The Quantum Mechanics of Fate
by George Musser  /  January 30, 2014

“The objective world simply is, it does not happen,” wrote mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl in 1949. From his point of view, the universe is laid out in time as surely as it is laid out in space. Time does not pass, and the past and future are as real as the present. If your common sense rebels against this idea, it is probably for a single reason: the arrow of causality. Events in the past cause events in the present which cause events in the future. If time really is like space, then shouldn’t events from the future influence the present and past, too?

They actually might. Physicists as renowned as John Wheeler, Richard Feynman, Dennis Sciama, and Yakir Aharonov have speculated that causality is a two-headed arrow and the future might influence the past. Today, the leading advocate of this position is Huw Price, a University of Cambridge philosopher who specializes in the physics of time. “The answer to the question, ‘Could the world be such that we do have a limited amount of control over the past,’ ” Price says, “is yes.” What’s more, Price and others argue that the evidence for such control has been staring at us for more than half a century. That evidence, they say, is something called entanglement, a signature feature of quantum mechanics.

The word “entanglement” has the same connotations as a romantic entanglement: a special, and potentially troublesome, relationship. Entangled particles start off in close proximity when they are produced in the laboratory. Then, when they are separated, they behave like a pair of magic dice. You can “roll” one in Las Vegas (or make a measurement on it), your friend can roll the other in Atlantic City, N.J., and each die will land on a random side.

But whatever those two sides are, they will have a consistent relationship to each other: They could be identical, for example, or always differ by one. If you ever saw this happen, you might assume the dice were loaded or fixed before they were rolled. But no crooked dice could behave this way. After all, the Atlantic City die changes its behavior depending on what is going on with the Las Vegas die and vice versa, even if you roll them at the same moment.

The standard interpretation of entanglement is that there is some kind of instant communication happening between the two particles. Any communication between them would have to travel the intervening distance instantaneously—that is, infinitely fast. That is plainly faster than light, a speed of communication prohibited by the theory of relativity. According to Einstein, nothing at all should be able to do that, leading him to think that some new physics must be operating, beyond the scope of quantum mechanics itself.

Suppose it is not the case that the particles (or dice) communicate instantaneously with each other, and it is also not the case  that their values were fixed in advance. There seem to be no options remaining. But here Price asks us to consider the impossible: that doing something to either of the entangled particles causes effects which travel backward in time to the point in the past when the two particles were close together and interacting strongly. At that point, information from the future is exchanged, each particle alters the behavior of its partner, and these effects then carry forward into the future again.

There is no need for instantaneous communication, and no violation of relativity. At first glance, this interpretation of entanglement replaces one troublesome behavior—instantaneous communication across arbitrary distances—with another—information traveling backward in time. But should we actually be troubled by the idea of information from the future traveling into the past? After all, mathematically, entanglement in time is identical to entanglement in space, and we have no qualms with information traveling in all directions across space.

To think about this problem, consider the most prosaic of objects: a popsicle stick. The stick will bend or buckle, depending on the pressure you apply to both ends. Now imagine a popsicle stick whose ends are separated in time, rather than in space. The same logic should apply: What happens to the middle of the stick will depend on the situation at each end. For entangled particles, the endpoints happen to be in time. At one end is the moment they were created next to each other in the laboratory, and at the other end is the moment when they are far apart and a measurement is taken. Their behavior at some intermediate time depends on information flowing from both past and future.

As with so much else in quantum mechanics, this concept of retrocausality is limited in scope. Only in certain circumstances can we see the future influence the past. Although individual particle processes can move backward or forward in time, the universe as a whole is skewed in the forward direction, because its past endpoint was highly ordered, and its future endpoint is highly disordered. Our mortality is this asymmetry in microcosm.

So is our sensation of time’s passage and, by extension, of free will. We have the feeling that the past is fixed because we have records of it, created as the universe slid from its highly ordered origins toward a messier future. We have no such records of the future. In fact, you could define the future as “that we know not of.” And one of the many things we don’t know about the future is what we ourselves will do in it.

We acquire this knowledge only in the act of living. Our decisions might be preordained, but we still have to go through the paces, and that is what gives our volition meaning. But at the quantum level, time gets fuzzy. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle causes us to have as little knowledge of certain past events as we do of future ones. In a deep sense, those events are not really “past” to us because we do not know what happened—they lie in the open “future.”

