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Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness Excerpt from Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness

by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner

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Presenting the Enigma

Though what you're saying is correct, presenting this material to nonscientists is the intellectual equivalent of allowing children to play with loaded guns.
--A colleague's objection to our physics course, "The Quantum Enigma"

This is a controversial book. But nothing we say about quantum mechanics is controversial. The experimental results we report and our explanation of them with quantum theory are completely undisputed. It is the mystery these results imply beyond physics that is hotly disputed. For many physicists, this mystery, the quantum enigma, is best not talked about. It displays physics' encounter with consciousness. It's the skeleton in our closet.

One concern of physicists is that some people, seeing the solid science of physics linked with the mystery of the conscious mind, might become susceptible to all sorts of nonsense. We are sensitive to that problem and try to address it. Physicists can also be extremely uncomfortable with their discipline being involved with something so "unphysical."

Quantum theory is the most stunningly successful theory in all of science. Not a single one of its predictions has ever been wrong. Quantum mechanics has revolutionized our world. One-third of our economy depends on products based on it. However, this physics can look like mysticism. Quantum experiments display an enigma that challenges our classical worldview.

The worldview demanded by quantum theory is, to borrow the words of J. B. S. Haldane, not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. Most of us share commonsense intuitions that deny the implications of quantum theory. For example, is it not just common sense that one object cannot be in two distant places at once? And, surely, what happens here is not affected by what happens at the same time someplace very far away. And does it not go without saying that there is a real world "out there," whether or not we look at it? Quantum mechanics challenges each of these intuitions by having (conscious) observation actually create the physical reality observed.

This idea is so hard to accept that some soften it by saying that observation appears to create the observed reality. Most physicists exploring the foundations of quantum mechanics today decline to sidestep the enigma with semantics and rather face up to what Nature seems to be telling us -- though usually admitting that they don't fully understand it. After you see the archetypal quantum experiment you will be able to decide for yourself the extent to which the creation of reality by observation is just "apparent."

Since quantum theory works perfectly, for all practical purposes physicists can ignore -- even deny -- any mystery. But by doing so, we leave the aspects of the theory that most intrigue nonphysicists to misleading presentations such as, to take just a single example, the movie What the Bleep?  The real quantum enigma is not only more fascinating than the "philosophies" such treatments espouse, it is more bizarre. Understanding the true mystery requires a bit more mental effort, but it's well within the grasp of an intelligent nontechnical person.

The enigma we discuss is not just a way of looking at things, nor is it a new -- or ancient -- philosophical perspective. We describe straightforward physical phenomena that can be convincingly displayed to anyone. But with such demonstrations, we face an enigma that defies solution within our conventional worldview.

Though the quantum enigma has confronted physics for eight decades, it remains unresolved. It may well be that the particular expertise and talents of physicists do not uniquely qualify us for its comprehension. We physicists might therefore approach the problem with modesty -- though we find that hard.

At the boundary where solid physics peters out, interpreting what's going on is controversial among physicists who think about it seriously. That physics has encountered consciousness cannot be denied. The continuing discussion by physicists of the connection of consciousness with quantum mechanics displays that encounter. Most interpretations of quantum theory show how the encounter with consciousness need not become a relationship. However, no interpretation evades it.

Here is how physics Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner once put it:

When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.

Reprinted from the book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner; Copyright 2006 Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner; Permission granted by Oxford University Press; For more information please visit the publisher's website at

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