Spirituality and Science Part 2: Quantum Field Theory For The Spiritual

One example of the remarkable similarity between the findings of science and the findings of religion is that both reveal that matter is not what it seems. Many religious traditions hold that matter is an illusion; especially this is true in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, which embrace the concept of Maya, the veil of illusion cast over sensory perception. Yet the findings of science concur that matter is nothing like what our senses reveal. In fact, most of reality is hidden from our senses.

The primary difference between the science of religion and the science of the material is in the discovery process: the science of matter’s view of reality is based on the repeatable and consistent findings of physical experiments; the science of religion’s view of reality is based on the repeatable and consistent findings of transcendent experience of the mind.

Quantum mechanics is based on a clear mathematical apparatus, has enormous significance for the natural sciences, and enjoys phenomenal predictive success. . . . Yet, nearly 100 years after the theory’s development, there is still no consensus in the scientific community regarding the interpretation of the theory’s foundational building blocks. Despite its undeniable success, the development of the equations of quantum mechanics only made it unnecessary to answer the deeper questions about the nature of reality. Physicists have gone on to prove, thousands of times, that until measured by an intelligent observer, everything—whether energy such as light, or matter such as atoms—behaves in a wavelike manner until measured by an intelligent observer. The inescapable conclusion: An intelligent observer plays an essential role in the formation of matter.

One of the most important physics theories to be developed over the past 60 years is Quantum Field Theory. QFT is a reformulation of quantum mechanics and it calculates the exact same answers as quantum mechanics.

We think we live in a world dominated by matter. Why? Because our five human senses evolved to detect the world of matter. Our senses are relatively “blind” to the detection of fields; therefore we are biased in thinking that matter is primary and fields are secondary. Quantum Field Theory is earthshaking in that it says that fields are the basic building blocks of the entire universe, while matter is secondary and totally derived from fields. This literally means that the matter our senses detect is an illusion of human senses and is not the “true” nature of reality.

Plato seems to have realized intuitively that the world of matter was an illusion long before Quantum Field Theory made the discovery. It can be seen in his allegory of the cave presented in his work “The Republic” written between 520 BCE and 515 BCE. In The Republic, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The illusion of the shadows are the prisoners’ reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world. (See picture above)

Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not reality at all. A philosopher aims to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality.

Particles and Fields

Molecules In Different Physical States

Particles are localized entities that can have both a location and motion. In the physical sciences, a particle is a small localized object to which can be ascribed several physical or chemical properties such as volume, density or mass.They vary greatly in size or quantity, from subatomic particles like the electron, to microscopic particles like atoms and molecules, to macroscopic particles like powders and other granular materials. Particles are the foundation of materialism.

Fields are fundamentally different than particles. They do not consist of a point location but are spread out through space. In physics, a field means that a physical quantity is assigned to every point in space (or, more generally, spacetime). A field is seen as extending throughout a large region of space so that it influences everything. The strength of a field usually varies over a region. A field is something that has a value at every point in space. For example, if you consider the surface of a body of water, at each point the water has some temperature, so you could call the temperature field the temperature at each point on the water. Fields have motion but it is very different from particle motion.

Example of a field: An electric field is the physical field that surrounds electrically-charged particles and exerts force on all other charged particles in the field, either attracting or repelling them. It also refers to the physical field for a system of charged particles. Electric fields originate from electric charges, or from time-varying magnetic fields. Electric fields and magnetic fields are both manifestations of the electromagnetic force.

Quantum Particles Are Not The Same As Newton’s Marbles

Our confusion begins early in life, usually in middle school where students are taught the concept of the atom seen below. They even make models of atoms using foam balls for protons, neutrons, and electrons. This usually results in people thinking that atomic “particles” are just very tinny marble-like objects.

This Is Not What An Atom Looks Like

Above is the common diagram of an atom still taught in school today. It has been known to be factually incorrect since around 1906. The idea of a Newtonian marble-like particles fails when you get down to conceptualizing an atom. Here’s why:

First, the spacing of electrons from the nucleus is distorted in the atom above. If all the space between the nucleus of the atom and its orbiting electrons were removed, our bodies would be reduced to less than the size of a pinhead. Our bodies consist nearly entirely of empty space—as in 99.9999 percent empty space.

Second, electrons do not orbit the nucleus like planets around the sun. If the electron was a particle with a negative charge orbiting the atomic nucleus, the atom would be unstable. A moving charged particle emits radio waves, a form of energy. Thus the electron would loose energy as it orbits and eventually spiral into the nucleus. This would also mean that all matter would emit radio waves, which it certainly does not.

Electrons move at the speed of light and as such the electron effectively creates a permanent shell of energy around the nucleus. Larger atoms, with their greater number of protons and a correspondingly greater number of electrons, create what is often described as an electron cloud around the nucleus. If we were inside a small space craft and somehow able to shrink it down to the size of a neutron, and then try to fly inside an atom, we would be unable to penetrate the force field of energy created by the cloud of electrons around the nucleus. When an atom, surrounded by its electron force field, comes in contact with another atom’s electron force field, a number of things can happen. They can bounce off each other and go their merry ways. Or one atom can take electrons from, or give electrons to, the other atom, in a process that changes both atoms. Or they can share electrons— a sharing that effectively glues them together. One thing, however, that electron shells don’t do (in ordinary conditions) is collapse. The electron force field is immensely strong. It is this force field–like electron cloud around every atom that keeps our mostly-full-of-space body from meshing into other mostly-full-of-space objects—or from sinking into the ground on which we stand.

