Existence As The Grand Illusion
The similarities between Quantum Physics and Plato’s theory of Forms is so astonishing that one may even view quantum theory as a mathematical formulation of Plato’s theory of Forms.
Plato’s fundamental forms are regular solids of Euclidean Geometry. The fundamental forms of quantum physics are elementary particles which are not physical objects at all; elementary particles are mathematical objects; what we perceive in the form of matter is only the manifestation of these ideal-mathematical objects.
Plato considers our world to be the imperfect shadow of an ideal, perfect world of pure forms. It is not that Plato’s Pure Forms or Ideas are mental objects or subjective constructs. Plato’s Forms have existence of their own and are in fact the sole reality that exists. Only these Forms are real; what we experience as reality is the imperfect shadow of the world of pure forms. Thus, Plato’s Pure Forms are not physical entities existing in space and time; they are ideal-and in Plato’s view mathematical-entities existing beyond space and time.
Now take a look at a sentence from Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist and Nobel Laureate who was one the founders of quantum mechanics. He says in his Physics and Philosophy:
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our methods of questioning.”
From the point of view of Quantum Physics what we regard as physical reality is only the projection of an ideal, non-physical reality. According to quantum physics the underlying reality is beyond space and time, and that is why we observe phenomena such as interference and entanglement. A purely physical reality existing in space-time could not possibly produce these phenomena which are observed and experimentally confirmed.
The universe as we know it, as this physical object, has no real, physical existence; it is a mere shadow of something that lies outside space and time, something essentially non-dual. In fact the non-existence of universe as an independent reality is an immediate consequence of the postulates of quantum physics:
An isolated quantum system remains forever in a superposition state (state of pure potentiality) until it is observed or disturbed by something outside the system itself.
Now if we take the quantum system to include our universe and all other possible universes, namely if we take our quantum system to coincide with the totality of what is, then there is no way for this system to ever leave the state of pure potentiality and become actual. Even if we posit the existence of some conscious agent outside totality, like god or whatever, which can make the universe into actuality the problem remains intact; we can now define the quantum system to include that agent as well, thus making it a pure potentiality rather than something actual that can produce any effects. Though this may sound pretty abstract or strange it was common sense for the non-dual Vedantist who knows that none of this has ever happened.
According to the principles of quantum physics universe cannot possibly exist; it cannot possibly be real. Though most physicists avoid this aspect of the theory, it is interesting to know that this conclusion of modern physics is identical to the central principle of Advaita Vedanta Metaphysics. The details of this similarity is discussed in my book “Non-Dual Perspective on Quantum Physics” to which I would provide a link at the end of this essay.
Now, what is even more striking when it comes to the similarity between Plato’s Forms and Quantum Physics is the idea that “the observable reality is an imperfect shadow of a transcendent reality.” Here is the source of awe:
In quantum theory the underlying reality is described by this mathematical object called “state vector” which is a more abstract form of wave function. The whole of quantum theory and its description of reality is built upon mathematical objects called vectors and operators.
The quantum system described by a state vector naturally dwells in Hilbert Space which is an abstract mathematical space lying beyond space-time. Hilbert Space in which superposition states exist is the space of pure potentiality where the formless, non-dual reality dwells. Hilbert Space is NOT inside our familiar space and time; it is more like the void that contains our space-time in pure, formless potentiality.
In quantum physics observation corresponds to the action of operators on state vectors. The operators corresponding to the act of observation are called Projection Operators. What projection operator does is to project what is in Hilbert Space onto our familiar space-time. A quantum system which is originally in superposition state inside Hilbert Space (space of pure potentiality) in thrown into actuality by the action of the Projection Operator.
The Projection Operator is defined in a graduate textbook of quantum physics as follows:
“The action of Projection Operator gives the shadow of any state vector on a subspace.”
Through the act of observation it is not the reality that we experience but a mere shadow of it; the true reality, including our own real selves, lies beyond space and time. According to quantum physics what is observed is a mere shadow of a transcendent reality.
Considering this precise meaning of observation and experience and also the fact that our universe could not have possibly been thrown into actuality, we see that the reality described by quantum physics is somewhat identical to the reality described by Plato’s Theory of Forms. Both agree that what is real is not what is observed: Observation is a mere shadow, a pure appearance, having no reality of its own.
The only thing that ever existed is the state of pure potentiality which can never be actualized. What we experience as actual reality is more like a dream: The apparent actuality must be a cosmic illusion, a Noema, a Maya, namely a Noemaya.
It is interesting to see that cosmologists have caught some clues about this idea since a lot of them are coming to the conclusion that our universe behaves more like a hologram, a theory known as the Holographic Universe.”
I have explained in detail the non-dual aspects of quantum physics and its similarities to esoteric traditions such as Advaita Vedanta in the following book: