The Celtic Roots of Quantum Theory

The Celtic Roots of Quantum Theory

by Robert Anton Wilson

excerpt from Email to the Universe

The reality of metaphysics is the reality of masks.  -Oscar Wilde

The day in 1982 when my wife, Arlen, and I arrived in Ireland we tried her battery-operated radio to listen avidly to whatever we might find: our way of dipping our toes in the new culture before plunging into its alien waters totally. By the kind of coincidence that I don’t regard as coincidental we found an RTE* interviewer discussing local legends about the pookah with a Kerry farmer. As a longtome pookaphile, I found the conversation spellbinding, but the best part came at the end:
*RTE = Radio Telefis hEirenn, the State-owned but feisty and independent radio-TV monopoly.
“But do you believe in the pookah yourself?” asked the RTE man.

“That I do not,” the farmer replied firmly, “and I doubt much that he believes in me either!”

I knew then that I had indeed found my spiritual homeland, wherever I may otherwise roam, and that Yeats and Joyce and O’Brien had not risen out of a vacuum. We had planned to say six months; we eventually stayed six years.

Anthony Burgess once argued that English English, American English and all the other varieties of Anglophonics have become rational and pragmatic [closure-oriented] but Irish English remains ludic and esthetic [open-oriented]. The rest of us speak dry prose; the Irish speak playful poetry.

While I see some truth in that formulation, I would prefer to describe all-other-English as belonging to what Neurolinguistic therapist Dr Richard Bandler calls the meta-model [statements we can logically judge as true or false] and Irish English as belonging to the Milton-model [statements not containable in true-false logic but capable of seducing us into sudden new perceptions.]

The Milton-model, named after Dr. Milton Erickson –“the greatest therapeutic hypnotist of the 20th Century,” in the opinion of his peers — contains no propositions subject to proof or disproof, uses language the way that Kerry farmer did, and can cause both intellectual and physiological transformations. Because of his many successes in curing the allegedly incurable, Dr Erickson often became proclaimed “the Miracle Worker.”

Oddly, most of Dr. Erickson’s patients did not think they had undergone hypnosis at all. They just remembered having a friendly chat with an unusually sympathetic doctor. ..

According to the Korzybsk-Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, the language a people speak habitually influences their sense perceptions, their “concepts” and even the way they feel about themselves and the world in general. “A change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos,” as Whorf stated the case.

The clinical record of Erickson and his school indicates that language tricks can even make us ill or make us well again.

The Irish neurolinguistic system illustrates these theorems uncommonly well.

Whether you call it ludic language, Ericksonian hypnosis or the verbal equivelant of throwing LSD in the linguistic drinking water, Irish English — even in the professional hands of all of Ireland’s greatest writers –shows the same non-aristotelian “illogic” or Zen humor as that Kerry farmer


Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul
–W.B. Yeats

Try taking all literary, scientiific, theological and philosophic connotations out of “death” and “life” — see them merely as two predicaments of grammar — and then — ?

“Men are born liars.”
— Liam O’Flaherty, in the first sentence of his autobiography.

Logcians call this an Empedoclean paradox. To an Irish stylist, it does not appear Empedoclean nor paradoxical but merely another pregnant bull. Since O’Flaherty belonged to the class of all men, he lied; but if he lied, his statement does not carry conviction, so maybe he told the truth….

“Are the commentators on Hamlet really mad or only pretending to be mad?”
— Oscar Wilde.

Thy spirit keen through radiant mein
Thy shining throat and smiling eye
Thy little palm, thy side like foam —
I cannot die!

O woman, shapely as the swan,
In a cunning house hard-reared was I:
O bosom white, O well-shaped palm,
I shall not die!
–Padraic Colum

[A Romantic poem, in style; anti-Romantic in content — whether you think of the female as a human lady or a symbol of Ireland a la Cathleen ni Houlihan, Dark Rosaline or shan van vocht, Colum still will not die for Her.]

“Durtaigh disloighal reibel aigris dogs.”
–Myles na gCopaleen

[It only makes sense if you pronounce it as Gaelic, and then it becomes ordinary English, expressing an ordinary English attitude toward their Hibernian neighbors.]

