Sunday, April 12, 2020

Quantum Jesus

“…in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life”

No sooner does inquisitive universe explain itself to 
itself than – BANG! – it’s back to square one.
Did you know that your place in the universe is just a matter of probability? That’s right. Maybe you're where you are and maybe you’re not. Like all matter, you have what’s known as a quantum wave function that reflects the odds of your being at any particular place in space at any particular time. 

This idea – that matter has wave-like as well as particle properties – was first proposed by the French physicist Louis de Broglie in 1924. Two years later an Austrian, Erwin Schrödinger, published an equation describing how matter waves – de Broglie waves – should behave.

Matter waves, moreover, are not merely theoretical. They’ve been confirmed experimentally for subatomic particles (electrons), neutral atoms, and even molecules. But they’re a property of bigger stuff, too, like you and me. It’s just that mathematically the odds of your being anyplace in the universe other than where you are, are astronomically small. So don’t worry about waking up on the far side of the moon unless perhaps you stowed away on the Chang’e, the Chinese lunar probe that recently landed there.

Aunt Effie’s kitty gets an assist from frame 
dragging (distortion of spacetime due to earth’s 
rotation) and quantum superposition (existing in 
different places at the same time).

Still, your exact location in space does remain theoretically unknown, open to a universe of possibilities, until it’s actually observed – which is no doubt why good parents keep such a close eye on their kids. This fixing of a thing’s position – when its location becomes a matter of  observation, not just probability – is known as the collapse of the wave function. 

And it gets weirder still. Not only is your position unknown until observed, but theoretically you could be in different places at the same time. Such is the idea of quantum superposition – which has likewise been demonstrated experimentally, albeit only for subatomic particles.  

Taken together, such observations would seem to spell doom for the philosophical idea of the Absolute. Indeed, German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel’s (1770 – 1831) concept of the latter, “the sum of all being, actual and potential,” today sounds more like an unwitting description of quantum wave function than anything else.

The demise of the absolute, however, got perhaps its biggest boost from the publication in 1927 of German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This states that it’s impossible to know at one and the same time both the position and momentum of a particle. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute knowledge, only Absolut Vodka. 

Cheshire cat, ubiquitous quantum state-shifting 
nuisance, revels in news of Schroedinger’s cat. 

All of which led Schrödinger in1935 to pose his famous thought experiment about a cat in a sealed box where conditions are such that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time – until an observer opens the box, collapsing the wave function to one state or the other. Although there’s much that’s perplexing about this fickle feline of his, Schrödinger was on to something. And cats aside, you wonder if he's not hit on an allegory of faith for our times.
Which brings me to Jesus and resurrection.

Physical resurrection of the dead is an idea that predates Christianity by at least seven centuries and probably much longer.  Ancient religions of the Near East and Greece offer multiple historical examples. That these ideas influenced later Christian beliefs, moreover, is not in dispute.  

Argued Justin Martyr, a 2nd century Christian apologist: 

"In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union, as Jesus Christ our Teacher, and that he was crucified and died and after rising again ascended into heaven we introduce nothing new beyond [what you say of] those whom you call sons of Zeus."
Schrödinger’s cat, said to be alive and dead at the 
same time, might have simply gone missing.

In other words, if you believe Zeus’s dead sons could spring up alive like jacks-in-the-box, why not believe Jesus could do it, too? During the 2nd century, such an analogy probably made perfect sense even if by modern standards recruiting old superstitions to bolster new ones seems a bit dubious. How many Christians today believe in Zeus?

Nevertheless, contemporary examples of persons rumored to be alive after death keep cropping up. Rapper Tupac Shakur (d. 1996), comedian Andy Kaufman (d. 1984), and rocker Elvis Presley (d. 1977) are among the more recent. 

And then, of course, there’s Jesus. According to the Gospels – although accounts vary considerably as the story has morphed over time – the deceased Jesus was buried in a tomb hewn from rock and sealed with a large stone. After three days, he arose from the dead in his original human form as celebrated during Easter. At which point, various of his followers, including his mother, showed up to find the tombstone rolled back, the tomb empty, and angels proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection. 

The Serendipity of Saint Thomas
Over the next forty days, Jesus put in appearances at various venues so that the disciples would know of his comeback. But one of them, Doubting Thomas, famously reserved judgement until he could not only see Jesus in person, but poke a finger into Jesus’s wounds. Thomas then exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” Anyone witnessing this painful, unhygienic act on the part of Thomas probably expressed the same sentiment.

For orthodox Christians, however, belief in this narrative as literal endures as a tenet of faith.
Quantum uncertainty spells big Easter surprise

Yet you wonder if for a lot of modern minds, such a conviction has become a bit much. U.S. church membership has declined sharply over the last two decades. Near-death experiences and Elvis sighting aside, someone back from the dead just like that after execution? It seems quite a stretch. 

Perhaps the whole notion would benefit from an update – a quantum of paradox or ambiguity, so to say  (pace, Saint Thomas).

Why not revise the biblical account – it’s happened before, after all – to better align with modern sensibilities? For example, after three days the angel could say “Lo, He is risen and unrisen – both ways at once mayest thou have it. Yet roll ye back not the stone lest the wave function thou collapseth and a conundrum of certitude beset thee.”
For the first time ever, despite his genius, 
Professor Krauseleiter hits personal confidence 

Even if you’re skeptical about tomb curses such as the one that guarded King Tut, you should have no trouble with a headed-up like this, covering as it does contingencies both actual and potential. What’s more, compared to the old-fashioned plank walk into the Tiber — the lot of the traditional  believer — it seems like a bucolic dip in the Jordan. 

