A child asks his parent how the tree in front of their home came into existence. Without much of an understanding of biology and the natural world, perhaps the parent might say that the tree originated through the combination of many wood molecules. “Well,” the child inquires with his innate curiosity, “where did those wood molecules come from?” The parent, maybe a little embarrassed by his lack of knowledge at this point, answers that he doesn’t really know, but from his vague recollections of high school chemistry, the wood molecules are comprised of atoms that are found commonly throughout the universe. But his child isn’t satisfied, and he pushes onward with another question: “What about those atoms? Where are they from?”
Now, the parent is truly stumped. He knows that the periodic table represents all of the atoms that have been discovered so far in the universe, but he has no idea how the atoms themselves emerged out of nothingness and into being. He is, however, inspired by the child’s line of questioning, as he thinks to himself: If we trace back the origin of all matter in the universe, something must have come out of nothing, or the universe must be eternal, in which case matter doesn’t have a primary source.
But both of these options seem problematic to the parent. It can’t possibly be the case that something came out of nothing. All the material things that we observe in the world are merely rearrangements of the constituent parts of other things. Even you are recycled stardust birthed out of an ancient supernova (as both Kesha and this NASA astronomer would have it). Nothing (or rather, that which is nothing) inherently cannot contain the elemental parts that comprise something. And, if something is indeed derived from nothing, then something must be made up entirely of nothing, but the thing would therefore not be a thing. We have a contradiction. Unless…
But we’ll get back to that later. Can the universe be eternal? Countless origin stories, myths, and religions are premised upon the notion that there is something eternal – God, a mystic essence, or a conflagration, as many Stoic philosophers would say – that generates the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing). But if it were eternal, then it never would have been created to begin with, which means that it itself must not exist or is some manifestation of nothingness. Unless…
Or alternatively, there is no eternal creator; rather, time is infinitely long, and to even speak of time as ever starting or stopping is already an absurdity. If time were infinite, then the finite combinations of matter must have recurred infinitely times already. Every breath you take, every move you make, and every bond you break (1), no matter how consequential or insubstantial, must have occurred infinitely many times before you and infinitely more times in the future. (I am citing almost directly from Nietzsche’s excerpt in the Gay Science, where he develops this notion of eternal recurrence). Moreover, infinitely many breaths, moves, and moments must have occurred prior to the moment before this one, and prior to the moment before that, such that every moment within the infinity is preceded by another infinity. If this moment is the culmination of infinities upon infinities, then it could never even happen in the first place, since I am perpetually stuck in a discrete moment within one of the infinities before this current (non-existent) one.
Perhaps, however, we are conceiving of time as a phenomenon that progresses from past to present to future, when really, as I mentioned in my previous blogpost, time is actually just the present moment. After all, nothing has ever happened outside the present moment, so it’s impossible to think of a moment when the time was not now. Even the blank void that existed prior to the Big Bang must have manifested itself within the present moment; how could it possibly have occurred in the past or the future? But even if nothingness must necessarily be localized in the now, the now is merely a space or a medium within which the nothingness dwells, not a source from which matter can be created. Materially speaking, the now is nothing. In fact, if we think of time as a series of present moments, then each individual present moment is an infinitesimally thin sliver, perpetually streaming from the past into the future. It’s so short that it doesn’t even exist.
It doesn’t even exist.
And here, we begin to see a potential, albeit seemingly absurd, solution to these metaphysical puzzles, one that I have hinted at several times. So often, philosophers search for the answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (Heidegger apparently thought that this was the most fundamental issue of all philosophy.) Implicit in this question is the notion that there is in fact something at all. Naturally, this tacit assumption does not at all appear like it needs to be defended. Why, of course, there’s something, you might say. I can see it with my very own eyes and perceive it with my own senses.
But really, you don’t know. You grow up with the conditioned presumption that your sense perception accurately represents reality. However, because there is no reality that is known to you outside of your own experience, you are fundamentally unable to confirm that you observe the world as it actually, or objectively, is. At least I cannot envision a way in which someone could be cognizant of reality without perceiving it through the lens of some instrument, either outside of him (a telescope) or within his biological constitution (the eyes, the brain, etc.). It appears that our awareness of reality not only is but necessarily is mediated by the mind, or some other medium. We do not know whether the mind is distorting the world or playing other tricks on us.
