Most people have spent at least a few minutes pondering a famous riddle, although they may not know that it originated in Zen Buddhism: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Strangely, this turns out to be a pivotal question if you want to prove that God exists, or doesn’t.
I want to explain the whole issue in detail, but if you want to view a vigorous and often contentious debate about God and whether He has a future, ABC Nightline is running Tuesday (March 23). The Nightline episode contains only excerpts, but the full debate will be available online at Nightline/FaceOff/ The location was at Cal Tech, where God probably isn’t a pressing topic compared to quantum physics. Yet as it turns out, the two are vitally linked. What you think about reality depends on quantum physics, and since God is the ultimate reality, His existence hinges on such things as waves and particles.
On the other side, I and my partner, the noted philosopher and writer Jean Houston, rejected materialism. We held that science is about objective data, but human beings have rich internal experiences that are valid. These experiences give rise to art, morality, psychology, and everyday things like love, truth, honor, and so on. Is science really in a position to call human experience itself wrong if it cannot be seen and measured? Our opponents of course argue that ethics, values, meaning, and purpose are all reducible to brain phenomena. While we hold that brain phenomena are merely representations of consciousness and not the experience itself.
Yet it was obvious to me and Jean that God has been greatly undermined by materialist science, and also by organized religion, with its simplistic Sunday school lessons about a bearded patriarch sitting on His throne above the clouds. (The very notion that God is referred to as He implies gender, which a supreme being couldn’t have if such a being is beyond time and space.) No, God can’t have a future until the arguments against Him are discredited, and as it happens, rank materialism has been dismantled by science itself, and in particular by quantum physics.
Here, the discussion gets rather technical, but let’s venture forward on a basic question. Does the moon exist if no one is there to see it? This was the last topic our debate arrived at, and afterwards Dr. Shermer and I continued to discuss it, not as adversaries in a heated debate but in hopes of reaching some kind of understanding or common ground. (Shermer’s summary of our discussion can be found here )
The common sense notion is that of course the moon exists without human beings to look at it. It existed long before life on Earth; it will be around if human folly wipes out our species in some possible future. People aren’t going to be argued out of common sense, no matter how tricky your science or philosophy. Yet, surprisingly, physics starts to fall apart if you cling too stubbornly to common sense.
One of the most famous quips about quantum physics is that it isn’t stranger than you imagine — it’s stranger than you can imagine. This is because quantum physics disposed of raw materialism long ago, showing that solid objects are made up of invisible waves of energy, and those waves themselves disappear into clouds of mere possibilities. Every rock, tree, and cloud is made up of molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms, and they in turn are made up of elementary particles like electrons, protons, and neutrons.
It would be consistent with common sense if these particles, and the subatomic particles that they can be broken down into, were solid and stable in spacetime. But they aren’t. Thanks to two breakthrough ideas — the Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect — nothing in Nature can be seen as solid and fixed in spacetime. The Uncertainty Principle says, in its simplest terms, that you cannot know the position of a particle and its momentum at the same time. The observer effect says that particles are only a superposition of possibility waves until a non-material observer causes them to collapse from one state, a wave, into another, a particle.
Already I can see readers glazing over, but these are important points for the existence of God and also for our existence. All solid objects exist, in essence, as invisible waves that extend infinitely in all directions. When an observer enters the picture, the wave collapses into a point, and that point is a spacetime event — or a particle — that you can measure. So it turns out that looking at a virtual electron (waves) causes it to appear as an actual electron (particle).
Is the same true of the moon? Does it appear because consciousness is collapsing possibility waves as the moon?
On the side of materialism, Shermer and many others say no. Quantum behavior, or as Shermer calls it “Quantum weirdness,” is confined to the microscopic world. It doesn’t leak into the macroscopic world of rocks, trees, clouds — and the moon. But there are three weaknesses in this argument:
1. Recent discoveries have produced quantum weirdness on the macroscopic level. See this article about “supersizing” quantum mechanics
2. Quantum physics is behind all kinds of technologies used in the big everyday world: transistors, superconductors, experiments with superfluids. There are even cutting-edge experiments with time travel and teleportation, very Star Trek, although so far the results are on the level of light beams, not Scottie and Captain Kirk.
3. Most crucial of all, if you don’t allow quantum phenomenon to interact with the big world, you run into a huge problem with physics itself. Quantum physics is the basis of our macroscopic physical world, so there has to be an interaction, even if that interaction is not fully understood.
