Monday, November 2, 2009

Does Consciousness Create Reality?

Schrödinger's Cat: 1/2 alive and 1/2 dead at the same time?

Does consciousness create reality? Seems like a big topic for a little blog post. But because I will be considering ONLY EXPERIMENTAL ATTEMPTS to answer this big question I can skip almost all the philosophical verbiage and cut to the chase.

When we wake up and open our eyes, there's the world. But was it there before we looked? The notion that consciousness creates reality (called subjective idealism) has a long history but only recently with the advent of quantum physics has there been any opportunity to put this important question to experimental test. Unlike classical Newtonian physics which appears compatible with objectively existing substance, certain features of quantum mechanics (QM) do indeed suggest that consciousness might play an essential role in bringing the world into existence.

QM describes the world in two different ways, depending on whether the world's looked at or not. When it's not looked at, QM represents the world as mere POSSIBILITY WAVES. When it's looked at, some of these possibilities become ACTUAL EVENTS.

Unfortunately physicists do not agree about what it means "to look"--and we call this fraternal disagreement the "quantum measurement problem." The physics majority believes that what is necessary for looking is "a machine that makes a record". But how does one go about building a solid record-making machine using only possibilities as parts?

Some physicists believe that "something extra", something outside of quantum mechanics is needed to resolve the measurement problem. Some have suggested that consciousness might be the magic trick that turns airy-fairy quantum possibilities into hard actuality. An impressive minority of physicists including John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Pascual Jordan, Henry Stapp, Robert Mills, E.H. Walker, Euan Squires, Fred Kuttner & Bruce Rosenblum have argued that consciousness plays a fundamental role in the quantum picture of things.

The mascot of the measurement problem is Schrödinger's Cat who is placed in a box with a quantum device that has 50% possibility for killing the cat and 50% possibility for feeding the cat. According to Schrödinger's own quantum equation, the cat is 1/2 dead and 1/2 alive until somebody looks in the box.

In the case of the cat, the measurement problem reduces to the question: "Does a conscious being need to look in the box, to make the cat alive or dead? Or is that question already decided inside the box itself by an irreversible process (record-making device) such as the breaking with a hammer of a jar of poison?

In the past few years at least three experiments have been proposed to test whether or not consciousness is necessary to collapse the wavefunction. The first is a thought experiment due to Bedford and Wang from University of Natal in South Africa. Instead of a cat, B & W imagine a situation in which a quantum system either opens slit A or slit B in an optical interference experiment. In the case where the quantum odds are 50/50 both slits are open at the same time in the same manner as the cat is 50/50 alive and dead. Because both slits are open, an interference pattern should be observed. However if someone looks at the slits, the wave function collapses, only one slit is open at a time and no interference is observed. If B & W are correct, this setup unlooked at produces optical interference but when a mind intervenes the interference vanishes.

A bunch of us including Amit Goswami, Saul-Paul Sirag, Casey Blood and Ludvik Bass (Schrödinger's last graduate student) considered this problem for many months. We called our quest the AMY Project. After much discussion and calculation, the AMY team concluded that Bedford & Wang were wrong. No matter what happened in their experiment--looking or not--no interference would ever be observed. The B & W experiment, we decided, fails as a crucial test for mind-created reality.

A second approach to catching the mind in the act is due to Abner Shimony and his students at Boston University (see "the Boston Experiment" in Elemental Mind) and Dick Bierman at the University of Amsterdam. Shimony and Bierman propose the existence of a perceptual difference between you personally collapsing the wavefunction and you merely witnessing a wavefunction that some other mind has previously collapsed. To test this conjecture, they set up an experiment (see diagram below) in which two observers are looking at identical detectors and a hidden switch decides which observer gets to see (and presumably collapse) the quantum event first. This imaginative test of the mind-created reality hypothesis has so far yielded inconclusive results. If minds create reality, these minds apparently do not find it easy to perceive what this creation process feels like.

