Dreams, Consciousness, and the Nature of the Universe
By Maria Popova
“The logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake,” the artist, philosopher, and poet Etel Adnan wrote as she considered creativity and the nocturnal imagination. It is an insight that transcends the abstract imagination of art to reach into the heart of reason itself, touching the crucible of consciousness and everything that makes the matter huddled in the cranial cave a mind. After all, we are born dreaming and spend a third of our lives in the unconscious reaches of the night. Often, what we find there surprises us, even though we ourselves originated it, being always both the dreamer and the dreamt. Sometimes, what we find there awakens us to revelations our conscious mind has grasped for but failed to seize, bringing into our waking lives breakthroughs of understanding that forever change the course of our ordinary thought.
That is what theoretical cosmologist, jazz virtuoso, and my occasional poetic collaborator Stephon Alexander explores in one of the most fascinating and satisfying portions of Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider’s Guide to the Future of Physics (public library) — his brief yet undiluted history of the most groundbreaking discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the universe, peering into the unlit horizons of its future. Emerging from the pages is a broader meditation on how these fathomless leaps were made — “how a theoretical physicist dreams up new ideas and sharpens them into a consistent framework” — in ways often unexpected, sometimes seemingly inexplicable, and almost always arisen from minds that were in some way other, pulsating with the quiet power of pariahood, symphonic with the same outsiderdom that made Blake and Beethoven who they were, thinking in ways orthogonal to the common tracks and playing with forms of not-thinking that vivify the dead-ends of thought.
Reflecting on Einstein’s epoch-making reckonings with the unseen nature of reality, which began in little Albert’s childhood encounter with the compass that gave him the intuitive sense that “something deeply hidden had to be behind things,” Alexander writes:
A scientist should make connections and see patterns across a range of experimental outcomes, which may not be related to each other in an obvious way. Once the scientist ekes out these patterns, she makes a judgment call as to whether a new principle of nature is necessary. But this is misleading. Facts are statements about phenomena, but they don’t exist on their own; they are always conceptualized, which means that they are, if only implicitly, constructed theoretically. Experiments allow us to answer theoretically constructed questions. Theory tells us what “facts” to look for.
In consonance with physicist Chiara Marletto’s case for how the science of counterfactuals expands the horizons of the possible, he adds:
Sometimes to get around a scientific problem, one must consider possibilities that defy the rules of the game. If you don’t enable your mind to freely create sometimes strange and uncomfortable new ideas, no matter how absurd they seem, no matter how others view your arguments or punish you for making them, you may miss the solution to the problem. Of course, to do this successfully, it is important to have the necessary technical tools to turn the strange idea into a determinate theory.
The exercise of journeying into a theoretical territory and then journeying back has proven time and time again to be useful in surveying what’s possible and, hopefully, what describes and predicts the real universe.
Often, scientists journey on the wings of thought experiments — playthings of the mind, modeling physical events made possible by the laws of the universe but impossible to carry out experimentally with our earthbound tools. (This technique, of course, might be fundamental to just how the human mind makes sense, deployed not only by scientists but also by philosophers at least as far back as The Ship of Theseus — the Ancient Greek thought experiment that remains our best model of the self — and into Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, and into what might be my favorite: the vampire problem.)
Even in science, these reconnaissance rovers of the possible sometimes launch from uncommon places; sometimes, the laboratory of the mind is outside the mind — at least outside the common waking consciousness by which we reason, speculate, and sensemake. There is the iconic case of Einstein’s dreams, so splendidly brought to life by physicist and novelist Alan Lightman. There is Mendeleev discovering his periodic table in a dream. Such profound dream-state breakthroughs of insight into waking reality are not limited to science — there is Dostoyevsky discovering the meaning of life in a dream, and Margaret Mead discovering the meaning of life in a dream.
With an eye to Einstein’s masterpiece of the mind, Alexander writes:
Beginning when Einstein was a teenager hanging out in his father’s electric lighting company, he would play with imaginations about the nature of light. He would try to become one with a beam of light and wondered what he would see if he could catch up to a light wave. This matter found itself in the playground of Einstein’s subconscious and revealed a paradox in a dream. It is said that Einstein dreamt of himself overlooking a peaceful green meadow with cows grazing next to a straight fence. At the end of the fence was a sadistic farmer who occasionally pulled a switch that sent an electrical current down the fence. From Einstein’s birds-eye view he saw all the electrocuted cows simultaneously jump up. When Einstein confronted the devious farmer, there was a disagreement as to what happened. The farmer persisted that he saw the cows cascade in a wavelike motion. Einstein disagreed. Both went back and forth with no resolution. Einstein woke up from this dream with a paradox.
