Fred Alan Wolf: Physics and Consciousness
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Quantum Physics and Consciousness," and my guest, Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, is certainly an authority in this area. He's the author of several books, including Taking the Quantum Leap, which is a winner of the National Book Award; Star Wave, a book describing Fred's own theories about quantum physics and consciousness; and also The Body Quantum. Fred, welcome to the program.
FRED ALAN WOLF, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeffrey. It's really a pleasure to be here and see you again.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here, Fred. Let's talk about consciousness for a moment, because before we can talk about quantum physics and consciousness we need to start with a definition. What is consciousness to you, as a quantum physicist?
WOLF: Well, first let's talk about it in general -- not just as quantum physics, but what does it mean to be conscious? Just in coming to the studio, I happened to be going through a big library, and I was looking at all the books and all the titles on consciousness. I pulled one out and looked to see what he had to say; he didn't get it. I pull another one out; this doesn't get it. There are a thousand people writing books about consciousness, and not one of them really knows exactly what consciousness is. To tell you the truth, I don't know what it is either. So even though I've written several books about it and have been studying it for many, many years, to tell you exactly what consciousness is, is something that's beyond my grasp.
MISHLOVE: It's Goedel's theorem. A system can never understand or explain itself in any case.
WOLF: It's kind of like a mathematical theorem, or if you like, it's so much a part of ourselves that we can't recognize it. We can laugh about it, we can joke about it, but to really find out exactly what it is, is very difficult to do. However, we shouldn't be so discouraged by such a remark as this, because in reality we don't know what anything is. If we ask, "What is this? What is that?" all you really do is try to describe how it behaves, or what it does, or what it looks like, or what it smells like, or what your sensation of it is. You really don't know what something intrinsically is. So it's really a philosophical question as to what consciousness could be, because that's the ultimate mystery. What I'm trying to describe, and what I've learned to describe, is what consciousness does. That may be a different issue, and may be something we could address and talk about.
MISHLOVE: All right. What does consciousness do, Fred?
WOLF: What does consciousness do?
MISHLOVE: It sounds like you were describing it in a way, when you said we try to discriminate, we try to understand what things are. That is what consciousness is about.
WOLF: The best way I can describe it is to speak of it in terms of some kind of huge metaphor, like an ocean of consciousness; or that consciousness is everything, it fills the universe. What it does I think is very interesting. Before quantum physics, people knew that human beings were conscious. We knew that animals were conscious. Some of the ancient traditions, particularly some of the Hindu traditions, or the Vedic traditions of ancient Indian religion, speak in terms of everything being conscious. Rocks are conscious; your thumbnail is conscious; the television cameras that are recording this show are conscious. So they speak about consciousness pervading everything. But with the twentieth century and with quantum physics, we began to see what might be called a new role for consciousness -- something that we know happens, but remained inexplicable until we began to realize that what we were talking about was the action of consciousness. So what I've been doing in my work is talking about something I call fundamental acts of consciousness. I call them FACS -- please forgive the pun. What is a fundamental act of consciousness? It's an action in which something is perceived. Now, in ordinary physics, or in ordinary physiology, or in most of the classical realms of science, perception is something which is taken to be outside the realm of physicality. In other words, if you perceive something, you know that you see something. Light will strike your retina; you'll get an idea, or something will pop off in your brain, or something of that sort. But we never got the notion that somehow the act of seeing something was affecting what you were seeing or what you were looking at. But in quantum physics we've learned that when you're looking at very small objects, subatomic particles for example, the very action of looking at them disturbs them to such an extent that we never really get a complete picture as to what they actually are. Now, this has led me to think that consciousness may be at the core of this problem as to how perception can affect and change reality, and that maybe what we're doing when we're thinking or feeling or sensing or even listening to a conversation is using this action of consciousness, this fundamental act, which sort of what I call pops the qwiff -- that suddenly alters the physical reality of, say, the human body.
MISHLOVE: In other words, in subatomic physics, if I want to look at a particle, I literally have to touch it. I have to bounce a photon or something off of it in order to do that. What you're suggesting is that consciousness acts in this way; it touches the things that it perceives.
WOLF: That's right.
MISHLOVE: It almost becomes one with them, merges with them a little bit, in the process of perceiving.
WOLF: Right. The way I kind of look at it is that consciousness is a huge oceanic wave that washes through everything, and it has ripples and vibrations in it. When there are acts of consciousness, the wave turns into bubbles at that moment, it just turns into froth.
MISHLOVE: It kind of reminds me of those Japanese woodcuts where you see the waves reaching out like fingers.
