Deepak Chopra and Intent

Deepak Chopra and Intent

Can Reality Set Us Free? The Puzzle of Complementarity

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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


It sounds distressing to be trapped in perpetual illusion.  Reality is reassuring – or it’s supposed to be – and victims of a mental disorder like schizophrenia struggle desperately to get back there.  So does Neo, the hero of The Matrix, who joins the rebels to fight against the ultimate illusion, an all-enveloping, three-dimensional, hallucination forced on the population as a computer program so that artificial intelligence can exploit them for fuel. Physicists had more than a mild reason to be intrigued.  The quantum revolution did the same job that Neo tries to do, defeating a whole host of illusions imposed by the five senses. But outside the movies, it turns out that people fight just as hard to keep the illusion intact. Security, even as an illusion, is a hard thing to shake.


It’s innocuous to keep referring to “sunrise” and “sunset” when we know full well that it’s the Earth that moves around the sun or, more precisely, they are both in constant motion relative to each other.  There’s no bother about saying, “I dropped my book on the floor,” even though according to physics, gravity is a two-way street. Your eyes tell you that your book fell to the floor because the floor is your frame of reference.  If the book is the still point of your frame of reference, it is the floor that meets the book. And if a wider frame encloses your view (from the vintage point of the whole solar system, for example), then the book and our planet move toward each other.

Our compromise with the five senses keeps in place a wrap-around, twenty-four seven, three-dimensional illusion. This is the real Matrix. The major reason for not fighting to get out of our willed illusion is that life runs smoothly and safely enough inside the bubble.  The name of some quantum discoveries, like the Uncertainty Principle, is enough to induce faint queasiness.  But incrementally, the quantum worldview has overturned so many aspects of the physical world that by now, quite literally, nothing we casually take to be real actually is. Solid objects aren’t solid; time doesn’t move in a straight line; cause and effect have become unhinged; 96% of the universe is supposedly composed of dark matter and dark energy, which are totally unlike ordinary matter and energy – and so on.


It isn’t even clear that quantum physics will remain a satisfactory model for reality, especially on the “dark” side.  Although its mathematical basis has proved remarkably accurate, once you reach the border where time and space disappear into the quantum vacuum, physics becomes remarkably speculative (i.e., divorced from direct experimental evidence).  The public hears about impressively arcane theories of superstrings and the multiverse while inside the game, theoretical physicists wonder if these theories aren’t just one illusion competing for acceptance against another. The pitfalls of theology, where any notion of God can succeed if enough people believe in it, aren’t that far away, and yet science prides itself on being the very opposite of theology.

We’ve offered this fairly long introduction in order to pose a simple question that will be confronted in a series of posts: If we are trapped inside a convincing illusion, can reality set us free? Do we want it to? “Freedom” is a very human word. It’s the opposite of enslavement. In this case, if we are all enslaved, our oppressors are familiar things we live with so naturally (the five senses, rationality, the solid physical world, the passage of time from past to future) that the tables have turned. Being real feels threatening; enslavement is comforting.  Who wants to adapt to unfiltered reality if it means  life in a phantom world of invisible energy fields, unpredictable events, and shadows that wink in and out of existence?

We will argue that however threatening, reality is the only thing that can lead to a higher state of freedom. No one is being asked to leap into the domain of quarks and hadrons, which would be physically impossible to begin with. Instead, we are proposing that certain fundamental principles, originally uncovered by quantum physics, are not confined to the quantum domain. They are operating here and now at the level of life all around us and in fact everywhere.  There aren’t two independent realities, one arcane and quantum, the other familiar and comforting. There is only one reality, and being our home, it must be understood fully, with all its implications for everyday life.

The first principle we’ll deal with is known as complementarity, one of the rocks that quantum physics was built on.  Among many other things, complementarity tells a physicist why two particles separated by vast distances in space manage to act instantaneously together, as if they were next to each other, communicating with each other. By implication this seemingly technical term also applies to two neurons talking to each other far apart in the human brain, and indeed to all biological systems. If that’s true, as we believe it is, then an esoteric aspect of quantum reality holds the key to the reality you experience every time you have a thought, wish, fear, desire, or dream.


Duality and complementarity

Complementarity unites the apparent division that lies at the core of reality.  Complementarity though is not division. The opposites appear to be irreconcilable but they depend, as we will see, on the specific ways we observe them. As limits of observations are exhausted, or as “horizons of knowledge” are reached, the complementary pairs emerge, each member of the pair being necessary to complete the whole.

This division is expressed as wave and particle, two behaviors that are fundamental in treating quanta, the tiny bits of matter-energy that we thought were tiny solid particles.  When a photon, the quantum of light, is behaving like a wave, it has no precise location in time and space, but when the wave function collapses, to use physics jargon, a photon behaves like a particle with a specific location and measurable properties.  This sounds like a technical distinction, but there is no doubt that both behaviors are necessary for a complete understanding of the universe.  The problem is that the two behaviors make photons – and all other quanta – shape shifters. They “decide” or “choose” to be one way or the other depending on the decisions of the observer (you or a quantum physicist) about how to view it.  This concept is deeply disconcerting to anyone, including Einstein, who wants reality to be stable and consistent.  The key to complementarity is to understand that whichever choice of viewing is made, some aspects of what is viewed will be hidden; at the same time, a reality of the object observed comprises both sets of characteristics, the seen and the unseen.  So, if you design an experiment to display the wave-like properties of light, you will see light behave as a wave; choose the other way and the light will reveal itself to be discrete particles of energy.  Any specific view leaves something out; all views together comprise the totality of what is.  We observers are, however, never able to see or experience that totality “all at once.”