This Is What Electron Clouds Look like For The Single Electron Of Hydrogen

Third, like the force-field electron shell of constantly moving energy that surrounds the protons and neutrons of the nucleus, protons and neutrons are also composed of energy moving at the speed of light. The nucleus of the atom was actually a super-condensed, super-high frequency form of energy. The famous equation, E = mc2, proved that there are no un-dividable, super-tiny little balls of solidity. The absence of “solid” matter at the core of the atom has since been proven over and over in particle-accelerator experiments.

So what are things made of? The End of Scientific Reductionism

A Conversation With A Five Year Old Scientist

What are people made of?
People are made of muscles, bones, and organs.
Then what are the organs made of?
Organs are made of cells.
What are cells made of?
Cells are made of organelles.
What are organelles made of?
Organelles are made of proteins.
What are proteins made of?
Proteins are made of amino acids.
What are amino acids made of?
Amino acids are made of atoms.
What are atoms made of?
Atoms are made of protons, neutron, and electrons.
What are electrons made of?
Electrons are made from the electron field.
What is the electron field made of?

And sadly, here the game of questions must come to an end, nine levels down. This is the hard limit of our scientific understanding. To the best of our present ability to perceive and to reason, the universe is made from fields and nothing else, and these fields are not made from any smaller components. Indeed, a field can span the entire known universe.

The Core theory, which summarizes our best current understanding of fundamental processes, is formulated in terms of quantum fields. Particles appear as secondary consequences; they are localized disturbances in the primary entities – that is, in quantum fields. — F. Wilczek (2008)

Quantum Field Theory Explained

But it’s not quite right to say that fields are the most fundamental thing that we know of in nature. Because we know something that is in some sense even more basic: we know the rules that these fields have to obey. Our understanding of how to codify these rules came from a series of truly great triumphs in modern physics. And the greatest of these triumphs, as I see it, was quantum mechanics.

Figure 1

So let’s imagine, to start with, a ball at the end of a spring. (Figure 1)

This is the object from which our quantum field will be constructed. Specifically, the field will be composed of an infinite, space-filling array of these ball-and-springs.

Figure 2

To keep things simple, let’s suppose that, for some reason, all the springs are constrained to bob only up and down, without twisting or bending side-to-side (Figure 2). In this case the array of springs can be called, using the jargon of physics, a scalar field. So a scalar field is a field whose value at a particular point in space and time is characterized only by a single number. In this case, that number is the height of the ball at the point in question.

Figure 3

In order to make this array into a quantum field, one needs to introduce some kind of coupling between the balls (Figure 3). So, let’s imagine adding little elastic bands (red lines) between them so that it resembles a mattress. Now we have something that we can legitimately call a field. If you disturb this field – say, by tapping on it at a particular location – then it will set off a wave of ball-and-spring oscillations that propagates across the field. These waves are, in fact, the particles of field theory. In other words, when we say that there is a particle in the field, we mean that there is a wave of oscillations propagating across it.

Figure 4

For the present pictorial discussion, all you really need to know is that a quantum ball on a spring has two rules that it must follow. 1) It can never stop moving, but instead must be in a constant state of bobbing up and down. 2) The amplitude of the bobbing motion can only take certain discrete values (Figure 4). This quantization of the ball’s oscillation has two important consequences.

1) If you want to put energy into the field, you must put in at least one quantum. That is, you must give the field enough energy to kick at least one ball-and-spring into a higher oscillation state. The field will simply not accept energies below a certain threshold. Once you tap the field hard enough, however, a particle is created, and this particle can propagate stably through the field.

2) The other big implication of imposing quantum rules on the ball-and-spring motion is that it changes pretty dramatically the meaning of empty space. 

Figure 5

Figure 5 shows in red the underlying excitation of the quantum field which corresponds to the resultant “particle” (red spot on green plane) which appears when the field is observed. These particles (the oscillations of the field) have a number of properties that are probably familiar from the days when you just thought of particles as little points whizzing through empty space.

1) For example, they have a well-defined propagation velocity, which is related to the weight of each of the balls and the tightness of the springs and elastic bands. This characteristic velocity is our analog of the “speed of light”.

2) The properties of the springs also define the way in which particles interact with each other. If two particle-waves run into each other, they can scatter off each other in the same way that normal particles do.

3) The particles of our field clearly exhibit “wave-particle duality” in a way that is easy to see without any philosophical hand-wringing. That is, our particles by definition are waves, and they can do things like interfere destructively with each other or diffract through a double slit. More on this in the next post.

Empty Space is Not Really Empty, It’s Full of Fields

Normally, empty space, or vacuum, is defined as the state where no particles are around. For a classical field, that would be the state where all the ball-and-springs are stationary and the field is flat. But in a quantum field, the ball-and-springs can never be stationary: they are always moving, even when no one has added enough energy to the field to create a particle.

Flat Field

This means that what we call vacuum is really a noisy and densely energetic surface.This random motion (called vacuum fluctuations) has a number of fascinating and eminently noticeable influences on the particles that propagate through the vacuum.

Vacuum Quantum Field

So what does all this have to do with God and spirituality? The Jewish mystical practice of Kabbalah calls God the Ein Sof, the creative “nothing” from which the universe was created. The Ein Sof is the hidden God force, or maybe field, that creates and sustains the universe. For a more detailed treatment of this topic see the following post, Genesis 1:1 – The Creation of God.

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