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The Cosmic Code by
Heinz R. Pagels
Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature
Published by Simon & Schuster/NY in 1982
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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When I first read this book in 1982, over twenty years ago, I probably agreed, as a physicist, with everything that Pagels wrote. Such as this statement from the Foreword:

[page 13] In the last ten years physicists have learned more about the universe than in previous centuries they have seen a new picture of reality requiring a conversion of our imaginations. The visible world is neither matter nor spirit but the invisible organization of energy.

Today I would say rather, "The visible world is both matter and spirit, the manifestation of which appears as an organization of energy." But I would agree with him that we need to retool our imaginations. This book describes a world as described by quantum theory, one that is "rational but not visualizable." I would make the case that physicists have bumped up against the ultimate barrier of the physical world. (1) The reason their thoughts are rational but not visualizable is because they remain rational scientists, but they believe, without proof, in the metaphysical reality of a material world without a spiritual substrate. They have shut themselves off from, a priori, the very substrate of the material world, the spiritual world. They are in the condition of a scientist trying to explain the phenomenon called "echo", but insisting all the while in studying only the reflected sound. As such they confront paradox after paradox because no where can they find a clue as to the origin of the reflected sound, or even that it is merely a reflection.

Einstein was one of the first physicists to retool our imaginations. He discovered the paradox of the speed of light being constant by imagining himself riding on a beam of light.

[page 23] Einstein knew Maxwell's theory of light and the fact that it agreed with most experimental data. But if you could catch up to one of Maxwell's light waves the way a surfboard rider catches an ocean wave, for a ride, then the light wave would not be moving relative to you but instead be standing still. [something not allowed by Maxwell's theory]. . . So, he reasoned, there must be something wrong with the assumption that you can catch a light wave as you can catch a water wave. This idea was a seed from which the special theory of relativity grew nine years later.

Then he had us imagine what would happen if we rode out into space in a steady direction: we would return to our starting point.

[page 18] My friends and companions thought I was crazy when I explained to this to them, but I felt confident and pleased because I had Einstein backing me up. Later I learned that Einstein, anticipating such appeals to his authority, once ironically remarked, "For rebelling against every form of authority Fate has punished me by making me an authority."

Since Francis Bacon began the revolution in thinking that thenceforth required worthy scientists to pay attention solely to their sensory inputs from the material world, each century has brought an enormous change or two in the level of detail with which we can inspect the material world with our sensory apparatus. Heisenberg set a limit of the level of detail with which we can inspect the material world in his "Uncertainty Principle" - a principle that states with certainty that if you inspect the speed of a material particle with better and better accuracy there comes a time that your measurements will so perturb the particle that you will have no idea where the particle is anymore. Imagine a room full of tiny bells through which you throw a baseball. You can measure where the ball is at time by listening to the tinkling of the bells. But if you let the ball get smaller and smaller, you quickly reach a point where deflections by the bell will completely randomize the ball's path. Physicists had to admit, being rational beings, that they had reached the limit of knowability with the advent of Heisenberg's principle. With quantum mechanics, the world became stranger and stranger. In this book Pagels covers many of the strange behaviors of the world predicted by quantum mechanics. Strange, and to physicists, uncomfortable.

[page 63, 64] As I realized what the abstract mathematics of quantum theory was actually saying, the world became a very strange place indeed. I became uncomfortable. I would like to share that discomfort with you.

The best example of the strangeness is to listen to how Max Born "interpreted the de Broglie-Schrödinger wave function as specifying the probability of finding an electron at some point in space." In order words, it is not a description of the motion of a wave in space but rather gives the probability of finding the particle it represents there, when one takes the square of the probability wave. Once again physics moved farther away from its classical roots. Physics calculations became less like balancing a checkbook and more like calculating the probability of winning a pot with a given set of cards in a poker game.

[page 85] The world changed from having the determinism of a clock to having the contingency of a pinball machine.

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle combined with Bohr's complementarity principle became what was known as the "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum mechanics. Neils Bohr was a philosopher whose scope extended beyond physics, a fact that did not endear him to hardline physicists such as Pagels, the author of this book.

[page 94] Bohr later in his life thought that the principle of complementarity applied to the problem of determining the material structure of living organisms. We could either kill an organism but sacrifice knowledge of its structure. The experiment al act of determining the structure also kills the organism. Of course, this latter idea is completely wrong, as molecular biologists have shown in establishing the molecular basis for life. I cite this example because it shows that even if you are as smart as Bohr, extending principles of science beyond their usual domain of application may lead to spurious conclusions.

Bohr's point was this, as I understand it: Western medicine is built on a study of cadavers, of corpses completely devoid of life. Where one may point to successes in such an approach, it is too soon to tell whether the ultimate efficacy of such an approach will out weigh the detrimental effects on the quality of human life. Pagels misses Bohr's philosophical point completely and thus recursively proves his own point by demonstrating the ineffectiveness of a physicist who tries to operate in the field of philosophy which is outside of their usual domain.

