Does New Age Mysticism REALLY Explain Quantum Physics? Communist Theory of Mind Says No

Orientation

From Marxism to de Chardin, General Systems Theory to Buckminster Fuller

Around 1975, it dawned on me that the revolutionary times of the 1960s were not coming back. I still considered myself a council communist but I felt something was missing. I thought Marxism needed to be seen within a larger framework. I began to look for a perspective that located societies as part of cosmic evolution. My first stop was Teilhard de Chardin. I was swept away by The Phenomenon of Man and continued with a few of his other books. I found other authors with an evolutionary perspective like Barbara Marx Hubbard’s Conscious Evolution and Gerald Heard’s Five Ages of Man. I was also drawn to General Systems Theory and especially liked Bogdanov’s Tektology because as a Marxist, he framed human societies as another level of cosmic evolution. People like Oliver Reiser (Cosmic Humanism) saw humanity as part of larger globalization of society. Probably most powerfully, I was drawn to the work of Buckminster Fuller. Here was a guy trained in the hard sciences who had a vision of a new society based on the wise use of technology. What all these theories had in common was they were optimistic about the future of humanity. I didn’t care so much at time that there might be contradictions between these theories and those of Marx and Engels. It wasn’t until about five years later that I came to terms with these contradictions.

Flirting with Eastern Mysticism

But that wasn’t the end of it. I soon found myself in the misty waters of New Age mysticism without really realizing it. In 1975, a book came out called The Tao of Physics which was soon followed by another book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Both these books were written by physicists who took full advantage of the American counter-cultural swooning over Eastern mysticism. We were told that quantum physics was revealing a sub-atomic world that resembled the teachings of ancient Eastern mysticism. I was not alone among Marxists exploring these realms. My best Marxist friend, who knew more about Marx than anyone I had ever met, had been practicing Yogananda’s form of meditation for years. He joined me to read Capra’s book.

What these New Age physicists were saying was that because subatomic particles were unstable (both a wave and a particle) the observer had to make a “decision” as to which to measure. If you couldn’t decide whether a subatomic particle was a wave or a particle without a state of consciousness, that meant that consciousness was at the heart of matter. We were told that western science has finally caught up with the wise ancients of the East. At a liberal arts, New Age university I taught at, we had a science teacher who taught a class called “Quantum Physics and Eastern Mysticism”. No one in the class was required to take any preliminary physics classes in order to take the class. We had students walking around the campus holding court about the mysteries of quantum mechanics when most of them knew nothing about physics. Here we have the New Age spirituality.

How prevalent is this New Age mysticism?

But why am I writing an article about something that happened 35-40 years ago? Two reasons:

  1. To show that the same thing is going on today with New Age gurus still claiming that the New Physics confirms eastern mysticism. Doing a search in Amazon under the word “quantum” I found 30 books on the first page with titles such as Quantum Physics and the Power of the Mind; Quantum Consciousness: Journey Through Other Realms; Quantum Consciousness; The Guide to Experiencing Quantum Psychology; Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness; The Shamanic Path to Quantum Consciousness; Quantum DNA Healing; Merging Spiritually with Quantum Consciousness; Cosmic Consciousness and the Healing with the Quantum Field. All these books are dolled up in colorful, space-age covers.
  2. Mystical explanations in physics were also prevalent over 100 years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th century Russia, Lenin battled what he considered mystical ideas about physics that he feared were taking over the Bolshevik party. We will discuss the value and the shortcomings of his attempt to rescue materialism and its theory of mind from the swoon of phenomenology and other idealist theories.

My claim

My claim in this article is that a Vygotskian socio-cultural nature of mind does a better job at combatting mysticism than Lenin’s reflective theory of mind. For this article, I will be referring to Pannekoek’s book Lenin as Philosopher; Victor Stenger’s The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology and David Bakhurst’s book Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov.

Types of Philosophy

How do we understand the relationship between sub-atomic quantum physics and how the human mind engages it? Before addressing mystical theories directly, we should review the basic types of philosophy.

Naïve realism

For the overwhelming majority of people in the West, the objective world is independent of the mind. The mind tries to know how the world works by taking pictures of reality and making copies of it. Biophysical nature is comprehensible and existed before mental life emerged. So too, it is claimed the mind is comprehensible and is relatively reliable about recording what really exists in the world.  In philosophy, this double way of making sense of reality and mind is called “naïve realism”. It is only when specialized philosophy gets hold of the relationship between nature and the mind where things get complicated.

