One of the fascinating developments of modern physics has been the creeping suspicion among physicists that what we call "matter" is really a kind of illusion, or perhaps more accurately, an artifact of our perceiving the world on the scale of size that we do. Were we very much tinier than we are matter would disappear in a fog of energy or more startling still, matter would turn out to be nothing more than a manifestation of consciousness.
A recent article in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research by G.P.Smetham collates the evidence for the conclusion that the fundamental, irreducible ground of reality is not matter but consciousness. The article is rather long and in places a little technical, but here are some of the highlights:
[A] significant number of respected physicists and philosophers are now converging on the possibility that consciousness is a central feature of reality operating through the quantum ground. The physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, in their important book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, are clearly making such a claim regarding the far reaching implications of quantum theory:And:
"The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it. Physics had encountered consciousness but did not yet realize it."
"Consciousness and the quantum enigma are not just two mysteries; they are the two mysteries; … Quantum mechanics seems to connect the two."In other words, at the most fundamental level of our physical world "there is no substance, the quantum field is actually 'empty' of substance." Matter turns out to be something like a rainbow. There appears to be an arc of color in the sky, but it's an illusion. Smetham quotes physicist Jonathan Allday:
The majority of the founding fathers [of physics] also came to such a view, a notable exception being Einstein. According to Schrödinger, for instance, "Mind has erected the objective outside world...out of its own stuff."
And Max Planck came to a similar conclusion: "All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force....We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter."
More recently, in an article in the New Scientist Michael Brooks, commenting on quantum entanglement experiments..., tells us that the conclusion reached by the physicists involved is that, "[W]e now have to face the possibility that there is nothing inherently real about the properties of an object that we measure. In other words, measuring those properties is what brings them into existence."
And Vlatko Vedral, quantum researcher at the University of Leeds commented that, "Rather than passively observing it, we in fact create reality."
The headline for the article proclaims that, "To track down a theory of everything, we might have to accept that the universe only exists when we are looking at it...."
The evidence is inexorably stacking up in favour of the view that the ultimate nature of the process of reality is mind-like, or idea-like, as Stapp puts it.
Now, from a philosophical point of view, this is rather big stuff. Our whole manner of speech ... rather naturally makes us think that there is some stuff or substance on which properties can, in a sense, be glued. It encourages us to imagine taking a particle and removing its properties one by one until we are left with a featureless "thing‟ devoid of properties, made from the essential material that had the properties in the first place. Philosophers have been debating the correctness of such arguments for a long time. Now, it seems, experimental science has come along and shown that, at least at the quantum level, the objects we study have no substance to them independent of their properties.Smetham and the physicists he quotes are coming to believe that the universe arose out of a "sea of potentiality" which crystallizes into an actual universe upon being "selected" by a mind, but what sort of mind could perform such a feat? What sort of mind preexisted the universe? Smetham's answer is God, but, he is at pains to make clear, not the God of monotheistic religion. His reasons for his objection to the God of Christianity and other monotheisms strikes me as very weak, but I'll let him state it:
Because there is no substantiality (and here Allday is using the term "substantiality" to indicate "matter") within quantum field theory the term "particle‟ is dropped and the term "quanta‟ is used, and these are "objects which have properties but are not substances."
We are now in a position to resuscitate the notion of God after the Hawking and Mlodinow failed assassination attempt. However it must be made clear that the concept of God which can be revived is not that which is conceived of by most Christians....The problem with the notion of God as it is enshrined in Christian doctrine and practice is the large amount of religious and cultural baggage that comes along with it, baggage which in no way could ever logically follow from any resurrected quantum divine principle; significant examples would be the virgin birth and the resurrection, for instance.If I understand him, Smetham is saying that because quantum theory doesn't actually predict the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus, the God believed in by those people who believe in the historicity of these events can't be the God pointed to by quantum theory.
This seems to me to be a non-sequitur. As long as the concept of God believed in by Christians is compatible with the theory and with the God the theory points to, then I don't see the problem. Smetham, though, seems to be partial to Buddhism and is eager to rule out other possibilities. At any rate he continues:
In his book Why There Almost Certainly Is a God Keith Ward gives an account of his "God hypothesis‟ which clearly maps quite snugly on to the Hawking/Mlodinow model [In their new book The Grand Design] in all but one detail [Smetham refers to the Hawking/Mlodinow model, for reasons not important to our purpose, as the HAM-TOE]:Smetham goes on to argue that since human beings are conscious entities they, too, perceive the world and therefore "select" the world that will exist [and bizarrely, the world that existed in the past]. Human agents are, as it were, the senses of God analogous to our sense of sight, hearing, and so on:
The God hypothesis proposes that there is a consciousness that does not depend upon any material brain, or any material thing at all. In this consciousness all possible worlds exist [subjectively], though only as possible states that may or may not exist [objectively]. The cosmic consciousness can evaluate these possible worlds in terms of their desirability – their beauty or elegance or fecundity, for example. Then, being actual, it can bring about desirable states and enjoy them.
The first part of this metaphysical vision is isomorphic to the HAM-TOE in that it proposes that the universe comes into being as a vast web of potentiality, possible worlds or possible pathways of experience. As we have seen, a logical analysis of the structure of the HAM-TOE clearly shows that this vast maze of cosmic potentiality must be of the nature of consciousness or mind. However, when it comes to specifying the selection mechanism by which a privileged set of these potentialities becomes actual Ward falls back upon the traditional view of the omnipotence of God.
According to Ward's proposal it is God, apparently acting as an independent agent taking the position of external cosmic observer firing quantum beams of approval into the world of potential manifestation, who "selects" which of the possible worlds are "desirable."
In other words the universe uses the perceiving process within the dualistic world of experience in order to explore and experience its own nature. Human beings occupy a central place in this process because they are the universe's agents (leaving aside the issue of beings elsewhere in the universe) in the process of universal self-exploration, self-perfection and self-transcendence; a universal process of self-discovery which modern theologians may wish to call "God."The idea that God creates the world through His observation of it, or, more precisely, perhaps, His thinking it, is not a completely new idea. George Berkeley (1685-1753) had a similar notion, as did his contemporary Isaac Newton (1643-1727):
Sir Isaac Newton, who suggested that space was the "sensorium of God." In the Opticks Newton wrote:Smetham closes with a passage that sounds like it could have been written by a contemporary advocate of intelligent design:
"…does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself: of which things the images only carried through the organs of sense into our little sensoriums, are there seen and beheld by that which in us perceives and thinks."
[A]t the ground of the process of reality there might be an infinitely potent, innately intelligent awareness which explores its own potentialities through manifesting the "little sensoriums" of all sentient beings. As quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger describes John Wheeler's quantum conclusion:It's ironic that physics, traditionally the most materialistic of all the sciences, should be today coming to the conclusion that matter doesn't exist after all and that the ground of all reality is, in fact, a transcendent Mind.
"…since we are part of the universe, the universe, according to Wheeler, creates itself by observing itself through us."
We are all part of the Grand Designer!