An interview on science and consciousness

Preamble: In October 2021, I was contacted by Fatima Mutarelli, Chief Editor of the online newspaper “Il Gattaccio di Via Bastioni,” an initiative born as part of a rehabilitation project for psychiatric patients hosted by the Mental Health Center in Via Bastioni in Salerno, Italy, managed by the guests of the Center themselves, with the aim of proposing interviews and writings having the perspective of the “good tidings.”

Fatima, together with all the participants of this editorial project (Alberto Ingenito, Annamaria Avagliano, Francesco Tonto and Salvatore Criscuolo), asked me if I was available to grant them an interview, in my capacity as a physicist (and consciousness’ researcher), agreeing to answer to questions entirely conceived by the guests of the Center, passionate about the subject, who, although are neither physicists nor mathematicians, nevertheless had the patience to listen to many of my lessons on YouTube.

Given the interest in their publishing project, still in its infancy but undoubtedly with great prospects, and their passion, I accepted with pleasure. So, we made this great interview. The questions I was asked were really stimulating and allowed me to offer some unusual reflections, which I hope will intrigue those who read them, even if ignorant of these subjects.

Below, my English translation of the interview.

Gattaccio: You are a theoretical physicist, dedicated to inner research activities and to the study of consciousness, you are, among other things, a writer, researcher, scientific popularizer, specializing in the field of quantum physics (among other things, you are part of the research group at the University of Brussel, directed by physicist Diederik Aerts); difficult for us to offer a non-trivial presentation, and for this reason, we would like to let you introduce herself. Who is Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi?

Massimiliano: To be honest, I don’t really like definitions, which hardly capture what a person really is. In any case, if I were to characterize myself with an “catch” phrase, I would perhaps say that I am a “theoretical physicist and experimental self-researcher.”

Anyway, yes, I am affiliated with the Center Leo Apostel, of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, which is a center of a transdisciplinary nature, founded by the Belgian physicist Diederik Aerts, with whom I have the pleasure of collaborating. The director of the center, however, is today the cybernetician Francis Heylighen.

In Lugano, I also run a small inner research center, the LAB — Laboratorio di Autoricerca di Base.

Gattaccio: Could you “introduce” quantum mechanics?

Massimiliano: It would take a whole book to do it!

Simplifying to the extreme, we can say that quantum mechanics was born in the early years of the last century (then reaching maturity during the thirties), to explain some experimental data that were in open conflict with what was predicted by the available theories. This has led to a real revolution, which has forever changed our way of looking at physical reality, especially that of the microworld.

Today, however, it would be more correct to use the term “quantum physics,” rather than “quantum mechanics,” because all modern physics, and not just mechanics, has been traversed by the quantum revolution.

Gattaccio: Quantum physics has very extravagant laws. At the quantum level, it is as if a particle were, at the same time, black and white, as if it could chose, autonomously and randomly, whether to manifest itself as matter or as energy, as if it could interact and exchange information with other particles instantly and surpassing, without problems, the speed of light. Is it science fiction, are these theoretical hypotheses, or has it been proven that elementary particles possess such abilities?

Massimiliano: The so-called elementary particles, which are not mere corpuscles, possess amazing abilities, it is true, especially if you look at them from the perspective of our spatiotemporal prejudices.

But it is not entirely correct to say that an elementary particle is capable of simultaneously possessing incompatible properties, such as a body that would be simultaneously black and white (or like the poor Schrödinger’s cat, who would be simultaneously alive and dead). Two incompatible properties, such as being present in two separate regions of space, can indeed be possessed simultaneously by a quantum entity, but only in potentiality, never in actuality.

Let’s take the example of a gray body. We can do an experiment and ask people if they find that gray body more like a white body, or more like a black body. Some will reply that it is more like a white body, others that it is more like a black body. Looking at the different responses, we can then say that that gray body is potentially both black and white. You see, for quantum entities, when they are in a so-called superposition state, this is exactly what happens: they are in a “gray state,” which gives rise to different answers, when a measuring instrument has to decide if that gray is more similar to black or more similar to white.

(I open a curious parenthesis: if we put a gray body under a magnifying glass, we discover that that gray is made up of a mixture of many small black and white pixels).