The fact that the universe is unavoidably dual means that it is both visible and invisible, for example; things are present before our eyes (and scientific instruments) but, until examined, dwell in a twilight, virtual state completely out of sight, neither this nor that, but both. In some sense, certainty coexists with uncertainty, a situation as unsettling as telling someone that their future is both predetermined and subject to free will.  Particle-like and wave-like behaviors are inextricably connected and must be inherent in any world description. This is where complementarity comes in, to allow duality to perform its function while not losing the whole picture (much as a father might separate two bickering children by saying, “Stop fighting. Remember, whatever your differences, you’re part of the same family.”).

To a working physicist, complementarity comes down to measuring the quantum world in such a way that it can be understood in the ordinary world.  The standard formulation of quantum mechanics, known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, made complementarity essential, as common sense tells us it must be. The two ways of measuring a photon, for example, must complement each other, and when added together, any way of measuring a phenomenon, if it is valid, must mathematically fit every other valid way.  This is far more than a kiss-and-make-up approach, because there exist quantum behaviors so weird and “spooky” (to use Einstein’s term) that everyday perception cannot accept them.   Two particles that act like twins even though separated by billions of light years, reverse causation that moves backward, quantum tunneling (which allows a particle to move from point A to point B without covering the space in between), and the possibility of ignoring cause and effect altogether, are prime examples. The fact that complementarity can bring these behaviors into the realm of experience, what we call classical Newtonian physics, depends almost completely upon mathematical coherence. The thinking mind can’t grasp them otherwise.

Or can it? Our position is that if complementarity links the quantum world and the classical world, the two are actually connected. Not just mathematics but real experience should verify this fact.  It hardly seems adequate to say, in effect, “This quantum weirdness works out in complex equations, but forget it when you’re talking about the world around us.”  Denying complementarity to everyday experience lets duality win the game and in some sense everyone, ultimately, loses.  The numbers point to an underlying unity, but as we walk the streets and live our lives, nothing could be more removed than quantum behavior. As it happens, complementarity plays a pivotal role in showing how short-sighted such a view is. We can examine how a generalized complementarity principle might in the future be developed, allowing opposites such as the pairs below, to stand against each other, in order to produce a more complete picture of the entire reality:

Predetermined versus Open to choice

Caused versus Causeless

Potential versus Actual

Invisible versus Visible

Unmanifest versus Manifest

Random versus Purposeful

Meaningless versus Meaningful

As much as it irks physicists when their specialty is intruded upon with ordinary language, these labels describe the dualities that puzzle quantum theory and at the same time impinge on everyday life.  Imagine that you are asked to see an ostrich in your mind’s eye.  At the moment you are asked, followed by the moment when you see the ostrich, each of these dualities comes into play.

Predetermined versus Open to choice

All the processes happening in our brain are connected by the laws of chemistry and electromagnetism to each other, and since those laws are inflexible, every brain activity should be predetermined. Yet obviously “ostrich” is a word chosen through free will, as is your decision to see an ostrich in your mind’s eye, or not.

Caused versus Causeless

If you do see an ostrich, the request from someone else caused you to. But if you ignore the request, it caused nothing.  What made you decide one way or the other? There may be no reason at all (causeless) or you might be irritated to be interrupted in what you were doing (caused).

Potential versus Actual

When you bring up the image of an ostrich in your mind’s eye, it actually exists. But before you brought it up, it was merely a potential, residing somewhere “else”, out of sight. Where is that place? We call it memory, but neuroscience has never found a physical trace of the memories we turn into images at a moment’s notice.

Invisible versus Visible

This is another trait of memories, that they move automatically from the invisible to the visible, even though we don’t go anywhere or knowingly do anything physical to retrieve them.

Unmanifest versus Manifest

Once an ostrich appears in our mind’s eye, there is activity in the visual cortex, but there is no brain activity associated with having a memory, storing it, or organizing it while in storage.  The process of manifestation depends upon the unmanifest, yet no physical link has ever been found.

Random versus Purposeful

Being asked to imagine an ostrich could be a random choice, or there could be a reason behind it. Until you ask, it lingers in both realms.

Meaningless versus Meaningful

The whole affair of imagining ostriches could be whimsical – any other bird would do – or you might be kicked by an escaped ostrich form the zoo tomorrow, which suggests a hidden but meaningful link, the kind we call synchronicity.

It’s obvious that these opposites are necessary to each other, in real life as in physics. You cannot choose only one of the pair and stubbornly exclude the other.  In fact, one implies the other. Which one you choose depends on how you are participating in an event and how you choose to look at it. That’s exactly what the Copenhagen Interpretation said. However, the Copenhagen Interpretation still assumed two worlds, one classical and one quantum. Evolved versions of what is now standard quantum theory went a step further, implying a quantum world that appears to be made of different level of reality. Yet as established as complementarity is in modern physics, its implications are hotly resisted in many quarters. An artificial wall is placed between the quantum and classical worlds, under the following rule: Phenomena in quantum mechanics are unrelated to macro events in the everyday world.  Yet this is clearly not the case. The quantum world needs our participation, and the everyday world needs to incorporate quantum principles.

Getting real is the name of the game, as we’ll discuss more fully in the next post.

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

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), co author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

 Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

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