The paradoxes of quantum physics
In a purely deterministic thinking, defining the state of a system at a given point in time, determines all later states. Modern science has challenged this world view. Quantum physics does predict the future quantum state from the present state; but it only gives probabilities for observable events. According to quantum physics measurable events are based on laws of nature, but ultimately they contain a spectrum of possibilities, from which certain real facts emerge through a strange process referred to as the ‘collapse of the wave function’ (Tamavakis, 2019, p. 452). In other terms: Quantum mechanics postulates “special correlations [that] are forbidden by very general arguments based on realism and local causality” (Laloë, 2001, p. 655).
As any theory, quantum physics can be seen as a model (Stachowiak, 1973). A model is an idealized representation of some domain. It creates a system of ‘symbolic forms’ as Ernst Cassierer (1923) called it, with a cognitive and also with an aesthetical value.
With such models, physicists try to explain and predict phenomena, for instance in the interaction of light and matter. Engineers, on the basis of quantum theory, construct useful artifacts (e.g. lasers). But from its first days, quantum theory also triggered philosophical reflections. Many great physicists that pioneered quantum theory also contributed philosophical and mystical writings (Wilber, 2001). Their scientific work had led them into a series of perplexing paradoxes (Aharonov & Rohrlich, 2008) and opened perspectives that inspired them to go beyond science.
The reasons for this ‘philosophical turn’ are manifold. One reason could be that in the ‘traditional’ interpretation of quantum physics, the theory offers a model where nature has two sides: an entangled superposition of various possibilities on one hand and ‘collapsed’ states with defined measured outcomes on the other. In fact, this twofold perspective has repeatedly been discussed in natural philosophy.
Natura naturans and Natura naturata
As an example we can consider Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677). In his Ethics (Part I, Prop. 29, Scholium) he introduces the terms of Natura naturans and Natura naturata. Steven Nadler (2020) writes:
[According to Spinoza,] there are two sides of Nature. First, there is the active, productive aspect of the universe […]. This is what Spinoza […] calls Natura naturans, “naturing Nature”. […] The other aspect of the universe is that which is produced and sustained by the active aspect, Natura naturata, “natured Nature”.
Our attitude towards experiences – be it in describing our daily lives or be it in empirical scientific activities – conceives things in nature as objects. We create constructs that are defined, delineated, and independent from one another and assign our experiences to these constructs. Then our reason connects them, determines cause and effect and observes correlations. All this is useful and has its cognitive and practical worth and validity. But it obviously focuses on the Natura naturata, Nature as a given outer structure.
But then, we are left with the question: What is Natura naturans, Nature in its becoming? And do we have any relation with it, any access to it? Here, we should be aware, that Spinoza articulates the equation of ‘Deus sive Natura’, ‘God or Nature’ (Ethics, Part IV, Prop. 4, demonstratio). If one follows this equation, then the question about the Natura naturans is nothing less than the question about the immanent Divine Force in everything.
Among others, post-Kantian idealists perceived the ideas of Spinoza. Spinoza, in his worldview saw the Divine as an immanent force. Many considered him to be an atheist and traditionalists rejected his philosophy. But in a way, it was this point of view that also made his approach attractive to the idealists. An example for the reflection of Spinoza can be found in August Schlegel (1767–1845). Katia Hay (2020) writes:
Schlegel argues that […] everything participates in an ongoing process of creation, whereas, from an empirical point of view, natural things are conceived as if they were dead, fixed and independent from the whole. This means that […] nature is not perceptible in the same way that worldly objects are. […] Schlegel succinctly argued that the comprehension of nature’s true essence is more like a presentiment (Ahnen) or an aesthetic contemplation, than like scientific knowledge.
In this perspective, we see a striking contrast to the ‘objective’ attitude towards nature: the Natura naturans is characterized as an ongoing process of creation, a continuous formation, a flow of emerging realities. Natura naturans is a ‘poetic’ motion that generates actuality from potentiality – to formulate it in terms of Aristotle (Met. 3.6.5-6, 9.1-9).
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854) in his Naturphilosophie sees the Kantian division between ‘appearing nature’ and ‘nature in itself’ as resulting from the fact that the nature in cognitive judgements is made an object in opposition to the knowing subject. Schelling stresses the living dynamic forces in nature, including those in man. Nature possesses a productive power, which drives it to its realization. In man it is at first an unconscious and dark power, which still is the basis for his freedom and self-realization.
Even if there are many subtleties how the idealists perceived and re-interpreted the Natura naturans, we can see again a clear distinction between Nature as an object of description and cognitive judgements on one side and Nature as a living, ever creative reality on the other.
Finally, there is a remarkable parallel with ancient Chinese philosophy. In the very first verse of the Tao Te King we read:
The nameless is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all individual things.
The manifest, objective world, the Natura naturata, is seen as the result of “naming”, which is the “mother of all things”. The Natura naturans is the “eternally real” or the creator of heaven and earth. And yet, in the same verse, Lao Tzu emphasizes that both flow from the same source, from one Natura. Again we see a twofold approach, a vital, living and “unnameable” aspect and the manifest as the observable, objective result of emanation.
The natural sciences focus on nature as a system of objective, describable and measurable entities and relations, that is on the Natura naturata. With quantum physics, the structure of the theory itself suggested a twofold description of Nature, with entangled and collapsed states. A state in Hilbert space may be more sober than the ‘opalescent’ concept of Natura naturans; but the two sides of quantum theory could be something like a ‘structural echo’ of Natura naturans and Natura naturata that triggered the philosophical and mystical interest of the quantum physicists.
The Flow of emerging reality
We could go deeper in many directions. We could look at Spinoza’s thinking in more detail. We could consider the role of Natura naturans in idealism and discuss its parallels to eastern thinking, for instance the description of nature in Chinese philosophy as sheng sheng bu xi (生生不息): generating, generating, never ceasing (Perkins, 2019). We could also look at further implications of quantum physics.
But for this article, it may be good to stress another perspective. We do not live in the age of rationalism (Spinoza), nor romanticism (Schelling), nor early modernity (quantum mechanics). We live today and may ask: What does all this have to do with my life, with my practice, my quest, my direct experiences?
If for a moment we take the idea of Natura naturans seriously, if we sense that reality is created and re-created as a pulsating, ever becoming moment, we may realize that we find a trace of something that we can experience directly and fully. Our consciousness does – under certain circumstances – participate in the ongoing process of creation. Something in us – in fact not our ego – is part of the Natura naturans, is pure activity, and is at the ‘place’ where forming reality happens.
We can recognize the approach of the natural sciences to look at the outer and manifest nature and still have an interest to turn to the creative process that precedes the manifest. We may explore our role in this process of becoming, our possibilities of awareness and mindfulness in this never ceasing flow. One of the interesting and very modern twists is the focus on the present moment, as this immanent power is present here and now, in the situation in which we are, personally, historically, with all its challenges and possibilities.
It is not about a projection of the creative force on another place or time or person or Deity. It is not about a ‘Deus ex Machina’, as a plot device in the cosmic play.
At times, we may be listening to the music of nature, we may look at the Natura naturata. At other times, we realize that we are also part of the process of writing this music, we are composers. Both roles have their place. Any change, any transformation emerges as an expression of Natura naturans, and we can be a conscious part in this process of emerging reality. As naturing Nature is present in us, it offers a working point quite different from interventions in outer circumstances.
This is not about speculation or fantasy. It is about some other form of immediate reality. And it is about the possibility of an interaction between what we perceive as given reality, with the process of forming reality. Here, we rather listen than speak, we enter a particular state of connectedness and love, and we enter a space that is the realm of true freedom.
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