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The Conscious Observer

As I sit here in my office I can see the small tree in the front yard. It is a favourite place for the bull-finches to sit before they venture down to the bird bath. Naming, as we have seen before, is part of the process of duality. It is differentiating something of a particular class (tree) which is separate from me. It is not a very accurate description and unless I use qualifiers you will not appreciate much about this tree, whether it is large or small, a native or exotic species, with dense or sparse foliage etc. I can tell you it is a small avocado tree with half-grown fruit and that will add a few details to your picture, but it takes far more than this to accurately describe the tree. Before there was a conscious observer with the gift of language it wouldn’t have been a tree at all but just another feature of the landscape undifferentiated from hills or stones or waterfalls. Consciousness is the tool for differentiation – without consciousness there are no “things”. To put it in a more traditional way, without a subject, there can be no objects.

Before we had conscious observers there was no history. However with the evolution of humankind we had the capacity to pass on the events known by past generations to the present and future generations, firstly by word of mouth and then later by written transmission. Then applying our growing scientific aptitude in geology, archaeology and so on, we were able to reconstruct some of our past and add it to the growing body of knowledge. But before the advent of consciousness there was no awareness of time passing and therefore there could be no history.

What about the laws of physics? Is it possible that they could exist without consciousness? Firstly, I suppose that they would be meaningless without something that could “know” them. Indeed the laws of physics are largely written out in mathematical form. Mathematics is really a special language with its own rules of grammar and its own distinctive characters – but a language no less! Only those who have learnt this language can really appreciate the laws. The laws of physics are useful to us because they are predictive – they answer the question “If this happens then the response will be ….”. Consequently they operate in time and as we saw time has only meaning to those who are conscious.

And because Mathematics (just as French or German) is a language, all physics is done by analogy, since we do not know (like my tree above) the “thing-in-itself.”

In astrophysics apparently there are four equations which describe the basic structure of stars. These are difficult equations to solve simultaneously and generally scientists make do with approximations. In order to supposedly encourage his students, one university professor urged his students to persevere in solving the equations because, “After all, the star has to solve them.” But of course the star doesn’t have to solve them at all. The mathematics is merely our attempt to describe and predict what happens to the star. It allows us to make some discernible pattern from the nature of physical reality. We do it by trying to understand the patterns and reactions between such things as temperature, pressure, gravity, velocity etc. These factors in our equations that we define and measure help us to come to an understanding of some representation of reality, without really knowing the reality itself.

Why do we call these strange entities laws? The earliest use of this term in English in this sense reportedly dates back to the seventeenth century when systematic science began to take off. The first two examples traced by the Oxford English Dictionary are dated from 1665 – one from the Transactions of the Royal Society and one from Boyle – and they relate to a universe set and maintained in motion by the command of God. The ‘laws of nature’ notes the Dictionary were viewed by those who first used the term in this sense as ‘commands imposed by the Deity upon matter’.

Descartes opined, “Even if God had created more worlds, there could have been none in which these laws were not observed.”

It is not obvious to me why, if God existed, he would want his universe to behave everywhere uniformly. It would seem to me, instead, something that we humans desire. Once I’d worked out the angle I needed to hit the red ball in a certain position to make it go into the pocket of the billiard table I’d like to think that the event was reproducible. Once I had worked out the way to predict where Jupiter would be in its orbit for a particular time, I would like to think that I could apply the same reasoning to other planets.

One set of the Laws of Physics is called the conservation laws – the conservation of mass/energy, the conservation of momentum. Perhaps there is a law on the conservation of intellectual effort. Once we have solved a problem of a particular class we should be able to solve similar problems with little extra effort! Maybe that’s what the laws of physics do for us!

Perhaps we can extrapolate from them into other worldly situations. For example Newton’s First Law of Motion states that in order for the motion of an object to change, a force must act upon it, a concept generally called inertia. It is easy to deduce from this law how my shoes will remain dull and dusty unless I polish them, how my carrots will remain raw unless I cook them, how I will remain fat unless I diet and so on, [and why your teenage son’s room is never likely to be tidy (but perhaps that’s got more to do with the second law of thermodynamics that says it is inevitable that order in the universe runs down in to randomness over time)]!

