, the bubbles aren’t occurring in the realm of time.
But the most liberating boundary that anyone can break free of is the one that encircles the mind, like a fence around a corral, so that there is “my” mind and “your” mind (like two different horses inside the corral), and using a bigger fence, the “human” mind, which is so self-enclosed that outside the corral there is “no” mind. Several of the quantum pioneers, such as Planck and Schrödinger, had enough clarity to see that this boundary, too, is manmade. There is only one consciousness, in fact, and it must be basic to creation.
Reality, then, is boundless, immeasurable, and conscious. It cannot be otherwise if the three-part model and complementarity are correct, which has been demonstrated over and over. This is more than finicky wrangling among philosophers. The tracks of consciousness are apparent throughout creation, and what is more, when they appear, these tracks link up in analogous ways. It’s our position that the self-organizing nature of the universe is the most fundamental manifestation of consciousness (for more on these themes, see video by co-author Neil Theise.
In biology, it is undeniable that living things organize themselves, using DNA as the basic template. Adult horses create baby horses; horse livers create new liver cells; each cell sustains the process of eating, breathing, excreting, dividing, and so on. This self-organization depends on interacting with the environment using feedback loops that constantly promote survival. Being adaptable to their surroundings, horses can survive high in Montana or below sea level in Death Valley. A horse can run or stand still. It can be pregnant or not. These are massive changes of state, but the horse’s body adapts, all the way from the cellular to the molecular level. If a condition arises that makes adaptation impossible, such as a total absence of drinking water, the animal dies. It is quite astonishing how self-organization and feedback loops maintain balance at every level from biomolecules up through each cell, tissue, and organ to create the entire body.
The crucial factor here is allowing for order while keeping randomness in check. At every level of Nature there is always a limited degree of randomness when an orderly structure, from the atom to a full-gown Arabian stallion, interacts with its surroundings. Too much and there is no self-organization, just disorder. Too little, and the self-organization can’t change pattern to adapt when the environment changes. In other words, if a horse had only a fixed slow heartbeat, it couldn’t run, and if its heart raced uncontrollably, it would drop dead. But in a defined zone of “quenched disorder,” creative adaptations can take place, bubbling into existence and disappearing if adaptation is not required.
If we scrutinize a horse at various levels, we see atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, and finally the complete creature. But so far as Nature is concerned, there is only endless adaptation as one level retains its own integrity while meshing into the next level. Complementarity in biology is thus the relationship between each of these levels. Choosing one perspective excludes all others at the time of observation. Choose to look at the body at the everyday level, and you can’t see the cells. Go down to the molecular level, and cells vanish from view. But it is the sum of all these levels that are your body.
This dynamic stream of cooperation is the modern equivalent of the religious notion of the Great Chain of Being. That notion held that God seamlessly united every level of creation. In non-religious terms, we say that complex systems have organized themselves and then merge into even greater degrees of complexity. The fact that increasingly denser amounts of information can be so elegantly ordered from complex molecules to the human brain implies a mind that pervades the universe. It exists as never-ending feedback loops that provide balance, growth, and adaptability.
With this scheme in mind, it is possible to arrive at a meaningful universe. The attributes that we call human, actually pervade creation. Besides self-organization, there is evolution and unexpected creative leaps. We possess them because we are of the universe, not because we are particularly special and separate within the universe.
Our viewpoint isn’t likely to be persuasive to scientists who restrict themselves to reductionism, which by its nature examines only isolated segments of complex systems. But it’s one thing to study the function of the kidney or lung and quite another to claim that the rest of the body doesn’t count. The part cannot make a greater claim to reality than the whole. We live in fortunate times. The separate researches of countless scientists have arrived at such a sophisticated level that the interaction of complex systems has given rise to theories of complexity, and on the horizon there looms a General Theory of Complexity. We don’t know if that’s the name such a theory will take. What we do know is that the desire to know the whole of reality isn’t just a human quirk or poetic fancy. That there is only one reality is undeniable. We can choose to remain selective, approaching reality as boxes within boxes. Or we can set ourselves free by throwing out boxes, boundaries, and limitations of all sorts.
As the uniting factor that sets us free, “consciousness” is a term that is repugnant to many scientists — mostly from an older generation — and mysterious to all. But that doesn’t excuse blindness and neglect. Reality keeps doing its thing, totally conscious of us while we keep evolving to become more conscious of it. That’s been the story for many centuries. Evolution isn’t going to stop; our hope is that it can be sped up, for the good of all.