Monday, March 26, 2012

Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Consciousness: An Integrated Framework for Further Inquiry Into a Unified Theory

---by Robert Arvay

This written work is put forth by an interested layman who has no formal training in physics. It is therefore only a conceptual treatment of the subject. It offers an approach to the further investigation of a unified theory. It proposes that Einstein was correct in his suspicion that quantum theory is incomplete, in that it lacks an essential ingredient to explain seemingly random events. But what is that missing ingredient?

The missing ingredient involves an explanation of the phenomenon of consciousness, and the perception of free will, which play a vital role in the collapse of quantum probability waves.

This new approach disagrees with Einstein’s purely deterministic view of physics. Neither rigid determinism, nor pure probability, nor any combination of these two, explains physical reality.


Before Einstein explained gravity as a curvature of space, the prevailing view had long been that of Isaac Newton. In Newtonian physics, gravity was an unseen force, acting at a distance. Newton had no specific explanation of what this unseen force was. But the mathematics of his theory were precise enough to predict the motions of the planets, and so his theory of gravitation became accepted as scientific law.

Many years later, Einstein developed a more precise theory. Gravity, he said, is not a mysterious force acting at a distance, but rather, due to the fact that material objects bend the space around them. Granted, this is a difficult idea, but it is confirmed by mathematics and observation, and gives more accurate predictions than Newton did. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity will hereafter be abbreviated as GR theory, or just GR.

Then a few years later, along came something called Quantum Mechanics (alternatively called quantum theory or quantum physics). We shall abbreviate it as QM.

QM did not replace, nor even demote, Einstein’s GR. Quantum theorists continue to accept GR as scientifically valid, and numerous scientific experiments have consistently validated Einstein’s GR theory.

But there is one aspect of QM that Einstein could never accept, to his dying day. That aspect is quantum probability. Objecting to the idea of pure chance in physics, Einstein is famously misquoted as having said that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Although those were not his exact words, they are close enough to what he meant that we should not deign to correct the misquote.

We shall explore in further detail this concept of quantum probability. But first, we must mention one more thing that Einstein objected to in QM. As a direct consequence of QM, there are certain conditions under which one subatomic particle can instantly affect another, paired particle, no matter how far apart the two particles are. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.” (He was probably being sarcastic, but then, how would I know?) This reminds us of the "force acting at a distance," in Newtonian gravity theory, which GR had already replaced, or at least, demoted.

As things stand today, physicists are confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, GR is a firmly established theory that explains the physics of the visible world, the physics of large objects. On the other hand, QM does an equally good job of explaining the physics of subatomic particles, the physics of the very small.

But the problem is that when physicists try to combine these two theories into one, they cannot. The math does not work. Like oil and water, QM and GR do not mix. It’s as if physicists were gangster accountants, keeping two different sets of books (a QM book and a GR book), and never allowing them to present the same financial statement.

Physicists are not, of course, gangsters. Their gang wars are usually confined to stately debates at professional seminars, although one might notice discreetly placed violin cases here and there.

Seriously, the inability to combine QM and GR is a major setback in the quest for a Unified Theory of Physics, usually referred to as the long sought after, Theory of Everything.

So what does one do when the recipe calls for oil and water? Surely, one must consider adding a third ingredient to make the other two compatible.


You have probably heard of probability. I would say that the chances are higher than ninety-nine point three percent that you have. But there is also a strong likelihood that you have some basic misunderstandings about probability and chance.

These misunderstandings often come about because probability is sometimes counter-intuitive. The seemingly, obviously right answer to a probability test question can sometimes be very wrong. Indeed, I once saw (published) a disagreement among highly trained mathematicians over the best strategy on a TV game show that involved guessing behind which of three closed doors was the valued prize. Most of the trained mathematicians got it wrong, and had to be persuaded by careful explanation that they were mistaken. (Okay, okay, I got it wrong, too.)

In order to avoid misunderstandings, let us begin by showing that there are two kinds of random (or chance) events. One kind is what we shall call true randomness, or pure randomness. The other kind is fake randomness, or pseudo-randomness. (I prefer to use the term, pseudo-random, since it gives the false impression that I am smarter than I really am.)

It is important to know why a pseudo-random event differs from a truly random event. So here is why. A pseudo-random event is one that is unpredictable, but only because we lack enough information to make a reliable prediction. One example is to guess (without cheating) what is the top card in a shuffled deck. With no more information than that the deck is a 52-card poker deck, we can guess that the top card is the three of clubs, and we can expect to have one chance in 52 of being correct. But that is not a truly random chance. Here is why.

