The Human Mind and Physical Reality

© Fernando Caracena, 2015

Here is continued the discussion of a previous post, "On the Nature of Physical Reality—A Mental Construct"

What is the Conscious Mind?

Physics grew out of natural philosophy, and through the application of the scientific method and experimentation to become completely different from it parent—a science not a branch of philosophy. No longer were its ideas derived from a set of a priori principles, at least not obviously. For a while, physics avoided religion an philosophy; but, modern physics cannot escape philosophy, which has snuck in through the back door of quantum physics.

File:Descartes mind and body.gif

Fig. An illustration of Descartes idea of mind-body dualism.
Public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.

A serious, unanswered question that persists in  philosophy is:  "what is the mind?" Physicists for centuries avoided the question by simply taking the physical world as a standard of reality. The role of the observer was ignored for all practical purposes. Today, the development of physics itself has brought hard-headed physicists to the point that they have to face the question of what is the mind and how its action as an observer affects reality.

Quantum Theory Raises The Question

The question (what is mind?) is one that physicists would prefer to ignore, but which like an elephant in a living room, they cannot easily ignore because it is a principal component of quantum theory. Quantum theory has forced physicists to confront the question of what is the conscious observer. In quantum theory, the conscious observer is invoked as a necessary component of the theory. The mind is of course the conscious observer, and living beings that have a mind we shall call sentient beings or humanoids.

The nature of the observer is not well defined in quantum theory and is subject to much debate, which has continued with the introduction of this concept by the Copenhagen Interpretation up to the present. There are various contending interpretations of quantum theory. Today, the role of the conscious observer in quantum theory is still much debated. Opinions among physicists range from observations being essential to the formation of reality, to the idea that there is an underlying reality that stands apart from our perceptions of it. However,the nature of of such an underlying reality must be vary mysterious, if not illusive.

Free Will

The idea of mind is intimately connected with the concept of free will. To all appearances, the universe is as deterministic as a clock. However, the more recondite theories of physics push us up against some deep conundrums, which physicists try to account for by invoking probabilities. A Wikipedia article defines free will as follows:

Free will is sometimes understood to mean origination, the power to break the causal chain of events, so that one's choice is uncaused by any previous event, external or internal.[2] The concern for this conception of free will is to reconcile the existence of free will thus conceived with the possibly deterministic nature of the universe.

The idea of free will is a keystone of our justice system, and ideas of law. Without free will, humans are really complex deterministic machines that cannot be held accountable for their actions. The fact that the judicial system still functions, establishes that the majority opinions of mankind are that man has a free will.

The existence of free will presents a conundrum for physics, similar to what would be the physical effects of time travel. Suppose the whole universe is a machine, except for the human will, which allows people to alter the flow of causality. In that case, the universe cannot be treated as a deterministic machine because it contains causal elements that act independently of physical causality. In that case, there are two choices for reconciling the human mind  and will with strict physical causality: 1) free will is an illusion or; 2) there are parallel universes that are deterministic, but human choice allows people to jump their consciousness from one deterministic universe to another by their personal choices. The latter case is similar to Everett's many World Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

However humans are able to alter causality, it is clear that they make an otherwise wearingly mechanical universe and exciting place full of exciting possibilities.

Quantum Reality

Quantum Theory (QT) is a very accurate theory. Its predictions are verified to the limits of measurement error by experimental results. However, QT does not include the whole universe; the part obviously missing is supplied by the actions of human beings. It does not account for the actions of humans; but because of the success of the theory, most of its practitioners have learned to just "shut up and calculate! " However a few physicists have tried to explore the world of quantum reality, searching for ideas that would make QT more philosophically acceptable.

The Conscious Observer as Co-creator

Some quantum theorists have gone so far as to suggest that physical reality derives its existence from the conscious observer. This idea was suggested by Wheeler, and a variant of it by the mathematical genius, von Neumann. See further for example, under the hyperlink to quantum reality, from which are taken the following quotes:

The Copenhagen interpretation, Part II ("Reality is created by observation.") In this variation of the Copenhagen interpretation, associated with John Archibald Wheeler, the reality of quantum attributes is created in the act of observation, as illustrated by the example of Wheeler's delayed choice experiment.

"Consciousness creates reality." First proposed by John von Neumann, this interpretation grants special status to conscious minds as the location of wave function collapse, in which the myriad possibilities of a quantum system are narrowed to one observed state. Unlike the Copenhagen interpretation, in which the observer selects which attribute will be seen to have a definite value but does not determine the value itself, von Neumann contended that the actual attribute value is determined in a collapse that occurs at the interface of the brain and the mind.

If you agree with John von Neumann, without a conscious observer, there is no physical reality! This kind of interpretation was a pill hard for Einstein to swallow. He believed that there was an objective physical reality that existed independently of the human observer. As a witty counter argument to the ideas of quantum theorists 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 bizarre implications of quantum theory, especially over the question of the essential necessity of observation to project reality out of the realm of probability amplitudes. Einstein believed the QT had to be incomplete, because it did not feature an objective physical reality, but rather probability amplitudes. This is idea, he expressed by the statement that "God does not play dice." (video1, video2  )

Reality is Holographic

Some modern theoretical developments regarding black hole physics suggest that the universe is not what it seems to be, but that it is rather a two dimensional hologram, from which the human mind decodes  the rich three dimensional tapestry of our experiences. This is known as the holographic principle, which is explained in the above hyper-reference as follows:

The holographic principle states that the entropy of ordinary mass (not just black holes) is also proportional to surface area and not volume; that volume itself is illusory and the universe is really a hologram which is isomorphic to the information "inscribed" on the surface of its boundary.

See a video by Brian Green.