WOLF: Exactly, exactly. That's a good metaphor. It reaches out like fingers, and it's the action of those fingers that disrupts and alters the patterns of physicality that were previously arranged by the earlier acts of consciousness. In other words, there's a continuation of this movement. Each one is disruptive; each one is a little bit chaotic, so that things are never quite exactly the same as they were. There's like an ever-changing light show going on, a bubbly light show going on. I think this action takes place not only in our minds and our brains, but even at the level of the subatomic particles that make us up. In fact, that may be how the universe got created in the first place.
MISHLOVE: And this is your whole point, that we're composed of this stuff. We're composed of this frothy little ocean. If we could see ourselves under an electronic microscope, it's about all we'd look like, I suppose.
WOLF: Yes, it would be a rather bizarre looking light show, of things popping on and off, vanishing and reappearing, matter created out of nothing and then vanishing. And in that vanishing and creation, an electromagnetic signal is piped from one point to another point. That's really kind of an amazing description.
MISHLOVE: It's almost remarkable, when you talk about it that way, that I'm here looking at you and you look like a humanoid.
WOLF: Right, exactly. In fact there was one guy who tried to make a metaphor of that. He said, "Suppose I were to put you in a room, and put a wall between us, and all I could listen to was your voice, or better yet, no voice. All I could really do was read a computer readout coming through the wall, and I could ask you questions by typing them in to you, and then you'd feed them back to me. Could I ask you enough questions so that I could discern that what was behind the wall was a real human being and not a machine feeding you back data?"
WOLF: Interesting question. So the question is, you look at me, I look at you, and we say, "Ah, that must be a human being." But if we really wanted to get very Cartesian, like Descartes did, about everything, we might begin to say, "Well, how can I really know that that's a human being behind there? What kind of questions can I type out, or can I ask it, in order for it to feed me back and say, 'Ah, yes, I'm a human being just like you, Fred.'" But then the question is, "Is Fred a human being who's asking?" Maybe this is the robot talking to you, and you have to ask yourself the same kind of question.
MISHLOVE: You're getting at the nature of paradox here a little bit, aren't you?
WOLF: Yes, we're getting at the very nature of what consciousness is, really, in raising these humorous ways of looking at it. If we try to address it, I think, totally scientifically and totally objectively, I think we run into a real brick wall. Literally; it's that brick wall that's erected that keeps the person behind and you in front. In fact, if you start to address your own body as that kind of a thing, you say, "Ah, this is not a hand; this is a machine. Look, it does this, it does that."
MISHLOVE: A hundred and twenty-four joints.
WOLF: Exactly. We look at the articulation, we watch how the blood flows, we know the pressures in the heart, we know the atrium does this and that does this, and we know how -- mechanically, we can see it perfectly. But yet, something is missing in it all. Even if I try to make it as mechanically clear as possible, we know something's missing, and that thing that's missing is something we call consciousness.
MISHLOVE: Norman Cousins once talked about the body as being made of spiritual tissue. He was kind of getting at that angle.
WOLF: What I'm getting at, is that possibly we can't really address the question of what consciousness is, if we purely look at it in its objective, causal framework.
MISHLOVE: You're a physicist, and a theoretical quantum physicist. And when we get to that level of quantum physics, it seems as though the mechanical notions of the universe break down completely. Everything's fuzzy, it's frothy, it's foamy, it's probability waves. Doesn't that sort of seem to be like consciousness?
WOLF: Well, let me quote from Newton about this, even though we're talking quantum physics. Literally, I feel like a child at a seashore, when it comes to seeing where quantum physics is pointing. I feel like we're on the verge of a gigantic discovery -- maybe the nature of God, maybe the nature of the human spirit. Something of that sort is going to emerge from this, because our normal notions -- in fact the notions upon which we think science makes any sense at all, the notions of space and time and matter -- they just are breaking down, they're just falling apart, like tissue paper before our eyes. Wet tissue paper; it isn't even good tissue paper. It doesn't hold anything up anymore. So we're beginning to see that -- for example, in classical physics the idea that the past influences the presence is pretty normal. Everybody says, "Oh, of course."
MISHLOVE: One-way causality.
WOLF: One-way causality. Everybody says, "Oh yeah, naturally." I mean, that's what Newton said, that's what they all say. OK, but there's another notion. What about the future influencing the present? Is such an idea just an idea that comes about through parapsychology, or through mystical insight? Quantum physics says no, it says that definitely there is a real mathematical basis for saying actions in the future can have an effect on the probability patterns that exist in the present. In other words, what takes places now, what choices are being made right now, may not be as free to you as you think they are. To you it may seem uncertain -- well, I'll do this or I'll do that. But if you realized that what you did in the future is having an effect now, then it wouldn't be as obvious. So it's hard to talk about it because the future's yet to come, right?