As for the speed of light, quantum particles never exceed it, in the sense that no physical entity can move through space faster than the speed of light.

Quantum entities, however, are endowed with a strange ability, called non-locality, which allows them to “move” outside of space, and that is why, in some circumstances, it can give rise to supraluminic phenomena.

Einstein’s relativity, it should be remembered, does not prohibit supraluminic phenomena, that is, phenomena faster than light. What it forbids is the possibility of a supraluminic communication, or of a supraluminic transport of matter, because this would generate paradoxes.

Shadow is an emblematic example of a phenomenon capable of moving faster than light. There is a beautiful little book by the French physicist Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond that explains it very well, entitled “La Vitesse de l’ombre. Aux limites de la science,” that is, “The speed of the shadow. At the limits of science.” However, I don’t know if it has ever been translated into English [1].

Gattaccio: Classical physics teaches us the universal laws that we all know and have studied; however, when the elementary particles are studied, these laws are broken and the principles of quantum physics are in force, almost always in total contrast with the laws of classical physics. But the reality we live in, is unique. How is it possible?

Massimiliano: To say that classical physics teaches us “the universal laws we all know” is not entirely correct. If they were truly universal, then they would remain valid even at the microscopic level. Therefore, it is not the universal laws that are broken when we study microscopic entities, but our prejudices, in the sense that what we believed to be universal laws, in fact, are not.

There is no doubt that reality is unique, or “one.” As the great French physicist Henry Poincaré said, if I am not mistaken in his beautiful little book “Science and Hypothesis” [2], the problem is not so much knowing whether reality (he said nature) is one, this being practically an evidence, but “how” it is one, that is, how that oneness is structured, what types of entities make it up, what is their nature, their relationships, etc.

Another important thing, we must not confuse the map with the territory. If reality is the territory we are exploring, our scientific theories are like maps that we draw to represent and explain it.

The question then becomes: can we represent all of reality on a single map?

If we ask Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, his answer is no. Indeed, according to Heisenberg, quantum physics and classical physics are maps that fully describe different aspects of our reality. In the sense that Heisenberg considered them not to be further perfected, and he also thought the same in relation to other fundamental theories of physics, such as relativity, statistical thermodynamics, and electromagnetism.

For the discoverer of the famous principle that today bears his name, these theories are “closed,” in the sense that they describe in a perfectly accurate and complete way certain aspects of the territory, that is, of physical reality, which by its nature requires a pluralism of maps.

With Diederik Aerts, we expressed a very similar concept by introducing the notion of “multiplex realism,” according to which the great dance of the multidimensional reality cannot be staged in a single theater, such as spacetime, for example, but requires a multiplicity of theaters, with different characteristics, each capable of capturing some aspects, but not others [3].

For example, one thing that many of my colleagues do not know, discovered by Diederik Aerts in the eighties of the last century, when he was still working on his PhD, is that quantum theory is absolutely unable to describe two separate systems [4]. I mean two systems that are “experimentally separated,” and not simply “spatially separated.”

The famous paradox of Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, which you may have heard about, originates precisely from this unjustified assumption: that the quantum theater is a priori able to stage every aspect of reality. It is not so.

Gattaccio: Among the themes of your research on quantum mechanics, the “principle of non-locality” of particles stands out; in a nutshell, it is argued that the elementary particles do not belong to the Euclidean space in which we find ourselves, but that they belong to a different “plane” and that they manifest in our space when certain conditions are met. Can you explain this principle to us in simple terms, and what does it imply, in practice, for the reality we live in?

Massimiliano: It is important to point out that many of my colleagues do not agree on the interpretation of quantum non-locality in terms of non-spatiality, that is, on the fact that quantum entities, for most of their time, would be in genuinely non-spatial states.

There is a strong prejudice that we humans cultivate, I would say almost unconsciously: that of believing that all reality is contained in the spatiotemporal theater. But it is far too small a theater to do so. We know this not only because of the quantum revolution, but also of the relativistic one.

Explaining in a simple way quantum non-locality, that is, the non-spatiality of quantum entities, is not an easy thing to do, because there is a risk of running into numerous misunderstandings. But I will try with a metaphor, which I consider quite apt.

