Book Review and comment.

The Dancing Wu Li Masters
Gary Zukav
William Morrow (hardcover), New York, 1979.
Bantam New Age (paperback), New York, 1980 (337 pp.).
$6.99 in paperback.

The Cosmic Code
Heinz R. Pagels
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1982. (Out of print)

Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics
Nick Herbert
Anchor Books, New York, 1985 (268 pp.).
$11.95 in paperback.

Reviewed by
Ross Rhodes

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Philosophy & Physics

A World With A View

Just over the horizon

(With a Bow to the Scriptures)

Ross Rhodes

This article is available as a "virtual narrative," courtesy of

A world view is the sum total of one's knowledge and beliefs. We all operate from some particular world view, regardless of whether we give it much thought. We plan for tomorrow because, in our world view, tomorrow will come. This puts us at odds with St. Paul, but so we are. A world view encompasses both knowledge (daily observations and scientific lore) and beliefs (religious doctrine and theology), and as religious beliefs are reduced in importance, or substituted with the quasi-religious beliefs of atheism or agnosticism, a more or less comprehensive world view can emerge from observables only. Newton's Principia, which systematized observation and cast it into mathematical form, may be said to have represented an overall world view for many generations of Europeans: The universe runs like clockwork; every action has an equal and opposite reaction; bodies exert a force of gravity which pulls other bodies to them; and so on. Once the universe has been wound up or otherwise set in motion, it continues according to the predictable effects of the forces at play, so that there is no need for any divine intervention or other magic to make the sun rise, the winds blow, the rains fall, or to cause any other natural phenomenon.

Beginning in the 1960s and extending at least through the 1980s, there were attempts in the physics community to reexamine the world view commonly held in the West, at least insofar as it was based on understandings of the natural world that had been discredited and superseded by closer observation of nature and advances in scientific theory. In 1976, a series of seminars were held at the Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California, and subsequently several primers on quantum mechanics were written with the specific goal of explaining why quantum mechanics should cause us to reexamine our view of reality. Three of these primers are reviewed here. Gary Zukav, Heinz Pagels, and Nick Herbert separately published works with the ambitious goals of first conveying the facts developed by physicists between approximately 1900 and 1982, and then considering the implications of those facts. Zukav, a self-confessed liberal arts major, made the biggest spash with The Dancing Wu Li Masters in 1979. Heinz Pagels, a physicist with Rockefeller University and Director of the New York Academy of Sciences, was next with The Cosmic Code in 1982. Nick Herbert, professor, working physicist, the most closely associated with Esalen, weighed in with Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics in 1985.

The inadequacy of a world view based solely on Newtonian principles had become obvious in the early part of this century, when the clockwork model of the cosmos was undermined by its own touchstone of observation. Simply put, observation did not agree with Newtonian mechanics or predictions. To account for the differences, two radical theories were developed -- quantum mechanics and general relativity. Although either of these theories might have led to a revolutionary change in the consensus world view, they do not appear to have done so. Einstein's remark may be generalized to humanity's world view in the era of quantum mechanics and relativity: Everything has changed except our way of thinking. In part, this reflects a sense that it would be premature to advocate for a new and different world view while there remain areas of physics which are not fully understood. Much of the effort in contemporary theoretical physics is directed to formulating a single description of nature that will encompass both quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Such a "theory of everything" should be simpler and, therefore, more comprehensible than its predecessors and, accordingly, this quest is the current great hope for truly revolutionizing humanity's world view. When it arrives, we will begin to think of things as they really are, rather than how they appear to our five unaided senses. Or so it is hoped.

