As Conscious Observers, Do We Help Create Our World?That’s the big question in quantum mechanics, as science communicator Elizabeth Fernandez explains
Elizabeth Fernandez asks whether there is “something unique” about the fact that we are conscious observers of our world.
Interesting question. Inanimate objects don’t “observe” anything. If the inanimate objects are equipment that we have designed and produced, they may record observations for us that our senses could not make on their own. But they are still our observations because we can understand and interpret them.
What about a dog’s observations? Along the lines of what he understands, they may be pretty good. He can pick up the scent of a hare with considerable precision and he is likely quite conscious of what that means and what to do abut it. But dog consciousness has its limits. He not only doesn’t understand but can’t understand most things the humans are saying, sone of which may impact him very much: “Let’s build a fence around the back yard with chicken wire underneath… ”
So we necessarily default to human consciousness when we talk about consciousness in relation to quantum mechanics because it is the most highly developed consciousness we know of and experience.
To explore the question, Fernandez recounts one of the thought experiments of physicist Eugene Wigner (1902–1995). Wigner was best known for his 1963 Nobel Prize and his famous essay, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. The less well-known thought experiment is called “Wigner’s friend,” As Fernandez tells it,
Let’s say we have a scientist, named Debbie, in an isolated lab. Debbie measures a system in which, say, the spin of an electron either can be up or down.
Outside of her sealed-off lab, another scientist, Bob, does not know the measurement Debbie has made. From his perspective, the electron’s wave function has not collapsed — it is still in a superposition of up and down. Similar to Schrödinger’s Cat, from Bob’s perspective, Debbie has both made an observation of spin up and spin down. Only when he opens up the laboratory door, and Debbie tells him the measurement she made, does he see the wave function collapse.
So when does the wave function collapse: when Debbie makes her observation, or when Bob does? Is there one objective truth in science? If so, the observations that Debbie and Bob make should agree. But if two observers see different things, the foundations of our science are called into question.
If this all seems ridiculous, that was precisely Wigner’s point. Consciousness changes things, he argued. It is special. Some people argue that resolving Wigner’s Paradox is essential for a complete understanding of quantum mechanics, including if it can be reconciled with the macroscopic world.Elizabeth Fernandez, “Does consciousness change the rules of quantum mechanics?” at Big Think (November 4, 2022)
Well, here’s a clue: If it were not for human consciousness, we would not be trying to observe and understand such systems at all, let alone making up thought experiments. The question is not whether human consciousness makes a difference but where and how. Does it affect physical outcomes, for example?
That last question impacts everything from the placebo effect in medicine to whether prayer works.
At least one thing is for sure: We are not seeing the whole picture. Maybe our understanding of quantum mechanics is incomplete, or maybe something changes when we scale it to the macroscopic world. But perhaps our role as conscious observers of the world around us is, indeed, unique.Elizabeth Fernandez, “Does consciousness change the rules of quantum mechanics?” at Big Think (November 4, 2022)
You may also wish to read: Theoretical physicist: Quantum theory must be replaced. Impatient with the results of recent experiments, she seeks a better theory that is not observer-dependent. Sabine Hossenfelder can live with the neutrinos that are inconsistent with the Standard Model of physics but quantum uncertainties are beyond the pale.