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A universe of visions

A Monitor series published June 14 to 17 looked at the potentially revolutionary impact on human thought of quantum physics. In the following interview, a prominent scientist and author offers some of his own views, which - in the light of quantum theory - challenge cosmology, science, and how man has perceived the universe. ON this hot summer's day, Edward Harrison, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sits in shirt sleeves in the modest house he shares with his wife at the edge of the campus, eating a turkey sandwich. For 22 years he has lived and taught in this university metropolis, which rises from nowhere in the plains of western Massachusetts. In a sense he lives two lives: the one he shares with family and friends and his life of work, where he steps into a different mental, environmental, and linguistic universe. His lifework is to find meaning amid the micro-world of subatomic particles and in the macro-world of the cosmos. His ideas, he says, are a ``distillation'' of all his years of teaching and the thoughts of a lifetime.

Dr. Harrison's central theme is that throughout history each society has created its own universe, a ``cosmic belief system'' that rationalizes human experience until new ideas, discoveries, and events occur - such as an astronomical finding, the assault of an alien culture, or the introduction of psychology - and a new universe of beliefs takes over. Each universe of the past masks what Harrison describes as the ``Universe of ultimate reality.'' There is no doubt, he says, that this ``ultimate Universe'' exists. ``The Universe is everything. What it is in its own right, independent of our changing opinions, is unknown and inconceivable. The Universe is all-inclusive and includes us; we are a part or an aspect of the Universe experiencing and thinking about itself.''

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In an interview with the Monitor, Harrison explained that he sees these universes as models of the ultimate Universe. ``They are great schemes of intricate thought - grand cosmic pictures'' that interpret and try to make sense out of human experience. Each universe of beliefs unifies a society and provides common ground so members have a basis for understanding each other.

While we must have universes in order to live as intelligent human beings, says Harrison, each universe mistakes its own common-sense view of the world for reality. ``Ideas we call reality in our experiences are deceptions. We have turned our experiences upside down in trying to rationalize things.'' What's more, each society believes it is on the knife edge of knowledge and looks back and pities people of earlier ages because of their ignorance. But of course, he says, what we overlook is that people will look back at us in exactly the same way.

Harrison drew on the scientific learning he has accumulated over a long, diverse career and on his knowledge of philosophy, religion, history, and poetry to present his insights in his 1985 book ``Masks of the Universe'' (Macmillan). ``I offer the thoughts in this book as nothing more than speculations,'' he emphasizes.

He describes the universe we are living in today as the ``physical universe,'' which he finds ``fantastic, exciting, and wondrous,'' stretching the human mind beyond any limits ever known. But he also finds this ``physical universe'' a place where `` has almost no meaning.'' Values, he says, have become relative and trivial, pleasures of the moment are maximized at minimum cost, and there are few duties and responsibilities that people feel they need observe. In this environment ``we have deepened our knowledge of the physical universe at the cost of almost dismissing everything else as meaningless, the inner world becoming a world of illusion and deception.

``If I think that the `physical universe' is the whole of reality and cannot as a result fit myself into it - that is, my inner world - a world of thoughts and feelings, then, of course, I will soon finish up with the belief that my inner world is nothing. But if I go this alternative route ... which I find so reassuring, the reality is greater, deeper, vastly more profound, and this whole physical universe is just an invention of the human mind and the human mind is part of this ultimate reality, whatever it is, which may be God or the Universe.''

Harrison tackles the age-old brain-mind dilemma by saying that our ``physical universe'' accounts for the brain but cannot locate the mind. He reasons that the brain is part of the physical universe but that whatever conceives the universe must be outside the universe; therefore it cannot be just the brain. The image, he explains, cannot contain the imagemaker.

``We cannot point to the physical brain with its networks, discharge patterns, and interplay of neurons and say, `Here is the mind.' Nowhere in this interplay can be found the world of mental experience and therefore ... the undeniable mental world is conveniently and provisionally excluded from the physical universe.''

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Then where is mind? ``The physicists ... respond by saying, `The brain is certainly part of the physical world, but as for the mind, well ... why not go and see the psychologists? You have already spoken with them? Then try the biologists....' The biologists, in their turn, respond by recommending a visit to the physicists: `You have already spoken to the physicists? Well, why not try the psychologists?'''

If we are currently living in the ``physical universe,'' what will the next universe be? According to Harrison, it might be related to a totally new concept of time. He says that the everyday experience of linear time - the past, the ``now'' through which we move toward the future - does not include other aspects of time that are suggested in quantum mechanics.

``If we succeed in enlarging our concept of time in the way quantum mechanics is indicating, it's going to have shocking impact on the way we think,'' he says. In the micro-world of quantum physics there are indications ``that what we do now not only alters the future but alters the past. If this new style of thinking percolates down to the person on the street ... the time machines of science fiction begin to look ridiculous and trivial compared with this extraordinary view of reality.''

While acknowledging that this concept of time is highly controversial and only one of the current interpretations, he speculates that possibly the past is constantly being reshuffled in the everyday world as well as in the micro-world. ``Perhaps ... what happened in the year 1900 is not this year precisely the same as last year. We accept without question that what happens this year affects what happens in 2100, but perhaps we err when we automatically reject that what happens this year affects what happened in 1900.... ''

Harrison equates God and the Universe because he defines both as all-inclusive and inconceivable. ``If we recognize that God and Universe are interchangeable names ... then the reality of God is without doubt.'' The same way universes mask the Universe, our gods mask God, says Harrison. His view is that gods and universes are merely models or representations of the real God and Universe.

``By equating God and the Universe, we give back to the world what long ago was taken away. The world we live in with our thoughts, passions, delights, and whatever stirs the mortal frame must surely take on a deeper meaning. Songs are more than longitudinal sound vibrations, sunsets more than transverse electromagnetic oscillations, inspirations more than the discharge of neurons, all touched with a mystery that deepens, the more we contemplate and seek to understand.''

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