Patterns of the Real: Quantum Nonlocality

Kevin Sharpe and Jon Walgate

Science & Spirit 10 (1) March 1999

Explores the nature of quantum nonlocality from a physics point of view, for what it says metaphysically about holism, and from a spiritual point of view. "Spiritual thinkers may largely ignore quantum physics and its 'greatest discovery of all science.' If so, they will lose the chance of one of the 'greatest discoveries' open to them."

Local Knowledge

We all know physics. Developmental psychologists describe evidence that children are born with an understanding of their world "hardwired" into their brains. We hold an intuitive knowledge of physics.

Civilization has bloomed within the past ten thousand years and allowed no time for evolution to adjust us from the mindset of the hunter-gatherer. Suppose we peer through the fog of cultural ideas and philosophies. What characterizes hunter-gatherer thinking? Anthropologist Tim Ingold sums it up:

For them, there are not two worlds of persons (society) and things (nature), but just one world -- one environment -- saturated with personal powers and embracing both human beings, the animals and plants on which they depend, and the landscape in which they live and move.

This psychological contradiction mirrors the issues dividing science and spiritual traditions. On the one hand lies a Newtonian picture where objects are sufficient for their own existence and determine their own fates in their own surroundings, regardless of the rest of the universe. On the other hand lies a spiritual picture, where a cohesive, existential force connects all things and breathes fire into the particle play.

The Death of Locality

This conflict raged real only seventy years ago. "Local realism," as physicists call the Newtonian standpoint, had established itself as the paradigm of science centuries earlier. Physicists naturally thought that, if you wanted to study the behavior of an object, you need only consider the conditions where you find it: the gravitational and electromagnetic fields in the laboratory, for example. Local realism says it makes no difference what objects elsewhere are doing -- weather conditions on Mars exert no effect. How could scientists know the causes of their measurements if events on Mars could affect laboratory experiments? The whole universe would blur chaotically, with individual objects indistinguishable from the whole. Locality is necessary before we can do any science.

Some of the worldís best physicists in the 1930s, including Albert Einstein, protested. His intuitions ran counter to quantum mechanics -- those same intuitions Spelke discovered in the child in us all. So, a mistake must have occurred. Quantum physicists must have overlooked something. They hadnít, Bell and Aspect showed. Einstein and our intuitions have it wrong.

We release our bound particles, and they shoot away from one another near the speed of light. They lie 600,000 kilometers apart within a second. If we measure the spin of one, we will instantly, across that vast distance, know the spin of its partner.

The story continues, for this entanglement is contagious. Quantum teleportation experiments by Anton Zeilinger and others show that particles can exchange their quantum states with others. Artur Ekert, of the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford, recently entangled two unrelated photons via an intermediate photon pair. Further, no limit exists on the number of particles that can become entangled. Noah Linden and Sandu Popescu at Cambridge have studied larger groups; most of the connections they discovered are nonlocal. "Quantum theory isnít just a tiny bit nonlocal," says New Scientist. "Itís overwhelmingly nonlocal. Nonlocality is the rule for our universe."

The Holistic Universe

Most perplexing of nonlocalityís properties is its contempt for Einsteinís memorable principle: nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Long before light can pass between correlated particles, they know what has happened to each other. Relativity tells us, however, that no signal could have passed from one to the other.

This more than shifts physical law. It revolutionizes metaphysics. Classical metaphysics places objects and particles above all else and relegates the patterns in their behavior as unexplained yet miraculous afterthoughts. Quantum metaphysics places the pattern above all else and relegates material objects as merely local features. The quantum whole exceeds the sum of its parts.

The age-old philosophical problem of determinism visualizes reality as a billiard table with balls striking one another in a classical chain of impacts. That picture is wrong: a much more subtle game plays out. Everything connects with the whole, yet local agents like you and me can still freely control our surroundings. A pattern exists at the most fundamental level of reality, weaving everything together. These links donít constrain and bind our local world, but support and free it.

The structure of the universe is sympathetic to the ideas of many spiritual traditions, including those of Christianity.

We could, for instance, explore the holistic universe (whose holism includes but may exceed the effects of nonlocality) as a model for divinity. Perhaps the universe-as-a-whole is God.

Quantum mechanics wonít allow this. Suppose we try to send a signal nonlocally. The quantum world randomizes the message and the recipient can glean no information. No one could be sure we had sent a message without double-checking afterwards. This guards our causal laws and the order of the universe.

Nonlocal influences reach across galaxies and pick out, with pinpoint accuracy, individual particles smaller than atoms.

Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Sharpe.