A third approach to testing the mind-created reality hypothesis is due to Roger Carpenter & Andrew Anderson at Cambridge University (pdf). In the C & A test, two observers both look at the same quantum system but Observer A gets a random output and Observer B gets an output that tells whether Observer A's result is true or false. Thus the putative mind-created reality does not come into existence UNTIL BOTH OBSERVERS SHARE THEIR DATA. So C & A have two separate channels by which consciousness can create reality: 1. break the code by sharing data or 2, directly observe the quantum system. In a wholly quantum world, there is no reason why these two separate methods of looking should lead to the same reality. But they always did--which led C & A to conclude in favor of an objective collapse model of reality.

To this trio of mind-matter experiments I should probably add my own work with the metaphase typewriter which was a quantum system (Geiger counter and radioactive source) coupled thru speech statistics to an electric typewriter. Inspired by Jane Roberts' Seth Speaks, I had hoped that the MT might operate as a quantum spirit medium and function as a clear communication channel for a discarnate entity as talkative as Seth. But no spirits ever took over my metaphase device during the year or so that it was in operation.

Does consciousness create reality? So far there is NO EXPERIMENTAL EVIDENCE from quantum physics that supports this bold conjecture.

On the other hand, so far there is NO EXPERIMENTAL EVIDENCE for the Higgs boson or for even one of the many, many new particles predicted by the Supersymmetry conjecture. Yet physicists continue to look for these things.

I hope this brief review of experiments designed to test the quantum mind hypothesis will inspire others to improve on them. Coincidentally the primary quantum system in every one of these tests was a radioactive source and a Geiger counter, a 100-year-old technology which seems as primitive as a flint ax when compared with the sophisticated quantum systems now routinely available in today's physics labs. Seems to me it's time for the mind-created reality hypothesis to be probed by light-sensitive CCDs, electron-tunneling flash drives, Bose-Einstein condensates, phase-entangled photons and the Heisenberg-uncertain qubits in quantum computers. Physicists, put on your hi-IQ thinking caps. Ladies and gentlemen, start your quantum engines.

Diagram of the Shimony-Bierman Experiment

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Nick--
Could I propose a related question? How much consciousness would it take to create reality? If a physicist can collapse the wave function, that is the most extreme form of consciousness we can bring to bear on the problem, because the physicist presumably understands the significance of what has been observed. There is a whole range of lesser consciousness that can easily be explored. Even within H sapiens, we can check out the ability of progressively ignorant or younger individuals to do this, probably down to an age near one year old (which is much less conscious than adult dogs or rats). But why stop with people? All sorts of animals can be trained to exhibit behaviors based on what they perceive. Chickens are great for that. The real challenge is how low can we go? Can we get an amoeba or a plant to demonstrably collapse the wave function? I think the answer to this question has profound implications regarding the creation of reality, and as usual, man is probably being a little too self-centered.
Best regards, Alec

trixcleverspacealien said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
muzuzuzus said...

somwe thoughts come to mind:

what IS consciousness?

what IS matter?

Can Fractal mathematics help explain this 'problem'?

Is 'coming down' from DMT etc some kind of 'collapse of the WAVE function'?

Troy said...

Hi Nick,
Interesting post! I was wondering, though, if you'd care to comment on what Henry Stapp wrote in response to a question from philosopher John Searle about the pre-life universe:

Thus, motivated by the desire for a non-anthropocentric ontology some
physicists have tried---intensively---to introduce some sort of "purely physical" process that will predate biology, and produce a world roughly in accord, at the macroscopic scale, with a classically conceived world but satisfying the statistical predictions of quantum theory. They have not yet succeeded.p

Troy said...

Hi again Nick,
Are you familiar with the book "Irreducible Mind"?

nick herbert said...

Henry Stapp once stated the measurement problem this way (I paraphrase): The central problem in quantum theory is the status of non-human observed happenings. My position is that the measurement problem is a real problem but none of the solutions offered are satisfactory.

Have not read "Irreducible Mind" but am aware of work in parapsychology--notable "autonomic presentiment" that challenges our common notions of how things work.

Tor said...

Hi Nick,

I would also add Dean Radin's quantum experiments with meditators. He did a study in 2008 (Radin, D. I. (2008). Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. 4(1), 25-35) which yielded intriguing results suggesting that directly observing a slit with your "minds eye" (it was not really the slit that was probed, but it served the same purpose) collapsed the interference pattern. He is now in the process of replicating this experiment with a better setup, having closed some of the loopholes in his first study.