In the account of Einstein’s dream, and other accounts of the role of dreams in creative work, such as music, science, and visual art, there is a common theme: a paradox is revealed through imaginations that are contradictory in the awake state.
Alexander’s own scientific trajectory was pivoted by a dream-state insight.
As a young scientist, after many spurned applications, he finally got an appointment as a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College in London, working with some of the living luminaries of theoretical physics. Immediately seized with impostor syndrome, he found his mind, ordinarily “volcanic with ideas,” in an ashen stupor. He considered becoming a high school physics teacher. He considered leaving physics altogether and devoting himself wholly to jazz.
Then, one day, the head of his theory group summoned Alexander to his office. Chris Isham — “a tall Englishman with dark hair and piercing eyes and who walked with a slight limp,” living with a rare neurological disorder, just like his friend and former classmate Stephen Hawking — was a widely revered virtuoso of mathematical physics and quantum gravity.
When Isham asked the young American physicist why he was at Imperial College, Alexander flinched with the tenderly human fear that he was about to be called out for being a fraud. But he answered with a scientist’s clarity and a Stoic’s composure: “I want to be a good physicist.”
Isham’s response stunned him: “Then stop reading those physics books!” Pointing to a dedicated bookshelf in his office containing the complete works of Carl Jung, he instructed Alexander to begin writing down his dreams, which they would discuss in weekly sessions at Isham’s office. He then urged him to read Atom & Archetype — the record of Jung’s improbable friendship with the Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who had originally turned to him for dream analysis but who ended up collaborating with the famed psychiatrist to bridge mind and matter in the invention of synchronicity.
Alexander obliged, welcoming this uncommon invitation to spend time with his scientific hero. And then came the dream that shaped his own science. He writes:
As the weeks passed, I told Isham about what I thought was a trivial dream. In Jungian philosophy, dreams sometimes allow us to confront our shadows with the appearances of symbols called archetypes. I saw one here. I was suspended in outer space and an old, bearded man in a white robe — it wasn’t God — was silently and rapidly scribbling incomprehensible equations on a whiteboard. I admitted to the old man that I was too dumb to know what he was trying to show me. Then the board disappeared, and the old man made a spiraling motion with his right hand. Isham was captivated by this dream and asked, “What direction was he rotating his hands?” I was baffled as to why he was interested in this detail.
But two years later, while I was a new postdoc at Stanford, I was working on one of the big mysteries in cosmology — the origin of matter in the universe — when the dream reappeared and provided the key insight to constructing a new mechanism based on the phenomenon of cosmic inflation, the rapid expansion of space in the early universe. The direction of rotation of the old man’s hand gave me the idea that the expansion of space during inflation would be related to a symmetry that resembled a corkscrew motion that elementary particles have called helicity. The resulting publication was key to earning me tenure and a national award from the American Physics Society.
Reflecting on the fertility of this unconscious work in the dream-world — work that springs from the same consciousness with which we make sense of the ordinary world of touch and thought — Alexander adds:
Perhaps dreams are an arena that can enable supracognitive powers to perform calculations and perceptions of reality that may be incomprehensible in our wake state. In my case, my paradox was making an equivalence between incomprehensible equations presented by the bearded man and his counterclockwise whirling hands. This counterclockwise motion turned out to summarize the mathematics that was obscuring the underlying physics to be unveiled.
Underlying such experiences is the question that first pulled Alexander to physics, inspired by the work of his great hero, the boldly outsider-minded Erwin Schrödinger: “What is the relationship between consciousness and the fabric of the universe?”
Alongside pioneering quantum mechanics — and perhaps in order to be able to pioneer quantum mechanics — Schrödinger dared to reach far beyond the common contours of Western science, into poetry, into color theory, into the ancient Eastern philosophical traditions, into the most elemental strata of being, to ask question about life and death and the ongoing mystery of consciousness.
Schrödinger looked for the answers of his scientific inquiries not only in uncommon places, but in uncommon ways.
When Einstein won his Nobel Prize for demonstrating that light can behave not only like a wave, but like a quantum particle — the photon, born of the harmonic vibrations we call quanta — the wave-particle duality hurled the world of science into a discord of comprehension. And then Schrödinger returned from a skiing trip with an elegant and revolutionary equation describing for the first time the wavelike behavior of electrons, laying bare the dream for a wave function of the entire universe.
That selfsame year, 1926, while pondering the nature of consciousness, Virginia Woolf described all creative breakthrough as the product of “a wave in the mind.” Two decades earlier, at only twenty-one, at the golden dawn of quantum physics, she had written in her diary that “our minds are all threaded together… & all the world is mind.”
Schrödinger would come to echo this insight in his part-koan, part-aphorism, part Wittgensteinian declarative statement that “the total number of minds in the universe is one.”
Shortly after Woolf’s death, Schrödinger published some of his ideas linking mind and matter in a slender, daring book titled What Is Life? — part thought experiment and part theoretical manual for the future. Bridging the laws of physics that give stars light with the biochemical processes that give us life, he sought to understand, by leaning on the quantum world, how something as complex as the consciousness that animates us can arise from inanimate matter.
Epochs ahead of their time, Schrödinger’s propositions not only shaped the course of physics but inspired the research that led to the discovery of the structure and function of DNA, which made tangible the ambiguous and amorphous idea of the genetic unit of inheritance that had been rippling across the collective mind of science. Alexander writes:
Schrödinger opens his argument by conjuring quantum mechanics as the starting point to understand the difference between nonliving and living matter. For example, the bulk properties of a piece of metal, such as its rigidity and ability to conduct electrons, require an emergent long-range order [which] should be a result of the bonding mechanism and the collective effects of the quantum wavelike properties of electrons in the metal’s atoms. Schrödinger then describes how the atoms in inanimate matter can organize themselves spatially in a periodic crystal, before making a daring leap. Life clearly is more complicated and variable than a piece of metal, so periodicity isn’t going to cut it. So Schrödinger makes a bold proposal: that some key processes in living matter should be governed by aperiodic crystals. More astonishing, Schrödinger postulates this nonrepetitive molecular structure — which will turn out to be a great description of DNA — should house a “code-script” that would give rise to “the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.”
Planted into other fertile and unorthodox minds, these ideas went on to seed the founding principles of information theory (in Claude Shannon’s mind) and cybernetics (in Norbert Weiner’s mind), shaping the modern world — the world in which I am extracting these thoughts from my atomic mind, externalizing them by pressing some keys over a circuitboard, and transmitting them to you via bits that you receive on a digital screen to metabolize with your own atomic mind. Here we are, thinking together, threaded together across the globe by fiber optic cables and relativity. All the world is mind, woven of matter.
More than that, Schrödinger’s inquiry into the relationship between life and non-life, between mind and matter, fomented a new wave of uneasy excitement about the nature of consciousness, washing up ashore what might be the most controversial, misunderstood, and daring theory of consciousness: panpsychism, rooted in the idea that “consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter, the same way that mass, charge, and spin are intrinsic to an electron.”
Clarifying the theory’s central premise of a “nonlocal conscious observer” — which, to be clear, is not a science-cloaked euphemism for “God,” as much as certain spiritual factions have attempted to appropriate quantum science for their ideological purposes in the century since its dawn — Alexander writes:
Let us assume that consciousness, like charge and quantum spin, is fundamental and exists in all matter to varying degrees of complexity. Therefore consciousness is a universal quantum property that resides in all the basic fields of nature — a cosmic glue that connects all fields as a perceiving network.
More than a century after the uncommonly minded Canadian psychiatrist Maurice Bucke posited his theory of “cosmic consciousness,” which influenced generations of thinkers ranging from Einstein to Maslow to Steve Jobs, Alexander probes the real physics underpinning this speculative model:
The expansion of the early universe linked with the flow of entropy necessary for biological life is a hint at a deeper interdependence between life and the quantum universe. Did life emerge in the cosmos through a series of accidental historical events? Is there a deeper principle beyond natural selection at work that is encoded in the structure of physical law? And on top of that, the question that bothered Schrödinger and that got me into science in the first place: What is the relationship between consciousness and the fabric of the universe?
Answering these questions might call into question the idea that the world out there is independent of us being there.
In the remainder of Fear of a Black Universe, he shines a sidewise gleam on these questions by detailing some of the most exhilarating discoveries and ongoing mysteries of science — how the still-uncertain constituent we have called dark matter keeps Earth’s orbit accountable to the assuring certainty that tomorrow arrives tomorrow, what the symmetry of geometrical objects has to do with the fabric of spacetime that hammocks our lives, whether space and time would cease to exist if gravity vanishes, and how ancient Babylonian, West African, and Indian creation cosmogonies contour the quantum quest for a wave function of the universe.
Published December 13, 2021