MISHLOVE: Well, I was thinking about this today. I just saw a movie, one of these Back to the Future kind of things, Peggy Sue Got Married -- these visions of people traveling through time. And I thought to myself, if I were in touch with who I will be twenty, thirty years from now, if I had the insights today that I will have then, how would I do it? What would I do different today?
WOLF: Well, suppose you found out that you do have those insights, and you actually have them right now, but the problem is that we haven't developed our acuity for believing those insights as strongly as we have our acuity for believing the past. Most of us have made mistakes in the past, right? We're all schlemiels when it comes to the past: "Oh God, if I'd only done that differently in the past." OK, well, this is your opportunity to do it now in the future. And though it's in the future, you can envision something about yourself that's better than it is right now. In fact, I guess that's what positive thinking is really all about, isn't it? And if we can tune to that picture and visualize it, sort of get a clear picture as to what it is, it will propagate back to the present right now, and will affect the choices that you're going to make now, so that a lot of the struggle you have, having to deal with the past, will sort of vanish away.
MISHLOVE: In other words, if I hear you right, you're suggesting that we should kind of be talking and thinking to ourselves who we were twenty years ago, to make sure that we made the right decisions then, so we can be who our best self is right now.
WOLF: That's right, that's right.
MISHLOVE: Isn't that interesting?
WOLF: We need to recreate the past. I mentioned this in an article I wrote about time, saying that the past is not fixed, that there's no absolute past. I'm sure there are events that we would all agree on. For example, we could agree on the Nazi Holocaust. OK, fine, but can we agree on what was going on in the German mind during the Nazi Holocaust? Can we agree on what was going on in our minds when we were ten years old? I mean, can we really come to grips and say, "OK, when I was ten years old I was really this bubbling kid, or I was just --"
MISHLOVE: Do we know what goes on in Reagan's and Gorbachev's minds when they meet?
WOLF: Exactly. It's not so much what's going on in their minds, but do we really have a fix on saying that the events we write down now about what happened in the past were really those events? Obviously we're creating the past; obviously we're making choices now. And there are feelings involved.
MISHLOVE: But now there's a difference between interpreting the past and creating it, and I think as a physicist you're talking about creation here, aren't you?
WOLF: I'm talking about that interpretation is equivalent to creation -- that there really is no fixed, solid past, and that when you go back and look at the past, what you're doing is making an interpretation which will best rationalize the present position you're now holding.
MISHLOVE: When you say there is no fixed, solid past -- talk about that a little more, Fred. I mean, most of us have this notion that the past is -- you know, we woke up, we went to bed, we got in our car, we did distinct things.
WOLF: OK. I'm sure that one of our viewers probably had Chinese food on Tuesday evening, whatever month or day this happens to be. One viewer out there has had Chinese food, and that viewer, I'll talk to him for just a moment. So you had a little egg foo yung. All right. We have both agreed that you had egg foo yung on Tuesday evening. I can understand that. And maybe it wasn't the best egg foo yung for you; maybe it gave you a little heartburn. All right, so what? The fact is you had the egg foo yung, and you say you had the egg foo yung, and I say you had the egg foo yung, and you go to the restaurant, you ask the Chinese waiter, "Did I have egg foo yung?" and he says, "Oh, of course you had egg foo yung. You always order egg foo yung, Mr. Fu." All right, so that can be definitely pinned down and made clear, OK? Now, the question is not so much did I have egg foo yung or not; the question is, what was going on with that egg foo yung? In other words, what processes were taking place? What was I thinking about? How did that food integrate into my system? There are many, many millions of different processes that are going on. Can you actually go down and pinpoint every single one of those processes and say that happened, this happened, that happened? No, of course not. You can't even do that now.
MISHLOVE: Maybe I got a rash; maybe I got indigestion. Maybe I got a great insight while I was --
WOLF: Yes. You can't really do that. So what you can do, is you can create that past so that it serves your purposes now. In other words, that past is not fixed. It's not an absolute past. In physics we have the principle called the principle of uncertainty, or the principle of indeterminism. And that principle says that you can't specify the movement of an object through space and its position in space simultaneously. You can't say both. Now, if you were to try to say -- let's assume that the past exists, absolutely solid. The egg foo yung particles, Mr. Fu in the restaurant, Tuesday at eight o'clock precisely -- let's assume that that's all there. And let's go further. Let's go into Mr. Fu's stomach, and we're watching all the particles as they're jiggling along. Presumably they're all moving and doing weird little things. Electrons are jumping back and forth; particles of egg foo yung are getting down in the digestive system; the stomach is -- all that's going on. The brain is going: oh, I'm enjoying this, or not enjoying it. We have in our mind that somehow everything that's happening to Mr. Fu and his egg foo yung is totally determined, that there's nothing he can do about it. He's just sitting there eating his egg foo yung. It's like every particle has been decided; they're all following the various paths. It's all like some kind of great big machine. But it isn't that way, because according to quantum physics you can't say where every little particle is, at exactly the same time.
