It’s often useful to identify the key properties of something by asking what we’d be left with if that thing were removed. If consciousness were taken from the world, what would we be left with? However a person answers this question tells a lot about their worldview.
To some, especially those with an extreme reductionist position, there would be no change at all. Our bodies would mechanically go on, obeying the laws of physics, doing their thing. Consciousness is extraneous and not really necessary.
Others seem to feel that consciousness somehow tweaks the direction our bodies and minds take, and that we do have some control over the world, but not completely. Sure, there are laws of nature, chemistry, physics, and so on, but we are slightly in control of what’s happening as well.
There’s also a third camp which feels that consciousness is what creates the world. Without it, nothing could even exist.
The reductionist ideas go back a long way, even to the Greeks.
“By convention there are sweet and bitter, hot and cold, by convention there is color; but in truth there are atoms and the void”
—Democritus, Fragment 9
Prominent Enlightenment thinkers saw the world in the same way.
“I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated”
—Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (published 1623)
“For the rays, to speak properly, are not colored. In them there is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this or that color.”
—Isaac Newton, Optics (3rd ed. 1721, original in 1704)
Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke divided the world into primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities were supposedly aspects of existence which were independent of any particular observer. In the objective world there were things like solidity, extension, motion, number, and figure. Secondary qualities were subjective, and they included things like color, taste, smell, and sound.
However, the founder of quantum mechanics, Albert Einstein, struggled to hold onto objective reality in light of the discoveries of modern physics. This is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Max Born, who was another physicist, known for his statistical interpretation of the quantum wave function (among many other things).
I just want to explain what I mean when I say that we should try to hold on to physical reality. We are … all aware of the situation regarding what will turn out to be the basic foundational concepts in physics: the point-mass or the particle is surely not among them; the field, in the Faraday-Maxwell sense, might be, but not with certainty. But that which we conceive as existing (“real”) should somehow be localized in time and space. That is, the real in one part of space, A, should (in theory) somehow “exist” independently of that which is thought of as real in another part of space, B. If a physical system stretches over A and B, then what is present in B should somehow have an existence independent of what is present in A. What is actually present in B should thus not depend the type of measurement carried out in the part of space A; it should also be independent of whether or not a measurement is made in A.
If one adheres to this program, then one can hardly view the quantum-theoretical description as a complete representation of the physically real. If one attempts, nevertheless, so to view it, then one must assume that the physically real in B undergoes a sudden change because of a measurement in A. My physical instincts bristle at that suggestion.
However, if one renounces the assumption that what is present in different parts of space has an independent, real existence, then I don’t see at all what physics is supposed to be describing. For what is thought to be a “system” is after all, just conventional, and I do not see how one is supposed to divide up the world objectively so that one can make statements about parts.
– Albert Einstein, in a personal letter to Max Born
Considering that Einstein is my favorite of all philosophers, I’ll include two quotations from him.
Some physicists, among them myself, cannot believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in space and time; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance . Probably never before has a theory been evolved which has given a key to the interpretation and calculation of such a heterogeneous group of phenomena of experience as has quantum theory. In spite of this, however, I believe that the theory is apt to beguile us into error in our search for a uniform basis for physics, because, in my belief, it is an incomplete representation of real things, although it is the only one which can be built out of the fundamental concepts of force and material points (quantum corrections to classical mechanics). The incompleteness of the representation leads necessarily to the statistical nature (incompleteness) of the laws.
– Albert Einstein, on Quantum Physics, 1954
It seems fitting to leave a quotation from Max Born.
If God has made the world a perfect mechanism, He has at least conceded so much to our imperfect intellects that in order to predict little parts of it, we need not solve innumerable differential equations, but can use dice with fair success.
– Max Born
Born argued that the world was not deterministic.
No concealed parameters can be introduced with the help of which the indeterministic description could be transformed into a deterministic one. Hence if a future theory should be deterministic, it cannot be a modification of the present one but must be essentially different.
– Max Born
Heisenberg had troubles with objective reality.
“If we want to describe what happens in an atomic event, we have to realize that the word ‘happens’ can only apply to the observation, not to the state of affairs between two observations.”
– Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (1958)
The quantum wave function was first formulated by Schrodinger. In the beginning, this was his take on the physical world.
“What we observe as material bodies and forces are nothing but shapes and variations in the structure of space. Particles are just schaumkommen (appearances). …The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. … The scientist only imposes two things, namely truth and sincerity, imposes them upon himself and upon other scientists.”
– Erwin Schrodinger
Later, as he came to more deeply understand the consequences of what he was arguing, he recanted his position saying,”I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.”
“Let me say at the outset, that in this discourse, I am opposing not a few special statements of quantum physics held today (1950s), I am opposing as it were the whole of it, I am opposing its basic views that have been shaped 25 years ago, when Max Born put forward his probability interpretation, which was accepted by almost everybody.”
– Erwin Schrodinger
It all leads to some rather absurd consequences. As the prominent physicist George Gamow once noted,
“In wave mechanics there are no impenetrable barriers, and as the British physicist R. H. Fowler put it after my lecture on that subject at the Royal Society of London . . . ‘Anyone at present in this room has a finite chance of leaving it without operating the door, or, of course, without being thrown out the window.'”
– George Gamow, My World Line (1970)
There’s a finite chance of literally anything happening at any time. The whole world could morph into something else entirely yet leave you unaffected, and such a wild miracle would not violate the laws of physics — at least, not the Max Born interpretation of quantum theory. It’s extremely improbable, but not impossible.
