Dreams, Consciousness, and the Nature of the Universe


“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.”


Dreams, Consciousness, and the Nature of the Universe

“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. This insight transcends art’s abstract vision to touch the core of reason, reaching the center of all that is conscious and makes what lies in the cranial cavity a mind. As we were all created dreaming when we’re born and live a third part of our lives in the subconscious reaches of the nights. Many times, the things we find surprise us even though they were our own creations. We are always the dreamer as well as the dreamer. Sometimes we are surprised by what we see there. It can lead us to new insights that our subconscious mind didn’t grasp and change our lives forever.

It is my role as a theoretical cosmologist, jazz musician, and occasional poet 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.

Stephon Alexander at The Universe in Verse 2019.

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:

Scientists should be able to see connections between different experimental outcomes. These may not all relate in the same way. These patterns are then used to help the scientist make a decision about whether it is time for a new principle or not. This is false. 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. Theoretically constructed questions can be answered by experiments. 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:

To solve a scientific problem one has to consider other possibilities. 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. It is essential to be able to convert a strange idea into a solid theory in order to accomplish this feat.

[…]

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.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. This print is also available as a face mask and a fanny bag, which will benefit The Nature Conservancy.

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. Mendeleev dreams of discovering the periodic table. 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.

Vladimir Radunsky illustrated On a Beam of Light, A Story of Albert Einstein. Illustration by Jennifer Berne

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. One day, he tried to be one with the beam of light. He wondered what it would look like if he caught up to a lightwave. This matter found itself in the playground of Einstein’s subconscious and revealed a paradox in a dream. Einstein was said to have dreamed that he could see a tranquil green field with cattle grazing beside a straight fence. An evil farmer lived near the fence’s end and pulled an occasional switch that caused the fence to be effected with electricity. From Einstein’s birds-eye view he saw all the electrocuted cows simultaneously jump up. Einstein had a difficult time figuring out what actually happened. Einstein disputed the farmer’s claim that he had seen cows move in waves. Einstein disagreed. They argued back and forth without any resolution. Einstein came out of this nightmare 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.

A young scientist at the time, and after numerous rejected applications, he eventually got a position as a postdoctoral scholar at Imperial College London. There he worked alongside some of the most prominent figures in theoretical physics. Immediately seized with impostor syndrome, he found his mind, ordinarily “volcanic with ideas,” in an ashen stupor. He thought about becoming a high-school physics teacher. He thought about quitting physics and focusing his efforts on jazz.

Alexander arrived at his office when the theory group head summoned him. 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.

Alexander was nervous when Isham asked him why he was attending Imperial College. He was afraid he would be accused of 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 encouraged Alexander to start reading. 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.

Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud — Sigmund Freud’s gender-diverse niece — from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming.

Alexander accepted the invitation and was delighted to share his time with his scientist hero. Then came the moment that changed his science. He writes:

Isham asked me about my dream, which I considered trivial. Jungian philosophy says that dreams can sometimes help us confront our shadows through the appearance of archetypes, symbols. Here is one I saw. 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. The old man admitted that I wasn’t smart enough to understand what he wanted to teach me. After the board vanished, the old man began to make a spiraling motion using 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. I was awarded tenure by the American Physics Society for my publication.

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:

Dreams may offer a place where supracognitive abilities can perform calculations and perceive realities that are not easily understood in our awake state. My paradox consisted of comparing the incomprehensible equations that were presented to me by the bearded guy and his counterclockwise-whirling hands. The counterclockwise motion was actually a summary of the math that obscured the real physics.

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?”

Erwin Schrödinger, circa 1920s.

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.”

Woolf would come to write that “our minds are all threaded together… & all the world is mind.” Schrödinger would come to compose the part-koan, part-aphorism, part Wittgensteinian declarative statement that “the total number of minds in the universe is one.”

Plate taken from an original theory or new hypothesis of the universe by Thomas Wright (1750). Available as a print or face mask as well as as stationery cards.

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. He sought to connect the laws that lighten stars with biochemical processes that produce life and looked at the quantum world in order to discover how consciousness, as well as other complex phenomena, can be created from inanimate material.

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. A long-range emergent order is required to explain the large properties of any metal piece, including its rigidity, conductivity, and other physical characteristics. [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. We are all thinking together. Our thoughts are connected across the globe via fiber optic cables. The universe is made up of mind and matter.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. This print is also available as coasters or a face mask for The Nature Conservancy.

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:

As with charge and spin, consciousness is fundamental. It exists in every form of matter, at different levels 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:

It is possible to see a deeper relationship between the quantum universe and life by the way that the expansion of the first universe was linked with the rise in entropy required for life. Is it possible that life was created in the cosmos by a sequence of historical accidents? Does the physical law encode a deeper principle that goes beyond natural selection? 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?

[…]

This might lead you to question whether the universe exists apart from us.

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.


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