The concepts that need to be incorporated into any new world view are truly difficult, given a simple faith in the clockwork universe of Newton which most of us continue to use as a model. Quantum mechanics deals with scientifically demonstrable facts that seem to contradict everything we see around us, everything we believe. Perhaps most striking is the relationship of all things to the math: the mathematical formulas that were initially developed to describe the behavior of universe turn out to govern the behavior of the universe. That is, if the math can be manipulated to produce some absurd result, it will always turn out that the matter and energy all around us actually behave in exactly that absurd manner when we look closely enough. As Nick Herbert puts it, "Whatever the math does on paper, the quantumstuff does in the outside world." It is as though you could create a good offense in a football game -- send the tight end racing down the sidelines and across the goal line -- by changing the numbers on the scoreboard. We are accustomed to thinking that the scoreboard describes and tallies the action on the field; in this analogy, we find that the action on the field isproduced by the changing numbers on the scoreboard. And this does not make any sense to us, because in our world view the numbers are just symbols representing something with independent existence.

One striking aspect of our world which illustrates the preeminence of the math is that of non-locality. Non-locality is, to the physicist, virtually synonymous with magic. According to common sense, and to physicists from Newton to Einstein, all causes and effects are local. If I want to affect a billiard ball at the far side of the table, I first have to hit a billiard ball locally on my side of the table to send it traveling toward the target ball; when the traveling ball hits the target ball, I then will have affected the target. The cause and effect of my first shot was local -- the impact of my cue on the cue ball. The cause and effect of the two balls hitting at the far end of the table was also local, since the balls were right next to each other when they bumped. This is locality. Anything else is magic. Here, common sense is reinforced by the theory of relativity, which proclaims it to be a law of the universe that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Even if our actions on earth cause some ripple to go forth at the speed of light, it cannot affect anything on the nearest star for at least four years or so, because that is how long it would take for the fastest thing in the universe (light) to travel from the Earth to the nearest star and bump into something at that end. Nevertheless, regardless of common sense or physical theory, it appears that under certain circumstances an action here on earth can have immediate consequences across the world, or on another star, or clear across the universe. There is no transfer of energy or information at any speed, only an action here and a consequence there.

Non-locality for certain quantum events was theorized in the 1930s as a consequence of the math. Many years were wasted (by Einstein, among others) arguing that such a result was absurd and could not happen regardless of what the math said. In the 1960s, the theory was given a rigorous mathematical treatment by John S. Bell. In the 1970s and '80s, the phenomenon was demonstrated, based on statistical measurements analyzed according to Bell's theorem. In 1999, it appears to have been demonstrated by direct measurements. The experimentalists in the laboratory once again have shown that where the math can be manipulated to produce an absurd result, the matter and energy all around us obligingly behave in exactly that absurd manner. In the case of non-locality, the behavior is uncomfortably close to magic.

More than any of the bizarre quantum phenomena previously observed, the demonstration of non-locality gave rise to a spate of serious speculations in the 1980s on the question, "What is reality?" The question had been nagging since the 1920s, but had always been a sidestep away from confrontation with our world view. Now, the feeling was that if our side of the universe could affect the other side of the universe, those two widely separated places must be somehow connected. Alternative explanations necessarily involved faster-than-light signals and seemed far too contrived for most scientists' tastes. Accordingly, it was fair to ask whether the apparent separations in space and time were fundamentally "real"; or whether, instead, they were somehow an illusion, masking a deeper reality in which all things are one, sitting right on top of each other, always connected one to another and to all. This sounds suspiciously like mysticism, and the similarity of scientific and mystical concepts led to some attempts to import Eastern philosophy into Western science.

In The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav undertook a comprehensive review of quantum behaviors along predominantly Western lines, but within a "framework" of Buddhist concepts. "Wu Li" is introduced as the Chinese expression used in Taiwan for "physics," and is translated principally as "patterns of organic energy". The interlaced bits of Buddhist philosophy do not distract from the excellent narrative that has made Zukav's book a classic of clear exposition of quantum developments; but neither do they furnish more than a hint of what might underlie the known science. Zukav suggests that our world view must probably change to accomodate the discoveries of physics and, from the title he has chosen, one assumes that he has something Eastern in mind. He does not, however, provide any comprehensive world view to substitute. Despite occasional appeals to Buddhist maxims in the attempt to describe the indescribable, the thrust of Wu Li Masters is toward a rational, which is to say Western, explanation. Unfortunately for Zukav and for the rest of us, this is an explanation which has not yet emerged.