Consider the English language. If I ask a person if the English language exists, the answer will obviously be affirmative. But if I ask where the English language is, the answer will be less obvious.

One might be tempted to say that the English language is to be found in books written in English, in audio recordings in English, etc. However, that would not be an entirely satisfactory answer. In fact, in some way, we would be confusing the English language, which is an immaterial entity, with the traces it is able to leave in the various material supports with which it can interact, such as printed and electronic books, audio files, etc.

Now, a microscopic entity (such as a photon, or an electron) would be non-spatial in the same way that the English language is. Like the latter, it does not actually live in space, but is able to leave detectable traces in it when it interacts with the various measuring instruments, for example in a physics laboratory.

Regarding the question of what non-locality or non-spatiality implies in practice for the reality we live in, here the answers can be manifold. All the most important quantum properties of matter-energy are a consequence of the existence of the so-called superposition states, from which non-locality follows. All technologies that exploit quantum properties exploit non-locality in some way.

Today it is very trendy to talk about quantum computers, able to solve calculation problems in a short time that classical computers can only solve in astronomical times. If they can do this, it is because they use non-locality. In a certain sense, they reason on a more abstract level, that of the meaning contained in a language, and not on the more concrete, but more limited, level of its traces. To put it another way, they work on the level of potentiality rather than on the level of actuality.

Gattaccio: Another topic of your research is “quantum consciousness.” What is it about? Where are you with the research and what is the difference, if any, with the “quantum mind”?

Massimiliano: The subject of consciousness has fascinated me since I was a child, but as a physicist I have only dealt with quantum cognition, not quantum consciousness, or quantum mind. But it’s easy to get all these terms confused.

Let me try to briefly explain what “quantum cognition” is all about.

In the past, many scholars of the mind have tried, unsuccessfully, to model how we humans think, make decisions, and attach meaning to different life situations. Their failure was due to the fact that, despite the prejudice that we humans are “rational animals,” in fact we rarely behave rationally.

In a certain sense, the situation was like that of the founding fathers of quantum physics, who found themselves studying physical entities also having an irrational behavior, in the sense that they did not obey the laws of classical physics, which were based on the so-called Boolean logic.

In short, a bit like us humans, quantum entities rarely behaved rationally.

Now, to some physicists and mathematicians who learned of these problems that experimental psychologists were facing, including the aforementioned Aerts, came the idea of trying to apply quantum mathematics to the modeling of human cognitive processes. In other words, instead of applying the probabilistic laws of classical physics, they began to apply those of quantum physics, and to their great surprise they discovered that the “quantum mathematical suit” was tailored to describe how human concepts combine and interact with structures sensitive to their meaning, such as human minds.

Quantum cognition is therefore that field of study that borrows the artillery of quantum mathematics to explain our way of thinking and making decisions. The reasons for its success are easy to understand. Even if the founding fathers of quantum mechanics had not realized it, or fully realized it, the theory they had developed had a very particular characteristic: that of allowing the description of entities of a highly contextual nature.

An electron, for example, depending on the experimental context, will behave more like a particle or more like a wave. The same is true of human concepts. Depending on the context, the same word will be able to completely change its meaning.

I give an example. The word “bat,” inserted in a linguistic context where the word “baseball” appears, for example in the phrase “The barrel part of a baseball bat is the one meant to hit the ball,” will have a completely different meaning than when it is inserted in a context where the word “animal” appears, for example in the sentence “Bats are fascinating animals, the only true flying mammals.”

In other words, human conceptual entities and quantum entities are both contextual in nature. Among other things, this observation led the colleague Aerts, a few years ago, to propose a very innovative interpretation of quantum physics, called the conceptuality interpretation, on which I too recently had the opportunity to reflect [5]. According to this very speculative interpretation, the strangeness of the behavior of the entities of the microworld is due to the fact that they are much more similar to concepts than to objects.

As for the terms “quantum mind,” or “quantum consciousness,” they usually refer to something else: the possibility of explaining the mind, or consciousness, assuming that they emerge from specific quantum processes, taking place in the brain.

