GUEST ESSAY: The marriage of physics and idealism

By Adur Alkain

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed are those of its author. For my own views on the subject of this essay, see this paper.)



“Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that called Body is a portion of a Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Physics, without doubt the most successful and prestigious science of our time, has been traditionally married to a highly problematic companion: physicalism. Physicalism can be simply defined as the metaphysical thesis that everything in reality is physical. It isn’t surprising that most physicists would readily subscribe to this thesis, since it grants physics a privileged position as the most fundamental science. Sadly, this marriage of convenience has brought not only physics, but all related sciences like cosmology, biology, neuroscience, etc., to a hopeless dead end. The reason is simple: physicalism is false.

The purpose of this essay is to propose an amicable divorce, followed by a new marriage to a much more suitable partner: idealism. Only by decisively separating itself from physicalism and embracing idealism will physics be able to truly thrive and flourish.

To achieve this, idealism will also need to embrace physics, giving it its proper position as an indispensable ingredient in our understanding of reality. Like in all successful marriages, both partners will need to be willing to listen to each other, and to let themselves be transformed in the process.

ONLY OBSERVATION IS PHYSICAL

The first step is to reject the misguided belief that ‘everything is physical’, and replace it with a much more humble—but true—thesis: only observation is physical. Physics is the science of observation.

This very simple but far-reaching idea may seem obvious and disconcerting at the same time. To clarify what I mean by it, I offer the following points:

  1. The laws of physics don’t describe a hypothetical world made of ‘matter’ that exists ‘out there’. The laws of physics only describe our observations. In more precise terms: the laws of physics describe the probabilities of future observations.
  2. Physics is essentially founded in observation. From the point of view of physics, the following is true: “if it can’t be observed, it doesn’t exist”. This attitude gave rise to physicalism. But the true corollary is this: if it can’t be observed, it lies outside the realm of physics. For example, according to physicalism one of these two options is necessarily true:
    • (a) consciousness can be reduced to observable physical processes in our brains.
    • (b) consciousness doesn’t exist.
      But in idealism we have a third option, which happens to be self-evident:
    • (c) consciousness exists, but it is not a physical phenomenon.
  3. Only our observations show the regularity and consistency that we associate with the laws of physics. All other conscious experiences (thoughts, emotions, dreams, hallucinations, etc.) are not constrained by the laws of physics.
  4. The physical world is the observed world. It doesn’t exist outside our observation.
  5. Since observation happens in the mind of conscious observers, physics is a branch of psychology. Psychology, and not physics, is the most fundamental science.

WHAT IS OBSERVATION?

Given the fundamental role we ascribe to observation, we should provide a precise definition of what we mean by this term. Here it is: observation = detection + consciousness.

Let’s unpack this definition:

  1. I’m using the somewhat awkward term ‘detection’, instead of possible alternatives like ‘sensation’, to take into account the fact that in modern physics most observations are carried out with the help of scientific instruments, making it possible to acquire data beyond the reach of the human sense organs. Sensation, as carried out through our natural senses, is a particular form of detection.
  2. We can define detection as the acquisition of information about the physical world, that is, about previous observations (since the physical world is nothing but the sum of all observations), combined with the creation of new information. We will explain later in detail what we mean by this.
  3. Observation vs. perception: Although in informal contexts the terms ‘observation’ and ‘perception’ can be used interchangeably (I have done so myself in some of my writings), in modern psychology perception is understood as the processing and interpretation in the mind of the ‘raw data” coming from the senses. Perception implies mental concepts, acquired knowledge, memories, expectations, etc., and lies therefore outside the realm of physics.
  4. The crucial element in the equation is consciousness. Self-driving cars, for example, can detect red traffic lights and react accordingly, but they are not observing anything. Without consciousness, there is no observation. (Ultimately, without consciousness there is no detection either, as shown by quantum mechanics. We’ll come back to this later. But let’s not forget that, according to idealism, without consciousness there is nothing.)

WHAT IDEALISM CAN DO FOR PHYSICS:
UNDERSTANDING QUANTUM MECHANICS

The greatest embarrassment of modern physics is that, roughly a century after the discovery of quantum mechanics, the most successful theory in the history of science, physicists have not yet managed to understand what it means. The obstacle to this understanding is physicalism.

