Experiments with phase conjugation may help link physics to metaphysics--
and metaphysics to a comprehensive spiritual world view.
Text and illustrations by Richard L. Thompson
In the United States and the Soviet Union, scientists compete to perfect optical phase conjugation--a process that can reverse the motion of a beam of light, causing an image scrambled by an irregular medium (such as frosted glass) to return to its original, undistorted form. They hope to use reversed light beams to focus laser weapons on enemy missiles.
At Syracuse University an eminent physicist appears before a large audience. A professor of religion introduces him as the man who may save the world from the fragmentation of modern Western thinking and bring people to a platform of transcendental wholeness. The physicist then begins expounding metaphysical ideas based on physics and Eastern philosophy.
Although it may seem surprising the military research work and the university lecture share a common foundation in a fundamental feature of the laws of physics. To understand how this is so, let us first consider optical phase conjugation.
The application of the technology of optical phase conjugation to "star wars" weapons systems is still in the conceptual stage, but the unscrambling of light that has passed through frosted glass has actually been demonstrated (see Figure 1).
As the reflected beam leaves the phase conjugate mirror, it has the curious properties that (l) it encodes information for the original image in a distorted, unrecognizable form, and (2) as time passes, the apparently random distortion is reduced, and the information contained by the beam becomes clearly manifest. Normally we would expect to see just the opposite--a pattern containing meaningful information will gradually degrade until the information is irretrievably lost.
According to classical physical theory, however, the laws of physical dynamics are reversible, and thus it is possible in theory for any physical process to run backward and recreate an earlier state of affairs from its later end product. This implies that information is never actually lost as a result of physical transformations, and in principle it might be possible to again extract the information from the cosmic energy background. The restoration of a garbled image by a phase conjugate mirror seems to provide an example of this.
While the phase conjugate mirror example shows an apparently random pattern being produced by letting an orderly pattern degrade by natural processes, random patterns can also be produced in other ways. In some techniques of optical phase conjugation, one adds to the reflecting beam a predistorted image--of a face, for example--that was not present when the beam first passed through the clouded glass. As the beam retraces its path, the face undistorts and becomes clearly visible.
This example of research in optical phase conjugation has bearing on metaphysical questions. Could it be that the universal background of random electromagnetic noise incorporates patterns that are imposed on the physical medium by a transcendental source of order, and which are programed to naturally generate orderly forms and sequences of events?
The Implicate Order
As it turns out, the fact that dispersed information can give rise to localized organization has been used as the cornerstone for a comprehensive metaphysical world view. This is the theory of the implicate order, devised by David Bohm--the physicist in our second scenario.
Bohm generally illustrates his ideas with an apparatus consisting of two concentric cylinders with the space in between filled with a viscous fluid such as glycerine. If a drop of ink is placed on the surface of the fluid and the outer cylinder is slowly rotated, the drop will be drawn out into a long, thin strand that ultimately will become invisible. If the outer cylinder is then slowly rotated in the opposite direction, the stretching out of the drop will be reversed, and at a certain time the drop will again become briefly visible. Then it will again stretch out and disappear as the rotation of the cylinder continues.
We can see that this is another example of how information for an organized structure--in this case the drop of ink--can be dispersed throughout a physical medium in an unrecognizable form and then recovered through a physical transformation that restores the original structure. Bohm would say that the dispersed ink drop has become enfolded in the fluid, and that when it reappears, it has become unfolded.
From this example we can understand Bohm's world view by two steps. In the first step, we imagine that all phenomena in the universe are enfolded in an ultimate physical substrate--the ground of all being--which Bohm calls the "implicate order." As processes of physical transformation occur in this substrate, successive enfolded patterns unfold and emerge in explicit form, manifesting the "explicate order" of our ordinary experience.
The second step in understanding Bohm's world view is to understand his conception of the implicate order as a unified whole consisting of apparently distinguishable parts. According to Bohm, although the parts seem distinct, each part is identical with the whole since it includes, or "enfolds," the whole. To Bohm the most important characteristic of ultimate reality is undifferentiated wholeness. Although he accepts the existence of distinct parts as an aspect of the explicate order, he regards it as incorrect to suppose that, on a fundamental level, reality is actually made up of distinct parts.
The intuitive basis behind this idea of wholeness is that when information is enfolded into a physical system, it tends to become distributed uniformly throughout the system.
For example, when a drop of ink is enfolded into the glycerine, the pattern of ink from which the drop can later be recovered stretches out over a broad area. If we could somehow remove the ink from all parts of this pattern except for a small region, then we would find that a dim image of the original drop could be restored, or unfolded, from the ink in this region alone. Thus, in one sense, the enfolded drop has been distributed over many different parts of the glycerine at once.