In this next passage Pagels pans Goethe's pan-psychism, calls it vitalism, calls Goethe "one of the fathers of vitalism", and mis-states what it is Vitalists believe.

[page 100] Vitalists believe there is a special "life force" in living organisms not subject to physical laws. While this appeals to our experience, there is no material basis for it. Life depends only on how ordinary matter is organized. Life-force vitalists are rare today, but they have been replaced by those who believe that human consciousness has some special property that goes beyond the laws of physics. [RJM: italics added]

Wow! Where does one start with such a load of erroneous presuppositions? Let's look at Pagels' first sentence and replace the phrase I added italics to with a phrase that best expresses what I understand Goethe to have been talking about:

Goethe believed there is a special "life force" in living organisms that is the very basis of physical laws.

Goethe believed, so far as I know, that the spiritual world came first and everything we see in the material was organized in accordance with the spiritual world, a world that is not perceptible to the sense, super-sensible, but very real nevertheless and capable of understanding by it effects, not unlike what Pagels and other material scientists claim to be true of the quantum reality of the world. One wonders if Goethe and Pagels are not in fact talking of the same thing. What a shock to Pagels this would be.

The next sentence, "While this appeals to our experience, there is no material basis for it." clearly demonstrates that Pagels does not understand that there can be no material basis for non-material reality. To use a physicist metaphor: material reality (the sensory world which we can measure with our man-made instruments) is like a precipitate from a solution. What was invisible to the eye becomes visible. No physicist would declare that the precipitated material did not exist in the solution before it became visible. No physicist would declare, as Pagels does above, that "there is no material basis for it" just because it was not visible to the human eye. To Goethe, material reality is a precipitate from the spiritual world, a sense-perceptible precipitate from a "solution" in which it was non-sense perceptible, or to put it into a positive form, a "solution" in which it was perceptible only to super-sensible perception.

The reality of sensory perception is that man-made instruments are designed to augment what humans can perceive with their sensory capabilities. But the human being contains instruments of cognition for which no man-made instruments exist. The attempts to create such instruments, such as Kirlian photography, have resulted in interesting play things that tantalize but do not deliver what they promise, a way of perceive the super-sensible world. That world is still only perceptible to human beings, and a small minority of human beings. One of the most remarkable of whom was Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, who was born with an ability to consciously access the super-sensible world and who developed himself as a creditable scientist who could compile his insights into the spiritual world into a body of knowledge which can best be described as spiritual science.

Steiner grew up in a world very much interested in the spiritual world, but a world consumed with proving the spiritual world's existence by means of sensible perceptions such as table-tapping, automatic writing, seances, etc., all of which provided sensory data for everyone present. Steiner knew too well the folly of such attempts and the serious blow they dealt to those like himself who could actually perceive the super-sensible worlds. Spiritual science was his response to a world that had gotten off-track in its desire to perceive the spiritual world using material-world sensory instruments. Goethe played an important part in Steiner's development because Steiner could perceive directly and consciously those spiritual aspects of the world that Goethe postulated and believed were there. Building on the Goethean science, Steiner was able to fill out the project that Goethe started and bring it to fruition in what Steiner came to call "anthroposophy" - a word Steiner coined from anthropos the full human being and sophie -- knowledge. Anthroposophy is the knowledge that is only capable of being possessed by the whole human. It is not possible for anthroposophy to grasped by any animal, but only by a human being. And only by a human being who fully uses his thinking, feeling, and willing. Note that this specifically excludes a human being who only uses his thinking, especially thinking restricted to only rational thinking of the kind that materialistic scientists such as Pagels so proudly displays as the only requirement for understanding the world.

Shakespeare might have been thinking of the Pagels of the world when he had Hamlet say, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Like the Biblical injunction to "Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's" we should permit physicists to expostulate upon those things that are physical and those things that are not physical, require them to be silent or to be condemned for irrationality.

We can now address the issue of the last sentence of the page 100 passage, "Life-force vitalists are rare today, but they have been replaced by those who believe that human consciousness has some special property that goes beyond the laws of physics." Yes, human consciousness goes beyond the laws of physics because the laws of physics carefully exclude investigations in that realm. If only physicists grasped that aspect of their laws, they would then be loathe to make pronouncements about the non-existence of that realm. Let physicists learn to say, with Alfred O. Korzybski's blessing, "The spiritual realm does not exist, so far as I know." and they and us will be happier for the fact of acknowledging Hamlet's declared loophole.

