“I think the Indian approach should be the correct one. Science and spirituality should not be separate. The problem is that, in the West, they are trying to get rid of consciousness from their science. And even when they do include consciousness, they try to consider it as a “side-effect” of the materialistic happenings,” says Dr Kenneth Chan, Physicist and Physician in an exclusive interview with CSP.
How did your interest in the two fields of quantum physics and consciousness begin, and how do you connect them both?
I am a very spiritual kind of person and have always been interested in this. I have liked physics since I was a child, and ended up with two degrees, which is a little unusual—a medical degree and a physics degree. While they seemingly don’t go together, it worked out well for me. I probably would not have arrived at some of the realizations if I didn’t have these two degrees, because they provided me with the link between physics and human physiology.
It all actually started with relativity. I published a paper on relativity and, in relativity, the viewpoint of the observer is crucial. Relativity deals with time and space, and these two entities vary depending upon the observer. If it involves the observer—think about it—obviously consciousness has a role to play.
At face value, time and space seem to have nothing to do with the conscious observer. But they actually do. I think Einstein didn’t realize this because he didn’t understand human physiology. Relativity starts with the postulate that, in all frames of reference, the laws of physics work in the same way. A particularly odd aspect of this is that is the speed of light remains the same to all observers, irrespective of the velocity of the observers. Now that is a bit odd, because it means that no matter how fast you chase after a light ray, it still runs away from you at the same relative speed.
As I point out in my article “Why Relativity Exists,” the explanation for this is that the speed of light is the speed of electromagnetic transmission. And our body runs on electromagnetism. All our cells, including our brain cells, function via electromagnetism. That is why the speed of electromagnetic transmission is constant to all observers. It is because our whole body functions via electromagnetic transmission. Trying to measure any change in the speed of light is like trying to measure, with an iron ruler, how an iron rod expands with heat, while putting both the ruler and the rod inside the container with the heater. Since both the iron ruler and the iron rod expands equally, we will not measure any difference in the length of the iron rod.
We have actually defined our time and our space according to how we humans experience the universe. It is our experience of time, and our experience of space. This means, of course, that these entities are dependent on electromagnetic phenomena since our body runs on electromagnetism. We are thus like the characters inside a video, and cannot notice any difference even when someone speeds up the video. This is because, while everything speeds up, we ourselves also speed up. Even our rate of thinking speeds up in the same way. We are inside the system and cannot notice a change when everything, including ourselves, speeds up. To us, inside the video, everything seems to be the same.
That is the reason why the speed of light always stays constant. We cannot measure a difference because we are inside the system. That’s basically the explanation. We cannot measure any change in the speed of light (which is the rate of electromagnetic transmission) because the rate at which we ourselves function depend on the rate of electromagnetic transmission. I would not have understood this but for the fact that I do understand human physiology. So, relativity is basically a result of our conscious experience of time and space.
So why is there a conflict over consciousness in physics? Why is there a non-acceptance of that? Is it because, from the beginning, they’ve made an assumption and they don’t want to change it?
I think different physicists may have different reasons for not liking the involvement of consciousness in physics. Basically, the problem arises because physicists tend to think in terms of a mind-matter duality. They divide everything in our reality into two components—the subjective or mind component and the objective or matter component. This was started by Descartes about four centuries ago, and this idea of a mind-matter duality has largely prevailed until now. So, they are always thinking along those lines.
This mind-matter duality becomes a major problem in quantum mechanics. This is because if you accept that consciousness actually plays a central role in quantum mechanics, and then try to fit this into the mind-matter duality framework, you end up with solipsism—and that means that everything is only occurring in the mind. This would then mean that there is no actual outer reality and physicists don’t like that. I wouldn’t like that either.
But if we insist on there being a mind-matter duality, we can’t help but think that way. For a lot of physicists, they cannot accept that there is no outer reality. So, if they also insist on this mind-matter duality, what choice do they have? The only option left, then, is to adopt the stance of materialism, and say that everything is derived from matter. Even consciousness is then derived from matter. They are happier with that because it gives them an external reality. That is one of the key problems.
There may be other reasons. If you are really cynical, you may even say physicists don’t like the involvement of consciousness because they don’t know anything about consciousness, and they don’t want to admit ignorance!