Idealism

Various philosophers, in part because their occupation is thinking and reflection, tend to get carried away with the power of mental life. When they ask questions about the relationship between nature and mind, their answers go way beyond naïve realism. Some philosophers like Plato saw the natural world as filled with disorder, complexity, dead ends, and constant change as well as being evil. Plato thought that whatever the ultimate reality was, it was orderly and eternal. When Plato searched for what was orderly and eternal, he found his answers in mathematics. And, of course, mathematics was the product of the collective mind, humanity. So, for Plato, what was ultimately real was mathematics. Plato also believed that this orderly and eternal world was good, beautiful and true. The material world of nature was an imperfect replica of what Plato called the eternal forms.

Many other western philosophers also got carried away with mental life. Some said matter or nature was an illusion, the product of cosmic mind. Others like Spinoza said that there was a single substance from which both nature and the mind were derived. Others like Descartes said that nature and mind were independent substances that interacted with each other. Others said nature and mind were inseparable and that you could know nature as she really is through the mind. Kant said our mind does not take pictures of reality. Rather it superimposes categories of thought on nature, and we can understand nature through the categories. We can never know nature independent of those categories. For Kant we can never know “things-in-themselves”.

Skepticism about mind

Just as philosophers like Plato claimed that nature was not self-evidently true but only an appearance, so too, epistemological philosophers were skeptical that the mind simply took faithful copies of reality. The most extreme form of ancient skepticism claimed we could ever know anything beyond what was in our minds. Later, more moderate skeptics like Bacon, Locke and especially Hume and Berkeley said the mind has built in cognitive biases, prejudices, reasoning errors and language ambiguities that keep humans from seeing things clearly.  What all philosophers would agree on was that both nature and mind were harder to understand than naïve realism would present.

Materialism

There is also a school of philosophers who are called materialists and are in rough agreement with the naïve realist position. Materialists say matter is infinite, uncreated and eternal. It existed before the mind emerged with the brain and it will continue even if mind disappears. People like Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius had a sophisticated understanding of what matter was. Later emergent evolutionary materialists saw matter as having levels—such as physical, biological, and social. Materialists like Democritus also understood that the senses do not just take pictures of reality. The senses were seen as untrustworthy and needed to be corrected by reason.

Some of the cruder materialists thought of the mind as the secretions of the brain, just as bile is a secretion of the liver. With the slightest injury to the brain everything mental disappears, nothing at all remains in the mind. The material changes in the brain are thought to be the basis of psychology. All action in the surroundings produce changes in the brain and these produce thoughts. There was no distinction between the mind and the brain. There was no sense that society and history created the mind, and that mind mediated what happened between the brain and nature.

19th Century Determinism Crisis and Mystical Predators

Throughout most of the 19th century, scientists thought of nature as being more and more determined by physical laws. Natural events that occurred were the result of both necessity and probability (statistical laws). Nature at the meso level could be perceived through the five senses and matter was thought to be solids or liquids rather than gases. To a physicist, atoms were not abstractions but real, small, invisible particles, sharply limited, exactly alike for every chemical element, with precise qualities of mass and weight.  Concepts were nearly separated and the physical world was a clear system, without contradiction.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, quantum mechanics and relativity theory challenged the deterministic nature of science. Phenomenon were discovered that could be represented only by light, consisting of a stream of so-called quanta, appearing and disappearing through space. Physicists began to suspect that their physical entities, formerly considered reality behind the phenomena, were only images of abstract concepts. When you ask the physicist what it is that moves in such waves or particles, his answer consists of pointing to a mathematical equation. Now mass changes in the state of motion and cannot be separated from energy. Because in quantum mechanics, states of consciousness are inseparably involved in determining whether matter is a wave or a particle, mystics got into the act. “There” they said, “now we see that consciousness is at the root of matter.” It was just a hop, skip and a jump to saying the physical world itself is determined by consciousness.

Today, according to Victor Stenger, the dual nature of subatomic particles and waves is a material reality independent of consciousness. Consciousness is necessary if measurement of either is required. If no measurement is involved, the wave and particle nature is still there. It does not disappear as the mystics like to present. Niels Bohr once said that consciousness has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. The reality of a wave-particle characteristic is not brought into existence by consciousness. It was already there both before and after it is measured.

