Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   

Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,

“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.” 

And when we call it virtual reality, we mean a technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not. We’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real – a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are. 

Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual itself.  Continue reading “Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   “

Entanglement, Chesed, and the Quantum Theology of Incense

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Every Sabbath, Jews recite a curious prayer, a recipe taken from the Talmud (Kereisos 6b) for a kind of incense that was used in the Temple. It required eleven ingredients in specific measures, including “galbanum,” a terpentine-smelling extract of gum plants, and “Carshina lye,” which is toxic. It sounds altogether foul (although if you knew the ingredients of the most expensive perfumes out of Paris, you’d turn up your nose, too). Furthermore, the mixture was so sacred, if a priest violated the formula by one jot, he could be put to death. In fact, one of the most mysterious passages in the Bible is the only recorded instance of the punishment: Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, (Lev 10:1-2), get it wrong, even though their intention seemed to be zealous, and G-d takes their souls by fire instead of the incense.

Why is incense such a closely guarded bit of esoterica that it accounts for one of the most confounding events in Scripture and we recite its formula 3000 years later, even in the absence of the Temple, for fear we’ll forget it? What is so precious and dangerous that it has to be guarded by the threat of capital punishment? Does it harbor some key to the nature of the connection between the physical and metaphysical?

The esoteric formula is insistently technical, earthy, materialistic and sensory but it has spiritual consequences. Together the eleven substances produce a divine smell, the incense is the last most mystical offering of all, and the spreading of smoky incense comes at the climax of the service.

This extreme contrast between technicality and spirituality begs for closer inspection. Is there more than materialistic, sensory explanations for the stagecraft of incense? Why is it such a closely guarded bit of esoterica? Is it possible the ritual harbors some key to the nature of the connection between the physical and metaphysical that is so precious and dangerous it is guarded by the threat of capital punishment, we recite the formula 3000 years later even in the absence of the Temple for fear we’ll forget it, and it accounts for one of the most confounding events in Scripture?

Kabbalists connect ketores to the kabbalistic aspect (sefira) of G-d called chesed, usually translated as “kindness,” but meaning much more. [1] The ketores produces a transformative scent. It influences all who smell it. Of all the senses, and of all the kinds of worship – singing, praying, hearing – smell lingers and suffuses. It creates and alters the ecology of a room. Sharing a scent in the air binds people together and it’s the most memorable. The kabbalistic analogy is clear: like acts of kindness, ketores emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways. It binds humanity together and elevates them, entangling their consciousness with each other and the metaphysical. In what follows, I will suggest the incense experience is related to newly-discovered aspects of nature, specifically quantum entanglement, and this relationship not merely metaphorically, but in substantive physics. Ok, that’s weird. Let me try to explain.

Quantum Biology Breaches the Walls Between Reality and Consciousness

For the last century, most physicists treated the troubling and enigmatic implications of quantum mechanics as something to be banished to the realms of philosophy and metaphysics. Physics still largely quarantines the absurdity of subatomic shenanigans from the observable macroscopic world we live in by claiming the two realities are unconnected. The world we experience continues to behave in an orderly, Newtonian, commonsensical fashion. Things don’t change each other by magic. Stuff can’t be in two places at once and no where at all. And most important, reality is there whether someone’s looking at it or not. But quantum mechanics put the nose of the camel of consciousness into the tent of scientific cosmology: a conscious observer had to watch events in order to make them real.

In the last decades, this quarantine has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Experiments in the 1960s through 1980s s that two objects separated by any conceivable  connection, even at other ends of the universe, are entangled and somehow affect each other instantaneously. Science itself has stormed its own articles of faith with experimental results that show consciousness, human or at least intelligent consciousness, is implicated in making reality. Until recently, the last of these walls, between the macroscopic and the sub-atomic, held. What happened down there didn’t affect what happened up here in real reality.   Still, physics had a whole armory of ways to wall off these disturbing phenomena from commonsense reality. saying that when the quantum world interacted with a macroscopic phenomenon, that macroscopic entity “observed” the probabilistic quantum, collapsing it into a stable realism. Its formal name is “Decoherence.”

But in the last ten years, quantum biology has shown that behaviors in our familiar world of nature are directly connected to and reliant on quantum processes. The orientation of migrating birds. The operation of genes. Photosynthesis. The comfortable quarantine that has kept our sense of reality simple and free from philosophy and metaphysics has now collapsed. And that collapse is utter and complete. It can’t be confined, because it is now likely to be shown that the whole universe interacts at all levels with quantum weirdness.

Entanglement suggests the cosmos is interactive

One of those quantum phenomena that is impossible to ignore at the macroscopic level is entanglement: spooky coordination between the behavior of objects that have no material, physical or any other possible connection either invisible or theoretical. Even objects – photons – that are traveling apart at the speed of light or are separated by vast distances instantaneously coordinate their reality. When one is tickled, its entangled twin across the universe laughs.

Perhaps we can get comfortable with the way this betrays our commonsense notions of reality for photons, because they are weird little buggers to begin with, both wave and particle, expressions of a probability formula that ineluctably shows they don’t even really exist in any proper sense of the word until they are observed.  But entanglement isn’t confined to photons and other sub-atomic particles. As two physicists explain in a recent book:

“We talk in terms of twin-state photons because that situation is readily described and subject to experiment. In principle, however, any two objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled. The behavior of one instantaneously influences the other. An entanglement exists even if the interaction is through each of the objects having interacted with a third object. In principle, our world has a universal connectedness.
“Quantum entanglement for large objects [like chairs or people] is generally too complex to notice. But not always.”

Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, QUANTUM ENIGMA: PHYSICS ENCOUNTERS CONSCIOUSNESS (Oxford UP, 2006)

This wasn’t written by tripped-out tree-hugging hippies, but by two well-respected tenured physicists at UC  (admittedly, it is Santa Cruz, but nonetheless…). They chronicle how orthodox physics has suppressed these enigmatic but unavoidable conclusions of quantum mechanics. And the most disturbing of these enigmas is the relationship between human consciousness and the spookiness of the quantum level. Once things, including human things, interact with quantum weirdness they are entangled with it. And, by the way, everything in the universe interacts.

These aren’t just mystic metaphors  They are the serious and real consequences of quantum physics. They troubled Einstein and generations of physicists since, but experimental evidence shows they are incontrovertible.

The science that studies how quantum mechanics breaches the wall of classical biology is called quantum biology.  Birds navigate using quantum processing in their nervous system. In order for photosynthesis to convert sunlight into plant food at 90% + efficiency, it uses quantum mechanics. Enzymatic reactions transform one organic substance into another, like milk into cheese via rennet, or juice into wine via yeast, or flour and water into bread, also via yeast. Those enzymes also require quantum mechanics to achieve the speed of reactions needed to perform this magic. Many cultures recognize the transformation of these three foods as magical, spiritual, metaphysical, and even worship or at least pay tribute to them through rituals of sanctification. But Judaism hints at the complex intertwining of metaphysics of their physics (or organic chemistry), if we read it through the lens of the traditions and rituals attached to cheese, wine, and bread.

Another event that relies on quantum biology, and all the metaphysical implication it brings, is smell. [2]

I always wondered why ketores is recited after the end of the Musaf amidah. It seems like such an odd and specific intrusion in the climax of the service. But connecting the incense with chesed brings it all together. When we recite these technical instructions for making the incense as a prayer, we are reminded of the elaborate instructions for building the mishkan, the Sanctuary of the Temple, from which these verses are taken. We both remember and look forward to rebuilding it.

Ketores is designed to create the most beautiful, pungent, memorable, unique, and transporting scent, wafted on smoke to fill the Temple. We’re supposed to remember that Divine smell – or rehearse the rabbis’ memory of it  –  and also remember their pain at its loss. As Proust knew, no sense evokes memory more than smell. We are supposed to long for that smell as we long for the Temple, with the curious admixture of ache and inspiration, in the hope of the time when we can smell that smell again in the rebuilt Temple. This is an ultimate nostalgia, nostos algia, pain for home.

Metaphysics in the physics (and chemistry) of incense

The recipe for ketores specified in the Talmud, specifically the part of the formula that will produce an emanating smell is an enzymatic reaction produced by lye, which relies on quantum mechanics. Lye, which is highly alkaline, catalyses and binds all the other ingredients into an active, dynamic new compound that transcends the sum of its parts. The prayer about it specifies that urine could be substituted for lye to produce the same outcome, but it is undignified for use in the Temple. Chemically if not ritually, urine makes sense: it would introduce the same highly alkaline catalysis, depending on the diet of the donor. (At the risk of boring you, lye is produced by a membrane cell chloralkali process, which is itself also a quantum biological process.)

When we learn that ketores means chesed because it spreads out and connects all of us in unseen and ineffable ways, it is not just metaphorical. It is literally true at the level of physics.

The Quantum G- Hypothesis

From the viewpoint of orthodox science, the ultimate heretical implication of quantum mechanics is what we could call the “Quantum G-Hypothesis.”


The universe is sustained by an unimaginably dynamic and omniscient Universal Consciousness.

It (or properly, Who) observes every one of the infinite number of infinitesimal quantum events occurring everywhere in every sub-nanosecond.

This continuous observation by a Universal Consciousness enables reality to unfold. 

The Quantum G-Hypothesis actually does away with some fairly absurd and, so far, unprovable assertions. The Many Worlds Hypothesis, String Theory, A Universal Robot Consciousness; Decoherence; Random Collapses of the Wavefunction, and some other gyrations too technical to delve here. They seem more like contortions designed to preserve logic in the face of experimental and mathematical proofs that show logic’s limitations. These still dominate the way orthodox physics is taught today. I predict they will be short-lived. 

On the other hand, embracing the G-theory explains scientific mysteries without introducing any idea inconsistent with science. It explains the “Unreasonable Efficacy of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” as Eugene Wigner described it in his 1960 paper. It explains the otherwise unreasonably, inexplicable, and statistically far-fetched coincidence of constants in the universe that have enabled life to arise: Planck’s Constant, the strength of electromagnetic, gravity, and weak forces, among others. It solves philosophical problems, too. It explains how Free Will and Determinism can both exist without contradiction. And it explains how consciousness arises from matter.

At the same time, this vision – or scent – of a Quantum-Mechanical, Reality-Unfolding, All-Observing God moves in the opposite direction, from science to an appreciation of spiritual matters. It gives us a pretty good understanding of what Jewish mystics see in God: an Unfolding Ever-Present Consciousness observing every infinitesimal event in the universe, even at the ineffable and impossibly infinite quantum level.

Finally, it explains the inner meaning of incense. The ritual appears to be a symbol of the entire enterprise of the mishkan and Temple, to provide a place on Earth for G-d to abide. The sacrifices were offered in order to negotiate the boundary and open a portal between Earth and Heaven summoning G-d Himself to make a personal house call. The organic chemistry and quantum biology of incense suggest it was exemplary of, an avatar and instantiation of, an entangled process that goes on everywhere all the time in the universe between Divine attention and  ur experience of material reality.



[1] This blog was inspired by a Shabbat drash (2016), by R. Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha in Palo Alto in which he expounded on the mitzvah of the incense used in the Temple.

[2] See Quantum mechanics may explain how humans smell,” PhysOrg (Nov 2007) 
Tim Folger, “How Quantum Mechanics Lets Us See, Smell and Touch,” Discover (Oct 23, 2018)