It is therefore consistent to expect that we can influence those past events. Quantum mechanics redraws the line between ignorance and knowledge, and therefore between future and past. But our control of the past is very limited—as it must be, if the universe is to avoid imploding in a big logical paradox. Quantum mechanics is set up to deny you that influence. It creates an eddy in the river of time, but only a little one.

Retrocausality skeptics complain, not that retrocausality is weird—all the options for explaining entanglement are—but that proponents have yet to flesh out their ideas into a full-fledged theory. “You can’t just take quantum mechanics as it is and say, ‘I’ll interpret it retrocausally,’ ” says David Wallace, a University of Oxford philosopher. “You need to come up with a retrocausal, empirically equivalent alternative to quantum mechanics. And that hasn’t been done.”

Proponents accept this criticism. “Those of us who do want to investigate retrocausality have to come up with the goods,” says Matt Leifer, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute. “The fact that not everyone takes it seriously right now, I think they’re right not to.” One of the most developed retrocausal models is the so-called transactional interpretation developed by physicist John Cramer of the University of Washington. According to Cramer, every event sends out a wave propagating both forward and backward in time, connecting the measurement of a particle with its earlier preparation, but canceling out at other locations in spacetime. But even this picture, Wallace says, is just “a sketch of ideas.” There remains no complete model for retrocausality.

But even if retrocausality doesn’t exist, it has inspired new thinking about quantum physics. For instance, it used to be an article of faith that no particle can be measured without disturbing it, but in studying retrocausal models akin to Cramer’s, Yakir Aharonov and his colleagues came up with a technique for “weak measurement.” They realized that you can probe a quantum system so gently that the effects of the probing are lost in the intrinsic uncertainty of the system, yet you can still retrieve useful information by sifting through repeated trials. Aharonov and his colleagues have used this technique in experiments which they say provides evidence of retrocausality—but you don’t need to buy into retrocausality to make use of this technique.

Other researchers are using retrocausality to explain existing results. For example, Price’s collaborator, theoretical physicist Ken Wharton of San José State University, argues that retrocausality is a natural way to understand a process known as frustrated spontaneous emission. An atom that normally emits light will cease emitting when its surroundings become incapable of absorbing that light. Thus one event (emission) depends on something that does or doesn’t happen in the future (absorption). “That’s one of the examples of a particle probing the future and seeing what’s there, and then making a decision based on it, and just not decaying,” Wharton says. “It’s hard to understand in a causal model.”

Retrocausal models have forced physicists to reconsider long-standing taboos. In affording a role for future events in the present day, it joins a line of thought stretching to Plato and Aristotle. They argued that nature, like man, is organized around final ends and goals. Just as the purpose of the baker is to bake, the purpose of the raindrop is to fall, and of the seed to grow into a tree. These so-called teleological approaches fell out of the scientific mainstream when Newton and his contemporaries proved that you could predict the future of natural objects using only present circumstances. There was no explicit role for the future, or need for it. With retrocausality, physics may be forcing a very old idea back into the conversation.”

Reality Shifts: What Happens to Those Who Slip Between the Cracks of Time and Space?

“Perception determines “truth.” We invent our own reality through our own perceptions and others’, and by accepting what appears to be real as real. History is filled with stories of people who, in “slipping between the cracks” of their own consciousness (thus altering how they perceived the world around them) uncovered different ways to experience reality. What they accomplished in doing this made an impact on society. You and I, all of us, have profited again and again because this happened.

Chester F. Carlson, for example, inventor of the Xerox duplication process and founder of the Xerox Corporation, was a devotee of a certain trance medium who channelled spirit beings. While attending a series of sessions with the woman, he eventually “received” the photocopy process from the spirit beings she contacted. After experimenting with the technique and making a few adjustments, the Xerox process was born, along with a multi-billion-dollar company.

George Washington Carver took the peanut, until then used as hog food, and the exotic and neglected sweet potato, and turned them into hundreds of products, including cosmetics, grease, printer’s ink, coffee, and peanut butter. Carver said he got his answers by walking in the woods at four in the morning. “Nature is the greatest teacher and I learn from her best when others are asleep,” he said. “In the still hours before sunrise, God tells me of the plans I am to fulfil.” How did George Washington Carver communicate with God during the wee hours of morning? He said it himself – through the assistance of angels and fairies. And he isn’t the only one to make such a claim.

