In 1978, a physicist by the name of John Archibald Wheeler proposed a series of thought experiments, jointly referred to as “Wheeler’s delayed-choice experiment”. At the time, no practical apparatus was available to put them to the actual test; he was still able to predict their result.
His goal was to breathe new life into the philosophical interpretation of the mystery that is the double-slit experiment. That interpretation had famously occupied Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in a series of public disputes, which Wheeler references in the introduction to his own paper.
Wheeler’s 1978 paper is titled “The ‘Past’ and the ‘Delayed-Choice’ Double-Slit Experiment”; here it is in full for our readers curiosity (pp. 9-48). Before we explain any of it, here are short excerpts quoted below.
Let the reasoning be passed in review that leads to this at first sight strange inversion of the normal order of time. Then let the general lesson of this apparent time inversion be drawn: “No phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon”. In other words, it is not a paradox that we choose what shall have happened after “it has already happened”. It has not really happened, it is not a phenomenon, until it is an observed phenomenon. (p. 14)
Not one of the seven delayed choice experiments has yet been done. There can hardly be one that the student of physics would not like to see done. In none is any justification whatsoever evident for doubting the obvious predictions. (p. 40)
Does this result mean that present choice influences past dynamics, in contravention of every formulation of causality? Or does it mean, calculate pedantically and don’t ask questions? Neither; the lesson presents itself rather as this, that the past has no existence except as it is recorded in the present. It has no sense to speak of what the quantum of electromagnetic energy was doing except as it is observed or calculable from what is observed. More generally, we would seem forced to say that no phenomenon is a phenomenon until—by observation, or some proper combination of theory and observation—it is an observed phenomenon. The universe does not “exist, out there,” independent of all acts of observation. Instead, it is in some strange sense a participatory universe. (p. 41)
What Wheeler is saying, in substance, is that the universe does not exist independently of our observation of it. Through his experiments, he deepened the mystery of the double-slit experiment, by introducing a “delayed choice”. To the pedants’ dismay, Kim et al. finally put the matter to rest in 1999 by experimentally showing Wheeler’s predictions to be definitely correct.
In a nutshell: a photon emitted by a distant star and arriving on Earth unobserved was actually never emitted in the first place; if on the other hand it is observed when it arrives on Earth, that retroactively means it was emitted billions of years ago.
This is indeed what experimental physics show. It is so counter-intuitive it puzzles to this day the greatest scientists and philosophers. It also serves as a litmus test to identify the pedantic pseudoscientists, the Il Dottore of this world, those educated beyond their intelligence who have nothing to say but say it very well: they will claim to understand this perfectly and that it isn’t a source of wonder to them.
The Double-Slit Experiment
Much has already been written about the experiment that started it all, so we won’t deeply dive into it. If you are unfamiliar, here is an excellent ELI5 in the form of a video.
When confronted with the counter-intuitive nature of these results, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg proposed the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which remains the most commonly taught. It is not a philosophical interpretation per se, but tries to explain the bizarre observations by relying on “classical” intuition and vocabulary (wave, particle, statistical interpretation, etc.). In a 2017 article, physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg stated that the Copenhagen interpretation “is now widely felt to be unacceptable” (archive).
The truth is this: the attempts to explain how the observations (and mathematical theory) of quantum mechanics correspond to reality have, in nearly a century, still not allowed reaching a consensus. Although quantum mechanics has held up to rigorous and extremely precise tests in an extraordinarily broad range of experiments, its real-world interpretation remains as elusive as ever.
None of what we wrote so far is controversial. That changes now.
If scientists, all working under the same assumption, all fail to explain their results, that must mean their common assumption is wrong. What is this fundamental assumption, paradigm and worldview then? Said simply: matter is the fundamental building block of the Universe. As such, consciousness is a byproduct of matter, i.e. it is secreted by the physical brain.
What this means it that the hard problem of consciousness is reduced to the notion that phenomenal experiences are the result of chemical or physical reactions within the brain; that consciousness is fully “contained” within the brain. We can easily understand why this assumption completely precludes the idea of consciousness ever exerting any influence over exogenous matter. Consciousness never “leaves” the observer’s brain, so how could the observer’s awareness determine the behavior of a photon coming out of a laser?
Such an existential worldview, usually called philosophical materialism, has been around at least since Democritus. We owe however its modern prevalence to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; they correctly understood that collectivism (i.e. rejecting the individuals’ natural right to life) requires that consciousness (and conscience) necessarily be an “illusion”, a subjective byproduct of the physical brain; conversely, if consciousness is “real”, i.e. if it is not merely a secretion of the brain, then free will and morality are real too, i.e. they have an absolute quality, which would contradict their most fundamental tenets.
That is why, by the way, original Marxist thinkers spent so much energy trying to advance their materialistic worldview. Indeed they were intellectually consistent, and realized it was a necessary assumption lest their whole theory fall apart. As such, Engels developed a “materialist dialectic” philosophy of nature, and his worldview was given the title “dialectical materialism” by Georgi Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism. Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) further developed these ideas in his book Materialism and Empirio-criticism, which connected the political conceptions put forth by his opponents to their anti-materialist philosophies.
That is where the Marxists had the most success: convincing the world of this fundamental materialistic philosophical axiom. Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud merely built upon their work and devised, in their respective fields, theories that comforted such an underlying worldview.
The Marxists were thus able to relegate materialism’s prime philosophical competitor, idealism, to the ranks of irrationality, religion and superstition. Centuries of philosophical work, the heritage of Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, and so many others whose works had dominated philosophy up until the 19th century, were promptly dismissed.
