Majid Ali, M.D.
June 9, 2010
The Uncertainty Principle in Integrative Medicine
I offer a thought experiment. You are holding a basketball in your hands and facing two hoops six feet apart. You shoot the ball through the hoop to your right. The ball is returned to you. Next you shoot the ball into the second hoop. Is it possible to shoot the basketball through both hoops at the same time, while they remain six feet apart?
In Newtonian physics, elements have defined characteristics and established interactions. This is not the case with quantum systems which have domains of uncertainty. In fields of healing—it seems to me—we need to consider aspects of both the Newtonian and quantum worlds, since healing involves both observable and unobservable (in the ordinary sense) phenomena. Doubt and uncertainty are integrative to healing from physical disorders (i.e. diseases).
A crucial difference between a life of reason and that of belief is: reason is open to uncertainty while belief is not. Acceptance of the uncertainty principle in medicine compels us to be open to the possibility that new observations about natural phenomena will require a reconsideration of the meanings of old observations—and change in thinking when that is deemed necessary. Regrettably, this is seldom duly considered in clinical medicine.
The Uncertainty Principle
The matters of doubt and uncertainty are of central importance to Being One’s Own Primary Physician. The uncertainty principle offers us an antidote to the risk of habitual thinking, blind trust, and static belief that impedes learning and threatens success. The subject of uncertainty brings to mind some of the most celebrated physicists of quantum mechanics, including Nobelist Werner Karl Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and John Wheeler. I offer brief historical notes to honor them as I apply their insights to my work with Being One’s Own Primary Physician. First, a frog story.
Uncertainty and Frogs
Two frogs, one a pessimist and the other an optimist, fell into a bucket of thick sour cream. They looked for some solid support to help them jump against, but found none. As they began to sink, they frantically thrashed to escape drowning, which only made things worse. The pessimist saw no hope and suggested to his friend that they accept their fate, intertwine their legs, and let nature take its course. The optimist protested that dying without trying was not acceptable because he could not be certain that there was no escape. He continued to beat the sour cream with his strong legs. His friend did not know the uncertainty principle. He stopped thrashing, sank deeper into the sour cream, and died. The optimist kept kicking and kicking and kicking. Then came the surprise. His kicking churned the sour cream into chunks of solid butter. Then he stood up on one of the chunks and jumped out of the bucket. The lesson: uncertainty about success is better than certainty of failure.
The frogs have much to teach us.
Learning Is Hard, Unlearning Is Harder
Being One’s Own Primary Physician requires much unlearning. Accepting the diagnosis from a doctor is easy, defying the consequences of that diagnosis is not always so. “But I did try,” my patients have protested a thousand times when they told of their recurrent headaches and episodes of abrupt rises in their blood pressure.
One sees only what one looks for, one only looks for what one sees.
Here is a short story. A man went to his doctor. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure and prescribed a drug. Three months later, the man returned for a follow up visit. His blood pressure was checked and he was prescribed a second drug. Six months later, his doctor replaced the first pill without telling him that the new pill was a combination of two drugs. Nine months later, his doctor replaced the second pill with another one, again without telling him that the new pill was a combination of two drugs. Five months later, the man returned with complaints of dizziness. His doctor prescribed a fifth drug. Some Six months later, the man visited his doctor who…..
Does the Process of Observing Change What Is Observed?
How we observe things changes them. This appears contrary to common experience. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, this subject has preoccupied some of the best minds in the world of physics. Consider the following words of the Princeton University physicist John Wheeler:
“Of all the features of the universe, none are stranger than these: time is transcended, laws are immutable, and observer participancy matters.”
Below are more illuminating words from Wheeler on the subject of how observations and information change our world:
“Information may not be just what we learn about the world. It may be what makes the world.”
The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger explored the relationship between the observations and the outcomes of experiments on quantum systems with his famous cat-in-closed -box experiment. A cat would be put in a closed box, along with a vial of poison gas, a piece of radioactive uranium, and a Geiger counter linked to a device suspended above the gas vial. In the experiment, uranium may or may not emit a radiation particle. If the particle were to be released, the Geiger counter would signal the device to strike the vial and release the gas, killing the cat. If the particle were not to be released, the cat would be alive. What could be known about the cat before opening the box? Schrödinger asked. One outcome would be a dead cat. In the other the cat would be alive. Neither becomes real until the box is opened. Sidestepping the quantum implications of Schrödinger experiment, the message for me is: one cannot know the possibilities of healing without trying.
The Particle-Wave Functions
Imagine a round latex balloon. Next imagine a latex balloon shaped like a wavy snake that contains equal amount of latex and that contains equal volume of air. Then imagine that you have a machine that can reshape the round balloon into the wavy form and the wavy balloon back to a round shape. I use this simple analogy to explain the essentials of the particle/wave functions of elements in quantum systems. For example, photons are particles of solar energy that move with different speeds under varying conditions. In quantum mechanics. These particles assume wave forms (function) in many natural phenomena, such as in sunlight.
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
Electrons are particles of energy that move with different speeds under varying conditions. In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to determine simultaneously both the position and velocity of an electron—or any other particle, for that matter— with any great degree of accuracy or certainty. This principle does not prescribe any limitations of research in measuring particular quantities of a system. Rather, it is a statement about the nature of quantum systems described by quantum equations.
Now I return to my thought experiment offered in the beginning. Is it possible to shoot a basketball through two hoops six feet apart at the same time? Imagine that the basket ball changes its shape as soon as it leaves your hands and takes a wave form—as a six-foot dumbell, so to speak—and the two ends of the wave, each shaped like a basketball, reach the two hoops at exactly the same time. This is a very simple way of looking at the particle-wave functions. I point out that scientific experiments with electrons have been conducted to show that an electron can pass through two filters placed at a distance from each other simultaneously. I use the analogy of a basketball to make it relevant to common experiences in sports.
My main point in this essay is: the conditions under which observations are made affect what is being observed. For example, the effect of a prayer on the blood pressure is expected to vary from one person to another. The same is true of the effects of meditation and spiritual work on different people, as well as on the same person under varying conditions. This understanding saves us from the fruitless discussions of why Limbic Breathing might help one person more than the other. Comparing healing experiences is useful but only when it is free of competitive struggle.
Uncertainty in Being One’s Own Primary Physician
It is important to recognize that when physicists like Heisenberg, Wheeler, and Schrödinger explored the fields of uncertainty in quantum systems, they did so from scientific and enlightened philosophic standpoints. They did not do so to provide a license for outlandish conjecture or, in the current context, to peddle cures for diseases. The matters of uncertainty in Being One’s Own Primary Physician must also be seen as a sacred domain worthy of one’s personal exploration and healing—entry into one’s “quantum spirituality,” so to speak. No one can heal another person by “prescribing” quantum spirituality of the uncertainty principles. For deep healing, one can access only one’s own deep healing domains of such spirituality.
To be human is to have doubt and be uncertain. In all healing work, we recognize this and our other handicaps in life, and then muster the courage to defy them. Courage is not the absence of fear, nor freedom from uncertainty. It is the acceptance of both and the determination not to let them impede the purpose of life.