In Quantum Reality, Nick Herbert opens with the lament, "One of the curious features of modern physics is that in spite of its overwhelming practical success in explaining a vast range of physical phenomena from quark to quasar, it fails to give us a single metaphor for how the universe actually works." Indeed, Werner Heisenberg, one of the original theorists of quantum mechanics, went so far as to suggest that we should "abandon all attempts to construct perceptual models of atomic processes." To show why this is so, Herbert methodically catalogues the bizarre behaviors of quantum mechanics without suggesting what underlies these behvaiors. Herbert has a sure instinct for explaining the facts of the laboratory results, and for contrasting these with what we would expect based on our experience, our world view. The result is to give the reader a good grasp of why quantum mechanics is important for our world view, and why our world view must change: because it happens that our world view is demonstrably wrong.

Like Zukav, Herbert does not seriously attempt to offer a clear vision of the world that is consistent with the reality of quantum behaviors. Instead, Quantum Reality offers a menu, with choices taken from different theoretical vantage points. In two chapters, Herbert rounds up the evidence and arguments for no fewer than eight versions of "quantum reality," ranging from the neo-realist insistence that the world is made of ordinary objects regardless of whether we have difficulties measuring them, to the drop-back-and-punt version of the positivists that "there is no deep reality." It may come as a surprise to those who have not followed the conventional wisdom of physics for the past seventy years or so, but the odds-on favorite is the punt: there is no deep reality.

It is seldom sufficient to read just one book on quantum mechanics, no matter how lucid. In The Cosmic Code, Heinz Pagels analogizes to a child who, having learned from school or parent a new concept in principle, immediately reverts to an old, incorrect understanding when faced with a real life situation and having to deal with it. The lesson appears to have been lost. "Coming to grips with quantum reality is like that. After you think you have grasped it and some picture of quantum reality forms in your mind, you immediately revert back to the old, classical way of thinking." The Cosmic Code is an excellent choice for a third foray into the nature of the universe as understood from the basic quantum behaviors observed by science. Though now out of print, you may catch a copy at a good library. Mr. Pagels had a knack for clear explanation exceeded only, perhaps, by Mr. Herbert. But, faced with the task of summing up, Pagels, like Herbert, offers choices. He imagines a bazaar, where merchants of reality are hawking their visions, enticing customers with the exotic prospect of understanding the world from this or that perspective, as developed by different theoretical camps within the physics community. As with Herbert's reality menu, Pagels' tour of the reality bazaar leaves the reader without any sense of how to choose among the proffered world views.

The lack of direction is inevitable. There is no choice yet offered by science which stands out as appealing to human logic and intuition. All of the versions of quantum "reality" are bizarre and unappealing, and I would venture a guess that none will ever make the transition to high school lesson plans. The scientific community itself considers the work incomplete and conclusions premature -- witness the strenuous search for a "theory of everything" capable of tying up the few remaining loose ends on the laboratory side.

While physicists are entirely capable of accepting the most improbable conclusions as the truth, they do so, like Sherlock Holmes, only when all other, more intuitively appealing hypotheses have been ruled out as unequivocally impossible. Philosophers are not always so limited. The physicist Herbert observes that "most physicists agree that the results of measurements are truly real. Like ordinary people (but unlike some philosophers), physicists cannot deny the evidence of their senses." This simple faith in the reality of their own craft -- measurement and observation -- appears to be more predeliction than deduction. Nevertheless, if what physicists see is "real," then whatever is going on to produce the observations is either "not real" or is irrelevant to an empirical understanding of the universe. John R. Polkinghorne, who is both physicist and theologian, likens physicists to automobile mechanics who need to know the "how" without being concerned with the "why". Herbert echoes that "[m]ost physicists use quantum theory as mere recipe for calculating results and don't trouble themselves about 'reality.'"

