The Observer Effect…God?

I remember the time when I was a total Cosmology geek, I read a joke where he says, “Oh Jenny, I love you and only you.” and she replies, “But, in a quantum world, how can you be sure?”

Really, this is kinda the situation now. One often hears the creepy statements like “Observation changes reality” or “The moon is not up there if you don’t look at it”, and the ironic part is that these statements mostly come from certain physicist’s mouth or from some famous science show, which usually have their own biases and love catching phrases and thus use certain strawmans to state opinions as facts. I cannot dream of claiming that I am somehow unbiased and authentic in my practices, but I hope to make a reasonable case for my own bias of scientific skepticism in this article. I shall also clear that this is not to disrespect any scientist’s opinions or suggestions, but to rather examine there assertions and statements and see that if I have any good reason to suspect that there are any literal magical aspect of reality. An important point to note here is that the majority of scientists don’t hold the view that ‘Consciousness changes reality’, but some do, and that is the point some new-age mystics cling on.  The thing I am going to address here is the ‘observer effect’ as you see from the title.

What is the observer effect?

A textbook definition goes like this; “In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.” You are probably familiar with the quantum weirdness stuff shown in some pop-science shows. Or the double-slit experiment maybe; if not, don’t worry, I am going to explain what it actually is.

You need an electron shooter, a plate with two closely made parallel narrow slits on it,  and an electron receptor. The set-up is like this…
314450.image0

Now shoot electrons randomly to the slits, you would expect two straps on the receptor screen, but on the contrary, this happens…
Single_slit_and_double_slit2

Now, the above patterns arose from an experiment done by red laser pointer than electron shooters, but the electron experiment produces exactly similar results over time. When you close one slit, everything seems fine; when you open both slits, electrons suddenly behave like waves, they give an interference pattern, like two waves are interfering with each other in front of the two slits. The blank lines in the receptor screen are the places where the waves cancelled each other, and the deeply red lines are where they strengthen each other.

So far good, now the interesting part comes, when you put up a measuring device beside the slits to see exactly through which the electron is passing, the interference pattern vanishes and shows that expected two-stripe pattern, this is usually termed as “The collapse of the wave function.” Here is the moment where most of the pop-science narrators will start to enter, “As if the electron knew that we are observing it, it wanted to behave like a particle!” While this could be true, it is quite far fetched. There are many other experiments like this where the act of measurement changes the result in a dramatic way. And for many religious believers, this fact somehow proves that humans are some kind of a special specie in the Universe, as they can ‘change’ the quantum ‘reality’.
This also serves them to provide some kind of a proof for the existence of soul through consciousness. While I will not argue against the concept of soul in this article, I will definitely try to show that no credible or viable evidence for their beliefs come from the observer effect, as they try to imply. I will give you three basic reasons for why I don’t think like them.

  1. Measurement is a very violent process.

    Seriously, an electron detector is in no way an innocent little observer, who just sits back aside and witnesses the stuff happening. To detect an electron, you need to shoot a photon to it, you need to shoot several photons to it; you need to place a magnetic field in its path. For example, you are blind and you need to detect where your Radio is, you throw another radio towards it. The Radio will change its position obviously. Funny, but true. A photon is to electron what a cannon ball is to us. A single photon has the complete capacity to practically destroy the electron’s path, it seems obvious that its behavior will change in some way. More ironically, there is physically no way, right now, to detect an electron’s position without physically(quite violently) interacting to it. So, there is no way a mystic can claim that observation changes reality until or unless he can provide some method to observe a particle’s path by just ‘observing'(without disturbing it) it.

  2. Humans are not necessary.

    When one claims that his consciousness or ‘soul’ is somehow causing the collapse of the wave function, the listener needs to ask how. The fact is that humans play no role(at least in the way mystics are implying the word) in the actual occurrence. You can just set up the camera, the measurement device and then wait in another room, there is no reason for which you need to ‘see’ the stuff happening or to see results of the measurement device right away. Just wait back in another room, come back, and see again, there would be no interference pattern! Now, how would consciousness affect the electron when you had absolutely no idea of what is happening? Well, the answer is simple, your consciousness is not affecting it but the measurement device is! As it turns out, your consciousness does not need to be in the place or in any way interact to it, but the wave function is still collapsing!

  3. Consciousness is ill-defined.

    I don’t have to emphasize this point, have I? We don’t understand what consciousness is, we don’t even know if the chair or table is conscious or not without properly defining what consciousness is. When you claim consciousness is changing the reality, I ask ‘How do you know?’ and this question can be presented against any claim regarding consciousness because consciousness is ill-defined.