With regards to solipsism, it makes us wonder what we are doing with all these physics equations if they have no external reality but only exist in our mind. That was the story of Eugene Wigner, a physics Nobel laureate, who in the 1960s came up with a paper which basically says that consciousness plays a critical role in quantum mechanics. Because he was a Nobel laureate for physics, this created quite a row in the physics community. Yet his arguments are sound up till today. The problem was that Wigner, later in his life, changed his mind, but he still couldn’t refute his own original arguments. Basically, he ended up saying that he was hoping that further developments in physics would help ensure that we don’t end up in solipsism. What Wigner really didn’t like was solipsism. It wasn’t that his initial arguments—that consciousness has to play a critical role in quantum mechanics—were faulty.
Must the role of consciousness necessarily lead to solipsism? You talk about a middle path in your paper that addresses this question.
In my paper (A Direct Experiential Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics), I am trying to tell them that it is because of this mind-matter duality that we have problems. In fact, there is no scientific basis for this mind-matter duality. It was just an idea, started by Descartes, that has basically continued to this day as the prevalent philosophical framework. I am, however, familiar with an alternative philosophical view called Madhyamika philosophy. The key principle in Madhyamika philosophy is that all things are empty of what is called “inherent existence.” Having inherent existence means that the entity is existing separately on its own right. But an entity’s existence is actually dependent on other things. Without this dependence on other factors, it cannot exist at all! And this applies to everything. In particular, the existence of any entity is dependent on causes and conditions, dependent on its parts, and dependent on the mind that apprehends it. Without this dependence, it cannot exist at all. So, in Madhyamika philosophy, it is stated that all things are empty of inherent existence because they are dependently arisen.
Now, in Madhyamika philosophy, there is no such thing as a mind-matter duality. And the key point is this. If you get rid of this mind-matter duality, you can have consciousness as a crucial part of quantum mechanics and you don’t end up in solipsism. You also don’t end up with materialism. And that is exactly what the quantum mechanics formulation is telling us.
In quantum physics, there is a lot of mathematics involved, but the mathematics actually do not explain anything. Even the physicists who discovered the mathematical formulation have no idea why it works. Not every physicist, however, is willing to own up to this. Richard Feynman, who is a Nobel laureate for physics, is one exception in that he openly he owns up to this lack of understanding. He openly states that nobody understands quantum physics. Basically, physicists stumbled upon this formulation known as quantum mechanics. They arrived at the mathematics behind it essentially by trial and error, and many get the Nobel Prize for it, but we still don’t know why it works. It is clear that we don’t know why the mathematics work because there are umpteen interpretations of this same mathematical formulation. And these interpretations are all different. There are so many interpretations because none of them seem to fit very well. If we knew exactly why the formulation works, we should not have this problem.
So how do we show that consciousness plays a crucial role in quantum mechanics? It is actually not very difficult to show the central mystery behind quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, all the information we have about a particle is contained in a mathematical entity known as the quantum wave function. To get information about the particle from this quantum wave function, we have to apply a mathematical procedure on this quantum wave function. But the information we get is not about the particle per se. It does not tell us directly how the particle behaves. Instead, the information only tells us about the possible results of a measurement by an observer if and only if the observer chooses to measure the particle. In other words, the quantum wave function does NOT give us information about the particle directly. It only tells us about the possible results of a measurement by an observer. That is why the observer is always involved.
In other words, quantum mechanics only presents to us what would be considered a combination of mind and matter. Now, this sounds like two things being combined. But what the mathematics in quantum mechanics give us is simply one number to represent this combination of mind meeting matter. So, in quantum mechanics, it is a single thing—one single number. That is why I would say that there is no mind-matter duality in quantum mechanics. We have artificially imputed this mind-matter duality upon what is represented, in quantum mechanics, as a single entity. In my paper, I have called this single entity an “experiential event.”
The really odd thing about quantum mechanics is that the information we obtain from the quantum wave function is not just one definitive experiential event (which represents a measurement result) but a whole set of possible experiential events. In other words, it gives us a probability distribution of the possible results of a measurement by an observer. That is all quantum mechanics tells us—the possible results of measurements.
How reliable is that? Can we take it that it is provable every time?