This leads to the idea of a continuum in which all patterns ever manifest in any part are represented equally in all parts. Speaking loosely one can say that the whole of the continuum in both space and time is present in any small part of the continuum. By invoking quantum mechanical undefinability, which holds that a particle such as an electron must be defined simultaneously as a particle and a wave, one can then leap from this idea to the idea of a unified entity encompassing all space and time, in which each part not merely represents the whole but contains the whole and is thus identical to it.
This is Bohm's implicate order. Although it is partly based on physics, it also clearly involves ideas that are quite alien to traditional physical science. In fact, Bohm's implicate order represents an attempt to build a bridge between physics and a metaphysical system some call the "perennial philosophy."
The essence of the perennial philosophy is that reality consists of a hierarchy of levels ranging from gross matter through mind, intelligence, and ego, and culminating in an all-encompassing transcendent state of absolute oneness. Many cultures have expounded such philosophies, and the most highly developed examples include Buddhism, the advaita-vedanta philosophy of India, Sufism, Taoism, and Christian mysticism.
Though Bohm does not explicitly say so in his books, it is clear from published conversations that he is trying to create a synthesis of physics and the particular form of advaita-vedanta expounded by the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, whose teachings Bohm greatly admires. Thus Bohm's implicate order is motivated by metaphysical ideas extending far beyond the limits of his reasoning about physics.
The idea that "unfolded" information can give rise to observable organized form is based both on physical theory and practical examples, such as the phase conjugate mirror. But the idea that the parts of the implicate order actually include the whole does not arise naturally from these sources of inspiration, and indeed it is very difficult, if not impossible, to formulate this idea mathematically.
Where, then, does this idea ultimately come from? Bohm speaks of insight that comes from beyond manifest thought, and that may even originate from a level transcending the implicate order. He emphasizes, however, that human thought cannot grasp the unmanifest, and he stresses the danger of becoming deluded by false insights. But if human thought is not an adequate instrument for gaining knowledge of the unmanifest, then how will we be able to distinguish between true and false "insights"?
As we have indicated, Bohm's ideas come from the Indian philosophical system of advaita-vedanta, which forms one school of thought within a diverse body of tradition generally known as Hinduism. According to this tradition, transcendental knowledge can be reliably attained through the mutual reinforcement of two forms of revelation; internal and external.
The external revelation is expressed in scriptures, or sastras, which descend to the human level through a chain of enlightened beings, and which originate from a transcendental, supremely intelligent source. The general term for this body of revealed knowledge is Veda.
The internal revelation is directly transmitted into the consciousness of a spiritual aspirant from the same supreme intelligence that introduced the Vedic sastras into the material realm. This corresponds to Bohm's idea of insight originating from a source beyond the implicate order. In the Vedic system, however, this insight is corroborated by the sastras. which are directly accessible to the external mind and senses. By accepting the guidance of the sastras, a spiritual aspirant is able to discriminate between genuine and spurious spiritual insight. We suggest that Bohm's metaphysical system is incomplete without some form of explicit external revelation.
If one is going to seriously seek transcendental knowledge, one should at least theoretically accept that (1) the ultimate transcendental source of this knowledge is able to communicate with human beings, and (2) records of genuine communications of this kind do exist in human society. If this is not so, then one has little hope of understanding that which lies utterly beyond the grasp of the mind and senses.
One might therefore seriously consider the perennial notion that a supreme intelligence, known in the West as God, maybe the source of the organized information that gives rise to our manifest world. Bohm, in fact, comes very close to admitting the possibility of a sentient supreme being. However, in line with the philosophy of advaita-vedanta, he finally turns away from this idea, declaring, "There's nothing we can do with that."
Simultaneous Oneness and Difference
It is interesting to note that the Vedic sastra entitled Brahma-samhita gives a very clear description of Bohm's idea of a whole that is fully contained in each of its parts. Ironically, this is part of a series of prayers to God as a supreme person:
He is an undifferentiated entity, as there is no distinction between potency and the possessor there of. In His work of creation of millions of worlds, His potency remains inseparable. All the universes exist in Him, and He is present in His fullness in every one of the atoms that are scattered throughout the universe, at one and the same time. Such is the primeval Lord whom I adore.
One might object that the human mind acting on its own could not possibly demonstrate the truth of the personal conception of the supreme whole. Therefore, one should adopt a more cautious conception that is abstract and impersonal. The point can be made, however, that any conception of the Absolute generated by the finite mind is as mundane as any other, including both personal and impersonal conceptions. One then may as well forego all metaphysical speculation and restrict one's attention entirely to the manifest world of interacting material energies.
But if one does want to introduce ideas about the Absolute derived from revealed knowledge, then the Vedic literatures give concrete indication of how direct realization of this knowledge can be attained. Although the Supreme Lord is inaccessible to the mundane mind, the Lord will reveal Himself to persons who surrender to Him and serve Him with love. This, of course, is also a perennial philosophical conclusion.