Incidentally, all these ideas and principles mention above are not just talk. They are based on mathematical theory and actual observations, the logic of which lead to these seemingly bizarre conclusions. Of course, there may be a new understanding of of the nature of the physical universe lurking in the obscurity encountered here, which may prove earth shattering in the future.

Logic Leads Us Where We Would Not Go

The logic of physics forces hard headed realists, who base their reasoning on strictly mathematical logic and observations, verifiable by any suitably equipped and skilled experimentalist, into accepting the human mind as being the source of our perception of a physical reality, which itself  is different from what it seems to be. This conclusion is exactly opposite to one that one would be drawn from a reductionist point of view. The irony is that hard logic and careful, scientific observation drags realists into the camp of mystics, into an area that materialists would call "Wu Wu" thinking. I would say that it is "Wu Wei" rather than "Wu-Tang."


Since consciousness is a basic property of the human mind, and it is consciousness plus free will  that make possible the observer of quantum theory, the theory invokes the mysterious human mind as an important component of reality. Here, a discussion of the essential nature of the observer in quantum theory, would scatter our thoughts too far off from the problem. For this reason, the question of the role of the human observer in physics is left for a future post. 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, free will, and the mind-body problem.

But What about the Big Bang?

A serious criticism that could be levelled at the importance of the role of the observer in quantum theory is that it is not consistent with the universe's having existed long before humans were here to observe it. So how could have the universe have existed, if its own origin depended on the human observer? Here we have what appears to be a paradox, similar to the type encountered by a time - traveller in a science fiction story.

Does Causality Operate forward and backwards in Time?

A plausible theoretical answer to this question was given by Feynman and Wheeler in reference to another problem regarding radiation reaction. Note that the fundamental laws of physics, other than thermodynamics, are not dependant on the direction of the progress of time. The fundamental laws of physics operate both, toward the future, and toward the past. Replacing "t" in the fundamental equations of physics everywhere by "-t" gives almost exactly the same set of equations. The differences have to do with the properties of fundamental particles. Time in this case, as it enters the fundamental equations of physics, is different than the ordinary time that we are used to. (See a previous blog series, "Time's Dual Nature Part 1 and Part 2".) Since the fundamental laws of physics portray the propagation of causality, both backward, and forward in time, 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 condition by its future observation by sentient beings. Note that that argument would explain the anthropic principle. A universe that does not produce a future evolution of sentient beings, will not continue to exist, because its time line does not contain the reactions of a conscious mind.

Note that this type of thinking is not invented in these blogs, but that it is a way of thinking that exists among top physicists. Wheeler and Feynman (1945) published a paper that used waves propagating backward in time toward the past, as well as those propagating forward in time to the future, to account for radiation resistance produced on an accelerated electric charge by the scattering of another electron, later in time.

The Seething Background of Potential Universes

It is interesting to note that Stephen Hawking, who strikes me as giving the best evidence for the existence of God, is himself an atheist. But I can see his point: basically God explains everything, and that leaves no area for humans to explore scientifically. Instead of science leading the way, it would be theologians who would decree what is the truth. Just looking at the past record of organized religion, we see that theologians in charge can be as dictatorial as any Hitler. So the way physics is conducted, is to assume any plausible mechanism in its theories that lead to results testable by experiments. Lately, physicists have ignored the latter testable part, which places them in a the dangerous position of being inquisitors themselves.

The present model of Big Bangs is that their seeds are always forming a fluctuations in some kind of hyper-reality (HR). OK so we have a hypothesized field of HR, which does not have any time and space as we know it. As Stephan Hawking said in a recent talk at Cal Tech:

..., time began at the moment of singularity, and this has likely occurred only once, Hawking said. The age of the universe — now believed to be about 13.8 billion years — fits that model, as the number and maturity of observed galaxies seem to fit in the general scheme.

Being a true scientist, Hawking said that "this has likely occurred only once." Other physicists would not say only once, but they recognize that if a new Big Bang does not intersect our own, we will never know about it. But if scientists can invoke this seething background of singularities, perhaps they can construct a theory that better explains the nature of reality. The big question, however, is if all of this can be tested. If not, then it is not real science.

Anyway, the way that physicists that postulate multiple universe cosmologies, explain away the idea of an intelligent creator that designed our universe from the start, is to invoke the god of probability.

Failed Universes

Those who invoke chance in the development of universes that contain sentient beings, present a picture in which there is a giant wasteland of failed universes strewed over the HR "landscape". The observed economy of nature and how it operates suggests that such would not be the case. If you want to speculate beyond the science, then perhaps there is a better model.

If there is a constant flux of virtual singularities in the HR, as there are virtual particles in our space and time, and most of them do not admit a development that produces sentient beings and so cannot be observed, then such universes fail to develop further and simply fold back into the background. These virtual universes are the failed universes. This kind of selection process imposes some kind of independence of existence to an incipient universe that does include sentient beings in its development. As such, it undergoes a "Big Bang" having all the characteristics of what we observe in the beginnings of our own universe.

Closing note on the time direction of causality.

A recent article on the Digital Journal, "Scientists show future events decide what happens in the past", reports that there are weird quantum effects regarding causality and time. An experiment by an Australian scientist, Andrew Truscott, shows that the direction of time apparently does not affect causality. Future events can determine the past.

The old way of thinking was that cause always precedes effect in time. That way of thinking apparently led to the following statement found in the article:

"Time went backwards. Cause and effect appear to be reversed. The future caused the past. The arrow of time seemed to work in reverse."

The arrow of time is an emergent phenomenon produced by the expansion of the universe. The Australian experiment shows that the behavior of quantum particles conforms to the type of backward-in-time causality that Feynman and Wheeler had postulated in explaining radiation reaction by electromagnetic waves. The way that the universe behaves defies common sense notions, which are derived from our ordinary experiences in the macroscopic world.

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