Ernst Mach

Mach’s original training was as a physicist. He was well read in philosophy, especially Hume and Berkeley, who appealed to sense data and common sense over metaphysical speculation over whether the world was ultimately made of mind or matter. Mach attempted to reduce all scientific and practical concepts including time, and knowing subjects to experiential field of sense data. He rejected as metaphysical and unscientific all forms not grounded in experience. Matter and mind are all derived concepts. The only thing we know directly is experience and all experience consists in sensations. Both objects and subjects are built from sensations. For Mach, the physical and psychical world consist of the same elements, only in a different arrangement. Mach accepted the external world as real, but he felt that the distinction between physics and psychic distinction of materialism was unnecessary metaphysics. His insistence on starting from sense data was done for methodological reasons within science.  He attempted to give methodological priority to positivism’s epistemology over its ontology.

But if matter and mind are never discussed independent of experience, there is a danger that the external world could be theorized as:

  1. an unknowable thing in itself;
  2. a spiritual idealist world; and,
  3. a world having no existence at all apart from the knowing subject.

As Pannekoek says:

Yet there is a certain ambiguity in Mach’s expression on the outer world revealing a manifest propensity towards subjectivism, corresponding to the general mystical turn in the capitalist world.  (106)

Lenin’s defense of materialism

Lenin understood very well that materialism had to be defended against mystical interpretations, and this is what he set out to do in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which he wrote in 1909.  He understood that the old deterministic nature of materialism based on the five senses was now a relative, not absolute distinction, depending on the level of reality being dealt. He also had to make sense of the fact that matter and energy was convertible. How can you be a materialist when a physicist is dealing with energy not matter? How do you answer mystical claims that matter has disappeared?

Lenin argued that what matters for materialism is not what the ultimate building block is. What matters is that matter and nature is independent of consciousness. Lenin maintained that the mind makes copies of reality (his theory of reflection) but this copy theory does not mean we have certain knowledge of the world or that mistakes and vagueness cannot occur in our knowing. He just meant that most of the time our copies of reality are good enough to have helped us survive. Lenin felt that the copy theory of the mind was the only out from mysticism.

Pannekoek argues:

Mach’s opinion that causes and effect as well as natural laws do not factually exist in nature but are man-made expressions of observed regularities is said by Lenin to be identical with Kant… To deny the objective existence of these laws means that denial of nature itself. To make man the creator of natural laws means to him to make human mind the creator of the world. (129-130)

Unlike Mach, Lenin argued that the categories of Space and Time were real properties of the objective world and not simply categories of the human mind. Right or wrong, Lenin thought Mach’s system was a rehash of Berkeley’s subjective idealism. Lenin thought Mach confused the problem of the new properties of matter with the old problem of the theory of knowledge. He felt that Marxist philosophers needed to preserve the philosophical function performed by materialism from its scientific role in providing particular explanatory framework for natural phenomena.

Criticism of Lenin

Pannekoek says Lenin accepted Newton’s model that there is absolute space and time. But Einstein refuted absolute time and space which Lenin did not address. Further:

He identified the real objective world with physical matter. Electricity too is objective reality? Is it physical matter? Our sensation shows us light; is it reality but not matter? Photons cannot easily be denoted as a kind of matter. (137)

The problem with Lenin’s copy theory is he gives no detailed discussion of how mental images copy physical objects, nor does he address the traditional objections to naïve realism. He has ignored more skeptical theories and even scientific epistemology about the limits of the mind that developed with Hume and Kant and beyond.

Socio-historical nature of mind

In his rush to defend materialism from being attacked by mysticism, without realizing it, Lenin accepted the same subjective epistemological framework as mystics and mechanical materialists had about the starting point of the mind. The epistemological framework for mystics is with the relationship between a spiritual world and an individual. For mechanical materialists, the relationship is between nature the biological individual. Where mystics and mechanical materialists differ is in the ultimate nature of objective reality. For mystics the ultimate reality is the spiritual world. For mechanical materialists it is biophysical nature. But they agree that subjectivity begins with the individual. For Vygotsky and the socio-historical school, in between the biophysical world and the individual mind is a socio-historical layer of reality. It covers the earth the way the lithosphere and biosphere does. It is akin to Vernadsky and Chardin’s noosphere. It is socio-historical objectivity which engages in an expanding feedback loop with nature. Individual subjectivity emerges from and interacts with the historical-social layer of reality. The individual mind does not engage nature directly, only indirectly.

