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Science and the Emerging New Paradigm

Updated: May 10

(Nothing is what it seems, and that's a good thing)

My old telescope in my painting studio, 2023

"If quantum physics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet."

Niels Bohr, quantum physicist

“Every really new idea looks crazy at first.”

Alfred North Whitehead, process-philosopher

“Quantum social change gives us a mental frame for re-activating our potential to solve the climate crisis. These concepts give each of us agency to transcend limiting beliefs, swap out isolation with community, lack with abundance, fear with love. Quantum social change is the ultimate rebuttal to energy realists and their incremental path to climate breakdown. This is not naive. It’s urgently necessary.”

Clara Vondrich in Resilience

The audio version of this blog post

In this third installment of ‘Old wisdom and New Stories, a somewhat longer post about something that has always been close to my heart, also as a visual artist: science.

Since childhood, I have been fascinated by science. As a child and teenager, I devoured popular scientific publications. My main interests were astrophysics, elementary particle physics, biology, geology and history. But astrophysics, the study of the nature and structure of the universe and stars, was probably what fascinated me the most.

When I turned fourteen, I asked for and was given a telescope for my birthday. The cosmos fascinated me endlessly, and many evenings I was looking at the stars with my telescope - that is, the stars that could still be seen back then in the Flemish urban environment, and even in 1980 there were not so many visible anymore because of light pollution. At one point I considered a future as an astrophysicist or astronomer, but unfortunately my talent for mathematics was far from sufficient for that path. Later, art became increasingly important, and when I chose to major in painting, the telescope disappeared onto the attic of our parental home for many decades. When that house was emptied, I found it again, and since then it has stood as a memento in a corner of my painting studio for many years, eventually covered with a layer of dust and paint stains .

But my interest in science and philosophy of science never completely disappeared, and even in my artistic work, science was often a substantive story that helped shape my visual quest.

Strange enough, or not at all strange, was the fact that the series of works I considered my first mature work, and which I exhibited for the first time in 2009, consisted of a series of large canvases with images of.... stars. The paintings (each about two meters by two and a half meters), were based on images from the Hubble Telescope, images of stars and nebulae deep in our Milky Way galaxy. A story had come full circle, and completely unconsciously since at the time I did not think back at all to my period as a ‘stargazer’. The memory of that period came back only later.

Work from the series ‘Stars’, 2007-2008, oil on canvas, 225cm by 175cm.

In the years that followed, science remained present in my visual work, and increasingly so. The series ‘Digression/ Typology’ (2012-13), the series ‘Botanical Studies’ (2012-13) and the series ‘Mycological Travels’ (2014-15), all mixed-media series, were based on a visual inquiry and thought-process around our need to classify everything in the world, our tendency to see our classifications as more real than the world itself, and the way in which that world ultimately escapes any system of classification. Reality is ‘slippery like a fish’, as philosopher Alan Watts wittily stated it, and that slippery fish eventually always escapes from our hold. My last series of works before my decision to stop painting and devote myself to A Biosphere Project was the extended series ‘Thinking Out Loud’, (2015-2017) which consists of more than 120 works and is likewise a visual reflection on how we represent reality through diagrams, charts, tables and ‘maps’, and how we then experience those maps as more real than reality itself. We almost obsessively want to be able to measure everything, but what we measure is not reality itself but a conceptual grid that we project onto the world.

Science was thus a constant presence in my ‘thinking out loud’ about the world throughout my visual work. I will talk about this later in this blog and in my project, as I believe that one of the most important tasks that awaits us will be the reintegration of science, art and spirituality (or, if you will, religion), areas that have always been one and in the West only got separated in the Renaissance.

Quantum Physics

In addition to astrophysics and biology, quantum physics had become a subject and starting point for my artwork. If you are not familiar with quantum physics, much amazement, wonder and disbelief await you when you begin to delve into what this branch of physics makes clear to us. It is like a scientific version of Alice in Wonderland plus Agatha Christie, with a pinch of the Brothers Grimm's stories. It soon becomes clear that the world is not what we thought it was until now.

Quantum physics is that realm of science that deals with the behavior of the very smallest ‘particles’ that make up reality: electrons, protons, neutrons, the even smaller ‘particles’ that make up those in turn, and photons, the elusive ‘particles’ that make up light. I always put the word 'particles' in quotation marks because quantum physics teaches us that the concept of a 'particle' is actually an abstraction. In reality, there are no 'particles', and no 'building blocks' from which matter would be made. Everything we see when we zoom that far into reality is ultimately intangible and incorporeal: energy, patterns, relationships and areas of probability. When we look for what matter is made of, we do not encounter ‘matter’ in any way, only energy, patterns and relations. As physicist Hans-Peter Dürr summed it up, "Matter does not consist of matter." What we call a 'particle,' an electron or a photon, can also exist as a wave, can exist in two places at once, or can appear out of nowhere and disappear again. Two 'particles' can be connected to each other over light-years distance and exhibit exactly the same behavior, even though no information can be exchanged between them. That phenomenon is called ‘quantum entanglement’, and the 2022 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to two scientists who have done extensive research on it and proved that the phenomenon is real.

