In my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, I argue that we do not need to postulate a whole universe outside consciousness – outside subjective experience – in order to make sense of empirical reality. The implication is that all reality, including our bodies and brains, are in consciousness, not consciousness in our bodies and brains. My worldview is compatible with a classical view of nature: it doesn’t exclude the possibility that objects may exist in definite states and locations even if no living creature is observing them. Indeed, my worldview accepts a non-personal form of consciousness underlying all nature, in which objects can still exist as non-personal experiences, with definite outlines, even when not observed by personal psyches. The latest experiments in quantum mechanics, however, seem to defeat this classical view of empirical reality.* They seem to show that, when not observed by personal psyches, reality exists in a fuzzy state, as waves of probabilities. Although this seeming implication of quantum mechanics is in no way incompatible with my worldview, this essay aims to make more explicit the harmonious – even natural and synergistic – relationship between the two.
Before we begin, let me briefly recapitulate the core ideas in the book. Consciousness is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure; it is the one undeniable, empirical fact of existence. My view is that we do not need more than this one undeniable fact to explain reality: all things and phenomena can be explained as excitations of consciousness itself. As such, underlying all reality is a stream of subjectivity that I metaphorically describe as a stream of water (water being analogous to consciousness). Inanimate objects are ripples in the stream, experienced subjectively by the mind-at-large that is the stream itself. Living creatures are localizations of the flow of water in the stream: whirlpools. The body-brain system is, as such, the image of a process of localization in the stream of subjective experiences of mind-at-large. The body-brain system doesn’t generate consciousness for exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water. And since there is nothing to a stream full of ripples and whirlpools but water in movement, all reality is simply consciousness in movement. The movement of consciousness/water is what we call subjective experience.
Because of a natural mechanism of amplification that I explain in Chapter 5 of the book, and briefly summarize in this article, the movements of water within each whirlpool obfuscate the movements outside the whirlpool. Therefore, a living creature is self-reflectively aware only of the ripples that penetrate the rim of its own whirlpool – in our case, our skin, eyes, ears, tongue, and nose – but is unaware of everything else going on in the stream. This is the reason why we can’t see when we close our eyes: the ripples from the broader stream that we call photons can no longer penetrate the rim of our whirlpool and get amplified within it. And since our thoughts, emotions, and other forms of perception do get amplified inside, the outside ripples in the form of photons end up becoming obfuscated like the stars are obfuscated by the sun at noon. Yet, those ripples are still in consciousness, for the same reason that the stars are still in the sky at noon. They just aren’t in our personal consciousness; that is, they don’t penetrate our whirlpool. As such, all nature is in consciousness in the form of ripples (inanimate objects and phenomena) and whirlpools (living creatures) in the stream. But only certain aspects of nature enter personal consciousness, in the form of ripples that penetrate a whirlpool and get caught and amplified within its internal vortex.
This worldview is entirely compatible with classical physics: it does not exclude the possibility that the ripples of the broader stream that never penetrate a whirlpool can still exist in definite form, in a definite space-time locus. They can still exist as definite experiences in non-personal mind-at-large; that is, the stream itself. But quantum mechanics has been showing that such a view is untenable: when not observed by personal, localized consciousness – that is, when not penetrating a whirlpool – reality isn’t definite.* Instead, it exists only as fuzzy waves of probabilities. How to reconcile this with the worldview just described?
Clearly, the ripples in the broader stream (mind-at-large) must be ripples of probabilities, governed by Schrödinger’s equation. They are subjectively experienced by mind-at-large as fuzzy possibilities, not definite storylines. There is nothing counterintuitive about it: when we ponder about our own uncertain futures, we know exactly what it feels like to experience reality as fuzzy possibilities. Now, we know from direct experience that, when a ripple of probabilities does penetrate a whirlpool, the many possibilities superposed in it collapse into one well-defined, classical storyline. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that whatever collapses the ripple of probabilities into one specific storyline has something to do with the amplification inherent to each whirlpool. I would go further and speculate that the mechanism of collapse is the amplification: only one of the possibilities superposed in the ripple gets amplified, obfuscating all others in exactly the same way that all reality external to the whirlpool is obfuscated. In other words, collapse happens for exactly the same reason that you can’t see when you close your eyes. This is quite parsimonious because both collapse and obfuscation are explained by one and the same mechanism in the whirlpool. Now, as it turns out, the particular storyline ‘chosen’ for amplification by one whirlpool is consistent with what other whirlpools also ‘choose,’ since we all seem to share the same reality. How exactly this synchronization happens is an open question, although there are reasonable avenues of speculation. But that it can happen isn’t at all surprising, since all whirlpools are, ultimately, one and the same mind. It is intuitively reasonable to expect that one consistent storyline should prevail in this one mind-at-large.
There is a sense in which what I describe above brings the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics closer together: a kind of collapse does occur, in that only one out of the many possibilities superposed in the probability ripple is amplified and thus experienced in a classical sense. This clearly differentiates one storyline from all the others and avoids the need to postulate classical parallel universes. But this collapse isn’t a fundamental ontological transition: it consists simply in the amplification of one particular possibility, which then obfuscates all others. All possible storylines continue to be experienced as fuzzy, obfuscated possibilities in the stream of mind, but only one is amplified and clearly experienced in a classical manner. Again, this is parsimonious in that it avoids the need to postulate different ontological categories for superposed (‘fuzzy’) and collapsed (‘definite’) storylines. It all becomes a matter of degree, not of change in fundamental nature. Finally, notice also that this interpretation is entirely compatible with quantum decoherence, for reasons that escape the scope of this brief essay but which physicists will immediately recognize.
This is a relatively unexplored avenue of thought that, currently, is still too speculative. In Why Materialism Is Baloney I made the deliberate choice not to include it. The first reason for this I just mentioned: it isn’t mature enough. The second reason was my goal to make the ideas in the book entirely compatible with the classical view of nature, because that’s much more intuitive and accessible to the average person. It is possible, however, that in the future I will elaborate more on the above. Please let me know in the comments section below if you think this is a good idea.
* See, for instance:
- Kim, Y.-H. et al. (2000). A Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser. Physical Review Letters 84, pp. 1–5. The authors show that observation not only determines the reality observed at present, but also retroactively changes the history of what is observed accordingly. This is entirely consistent with the notion that reality is fundamentally a story playing itself out in mind.
- Gröblacher , S. et al. (2007). An experimental test of non-local realism. Nature 446, pp. 871-875. The authors show that reality is either entirely in consciousness or we must abandon our strongest intuitions about what objectivity means. Physicsworld.com, in a related article, went as far as to claim that ‘quantum physics says goodbye to reality.’
- Lapkiewicz, R. et al. (2011). Experimental non-classicality of an indivisible quantum system. Nature 474, pp. 490–493. The authors show that, unlike what one would expect if reality were independent of mind, the properties of a quantum system do not exist prior to observation. Renowned physicist Anton Zeilinger, in a related New Scientist article suitably titled “Quantum magic trick shows reality is what you make it,” is quoted as saying that “there is no sense in assuming that what we do not measure about a system has [an independent] reality.”
- Xiao-song Ma et al. (2013). Quantum erasure with causally disconnected choice. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110, pp. 1221-1226. Again, the authors show that no naively objective view of reality can be true, which is consistent with the notion that reality is fundamentally subjective. A less-technical explanation of the experiment in this paper, as well as its results, can be found here.