Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Anthropic Principle: Consciousness Creates the Cosmos


I’m increasingly intrigued by what appears to be a rising confluence of science and theology. From Albert Einstein to Steven Hawking, there appears to be an emerging view that reality arises from consciousness; that consciousness affects reality. In fact, it appears, according to quantum physicists, that human consciousness can affect or create reality. What’s more, the anthropic principle suggests that the cosmos may operate the way it does in response to human consciousness.

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I’m increasingly intrigued by what appears to be an emerging confluence of science and theology, but the topic reached a tipping point for me after reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein. Apparently Einstein never truly reconciled with proponents of quantum mechanics, who argued that the movement of quantum particles could occur by pure chance and, in fact, may change from one state to another by simply being observed. Einstein couldn’t accept the notion that anything could occur without being the result of some immutable law. “God doesn’t play dice with the cosmos,” was his famous retort.

Perhaps all of this can be traced to a dispute that involved Einstein and his colleagues back at the turn of the 20th century. It revolves around the question of whether light is a wave or a particle. The problem arises with regard to how light travels through the vacuum of space. If light is a wave, then some medium must be vibrating to produce the wave. But in the emptiness of space, there’s nothing to vibrate, so theoretically, light as a wave could not travel through space. For some time scientists imagined that there was some sort of medium in empty space that they called “the ether.”

Scientists no longer speak of the ether. Instead, they insist that light sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a particle. They arrived at this conclusion through the so-called double-slit experiment. If you shoot bits of matter through a barrier with a vertical slit in it, you see a pattern on a screen or other medium behind the barrier that appears as a vertical image that matches the slit in the barrier. If you cut two slits in the barrier, you get two vertical patterns on the screen. However, if you send a wave through a single slit, you get a band of intensity on the screen opposite the slit that resembles the single band produced by the particles. You also get a continuum of decreasing intensity on either side of the band. However, when you add a second slit, the two slits produce a so-called interference pattern with multiple bands of intensity.

But here’s the dilemma. When you shoot electrons—tiny bits of matter—through a single slit, you get a single band, like the other particles of matter. But when you shoot the electrons through two slits, you get an interference pattern like a wave. So electrons sometimes act like particles and sometimes like waves.

To solve the conundrum, scientists decided to “observe” the electrons going through the two slits, using some sort of measuring device to actually trace each electron as it went through the slits. Before, they were simply observing the patterns that appeared on the screen behind the slits. Now, they were going to be smarter; they were actually going to observe the electrons going through the slits.

When they did that, and observed the electrons going through the two slits, the electrons ceased to behave like waves with the interference patters, as they did when they weren’t observing, but instead behaved like particles, with the two bands. The observation changed the reality of the nature of the electrons. When they weren’t observed, they behaved like waves. When they were observed, they behaved like particles. The conclusion: consciousness—human consciousness—creates reality.

Meanwhile, I have had the temerity to attempt a reading of Steven Hawkings’s book, A Brief History of Time. In fact, I’ve made numerous attempts over the past decade or so, and I must confess, I still don’t get it, and the recent rather mediocre film presentation of his life and thought, “The Theory of Everything,” didn’t really help much. However, Hawking introduced me to the word “anthropic,” which describes an understanding of how the cosmos evolved. Why, the physicists ask, did the cosmos evolve with this exact set of laws? After all, in order for the cosmos to evolve with these specific laws so as to produce, for instance, human beings, these laws would have to be extremely precise. Adjust the laws of gravity, thermo-dynamics, acceleration, electro-magnetism ever so slightly, and we would not exist. Is this all by pure chance? Was God, or whatever, simply taking a roll of the dice and presto, here we are observing this cosmos with its precision-tooled laws?

That’s where the anthropic principle enters. According to Hawking, there is a weak anthropic principle and a strong anthropic principle. I’m only just getting my mind around any anthropic principle, so I’ll begin by quoting from Hawking’s book regarding the weak anthropic principle. Consider this passage:

“The weak anthropic principle states that in a universe that is large or infinite in space and/or time, the conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life will be met only in certain regions that are limited in space and time. The intelligent beings in these regions should therefore not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence… One example of the use of the weak anthropic principle is to ‘explain’ why the big bang occurred about ten thousand million years ago (that’s British for ten billion years ago)—it takes about that long for intelligent beings to evolve.”

(Steven Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988, p. 124)

The big bang occurred ten billion years ago because that’s how long it takes to produce us. That’s why it happened that way! The universe operates the way it does in order to produce us. It seems to me that the implication of what Hawking is saying is that the laws of the universe are what they are basically because of us. They are what they are in order to produce a conscious being that can discover and observe these specific rules and laws. In other words, the cosmos is us.

But this leads me to take another step, or at least to ponder another step. If consciousness creates reality as the two-slit experiment suggests, does the universe operate the way it does because we are conscious of it operating that way? Do the laws of the universe—the way the universe functions—emerge from our consciousness of these laws and this functioning? Does the cosmos evolve as we become conscious of it? Is human consciousness creating the cosmos?

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