Most people think of a shuffled deck of cards as being randomly arranged. But they think wrong. Because something that is truly random is unpredictable, no matter how much information we have. For example, if we could carefully watch a videotape of a new deck of cards being shuffled, we could, if the video gave us all the available information, accurately discern which card ended up on top. It was the six of diamonds. See there?

The difference is that quantum randomness, according to QM theory, is not pseudo-random. It is purely random. Here is an example. An unstable atom of radioactive Uranium has a tendency to decay into a more stable isotope. The moment of that decay is unpredictable, regardless of the amount of information one may have leading up to the event. (Although, the pure probability of predicting correctly can be calculated according to the rules of statistics.)

In other words, the quantum deck of cards is very unlike the deck of cards in which we previously found the six of diamonds on top. Once the quantum deck is shuffled, we might expect the cards to be in a specific arrangement, an arrangement that depends on how the deck was shuffled.

But not so! According to quantum theory, the top card in the deck can be any card, even if we have cheated and looked. Imagine our surprise when we again say that the top card is the six of diamonds (because we had that information in hand), and then turned it over to discover that it is the ten of hearts. Our previous information was irrelevant. What mattered was the timing of the turn of the card. We could even place the ten of hearts deliberately on top, face down, then turn it up again, and as if by magic, that card is now the jack of spades, purely by chance.

This explanation of quantum probability is why Einstein did not believe that quantum physicists are playing with a full deck.

Cause and Effect

Einstein, like Newton, was a firm believer in cause and effect. Briefly stated, the principle of cause and effect states that everything that happens, happens because something caused it to happen. Event B occurred because event A occurred. Event A caused event B. Event B can always be traced back to its specific cause (if we have enough information). Event B does not just happen for no reason. Here is a complicated diagram that explains it:

Event A ---> Event B

QM theorists will partly agree. Indeed, event B does not just happen for no reason. Cause and effect are not violated, because there was a cause. But this is where it gets murky. Event A, the cause of event B was nothing that one can put his finger on. The cause was quantum probability. But the murkiness is that, if it were somehow possible to go back in time and reproduce the events leading up to event B, then event B probably would not happen in the same time frame. Otherwise, it would not be pure probability.

Here is another way of saying it. If event B is caused by event A, then event A was also caused by something, let’s call it event Z.

Event Z --> Event A --> Event B

If event B is the decay of a particular atom at a particular moment, and if the preceding event is event A, a purely random and murky event, then what caused event A? Was it an event Z? And if so, was there an event Y? How far back can we trace a sequence of events leading to the decay of that particular atom at that particular moment? Here is an even more complicated diagram. Try to keep up.

Event Y --> Event Z --> Event A --> Event B

That is why quantum probability is murky. Because, as I understand it, quantum probability does not account for a chain of causation prior to the actual quantum event itself. There is nothing specific that caused the quantum decay to occur, except for this mathematical abstraction that has no physical properties, and which cannot be traced further back. One final diagram to explain it:

---> Event B

Einstein declared that, therefore, quantum mechanics is missing something. It is an incomplete theory that makes useful interpretations of observed reality. But this idea that something could happen without a specific determinative cause, violated Einstein’s intuition that reality is deterministic.

Einstein was right. But he was also wrong. Let’s see why.

Collapse of Probability

Werner Heisenberg is probably best remembered for his contributions to QM. (Although others may remember him for his wild parties, if he had any.) He was the author of a very important theory known as the Uncertainty Principle. He called it this, not because he was unsure what the principle is, but because it involves an inherent uncertainty that is built into physical reality.

Very briefly, Heisenberg described the electron as being not a point particle, but as a probability wave which, when it is measured by a conscious observer, collapses into a point particle. The exact place into which it collapses will be a random point, with an extremely high likelihood of being near the center of the wave, but which could be literally anywhere.

Once again, the quantum principle of pure probability is involved. And once again, Einstein would object.

But here is where I, a mere layman, whose meager thought processes pale before the mighty intellectual giants of physics (I may sound sarcastic, but I am not. I am being painfully blunt about an obvious fact, and trying to be cheeky enough to save what little face I can)--- here is where I will attempt to fill in the missing ingredient that Einstein knew all along was there somewhere.

Quantum physicists have in many repeatable experiments validated that the concept of mind over matter is actually a physical reality, at least in certain ways. The famous double slit experiment demonstrates that the very act of observing photons influences how they behave. This is so astounding, once one sees the experiment done, that it is almost, to use one of Einstein’s words, “spooky.” Come on, now. How do photons “know” that someone is watching them, and why would they then change their behavior? It does not seem possible, and QM does not explain it.

