PBS's Spacetime: The role of consciousness in quantum physics


It is no secret that one of my favorite shows online is PBS's Spacetime. They found a unique combination of rigor and accessibility, spicing the whole thing up with a certain 'coolness' factor that makes the show very enjoyable to watch. Only very rarely do they seem to make mistakes—a surprising achievement given the complexity of the subjects explored.

In this context, many of you brought to my attention a very recent episode of Spacetime—see video insert below—in which they discuss the role of consciousness in quantum physics. This is a topic very close to my heart, about which I have written extensively (for instance, on Scientific American). But some of you were quite critical, thinking that Spacetime weren't fair in their portrayal of the relationship between consciousness and quantum mechanics.


I did watch the episode in question only a couple of hours after it was released, so by the time your comments began streaming in, I already had an opinion. And, perhaps surprisingly to some of you, my opinion is... well, quite positive.

Granted, Spacetime were critical of the idea that quantum mechanics—through the notion that consciousness causes wave function collapse—somehow permits us to "manifest" our preferred reality by thinking it into existence. But insofar as the consciousness in question is understood to be our personal, egoic, introspectively accessible consciousness, neither do I think this is the case. Perhaps our subliminal mental attitudes—at a deeper, even transpersonal level, below the threshold of metacognitive introspection—do influence things in some yet-unsuspected way, but that doesn't entail or imply that we can personally and deliberately choose, "manifest" or "attract" things; otherwise there would be no consensus about our inhabiting the same world. Therefore, I don't think the skepticism shown by the Spacetime crew is unjustified or inappropriate.

Neither do I naively think that quantum mechanics hasn't been the target of abuse by non-physicists. Although I defend—in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Near-Death Studies—some statements about quantum mechanics made by non-experts in the fields of parapsychology and integrative medicine, I do acknowledge that extensive abuse has happened; also in those fields. For instance, not long ago, in my role as consulting publisher at Iff Books, I've had to review a manuscript that not only betrayed extraordinary ignorance of what quantum mechanics is or says, but also displayed an atrociously confident tone suggesting the contrary. It literally made me feel sick in my stomach. So abuse does happen and must be countered. That Spacetime decided to do this is, in principle, perfectly okay with me; even though I reserve judgment about some of the specific books they chose to name explicitly as instances of abuse.

As a matter of fact, I was very positively surprised by a number of statements made in the episode that not only admitted to a possible link between quantum physics and consciousness (the latter meant here in a transpersonal, naturalistic sense), but also persuasively explained the basic rationale for postulating such a link in the first place.

Indeed, Spacetime were clear (at just after the 12-minute mark) that their criticisms don't apply to what they called a "global consciousness." Significantly, they've also spent most of the episode thoroughly explaining 'von Neumann chains' and the 'Wigner's friend' thought experiment: two of the reasons to suspect a link between consciousness and quantum mechanics. Even more importantly, they did not attempt to refute the rationale behind either notion. In a strong sense, thus, they've actually made a persuasive case for the role of consciousness. At the 12:24-minute mark, they've even explicitly stated that "conscious observation may play a role" in the transition from quantum states to classical reality, although that role isn't compatible with the notion that we can personally and deliberately choose our own reality.

The only point about which I am mildly critical of the episode is this: Spacetime came through too strongly in favor of a completely objective external reality. Recent evidence shows that, at some level, this isn't true. That said, and as Spacetime illustrates with their modified version of the 'Wigner's friend' thought experiment at the 11:05-minute mark, we clearly seem to inhabit the same world, consistently experienced by each of us. So it cannot be the case that we are each creating our own reality independently of everybody else; at least not at all levels.

I also regret a bit that they too strongly associate the link between consciousness and quantum physics with mysticism, as opposed to a natural process. Consciousness, after all, is natural; it's an undeniable aspect of nature, the prime datum of existence. Having said that, insofar as what they mean by 'mysticism' is related to the notion that the executive ego can wish a preferred reality into existence, I am okay even with that.

What we have to guard against is the tempting but almost certainly false notion that, by granting a fundamental role to consciousness in the fabric of reality, we are granting our personal, individual, introspectively accessible consciousness magical powers. This is not, for instance, what analytic idealism entails or implies. When Wigner's characterized the role of consciousness in physics as a "solipsistic view," he was denying precisely this, not the hypothesis of a universal consciousness underlying physics.

All things considered, I salute Spacetime on another beautiful and fairly well balanced episode. May they keep on coming!
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12 comments:

  1. Question, do you support the need for people to cling to the latest findings of Quantum Mechanics to inform their world view or is there a point where one just goes with their gut. I see many people that appear to be afraid to even have a "world view" living in fear that science will discover something that puts them at odds with the latest findings. For me it seems their reality is so contrived. They fail to understand that the findings of science doesn't change anything, ever. Whatever science describes it basically comes down to trying to describe the color blue to a blind man. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no human has the ability to understand all of the data even if they had all of the data. So much of this falls into the category of the "unknowable". I see people that almost need additional info so they can decide if brushing their teeth in the morning matters or is it all a waste of time because nothing matters. Just to be clear I 100% agree with your arguments in your work assuming I even understand it all. My question I guess is what is the underlying message? Are the constant intellectual and philosophical arguments within modern science a desire for the scientists to maintain a self indulgent self importance or is it to inform humanity at large what the latest findings are.