Peter and Eileen Caddy and their colleague Dorothy Maclean give the same credits in describing the work they accomplished. This troupe, along with Caddy’s three sons, took up residence near an inlet to the North Sea at Findhorn, Scotland, for the purpose of setting up a co-creative link between themselves and nature intelligences – that is to say, angels (what they later called “devas”) and fairies (“nature spirits”). They became willing workers with nature’s own in an attempt to co-create a garden the likes of which would defy every known rule of convention and climate. That was 1962. Today, the Findhorn Gardens regularly draw people from across the globe to tour the premises and take classes at Cluny Hill College, classes on how to communicate with angelic forces and helper spirits while at the same time enhancing one’s own sense of spirituality. The people I have mentioned came to perceive reality from a vantage point other than the norm; then they used what they gained from that experience to benefit others. Different ways of experiencing reality happen when individuals expand their consciousness. Whether accidental or on purpose, that shift in perception also alters the meaning and the importance of time and space.

Documented cases of native runners, especially those in North and South America, illustrate this. In Peter Nabokov’s book Indian Running, an anthropologist by the name of George Laird described what happened to one runner who lived in the southwestern part of the United States: “One morning he left his friends at Cotton Wood Island in Nevada and said he was going to the mouth of the Gila River in southern Arizona. He didn’t want anyone else along, but when he was out of sight, the others began tracking him. Beyond the nearby dunes his stride changed. The tracks looked as if he had just been staggering along, taking giant steps, his feet touching the ground at long irregular intervals, leaving prints that became further and further apart and lighter and lighter in the sand. When they got to Fort Yuma they learned that he had arrived at sunrise of the same day he had left them,” thus arriving before he departed. The runner’s altered perception enabled him to accomplish this feat; he did not allow himself to be bound by normal perceptions of time and space.

Let’s not forget the Australian aborigines. Theirs is the oldest continually existing culture on Earth (around for at least 50,000 years), and they maintain an understanding of time and space – of reality – that deserves our attention. What they call “dreaming” has little to do with sleep or dreams which occur during sleep. Dreaming for them is actually more akin to a type of “flow” where one becomes whatever is focused on and suddenly knows whatever needs to be known at the moment. Aborigines sometimes use drugs to achieve this state but, more often than not, drumming, chanting, rhythmic movements, and certain other sounds and rituals suffice. In this state of consciousness participants seem to “merge with” or “enter into” soil, rocks, animals, sky, or whatever else they focus on – including the “Inbetween” (what appears to exist between time and space, as if through a crack in creation). These people believe reality consists of two space/time continua, not one – that which can be experienced during wake time and that during dream time, with dream time slightly ahead of its counterpart, yet capable of merging into all time, of what Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder calls “everywhen.”

To Australian aborigines, wake time is where learning is acted out and utilised, but dream time is where learning is first acquired. For them, dream time is the place where all possibilities and all memory reside. Stories are told of aborigines who physically appear and disappear as they slip back and forth from one continuum to the other, from the here and now to the alternate universes they believe exist and the everywhen they know awaits them. Wise ones, be they monks or shamans or healers or mystics, are like this. They know life extends beyond the boundaries of perception. Yet perception itself can be flawed.

Yes, it is a fact that individuals and societies have always organised the cosmos to fit their own preferred beliefs. This is what defines the relationship between heresy (independent thinking) and orthodoxy (mutually accepted bias). But it is also a fact that the bizarre can intrude upon one’s life so dramatically that one is forced to shift one’s awareness of real versus unreal. Reality shifts (sometimes called coincidences) take on many guises. Fiction, for example, sometimes foretells reality. Were the authors of prophetic works inspired by altered perceptions of reality? The popular movie China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, depicted a nuclear facility meltdown. Three weeks after the movie opened, the same kind of disaster actually happened at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The 1961 novel Strangers in a Strange Land, written by Robert A. Heinlein, told the story of a global chief executive who made decisions based on his wife’s advice, advice she obtained from regular consultations with a San Francisco astrologer. In 1988, media headlines carried the story that Nancy Reagan frequently consulted a San Francisco astrologer, and that the advice she passed along to her husband Ronald Reagan, then President of the United States, was based on those consultations.