That is, of course, until the emergence of quantum mechanics; it seemingly falsified reductionist materialism; its discoverers started to re-espouse idealist views. That caused vociferous resistance, most notably from Albert Einstein; the fact this man plagiarized most of his work from actual luminaries such as Poincaré, Hilbert, De Pretto, Maxwell, Lorentz, and Boltzmann (as exposed by Sir Edmund Whittaker), serves as further testimony to one beautiful conclusion: the Truth can remain obfuscated for so long; it re-emerges eventually and inevitably.
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clearheaded science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about the atoms this much: There is no matter as such! All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. […] We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Spirit. This Spirit is the matrix of all matter.Max Planck, Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter], a 1944 speech in Florence, Italy. Source.
Despite materialism having been effectively falsified by observation, most contemporary scientists unfortunately still identify, more or less consciously, with the philosopher of death Karl Marx and the 20th-century chief-plagiarizer Albert Einstein. That is fortunately changing however; as they say, paradigms don’t change because experts change their mind; rather, old experts die and new ones take their place.
Since the advent of quantum mechanics, many researchers have correctly understood its implications, and have started researching more directly the nature of consciousness.
One popular example is Princeton’s “Global Consciousness Project”. Staffed by an international and multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers, these researchers continuously collect data from a global network of quantum random number generators (RNGs) located in up to 70 host sites around the world. They show that when a great event synchronizes the feelings of millions of people, their network of RNGs becomes subtly structured; they furthermore calculate one in a trillion odds that the effect is due to chance. Indeed their evidence suggests the existence of a “noosphere”, or a “unified field of consciousness” such as described by sages in all cultures.
Another example is the Cambridge biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. He similarly carries out statistical experiments on the nature of consciousness; his numerous detractors, the pedants of this world who assimilate his work with the “new age” or even “pseudoscience”, have never even tried contradicting his results; they merely claim inconsistencies with their own tenets (i.e. beliefs) in genetics, embryology, neuroscience, and biochemistry. Here is an excellent presentation by Dr. Sheldrake at GoogleTechTalks to make up your own mind (video archive 1, archive 2).
Another rigorous source of iconoclastic and heterodox knowledge is the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Its scientists and fellows are experts in their domains including physics, molecular biology, computer science, neuroscience, psychophysiology, and clinical research; as a group, they have published over 300 peer-reviewed papers and have presented their findings at hundreds of conferences internationally. The institute’s experiments are fascinating and trying to summarize them here would be a disservice to them.
By now we know consciousness is not a brain secretion, as that materialistic theory has indeed been falsified. Remember you need but one contradictory result to refute any theory; and we have many.
That doesn’t mean however we are able to perfectly describe an alternative; on the contrary, the new insight is accompanied by more questions. Still, a good analogy may be that of a field, i.e. individual consciousness exists outside the cranium, and the brain somehow serves as a “transceiver”, or a “tuner” for it.
In that light, modern neuroscientists become comparable to cavemen who, oblivious to electromagnetic fields and when presented with a TV set, start tampering with the electronics inside it and proclaim “Aha! The news anchor is located inside the TV, as I’m able to modify his appearance by damaging the circuitry!”.
This new insight must also mean consciousness is not extinguished at the death of the physical body, even if we may not know yet under what form it survives exactly; still, in and of itself, that is fantastic news. It means our fear of death may be irrational after all!
If consciousness cannot be reduced to matter, that also means love, beauty, melancholy, inspiration, intuition, joy, empathy or our taste for music are real! They have an absolute quality. They are not subjective, contemptible illusions. They are not archaic evolutionary artefacts. Similarly, our morality, our sense of right and wrong, our conscience, are not only social constructs. There may indeed well exist, in the realm of human action, natural laws, just as we know they exist in the realm of physical matter!
Surely you understand now why Marx’s theory of human nature abhors idealism so much. Marxism only works if human nature is formed by the totality of social relations; it cannot accept that it may be permanent and universal. But that is fantastic news! We are not merely evolved pieces of meat after all! We do not need to spend our life obnubilated with taking, seizing, dominating and consuming! There is something more important than survival of the physical body.
The motto of this website is “The Best Antidote Is The Truth”. But what is the truth? What can I be absolutely certain of? There is only one possible answer: I know that I am. That is the only absolute truth. That is the only thing that I can prove to myself.
For the rest, there is uncertainty. And the more we learn, the more we realize how uncertain that rest is. For example, we know we cannot trust our senses to paint a realistic picture of our world; a brown car is not made of brown particles (actually it is made mostly of empty space); the solid feel to it is a function of electromagnetic forces between distant particles; its color is a subjective translation of the light’s wavelength when it bounces off the car; the noise it makes is a subjective translation of air pressure waves.
In other words, our senses do an excellent job at summarizing, condensing and presenting “reality” to us but do not paint an accurate picture of it. So, if the only truth I can be certain of is that I am, the next question naturally becomes “who am I?“, or “what am I?“. More prosaically, that question can be translated as “what is consciousness?“.
Even though we cannot answer definitively, we can already tell what it is not. By relying on our mind, and analyzing the evidence as we tried to do in this post, we come to the conclusion that consciousness is not a byproduct of matter. Consciousness exists absolutely, whereas matter exists relatively. Consciousness is the fundamental building block of the Universe.
We have presented an important introduction to this subject matter. Still, to truly understand consciousness, we must go further. We should not go from one belief system (i.e. materialism) to another one (e.g. new age hocus-pocus). Are we able to easily experiment ourselves with consciousness, as we are able through our senses to easily experiment with matter?
The answer to that question is yes. There is no new skill to learn. It is so easy it boggles the mind. The difficulty is putting words on it; that’s what we will try to do in forthcoming posts.
Here is part 2.