MISHLOVE: The billiard-ball vision of the universe breaks down completely.
WOLF: Totally breaks down. Therefore, how can we say exactly what is going on with Mr. Fu? Maybe he didn't have egg foo yung after all. Maybe he only remembers he had egg foo yung. Maybe what he really had was a shrimp pancake. What I'm trying to say is that his vision of what he ate, or what he did that moment ago, is actually a creation of his own mind now.
MISHLOVE: And that's all we have in the now.
WOLF: And that's all we have in the now, is that constant creation of whatever happened in the past. You know, George Orwell realized this was true when he wrote 1984. He was trying to wake us up to the fact that yes, we are controlling the past. Like for example, in 1945, 1944, the Japanese were the bad guys. If you were to ask a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American, a WASPA, what is a Japanese person, he would say he was a monkey; he would say he had long fingernails; he would say he doesn't speak very well; he would say he was a subhuman. And in that person's mind, that Japanese person was subhuman. Subhuman means not human -- I mean really a despicable character. It's now 1986, 1987, whatever year this is going to be on television, and now the Japanese are surpassing us in the production of automobiles, televisions, everything, right? And they're not subhuman at all.
MISHLOVE: So we would say that we were deluded back then.
WOLF: Exactly. We would wipe out that past: "Oh, we were totally wrong back there," right? That's what I'm trying to say -- that we are creating the past all the time. We're not going to go back now and make the Japanese the bad guys anymore. Who are the bad guys now? Ah, the Russians. Ten years ago the Chinese were the bad guys.
MISHLOVE: Well, are you suggesting at a deeper level that reality changes, or are we just looking at the changes of the mind?
WOLF: Yes. I'm saying that the reality changes. I'm saying that what was real in that past has actually been created by the minds of today, and what's being written down is modifying and changing that. It is 1984. It's very subtle, and it's not so blatantly obvious as the example I gave of Mr. Fu and the egg foo yung.
MISHLOVE: Or George Orwell.
WOLF: Or George Orwell. It isn't as blatant as that. But it's still a reality we have to live with.
MISHLOVE: How does this affect us, Fred?
WOLF: Well, we're in a kind of nuclear stalemate, holocaustic kind of reasoning right now. It's affecting us right now. We are creating a kind of glorified beauty-of-death vision about the nature of reality right now. There's some kind of feeling going on that it's going to be OK to blow ourselves up. It must be OK to blow ourselves up, because why are we heading in that direction so clearly, so absolutely clearly?
MISHLOVE: I'm not sure we are.
WOLF: You don't think we are?
MISHLOVE: No, I don't know. I'm not sure we are. So maybe my reality's a little -- we'll have a contest of wills here, to see who's going to make it happen.
WOLF: Well, it certainly is a major concern of our societies today.
MISHLOVE: It's in everybody's mind.
WOLF: It's in everybody's mind that that's the direction we're heading in. Now, why is that so?
MISHLOVE: Or it's a probable direction, let's put it that way. It's a probable direction.
WOLF: But it's probable because we believe; the people that think along these lines believe it's inevitable. They believe that it's because we did this in the past, and because we did that in the past, we can't trust them to do this, and we can't trust them to do that. We have a whole picture which goes back, and I said the past is unreal.
MISHLOVE: Well, I'm not sure I agree with what you're saying, sociologically. I don't know what people believe. But perhaps you're right here. I think the deeper issue that you're getting at is that by our thoughts, by our minds, we are creating these realities.
WOLF: That's right, exactly. There's absolutely no reason in the world, not one, not one iota, that we need to blow this place up. Not one. There's not one existing logical, sound reason. There is enough to go around for everybody.
MISHLOVE: And I doubt if we'd ever get anybody on TV who would say that there is.