But all of this is rather old news. 1950s? 1970s? What are the modern physicists of today thinking?
“… current physical theories suggest that our universe is probably not unique. Well beyond our ability to directly probe, there may be an infinity of universes, with differing laws of physics, and perhaps different characteristics of space and time. This is not necessarily a problem if we are interested in understanding the nature of our particular universe.
But it could be that the laws of physics are probabilistic, and there is no fundamental reason why they are what they are in our particular universe. But—just as an epidemiologist studying a single patient can say little about what may be the cause of some condition, because it may be impossible to know what is normal and what is not—if we can study only one universe (our own), then we may never be able to directly empirically determine if fundamental laws are indeed fundamental, or just an accident of our circumstances. It is possible that we might be smart enough to derive a theory that explains precisely how the laws of physics are distributed across universes, and what the probability that our laws are what they are. But it is equally plausible that without access to a larger sample set we may never know.”
– Lawrence Krauss, Physicist/Cosmologist, Arizona State University
You need to pause for a moment, re-read that first paragraph, and let it sink in. But you don’t need to physically construct these infinite universes to experience them.
“It is possible to build a virtual-reality generator whose repertoire includes every possible environment.”
– David Deutsch
That follows from the ideas of information, in particularly his own field, quantum computation. Deutsch holds the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which says that Born’s statistical probabilities actually deals with transitions between parallel universes.
“The quantum theory of parallel universes is not the problem, it is the solution. It is not some troublesome, optional interpretation emerging from arcane theoretical considerations. It is the explanation, the only one that is tenable, of a remarkable and counter-intuitive reality.”
– David Deutsch
Now finally I’ll end this with a few of my own observations about consciousness and reality. Currently, there’s a big craze about information, primarily driven by progress in computers. As our computers advance, we’re finding that we’re able to manipulate reality at finer and finer scales, programming it to do our bidding. Computers have countless tiny little parts, and we control the flow of energy within those circuits. By doing so, we’ve found out that we can build virtual reality simulators, and will, in the very near future, be able to immerse ourselves within them. They’ll feel as real as this reality. There’s something very profound there.
I also was introduced to the idea of nanomachines by an author named Eric Drexler, in his book Engines of Creation. I began to think about how we will eventually control matter at the atomic scale, guided by our computers and technology. That will allow us to control reality at super-fine scales, and the digital world and “real” world will start to blur. It already is.
Synthetic biologists are already referring to life-forms as “living software”. Biology is a special type of nanomachine which can be reprogrammed by changing its instructional data-tape (DNA). In his book Regenesis, the Harvard synthetic biologist George Church wrote,
““… imagine a future in which human beings have become immune to all viruses, in which bacteria can custom-produce everyday items, like a drinking cup, or generate enough electricity or biofuel to end oil dependency. Building a house would entail no more work than planting a seed in the ground…”
– George Church, Harvard professor of synthetic biology
Most of us think of bacteria as these annoying microscopic entities which cause sickness and disease. They’re actually tiny construction machines, waiting for you to program them. They can be reprogrammed to build furniture for you, churn out jet fuel, or be injected into your bloodstream to cure your diseases.
There will come a point, well within a few hundred years (maybe a lot sooner), where if a person wants a house, they think it in their head, see a “projection” of it in augmented reality, change it how they want it, and then digitally send that blueprint to nanomachines which construct the home as desired. The better that technology becomes, the faster it will all take place, and the quicker the connection between a person’s desires and their actual manifestation.
This transition is scary because we’re learning to control the creation and destruction of reality. That requires fine control of a lot of energy and matter, not to mention a lot of responsibility. We can rebuild our world and ourselves, but we can also blow ourselves to dust with atomic weapons. It’s up to us to decide.
Think about a species which has mastered these things and been in a period of self-development for millions, or even billions of years. Think about them and what kind of existence they would have. We’re currently disconnected from that kind of power, mainly because our technology and knowledge isn’t at that scale. The reality we live in not only supports primitive monkeys like us, but also beings so powerful they’re likely indistinguishable from what we’d call God. It’s no wonder the laws of physics are hard for us to grapple with.
Because we’re so weak and primitive, we sort of obsess over this concept of “truth”. “Reality”. We look for laws, rules, and something we can depend upon. But why would the “truth” matter to a being which could change physical reality as it desired? It’s almost like we have to care about the truth when we’re too weak to change things. Either that, or we’re not ready to change things. By “ready” I’m referring to the evolution of a species, not some sort of personal development within one’s lifetime.
Now for some very wild speculations. I’ve been thinking that as a species learns these secrets of the universe, they have to start practicing reality building. If they went immediately to constructing their desires from imagination, they’d annihilate themselves very quickly. Therefore they need practice bringing varied forms into existence. In our case, this is taking place in virtual reality and video games. I suspect that virtual reality will get more and more powerful, ever more realistic, and the simulations ever more programmable from within. It’s all a form of play, like small animals play fighting with their brothers and sisters before they’re sent out to hunt on their own. We’re messing with a virtual world which can’t injure or destroy our bodies or environment in the “real” world.
It’s all beyond my ability to comprehend, but I think reality is stranger than we’re able to suppose. I don’t know how long this process will take, but on evolutionary time-scales, it may well be very rapid.