“They shall come to know good.”
— James Joyce. [Read it silently, then read it aloud.]

“There is in mankind a certain
*************************************************** Hic multa

And this I take to be a clear solution of the matter.”
— Jonathan Swift [all expurgations in Swift’s original text.]

“I considered it desirable that he should know nothing about me but it was even better if he knew several things that were quite wrong.”
— Flann O’Brien

Or, to take a few examples that lend themselves better to condensation than quotation:

Consider Swift’s “pamphlet war” with the astrologer Partridge, in which Swift claimed Partridge had died and Partidge vehemently insisted on his continued viability. Swift won hands down by pointing out that just because a man claims he’s alive does not compell us to accept his uncorraborated testimony.

Or: Bishop Berkeley, proving with meticulous logic that the universe doesn’t exist, although God admittedly has a persistent delusion that it does.

Or — the scandalous matter of Molly Bloom’s adulterous affairs in Ulysses, which number between one [Hugh Boylan] and more than thirty [including a few priests and Lords Mayor and one Italian organ grinder], depending on which of Joyce’s 100+ narrators one chooses to believe. This grows more perplexing when one realizes that some of the “narrators” seem more like styles than persons: styles masquerading as persons.

Or maybe the ghosts of departed stylists, in the sense that Berkeley called Newton’s infinitesmals the ghosts of departed quantities?

Colonized and post-Colonized peoples learn much about text and sub-text; and Yeats did not develop his mystique of Mask and Anti-Mask out of Hermetic metaphysics alone. In my six years sampling Dublin pubs [1982-88] I overheard many conversations in the form:

–I saw your man last night.
–Oh? And?
–All going well there.

Who the devil is “your man”? Does this concern hashish from Amsterdam for the Punk Rock crowd, gelignite on its way to Derry, or just ingrained habits –Masks and Anti-masks– shaped by 800 years of Occupation? After all, the speakers might simply refer to tickets for a soccer game….[You will find a similarly oblique dialogue in the second section of the “Wandering Rocks” montage in Ulysses, except that “your man” has become “that certain party.” Palestinians have probably become that “Irish” by now.]

I do not claim that Sassanach conquest alone produced Ireland’s elusive wit and ludic poesy; but it sharpened tendencies already there as far back as Finn Mac Cumhal. Yeats says somewhere that Ireland was part of Asia until the Battle of the Boyne; but that dating merely represents W.B.’s reactionary Romanticism. Joyce knew thatIreland remained part of Asia; Finnegans Wake explicitly tells us it emerged from “the Haunted Inkbottle, no number, Brimstone Walk, Asia in Ireland.”

You can test one level of truth in this by simply asking directions in both Tokyo and Dublin. In either place you will encounter old-fashioned politeness and friendliness unknown in most of the industrial world, and you will get sent in the wrong direction. Hostile humor? I think not. Asiatic languages, including Irish English, simply do not accommodate themselves to Newtonian grids, either spatial or temporal.

Arlen and I used to play a game in Dublin: whenever we saw two clocks we would compare them. They never agreed.

In Cork, the four clocks on the City Hall tower always show four different times; locals call them “the Four Liars.”

The sociologist may class this as “post-Colonial syndrome”– based on the baleful suspicion that the English invented time to make a man work more than the Good Lord ever intended — but Joyce noted that the only three world-class philosophers of Celtic geneology, Erigena, Berkeley and Bergson, all denied the reality of time [and only Berkeley lived under English rule.]

A Dublin legend tells of an Englishman who, noting that the two clocks in Padraic Pearse station do not agree, commented loudly that this discordance”is so damned typically bloody Irish.” A Dubliner corrected him: “Sure now, if they agreed one of them would be superfluous.”

Even more in the Daoist tradition: Two Cork men meet on the street. “Filthy weather for this time of year,” ventures the first.

“Ah, sure,” replies the second, “it isn’t this time of year at all, man.”

Compare the Chinese proverb, “Summer never becomes winter, infants never grow old.” Einstein’s relativity and Dali’s melting clocks belong to the same universe as these Hibernio-Chinese Eccentrcities.