From the perspective of idealism, all the puzzles and problems of quantum mechanics don’t seem puzzling or problematic at all. Once we free ourselves from the illusion of a physical world made of ‘stuff’, of material objects existing outside our observation, the meaning of quantum mechanics becomes crystal clear. I’ll try to show this briefly, using the famous Schr√∂dinger’s cat thought experiment as an illustration.

We all know the scenario: we have a cat inside a closed box, together with some radioactive substance, a Geiger counter and some lethal mechanism that will be triggered if the counter detects the decay of a radioactive atom. According to quantum mechanics, a quantum system remains in a state of superposition until we make an observation. This would mean that until we open the box, the atom will be in a superposition of decayed and undecayed states; consequently, the cat will also be in a superposition of states (dead-alive).

There’s an obvious problem with this thought experiment: cats are conscious beings. Like all conscious beings, they make observations of the physical world. Therefore, the cat inside the box would cancel the quantum superposition of the whole system. We can solve this issue if instead of a real cat we use, say, a porcelain cat. The mechanism triggered by the Geiger counter will smash the porcelain cat into pieces. Until we open the box, the porcelain cat will be in a superposition of states (broken-intact).

Once we embrace idealism, the apparent weirdness of this scenario disappears. In an idealistic model of the world, we don’t have superpositions of “states” of a quantum system any more. What we have is superpositions of possible observations. The wave function doesn’t describe an objective world independent of observation. It describes the probabilities of future observations.

It is not that observation changes the physical world. Observation creates the physical world. More accurately, observation is the physical world. The physical world is what we observe.

If we never open the box (in other words, if we never make an observation), there will be no porcelain cat. There will be only a set of probabilities, described by the wave function. Over time the probability of the porcelain cat remaining intact inside the box with the radioactive substance and the Geiger counter will diminish to near zero, but there still will be no definite state, no actual porcelain cat.

Here is an intriguing question: if we open the box and find the porcelain cat smashed to pieces, when did the cat enter the definite state of being broken? Was it when we opened the box? The answer is no. The moment we open the box, all superposition of probabilities in the system disappears. All probabilities described by the wave function give way to a definite state, starting at the moment we began the experiment. In other words, the cat was smashed to pieces the moment the Geiger counter detected a radioactive particle and triggered the mechanism.

This seems to imply a kind of retro-causality. However, in idealism the very notion of causality disappears, replaced by the notion of entanglement. This is what happened: When we set up the experiment, we became entangled with the porcelain cat, the Geiger counter and the radioactive substance. The moment we opened the box and made an observation, the state of the whole system became definite, in exact correlation with our observation.

As has been proven experimentally, entanglement is a nonlocal phenomenon: it is independent of time and space. Let’s say that the Geiger counter has a timer that shows the exact time the atom decay happened and the cat was smashed. Let’s say that we opened the box an hour later. By opening the box and making the observation we ceased the superposition of probabilities, and brought the whole system into a definite state. But we can’t say that we caused the atom to decay (at the time marked by the counter’s timer), any more than we can say that the atomic decay caused our observation (an hour later) of the broken cat. The perfect correlation between the observed states of atom, Geiger counter, porcelain cat and our own sensory organs is not the result of causation, but of entanglement.

Observation and entanglement

Entanglement is usually defined as a property of pairs or groups of particles which, after interacting and separating, behave in a way in which the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the others, regardless of the distance separating them. In other words, in an entangled system there is a perfect correlation between the potential states of all the separate particles.

Given that all physical objects consist of subatomic particles, we have to conclude that all physical objects can become entangled. This is quite correct. But, according to idealism, the only physical reality is observation. There are no objects, no particles, no things outside our observation. What gets entangled are the possible observations within a given system.

Most scientists, including physicists, have not yet understood the profound implications of quantum mechanics. After the discovery of quantum indeterminacy, the traditional mechanistic view of the world is not possible any more.

Let’s take, for example, the Geiger counter of our previous thought experiment. Let’s say it has a LED light that flashes red whenever it detects a radioactive particle. According to classical physics, the LED light will emit photons of a certain frequency. Those photons will travel through space and enter my eyes, where they will be detected by the photoreceptors in my retina, etc. This mechanistic explanation is very useful for practical purposes, but we know now that photons can’t cause our observations, since they don’t exist outside our observation. The perfect correlation between the state of the Geiger counter and the state of the photoreceptors in my eyes is due to entanglement. (The same applies to the correlation between the state of the Geiger counter’s detector and its LED light, between the state of the detector and of the radioactive particles, etc.)

