Monday, April 16, 2007

The Mental Universe

Richard Conn Henry, a physicist at John Hopkins University, penned a delightful essay for the journal Nature titled "The Mental Universe". I've excerpted parts of the essay below:

Historically, we have looked to our religious leaders to understand the meaning of our lives; the nature of our world. With Galileo Galilei, this changed. In establishing that the Earth goes around the Sun, Galileo not only succeeded in believing the unbelievable himself, but also convinced almost everyone else to do the same. This was a stunning accomplishment in ‘physics outreach’ and, with the subsequent work of Isaac Newton, physics joined religion in seeking to explain our place in the Universe.

The more recent physics revolution of the past 80 years has yet to transform general public understanding in a similar way. And yet a correct understanding of physics was accessible even to Pythagoras. According to Pythagoras, “number is all things”, and numbers are mental, not mechanical. Likewise, Newton called light “particles”, knowing the concept to be an ‘effective theory’ — useful, not true. . .

The 1925 discovery of quantum mechanics solved the problem of the Universe’s nature. Bright physicists were again led to believe the unbelievable — this time, that the Universe is mental. According to Sir James Jeans: “the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.” But physicists have not yet followed Galileo’s example, and convinced everyone of the wonders of quantum mechanics. As Sir Arthur Eddington explained: “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character.”

In his play Copenhagen, which brings quantum mechanics to a wider audience, Michael Frayn gives these word to Niels Bohr: “we discover that... the Universe exists... only through the understanding lodged inside the human head.” . . .

Discussing the play, John H. Marburger III, President George W. Bush’s science adviser, observes that “in the Copenhagen interpretation of microscopic nature, there are neither waves nor particles”, but then frames his remarks in terms of a non-existent “underlying stuff ”. He points out that it is not true that matter “sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a particle... The wave is not in the underlying stuff; it is in the spatial pattern of detector clicks... We cannot help but think of the clicks as caused by little localized pieces of stuff that we might as well call particles. This is where the particle language comes from. It does not come from the underlying stuff, but from our psychological predisposition to associate localized phenomena with particles.”

In place of “underlying stuff ” there have been serious attempts to preserve a material world — but they produce no new physics, and serve only to preserve an illusion. . .

Physicists shy from the truth because the truth is so alien to everyday physics. A common way to evade the mental Universe is to invoke ‘decoherence’ — the notion that ‘the physical environment’ is sufficient to create reality, independent of the human mind. Yet the idea that any irreversible act of amplification is necessary to collapse the wave function is known to be wrong: in ‘Renninger-type’ experiments, the wave function is collapsed simply by your human mind seeing nothing. The Universe is entirely mental.

In the tenth century, Ibn al-Haytham initiated the view that light proceeds from a source, enters the eye, and is perceived. This picture is incorrect but is still what most people think occurs, including, unless pressed, most physicists. To come to terms with the Universe, we must abandon such views. The world is quantum mechanical: we must learn to perceive it as such. One benefit of switching humanity to a correct perception of the world is the resulting joy of discovering the mental nature of the Universe. We have no idea what this mental nature implies, but — the great thing is — it is true. Beyond the acquisition of this perception, physics can no longer help. You may descend into solipsism, expand to deism, or something else if you can justify it — just don’t ask physics for help.

There is another benefit of seeing the world as quantum mechanical: someone who has learned to accept that nothing exists but observations is far ahead of peers who stumble through physics hoping to find out ‘what things are’. If we can ‘pull a Galileo,’ and get people believing the truth, they will find physics a breeze.

The Universe is immaterial — mental and spiritual. Live, and enjoy.


Book Surgeon said...

Wow. I read Henry's bio and the man is as preeminent as preeminent gets. Time's Man of the Year and everything. I thought based on that non-mainstream view of QM that he might be a marginal figure, but hardly. His statements lend a great deal of credibility to the idea of consciousness as central to QM and therefore reality.


henry said...

Thanks. I'm not sure I should leave that silly Man of the Year thing up, even qualified as it is.

But the truly remarkable thing is that the view of QM that I express is NOT "non-mainstream." It is totally non-controversial.

What IS controversial, is talking about it.

(It has been accurately called physics' skeleton in the closet).

Something really has to be done about this, and I am at least trying.

Dick Henry