WOLF: OK. But there is a reason that we're using to blow ourselves up, and that is the basic isolation, the basic mechanism of "I'm alone; you're alone. Don't bother me, bud, because I've got my life to lead. You're Russian; that's fine. You do your thing, I'll do my thing, and man, we're just going to go our own ways." It doesn't work in the world anymore. We have an ecology not only of the material universe, there's an ecology of consciousness. And because of these ideas that I'm talking about in quantum physics, we have in a sense a moral obligation here to create the past to bring out the vision which can see the world in an entirely different light than it's presently being seen. And that I think is a hot issue today. If people could really understand the ideas I'm talking about now -- I'm doing the best I can to present them, but if people could really understand them in a deep-seated sense, they'd realize we don't have to mistrust each other, and we don't have to go through that process, that all is forgiven. There is no past that --
MISHLOVE: Would you say that they'd realize that we are each other?
WOLF: Ultimately that is the great vision -- to recognize that everything is one. There's just one basic being, one basic consciousness, of which we're all parts in some mysterious way -- but not in the simplified way of "You go your way, I go my way, and I don't care what you do, you don't care what I do, as long as we go our separate ways, everything's hunky-dory." It doesn't work that way. If we go our separate ways on a round planet, we're bound to clash as we come around the other side, right? No matter what direction you go off in, you're going to come back together.
MISHLOVE: I think you're talking about something more than a round planet. You're talking about quantum interconnectedness here.
WOLF: I'm talking about global consciousness. I'm talking about the fact that what one being does in some way affects everybody on the whole planet. It's not just separate beings all going their own ways. We are interconnected in ways that are very subtle and not easy to appreciate. It's all a great big ocean of consciousness; it's a living surface of a planet.
MISHLOVE: That's your basic sense of consciousness.
WOLF: That's my basic sense of it, yes. And it goes beyond that, by the way. It goes off into space too. I mean, everything is basically consciousness.
MISHLOVE: I gather from what you're saying that you would therefore see your world view as very compatible with what parapsychologists are researching.
WOLF: I have no problem with what parapsychologists are researching at all, because what is parapsychology? Parapsychology is the workings of science in areas which are very difficult to test. It's called fringe areas. I work in fringe areas myself, so I understand the nature of the problem. It's difficult to test it, and it's difficult to objectify it because we're working on things which break the paradigms of normal mechanistic thinking. So we have to go beyond those paradigms if we're going to have any success at all. So I'm very much a supporter of anything which gives people a new vision of how the universe works.
MISHLOVE: And how about our own understanding of our bodies, in terms of this quantum vision of life?
WOLF: Well, your body is probably the best laboratory for -- you might call it parapsychological experimentation, or quantum physical experimentation. Right now there are consciousness experiments that you can do. With just a turn of your mind, you can begin to experience, for example, your left toe. Suddenly your consciousness is in your left toe. You don't even have to move your left toe to experience it. I can just suggest something to you, and suddenly your mind will go right to that point. I say, "OK, I want to go right beneath, in the crease of your right knee." Suddenly you're there, right? You can feel it. If you want to, you can feel the stocking pressing on the heel of your left foot.
MISHLOVE: Got it, got it.
WOLF: This is what I mean. How can you do that? I mean, how is it -- is this mind doing it? Well, more than just the mind is involved, because obviously there's something very alive going on down where that crease of the foot is, or where the heel is. In my vision of the body -- and I write about this in my latest book called The Body Quantum -- I talk about that the ultimate game would be to become conscious of every living cell, in the same sense that you just became conscious of your toe, or the crease of your right knee, whatever. And if you can do that, I believe that you could find out exactly where the rough spots are, what needs healing. I have a model for healing which is based upon quantum physics. The whole notion here is similar to my world picture. What is illness? Illness is this concept that we can each go our separate ways. Can you imagine one of my cells saying, "Hey, Fred, I want to go my own way, buddy. I don't need you for nothin'. Just keep feedin' me food and I'll just do my own thing." That's called cancer. Got it? That's all it is.
MISHLOVE: Similar to what may be happening on the planet.
WOLF: Similar to what's happening on the planet, exactly. You know, a cancer cell gets it in its mind. In its mind it says, "I'm the only thing around. I'm going to use this sucker to get everything I can from it." So it feeds itself. A cancer cell is a cry for immortality. It has no idea that it's a finite cell. It has no sense of commitment. There was a theory of committed cells that came out in recent physiology, in 1961.
MISHLOVE: We're going to have to cover it quickly, though, because we're just about out of time. We have about thirty seconds, Fred. Can you handle that?
WOLF: Thirty seconds? OK. Very briefly, the idea in this new vision I have is that it is possible to cure yourself of illness by simply becoming aware of where the tight spots are. And I think that's going to be the wave of the future.
MISHLOVE: Great, Fred. We're going to have to do more of this. It's been so exciting. Thank you very much for being with me.
WOLF: You're very welcome. It was fun for me too, Jeffrey.