Monday, March 20, 2017

The Poetry of Quantum Mechanics

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The great epochs of cosmology have produced great poets. The atomism of Democritus and Epicurus inspired On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.  Medieval Christian cosmology found its voice in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  What about the modern cosmology of relativity and especially quantum mechanics?  Where are the poetic voices?

Not much has been said about quantum aesthetics.  I believe the spirit of modernist painting has captured it--Dada, cubism, futurism, surrealism, expressionism—they all take quantum leaps in their mode of creativity.  The message seems to have been: the ordinary objects we see around us are conventional constructs—dig deeper if you want to penetrate the mysteries of being. 

Quantum physics pervades our technical civilization.  But is there more to this science of the microworld that calls for a little help from a poet?  In fact, we’re in luck. There is a quantum physicist, author of Quantum Reality (1985) and Elemental Mind (1993), who is also a poet and a musician, in short, a man with many muses, Nick Herbert. 

Mark Edmundson from the University of Virginia has characterized the contemporary poetry scene in America with the phrase “cult of the whisper.”  (See his “Poetry Slam,” 2013, Harper’s Magazine.)  Well, there is nothing mincing or whispery about Herbert’s verse.

Consider, for example, the first quatrain of Sex Angel:

Will you let me be your astral whore?
I’m everything you want and more
Just call me—and crazy as it seems
I’ll come and fuck you in your dreams.

This takes us straight into Nick Herbert’s “Quantum Tantra Romp.” As it turns out, the author’s worldview resonates in spirit with the old poets of outdated cosmologies—Lucretius and Dante.  All three (in different ways) conclude that nature is secretly driven by what Dante called the force that moves the stars, namely, love.

Equations may tell us how nature works, but we need a poet to tell us what nature means. In “Dream of a Final Theory,” we get Nick’s view, unadorned: “If physics be a truly fundamental science/physics should provide us with new ways/to touch and be touched/by the entire physical universe.”  This is an extraordinary idea to emerge from a quantum physicist (or from anybody).  After all, one might say, to exalt the idea of love like this is unrealistic.  Love, for the most part, is finicky or fanatical by turns, a private storm in a teacup.

But this cynical retort misses the point.  In the new physics, unlike classical physics, consciousness not only counts but is key.  The observing consciousness, it turns out, is the key to actual being. Without consciousness, as John von Neumann suggested, we are left in a potential universe. It is real but not in any way that we can conceive or visualize.  

Among other things, this feature of quantum reality is a blow to physicalism.  Quantum physics signifies the return of repressed consciousness; and it returns with a vengeance, asserting itself as primary in the certification of the real.  This centrality and creativity of consciousness, Herbert regards as the essence of “magic.”  This is the real magic that shows up now and then in the miracles of saints, artists, yogis, sports folk, lunatics and ordinary people.

A phrase from Elemental Mind is our bridge to the poetry of Harlot Nature—the phrase is “quantum animism.”  Animism is Thales’ belief that nature is alive, full of gods. Process philosopher A. N. Whitehead and quantum physicist Henry Stapp put it less colorfully.

They say that all of nature at the quantum level is proto-mental and therefore in a sense alive—and therefore possiblly responsive to our moods and desires.   

The idea of quantum animism is discussed several times in Elemental Mind.  Consciousness is more widespread in the universe than we normally suppose.  Writes Herbert:  “I propose here a kind of ‘quantum animism’ in which mind permeates the world at every level.  I propose that consciousness is a fundamental force that enters into necessary cooperation with matter to bring about the fine details of our everyday world.”

In this sense, mind is elemental.

This isn’t the attitude of the “normal” scientist.  For the average worker, science is neither a contemplative nor an aesthetic enterprise.  But that’s the revolutionary point of Nick’s erotic cosmology—it rejects the use of scientific technology as an instrument of the will to power, a point that Wolfgang Pauli made when he refused to join Oppenheimer and Fermi in the effort to make the atomic bomb. Nor do lovers of quantum-animate nature approve of science and technology being used to plunder Her resources for personal profit, for the boundless greed of corporate capitalism or for the inordinate military needs of state powers. 

The early physicists (physikoi) who invented the concept of nature (physis,)—folks  like Empedocles, Heraclitus, Democritus, Parmenides, Pythagoras—they were all poets, myth makers, and shamans. They were about helping not destroying humanity.  Nick Herbert’s poetic philosophy bodied forth in Harlot Nature and his scientific books lead us to a place where science, life and poetry come together with a certain anarchic abandon.

In violent contrast, Science, as it operates today, is almost completely owned, operated and possessed by the state, the Pentagon, the corporations, the lobbies, the big donors, and other certified criminal classes.  Overall, science has been hijacked and used to exploit, ravage, and destroy nature.

We need a new poetics of science, a new vision of our relationship to nature: as partner, mother, teacher, lover—not as factory, garbage disposal system, or infinitely exploitable cash cow.

No politicians, no new technology will save us. It will take the magic of a new consciousness to bring down the merchants of death.  Any hope of preventing the crash of world civilization—given the converging trends—must be based on a real metamorphosis of mind and heart.  

Part of this needs to be an explosion of goddess energy. Nick Herbert’s poetics of quantum mechanics anticipates that, apparent in so many verses of Harlot Nature. Let’s finish with an example:    


Physics for Beginners

I remove Her outer coverings
She shows me
the very center of Her Being.

When words falter
I reach for my mathematics
Mostly She eludes description.

I remove Her  inner coverings
She shows me
A deep Nothingness
simpler and more powerful
than all of my Somethingnesses
put together.

I catch Her eye
She smiles
She opens Her Paradox
and takes out Her Mystery.

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