Entanglement is the fundamental phenomenon that accounts for the consistency and regularity we see in the physical world.

In other words: there are no mechanisms in nature. There are no causes. There is only entanglement. This shows the futility of looking for a mechanism to explain the “collapse of the wave function”. The wave function is a mathematical description of the probabilities of future observations. The only physical reality is observation itself. Each wave function is determined by previous observations, and is cancelled out by the subsequent observation. After each observation we find a new wave function, describing a new set of probabilities.

There is no classical world: everything is quantum

The thought experiment with the porcelain cat shows that there is no gap between the ‘classical’ and the quantum world. Everything is quantum. There is no difference between microscopic and macroscopic objects.

Let’s see a typical example. When I leave my car in the garage, what happens to it? Does it disappear? The answer is yes, and no. When the car is not being observed, there is no actual car any more. But there still exists a virtual car, described by the wave function. Left alone in the garage, the car becomes a cloud of probabilities: probabilities of being observed in the future.

There are two reasons why we don’t realize that macroscopic objects like cars or porcelain cats behave like probability waves when we are not observing them: First, with large scale systems the probabilities of observation approach 0 or 1 values (0 indicating impossibility and 1 certainty), for purely statistical reasons. This is the well-known correspondence principle between quantum and classical mechanics. Second, we observe large scale objects all the time, but only physicists doing experiments can directly observe subatomic particles like electrons or photons. That means that we constantly reduce the probabilities of observation for large objects, but not so much for the particles that compose them (until we observe them directly). In other words, subatomic particles have more freedom (a wider distribution of probabilities of observation) than macroscopic objects.

Going back to the car in the garage, let’s imagine the following scenario: there is an old lamp hanging from the ceiling of the garage. The screws that fasten it to the ceiling have been slowly rusting through. They finally give way in the middle of the night, and the heavy lamp falls on top of the car, denting it. Actually, none of this happens, according to idealism. All through the night there are only waves of probabilities inside that garage. Only when in the following morning we come back to the garage and see the fallen lamp and the dented car, does the accident become an actual fact. But of course, like we saw with the porcelain cat and the Geiger counter, the whole system is entangled: the accident happened in the middle of the night, not in the morning when we saw its results.

Quantum laws are no different than the classical laws of physics. They just are more precise. All laws of physics describe the probabilities of future observations. That’s all they do.

The two aspects of observation

Every observation has two aspects. We can call them the passive and the active aspect. The passive aspect consists in the interaction with the wave function. Since the wave function is the result of previous observations, the passive aspect of observation is ultimately the interaction with previous observations. Previous observations determine the probability waves that limit our present observation.

The active aspect of observation consists in an act of creation: out of all the possible outcomes we are given, we unwittingly select one. We turn potentiality into actuality. This act of creation is not entirely free: we are limited by the probability waves.

This active aspect, which is behind the fundamental indeterminism of the physical world, opens the question of what ‘selects’ the outcome of an observation out of all the available possibilities. From a traditional materialist perspective, if something is not caused by deterministic laws it has to be random (stochastic). But from an idealistic perspective, other options are available, like the intervention of some kind of ‘intention’ or ‘will’. Both hypothesis can (and have been) tested experimentally. However, we won’t get into this question now.

Every observation gives rise to a new wave function. It cancels out old probabilities and opens up new ones. We can visualize this in the way of ripples. Making an observation is like throwing a pebble into a pond. Every observation creates ripples that project into the past, due to entanglement, and into the future, influencing future observations as probability waves. In a very real sense, every time we look at the physical world we encounter the ripples created by prior observations, both our own observations and the observations of those who observed the world before us. We are all constantly co-creating the physical world.

An unavoidable question is: where do these ripples or waves happen? In the idealistic view, they happen in a field of awareness, sometimes called ‘mind-at-large’, which includes but transcends physical reality. The wave function describes the ripples and waves on the surface of this field of awareness, which we can visualize as a vast ocean of pure sensitivity and infinite potentiality.