Many have attempted to explain the behavior of photons in the experiment by saying that the act of observing them causes some sort of disturbance, sort of like the way a speedometer slows down your car, except more so.

But these explanations have been found to be untrue. There is no apparent mechanism by which the photons in a double slit experiment change their behavior when observed. They just do.

So we are left with these questions, and so far, no announced scientific inquiry into them.

That is where I come in. I have nothing to lose. My credibility is already zero, and I have no standing, no prestige, and no tenure inquisition to face. I am as free as the wind across an open meadow in springtime … well, you get the idea.

Life, Consciousness and the Perception of Free Will are Not Happenstance, But Foundational

My proposition is that the factor that QM identifies as true randomness is connected to a foundational principle in physics that, once understood, also explains life, consciousness and the perception of free will.

What to call that foundational principle is best left to others, preferably those with an upcoming tenure inquisition and their personal reputations at stake. Why should they get a free ride?

Okay, enough of that. Let’s get serious (although some may scoff that my idea is not worthy of serious consideration, to which I reply, yeah, well they laughed at --- well, he’s not such a good example. Never mind).

Let’s speak in turn about each of these three foundational principles.


Conventional physics, most notably biochemistry, regards life as a sort of byproduct of nature, a sort of accident arising from some very unlikely coincidences. And indeed, probability seems to tell us that given an infinite set of possibilities in an infinitely vast nature, that everything that can happen, must and will happen.

But that assumes that nature is predicated upon true probability. It denies that there is some underlying, as yet undetected or unmeasured, natural principle of the universe that regulates the parameters of probability.

Yet if one were to restrict oneself to the observed facts, that assumption must surely be challenged. For that assumption carries within itself some fatal flaws. For one, it draws no parameters around the possible. And if just anything is possible, then the grandest scale of reality is reduced to an infinite kaleidoscope of absurdities, with one or a few localized regions that seem to make sense to us, but only momentarily.

If we refrain from speculating about purely random possibilities, and restrict ourselves to the observed facts, what we find is a universe that seems to make sense on its grandest scale. There seems to be some organizing principle, a hierarchical structure arising from that principle, and the ability of sentient creatures to discover and understand, in increments, that principle.

Therefore, life itself has a place in that grand principle. The parameters of the universe, if not purely random, seem clearly designed to support not only life, but a technologically, highly advanced civilization that can explore the nature that gives rise to it.


In a hypothetical universe, it is possible that life could arise without consciousness. But could that hypothetical universe exist if there were no conscious perception of it? At the very most, if one accepts QM, it would seem that such a universe could exist only in an indefinite state of probability, a universe of potentials never realized.

But what is consciousness? It is at once the most familiar experience we have, and at the same time, the most mysterious. Indeed, consciousness defines us. Cogito ergo sum. Yeah, you too, buddy.

One wit has said that physicists could explain the universe much more completely if there were no physicists to explain it.

Most theories of consciousness, from the purely materialist viewpoint, state that consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems. This to me sounds like the kind of words I use when I am trying to sound smarter than I really am. Precisely what is an emergent property apart from the conscious perception of such a property? (It is what separates a pile of rubble from a house, a purely subjective distinction.) Precisely what is a complex system, again, apart from conscious and subjective distinctions?

Instead of trying to define consciousness as a byproduct, indeed an unnecessary byproduct, of physics, it seems more reasonable to propose that consciousness is part of the organizing principle of the universe, a foundational reality of nature. That would provide a much more reasonable basis for the apparent organization of the universe than would an assumption that it’s all random chance.

Free Will

Although strict materialists deny that there is any such thing as free will, such an assertion flies in the face of our perceptions. One might as easily deny consciousness. Denial of free will is certainly a denial of free inquiry, and is thus a complete repudiation of reason and science.

Free will is said not to exist because, if it does, it introduces into physics an apparent denial of causation. A working definition of free will is the ability, within parameters, of an autonomous, sovereign individual to volitionally set in motion an event that is caused neither by random nor by deterministic antecedents.

Physics has no framework for allowing an individual to do this. Therefore, according to physics, we are all helpless puppets on a cosmic string, doing all and only what we are forced to do by blind, indifferent forces of nature.

But if quantum physics can postulate random causations in nature that have no traceable antecedent sequence of causation, it seems hardly revolutionary to suggest that the hidden factors to which Einstein alluded might not be random at all, but rather, might stem from an underlying organizational principle of life, consciousness and free will.

One consequence of such an assertion is that the organizing principle is itself alive, conscious and volitional, and that it has a plan and purpose for nature, and a meaning for our lives.