In conclusion, I don’t see any good reason to think that Quantum mechanics provides evidence for any magical human-centric worldview and I see some good reasons to think otherwise. If anyone claims that consciousness or soul is proven by these quantum features, they need to provide some adequate responses to each of the above points, till then, it remains a pseudoscientific assertion.

Thanks for reading, criticism or any general feedback is very much appreciated.

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2 thoughts on “The Observer Effect…God?

  1. Reblogged this on Mass Delusions a.k.a. Magical & Religious Woo-Bullshit Thinking and commented:
    I’ve not read all your blog posts, rounaqb, but this one just has to be one of your best ever! And here’s my motivation for saying so:

    1) You start by describing the phenomenon called “the observer effect”

    1.a) You define it as “Observation changes reality”.

    1.b) You even give us a textbook definition of the phenomenon: “In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.

    2) Very good! For those wanting deeper information I can recommend this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_a_tree_falls_in_a_forest .

    2.a) In that Wikipedia article you can read this (I quote): Albert Einstein is reported to have asked his fellow physicist and friend Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, whether he realistically believed that ‘the moon does not exist if nobody is looking at it.’ To this Bohr replied that however hard he (Einstein) may try, he would not be able to prove that it does, thus giving the entire riddle the status of a kind of an infallible conjecture—one that cannot be either proved or disproved.

    2.b) And you can read this (another quote from the article): The anthropic principle suggests that the observer, just in its existence, may impose on the reality observed. However, most people, as well as scientists, assume that the observer doesn’t change whether the tree-fall causes a sound or not, but this is an impossible claim to prove. However, many scientists would argue as follows, “A truly unobserved event is one which realises no effect (imparts no information) on any other (where ‘other’ might be e.g., human, sound-recorder or rock), it therefore can have no legacy in the present (or ongoing) wider physical universe. […]

    2.c) The British philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar, credited with developing critical realism has argued, in apparent reference to this riddle, that: If men ceased to exist sound would continue to travel and heavy bodies to fall to the earth in exactly the same way, though ex hypothesi there would be no-one to know it.

    End of quotes.

    I would say that you summarize all this very well in your blog post, rounaqb!

    3) Some believers in the concept of a Cosmic Intelligence (or Divine Being) may object and call the given explanations a misrepresenting simplification of the matter.

    They seem to mean that the implications of the “observer effect’ are much more profound than we humans are able to understand.

    3.a) According to such New-Age-ish believers, the “observer effect”, if true, must be considered to mean that before something can manifest in the physical universe it has to become observed by someone ore something.

    3.b) A corollary of that statement could be as follows: Presumably observation cannot occur without the pre-existence of some sort of consciousness to do the observing.

    3.c) That is, the “observer effect” seems to imply that the physical Universe is the direct result of ‘consciousness’.

    3.d) This notion, by the way, has a striking resemblance to perennial esoteric theory which asserts that all phenomena are the result of the consciousness of a single overriding intelligent principle, seemingly full of awareness.

    3.e) This is, IMHO, just another way to refer to the Mind of God.

    4) Anyhow, rounaqb, you outline the problem with the “observer effect” by breaking it down into three basic components:

    4.a) First, you focus on the measurement process in itself. Claiming that it is the measurement per se, not the observer, that causes what is called the “observer effect”.

    4.b) Then you claim that humans are not necessary to make a measurement. For example, it is possible for robots or computers to make measurements, and in a near future we can expect that robots and/or computers will be capable of assembling new copies of themselves. Either with or without a consciousness of their own.

    4.c) Which immediately takes us to your point #3, that consciousness is an ill-defined concept.

    Especially if you are looking for similarities between a consciousness and an eternal soul. Or expressed in a simpified way: From where does the robot, or the computer, get its eternal soul? Did the Divine Being (or Cosmic Intelligence) create also robots or computers “in imaginem Sui” (In Its image)?

    5) I can also recommend you, rounaqb, and all who are interested in this subject, to have a look at what is written here on this site: http://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=1228 .

    It’s a Q&A site. The answers given to the questions posed about the “observer effect” – and its possible consequences – complement your eminent blog post very well.

    6) Finally, I want to thank you, rounaqb, for taking your time to address this interesting question of what the “observer effect” really is and what it means – and doesn’t mean.

    You did an excellent job! Now let us both wait for the God believers to have their say.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading all of my blog posts would not be a good idea, I started as a complete novice, as I can realize from rereading my first blog posts; and then, I think, quite rapidly heightened the qualitative development(you are to decide).

    Thanks for your appreciation and thanks for providing the extra-info. I am now quite detached from recent scientific matter since I left it as a field of study, long ago 🙂

    Like

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