Now we are getting somewhere in undermining the certainty that makes materialists too stubborn and certain of themselves. If you don’t admit that the moon is behaving in a quantum fashion, that’s a bit like saying that red blood cells absorb oxygen but the human body as a whole doesn’t. The part and the whole must conform to each other. Having kicked a few rungs out of the materialist position, it’s now possible to see what the alternative may be.
The basic understanding of the collapse of the wave function is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, in which a non-material observer is involved in quantum measurement. John von Neumann demonstrated that an understanding of the collapse of the wave function requires consciousness. Without an observer, there is no collapse, no particle, no matter, no measurement. Alternative quantum theories such as transactional interpretation and many-worlds theory try to get around the need of consciousness or an observer, but fail in the end. Essentially they don’t fulfill the requirements of quantum physics because any quantum measuring device still must be physical and ultimately exist as quantum wave probabilities. One set of measuring waves superimposed on other waves to be measured, only leaves more waves, not particles, not a quantified measurement. And as Niels Bohr makes clear, in quantum mechanics, if it isn’t measureable it isn’t real. So in spite of these newer quantum speculations, no one has been able to successfully dispense with a non-material observer.
Physics says that the observer causes the collapse of the wave function, the vital step that turns invisible, infinitely expanding probabilities into real events. But the word “cause” leads to trouble. It cannot be that human beings literally cause the moon to appear, for the simple reason that it was here before us. Common sense doesn’t seem wrong about that. We can escape this difficulty rather easily, however, by proposing that the observer effect isn’t about individual human beings, or even biological sentience. It’s about non-local consciousness, because what the observer adds to the equation is that human beings are conscious of the events they participate in. Non-local consciousness localizes through our nervous system. The observer is non-local consciousness, and that consciousness collapses its own possibility waves into a measurable event.
Materialists say “who cares?” They fail to realize that without consciousness, you cannot have the universe. But we aren’t talking about you and me as conscious people. We are talking about a field of consciousness that creates, maintains, and deconstructs all things. In other words, God. The moon exists as an invisible wave function because consciousness has that property. Whenever and wherever non-local consciousness interacts with the wave function we call the moon, the wave function collapses and the wave reality of the “moon” becomes the localized moon. Non-local consciousness can collapse the wave function and create matter whether it is mediated through a biological organism or not.
Right now you possess a vocabulary, either large or small. It is invisible, and no one knows where it exists. Your brain isn’t using any energy to hold your vocabulary, yet at any time you want, you can pluck a word out of its invisible state and cause a tangible event: you say the word, or think it or choreograph it into a sentence. Every time we think and say something, we experience our non-local consciousness collapsing a spacetime event out of an abstract field of potential expressions.
Likewise, consciousness produces visible events from invisible possibilities. Physics knows that such transformations exist. Indeed, the entire universe, at the subatomic level, is winking in and out of existence thousands of times a second. Where does the universe go when it blinks out of sight? Into the superposition of possibility waves, the quantum realm. And when it comes back from this invisible sojourn, guess what? The universe has changed. It isn’t the same as before it disappeared. Which means that all change in space and time — the blooming of a rose, the sudden desire to eat chocolate, the birth of a star, or the birth of a work of art — actually occurs out of sight.
Now we arrive at the moment when the rabbit can be pulled out of the hat. God is the rabbit. If there is infinite consciousness upholding the physical universe, if that consciousness is intelligent and creative, God has a future. Only He isn’t a he. He isn’t a person sitting above the clouds. Instead, God is the field of consciousness that creates, governs, and controls the manifest world. This consciousness has an invisible aspect beyond space and time. We can posit that because there was no space or time before the Big Bang, yet there had to be something that allowed the universe and the laws of nature to coalesce with such amazing orderliness than with the slightest deviation, life could not have evolved.
Consciousness, or God, also permeates creation once it appeared. We know this because we partake of consciousness, creativity, and intelligence. Where could we get those qualities if God, the source of consciousness, were gone? To give God a future, you must give consciousness a place in the universe as a primary ingredient, not an element that appeared by chance when the human brain evolved.
And the moon? It exists as an event in consciousness, first and foremost. Because you are also conscious, you not only see the moon, but you participate in the field from which the moon arises. At the core of existence, consciousness operates with no separation of observer, observed, and the process of observation. They come as a three-in-one package. The fallacy all along was to assume that the observer could be erased from the picture. He can’t. Consciousness observes itself, and it observes its creations. God does the same thing, which is why sages have wondered if everything doesn’t take place in God’s mind. Ultimately, it does. But you have to adopt a new model of God that is consciousness-based. Once you do, a host of issues becomes clear. Not just about the moon, but about human beings and what our own future will be like.
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