Cambridge (UK): Recently physicists from Uppsala University made a model of the Universe being a bubble in five dimensions [1]. As outlandish as that may sound to some, this is only one among a long series of developments of theories to describe nature as we know it, using conceptual tools of Physics. Consistency with empirical data is what is crucial for a theory to hold its ground. However, physics is slowly hitting a dead-end in terms of unifying the forces of nature under a single umbrella. Unifying gravity with the other forces: strong, weak and electromagnetic. As beautiful as String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity maybe, without empirical evidence to corroborate some of their key points, such as supersymmetry, they are just that: theories. What is constant throughout all these theories of nature is the reduction of known elements in terms of even more fundamental elements. Quarks make up protons and neutrons, which in turn make up the atoms, which compose molecules.  We all take for granted the idea that reality is made of particles, objects, things. We have a tendency of reductionism and reducing everything to its components, even in day-to-day life. A car is made of its engine, wheels, chassis and seats. A computer is made of its motherboard, keyboard, monitor et al.

But what if I were to say that reality fundamentally relies not on objects but on phenomena?

That phenomena do not arise in nature due to objects or relations between them but are more fundamental than the objects themselves; almost in a primordial set of phenomena that give rise to matter and objects to satisfy some causal structures? It is one of the toughest things to even visualise since we take it for granted that phenomena arise out of objects. I have lately been interested in looking at this possibility more closely and see if Physics and the Universe can emerge out of phenomena.

Barad, Agential Realism and Reality

Unification is the holy grail of physics that has been the pursuit of mankind for millenia. At the turn of the twentieth century, while man had unified electricity and magnetism, there were lots of blanks still to be filled. Nonetheless, if Lord Kelvin were to be believed there was not much left to do in Physics besides ‘fixing some decimal places’ in the 1890s [2]. A decade after this statement, the world of Physics was changed forever with Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis or the Year of Miracles [3]. In the twentieth century, first relativity, then quantum mechanics and finally quantum field theory and the Standard Model came to the fore. After three of the four fundamental forces: strong force, weak force and electromagnetism, have been unified [4, 5], all that remains is to unify gravitation with this triad, on the physical front. However, there is another major point of debate that relates to the idea of the unification of the mind with mat- ter and the role of the observer in creating reality.

Barad’s theory of Agential Realism and Kastner’s ‘Reality of Possibility’ gives a possible way to do this. Quantum theory, the theory that describes the microscopic, the atomic, usually works with statistical averages instead of individual events. In doing so, and confining oneself to statistics as the norm, one may be missing crucial information. It is to work around this problem that we need to look more closely at the quest for unification using a realist approach. My current supervisor Nobel Laureate (Physics, 1973) Professor Brian Josephson showed that a close affinity existed between agential realism and certain classical models of self-organisation, and concluded that the characteristic features of the quantum domain may merely involve some possibility within the classical domain that is characterised by a particular kind of order [6].

Following on Neils Bohr’s idea that there is a certain relevance of the context for determining physical phenomena in the quantum domain, Barad developed his idea of Agential Realism, which was an attempt to make sense of the quantum domain in realist terms. The central role in this conception of reality is played by the concept of indeterminacy. According to Bohr, the details of the quantum detail are not only uncertain but rather indefinite and cannot be determined. Assigning values to variables, due to this, is contradictory to this understand- ing. Bohr inferred from his ideas that one can never presume that particular assertions about a system of interest are necessarily meaningful, and that what- ever can be stated meaningfully is actually a function of the context, unlike in the classical domain where attributes can be presumed regardless of the context.

In the case of scientific measurements, an existing concept does guide the de- sign of the measuring instrument, but this need not be the case in general, and rather a concept associated with an agent emerges over time as the agent evolves. Morevoer, in this line of thinking, relationships are seen to be primary in that they influence entities that are related and relationships precede relata in Barad’s words. Going further in this understanding, one needs to make a distinc- tion between information and influence. When on entity in a combined system starts exerting a certain control on another such that one becomes the source of information, then it is said to influence the other entity. For information transfer to be effective at achieving some outcome, the information transferred must be processed in accordance with certain specific rules, and it is this spe- cific behaviour associated with the application of such rules that Barad terms as Discursive Practice. Barad views matter as something active, and as something that configures its surroundings so as to continues to function effectively, with the conception o a certain omnipresent action as in zero-point motion in physics.

Eigen, Kastner and Wheeler

Eigen takes this discussion forward with deliberations on the idea of biologi- cal self-organization. The question he addresses is how complicated molecular systems that are found in biology can sustain themselves and evolve. He posits that there is a structure known as a Hypercycle that plays a significant role. For instance, this structure tends to be able to utilise small selective advan- tages and be able to evolve quickly on the basis of these selective advantages. Such a system that involves a closed cycle of information carriers coding for functional systems that generate the information carrier(s) next in the cycle, can also develop branches exhibiting various functionalities, with a common el- ement that allows the coexistence of the branches. Eigen’s model may involve molecules, but the principles underlying his model are found to be as relevant in the context of agential realism, provided that structures with corresponding features exist. This is particularly seen in systems close to an instability, where non-linearity is seen to be conducive to structure formation. Moreover, a system that performs a sequence of changes can develop an instability if some end product is similar to the starting situation, thereby allowing the cycle to be repeated. In Kastner’s Possibilist Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, the collapse of the wave function is interpreted as the outcome of a transaction with a possibility. Possibilities are things that can be considered real, but are not necessarily actualized. The aforementioned theory can accommodate possibili- ties but in a slightly different way, namely as aspects of a discourse rather than something real. In this way, Kastner’s transactions with possibilities translate into discourse involving possibilities.