On pages 140 to 143, Pagels examines the double slit experiment in detail, including diagrams. Basically one fires electrons at two side by side slits with one slit closed and a distribution of electrons appears behind the open slit. Change slits and the distribution, looking ever so much like a distribution of machine gun bullets, appears behind the second slit. Open both slits and instead of finding identical distributions behind both slits, you get a wiggly distribution more like what you would get if these were water waves approaching the slits instead of electrons. But the wiggles are different sorts of waves than water waves the wiggles represent the probability of finding an electron behind the slit at a given location. If you fire only one electron, something you cannot do with a water wave, you will get the same distribution of probabilities across the back of the two slits as when you fired a lot of electrons. This tells us that the electron approaches the slits as a wave, exits the slit as a wave, and only when the electron hits an electron detector and is absorbed (and thereby observed) does the probability wave function collapse at the point where it is absorbed.

If one really wishes to get their mind around this concept, one should review the Three Laws of QED (Quantum Electro Dynamics) as formulated by Nobelist Physicist Richard Feynman. From these "laws" one can deduce all the multiplicity of phenomena of QED just as from Newton's laws one can deduce all the phenomena of classical mechanics. Note that nothing is said about how an electron gets from one place to another or what kind of a thing an electron is when it travels. In QED we lose the ability to talk about such kinds of realities completely. What we can talk about rationally is the probability of find an electron at a certain place if we choose to look.

I. A photon goes from place to place.
II. An electron goes from place to place.
III. An electron emits or absorbs a photon.

The next startling find in quantum reality shook physicist s to the core. It began with a paradox formulated by Einstein and his two graduate assistants Poldosky and Rosen [usually called EPR paradox]. This was followed by thought experiments that resolved nothing until John Bell proposed a theorem, the Bell Theorem, and a real experiment to test the theorem. In a nutshell the experiment told us that the world was not locally causal! Simply put if two particles have been in contact with each and are sent out in opposite directions at the speed of light for a second, a year or a century, and then one of the particles is observed, say its polarization, the polarization of the other particle will immediately be determined: it will necessarily take the other polarization. Somehow a simultaneous change occurs in two particles separated by light years!

How can one understand this? One way I find useful, as suggested by the double-slit experiment above, is to drop the assumption that the two particles are separated! If the two particles are electrons, we already know that the electrons are not particles, but exist in a pattern of diffuse waves until they are detected or observed. Thus, when we send these two electrons zipping along at light wave speed in opposite directions, what we are actually doing is creating an expanding wave front holding two potential electrons with the characteristic that if one electron is observed, the remaining electron, if subsequently observed, must take the opposite polarization to that found in the first electron.

As tantalizing as it is to think that this could be used to send information at speeds faster than the speed of light, Pagels shows that it is not possible. The sequences that appear at both electrons are totally random.

[page 175] That is how real nonlocality is avoided by the God that plays dice; He is always shuffling the deck of nature.

In his Chapter 13 The Reality Marketplace, Pagels asks us to imagine visits to several shops, the Many Universes for Sale Shop, the Quantum Logic Shop, and the Local Reality Shop. These imaginative dialogues will help the reader to sort out the various subjects that create conversations among physicists when they discuss what might be the ultimate reality of the world, or at least, each one's favorite version of what that reality might be.

In Part II of his book, "The Voyage into Matter" things get stranger and weirder. We find quarks inside of atomic particles with such attributes as color, charm, and strangeness. The deeper we probe reality the larger becomes the family of particles.

Aristotle said, "Nature abhors a vacuum." He had no idea how prophetic his words would be in the mid-twentieth century when physicists found that what we have called a vacuum is really not a void, but boiling, teeming plenum of particles. Particles and anti-particles are continually created out of the plenum and fall back into it.

[page 274] Space looks empty only because this great creation and destruction of all the quanta takes place over such short times and distances.

There is much more to discover about the universe and yourself inside the covers of this book. It is a comfort to see that physicists, the deeper they get into studying the structure of reality find more questions than answers, and some, like Pagels, even find more faith than skepticism. Pagels often climbed mountains in ice and snow, often hanging off the side of slippery rocks, suspended in air. One of his friends asked him why he was trying to kill himself and he objected to that characterization, so his friend replied, "When you are as old as I am you will see that you are trying to kill yourself."

[page 349] I often dream about falling. Such dreams are commonplace to the ambitious or those who climb mountains. Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss. Suddenly I realized that my fall was relative; there was no bottom and no end. A feeling of pleasure over came me. I realize that what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed.

If what we embody, like sub-atomic particles, can disappear into the plenum of the Cosmic and re-emerge later in some new form, then we can see how physicists are beginning to glimpse the real essence of the Cosmos as they attempt to learn the Cosmic Code. If a physicist like Pagels can learn from a feeling about the ultimate reality of the Cosmos, then there is hope for the rest of us.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. In 2009 when I read and reviewed Quantum Enigma Physics Encounters Consciousness, I made the point that the quantum enigma exists because of how materialistic physicists interpret quantum effects in which so-called objects move in and out between material and spiritual realities. Read my review here:

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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