What Lenin ignored in his epistemology was that the human mind does not engage nature directly. The individual mind does not even become a human mind until it is socialized and historicized. For dialectical materialists like Vygotsky, the human mind is created out of a socio-historical network from birth to death. Vygotsky, Leontiev and Luria claimed that psychological skills first originate through structural, meaningful, cooperative, and recurring through three phases:

  • local interpersonal relations between people;
  • these skills then get internalized as private; and
  • these skills are then reapplied to large social global contexts.

Please see my article on What is Socialist Psychology? for a longer discussion of these phases.

The main function of the mind is externally, not internally, driven. Primarily, the human mind is concerned with the collective engagement of transforming external objects through the laboring process in order to satisfy basic needs. Introspection or self-reflection is the second stage of this process, but it is not the main focus as it is with idealist mysticism.

For dialectical materialists the human mind is a function, not a substance (as it is for mystics) of highly organized material bodies – human beings. To say that the human mind is inseparable from society and history is not to say that other animals do not have minds. What it does mean is that without intense social life and verbal language, their minds are mostly imprisoned in the present. It is the socialization and historization of homo sapiens that is responsible for making the mind a human mind.

Before the emergence of the human mind, mind had an origin in nature, specifically the brain. The brain is an adaptive responsive to rapidly changing nature where instinct was a less and less reliable resource. There are non-social creatures without brains that have no mind. With the emergence of a central nervous system, animals developed brains. But it is only when animals have a social life and brains, that pre-human minds appear. Nature was physical, chemical and biological before the brain or the mind appeared. So, the mind is first a product of nature and later through the social and historical practice of human beings, the mind becomes a coproducer through society and history with nature. For materialists, there is no mind beyond nature, society or history. A dialectical materialist, unlike a mechanical materialist, does not reduce the mind to the brain. While the brain is a necessary condition for the mind, once the mind emerges through its building of a socio-historic layer of nature, mind becomes more than the brain.

 Idealist theories of the mind of everyday people

Contrary to this worldview, consciously or not most people combine a naïve realist picture of reality with idealist theories regarding the mind. They imagine that the human mind is autonomous from society and history. They are convinced the mind is a special property, beyond society and history. They believe that while the human mind may serve partly as an adaptive function in society and history, it is much more than that. Additionally, from the idealist viewpoint, the mind’s most important function is not interpersonal, but personal and self-reflective. Through introspection it can potentially find its real destiny which is to tap its otherworldly source, God. This is done through meditation, prayer, or other spiritual techniques. The idealist theory of individual mind is a product of a religious orientation to life. Please see Table A for a comparison between idealist, mechanical materialist, and socio-historical theories of mind.

Table A

Mystical, Mechanical Materialist, and Socio-Historical Theories of Mind

Category of comparison Mystical (Idealism) Mechanical Materialism Dialectical Materialism
Starting point Individual relationship to God Individual’s relationship to nature Society’ relationship to nature
Are there levels in reality? Yes. Matter, life, mind spirit, Aurobindo No, just one level primarily – physical Everything else reduces to matter Yes. Matter, life society, mind
How broad is matter?

 

Controlled by God – Not infinite or eternal Infinite and eternal Infinite and eternal
How active is matter? Spirit is immanent in matter and guides it along Matter is passive and determined by necessity and chance

 

Matter is self-active and creative
Relationship between mind and brain Minds can exist without brains The brain and the mind are interchangeable – Mind is an epiphenomenon

 

The brain is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the mind
What drives the mind?

 

 

Internally driven by self-reflection Externally driven and adapted to biophysical constraints Externally driven through laboring to adapt to socio-historical constraints

 

What is mind? Spiritual substance Secretion of the brain A function of the brain
Theoretical examples of what mind is Plato’s theory of form Lenin’s theory of reflection Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development
How important is society in determining human behavior? Unimportant – We are primarily spiritual beings with our home in the stars Unimportant – We are primarily biological beings Vitally important – We could not be human without social life
How trustworthy are the senses? Untrustworthy – Revelation introspective more trustworthy

 

