Reality Ain't What It Used To Be
Thirty-five years after Bell's Theorem

Bell's Theorem, a mathematical demonstration by physicist John Stewart Bell published in 1964, 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, while others frankly admit they find it as perplexing as a chimpanzee in a Beethoven string quartet.

See also...
... by Robert Anton Wilson
... in the Whoa! section
... from November 1, 1999

In my own (hazardous) attempt to translate Bell's math into the verbal forms in which we discuss what physics "means," Bell seems to prove that any two "particles" once in 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 a hold of a hair from your enemy, anything you do to that hair will affect him.

Unfortunately, things aren't that simple.

Most physicists think a long series of experiments, especially those of Dr. Alain Aspect and others in the 1970s -- and again by Aspect in 1982 -- have settled the matter. Particles once in contact certainly seem "connected," or correlated, or at least to be dancing in the same ballet. But not all physicists have agreed. Some, the "AntiBellists," still publish criticisms of alleged defects in the experiments. These arguments are 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. You can find more about this here (and for general problems associated with Bell's Theorem click here).

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. Berman says it isn't.)

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 (non-locality); 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, February 20, 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 Taoism. It also brings us within hailing distance of Jungian synchronicity, an idea that seems "occult" or worse to most scientists -- even if Wolfgang Pauli, a quantum heavyweight and Nobel laureate, once endorsed it. You can see why New Agers like this; it is argued with unction and plausibility in Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics. It means particles are correlated because everything is correlated.

The strongest form of this non-local model is called super-determinism and means 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 be other than it is, since everything is part of a correlated whole. Nobody has openly endorsed 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 are 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 be here at all (e.g., he might be so shocked that he wouldn't survive to reproduce.) This must either be rejected as impossible, or else lead 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.

Dr. John Archibald Wheeler and Dr. Jack Sarfatti have offered even more radical offshoots of this notion. Dr. Wheeler has proposed that every atomic or sub-atomic experiment we perform changes every particle in the universe everywhichway in time, all the way back to the Big Bang. The universe is in constant creation, as in Sufism, but atomic physicists are its creators.

Dr. Sarfatti is working on the theory of information-without-transportation and hopes to develop an FTL system which will indeed allow me to send an email (or its equivalent) to Julius Caesar with all the paradoxes that might result, producing multiple parallel universes.

Dr. Bohm's third alternative, modification of our ideas of space and time, could lead us anywhere... including back to the Kantian notion that space and time do not exist, but are only human projections, like persistent optical illusions. (Some think Relativity already demonstrates that.) The particles are correlated because they never moved in space or time, because space and time are just "in our heads."

And there are other alternatives. David 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 we haven't found yet.

Others would rather give up "objectivity" -- the basic pre-Bell axiom that we can describe an external world apart from our experiments or meddlings. Some say this rejection of objectivity was always meant by the Copenhagen Interpretation (invented by Neils Bohr long before Bell appeared, c. 1926 in fact.) Generally, the Copenhagen view is stated as: We can only describe observer-observed interactions; we can never know anything about any hypothetical "observed" without an observer. Sounds like Zen to some, but others fear this is opening the door to Dr. Berman's solipsism and the moon that is only there when we look at it...

Bell's Theorem "means a whole new ball game," physicist Saul Paul Sirag told the present author once. Unfortunately, as we have seen, nobody feels too sure about the rules of the new game.

All we can say for sure is that "reality" ain't what it used to be.

See also: Mutts Who Think

Robert Anton Wilson is the author of 32 books, including Everything Is Under Control, an encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, and maintains the Web's strangest site @ He also serves as CEO of CSICON (the Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal).