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Shantena Augusto Sabbadini’s View on Quantum Physics,
Consciousness, Perception, and Reality

By Pete.G, 04-19-2020

The spring of 2020 marked one of the bleakest periods in the West due to the spread of the Covid-19 virus. After seeing unprecedented events unfolding in front of our eyes, I feel we are heading into uncharted territory. It seems humanity is facing a crossroad: are we going to restore the old system or should we create a new system to embrace the new reality? In order to transcend this precarious state of affairs, maybe we should first ask ourselves what is reality really, how do we perceive reality, and how does consciousness influence our perception of reality? 

Courtesy:  Shantena Augusto Sabbadini

The person we turn to for an explanation is Shantena Augusto Sabbadini, an accomplished theoretical physicist who worked at the University of Milan and at the University of California in the 1970s’ and contributed to the first observation of a black hole. As a scientific consultant for the Eranos Foundation in the 1990s, he studied Chinese classics such as the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, the Chuang Tzu, and the Lieh Tzu and translated the texts into Italian and English. 

In this interview, Shantena shares his thoughts regarding current theories of quantum physics and observations derived from experiments. For example, he discusses what “reality” means in the context of quantum physics, whether we possess our own, private interpretation of reality, and if so how our various interpretations of reality can coexist. Shantena also chimes in with his views on consciousness which is a very difficult question for scientists to tackle. 

The world of quantum physics is mysterious and unpredictable and so opens the door to more philosophical musings. Shantena’s linking of quantum physics with ancient Chinese philosophy, such as Taoism and the I Ching, is ingenious and thought provoking. During this time of self-quarantine, his profound words and ideas give us much to think about.

Q: In your recent article, entitled “Entanglement, Experiencing and Consciousness”, you wrote: “Quantum physics… forces us to include mind or consciousness in our description of the physical universe.” If you don’t mind, please elaborate on this subject and how quantum physics differs from classical physics when it comes to the interpretation of “reality”.

A: Classical physics is like physics viewed through the eye of God. All of reality is simultaneously present and in principle knowable. Whether we observe it or not is irrelevant. Observation simply amounts to an increase in information (for us). Things are as they are regardless of our knowing. Therefore, classical physics does not require interpretation. Quantum physics, on the contrary, does not assume that all of reality is simultaneously present: it shows us different (and incompatible!) aspects of reality depending on the type of observation we set up. Therefore the axiomatic structure of the theory cannot be formulated without mentioning the process of observation, and what ultimately defines a process of observation is that the von Neumann chain of interacting systems includes an observer. Therefore in a sense "reality" and "observer" are "entangled" in quantum physics...

Q: Please explain to us what quantum entanglement is and how it relates to the influence of consciousness on the physical world.

A: Entanglement (literally, not metaphorically like in the previous answer!) is a state of two quantum systems that cannot be separated into the product of the states of the two. Such a state of affairs implies that an observation performed on one of the systems instantaneously affects the expectation values of observations performed on the other system. Notice that the implication concerns expectation values (i.e. statistics of a number of measurements) not single measurements. This point is often misunderstood, leading to an apparent breach of special relativity (superluminous transmission of signals). There is no such breach: entanglement is indeed a non local phenomenon, but in a subtler sense. It should be noted also that all quantum interactions produce entanglement, so that the whole universe is a big entangled blob: we are actually entangled with everything else. Why don't we notice? Because the quantum coherence (the subtle correlations) representing the entanglement gets dispersed in the whole universe through interaction with other systems, amounting effectively to a decoherence. That is why performing entanglement experiments is so difficult: the interacting systems should interact only with each other and not with anything else (they are kept as isolated as possible in high vacuum tubes, etc.). Nevertheless they have been performed with remarkable success on distances of the order of kilometers.

Q: Where does consciousness exist? Most scientists state that consciousness arises from matter and without matter, there could be no consciousness. But you have stated that, essentially, mainstream scientists have it exactly backwards, that consciousness is primary.

A: David Chalmers has called consciousness "the hard problem". No doubt consciousness is a hard (probably insoluble) problem in the perspective of physicalism (the philosophy according to which consciousness arises from matter). No one has ever been able to explain how the perceived quality of the color red [for example] arises from a certain electromagnetic frequency (or a certain neural excitation, etc.). Therefore, it seems quite natural starting from the other end of the matter: after all our only truly primary experience is, indeed, experience, i.e. consciousness. But that's not an easy solution either. It leaves us to deal with the fact that in experience we find ourselves immersed in a world, which is a kosmos, not a chaos, i.e. our experience is inherently structured.  So I would say that structured experience, or consciousness/world, is primary.

Q: Given your view that consciousness is primary, what are your thoughts concerning Panpsychism (the view that all matter contains some amount of consciousness)?

A: I am quite sympathetic to panpsychism. One of my favorite hypotheses is that the interface between conscious agency and matter – I should correct myself right away: the locus of conscious agency within the structure of experience or the world as it appears in consciousness – is quantum indeterminacy. Now, quantum indeterminacy is everywhere. It is not evident everywhere, for reasons quite similar to those that hide entanglement on a macroscopic scale. But it is evident on a microscopic scale when we focus on the very small things that quantum physics describes, and it is evident on a macroscopic scale in a measuring apparatus, which is a specially designed device to amplify quantum effects. But, evident or not, quantum indeterminacy is everywhere. Now, the favorite hypothesis I was hinting at before is that there is another macroscopic phenomenon that reflects quantum indeterminacy beside quantum measurement, and that is life. Living systems are amplifiers of quantum indeterminacy. I have given some crude arguments to support such a thesis in my Pilgrimages book, but since then I found some much more thorough and mathematically precise arguments to that effect in quantum field theory of the brain (specially in the work of my friend Giuseppe Vitiello & friends). Therefore, yes, I don't mind calling myself a panpsychist. Not in the naive form of asking "is this rock conscious?" but yes, recognizing that in some sense consciousness is there also in the rock.