Generally trustworthy and corrected by reason Generally trustworthy and corrected by reason
What is the nature of contradictions? Mistakes of the human mind Mistakes in the human mind Contradictions exist in nature, society, and the human mind
What is the emphasis in human activity? Spiritual learning through prayer, meditation. Individual adaptation Human socio-historical accumulating practice
How active are human beings? Active in the spiritual domain Passive and determined by bio-physical forces: sex, senses Active in socio-history as both products and coproducers of society
What is an illusion and what is real? Matter is an inferior replica or an illusion Matter is real and the spiritual world is an illusion Matter is real and spiritual world is an expression of social alienation
Theoretical philosophers Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, St. Thomas, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Leibniz, Bradley Democritus, Epicurus Lucretius, Descartes, Hobbes, Laplace, d’Holbach, Helvetius, La Mettrie, Lenin Heraclitus, Spinoza, Diderot, Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky

Why Are New Age Ideas So Popular in Yankeedom: A Socio-historical Checklist

Interest in parts of New Age thinking includes what are called paranormal phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and homeopathy. In my previous article, The Political Economy of Preternatural Parapsychology I identified twelve materialistic reasons why mystical and New Age ideas are attractive to Yankees, offering hope and escape from the following problems I list here. Please see my previous article for a fuller explanation. Here they are:

  • The Decline of living standards in Yankeedom produces psychological reactance. This means parapsychology is devoted to individual freedom because real freedom is in decline.
  • Economic, political, and ecological life in the United States seem to be falling apart, and it is difficult for people to understand why.
  • There is a sense in which the current political system has little or nothing to do with democracy. There is a belief that the world is run by people behind the scenes.
  • Science has not delivered on its promise to make a better life for all.
  • People have an increasing sense of their personal lives being out of control with an unpredictable work-life and growing debt.
  • Cross-cultural surveys of happiness show people in the United States are not very happy.
  • There is a lack of security and unity in personal life and with the family.
  • People have trouble finding adventure and mystery in their current work life.
  • People in the United States seem so passive compared to people in other countries and are willing to put up with anything.
  • People fear death and cling to life at all costs.
  • Personal troubles don’t seem to have a single cause. Multiple causation and chance are unsatisfying answers.
  • Lack of universal health care makes hospital stays brief and gives doctors scant time to visit with patients.

Conclusion

New Age ideas about the relationship between mysticism and science were hot stuff by the mid-1970s, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area.  My article began with an experiential description of how even a council communist Marxist such as I could get caught up in New Age ideas about the relationship between quantum mechanists and the human mind. Next, I suggested that these New Age ideas have had a long-lasting shelf-life. On the one hand, they are still prevalent 45 years later. On the other hand, mystical ideas about quantum mechanics began over 120 years ago at the end of the 19th century. I also briefly introduced philosophical systems to show what kind of theories mysticism is competing with. I identified the everyday use of what has been called “naïve realism” and contrasted it to idealism (mysticism), materialism, and skepticism.

Most of the article is devoted to understanding how the crisis in physics with quantum mechanics at the end of the 19th century led some physicists such as Ernst Mach to claim that philosophical categories like materialism, idealism, and time and space categories were outdated metaphysical abstractions. All we know is the sense data of our experience. Further, the deterministic nature of science was questioned because the foundation of quantum mechanics is uncertainty and chance. Some of the more scientifically oriented among the Bolsheviks thought Mach had a point.

Lenin had a fit. While Mach was no mystic, Lenin understood quite clearly that a mystical interpretation of quantum mechanics was possible and very dangerous for the forces of socialism to adapt. Because consciousness is an inevitable part of measuring subatomic particles, this led some thinkers to claim that consciousness lies at the heart of matter. Lenin presented his own naïve realism understanding of the relationship between matter and consciousness. It was insensitive to the 18th century philosophical criticisms made of naïve realism by Hume and Kant and, more importantly, Lenin accepted that the epistemology subject was an individual mind.

I contrasted Lenin’s mechanical materialism interpretation of mind with a socio-historical understanding of mind based on the work of Ilyenkov and Vygotsky. In this theory, the individual mind does not directly encounter nature. Individual mental life is mediated through a kind of socio-historical membrane. It is society and history that engage and interact with nature, not the individual. Without socio-history to draw sustenance from, there would be no individual mind.

Lastly, I raised the question of why mystical theories of matter are attractive at all. I argued that this interest is part of New Age thinking that includes what are called paranormal phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and homeopathy. Using socio-historical analysis from a previous article I offered twelve reasons for their popularity.

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.