We know the mathematics work. The probabilities of the possible results of measurements agree with the experiments. They have done this for a hundred years. If it didn’t work, they would have found out by now.
But all the mathematics show us is simply the possible results of a measurement by an observer. So how can you get rid of the observer? Over the last century, physicists have tried repeatedly to get rid of the observer in quantum mechanics. They are still trying! Repeatedly, they have made claims of having got rid of the observer. But deeper subsequent analyses always show that this is not true. Physicists have also repeatedly come up with bizarre ad hoc conditions, added artificially by hand to the basic quantum mechanics formulation, in their attempts to get rid of the observer.
One bizarre condition is this idea of infinite parallel universes that we can never actually experience. While the science fiction enthusiasts love this, do you know that there is actually no scientific evidence whatsoever that there is such a thing? It was purely invented in an attempt to get rid of the observer in quantum mechanics. Yet, in spite of this extravagant ad hoc condition (i.e., infinite alternate universes), it still does not get rid of the observer without introducing all sorts of other problems and contradictions.
The most dramatic thing that quantum mechanics reveals is what is known as the “collapse of the wave function.” This occurs when an observer actually makes a measurement. When an actual measurement is made, something dramatic happens to the quantum wave function. For example, if we actually measure the position of an electron, we will only find the electron in one position. We now no longer have a probability distribution of possible positions if we make a measurement. Instead, the whole probability distribution has “collapsed” into only one of the possible measurement results. In other words, we only find the electron in one position. Only that one possibility survives. All the other possible positions are discarded. This is called the “collapse of the wave function.”
Physicists are particularly disturbed by this. In relativity, we can say that, while the observer certainly has a role to play, it is only a passive role. Here, in quantum mechanics, the observer actually plays an active role. He can decide whether or not to make a measurement. If he does not make a measurement, the quantum wave function is not affected by him. But if he does make a measurement, the quantum wave function is dramatically changed. In that way, the observer plays an active role in affecting the reality that we have before us.
The most striking illustration of this is the famous Schrodinger Cat problem. Whether or not we make an observation of the cat affects the quantum wave function of the cat. If we do not make an actual observation of the cat, the quantum wave function remains as a probability distribution, and we have the strange situation of the cat being both partially alive and partially dead! It is in response to this Schrodinger Cat problem that prompted Wigner to conclude that it is consciousness that collapses the wave function. This certainly sounds reasonable. In fact, John von Neumann, the man credited with laying down the formal mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, had earlier argued that, sooner or later, the collapse of the wave function must involve the subjective observer. This analysis is now known as the “von Neumann chain.” Without a subjective observer, the quantum wave function will not collapse. It will simply continue as a probability distribution through a process of quantum entanglement with the measurement equipment. In other words, it is only an encounter with a conscious observer that collapses of the wave function. And that means that consciousness has to be a part of quantum mechanics.
How do you think the ancient spiritual traditions came to this kind of realization? It is like they are ahead of their times.
The ancients arrived at this understanding, I think, probably through mystical experiences. What I find, in Madhyamika philosophy, is that they are literally “spot on.” Most physicists fail to see this. For a start, most of them don’t know Madhyamika philosophy at all. They have no idea, and if you try to explain it to them, they will say that it is a lot of “woo.” It is nothing that you can measure in a lab. Well, consciousness also cannot be measured in the lab by their scientific equipment. That’s the problem the physicists have. How do you have a theory on consciousness if you cannot measure it at all? Because they cannot measure consciousness, they have no actual scientific data on it. And no scientific data means no actual scientific theory.
Since you have a medical background, do you think that neuroscience can nudge physics in the right direction?
I have serious reservations about this. Neuroscience usually runs on the idea that it is all materialistic: the brain determines what our mind does. Some would go so far as to say that the brain is the basis of the mind; and without the brain, there is no mind. The problem is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for this. It’s an assumption. I’ve put in the argument, in my paper, that just because the two are linked, it does not mean that one causes the other. If we have brain damage, it affects our mind. There certainly is a link, that’s undeniable. But it’s just a link. It does not mean that one causes the other.