None of this, however, amounts to a positive claim that all of what appears to be reality is an illusion. I turn to quantum mechanics to shed some insight on this matter.
Quantum mechanics and indeterminacy
I’ll preface this discussion by first noting that I’m absolutely by no means an expert on quantum mechanics. My only formal education in this subject matter comes from a little bit of high school chemistry. If you discover anything factually incorrect in the paragraphs below, please let me know (and also feel free to poke fun at me).
It is worth first distinguishing between a classical object and a quantum object. Classical objects comprise the matter that is visible to the naked eye, the stuff of everyday reality. Critically, their location in the world, momentum, energy state, and other such measurable properties can be known with certitude. A quantum object, on the other hand, is an object of uncertainty. Observed at a very microscopic scale, it displays properties of both waves and particle and is in a state of superposition. It is difficult to describe what exactly this means in terms that are visceral and imminently comprehensible to a layman, but let us say, for lack of better phrasing, that the object can be in multiple positions at once. The wave characteristics of a quantum object are encoded in what is known as the wave function. Unlike the equations in classical physics, the wave function describes merely the probability that an object exists at a given point in space and time. The particle is not merely the sum of its constituent properties, but instead a messy hodgepodge of unrealized potentials. Quantum mechanics, therefore, poses a challenge to the traditional materialist conception of the world as a sum of smaller and ever-smaller particles, the tiniest of which (the atom) is the fundamental building block of all matter. In fact, the fundament may be a blurry multitude of distinct, yet perhaps simultaneously non-distinct, copies of the same item. The bricks that make up the house of the universe are a nebulous cloud.
How is it, then, that you and I don’t see a nebulous cloud when we look out into the world, but instead a discrete and singular reality? It turns out that a measurement of a quantum object by an observer triggers the collapse of its wave function. When this happens, all of the object’s possible states vanish except for the one that the observer perceives. Thus, the observer effectively chooses which of the potential particles emerges out of the indeterminate fog and into the “objective” (but really, intersubjective) reality that the rest of us see. However, it is worth noting that it is unclear what degree of free will the observer really exerts over the reality that he “creates”; take a look here if you’re interested in the debates that Einstein, Bohr, and other esteemed physicists have had other this issue.
Does this mean that reality doesn’t exist – in a classical sense – until we observe it? That’s the conclusion that renowned particle physicist John Wheeler sought to validate through his proposed delayed-choice experiment, which never came to fruition in his lifetime (he passed away in 2008). Wheeler’s idea is a variation on the dual-slit experiment, which should be well known to anyone who has ever taken a high school physics course. Briefly, for those who aren’t familiar with it, any wave will form an “interference” pattern, pictured below, when it passes through two narrow slits and hits a screen behind them. According to our deeply-ingrained classical view of the world, we would intuitively think that passing a single photon of light through the slits would result in no interference pattern. And indeed, when someone places photon detectors beside each of the slits, we observe a single dot on the screen. But when we remove the detectors, the photon somehow manages to interfere with just itself and produce precisely the same pattern as the original!
Fig (Leaf) 1. According to the website that I sourced this image from, Richard Feynman described the paradox at the heart of the double-slit experiment to be the “only mystery” in quantum mechanics. So it’s pretty important.
The instrument with which we observe the light, therefore, appears to determine the pattern that it produces and, in turn, its fundamental nature (or, stated perhaps more accurately, which of its dual natures we ultimately end up perceiving).
In Wheeler’s delayed-choice experiment, the double-slit experiment is re-envisioned on an intergalactic scale. The light source is replaced by a quasar, a distant galaxy that emits a great deal of light. Rather than passing through two slits, the light from the quasar traverses through two galaxies, which distort the light, to a telescope on Earth, which serves as the photon detector in this reworked version. Depending on the direction in which it is pointed, the telescope will observe photons of light emanating from one particular galaxy; looking at the galaxy on their left, the astronomers peering through the telescope will see photons from the left galaxy. However, if the astronomers wished to produce an interference pattern, they could arrange some mirrors in such a fashion that photons traveling through both galaxies would strike a screen simultaneously.
