A few years ago I witnessed a small accident in a car park. A driver collided with a parked car, did some damage, then left. We dutifully wrote down the registration number and reported it to the police. A few months later I got a call asking me to confirm the make and colour of the car. Simple. I knew it was a blue Peugeot. In fact, it was a silver Fiat. Where did the blue Peugeot come from? It was a clear memory, but not a real one.
Quantum mechanics shows us that particles move like waves, but instead of moving as a body, like waves of sound or water, each particle has its own motion. As a result, we never know where a particle has come from or where it is like to appear next, and in fact it can reappear literally anywhere, governed only by the laws of probability. This, it seems to me, tells us as much about the unreasonableness of our expectations as anything else. After all, if we could plot the path of a particle over time we would be able to predict the future of all matter. This expectation is I think formed by the fact that we are under the illusion that we can recount the past. Quantum physics is premised on the fact that this impression is illusory. The wave motion of the past does not allow us any inkling of the next instant or the previous one. We only ‘know’ the particle as it is observed, at that instant, and we derive a path for its arrival from observations deductions and experiments, but these give us no inkling of its future progress or its real past. In this sense particles are memories. When we remember we reconstruct an impression formed in a moment, at a new moment. Even if we ‘know’ a previous set of positions we only do so by constructing or imagining them and of course they give us no clue as to what is about to happen. They often arrive unbidden and unexpected. They have a past by virtue of arriving as memories and each memory is occasioned by its arrival. The arrival brings the past into being but of course it does not occasion the future. Memories arrive constantly so that we remember what we remember. (We may then conclude that memories too travel in waves – we talk about waves of emotion, or grief, or laughter). The modifications we make to our past happen slowly, through storytelling and repetition, so that we are rarely caught out by our own fictions. That only happens when we are asked to recall something specific which we have not recently re-remembered. This quantum action of memory explains the blue Peugeot.
It also struck me that trying to anticipate the appearance of a particle was rather like Hamlet trying to anticipate the appearance and reappearance of the ghost of his father. This has the significance of being a ‘new’ memory, one that it has not previously occurred to him to recall. Although it is trivialising to compare the ghost of Hamlet’s father to a small hatchback, it is in this instance rather like my Peugeot. Like a memory – or a quantum particle – the ghost’s past is unverified and even its presence is uncertain and difficult to locate. Hamlet makes up stories in an attempt to impose his will on circumstances, in the process questioning his self-reality and freedom of will, and the reality of law and justice. Obviously Hamlet is just a story. But if memories are like quantum particles stories become the formation of ideas of both self and reality. Our scientific observation of a individual particle is a story. Crucially, just as Schroedinger’s cat is both alive and dead, it is both fictional and real. Reality has no separate or special status from storytelling. The observation of reality and the telling of a story are the same thing. To be clear about this, they are not even two different aspects of the same thing or two different viewpoints. They are identical. Matter is not not undone, opposed or modified in this process. It simply ceases to exist according to our normal understanding of existence. Clearly this applies as much to ideas of the will and the self as it does to ideas of tables, chairs, hatchbacks or ghosts.