Personally, I am not very much attracted to these models, although some are undoubtedly ingenious, since I believe that the mind, and consciousness, are “something” whose existence is independent of the material structure of the brain, in the sense that they are “something” capable of using different structures to manifest, not just those of ordinary matter.

Gattaccio: “Entanglement” represents one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science. In summary, it is the property that some particles have, when mutually correlated, to transmit information to each other instantaneously, regardless of their distance in space, so that the speed of this transmission also exceeds that of light. How is it possible? Does this discovery question the foundations of physics? And what new theoretical scenarios does it open, on the knowledge of matter and reality?

Massimiliano: When we refer to quantum entanglement, we often think of “particles” very far from each other. But entanglement is omnipresent in material structures, regardless of the spatial distances involved.

Everything that interacts produces intricacy, to use the term the French use to translate the English word “entanglement.” The way in which we explain entanglement in the Brussels group is as follows: quantum entities, when interacting, create real connections. These connections are like “bridges,” which however remain hidden, because they cannot be represented within our spatial theater. They are non-spatial bridges, from which the famous quantum correlations emerge.

To give a simple example, consider two persons, Alice and Bob, who hold the two ends of a very long stretched elastic, so long that Alice and Bob cannot see each other and communicate. However, they know that that elastic, when unstretched, is exactly 100 meters long.

Suppose that Alice and Bob agree on when to pull, at the same time, on their respective ends, thus breaking the elastic. In this way, they will both collect a fragment of the original elastic band. Now, if Alice measures the length of her fragment, and let’s say she finds out that it is 30 meters, she will be able to predict with certainty the length of Bob’s fragment, which will be 70 meters, that is, 100 meters minus 30 meters. In other words, with no communication between Alice and Bob, the lengths of the two fragments are perfectly correlated. You see, quantum correlations are a bit like an invisible elastic band that breaks.

In our interview, we obviously cannot go into these issues further [6]. I would only like to add that according to the conceptuality interpretation, which I have just evoked, these quantum connections would be made of a strange “substance,” which if we were to describe using our human language, we would say that it is similar to what we call meaning. It is the meaning, in fact, that allows us to connect the different concepts, that is, the conceptual entities that populate our human cultural world, and that perhaps also populate the world of matter-energy.

Gattaccio: The discovery of the “Higgs boson” has demonstrated the existence of the “Higgs field” and, consequently, how matter has acquired mass; in your opinion, dark matter simply does not interact with this field or is there more? What do you think of this form of “matter”?

Massimiliano: I think we really know too little at the moment to be able to say anything meaningful about it.

Since I have just evoked the notion of “meaning,” and the possibility that the behavior of physical entities is governed by the level of meaning, one could speculate that the so-called dark matter belongs to a “culture” so different from that of ordinary matter, not to allow any form of communication, except through the gravitational channel.

Leaving the field of physics, some hypothesize that dark matter is an indirect manifestation of those fields of “subtle matter” that are described in many texts of the ancient traditions, such as that of Yoga. Personally, I remain skeptical. Mind you, I’m not skeptical about the existence of the “subtler” dimensions of existence, but about the fact that dark matter has something to do with these dimensions.

Gattaccio: Physicist Hugh Everett hypothesized the existence of multiple universes (multiverse) that could also be connected through black holes, as theorized by physicist Stephen Hawking. What is your position on this?

Massimiliano: Physics describes different types of possible parallel universes. Those hypothetically connected or connectable through black holes are not, however, of the same nature as the universes associated with the name of Hugh Everett.

The latter, to tell the truth, never spoke of parallel universes. Who did it was the American physicist Bryce deWitt, who subsequently reinterpreted Everett’s theory giving life to what is now called the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

With Aerts we wrote a few years ago a rather critical article on the many-worlds, or many-universes, vision [7]. It is not possible for me to summarize all the objections we raised in that work, but I would like to point out one that seems important to me.

In the many-worlds interpretation, creative processes do not exist, because everything that can happen invariably happens. This means in particular that in deWitt’s vision there is no dimension of choice, nor consequently that of potentiality.

On the other hand, if there is something that the quantum revolution has fielded with strength, it is precisely the dimension of potentiality, which is the one that cannot be represented in our small spatiotemporal theater. What we indicate with the term of potentiality would constitute the richest and deepest part of the huge reality in which we live and evolve.