In the article Law without Law, John Archibald Wheeler explored the hypoth- esis that the ‘observer-participancy’ of quantum mechanics could be the basis of a new science [7]. This new picture involves agents evolving more and more advanced concepts over time, instantiated by evolving discursive practices. To define the basic mechanics of this evolution, we start with a system that knows essentially nothing, but which can explore and learn, provided the initial physics supports the kinds of structures and relationships that are required. There is a clear logic [8] to the sequence of the incremental changes in the development and evolution of such systems, as a consequence of the way existing skills need to be operational before new ones can be acquired. In this regard, the computer model of Osborne exemplifies such an incremental process [9]. As far as the actual mechanics is concerned, we begin with an initial hypercycle and for such a hypercycle the developments envisaged by Hankey and Eigen can occur, with new concepts being established through the mechanisms envisaged by Barad and Bohr, whereby some apparatus becomes more and more representative of particular concepts over time. The fact that this process involves the use of the mechanisms corresponding to a concept implies that it is the most useful concepts that get developed in this way.

The Primacy of the Observer and the Oriental Side

Given the developments in Quantum Physics over the last century, the primacy of the act of measurement and the observer has been established in certain realms of physics. Be it the Copenhagen Interpretation, the Many Worlds Theory or Decoherence, the subject of what propagates reality, so to say, has been a matter of debate. The question still fundamentally remains: what makes the subject-object relation change reality? More importantly, why does it? If we were to believe the decoherence theory, there seems to be a certain correlation (entanglement, to be precise) that is generated between the system, the measuring apparatus and the environment. But lately I have been having the question: what if the segregation is imposed rather than natural? What if the object, measuring apparatus and the environment are all but one, and it is through what Barad calls intra-actions that the universe just changes its internal configuration and dynamics?

I cannot help but mention the resonances this idea has with certain oriental traditions. Vedanta talks about a non-dual conception of reality, where the underlying reality of all objects and phenomena are not-two. We do not see it is one or unity since as soon as that is done one has to define the object and the other (the subject and the environment). If Brahman, the not-two is all there is, then how can we have such a scenario. Hence it is called ‘not-two’. Brahman is what is the causative agent as well as the constituent of the Universe, in all its forms and shapes. The most interesting idea however is that the genesis of the universe is spooked of in terms of a primordial perturbation in the Brahman; a process that led to other processes; to the ‘thoughts of Brahman’, so to say. This phenomena-based model therefore has a number of resonances with the Vedantic and general Vedic conception of the Universe. Another oriental school of thought where this comes up is Taoism. Today, Taoism is a major religion of Asia. It talks of living in harmony with the Tao. Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the Universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe due to it being non conceptual yet evident’ in one’s being of aliveness. It is the underlying cosmic principle, much like Brahman, that remains, changeless and ever-present. It’s activities and ways of changing are what give rise to the universe, as we see it.

As much as these ideas have resonances, I am cautious about taking things verbatim from them. Metaphysics may have ideas that may need a bit more of empirical evidence to conclusively place on a strong grounding. Alas, that may take some time, since we have just begun to probe into a section of Physics while a lot of the physical world, be it on energy scales, length scales or time scales, remains unexplored and a matter of conjecture and theorising. Being a seeker of Truth, I look forward to knowing more on that in the years to come, even as I independently and decoupled from my scientific research, journey along a more spiritual, oriental path as well.

As I begin looking more closely at some ideas at the foundations of Quantum Mechanics and the true nature of existence and reality during my postdoctoral research, these are some musings and thoughts I recently had. Physics may just be on its way to have a paradigm shift, having reached a phase of slow progress lately, mainly due to empirical constraints. Much like Kelvin’s skepticism at the turn of the twentieth century was followed by Einstein’s revolution a decade later, we may be in for some changes in the way we see nature. Let us see if this one is what describes nature best!


[1] Uppsala University. “Our universe: An expanding bubble in an extra dimension”. Public Release. Available here.

[2] Michael Redhead. Is the end of physics in sight? In Correspondence, Invariance and Heuristics, pages 327–341. Springer, 1993.

[3] John R Gribbin, Mary Gribbin, and Albert Einstein. Annus mirabilis: 1905, Albert Einstein, and the theory of relativity, volume 1. Chamberlain Bros., 2005.

[4] Richard P Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. Theory of the fermi interac- tion. Physical Review, 109(1):193, 1958.

[5] SL Glashow, S Weinberg, and A Salam. Elementary particle theory. Nucl. Phys, 22:579, 1967.

[6] Brian D Josephson. A structural theory of everything. arXiv preprint arXiv:1502.02429, 2015.

[7] John Archibald Wheeler. Law without law. Quantum Theory and Mea- surement, Princeton Univ. Press, 1983.

[8] Brian D Josephson and HM Hauser. Multistage acquisition of intelligent behaviour. Kybernetes, 10(1):11–15, 1981.

[9] George Osborne. The logical structure of the cognitive mechanisms guiding psychological development. 1995.

[10] Brian D Josephson. Biological observer-participation and wheeler’s ‘law without law’. In Integral Biomathics, pages 245–252. Springer, 2012.

(Header Image Credit: NASA; available here)