The Quantum Observer


One of the more important tenets of Quantum Physics is that “nothing can exist without an observer, the human consciousness”.
quantum observerAn astronomer verifies it this way: “The universe brought forth life in order to exist; the very cosmos does not exist unless observed”. (G. Greenstein).  And a cosmologist confirms it: “If we extrapolate back in time, the universe will become so dense that you will need quantum mechanics”.  Although quantum physics applies primarily to the mechanical wave functions of single particles at sub-atomic level, nevertheless some modern-day physicists and cosmologists attempt to explain the workings and perhaps even the existence of the entire Universe by applying the same terms of mechanical wave function. Consequently, according to Greenstein’s philosophical interpretation, there are two requirements:

First, the necessity of observation: Wolfgang Smith describes in “The Quantum Enigma” with great clarity that the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ state of an atomic event takes place during the act of observation. We may say that the act of transition happens as soon as the interaction of the object with the measuring device, and thereby with the rest of the world, has come into play. It is, however, not connected with the act of registration of the result by the mind of the observer. The act of measurement, thus, is the transition of a certain potency from a full spectrum of possibilities below the corporeal level, onto the corporeal plane . He then concludes by saying: “Somehow a determination – a choice of one particular outcome from a spectrum of possibilities is affected. We know not whether this happens by chance or by design; what we know is that somehow the die is cast.”

This requirement for observation appears somehow to be at odds with reality. Classical physics states about the property of light that it can travel from its original place, say, 10 x109(10 billion) light years away in distance through deep space, (this is our present-day practical limit of reception), and it is just reaching us through our instruments, such as telescopes or wavelength analysers. In other words, those same photons of light bring into our view the events that happened 10 x 109 years ago. This indicates to us that things did happen in the Universe even 10 x 109 years ago.

This scientific fact ought to be sufficient to prove the first point. However, it is also a scientific fact that those events that have occurred 10 x 109 years ago, did happen without having ever been observed by anyone. In other words, in the past 13.75 x 109 years three major events took place:-

  • a) The beginning (and not the origin) of the physical World;
  • b) The physical World obeyed  the 4-forces and the Constants of Nature in both the microcosm and macrocosm, in their existence as well as  maintaining them in a near-precise and predictable order;
  • c) The development of organised Life. All those cosmic entities and events happened without the intervention of any human observer.

Second, the necessity of an observer, who must possess human consciousness: If consciousness, just as life itself, is a mere accident in nature, and it is nothing more than the product of well-organised material activities, then it is highly doubtful that such a contingent being could whichever way influence the above-described cosmic entities and events of which he is an inessential and only an accidental part.

On the other hand, if we consider the role of observation being such a conscious act and that it had to play an essential part in the existence and maintenance of the Universe, then by implication, this human consciousness must be  more than a mere product of material processes. Consequently, now even science itself would acknowledge the transcendental nature of such a human consciousness that “may be considered a fundamental feature, irreducible to anything more basic”. (D.Chalmer.)

The Paradox of Observation

One cannot know what an elementary particle, such as an electron is doing at any time, because only an observation alone is that creates the reality of the electron. In other words, the measurement of an electron’s position creates an electron with a position. Similarly, the measurement of an electron’s momentum applies to its angular momentum. Therefore neither property of an electron is in existence prior to such measurements, which is the essence of an observation.
One wonders what is then an electron that is not observed, and do we have to keep on observing for it to remain in existence? Heisenberg has this answer: A sub-atomic particle is not so much a physical entity as an abstract encodement of a set of potentialities or possible outcomes of measurements. It is a means of connecting different observations via the quantum mechanical formulism.

The process of observation does not only apply to sub-atomic particles, but also to everything that has a wave function, such as trees, stars, galaxies and inevitably to the entire Universe. We make measurements when observe any aspects of physical reality, Thereby we are establishing what the reality is.
Quantum changes are less sensitive than non-quantum ones, but quantum systems change in sudden and uncertain ways when they are observed.

Comment by a Scientist: Physical entities and events in the micro world (this includes the sub-atomic particles as well) and in the macro-world do exist with their precisely definable properties even when they are not observed.

W. C. Chittick ponders over the myth of the observer in his book: The Self-Disclosure of God. (Principles of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Cosmology). He analyses the role and nature of the observer, and remarks the following: “Although most of the bases for our knowledge goes back to authority, probably one of the most profound requirements of quantum cosmology is that for attaining knowledge of uncertainties, it requires experimentation and empirical verification with certainty. An observer therefore is expected to possess objective knowledge as well as objectivity in observation.

“Just as the observer is unable to observe himself, so is he unable to observe the Universe unless he ‘stands’ (i.e. pretending to be a disembodied spirit) outside of it.An objectively attained knowledge is expected to be verifiable empirically by everyone. This, however, could discount almost everyone else, (as not being objectively knowledgeable or objective). If this claim is taken seriously, then the finding would become a paradox, as it is reduced to an absurdly low common denominator.”

The objective observer, on the other hand, (unlike e.g. Bohr with his affiliation with Hinduism, and Schrodinger with his leaning towards Buddhist teachings), ought to be ‘unattached’ from any influence that may affect the observation. A scientific comment: The above analysis appears to undermine QM as a source of our scientific knowledge because of its insistence on the perceived importance of either the objective knowledge or the objectivity in observation of an observer or both, for determining the basic condition of ‘existence’ of all manners of being in the Universe.

In conclusion, the Universe can only be real if it contains observers; that is the status of a universe would depend on a conscious observer. This is the so called ‘participatory view’. This view, according to Sir Martin Rees, is hard to accept, hard even to take it seriously. On the other hand, since the propagator of this view was John Wheeler, who collaborated with Niels Bohr on the theory of nuclear fission in 1930s, this view cannot be dismissed lightly, he said. Hence, the paradoxes of Quantum Observer and the nature of consciousness are manifestly two of the deepest mysteries of all.

page divider image