These writers -- Zukav, Herbert and Pagels -- have made strenuous efforts to deal with the new understandings of physics within the broad framework of scientific traditions, but in the end they are not able to reconcile their basic scientific assumptions with the physics being described. They only suggest but do not follow a detour from science to philosophy, where paradoxes live.

The hope that a world view will emerge consistent with scientific observation, if not scientific tradition, is born of the common thread running through attempts to explain quantum theory. It is the math. As Mr. Herbert puts it, "Quantum theory is a method of representing quantumstuff mathematically: a model of the world executed in symbols." Since quantum theory describes the world perfectly -- so perfectly that its symbolic, mathematical predictions always prevail over physical insight -- the equivalence between quantum symbolism and universal reality must be more than an oddity: it must be the very nature of reality. The task for the Western rationalist is to find a mechanical model from our experience corresponding to a "world executed in symbols."

An example which literally fits this description is the computer simulation, which is a graphic representation created by executing programming code. The programming code itself consists of symbolic, mathematical formulas which are manipulated according to the various step by-step sequences (algorithms) by which the programming instructs the computer how to create the graphic representation. The picture presented on-screen to the user is a world executed in colored dots; the computer's programming is a world (the same world) executed in symbols. Anyone who has experienced a computer crash knows that the programming (good or bad) governs the picture, and not vice versa. All of this forms a remarkably tight analogy to the relationship between the quantum math on paper, and the behavior of the "quantumstuff" that comprises our world.

The non-locality which appears to be a basic feature of our world also finds an analogy in the same metaphor of a computer simulation. In terms of cosmology, the scientific question is, "How can two particles separated by half a universe be viewed as connected such that they interact as though they were right on top of each other?" If we analogize to a computer simulation, the question would be, "How can two pictures at the far corners of the screen be viewed as connected such that the distance between them is irrelevant?" And, in fact, the measured distance between any two pixels (dots) on the monitor's display turns out to be entirely irrelevant, since both are merely the products of calculations carried out in the bowels of the computer as directed by the programming. The pixels may be as widely separated as you like, but the programming generating them is forever embedded in the computer's memory in such a way that -- again speaking quite literally -- the very concept of separation in space and time have no meaning whatsoever for the stored information.

If the metaphor of the computer simulation fits with the scientific facts of quantum mechanics, can we create from it a world view to replace the clockwork universe of Newton? Specifically, as Christians can we create a world view consistent with both the scientific teachings of Western rationalism and our scriptural teachings? Such a synthesis may be easier than one might imagine: a complete world view at hand in the metaphor of the computer simulation.

If you were God, with limitless resources and power, how might you go about creating a world for your children? Surely, you would want to create a world over which you could keep a watchful eye; a world where you could hear your children's cries and respond as necessary. You would not be likely to send your children away, out of sight and out of mind, because, first, you would want them close at hand, and second, there is no Other into whose care you could or would entrust them. Best to keep them at home, preferably right on your desktop. A world where they could exercise their will and judgment without in any way affecting your plans for their future. A world where they could experience the joy and the pain of life and grow in wisdom, maturity, and strength of character -- where they could learn what it means to love and to be loved, to inflict pain and to be hurt, and to choose between these alternatives. A world where your children could be ultimately safe, no matter what happens. To accomplish all of this, you might consider letting your children romp in the image of a world. And so, you might go about creating the divine equivalent of a computer simulation.

Computer programming requires the use of a programming "language" in whatever form and, when understood in this light, it becomes possible to see the universe around us as the literal Word of God. There is, accordingly, a nice harmony between the world of quantum mechanics and the world of our Creator. This is to be expected, because the two descriptions -- one modern and one ancient -- are of the same world. It is all a matter of how we view it.

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