The question of whether or not there is an objective reality has plagued philosophers for centuries. It still does. How do we know any of what we see or hear is real? Do we construct our world with our perceptions? Or is there really something there? Robert Lanza’s recent book “Biocentrism” takes the stance that conscious life *creates* the universe, that there is no reality other than that which we create. This post will show why he is wrong.
This is Part One in a series on objective reality.
The question has many levels. In quantum physics, we know that the observer effect collapses wave functions into particles. The double slit experiment shows that a single photon can act as both a wave and a particle. A single electron fired at a double slit appears to interfere with itself and act like a wave. At around the 4:00 minute mark of the linked video, we see what happens when we try to observe which slit the electron passes through. When we do that, the electron stops acting like a wave and the interference pattern is replaced by a simple double distribution pattern.
Another famous conjecture is Schrodinger’s Cat, where a cat is placed in a box with a flask of poison and a radioactive atom. A detector tells when the single atom splits, an event with quantum indeterminacy. When (if) the atom splits, the detector releases the poison. Now, to an observer outside the box, is the cat dead or alive at any particular moment? The answer is: of course.
Schrodinger’s Cat reduces the state of the cat (alive or dead) to a quantum state, tied to the quantum state of the single radioactive atom. But it also represents a misunderstanding of the observer effect. It suggests that the only observer in the situation is some conscious human outside the box. This is a quantum extension of an earlier question that may have been asked by Philosopher George Berkeley, in his work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and paraphrased centuries later in Scientific American as, “If a tree were to fall on an uninhabited island, would there be any sound?”
These are all incorrect interpretations of the observer effect. In each one, there is an underlying assumption of a conscious observer altering or fulfilling the results in the real universe with their perception or knowledge. In the double slit experiment, the observer has an effect by knowing which slit an electron or photon passes through. In Bishop Berkley’s tree falling in the forest, the sound is only present if there is a human ear to hear it. In Schrodinger’s Cat, the state of the cat is undetermined until the box is opened and a person looks inside.
To think about how the observer is vaguely or incorrectly specified, we should ask ourselves, “When precisely does the observation actually occur?” Is it when the photons from the slit-detector first reach the light-sensitive molecules in our retina? Or when sound stimulates the ear drum? When that causes an electrical signal in the optic nerve or the cochlea? When that signal reaches the occipital cortex or temporal lobe? When it is transmitted to the frontal cortex? Or only when the (likely nonexistant) soul is informed?
Is consciousness required for the observation? Experiments with severing the corpus callosum demonstrate that one half of the brain can identify an image without the conscious awareness of the other half. So, the answer seems to be that consciousness is not required for observation. Or, at best, that “consciousness” is so poorly understood that saying it is *required* for the universe (or any part of it) to exist, is simply another form of “god of the gaps” mysticism.
Bishop Berkley was confused about cause and effect and so is Robert Lanza. More than anything, these “observer effects” are all arguments to support the (perhaps unspoken) claim that “consciousness” is special, whether human consciousness or the conscious intent of a Creator. In essence, the argument says, “Look! Here’s something we don’t understand (physical existence). Let’s take something else we don’t understand (consciousness or a Creator) and say that the first thing depends on the second thing.”
So, how can we understand what is really meant by the act of observation. In “Hidden In Plain Sight” physicist Andrew Thomas says:
An excellent definition can be found in the book Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner: “Whenever any property of a microscopic object affects a macroscopic object, that property is ‘observed’ and becomes a physical reality.” For example, when a microscopic photon hits the macroscopic screen in the double-slit experiment, then that will reduce the quantum superposition state of the photon to a single value (the single mark it leaves on the screen). This explains why we do not see bizarre quantum superpositions — such as a cat being both alive and dead at the same time — in the human-scale, macroscopic world. So as long as there is a macroscopic effect from a quantum entity, that object can be considered to be “observed” or “measured” — with no need for a conscious human observer.
In the double-slit experiment, the electron is “observed” by the detector at the slit. The state of Schrodinger’s Cat is “observed” by the air it breathes (or not) inside the box, which is “observed” by interacting with the molecules of the box, which is “observed” by interacting with photons in the rest of the universe. The simple act of a particle *interacting* in any way with other particles in the universe, means it is “observed” by the universe. It’s quantum state (or wave function) collapses at that point; indeterminacy becomes resolved.
Consciousness plays no role in that observation.
If you want to see quantum indeterminacy on the macroscale, you need to completely isolate the thing you are observing from the rest of the universe. That’s hard to do. Even the deepest vacuum of space has light (photons) passing through it. Plus, virtual particles arise constantly even in a quantum vacuum devoid of any other particles of matter (including photons). Isolating something from the universe would require it not to even be capable of interacting with any of the real or virtual particles of this universe. But then it would be completely separate form this universe, including any of its observers. The question of the “observer effect” would become irrelevant in this universe.
The physicist Richard Feynman said, “Nature does not know what you are looking at, and she behaves the way she is going to behave whether you bother to take down the data or not.”
So, those who claim observers *create* reality in this universe can only be true if either 1) the universe is a simulation; or 2) they live in a solipsistic universe. I’ll discuss these in the next post.