From my perspective, the many-worlds interpretation throws the “baby” and infinitely multiplies the “dirty water.” The baby would be non-spatiality, while the dirty water would be the spatiotemporal theater.

Gattaccio: Do you think it will be possible in the future to apply quantum studies and discoveries to understand and treat rare diseases?

Massimiliano: In our Brussels group we have recently suggested precisely this possibility, as a consequence of the revolution in the use of quantum mathematics to extract meaningful information from the net [8].

Evidence-based medicine is very expensive, and when dealing with rare diseases it is no longer in the interests of drug companies to finance it. It is therefore necessary to find methods to extract more refined information from the analysis of the data already available, overcoming the problem of double-blind tests, the purpose of which is to evaluate the effectiveness of a drug beyond the psychophysical effects. The tool of quantum statistics could prove to be a valid ally to achieve this.

Gattaccio: Crossing and overcoming certain boundaries of science, don’t you think there is a risk of reaching uncontrollable and inaccessible unknowns?

Massimiliano: Reaching what is inaccessible is by definition impossible. Instead, putting our hands on knowledge that could lead to applications that could escape our control, well, this is unfortunately highly probable, since it has already happened.

If the famous “doomsday clock” of Chicago University marks today “1 minute and 40 seconds before midnight,” it is because of the continuing threat posed by nuclear arsenals, at the global level, to which we must add the most recent threat of pandemics.

With regard to the latter, we can observe that we humans, with the technical knowledge we have today, are able to alter the functions of a virus of animal origin to make it highly contagious and lethal for us humans. The hypothesis that Sars-Cov-2 is the result of the so-called “gain-of-function research” no longer belongs, unfortunately, to conspiracy theories, but is considered today as very serious and realistic by numerous scientists.

The problem is that our technological progress, which has been remarkably rapid in the last decades, has not been accompanied by equal ethical progress. This difference, between the level of our technico-scientific knowledge and our understanding of the ethical dimension of existence, is undoubtedly something very dangerous: a sort of critical point for the survival of our species on this planet, which I hope we will be able to overcome.

Gattaccio: Is there a meeting point between science and spirituality? If so, which one is it?

Massimiliano: From my perspective, Research, that with a capital “R,” is only one. The meeting between science and spirituality is therefore certainly possible, since their separation is of an illusory nature.

Both scientific research and spiritual research, when understood in their purest sense, move with one and the same purpose, which is to get closer and closer to the Truth, whatever is meant by this term.

Let’s say that science and spirituality use different methods of investigation, because their attention is on different aspects of reality. Simplifying to the extreme, we can say that science looks above all outward, and to probe the external reality it builds ever more performing and sophisticated measuring instruments, while spirituality looks above all inward, and to probe the inner reality it uses an instrument already available, the very sophisticated one of our “human machine,” which, however, would not be limited to the physical body only.

Gattaccio: How far should scientific research go? Wouldn’t it be right to set a limit so as not to invade the spirituality of the individual?

Massimiliano: Science does not have the power to invade the spirituality of the individual, but some of its achievements could undoubtedly lead us to enter evolutionary blind alleys.

I talked about the “human machine,” because I was talking about investigation tools, but the term is improper, because we humans (and not only we humans) are not machines, we are much more.

When we begin to explore our interiority, we can realize that “something” lives in us that is mysterious, and at the same time very familiar; “something” that our scientific theories are unable to capture and explain.

I’m talking about the phenomenon of “naked consciousness,” the fact that we exist as subjects, able to make choices and have individual experiences, even of a transcendental nature.

This duality, between outer and inner research, which is another way of talking about the duality between matter and spirit, if we are not careful, risks leading us astray. For example, we risk letting ourselves be fascinated by that philosophical vision that today dominates scientific research, known as metaphysical materialism, according to which we humans are nothing but a very sophisticated bio-machinery.

According to this vision, the human body is not only one of the possible vehicles of manifestation of the individual consciousness, but its seat, so much so that when the body dies, the consciousness will also die. From this assumption, in my opinion unjustified, the idea arises, typical of some currents of transhumanism, that only with technology can we overcome the limits of our human condition. In this vision, any path of spiritual research is considered vain and illusory.