Q: What is trace forming interaction? Could you provide some examples from our daily life?

A: Every interaction is a trace forming interaction if you remember it. This sentence I just finished typing on my laptop is a trace forming interaction. In a double sense, at least: I remember typing it and the computer remembers what I have typed (hopefully). In our daily life we encounter only trace forming interactions. It is difficult to imagine an experience that leaves no traces at all. Maybe a dream completely forgotten? Then why is the notion of trace forming relevant in the context of the quantum measurement problem? Because in quantum physics complete forgetfulness is possible: see the quantum eraser experiment! But even that requires some qualification – and in any case in any normal, practically useful quantum measurement there are innumerable traces left behind: most significantly, from a philosophical point of view, in the brain of the experimenter!

Q: You seem to say that in the absence of observation, reality is unstructured and does not consist of individual objects that can be named. Further, the structured universe we perceive snaps into existence as soon as our senses measure and obtain information about it (e.g., the double-slit experiment). So two observers, viewing the same universe, might have different perceptions of that universe (e.g., vis qualia, “your red is my green”). And yet, the universe seems consistent between each and every one of us. If the perceived universe wasn’t consistent in its essential structure, how could we agree on anything and accomplish anything together? So our questions to you are: how can multiple perception-based constructions of the universe coexist? Or, if it is not a question of coexistence, then how can our constructions of the universe be so consistent?

A: This is a complex question, or actually various questions. I wouldn't say that in the absence of observation reality is completely unstructured. There is some structure connecting two successive observations even though that structure doesn't specify all that happens in between, e.g. no definite trajectory of the electron between the electron gun on the left and the photographic plate on the right. But definitely no individual objects that can be named: it's not a particle, not a wave, what is it? The lesson here, I believe, is the inadequacy of our representations of macroscopic reality when applied to the micro world. I don't think that quantum physics tells us that there is nothing there when we don't look. But whatever is there is not describable in our macro language (a "cloud of probability").

The other question concerns the consistency of our representations of reality, and this has two aspects: the consistency of the world as it appears to me and the consistency of the world as we intersubjectively share it. The first one is what I mean when I say that experience is structured. E.g., objects have a kind of persistence, they don't usually suddenly disappear. If I turn this chair around I can more or less predict what my experience of its back will be. Processes appear to take place in space and time in a more or less orderly way. All this is a structure of experience. So, we could take the words "world" and "matter" to be shorthand for "structure of experience" at the most basic level. Ultimately we can only talk about experience, we don't have access to anything else! But experience is structured and its structure is transparent: i.e. we don't see the structure, we just see "matter", we just see "world".

Intersubjective consistency is a more subtle issue. It is usually referred to as "Wigner's friend" because the problem was first formulated by Wigner. It is not obvious that Wigner and his friend, looking at the same system in a superposition of states, "collapse" the superposition in the same way.  In the no-collapse persistence of information theory the concordance of their perceptions is a theorem: once again, it is a consequence of the existence of a trace. To show that that is the case requires a bit of math, but it can be shown.

Q: You have identified the separation of “subject” and “object” as one of the doctrines of Taoism. Please explain how this separation relates to desire? Furthermore, how can one reach the state of “the gate of all wonders” as Laozi described?

A: The impossibility to cleanly separate subject and object is a doctrine of both eastern mysticism and quantum physics. But we do feel separate, we feel that we exist as this singular embodied being, this specific person. As such we are chronically incomplete and we are chronically longing for completion. That is the root cause of desire.

How to reach "the gate of all wonders"? Let me guess what Laozi would tell you: don't try to reach it, because you are already there. Feeling that you have to reach is desire, is a consequence of our sense of incompleteness, which in turn is a consequence of the illusion of separateness...

Q: Currently, you are the director of the Pari Center for New Learning. Please tell us more about this organization and any events that are coming up soon that our readers might be interested in?

A: The Pari Center for New Learning was founded in the year 2000 by David Peat, friend and student of David Bohm, and his wife Maureen. It is quite an unusual institution, situated in the small Tuscan village of Pari, a hilltop medieval village with a population of 300. The surroundings are typical Tuscan countryside, and jewels like Florence, Siena and the San Galgano abbey are a short drive away. The Center offers three or four major events a year, including two main conferences, and monthly videoconferences, virtual community gatherings and webinars. The topics cover a wide spectrum: science, art, spirit, community, etc. The main conferences planned for this year were "What Is Consciousness?" in June and "Multiple Universes'' in August-September. The first one we had to postpone to June 2021 due to the coronavirus, but we are still hoping to be able to offer the second one as planned. The Center is known and loved for its convivial and friendly atmosphere as much as for the high quality of its presentations. You can receive the trimestral virtual magazine Pari Perspective and enjoy a discount on all the Center's activities by becoming a Friend of the Pari Center. See the Pari Center website for further information.

Pari Center for New Learning

Courtesy:  Shantena Augusto Sabbadini

We thank Shantena for sharing his knowledge and his wisdom. If you are interested in learning more about these and other aspects of quantum physics and beyond, please feel free to contact the Pari Center for New Learning for their resources.
Shantena's website