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