From my perspective, if we really want to find out what the limits of the human condition are, and eventually overcome them, we must turn our gaze inside, not outside. Only in this way can we understand “what” we really are, what our true potential is, as individual evolving consciousnesses.

Gattaccio: You say that religion and science are two windows that offer views on a different knowledge; would it be possible to apply quantum studies to solve the dogmas and mysteries of religion that are today inexplicable?

Massimiliano: What I sometimes explain is that science and spirituality both open windows on non-ordinary aspects of reality, but that what we can observe from those openings, the knowledge to which they give us access, do not necessarily coincide.

We can certainly affirm that quantum, and relativity, have forced us to think about reality by abandoning our restricted spatiotemporal representation. And since our language is imbued with spatial and temporal notions, this forces us to use our mind in a very different way than we are used to, we could say in a non-ordinary way, and this is certainly useful even when we try to reflect on the nature of spiritual worlds, which, however, do not necessarily have something to do with quantum physics.

We must not transform quantum physics into a new religion, which unfortunately is already happening in some circles.

Gattaccio: Self-research, or inner research, strips us of what we are not; but does it manage to define what we are in absolute or terms, or relative to the moment in which we live?

Massimiliano: When we are interested in understanding the true nature of our reality, be it inner or outer, we must be careful not to cultivate unjustified assumptions, that is, prejudices. This is because a prejudice would block the exploratory process and condition our perception. It is therefore useful, initially, to make a clean sweep of what we think we know, and to try to remain as long as possible in a state of pure observation.

Meditation, which we hear so much about, unfortunately often inappropriately, tries to do just that: to promote an observational process that is as neutral as possible, as disidentified as possible. And since we have talked about space and time, with the meditative practice we also try to “watch” reality without the filter of our spatiotemporal glasses.

Now, once we clear the field of our preconceptions, what happens? We can simply begin to perceive more clearly what we really are, beyond our identifications. But we don’t decide “what we are,” we can only find out. It is a journey, every step, however small it may be, brings with it new understandings and realizations.

Gattaccio: What is consciousness?

Massimiliano: What consciousness really is, I believe that no one is able to tell. The question “What is consciousness?” for me it is of the same tenor as the question “What is God?” I am not saying that God and consciousness are the same. What I am suggesting is that consciousness, like God, are genuine “singularities” present in the fabric of reality; singularities that probably even beings much more ancient than us humans, from time immemorial, are trying to explore and study.

Bibliographical references

[1] Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond (2006). La Vitesse de l’ombre. Aux limites de la science. Editions du Seuil.

[2] Jules Henri Poincaré (2017). Science and Hypothesis. Bloomsbury Publishing.

[3] Diederik Aerts & Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi (2020). Realismo multiplex. AutoRicerca 21, pp. 57–114.

[4] Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi (2019). On Aerts’ overlooked solution to the EPR paradox. In: Probing the Meaning of Quantum Mechanics. Information, Contextuality, Relationalism and Entanglement. D. Aerts, M.L. Dalla Chiara, C. de Ronde & D. Krause (eds.) World Scientific, pp. 185–201.

[5] Diederik Aerts, Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, Sandro Sozzo & Tomas Veloz (2020). On the Conceptuality interpretation of Quantum and Relativity Theories. Foundations of Science 25, pp. 5–54.

[6] Diederik Aerts, Jonito Aerts Arguëlles, Lester Beltran, Suzette Geriente, Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, Sandro Sozzo & Tomas Veloz (2019). Quantum entanglement in physical and cognitive systems: A conceptual analysis and a general representation. Eur. Phys. J. Plus 134, 493.

[7] Diederik Aerts & Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi (2015). Many-Measurements or Many-Worlds? A Dialogue. Foundations of Science 20, pp. 399–427.

[8] Diederik Aerts, Lester Beltran, Suzette Geriente, Massimiliano Sassoli de Bianchi, Sandro Sozzo, Rembrandt Van Sprundel & Tomas Veloz (2019). Quantum Theory Methods as a Possible Alternative for the Double-Blind Gold Standard of Evidence-Based Medicine: Outlining a New Research Program. Foundations of Science 24, pp. 217–225.

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