Quantum Physics and Poetry – Reflections
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you.” —Werner Heisenberg. 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, “for the creation of quantum mechanics.”
The great scientific contribution in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory.” —Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, 1958
“All of us living beings belong together in as much as we are all in reality sides or aspects of one single being, which may perhaps in western terminology be called God while in the Upanishads its name is Brahman.” —Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel Prize for Physics, 1933; My View of the World (95)
“The general notions about human understanding… which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, 1954 Oxford UP (8-9)
“For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory… [we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tsu have been confronted.” —Niels Bohr, Foundations of Quantum Physics II (20)
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” —Max Planck, theoretical physicist (1858–1947)
After having had a class in high school in world religions in which I had done all of the reading, East and West, the scriptures of all of the major world religions, as a young poet I read George B. Leonard’s book The Transformation: A Guide to the Inevitable Changes in Humankind, in 1972, when it first came out. He was the vice-president of the Esalen Institute and one of the most articulate and far-sighted persons in the then-emerging human potential movement on the West Coast. It’s not an exaggeration to say I devoured his book, reading and rereading it. Unfortunately, Leonard’s book has perhaps somewhat fallen off the map, but it still speaks insightfully to the core problems of today, the need for a new sense of human consciousness on this planet. Following Leonard’s citations, I branched into Alan Watts, Carlos Castenada, Buckminster Fuller, Ram Dass, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indries Shah, Rumi and Attar, and others basically open and universal in outlook, especially the many books by Arnold Toynbee and Huston Smith, the latter beginning in the early years of the 1970s. Leonard also introduced me to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Quantum Mechanics, and ever more into Leonard’s general openness to the East and to new conceptions of what is human, all of which I found myself still grappling with more than thirty-five years later, when I wrote my epic poem The Parliament of Poets. Leonard sums up The Transformation when he writes, “The time is overdue for the emergence of a new vision of human and social destiny and being.” We are now in the full flood of that time.
Similarly, Ervin Laszlo, long recognized as one of the most thoughtful and perceptive voices of the new consciousness movement, has written that many people are increasingly experiencing and awakening to a shift in consciousness, to “a subtle sense that we have lost touch with ourselves, and with the world” and that “we are in a race with time.” “We either make it together, or we may not make it at all.”
Having continued studying the Old and New Testaments and Islam with formal study in each at the University of Michigan, I came to feel that the traditional conception of religion, grounded in exclusivism, has become much of the problem, East and West, while the value of the way we actually live, mixed and poured together, especially in democratic pluralism, too often receives insufficient recognition by what purports to be “religion.” Quantum Physics intimates a whole new way of understanding “religion” that can help heal the psychic wounds of modernity.
Part of our current problem, of our cultural moment, given the extreme degree to which we’ve become so fragmented, is that much of the culture, especially the academy, insufficiently understands its own claim of exclusive truth, its own meta-narrative, so locked in has the time become to various forms of exclusivism based in nihilism, if not atheism, that it is closed off to any type of spirituality, including even what Quantum Physics suggests, and so nihilism has not only Western civilization in a death grip but much of the world.
Broadly, much of the university, especially the humanities, to the extent that its vision of life entails nihilism, cynicism, endless formalisms, Marxism, frivolity, which cannot be questioned, but are held in sacrosanct exclusive possession of the truth, usually justified with vague to perfunctory, knee-jerk allusions to the Enlightenment, as though that settled all of the profound human questions that people have asked throughout the ages for the rest of eternity, constitutes and represents the dehumanization of our time, i.e., both the traditional religions and nihilism are ironically sinking in the same boat.
Traditionally, “real religion” was always defined in terms of exclusivism, the challenge now is to realize that in a world of Quantum Physics “real religion,” ipso facto, can only be defined in terms of universality, which is why the proponents of exclusivism who still cling to the old forms, whether “religion” or “secular,” continue to lose ground, while the torch has passed to other hands, though often not informed to the same degree historically and culturally, which creates its own type of problematic fragmentation, yet seeking what’s open, universal, beyond the old limitations that have created all the trouble in the first place.
The Greeks and other ancients wrote and recorded scientific discoveries in poetry because they believed it was the best language in which to convey the implications, often of unity and oneness, in terms of a universe composed of atoms, which is also partly my thinking behind writing, The Parliament of Poets, because it is the best language with which to grapple with the implications of Quantum Physics. Similarly, I’d argue, the great Sufi poets realized there were things which can be said best only with the tongue of poetry…
The global confrontation with the mode of thinking in the old exclusive forms impels our Age to come to terms with resolving the negative baggage of modernity, of the Enlightenment, in a way that is both intellectually and spiritually satisfying and acceptable to people, broadly speaking, ideally, from all walks of life and points of view, traditional and secular, East and West. I believe Quantum Physics now makes that possible.
While not formulaic, I think it’s the imaginative and artistic exploration of what the meaning and implications of Quantum might be, for human consciousness and otherwise, that can help us understand the problematic dimensions of the traditional claims to exclusivism, in a more universal, moderate, peaceful, and scientific framework. Equally, the problematic dimensions of science become Scientism needs to confront the spiritual implications of its own research in the fullness of the cultural perspective with which only the humanities and traditional religions can suffuse, enrich, and enliven it, with a new understanding of our common humanity, implicit in Quantum Physics, which can be brought to fruition and the attention of the general populace by the cooperative efforts of both humanists and scientists, understanding now the seriousness, necessity, and urgency of resolving the conflict between the “two cultures.”
In The Transformation George Leonard has a very choice quotation from the astronaut Neil Armstrong, from a dinner party conversation his daughter had had once with the first man to walk on the moon, looking back at Mother Earth, words I have remembered and reflected on for decades and try to honor in my epic, like a story around a campfire:
“I want to tell you one thing. When I first looked back and saw the earth there in space, something happened to me.” And then, in a lower more intense voice, “I’ll never be the same.”
Such experiences of “I’ll never be the same” constitute the bedrock of what it means to be human, life after life, exploring it, widening the individual’s consciousness and deepening the possibilities of our own self-understanding as a species on this planet, suggesting who we are and ways to save ourselves during this time of ongoing global crisis and transformation.