Thursday, September 4, 2014

Consciousness: An Alternative View

Been suggesting in this space that consciousness may be a primary characteristic of the universe and that there is, in effect, a “ghost in the machine” that observes the universe by collapsing the wave function of quantum reality. The supposition has been that our individual consciousness is but part of a cosmic consciousness that in some sense caused the universe. But there may be another way to look at things.

Stephen Hawkin has suggested that the entire universe might be described as a wave function. That is, one single equation – if we could calculate it – might define the entire universe across time. The math is beyond me but the notion might be seen as raising the question of how the wave function is broken by the conscious observer. One possibility is that a conscious observer is necessary. But at least for some billions of years, there was no conscious observer as we might understand that without resorting to some role for an original cosmic observer. Yet the universe evolved. From the Big Bang through the the differentiation of the primordial energies and matter to the emergence of galaxies and stars. Now without any conscious observers, how could the wave function of the universe have collapsed? To put this into classic terms, if a tree fell in the forest without anyone there to hear it, would it make a sound? For millions of years on earth, life arose and also evolved without any of us to witness it. Yet obviously, things happened and did so according to the laws of science. We live on continents that moved into the place we find them long before we arrived on the scene. Dinosaurs left fossils in the ground that we could later observe. Did none of this exist before we were around to see the results?

Our common sense must tell us that the universe and the world we live in did not depend on our observation to exist. The straight forward answer might be that the individual particles and organizations of energy and matter continually collapsed the wave function through their lawful interactions. Hydrogen crashing into oxygen makes water. Perhaps, then, wave functions collapsed through a kind of “virtual observation.” As wave functions broke down engendering new wave functions, this virtual observer rode the crest as a flame may arise from combustion. In effect, collapse creates the observer. In our case, the brain, with its almost infinite complexity, creates such a convincing virtual observer that our “I” experiences it as real. Consciousness – and our individual sense of self – would then be a kind of illusion riding the continually collapsing wave function arising from the biological mechanism of our brain and its moment-to-moment apprehension of the quantum reality at the base of everything.

This would not seem to me to explain why there is anything and why the universe is lawful. Nor does it fully answer the question of what might be said to have exisited without anyone to see it.  Perhaps all systems of matter and even the earliest forms of life have a kind of striving which is a form of consciousness.  Or a “virtual observer” might simply be the way the universe knows itself and therefore as real as anything else.

Still ruminating....