While we are functioning on this plane, our mind is largely influenced by what is happening in our brain. But it does not mean that the brain is the cause of this consciousness. For example, suppose a primitive man were to stumble upon a television set. He sees the picture on the screen, and he plays around with the control panel. He notices that the picture changes whenever he plays around with the control panel. He may then conclude that the picture on the screen is caused by the control panel. Sure, the control panel affects the picture, but the picture is not caused by the control panel. In the same way, we cannot conclude that consciousness must be purely derived from the brain.
How do we take this knowledge going forward? How can insights like yours help in clearing the field, so to speak?
My thinking is that if you are a scientist, you have to be honest. If you cannot probe into something or learn about something in the conventional scientific way, just admit it. How can we progress otherwise? Science has done a lot of wonderful things, but scientists should simply admit what they don’t know. In other words, please admit ignorance when that is actually the case. Unfortunately, we don’t find that happening. Instead of admitting ignorance about consciousness, they come up with all sorts of hypotheses on how consciousness can come about, and then they call it “science.” But it is not science; it’s merely guesswork that cannot even be tested with their own scientific equipment. Hence, they are nothing other than assumptions made by scientists. Scientists should just admit ignorance. That’s an important step. There are limitations to any field. To me, the only way to probe into consciousness is to use your own consciousness. In other words, use your mind to probe the mind.
What is your spiritual practice which allows you to probe this inner world?
I am mainly a Buddhist and follow the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, although I am also a student of Western Mysticism. Tibetan Buddhism is actually Indian Buddhism. Atisha, who was the leading master of Vikramashila Monastic University, was invited to go to Tibet not long before the Muslim invaders destroyed both the main Buddhist centres at Vikramashila and Nalanda. He went there with the intention of returning to India after three years. But for some reason, he never made it back and was in Tibet for the rest of his life. Atisha was there for 13 years, and he established in Tibet what was essentially the Buddhism in India at the time. Thus, Indian Buddhism actually now survives in Tibet.
If you follow Tibetan Buddhism, you will find that all the early texts are from the Indian Buddhist masters. Most of the main texts on Madhyamika philosophy, which forms a cornerstone of much of Tibetan Buddhism, are by the Indian Buddhist pandits. These include The Root Stanzas of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamaka-karika) by Nagarjuna, Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara) by Chandrakirti, and the 9th chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyavatara) by Shantideva.
Later on, there were prominent Tibetan Buddhist masters as well, but their main teachings were nonetheless still developed from Indian Buddhism. For example, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition (which is the largest school of Tibetan Buddhism, now headed by the Dalai Lama) was Lama Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa was a great Tibetan Buddhist philosopher and tantric yogi who synthesized the teachings from many different lineages and made it into a cohesive whole. In his works, Tsongkhapa quotes from many sources and these were mainly from the Indian Buddhist masters. So, we can see that it all still stems from Indian Buddhism.
In the Indian traditions, there were not a lot of distinction between science and daily life and spirituality. Both science and spirituality permeated many aspects of daily life. How did this disconnect between the arts, science, and the human mind come about? Is it a Western colonial effect?
I think the Indian approach should be the correct one. Science and spirituality should not be separate. The problem is that, in the West, they are trying to get rid of consciousness from their science. And even when they do include consciousness, they try to consider it as a “side-effect” of the materialistic happenings. They say that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, which means that consciousness merely comes about because of the workings of the materialistic atoms and so on. In other words, consciousness is purely derived from matter. This makes consciousness a secondary phenomenon and hence not very important.
But the idea that consciousness is purely derived from matter is nothing other than a blatant assumption. There is absolutely no scientific proof that this is the case. But because many scientists insist on making consciousness unimportant, a lot of people cannot connect with it. Most people are, in fact, mainly concerned with the sentient aspect of life. To them, it is the most important thing. And here we have the scientists not wanting to deal with it. So, there is this great disconnect.
This is not a good thing. Scientists need to take heed of consciousness. Especially now, because in both relativity and quantum mechanics (which forms the foundation of all modern physics), consciousness plays a crucial role. We cannot get rid of consciousness in science, so everything that follows needs to deal with it.
How critical is this gap which is existing? How critical is this in human development?
