I’ve always thought that the “we create our own reality” folks didn’t have much of an argument to stand on. It just seems so darn obvious that the universe stands apart from any conception of it.
How we perceive the cosmos certainly depends on our sensory and cognitive capabilities. However, that there is a cosmos—however it may appear—prior and separate to any perception struck me as self-evident common sense.
In other words, I considered that the universe stands on its own (anthropomorphically envisioned) feet. While we humans are able to create subjective realities within our minds, the grander cosmos outside our cranium is objectively real, existing independent of any consciousness of it.
But a thought experiment is leading me in a different direction: I try to imagine a cosmos with no consciousness. No human awareness. No animal awareness. No plant awareness. No alien life form awareness. No angelic awareness. No awareness of any kind. None at all.
(Note: I consider “consciousness” and “awareness” to be terms pointing to the same mysterious phenomenon, as this Wikipedia article implies).
Now, this is where the thought experiment should end, because it’s already failed. For I’m aware. And awareness, or consciousness, obviously can’t envision a cosmos with no awareness, for the same reason I can’t picture what the world would be like without me in it.
Nevertheless, I keep forging ahead because the experiment is so intriguing, ignoring the impassible existential abyss that’s stopped me in my tracks.
I consider a universe with no life, no awareness, no sentience. It’s easy to do. I think: “What a marvelously simple thought experiment!” The universe appears to me just as it does now, planets, stars and galaxies filling the fabric of space, yet with nobody conscious of it.
Obvious questions then crash the party of my thought experiment: Who is doing the considering of this cosmos with no consciousness? From what perspective is this entity contemplating the universe?
It dawns on me that this entity, namely me, is equipped with eyes that translate a certain wavelength of electro-magnetic radiation into perceptions of which I’m aware. Photographs of distant galaxies, for example, from which I derive some of the raw imaginative material for my thought experiment.
So my envisioning of the cosmos as illuminated by light is terribly anthropomorphic, a fact I’m reminded of every time I walk the dog and watch her spending enthralled minutes sniffing a bush that my smell-impaired brain considers to be nothing special.
Still, my thought experiment has led me somewhere, though not to my intended destination of an imagined cosmos with no consciousness. I’ve understood that different sorts of consciousnesses are aware of the cosmos in different ways. We may not create reality, but our own unique perception of it is indeed created.
However, the question still remains: What is the “it” that any consciousness is aware of? Even if it isn’t possible for any of us to know whether “it” exists independent of awareness, isn’t there an answer that could be known, if it weren’t for that damn existential abyss?
We’re now venturing into the dense jungle of quantum physics, a world that I’ve spent a lot of time exploring, but which still remains mostly a mystery to me. I do know, though, that somehow the quantum domain of reality is intertwined with conscious observation of it.
Physicists agree that there is some intimate connection between the observer, “I,” and the observed, “it,” when it comes to quantum phenomena like photons. Light appears as either a particle or a wave depending on what sort of photon sensing apparatus an experimenter sets up.
But what if there was no conscious observer around to detect any sort of light, whether wave-ish or particle-ish? And the bigger question: What if there was no consciousness anywhere in the cosmos? Would light, or anything else, exist as we know it?
I’m already over my head in the scientific/philosophical sea of quantum physics. If you want to explore these questions with a guide who can actually float on the surface and paddle around, click on over to an interview with renowned physicist John Wheeler: “Does the Universe exist if We’re Not Looking?”
Here’s an intriguing excerpt:
At every moment, in Wheeler's view, the entire universe is filled with such [quantum] events, where the possible outcomes of countless interactions become real, where the infinite variety inherent in quantum mechanics manifests as a physical cosmos. And we see only a tiny portion of that cosmos. Wheeler suspects that most of the universe consists of huge clouds of uncertainty that have not yet interacted either with a conscious observer or even with some lump of inanimate matter. He sees the universe as a vast arena containing realms where the past is not yet fixed.And here’s the view of another noted physicist, Andrei Linde:
“The universe and the observer exist as a pair,” Linde says. “You can say that the universe is there only when there is an observer who can say, Yes, I see the universe there. These small words— it looks like it was here— for practical purposes it may not matter much, but for me as a human being, I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers.
“We are together, the universe and us. The moment you say that the universe exists without any observers, I cannot make any sense out of that. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of everything that ignores consciousness. A recording device cannot play the role of an observer, because who will read what is written on this recording device?
"In order for us to see that something happens, and say to one another that something happens, you need to have a universe, you need to have a recording device, and you need to have us. It's not enough for the information to be stored somewhere, completely inaccessible to anybody. It's necessary for somebody to look at it. You need an observer who looks at the universe. In the absence of observers, our universe is dead.”
Wheeler and Linde see the universe as participatory. Humans aren’t passive bystanders on the cosmic stage; we’re active creators of reality.
Makes increasing sense to me, as I gravitate toward the Taoist-Buddhist slope of metaphysical explication. I want my spirituality to be grounded in science. Or at least, not floating separate from modern scientific explanations of reality.
For me, a religion that can’t come to grips with the mystery of how consciousness relates to the cosmos isn’t worth holding on to. For somehow our awareness is part and parcel of the universe that we’re trying to be clearly aware of.