But I digress. Every act of observation that I make changes, however imperceptibly, my observed world. Even in viewing my avocado tree I had to intercept the light radiating from it. A tiny bit of that impinged on my retina and then was not available for any other purpose. More grossly, to see it well I had to lean forward at my desk obscuring the view for anyone who happened to be behind me. Before I went on my bike ride yesterday, I tested the air pressure in my tyres with a pressure gauge. In doing this I released a tiny bit of air from each tube which slightly reduced the pressure I was trying to measure. If I go to measure the voltage at a certain point in an electrical circuit I necessarily increase the impedance in the circuit. Observing is never a completely passive act.

As well the perception of the world can never ever be completely separate from the subject observing it. It is truly said that we don’t see things the way they are, we see things the way we are. We each have a particular worldview and we try to make our perception of the world “fit” this world view. Thomas S Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions showed us how difficult it is for people (even reputable scientists) to modify their worldviews on the basis of evidence. It seems to be a part of human nature that we will discount evidence that is contrary to our hypotheses and exaggerate that evidence that supports them!

My state of mind serves to compartmentalise the universe about me. If I am starving things seem suddenly to appear in the categories of edible and inedible. If I am being pursued the landscape dissolves into avenues of escape and places of entrapment.

So in many ways we are in the act of observation modifying the world around us. This of course is seen at its most dramatic at the level of the quanta. In quantum mechanics, many phenomena only exist in probabilistic terms until they are observed. Then it appears that the act of observation collapses the probability function into an actual event (not just an array of possibilities). In this way observation can in fact be seen as creating reality. One might then conjecture is there any reality without consciousness?

So let me get to the point. I will be provocative now. I find it hard to believe that anything can exist at all unless it is somehow in a field of consciousness. Using my references above, there are no trees, no history, no laws of physics even that could have meaningful existence without consciousness. Consciousness is eternal – it is not time dependant, just as it is not matter dependant. Consciousness is the stuff of the universe and we are fortunate to have access to some part of it. The act of human observation is then, in my belief, part of the process of creation.

If you doubt that our consciousness can create landscapes and people and natural phenomena, what about your dreams? Do they not create an environment similar to that you confront when awake? The consciousness that abides in you is but an atom of the collective consciousness. In sleep you are dissociated from the collective consciousness and are aware of your own small creation. Awake, you are reunited with the All and share the universe that we collectively conjure up. Your dreams are the dreams of Atman; in your awakening you share the dream of Brahman.

Now I have made this assertion without a lot of substantive support. But I will leave that for future blogs. Or if you will be patient, wait for the forthcoming book from Dr Phil Harker called “One Degree of Freedom”!

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  1. 6 Comment(s)

  2.   By Father Robin on Dec 17, 2009 | Reply

    Ah, Ted.

    You think too much, such things are dangerous.

    As far as Phil’s book is concerned there is only one degree of freedom (jumping the queue)!?.

    According to Plotinus, we are all One.

    Plotinus is One cool guy.

  3.   By Mark Brookes on Dec 17, 2009 | Reply

    If a huge tree crashes to the ground in a forest, does it make a “noise” if there is no conscious being to hear it?

  4.   By Ted Scott on Dec 17, 2009 | Reply

    Father Robin, you only think I think too much and in so doing you think too much!

    Mark the real question is not would there be a noise, but without conscious observers would there be a tree?

  5.   By Father Robin on Dec 17, 2009 | Reply

    Circumloquation does not become you.

    Or it shouldn’t do at least.

    Trees were falling long before we learnt how to climb them.

  6.   By a savage on Dec 18, 2009 | Reply

    Your words lead me to wonder about how our fear of mortality compels our desire for predictability and to know all things. So my experience of consciousness is limited by my unwillingness to accept that Schroedinger’s cat could be dead or alive or neither or both…I don’t like cats, but not knowing can be agony within the entanglement of an ego.

  7.   By graeme on Dec 18, 2009 | Reply

    I have never been very good at philosophical or theological arguments. I get lost very quickly. I have never understood the bit about the tree falling in the forrest. Years ago I went to my first rain forrest in lamington national park. A ranger explained to me how the tree had a consciousness. It put out on its a trunk a carbuncle of softer and more delectable wood that drew in the white ant so it went no further. THus it survived. this profoundly affected me as I looked at this magnificent living being. This tree being. I was in a holy cathedral of trees. I saw the tree on the ground next to it. Maybe its friend. It had fallen. That is the only way it could have got there.It had fallen a long time before I came.

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