Back to Physics
We have seen that key aspects of Bohm's world view are based indirectly on traditional sources of revealed transcendental knowledge. One might ask, however, what part of his philosophy of the implicate order can be based exclusively on physical observation and theory.
We suggest that this is limited to the observation that macroscopic forms can arise by physical transformations from patterns of minute fluctuations that look like random noise. These patterns may appear in many forms, ranging from light waves to distributions of nuclear magnetic fields. The patterns are not necessarily spread throughout all space, but patterns that will later give rise to distinct macroscopic events may co-exist in the same volume of space.
We can use these observations to show another way in which a link can be established between physics and metaphysics. Our proposed link is derived from the Vedic literature Srimad-Bhagavatam. It is the idea that the material creation is brought about and maintained through the injection of divinely ordered sound vibrations into a primordial material substrate called pradhana.
According to this idea, the pradhana is an eternally existing energy of the supreme that is capable of manifesting material space and time, the material elements, and their various possible combinations. Left to itself the pradhana would manifest none of these things, but it does so under the influence of intelligently directed sound vibrations generated by the Supreme Lord.
Here the word sound is a translation of the Sanskrit word sabda. Since the pradhana is even more subtle than space as we know it, this sabda does not refer to ordinary sound, consisting of vibrations propagating through gross matter. We will therefore interpret "sound" here to mean any type of propagating vibration, however subtle.
Optical phase conjugation provides an analogy to this picture of the relation between material and transcendental levels of existence. Consider an arrangement in which pictures are being transmitted through a sheet of frosted glass. An observer on the receiving side would see successive images emerging from the glass screen, but he would not be able to see the transmitting persons and apparatus on the other side.
Let us suppose for the moment that organized wave patterns are continually being injected into the known physical continuum from subtler levels of physical reality. Such patterns will appear to be random, especially if they encode information for many different macroscopic forms and sequences of events. For this reason they will be difficult to distinguish from purely random patterns by experimental observation.
Thus much of the random noise that surrounds us may consist of information for patterns that will "unfold" in the future to produce macroscopic results, while the rest consists of the "enfolded" or "refolded" remnants of past macroscopic patterns. If a pattern of microscopic vibrations does unfold to produce an organized macroscopic effect, then this will make a very striking impression if it can be observed.
To indicate the possibilities for such an event, we can give an example based on the idea of a wave field. The surface of a pond is a simple example of such a field.
The Theory of Evolution
Natural history is an area in which the hypothesis of unfolding of subtle information has relevant applications. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the prevailing scientific viewpoint has been that the origin of living species can be explained by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection and random variation. But there have always been prominent dissenters from this view.
In the nineteenth century Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-inventor of Darwin's theory, felt that the action of some higher intelligence was required to account for such biological phenomena as the human brain. A similar point is made by Bohm, who feels that "natural selection is not the whole story, but rather that evolution is a sign of the creative intelligence of matter." As we have pointed out, Bohm regards this intelligence as emanating either from his implicate order or from beyond.
In the theory of creation by sound vibration that we are considering here, it is to be expected that the forms of living organisms could be generated or modified through the effects of organized wave patterns transmitted into the physical realm by the supreme intelligent being. This will also be difficult to either demonstrate or disprove empirically, because of the incompleteness of the fossil record and the presumed rarity of radical transformations of species.
When evaluating a possible transformation of this kind, there will always be the problem of making sure that the transformation is not a result of ordinary physical cause and effect. To do this effectively would require detailed knowledge about the transformation, which would be very difficult to obtain.
Actually both the theory of creation by sound vibration and the Darwinian theory of evolution are extremely difficult to test empirically. On the physical level both theories are dealing with phenomena that are extremely complex and are not subject to experimental manipulation.
The theory of creation by sound vibration involves transcendental levels of reality not accessible to the mundane senses, and thus in one way it is more unverifiable than the purely physical Darwinian theory. However, if a purely physical theory turns out to be empirically unverifiable, then there is nothing further one can do to be sure about it. In contrast, a theory that posits a supreme intelligent being opens up the possibility that further knowledge may be gained through internal and external revelation brought about by the will of that being. Of course, the dynamics of obtaining such knowledge are different from those of empirical, experimental science and mathematical analysis. Instead of forcing nature to disclose its secrets, one surrenders to the Supreme Lord in a humble spirit and pursues a path of spiritual discipline and divine service.
This approach to knowledge and to life also constitutes one of the great perennial philosophies of mankind, but it has tended to be eclipsed in this age of scientific empiricism. To obtain the fruits of this path to knowledge, one must be willing to follow it, and one will be inclined to do this only if one thinks the world view on which it is based might possibly be true. Establishing this possibility constitutes the ultimate justification for constructing theories, such as the one considered here, linking physics and metaphysics.
Reprinted from BTG, Volume 23, Number 5.
Copyright (c) 1988 by BTG, a division of Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, International
Last updated on June 24, 2003.
© 2004 Govardhan Hill Publishing