In County Clare and the West generally one often hears the grammatical form, “My uncle was busy feeding the pigs one night and I a girl of six years….” [One also hears this in Synge’s plays — all of them.] Elsewhere in the English speaking world one would hear, “My uncle was busy feeding the pigs one night when I was a girl of six years…” The Irish English retains the grammar of Irish Gaelic, but it thereby retains the timeless or Daoist sense of a world where every now exists but no now ever “becomes” another now.

Nor does this neurolinguistic grid, or reality-tunnel, only manifest in Irish speech and literature. William Rowan Hamilton, one of Eire’s greatest mathematicians, probably the greatest of all, made many contributions, but two have special interest for us here.

One — Hamilton invented non-commutative math, which I shall try to explain. In arithmetic, 2 x 3 = 3 x 2, or they both equal 6 [if you haven’t raised too many pints that night.] Ordinary algebra, the only kind most of us ever learned in school, follows the same rule: a x b = b x a. Everybody knows that, right? Well, in Hamilton’s algebra, a x b does NOT = b x a.

More “Asiatic” influence? More of the Celtic Twilight? Well, in Pure Mathematics, you can invent any system you want as long as it remains internally consistent; finding out if it has any resemblence to the experiential world remains the job of the physicist, or the engineer. It required about 100 years to find a “fit” for Hamiltonian algebra, and then it revolutionized physics. Hamilton’s math describes the sub-atomic [quantum] world, and ordinary math does not.

The reader may classify Hamilton’s feat as a variety of precognition or maybe just as more of the Hibernian compulsion to challenge everything the Saxon regards as unquestionable.

Two — Physicists of Hamilton’s day endlessly debated whether light travels as “waves” like water or as discrete “particles” like bullets. He supported both totally contradictory models, although in different contexts. Among Fundamentalist Materialists, they call this the Heresy of “perspectivism,” but again, after 100 years, it became part of quantum mechanics, although usually credited to Neils Bohr, who only rediscovered it.

Perspectivism also haunts postmodern literary theory, cultural anthropology — and, especially, the Joyce Industry, as more and more Joyce scholars realize that all of the 100+ narrative “voices” in Ulysses seem equally true in some sense, equally untrue in some sense and equally beyond either/or logic in any sense.

Quantum Mechanics owes a second huge debt, and a perpetual head-ache, to another Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell.

Bell’s Theorem, a mathematical demonstration by Dr. Bell published in 1965, has become more popular than Tarot cards with New Agers, who think they understand it but generally don’t. Meanwhile it remains controversial with physicists, some of whom think they understand it but many of whom frankly admit they find it as perplexing as Mick Jagger with his guitar hopping around like a chicken on LSD in the middle of a Beethoven string quartet.

In a [hazardous] attempt to translate Bell’s math into the verbal forms in which we discuss what physics “means,” Bell seems to have proved that any two “particles”oncein contact will continue to act as if connected no matter how far apart they move in “space” or “time” [or in space-time.] You can see why New Agers like this: it sounds like it supports the old magick idea that if you get ahold of a hair from your enemy, anything you do to the hair will effect him.

Most physcists think a long series of experiments, especially those of Dr Alain Aspect and others in the 1970s and Aspect in 1982 have settled the matter. Quantum “particles” [or “waves’] once in contact certainly seem “connected,” or correlated, or at least dancing in the same ballet….But not all physicists have agreed. Some, theAntiBellists, still publish criticisms of alleged defects in the experiments. These arguments seem too technical to be summarized here, and only a small minority still cling to them, but this dissent needs to be mentioned since most New Agers don’t know about it, and regard Bell’s math with the same reverence Catholics have for Papal dogma.

The most daring criticism of Bell comes from Dr N. David Berman of Columbia, who believes he has refined the possible interpretations of Bell down to two:

(1) non-locality [“total rapport”] and
(2) solipsism.

We will explain non-locality below, but Dr Berman finds it so absurd that he prefers solipsism. [“Is The Moon There When Nobody Looks?” Physics Today, April 1985. He says the moon, and everything else, does’t exist until perceived; Bishop Berkeley has won himself one more convert.]

Among those who accept Bell’s Theorem, Dr David Bohm of the University of London offers three interpretations of what it means:

“It may mean that everything in the universe is in a kind of total rapport, so that whatever happens is related to everything else ; or it may mean that there is some kind of information that can travel faster than the speed of light; or it may mean that our concepts of space and time have to be modified in some way that we don’t understand.”[London Times, 20 Feb 1983.]