I think it is terribly important. Because contemporary science neglects the sentient aspect of our reality, a very large number of people, who are influenced by science, tend to become very unspiritual. They believe what the scientists tell them—that the material particles determine everything. And so, they believe that even how we think is determined by the action of the atoms in our brain. There is no spirituality at all. It is a tragedy. The world would be a much better place if the basic framework on which we base our actions is a spiritual one, instead of the “nuts and bolts” paradigm of contemporary science. There will be much less wars, injustice, exploitation, and environmental problems.
I am trying to do my bit to show that the scientific evidence actually points to the opposite conclusion. Consciousness is an integral part of our science and cannot be ignored. Both relativity and quantum mechanics tell us that this is so. Many scientists, however, simply refuse to acknowledge it. They just ignore the issues that point towards this reality. For example, in quantum physics, they have still not resolved what is known as the “measurement problem,” and that is the question of what it is that causes the collapse of the wave function. Most physicists just simply ignore this issue. I recall reading somewhere that Stephen Hawking once said that when someone mentions the Schrodinger Cat problem, he wants to reach for his gun! Basically, it means that many physicists do not want to hear about these unresolved problems anymore.
There is, unfortunately, another negative consequence of this denial of what our science is actually telling us. It gives the wrong impression that the process of verification in spirituality would lead to the contemporary scientific view of reality—that everything is the result of the materialistic workings of nature. This view is completely wrong. Unfortunately, some of the more spiritually inclined people who are misled in this way, might end up simply relying on blind faith instead of trying to verify things. And blind faith, unfortunately, can sometimes lead to even bigger problems and conflicts. The process of verification of the spiritual truths is an essential part of the spiritual path. Each of us need to transform into a better and more compassionate person so that we can personally verify these truths for ourselves.
Have you been to India?
Yes, I was in Bodh Gaya at the end of 1998. And when I was there, I actually set out to sit under the Bodhi Tree. I thought there would be a lot of people clamouring to do the same thing. But what I found was that here was hardly anybody there. I couldn’t understand it. There were so many people in the surrounding area, so many Buddhist monks and hardly anyone was sitting under the Bodhi Tree. There were only a few people there and plenty of room. So, I would spend almost the entire day there without having to feel that I was depriving someone else from doing the same thing. It was really wonderful, very peaceful. There is something special about it.
You know what they say about temples, that the accumulated faith over the years adds to the pranic energy of the place. Can you tell us your thoughts?
Yes, there is something in the world that is way beyond that of materialism. If you look at my article called The Spiritual Path, you will see a remarkable synchronicity between the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path and the Kabbalah Tree of Life from Jewish mysticism. The Noble Eightfold Path, represented in the form of a wheel with eight spokes, fits perfectly into the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Perfectly, and in exactly the correct sequence! It is amazing. How did these two things from two completely different spiritual traditions fit so perfectly together? This synchronicity demonstrates that they probably drew their inspiration from the same spiritual source. There is definitely something that is beyond the mundane mechanical world that contemporary science is trying to insist upon.
(Dr Kenneth Chan was born in Malaysia and currently lives in Singapore. He holds university degrees in both medicine and physics, and has formerly worked as a doctor in Singapore and as a scientific editor for World Scientific. He is a follower of Tibetan Buddhism and a student of Western Mysticism. At the end of 1998, he visited India on a trip to Bodhgaya, Kathmandu and Sikkim, where he stayed at different monasteries.
He wrote a scientific paper on relativity entitled “Time and Space” which was approved for publication by Kip Thorne, the Physics Nobel Laureate in 2017. The paper explains why the speed of light is constant (based on his understanding of both relativity and human physiology) and was published in 1993 in the ISPE anthology “Thinking on the Edge.”
He is also the author of the book “Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet” which shows how Shakespeare meticulously crafted the entire play of Hamlet to convey a deep spiritual message. The book was nominated for the Book of the Year award by Foreword Magazine in 2004.
In 2016, he wrote an online article “Why Relativity Exists” which presents the key findings of his paper “Time and Space” to a general audience. In the same year, he also wrote another online paper entitled “A Direct Experiential Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” which shows how the Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy explains the mystery of quantum physics.
Recently he published an online article entitled “The Spiritual Path” which shows the remarkable synchronicity between Madhyamika philosophy, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Kabbalah Tree of Life, and the Tarot. It depicts the stages of the spiritual quest on the path to enlightenment.)