I Have Become God

Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other … have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: DEUS FACTUS SUM (I have become God).

-- Erwin Schrödinger

Quantum physicists are understandably irritated when New Age types try to appropriate concepts meant to describe the often-bizarre behavior of subatomic particles and apply them haphazardly to the metaphysical realm. Physicists spend enough time arguing among themselves about how to interpret quantum theory, which violates all the tenets of classical physics. Many subscribe to the “shut up and do the math” school, which recognizes that quantum physics works, even if no one can quite explain why. As for any metaphysical implications, physicist Stephen Hawking sniffed, “Mysticism is for people who can’t do the math.” Yet Erwin Schrödinger, a Nobel laureate and one of the founders of quantum theory, was an unabashed student of Vedanta, an ancient mystical tradition based on a study of the Indian Vedas. When he first formulated the equation for wave mechanics in 1926, he knew he was merely giving mathematical expression to concepts developed by Indian philosophers 2,500 years earlier.

Quantum theory was developed in the 1920s to account for the fact that subatomic entities like electrons sometimes behave like particles and sometimes like waves, depending on circumstances. Even weirder, they seem to exist in an indeterminate state -- neither particle nor wave – until they are measured. And unlike objects in the macroscopic world, which are governed by the laws of classical physics, you cannot precisely determine the position and velocity of a particle in the subatomic realm. Schrödinger’s wave function is sometimes compared with Newton’s second law of motion in that it describes how a physical system – in this case, subatomic particles – will behave over time. His equation cannot fix a particle’s precise location but it can be used to determine the probability that it can be found at given place at a certain time.

Albert Einstein opened the door to quantum theory with his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect, which found that electromagnetic radiation interacted with electrons as discrete quanta of light, behaving like particles rather than waves. He initially embraced quantum theory but soon had cause to regret it. In particular, he objected that it had nothing to say about the natural world beyond the observation of it. The implication was that there was no reality apart from an observer. "No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this," Einstein complained in paper he wrote in 1935 with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen.·

For Schrödinger, however, this was precisely where quantum theory aligned with his understanding of Vedic philosophy. He differed from many of his colleagues in his willingness to consider the philosophical implications of quantum theory. “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived,” he wrote.· “Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.” This follows the basic tenet of Vedanta, which can be summed up in a single word: advaita, meaning ”not two.” The physicist and the particle he measures are not separate entities; they are one. The world and myself are not two; they are one. Even with God, there cannot be two of us, only one, which Schrödinger summarized with the Latin phrase, DEUS FACTUS SUM, which he translated as “I have become God.” Although his colleagues might have little patience with such notions, Schrödinger could answer, “Just do the math.”

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