Now we can understand, I hope, what I meant by my definition of detection: the acquisition of information about the physical world, that is, about previous observations, combined with the creation of new information.

Observation involves at least two observers

It is important to notice that, since every observation entails the interaction with the probability waves created in the past by other observers, every observation involves a multiplicity of observers.

In purely metaphysical terms, it is self-evident that physical reality entails the existence of at least two observers. If we imagine a world experienced by a sole observer, that world would be indistinguishable from a fantasy or a dream.

Every time two conscious observers interact, their physical bodies (including their sense organs) become entangled. We can visualize the whole community of living organisms on Earth as a vast chain of entanglement. This is why we all observe (and co-create) the same physical world.

We can conjecture that it should be possible, in principle, to deduce all the laws of physics (the laws of observation) from the interaction and entanglement of a multiplicity of conscious observers.

WHAT PHYSICS CAN DO FOR IDEALISM:
DEFEATING MATERIALISM

We have already shown, I believe, the power of idealism to explain all the apparent problems of quantum mechanics. Let’s have a look now at the contribution that the science of physics can make to an updated formulation of idealism.

Nonlocal idealism

The main problem all formulations of idealism have to face is how to explain the regularity and consistency of the physical world we observe. This problem is elegantly solved by the idealistic interpretation of quantum mechanics. The laws of observation and entanglement account for the fact that all of us, as conscious observers, experience the same physical world.

I like to call this version of idealism ‘nonlocal idealism,' to distinguish it from prior formulations. To some degree it is an arbitrary name, but I like it because non-locality happens to be a property of both the mental and the physical worlds. It is, in short, a fundamental property of consciousness.

The final blow to materialism

Let’s take a look at the implications of this perfect marriage between physics and idealism, from the perspective of the main point of contention between materialistic and idealistic views of the world: the nature of consciousness.

We have seen how consciousness plays a crucial role in observation, and therefore, in the creation and evolution of the physical world. Without consciousness there is no observation. In other words, without consciousness there is no world.

Materialists believe that consciousness is produced by some mysterious processes in our brains. This would imply that the physical universe didn’t exist until human brains evolved, which is patently contradictory and absurd. Of course, materialists don’t accept the premise that consciousness plays a role in the actualization of the physical world (the collapse of the wave function). But they can’t offer an alternate explanation (not one that makes sense, at least).

Idealism can explain quantum mechanics in a simple and elegant manner. Materialism can’t do the same. Checkmate.

But I don’t want to end this essay on a belligerent note. Let’s invite everybody to this beautiful marriage. Even materialist scientists and hard-boiled philosophers have plenty to offer. This marriage is the perfect synthesis of the two most powerful creations of the human spirit: modern science and perennial philosophy, or idealism.

Copyright © 2019-2020 by Adur Alkain. Published with permission.
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10 comments:

  1. The wrong version of this essay was live for several minutes earlier today. If you've noticed inconsistencies, please consider re-reading the correct version now.

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  2. Hi Adur, responding to you out here since the thread is locked. You say:

    > In my view, the collapse happens for Wigner the moment his friend makes her observation, due to entanglement.

    Collapse and entanglement are mutually exclusive. Collapse is, by definition, the destruction of superposition and thus any possibility of entanglement.

    This confusion results in various contradictions throughout the piece. For example, the creation of "vast chain[s] of entanglement" entails that anyone not yet entangled will _not_ see us as collapsed, by definition. This is not merely a matter of interpretation; there are experimental consequences.