For the faithful of, say, a Latter Day Church of the Quantum Christ, it ought come as glad tidings indeed.

                                                                                       Happy Easter

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Turn in Sedona

Boynton Canyon
Sedona, a funky little Arizona town of about 10,000, has for years been famous as a pilgrimage site for New Age seekers, aging hippies, hikers, and the simply curious. But until 1987 when its popularity exploded, the place had been largely unknown. 1987 was the year of the Harmonic Convergence when hopeful souls traveled to places around the planet expecting the emergence of global harmony and love. In Sedona, hundreds stood before a rock formation know as Bell Rock, waiting for its top to spring open and reveal an alien spacecraft. (Like advent religionists everywhere, some may be waiting still.)

It was about this time that one Page Bryant a Sedona psychic and metaphysician, dubbed the town’s “energy centers” vortexes (sic). Indeed, the notion is thought to have originated with her, at least in the case of Sedona.

But what is a vortex?

A vortex à la Sedona is imagined to be a swirling funnel-like center of terrestrial or psychic energy emanating from the earth in specific locations (Sedona has four.) Many believe that visiting a vortex can confer all sorts of benefits, such as amplifying spiritual awareness, balancing chakras, assisting in the release of traumas, or connecting to mystic realms. You may feel as though you're breathing deeper, that your thoughts are clearer. There may be a rush of energy or a feeling of peace. Some say that because vortexes are spinning whirlwinds of energy, people who visit them can be “a little unbalanced at times.” (If you were all in a twirl to begin with, that might be most of the time.)
Boynton Canyon

Around the globe there are purportedly only a handful of these vortex centers, the strongest being in Sedona; Cairo, Egypt; and the Bermuda Triangle. Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung found the mere idea of visiting the city of Rome so overwhelming that he fell into a faint simply buying tickets for the trip. So perhaps Rome should be included as well. The same might be said of Jerusalem – for millennia, the scene of so much exuberant fantasy and violent extremity you’d expect a vortex the size of a miles-wide Kansas wedge twister.

Who knows? There might be a vortex right in your own back yard!

Of course, apart from drain plug whirlpools, aircraft turbulence, and the occasional dust devil or tornado, there’re no actual vortices in any of these places – energy being only a measure of the capacity to do work, not a thing in itself. The term vortex has simply been borrowed from fluid dynamics to describe the effect that Sedona’s magnificent landscape has upon the visitor, a sense of being swept up and carried away by the region’s stunning natural beauty – the Stendhal syndrome gone pastural, you might say. A few years ago, USA Today called Sedona the most beautiful place in America.

Vortex at Kachina Woman rock formation, Boynton Canyon
Maybe space aliens enjoy the scenery, too – UFO-spotting parties are common in Sedona. You  can also partake of drumming circles, starlight fire ceremonies (of divers types), sage cleanses, channeling lectures, yoga retreats, past-life consultancies, Reiki healing, Tarot readings, and the like. All sorts of paranormal phenomena have been described in and around Sedona.

Unfortunately, the Sedona experience isn’t always benign. Several years ago during a makeshift sweat-lodge ceremony, an ersatz affair that had nothing to do with Native American practice, three people died and eighteen others were hospitalized for injuries. Hikers periodically fall from heights, suffering injury or death. At 4,300 feet above sea-level, some falls might conceivably be related to light-headedness on account of the altitude. If you arrive from sea-level, full acclimatization to a new elevation can take days or even weeks.

Recently one fine autumn morning, I set out on a hike up Boynton Canyon, home to one of Sedona’s four major vortexes. Since Boynton’s is a vortex of “balanced energy,” I anticipated no problems keeping my, well, balance over the rocky path. And indeed, at first the going was smooth.
Peyote Pete all in a whorl

If the altitude wasn’t breathtaking (I live at sea-level), the scenery certainly was. Interspersed with sculpturesque rock spires, buttes, and mesas, the canyon walls of rust-colored Coconino sandstone rise up some 1,200 feet into the turquoise Arizona sky. Winding over dusty orange-red terrain, and flanked by oak and pine, the trail passes through stands of manzanita, yucca, opuntia cacti, and Arizona cypress. Here and there can be seen Utah and one seed junipers whose twisted trunks add imaginative fuel to the idea of vortexes. In places, even the landscape looks twisted. The deep red color for which Sedona is famous is due to the hematite or iron oxide – literally rust – in certain of the rock strata.

It was upon my approach to a rock formation known as Kachina Woman, a stone spire that skirts the Boynton vortex, that the drama began. As I broached the energy field, my eyes seemed to bug out like yo-yos, my fingers curl into magnetized loops giving off sparks. What’s left of my hair stood on end and flared rust-red. Overtaken by a sensation of floating, I grabbed a convenient tree branch to keep from spiraling aloft. For a while I just hung there bobbing in the breeze like one of those helium-filled Mylar party balloons.

Table top feminine energy, Enchantment
 Resort, Sedona
Slowly coming to my senses, I at last recalled stepping down hard from a low drop-off and impaling myself on a Peyote button – resulting in an untimely contagion of mescaline. The drug had taken a while to wear off.

In the end, psychedelics and all, it seemed well worth the trip. At least I hadn’t fallen off a cliff.

But with three million tourists visiting Sedona yearly and movie stars keeping homes there, you wonder how it can last. Will the New Age vibe endure, or will the vortexes be short-circuited like power lines downed in a rain storm – becoming nothing more than a marketing meme? Will the crystals go dark, the pyramids collapse? Will Sedona’s shamans and soothsayers find themselves yearning for alien abduction?

Only the future will tell. For answers right now, though, you could go here. Or here. Or here. Or here.