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  2. I don't know anything about peoples' claims that QM shows we can manifest our own reality, or whatever. I never read that type of stuff. But QM has always seemed to me to imply that it is meaningless to try and characterise reality in abstraction from our perceptions of it.

    Normally, if we close our eyes, we can imagine reality being exactly like as we perceive it going on its own merry way. I could be bouncing and catching a rubber ball. I could close my eyes and perhaps (with a bit of luck) continue to bounce and catch it for a short period of time. The point being that reality behaves, and presumably is the same, whether we consciously observe it or not.

    However, quite independently of QM, and as I argue here (http://ian-wardell.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-very-brief-introduction-to-subjective.html), it is very possible that external reality is nothing but our sensory perceptions; hence that it is meaningless to talk about an external world in abstraction of any experience of it. To forestall any possible confusion, this is not to imbue consciousness with any creative powers, consciousness is not creating the external world. Rather the external world is defined, as is constituted by, our sensory perceptions.

    With QM, and unlike our rubber ball, it seems impossible to characterise what is going on in this consciousness-independent reality when we are not observing it. How, for example, can electrons simultaneously be both particles and waves? At the very least, reality in and of itself must be very far removed from our commonsensical conception of it. So, perhaps it is easier to suppose that QM theory does not depict a literal state of affairs occurring independently of our observations. Indeed, perhaps none of our theories in physics depict literal states of affairs. Perhaps science is purely in the business of describing, via mathematics, the connections between our various perceptual experiences.

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    1. I have followed an American Indian philosophy for 35 years that is best I can tell has no disagreements with Bernardo's findings. It of course uses different terms and analogies but every bit as valid as Bernardo's terms and analogies. To me the value of Bernardo is his ability to take the fight to arrogant materialists and others that demand control of the narrative of human society due to their perceived superior intellect. These people love to debate and winning the debate and gaining control of the narrative is the most important thing to these folks. Basically they sincerely believe you have the right to their opinion. I've had an extremely diverse life, weapons system technician, automation engineer, public school teacher, artist and master wood worker and have worked and lived in 3 distinct cultures, Saudi Arabia, China and Ecuador and of course all over the US. I've come to accepts that this debate is going on and probably always has at some level every where you go. It is a part of the human condition. The differences now are the consequences of the debate are so much greater. In my mind it is an extremely dangerous perception to have that life has no meaning when society has the capacity to end life on the planet.

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  3. Bernardo

    Ever since I watched you on curiousity stream with Deepak Chopra a few months ago, I had been a great admirer of your work. You worldview is by far the most logical of all. There is one thing though I do not agree with fully and you mentioned it in this article. The consensus reality. Allow me to elaborate.

    To me, consensus reality is simple. If e.g. there is a red chair in front of me and there is a person next to me, we will both agree that we see a red chair. An indisputable fact. But let us dissect this a little bit. What is happening is this. Both me and the person next to me will have a consensus that what we are experiencing in front of us is something we both call chair. Furthermore that which we both call chair and experience in front of us has a color that we both call red. Full stop.

    Emphasis in both cases on word ‘call’.

    To me it is clear that the consensus here is on how we articulate and describe that what we experience. The consensus is NOT on what we are experiencing or how we experience that. The consensus is merely on how we describe or articulate that experience (in words, thoughts, images etc). It is perfectly conceivable that we both experience that what we call chair in completely different way. Similarly our experience of what we both call red could be completely different. And we can never prove that either. Any single one of us is only capable of experiencing the reality thorough our own consciousness.

    If our consciousness is capable of producing all this amazingly wonderful experience within us - that we call reality - it is perfectly possible that the same consciousness is capable of creating and maintaining our personal(ized) experiences of reality. If indeed we can experience the reality in different ways (but have full consensus over describing and articulating that experience) then it implies that one person could - potentially - experience something that other persons experience is a different way. And that different way could be a lack of experience altogether. In other words I could be experiencing something that a person next to me is not. Consequently a person could be able to manifest things in her own consciousness that does not necessarily has to manifest in anyone else’s consciousness thus not violating the consensus.

    And I believe that allowing for this personalized experience does not violate your metaphor with the whirlpool. After all, all there is is the mind at large and the experience of that mind and we are localized and decoupled instances of that mind at large. Following that thought why couldn’t our personal(ized) experience be decoupled from the experience of others?

    You even referred to this through an example in one of your books, by saying that video game players could be playing two different games (as they experience it) and yet be capable of playing against each other as long as there is consensus on the 'rules' of the game (e.g. firing a shot in one game fires a shot in the other one, be able to 'see' each others avatars. etc).

    All the best

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  4. I recommend people to check out THOMAS CAMPBELL on YouTube. He is a Physicist, consciousness researcher, author of the My Big TOE (Theory of Everything) trilogy and international lecturer, describes the nature of our larger reality, provides a complete theory of consciousness, and explains our purpose and connection to that larger reality. Along the way, Campbell derives a more fundamental science that directly answers the most pressing problems and paradoxes of modern physics.

