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Does Knowing Quantum Mechanics Help You Understand Reality as Much as Magic Mushrooms Do?

Updated: Sep 17


Photo by Tobias Bjørkli from Pexels

by Chris Becker, Ph.D.


This is a fun question. But it has a serious side, a side that can be summarized

by the word “understand.” What do you understand? What do we understand? What is

our knowledge? Our wisdom? And conversely, what is lacking in our understanding?


Quantum mechanics (QM) and psilocybin mushrooms (PM) are both challenging.

Not many people would dare say, “I totally understand quantum mechanics!” or

“Psilocybin mushrooms journeys are a piece of cake!”


About quantum mechanics, I remember watching a YouTube video of Richard

Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, who said of a quantum phenomenon, “But what

does it mean?”


I’m sure many of us have said something similar during or after a magic

mushroom trip—unless we were too dumbstruck.


Nevertheless, I will venture to articulate some lessons we can glean from both

QM and PM. And just for fun, at the end of the essay, we can each vote on which one

teaches us more.


A starting point is to acknowledge that understanding quantum mechanics

requires us to operate in ordinary consciousness. QM is our current understanding of

how the physical universe works. Nature doesn’t need the theory of quantum

mechanics. It does much more than we can ever comprehend in just a teaspoon of dirt.


In contrast, partaking of psilocybin mushrooms is an exercise in non-ordinary

consciousness. However, after a PM journey we return to ordinary consciousness and

retain some fraction of what we learned. What fraction? Well, that can vary a lot,

depending on the particular journey and person, so we won’t specify a particular

number here.


The ground rules, then, for comparing and understanding QM and PM require us

to be in ordinary consciousness. Otherwise we’re comparing apples and oranges.


I don’t claim to be a leading expert in either QM or PM, but I have substantial

experience with both. I have a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I have published original

research applying QM to solve a variety of problems. I also am experienced with PM,

and I have practiced meditation for many years, which has enhanced some of my

abilities to appreciate the PM experience.


There are various schools of thought regarding the interpretation of quantum

mechanics. It’s a huge subject with lots of points of view, and oodles of intriguing

YouTube videos. I’ll provide a few salient observations here.


Whether or not we’ve studied physics, we’ve all been immersed in classical

mechanics (CM) concepts. They’re engrained in how we think about the world. This is

because CM works well for most of our ordinary questions, like how airplanes fly and

bowling balls fall. But there are plenty of examples we are all familiar with that actually

require QM for explanation. For example, if you sprinkle some table salt (which is mostly

sodium chloride) into a campfire or the gas flame of a stove top, you see a brief, bright,

yellow flame. Why is it yellow and not orange or green? Speaking of color, why is a ruby

red and the sky blue?


Although these are great QM examples, they don’t really teach us much about

reality other than showing that CM can’t explain everything. The color of a flame doesn’t

touch our lives the way questions like “Who am I?” or “What am I?” do.


I’ll give examples that I hope get closer to that target.


One simple fact is that ordinary matter—like our bodies, or the chair we’re sitting

on, or this earth—actually are made up of mostly empty space: 99.9999999% nothing

there, in fact. It’s a little hard on my eyes to count that many nines. In loose QM

language, there are electrons whizzing around a nucleus; and the electron “clouds” or

“orbits” around each nucleus like to get close, but not too close, to the neighboring

electron clouds (chemistry!). And electrons and nuclei are super tiny compared to the

space they occupy. So we’re really mostly…nothing at all! Something to keep in mind.


Two more quantum properties are especially intriguing and have absolutely no

classical analog. They are “indistinguishable particles” and “entangled particles.”


An example of indistinguishable particles are two oxygen atoms, one charged (an

ion) and the other neutral. They approach each other from specific directions

(trajectories) and when they get close to each other they collide (and subsequently

recoil); when they are close, an electron can jump from one to the other or many times

back and forth, in what is called symmetric charge exchange. But because you are

observing two particles that are identical, you can’t tell whether the resulting neutral

oxygen atom started as neutral or charged, or approached from one direction or the

other, and similarly with the resulting oxygen ion—as you could if this were a world

governed by CM. This “indistinguishable particles” aspect actually results in large

physical effects, quite different than if you have, say, one nitrogen atom and one oxygen

atom.


The other case I’ll mention briefly is that of entangled particles. When two (or

more) particles are generated together or interact, the resulting quantum state or

system cannot be described by two independent particles, even when the particles may

become separated by large distances. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.”

It’s as if one particle over on the table can influence the other particle on the couch.

Physicists debate the physical interpretation but do agree that the effect is real and the

particles must be considered as one system.


We think classically, and our eyes, at a macroscopic level, see two separate

objects, like two balls. But nature doesn’t actually work that way at a fundamental level.

Nature only sees one reality, one system. It doesn’t have any notion of “two.” And that is

a useful lesson QM teaches us. We are attached to making distinctions, we’re trained

that way, and our confusion is understandable. But “two” is an illusion. This reminds me

of the Mayan greeting “inlakesh”—you are my other self.


So the lessons we can glean from QM include: we are mostly nothing, and the

world has indistinguishability and entanglement. This suggests that the ego or self is an

illusion.


Now we come to the PM experience. How do we understand it when we’ve

returned to ordinary consciousness, and what lesson or memory have we retained?

Describing a PM journey is arguably even more difficult than explaining QM. However,

although we may rightly say that a medicine journey is ineffable, many people do report

experiencing “ego death” at a sufficiently high dose. What is this ego death? I believe

this descriptor covers many different experiences. But the common thread is that we

forget about who is experiencing this experience. We forget about the self. Only the

experience remains.


Ego death is a scary thing for some of us as we realize we are approaching it.

“I’m going to die!!” That’s obviously because the ego (the attachment to self) has a

strong protective grip on our thinking. But once we’ve broken through the barrier, we’re

free. Ego death is a totally freeing and beautiful experience. Think of it like breaking

through the sound barrier, only you’re breaking through the thought barrier.


Pretty cool, eh?


So there you have it. Both QM and PM arguably provide us the same

understanding—that the ego is a fiction. You are my other self. Or maybe no self at all.


QM and PM: which one soaks in deeper, provides you with greater

understanding? Of course, it can make a difference whether you’ve had your own egodeath

experience, or you’ve just read about it. In any event, you decide. Have a debate

with your friends. Or choose both.


© 2020 by Chris Becker

Healing with Psychedelics                         book released July 2020