Theory of Everything (II)
I've written before about how fascinating and bewildering I find modern astro-physics, with its Pullman-esque talk of multiple dimensions and even multiple universes. I admire the incredible ambition, and optimism, of modern physicists, with their eager search for a 'theory of everything', which will combine quantum mechanics with quantum physics, and will finally explain the entire physical universe - from the very big, like black holes, to the very small, like sub-atomic particles.
What sends me off into a reverie about such investigations is the thought that such theories really could be a 'theory of everything' - that's to say, they could incorporate the human mind, and how it relates to the universe. Imagine, a physical theory of the universe that also explained consciousness, that healed the split between mind and matter that we have lived with since Descartes' great critique of the animist and alchemist world view. Imagine a theory where we could once again say, as the alchemists of old did - as above, so below. As in the universe, as in the atom, so in the human mind.
Today, I went to a conference organized by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Scientific and Medical Network, where a psychologist tried to do just this.
Professor Harold Walach, from the University of Northampton's psychology department, was trying to explain why some forms of complementary medicine, such as spiritual healing, homeopathy, Reiki or even distant healing, seemed to work. Was it because of some 'energy' being transmitted from the healer to the patient? If so, what is this energy, where does it come from, why can't we measure it or fit it into any of our working models of physics?
Walach proposed a rather different model to explain complementary medicine. He calls it Generalized Entanglement, or Non-Locality, which is an idea he took from Quantum Physics. I'm a complete beginner when it comes to all things Quantum, but from what I understand, non-locality is the discovery, which has apparently been proven by John Bell in 1961, that two particles can affect each other, to the extent that you can accurately predict how one is behaving by how another is behaving, even if they are great distances apart.
There is a correspondence between the particles, which defies the principle of locality of conventional relativity theory, which says that for one particle to affect another particle they have to be sufficiently near each other to have a causal impact.
Walach connected this mind-bending idea of non-locality to Carl Jung's equally-mindbending theory of synchronicity - which is an attempt to explain the weird coincidences which occur to us all the time, which we can't really explain. Why is it we think of someone one moment, and just the next bump into them at a party? Why do we dream of a white horse, and then see one the next morning? Why do adverts on the Tube sometimes seem to comment with weird appropriateness on our inner thoughts?
Synchronicity is an a-causal way of explaining why such uncanny correspondences happen. They don't necessarily happen, Jung suggests, because of mechanistic causes, because A pushesd B. They happen because all things are connected in the moment, all things are weaved together in the Universal Mind - both our consciousness, and external events. Events reflect our consciousness, and in turn our consciousness is shaped by events.
Walach suggested we could use this idea of non-locality to explain why, for example, healers could heal patients without touching them, even at great distances. They establish a correspondence, a non-local link, between them, which means what happens to one also happens to the other. So a healer generates a positive mental state in themselves, and this mental state is mysteriously and non-locally transferred to the patient.
I was wondering, while he explained this idea, what quantum and astro-physicists would make of it - some physicists are quite clear that their theories only apply to the physical world, and it's dangerous to start applying them to human behaviour.
As it happens, sitting behind me in the audience was professor Bernard Carr, one of the great living experts on relativity and the universe, who I recognized from the BBC 4 show about the Theory of Everything which I watched a few months ago. I also heard him speak on the In Our Time show about multiple universes last year.
After the talk, I went up and asked him what he thought - could the principle of non-locality or other aspects of quantum physics be applied to the human mind. Could we build a true 'Theory of Everything'?
His answer surprised me. He said: "That's exactly what I've been trying to find. At the moment, physicists say they are looking for a Theory of Everything, but actually they're just looking for physics theories. A true Theory of Everything would not just explain the physical universe, but consciousness as well."
So what did he think of Walach's application of non-locality to complementary medicine. "Non-locality is a very interesting principle. It can be explained in two different ways. One way to explain it is that, somehow, there is an instantaneous transmission of information between the two particles that are connected non-locally, so that if something happens to one of them, it is instantly transmitted and communicated to the other particle, no matter how far away it is. The other theory is that there is no causal link, so transmission of information, there is just a formal relationship or correspondence between the two particles. Walach seemed to believe the second of these theories - that non-locality is a-causal, so there is no transmission of information between the healer and the patient."
Professor Carr said that he, by contrast, was inclined to believe that there was such a transmission of information during non-locality, so obviously there is a causal link.
Let's take a couple of examples - two rather freaky psychic events that occurred to me in the last two weeks. The first was this Saturday evening. I was in a pub in Camden, watching the football, and struck up a conversation with another person at my table, who turned out to be an exile from Zimbabwe, who was complaining bitterly about how the country had gone to the dogs. Meanwhile, my brother was in a Chinese restaurant in Gerrard Street, where the person sitting next to him happened to strike up a conversation. He turned out to be an exile from South Africa, who was complaining bitterly about how his former country was going to the dogs.
These two conversations, seemingly related and connected yet without a possible causal link, were going on at the same time, though my brother and I didn't know about it until Sunday, when we described our previous evenings. You could interpret this as an example of synchronicity, of some a-causal principle of non-local correspondence occuring between my brother and I. It wasn't that there was a transmission of information between me or him. There was simply a weird correspondence.
On the other hand, a week before, I was in a store shopping, and I suddenly thought about buying a brown leather jacket. I'd never thought about buying one before, but I suddenly decided it would suit me, and thought about buying one. Then I went to dinner with my parents, and my mum brought out a brown leather jacket which she had seen earlier that day in a charity store and bought for me. You could explain this coincidence as the first explanation of
non-locality - there was a non-local transmission of information from my mother's mind to mine, which made me think of brown leather jackets.
Professor Carr, who was the president of the Society of Psychical Research for many years, believes that many paranormal phenomena can be explained along these lines. He says: "I believe we can explain both consciousness and quantum physics as being united in a higher dimension, a dimension of information, where all information is connected, sort of like a matrix."
I am at risk of misquoting Carr - this sort of talk is way beyond my scientific comprehension. But his theory is not so far fetched. I don't find the idea of non-local psychic connections unbelievable at all. In fact, I think most of us have experienced clear examples of it. And the best explanation for it, and for the quantum theory of non-locality, is that there is some kind of dimension, or field, where both minds and particles are interconnected and capable of transmitting information instantaneously.
Here's an article about a conference on physics and psychics that Carr organized, and here's a Flash tutorial that explains the principle of non-locality rather better than I can. Carr says he is publishing his theory for the first time in the next issue of the Journal of Psychic Research. Should be a fascinating read.