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    1. I've read and watched a lot about Thomas Campbell including his TOE trilogy. For me watching him is somewhat painful because of his mannerisms when speaking. His writing is better but I take exception with the assumptions he makes when attempting to fill in the blanks. You are left number one taking on faith his experiences and number 2 then taking on faith that his interpretation of those experiences is accurate. That's a bit of a stretch for me. For instance one of the assumptions he makes is that one most feel peace and love. I don't know what universe those people come from. It sounds good on paper but suffers greatly in application. In the warrior tradition I follow it says that yes being able to forgive your enemy is a good thing with one huge if. If you can actually forgive your enemy because you feel love for him then great. However if you are forgiving your enemy out of fear then you must absolutely seek retribution for the wrong done to you. Fear is the greatest sin not taking action against an enemy. This seems to be much more in line with the universe I see around us. Humanity is facing some huge problems and anyone that thinks they will be resolved by holding hands and singing Kumbaya are out of their minds. The target here is to be effective and the best you can do is look at your enemy as a worthy opponent.

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    2. First of all, I’m not an expert on Tom Campbell’s Big TOE Theory, but in the interviews I’ve watched, Campbell doesn’t want people to accept his personal experiences and his interpretations of them as fact. He wants people to research consciousness for themselves beginning with meditation; and then derive their own experiences and interpretations of them. He implies that individual growth of consciousness (or lack of growth) is based on free will decisions of the individual. Decisions should come from the “being” level and not the intellect. An example he gives is an old lady who is having trouble getting across the road: an “intellect” decision might be to help the old lady across the road, not because you really want to, but because you intellectually know you should and people might see you and it would make your ego feel good…..a “being” decision is different, in that you actually have empathy for the old lady and really want to help her from your “being” level, not taking into account other people’s thoughts or what you “think” is the right thing to do. Notice that the result of either decision is the same. Regarding the warrior tradition you follow, Campbell believes no decisions should be made from fear. In interviews, I’ve heard him say that you don’t let people walk all over you and take advantage of you. He said there are times when you have to physically fight for yourself and others…….based hopefully on decisions from the “being” level and not pure ego/intellect. I’ve watched several hours of his YouTube videos. He gets into things like remote viewing, healing, and the effects our consciousness can have on what we think is “physical reality”. His theory ties in religions, science, and consciousness into a cohesive theory. I personally find him intriguing and plan to follow up on it more. I’m sorry for your “painful” experiences watching Campbell’s mannerisms. Maybe turn the monitor off and just listen…..LOL. He’s much better at explaining his theory than I am.

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    3. I didn't find the experience painful. I found the experience very enlightening however he goes way way overboard in my mind talking about his personal experiences. Back to the warrior philosophy you shouldn't share your mystical experiences for numerous reasons. One reason is so that you don't feed your self importance. He goes into great detail about his visits in alternate reality experiences and from that implies he knows more about it than you do. Even if true it isn't very effective. No I think the guy really enjoys playing the role he plays. Nothing wrong with that but nothing right either. I mean he has a choice right. He could experience his reality quietly and privately and do what he can to influence people directly or he can take on the role of a TV preacher. He is definitely a TV Preacher. Bernardo touches very lightly on his experiences and applies a great deal of rigor to his message and for me that is far better. I know many people that like the TV preacher approach and the more followers you have the more valid your message. Those extremes run from Jim Jones to Joel Olsteen in the Christian world. You have the same in science. For me I'm not looking for a spiritual guide.

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    4. Regarding your opinion that Campbell “goes way way overboard” talking about his personal experiences: What he knows best are his experiences and his personal insights into them as related to his theory; so why wouldn’t he talk about them? That’s what he knows best….his own experiences. I’m always willing to listen to others experiences. You also say “you shouldn’t share your mystical experiences”, which I don’t really understand. You cite that one reason is because one shouldn’t feed their self-importance. Your statement implies that you know for a fact that someone who shares mystical experiences is acting from an egocentric self-centered point of view. I agree that is a possibility, but it’s just as likely that the sharing of mystical experiences is for purely altruistic purposes from the “being” level in the hopes of helping others in their personal growth. Sure, he could experience his reality “quietly and privately” without sharing with others, but who does that help?.....nobody. Why not try to help others?

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    5. Every TV preacher uses that same line about sharing their personal experiences with God in order to help people. If someone wants to see Campbell as having all of the answers they will. This is not new nor is it special. People need to believe someone has the answers. That someone will take away the unknown or the unknowable from life. We live in a society today that loves projecting virtue while not being very virtuous. We look for some way to escape our fears instead of facing our fears. In my mind it is an existence with little substance and strength. I remember someone asking Campbell "What is the answer?" and his response was "Love is the answer". I thought "What in the world does that mean?"

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  5. What's his position on consciousness&reality?

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    1. He believes consciousness is real and therefore we have reality? I think for me you would need to be a bit more specific.

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