Notes about Mind in Physics

©Fernando Caracena 2014

Historical perspective

A panel discussion at a solipsist conference. By Fernando Caracena.

Ideas about what the mind is, vary over a broad range that depends on the spectrum of underlying philosophies, which ranges from one extreme, in materialism to another, in solipsism. Materialism holds that the mind is an epiphenomenon, a blow off of physical processes in the brain, such as, in smoke from a fire or a reflection off a shiny surface. Solipsism, on the other hand, denies the existence of the world out there. A solipsist would say, "only my mind exists; the rest is an illusion." These philosophies parallel the discussion in a previous blog, "Holistic vs Reductionist Ideas in Physics," but now applied to the mind itself.

Similarly, the range of philosophies, described above, is paralleled by those of what constitutes reality, vis. between pragmatism  and idealism.

Idealism Any philosophy that assigns crucial importance to the ideal or spiritual realm in its account of human existence may be termed "idealist".

Later in his life Schiller became famous for his attacks on logic in his textbook, Formal Logic. By then, Schiller's pragmatism had become the nearest of any of the classical pragmatists to an ordinary language philosophy. Schiller sought to undermine the very possibility of formal logic, by showing that words only had meaning when used in context. Some of these topics are discussed in a different context in a previous blog,  Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics.

The Equivalent Range of Ideas in Theology

These same issues are met in discussions about God.

Meister Eckhart's "The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love."

Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17, verse 28 stated that "in God  we live and move and have our being," which was a quote from a poem by Epimenides as explained here.

The Logos of the Gospel of John, is identified as Jesus of the New Testament.

The Importance of Mind in Physics

If you want to be able to do good physics, you have to have a well trained mind, and of course, you must be intelligent enough to handle advanced mathematics. Other than such requirements offered to those who aspired to become physicists, the question about what is the mind itself entered into physics with quantum mechanics. Physicists have traditionally avoided such questions best left to philosophers, but physicists in the course of developing the quantum theory, recognized the necessity of invoking the observer in projecting physical events out of the cloudy distributions of probability of quantum theory. Further, their discussions reveal that what they had in mind, but did not define explicitly, was that the observer had to be conscious and sentient like a human being, or perhaps a humanoid from another planet.

What is Consciousness?



Representation of consciousness from the seventeenth century by Robert Fludd (1618). Public Domain, from From Wikimedia Commons.

Both philosophy and psychology deal with the question of "what is consciousness?".  Today, it has become an important questionin physics as wellone that cannot be ignored. Quantum theory, invokes the observer as a necessary component of the theory. Some quantum theorists have gone so far as to suggest that reality depends as a condition for its existence on the conscious observer. This was a pill hard for Einstein to swallow.  As a witty counter argument to such ideas, he said “I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it”. At several physics conferences Einstein carried on a vigorous debate with Niels Bohr over the implications of quantum theory, which he believed had to be at least, incomplete.


File:Niels Bohr Albert Einstein by Ehrenfest.jpg

A picture of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in a deep philosophical discussion at the home of Paul Ehrenfest, who took this picture in 1925. Public Domain in the U S, from the Wikimedia Commons.

Since consciousness is a basic property of the human mind, and it is consciousness that makes possible the observer of quantum theory, the theory invokes the mysterious human mind as an important component of reality. Ideas here, involve a lot of deep thought that demands a separate treatment, which perhaps future blogs may address. Here, such a discussion would scatter our thoughts too much from the problem of the mind. So for the moment, we resist digressing in that direction. Nevertheless, the mounting success of quantum theory, which has weird philosophical implications, points to the necessity of clarifying certain crucial concepts such as, mind, consciousness and the mind-body problem.

What is the Conscious Mind?

In trying to reconcile what happens in the vast range of scales from the scale of the entire universe and its history to that of the subatomic, physics encounters the question of what is the conscious mind. Cosmology thrusts this issue in the physicist's face through the dynamics of the Big Bang, cosmic inflation and black holes. Quantum theory is the entry point for this question. Modern physics cannot escape philosophy, which had re-entered into physics through the back door in quantum physics.

Consciousness and the Creation of the Universe

Some people have objected that the necessity of the mind of the observer in establishing physical reality was not consistent with the the history of the universe, which came into being before humans were there to observe it. Other theorists pointed out that the laws of physics, other than thermodynamics, are not dependant on the direction of the progress of time. The dual character of time is discussed in the series of blogs beginning with, "Time's Dual Nature Part 1".  The fundamental laws of physics operate causality both toward the future and the past. This means that our observation of the universe now, could establish the reality of the Big Bang in the past, which at the moment of creation was being conditioned by its future observation by sentient beings. Note that implicit in this argument is an automatic explanation of the anthropic principle. A universe that does not allow for the future evolution of sentient beings, will not come into existence, because it can never be observed, therefore, its creation cannot become a reality.

If the above arguments by some quantum theorists are true, then humans could be viewed as co-creators of reality. The world in this case is full of potentials that can become manifest through the process of being observed by sentient  beings.

A previous blog, Nature's Ultimate Joke, stated:

"The ultimate irony is that the development of physics supports the truth of the above. Quantum Physics was made possible by recognising the necessity of human consciousness in projecting events in space and time out of the elementary potentials that exist in our world as wavelike propagations. Without the presence of human consciousness nothing really happens on the level of elementary particles. And human consciousness itself relies on the action of synapses that tap into the quantum level. Historically, the role of human consciousness has been to project possibilities perceptible only on the level of human thought into the physical world, and thereby make human life much easier. Quantum physics suggests that there is a nebulous realm of possibilities that exist in a realm beyond the physical world but which can be manifest on the physical world. This makes invention and human material progress possible."


The connection between the mind and the body is a key question.

The question of the mind-body connection is pivotal, not only in philosophy, but in many other areas of human thought, and it connects with the ideas of holism and reductionism in interesting ways.

Materialistic reductionists have no problem with the mind body connection. The mind is an illusion that is blown off by the physical operations of the body. The mind is no more in control of the body than a train whistle is in control of the operation of the train locomotive.

Alternately, those who think in terms of the philosophy of  Idealism must find a way of joining the world of ideal forms with that of physical actions.

The general acceptance of one of the two above-mentioned philosophies has opposite tendencies for judgments in courts of law. Those who accept  epiphenomenalism as the truth would tend to think that no one really has a free will, his mind not being in control of his own actions, a person would therefore not be morally responsible for his own actions. By contrast, a holistic philosophy would predispose its followers to be more likely to accept the mind as a free causal agent that is morally responsible for actions under its own direction.

Holistic philosophy also is conducive to self-improvement and greater accomplishment, because someone operating under that philosophy believes ans acts on the idea that personal performance can be improved by analysis and optimization of personal actions. Great scientists are in effect following a holistic philosophy, because the nature of the scientific method itself.

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