Bohm’s first model, “total rapport,” also called non-locality, brings us very close– very, very close — to Oriental monism: “All is One,” as in Vedanta, Buddhism and Daoism. It also brings us in hailing distance of Jungian synchronicity, an idea that seems “occult” or worse to most scientists, even if it won the endorsement of WolfgangPauli,a quantum heavyweight and Nobel laureate. You can see why New Agers like this; you will find it argued with unction and plausibility in Capra’s The Tao of Physics. It means atomic particles remains correlated because everything always remains correlated.

I suggest that physicists often explain this in Chinese metaphors because they don’t know as much about Ireland as they do about China, and because they haven’t readFinnegans Wake.

The strongest form of this non-local model, called super-determinism, claims that everything “is” one thing, or at least one process. From the Big Bang to the last word of this sentence and beyond, nothing can become other than it “is,” since everything remains part of a correlated whole. Nobody has openly expressed this view but several (Stapp, Herbert et al) have accused others, especially Capra, of unknowingly endorsing it.

Bohm’s second alternative, information faster-than-light, brings us into realms previously explored only in science-fiction. Bell’s particles may be correlated because they act as parts of an FTL (faster than light) cosmic Internet. If I can send an FTL message to my grandpa, it might change my whole universe to the extent that I wouldn’t exist at all. [E.g., he might suffer such shock that he would drop dead on the spot and not survive to reproduce.] We must either reject this as impossible, or else it leads to the “parallel universe” model. I’m here in this universe, but in the universe next door the message removed me, so I never sent it there.

Remind you, a bit, of that Kerry farmer?

Even more radical offshoots of this notion have come forth from Dr John Archibald Wheeler. Dr Wheeler has proposed that every atomic or sub-atomic experiment we perform changes every particle in the universe everywhichway in time, back to the Big Bang. The universe becomes constant creation, as in Sufism, but atomic physicists, not Allah, serve as its creators. Yeats again wakes? [He would, of course, place Bards as the creators, not mere measurers and calculators, but still the human mind has “made up the whole.”]

Dr Bohm’s third alternative, modification of our ideas of space and time, could lead us anywhere…including back to the Berkeleyan/Kantian notion that space and time do not exist, except as human projections, like persistent optical illusions.(Some think Relativity already demonstrates that…and some will recall Mr. Yeats again, and that Kerry farmer….) All particles remain correlated because they never move in space or time, because space and time only exist “in our heads.”

Meanwhile, a Dr. Harrison suggests that we may have to abandon Aristotelian logic, i.e. give up classifying things into only the two categories of “true and real” and “untrue and unreal.” In between, in Aristotle’s excluded middle, we may have the “maybe” proposed by von Neumann in 1933, the probabilistic logics (percentages/gambles) suggested by Korzybski, the four-valued logic of Rapoport (true, false, indeterminate and meaningless) or some system the non-Hibernian world hasn’t found yet. The Kerry farmer would handle all of this better than the typical graduate of any university outside Ireland.

And so we see that two Irishman, Hamilton and Bell, have the majority of physicists arguing about issues that make them sound like a symposium among Berkeley, Swift, Yeats, O’Brien and Joyce. Through their literature, speakers raised in Irish English have transformed the printed page; now their mathematicians, raised in the sameneurolinguistic grid, have revolutionized our basic notions of “reality,” which in the light of what we have seen, badly needs the dubious quotes I just hung on it.

Afterthought 2004: Two of the giants of quantum math, Schrödinger and Dirac, both spent time at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. Schrödinger, in fact, wrote his most important nonmathemetical book there — What Is Life? [1948], in which he defined life as a function of negative entropy. This thought seemed so radical and far-out that nobody began to grasp it until Wiener and Shannon showed that information also behaves like negative entropy. Information = that part of a message you didn’t expect; the unpredictable part.

Or as Wiener once said, great poetry contains high information and political speeches contain virtually none.

And therefore Life = negative entropy = high information = surprise and initial confusion = tuning-in the previously not-tuned-in…..

Got it?

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