Following a century of quantum theory in physics and maybe half a century of systems theory extending from physics into biology, economics and other sciences, a much more clear and unified picture can now be seen of causality – the chains of more or less mechanical connections that link one event to the next. In the form that quantum mechanics had reached in about 1932 there was a sharp distinction made between the classical ‘world’ of large things and the quantum ‘world’ of small things. In each world, considered on its own, causality was rigid: the state of the universe at any one time determined the state of the universe at all other times, past and future. When the two came into contact, however, a special sort of interaction called ‘observation’ or ‘collapse’ came into play whose outcome was unpredictable. All that could be known about it was the range of possible outcomes and their probabilities. (This was the disturbing feature that Einstein, five years earlier, had sceptically described as God playing dice.) While there were many different ways of thinking of these two worlds, the main point was that, taking the quantum world and the classical world together, causality was no longer deterministic, but had a random element.
Jumping forward to 1996, we find Hans-Dieter Zeh and his collaborators publishing the definitive presentation (Giulini et al. 1996) of what some physicists call “no-collapse quantum theory”. In this there is just one world, described by equations whose mathematical form suggests a deterministic causality. Most of this world is shimmering and unstable; but within it, like the tips of icebergs rising above the surface, are comparatively stable configurations: these form the “classical world”, not seen as separate from the quantum world, but arising from it and part of it. This classical aspect of the world, if looked at separately, has a non-deterministic causality (i.e. it involves random elements). If we take this in conjunction with the idea of emergence being developed at the same time within systems theory, a radically different concept of the universe can be seen. Whereas the picture presented by the early developers of Newtonian theory was of a closed, mechanical universe, now, both from systems-theoretic approaches to Newtonian theory and from modern quantum theory, we have a picture of a universe whose causality is open to newness.
The astrophysicist and Templeton Prize winner George Ellis (Ellis et al. 2009), coming to this from the quantum mechanical side, argues that what enters in response to this openness is “top-down causation”. Traditional Newtonian theory and quantum theory used “bottom-up” causation, starting with the laws governing very small things and deriving from this the behaviour of large things. But we now realise that there is freedom for events at the level of large structures to shape what is happening at the level of the small-scale. The language of quantum theory, originally developed to describe observations, gives a way of understanding how this works. In the case of observations within the old quantum theory there was freedom for the experimenter to decide what sort of quantity was going to be observed (for example, to choose between measuring position and measuring momentum). This set a context, within which the lower level system responded with a particular value for the chosen quantity. Recast in the language of top-down causation, the high level system establishes a pattern of meaning, of sensitivities to particular elements in the environment.
To take this a little further: when top-down and bottom-up causalities are combined, the lower level systems obey a context dependent logic rather than a classical Aristotelian logic, a logic linked to the radical “topos logics” developed in recent years (Isham & Butterfield 1998). This gives a rigorous meaning to the popular notion of “both-and logic”. But how does an agent – whether an E Coli bacterium manifesting a sensitivity to nutrients by swimming towards its food, or the geologist sub-species of Homo Sapiens manifesting a sensitivity to clues in the landscape indicating underlying faults in the rock – decide on one system of meaning, or one context, rather than another? This takes us into “mystery”, meaning that it moves from rational knowing into relational knowing. The web of relationships in which we are held, including internal relationships between parts of our own psyche, enables the emergence of meaning as a truly creative act. As I will allude to later, this is something we can grasp experientially, but much more careful dialogue is needed in order to link it back to physics. Already, however, we have rich ingredients for enabling humanity to start thinking differently.
Satish Kumar succinctly expressed the quality of the new story that is needed in the title of one of his books: You are, therefore I am. That is, we are to replace Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, the old story that enshrines the rational thinking of the isolated ego, by a new story that invites us into ever-expanding I-You relationships, in which we find our true selves. This story is now emerging, as Satish is joined by many other prophetic voices who are also taking part in its telling.
As agents, ones who act, we have responsibility. But my responsibility is not that of choosing between options laid out in advance like tick-boxes on a questionnaire. Once I have insight into what is going on in my mind I can recognise that such choices are no more than a mixture of the random and the mechanical – as also suggested by recent neurological work (Batthyany 2009) following on from that of Libet. Rather than this, I fulfil my responsibility when about to act by entering fully into my web of relationships: within myself, among other humans, within the greater Earth community, with what I sense beyond that. Within this web I can “seek guidance”, as it might be termed in religious traditions. If I hold a clear, sustained intention of being open to an understanding of whatever situation is concerning me, then I usually experience a shift in the meaning of the situation in which I find myself. New categories of meaning appear, new relationships between the elements of the situation. From there on, rational analysis can fruitfully take over.