An image of traces of elementary "particles" in a so-called ‘bubble chamber’, in this case at CERN in Geneva, 1960. Source:

And things gets even weirder: until an observation takes place, you can't actually speak of a reality: the probability or potential of a particle's existence only then becomes a real 'particle,' or in other words the wave that spreads out in time and space only then 'chooses' to materialise as a 'particle’, when an observation takes place. This phenomenon, which has been confirmed countless times in experiments such as the 'double slit experiment', is called the 'collapse of the wave function'. And this 'appearance' of the particle is dependent upon an observation. Which actually means that you cannot talk about an 'objective reality' that would exist completely independent of an observer. What we call 'consciousness' and what we call 'reality' are both indivisible parts of a continuous system. The existence of matter, or the patterns in energy we commonly call 'matter,' seems inextricably entertwined with a conscious perception. Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, expressed it as follows: "What we observe is not nature, but nature as it is affected by our observing mind. Reality is thus defined by the mind that observes it."

Or in the words of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, "The fallacy that has haunted philosophical literature over the centuries is the notion of independent existence. There is no such mode of existence; every entity must be understood in terms of how it is interwoven with the rest of the universe."

And so the rest of the universe also means: ourselves. With quantum physics, consciousness becomes a part of the equation and of reality, rather than a "neutral outsider" who perceives reality ’objectively’. Every observation changes thàt which you perceive. That, and the fact that consciousness can exert a direct influence on material reality, has also been demonstrated repeatedly in experiments, as Dean Radin explains in this fascinating lecture at a 2016 conference on the science of consciousness at the University of Arizona.

This high-profile experiment has provided solid evidence (along with many other experiments) that human consciousness can cause the ‘collapse of the wave function’, that the action of consciousness is ‘non-local’ (not bound by time-space) and that consciousness and physical reality interact directly with each other, an idea forbidden in the classical physics of ‘materialistic realism’. Warmly recommended!

Lecture by Dean Radin at a conference on the science of consciousness, University of Arizona, 2016. In the settings you can select subtitles and automatic translation.

Of course, the realization that what we consider to be 'material reality' appears to be inextricably linked to consciousness raises such far-reaching questions and paradoxes as: was there no ‘real’ universe before there were humans? Does the moon exist even if no one is looking at it? I will elaborate on those questions and some of the answers that quantum physics formulates later. The questions are slightly perplexing; the possible answers are no less so. At least, perplexing to the mind that holds onto òur view of reality, and onto òur beliefs about what is real and what is not.

But more on that later, in other blog posts and essays, as quantum physics will appear more in my project. Why? What does quantum physics have to do with ecology, with the problems humanity now faces? Well, as previous paragraph suggested, everything actually. The way humanity treats the world today is a consequence of how humanity sees that world, of the basic assumptions that govern our thinking and actions. And those basic assumptions, of which we are often not even aware, are outdated and have now become very destructive. That is one of the reasons why several quantum physicists also showed a strong social commitment, and were keenly aware of the importance of their insights in bringing about a different, better world. For example, the aforementioned physicists Hans-Peter Dürr, David Bohm or Amit Goswami, among others, were or are very much committed as activists for socio-political or spiritual change. So I will return to the connection between quantum physics and activism again in the future. For those who are impatient, in advance, this brilliant summary of some relevant ideas by Clara Vondrich, former head of the NGO Divest Invest, on the website of Resilience, one of the ‘broadcast channels’ of Post Carbon Institute. Post Carbon Institute is one of the leading international think tanks on energy and the transition to a livable future. If you click on the image below you will be taken to Resilience's website where you can read this article and become further acquainted with the excellent and extensive research and information databases on Resilience.

"Quantum social change gives us a mental framework for reactivating our potential to solve the climate crisis. These concepts empower each of us to transcend limiting beliefs, replace isolation with community, lack with abundance, fear with love. Quantum social change is the ultimate rebuttal to energy realists and their incremental path to climate degradation. This is not naive. It is urgent."

Clara Vondrich in Resilience

"Reality is not what it seems. And that might just save the climate".

Screenshot of the above article on quantum physics and activism in Resilience. Click on the image and you will be taken to this article on Resilience's website. Warmly recommended!

Thank you for reading, until the next episode, all the best to you!



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