To my mind Dean Radin is the one doing the most interesting physics at the moment, closely followed by Anton Zeilinger and his team.

-Tor

Anonymous said...

What if instead of consciousness causing a collapse of the wave function, 'consciousness itself' is manifestation of the collapse of a WF? I would propose then that there is something pre-conscious which causes what we recognize as consciousness (and therefore our consciousness/awareness simply observes the occurence).

graham smetham said...

Hi Nick

According to John Wheeler:

Directly opposite to the concept of universe as machine built on law is the vision of a world self-synthesized. On this view, the notes struck out on a piano by the observer participants of all times and all places, bits though they are in and by themselves, constitute the great wide world of space and time and things.

And according to Mind-Only Buddhist philosophy:

…the mind is the principle creator of everything because sentient beings accumulate predisposing potencies through their actions, and these actions are directed by mental motivation. These potencies are what creates not only their own lives but also the physical world around them. All environments are formed by karma, that is actions and the potencies they establish. The wind, sun, earth, trees, what is enjoyed, used, and suffered-all are produced from actions.

My forthcoming book ‘Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness – Reality Revealed at the Interface of Quantum Physics and Buddhist Philosophy’ melds Yogacara-Chittamatra insights together with the insights of Bohm, Wheeler, Stapp, Everett, Zurek and Zeh and others, in a detailed and rigorous manner, to propose a completely comprehensive, consistent, coherent ‘Quantum Mind Only’ metaphysical Theory of Everything which, as far as I can see, explains the process of reality.

An important insight comes from you when you say that you

assume that every quantum system has both an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’, and that consciousness both in humans as well as in other sentient beings is identical to the inner experience of some quantum system. A quantum system’s outside behaviour is described by quantum theory, it’s inside experience is the subject matter of a new ‘inner physics’ yet to be developed.

I disagree with the last observation – Buddhist ‘contemplatives’ and metaphysicians developed the ‘inner physics’ at least two thousand years ago. Further details can be found at www.QuantumBuddhism.COM. If you would be interested in reading some of my work prior to publication in January let me know. (I have been in contact with Henry Stapp who has read a couple of chapters).

O. said...

Consciousness DOES indeed create reality. However, it only creates one's own reality. It does not create ultimate reality. It makes your own reality tangible. If I was asleep, does this mean that my waking friend next to me doesn't exist? To me, yes, he does not exist. But he is still in existence.

My two cents.

muzuzuzus said...

The way I am understanding it--the knower is the known, so for example, if I have an image of you that is negative that is how I see you, experience you
Does this mean my POSTIVE image of you would be the 'truth'?

Well my positive image could be about Hitler!!!

I know this--when I have taken entheogens I seem to see THROUGH--through to a dynamic that is much more alive than can often be when in an ordinary state of consciousness

Dr.Richard said...

Conciousness is everywhere. The Grand Consciousness "GC" fills all of the reality. Brains or reducion-valve-receivers for the cosmic consciousness are for individual experience. The all pervading enjoys this game and even when the receiver fails, the individual sense of experience persists,even though many prior experiences are forgotten. These consciouness reducing agents produce reality from the inside out. In order to prove that, we would have to suspend the cosmic consciousness at some location...which is not possible. If we could suspend the GC, we would BE the GC, and we are really a reduced version of it. So we cannot prove, that we create our local reality, from the inside out.

muzuzuzus said...

NOT duality, but polarity with what we can call individual consciousness/GC ?

That with entheogens, and other 'nonordinary' states of consciousness we can feel this aspect of 'ourselves' GC.

Integration then is not wanting (or I believe shouldn't me) to escape to GC for-ever and ever, but to have deeper insight OF this polarity

muzuzuzus said...

*shouldn't be

56bd761c-8f1e-11e1-89f9-000bcdca4d7a said...

We are all one if you truely believe in the big bang theroy. therefore we are connected to everything through energy and vibrations. When we are thinking positive we give off positive energy causing the energy around us to be affected. When the bang acutally happened nothing really changed it all simply got spread out. Are consciousness is one ultimate thinker or creater. Our god

Anonymous said...

Mind (that can create an intentional thought) is not the same as consciousness. As far as I understand it, consciousness is something behind the mind (ego), which mind can sometimes obscure.