The novel Futility, an 1898 creation of Morgan Robertson, detailed the sinking of an unsinkable ship, the largest vessel afloat. This imaginary ship, named Titan, collided with an iceberg during April, resulting in a high loss of life because the ship carried too few lifeboats. Fourteen years later, with uncanny similarities, the real ship Titanic re-created what happened in the novel: The two ships had almost identical names; both ships were designated unsinkable; both were touted as the largest ships at sea; both collided with icebergs in April; both resulted in many deaths due to a shortage of lifeboats. Plus, both had strikingly similar floor plans and technical descriptions.

Radio broadcaster Paul Harvey aired a grim tale of three shipwrecked sailors and one cabin boy, adrift and facing starvation, who drew lots to see who would forfeit his life so the others could survive. The contest was rigged to make certain the cabin boy, Richard Parker, would lose. Evidence used at the subsequent court trial that convicted all three of murder and cannibalism included a story written by Edgar Allen Poe. Titled ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’, Poe’s tale described three shipwrecked sailors who rigged a drawing of lots, then killed and ate their cabin boy companion, Richard Parker. Poe’s story, which so accurately described the drama, every detail as it actually happened – including the victim’s correct name – was written and published 46 years before the event happened, even before the participants were born.

The astonishing ability of fiction to accurately foreshadow what physically occurs happens more often than you might think. It’s almost as if on some level, knowingly or unknowingly, consistently or occasionally, individuals can tap into or stumble across other dimensions of reality, as well as knowledge of a predestined or potential future. Remarkable reality shifts also occur that cannot be correlated with any sort of imaginings:

Brad Steiger, in his book The Reality Game and How to Win It, tells about Charles W. Ingersoll of Cloquet, Minnesota, who appeared in a travelogue made and copyrighted by Castle Films in 1948. Ingersoll could be seen leaning over the rim of the Grand Canyon taking pictures with his 35mm camera. Yet Ingersoll did not go to the Grand Canyon in 1948. He had planned to do so, but his plans changed and his first trip there was made in 1955, when he took with him a newly purchased camera manufactured the same year of his trip. A week after his return, he chanced upon the old travelogue in a store and bought it, discovering to his utter amazement that the film clearly showed him there in 1948 – holding a camera that did not exist until 1955. An investigation verified the incident and the dates, but no explanation was ever offered as to how Ingersoll could have appeared in a film showing him at a site seven years before he got there.

On October 21, 1987, Claude and Ellen Thorlin were sitting at breakfast. Ellen heard a disembodied voice ask her to tune in Channel 4 on their television set. Even though that channel did not receive broadcast transmissions in their area, Ellen turned the set on. There she saw the face of their dear friend and colleague, Friedrich Jergenson, a well-known Swedish documentary filmmaker and the father of EVP (electronic voice communication with spirits). Ellen was shocked; Claude snapped a photo that recorded the image and the time – 1:22 p.m. That time was 22 minutes into Jergenson’s funeral service that was occurring 420 miles away, a funeral service the Thorlins had been unable to attend.

When T.L. of Fort Worth, Texas, was 21 years old, he borrowed his parents’ car for a drive from Darby, Montana, to Missoula, to visit friends. Staying later than expected, he found himself speeding back to Darby between one and two in the morning. At a place where the road wound around hills paralleling the river channel, the car headlights suddenly picked up a herd of 20 to 30 horses sauntering across the highway. With no time to hit his brakes and no place to pull off the road, TL hoped to avoid a collision by driving between the animals. Two large horses stopped directly in front of his path. The inevitable seemed his fate until, in the flash of an instant, TL found himself well beyond the herd, driving as if nothing unusual had happened. To this day he cannot explain how he missed hitting the horses. “It was as if I and my car were ‘transported’ to the other side of the herd,” he said. Each of these “coincidences” involved people as real as you and me, on days that began as ordinary days.

Are these events merely coincidences? Too much evidence from too many sources contradicts this idea. Something else is going on here. The events described in this article underscored moments when subjective reality overlaid objective reality to determine experience. And when that happened, the future easily surfaced. This peculiarity occurred automatically, without provocation, and regardless of logic. What we call time – past, present, future – ceased to be sequential for these people and took on the aspect of simultaneity. All of the cases – whether involving aboriginal or present-day societies, fictional or nonfictional themes – centred on men and women who encountered alternate versions of time and space. What occurred changed their perception of the world.”

Adapted from Future Memory: How Those Who See the Future Shed New Light on the Working of the Human Mind By P.M.H. Atwater (Birch Lane Press, New York, 1996).