    There may well be an interpretation of QM that jibes with idealism out there, but whatever it is, I'm afraid it will have to be internally consistent to convince physicists to look at it.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Aditya,
      I don't see any confusion or contradiction. Collapse cancels the superposition, yes, therefore it cancels entanglement, yes. Where is the problem? What I meant is that Wigner and his friend are in a state of entangled superposition before she (Wigner's friend) makes the observation. The moment she makes the observation, the superposition gets cancelled for Wigner too. They are not entangled anymore (in relation to that experiment), and they are not in superposition either. Even if Wigner doesn't know the result of the observation, he isn't in superposition any more.
      What gets entangled are the probabilities of observation. The "vast chain of entanglement" entails that the probabilities of observation for individual observers are entangled. This is what explains the fact that all our observations of the physical world are mutually consistent.
      I think this view is perfectly consistent. I don't uderstand what you mean by "anyone not yet entangled will not see us as collapsed". In any case, as I said, what gets "collapsed" are the probabilites of observation.
      Let's take the typical example of Alice and Bob observing two entangled particles: if Alice makes an observation of her particle, instantaneously the superposition collapses and Bobs' particle is in a definite state too. What I'm saying is that if a third person, Cindy, is entangled with Alice, or Bob, or both, the superposition will collapse for her too, meaning that if she observes any of the two particles, she will find the same definite states that Alice and Bob found.
      Quantum superposition is not a result of incomplete knowledge about a system: it is an absece of definite states within the system, until an observation is made. Once the observation happens, the superposition disappears, for all observers who are entangled with that system.
      As I said in my essay, my idea is that the physical bodies of conscious observers (including their sense organs) become entangled through interaction. The problem with this idea is that it can't be tested experimentally, since all conscious observers interacting with a system would be inevitably entangled. I can't think of an experiment that could get around this.

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    2. Hi again Adur! There's no need for Wigner and his friend to start out entangled. Either consciousness causes collapse (in which case two conscious beings can _never_ be entangled), or it doesn't, in which case the crucial moment is when they become entangled _after_ the experiment, when Wigner observes the result in one way or another. I urge you to learn QM formally so that you can understand very precisely how these words are used (and why). Entanglement just doesn't work the way it's being used here. Cheers!

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  3. Imagination is actually the key to Science and any other creative endeavor. Observation may be in different degrees a part of the imagination processs.

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  4. "Collapse and entanglement are mutually exclusive. Collapse is, by definition, the destruction of superposition and thus any possibility of entanglement." Yet, Aditya, is it not entanglement that engenders the collapse, which, as you indicate, simultaneously nullifies it? While the world of our ordinary experience is no longer entangled but "collapsed" out of superposition (by the "vast chain" of consciousness) into definite form, I fail to see how this process of the potential becoming actual lacks internal consistency. While the observable forms of common experience have become unentangled, is not consciousness itself, the disentangling agent, still active and IN ITSELF as entangled as ever? Does it not, in its human expression, continue its collapsing function in the quantum world whenever new observations are made?

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  5. First of all kudos on a wonderful essay, very readable and succinct. I admit however, to having a personal aversion to reading the three words "laws of physics". I would prefer to say we less than perfectly observe the laws of nature, for the reasons entailed in the essay and other psychological factors, and have made an attempt to mathematically describe them through the approximations of physics. Especially once entangled states of probability are discussed. Before the spectroscopists forced the theoreticians to come up with quantum physics, I still think it would have been safer to say voltage is proportional to the product of current and resistance times a factor pretty close to 1, except when its not... never trusted those equal signs, I'm a laboratory guy.

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  6. Cool article, thanks for sharing!

    One thing I would say is to not be so quick to define phenomena such as thoughts and emotions as outside the realm of physics. Human beings have an "invisible" field of energy around their bodies which could be called the aura, and I am very confident that in the decades to come scientists will build special cameras that will actually enable us to create a visual on a screen of this auric field complete with the emotions, thoughts, beliefs etc stored within it. Physics is just limited by the technology we can create and there is huge scope for expansion yet. And as humanity progresses over the centuries and 'mind science' becomes the norm then people will develop the ability to see all manner of things without any physical equipment at all. All in good time

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  7. I'm a little lost as to who the audience is that this is written to. Reading something like this has the same impact as reading a blow by blow scientific article giving a detailed description of the biological occurrences during sex complete with graphic descriptions of blood engorged organs and what the bodily fluids are doing in nasty places. While all very true it sort of takes the romance out of it. I guess an article like this would impact people sitting on the fence but is unlikely to change the mind of any "materialists" I know. With that crowd my reaction is "If you have to ask the question you are not going to understand the answer". However I guess it is worth a try. I guess if you have been "believing" this for 40 years like I have you are past this kind of discussion but maybe for neophytes this could be helpful. All in all I can find no flaw in the logic.

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  8. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0848MGRDP/ref=sr_1_10?crid=100R8795LRY1O&keywords=bernardo+kastrup&qid=1580230334&s=digital-text&sprefix=bernardo%2Cdigital-text%2C165&sr=1-10

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