Wheeler’s experiment turns out to be a mind-blowing demonstration of a concept called “retrocausality” that has emerged recently in quantum physics. It would be an erroneous oversimplification to suggest that retrocausality is the theory that the future affects the past; rather, it states that the way we choose to measure a particle in the present can influence its past properties. And indeed, according to Wheeler, the mechanism with which we observe the light will dictate the path that it traveled. If we measure it with a telescope, we have determined that the light traveled in a straight path to Earth through one of the intermediate galaxies. Alternatively, if we use the mirrors, we decide that it passed like a wave through both of the galaxies simultaneously, thereby creating an entirely different history for the light. Keep in mind that the light from the quasar has been traveling for billions of years, long before the observer was ever born – and, in fact, long before a race of conscious observers (i.e. humans) ever even existed on this Earth.
Recently, a team of quantum physicists at the Australian National University led by professor Andrew Truscott provided empirical validation of Wheeler’s experiment. While Truscott didn’t quite measure light from a distant galaxy, he trapped a large number of helium atoms and then, to prevent cross-interference between the different atoms, ejected them out until only one remained in the condensate. The team scattered the atom by passing it through a grate of intersecting laser beams, much like other types of grates – in particular, crystal lattices – have been shown to scatter light. Subsequently, Truscott used a random number generator to add a second grate that was farther away, but this decision was (arbitrarily) made only after the atom had traveled past the first grate. The atom, like a wave, displayed an interference pattern when it passed through the second grate, but appeared as a single dot when it didn’t.
Therefore, the object with which the atom is measured in the future – that is, whether or not there was a second grate – determines the path that it took in the past. The atom’s properties were indeterminate until the observer’s measurement decided whether it would behave as a particle or as a wave. The quantum world exists merely as a formless potential until our observation turns it into a reality.
It’s always amusing to observe the way that tabloid newspapers report on major scientific discoveries. Both the Daily Mail and the Express, reporting on Truscott’s findings in 2015, came out with the seemingly hyperbolic headline “Your entire life is an ILLUSION.”
Of course, it’s important that we don’t make unwarranted generalizations about quantum theory. Quantum indeterminacy only applies to matter observed on an ultra-microscopic scale; and, though I haven’t read the literature on this issue carefully, I think it would be an error to extrapolate it to the physical world as it is visible to the naked human eye. So is life an illusion? Based on just the evidence I’ve discussed, not quite.
But the broader metaphysical implications of Wheeler’s and Truscott’s experiments are consistent with the line of thinking that I presented earlier in the post. At our current level of intelligence or cognitive ability, it does not make sense to us that something can come out of nothing, since an object that does not come from an extant creator cannot be created and therefore is nothing itself. (3) However, any purely materialist conception of reality – of the physical world as an aggregate of many fundamental elements combined with one another – must implicitly be founded on the notion that nothing magically transformed into something at the birth of time. Aside from belief in an eternal creator (which is also a paradox), the only remaining explanation of the underpinnings of reality is simply that there is nothing to begin with, and that everything is, as the Daily Mail would have it, an illusion.
However, intuitively, it cannot be the case that reality is nothing either; to paraphrase the creator of Conan the Barbarian, if reality is merely an illusion, then the illusion is real to me, since reality is a phenomenon that I experience. If the experiential phenomenon doesn’t exist, then that means that I cannot perceive reality in any sense, which clearly isn’t the case.
Perhaps, then, the act of experiencing the world is real, even though the world itself is not. The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman comes to precisely this same conclusion, which is also validated by the quantum mechanical view of reality. Indeed, Wheeler’s experiment lends support to the notion that the universe is generated through the awareness of the observer, whether conscious or unconscious. Wheeler himself thought of the universe as an “enormous feedback loop, a loop in which we contribute to the ongoing creation of not just the present and the future but the past as well.” Awareness transforms the nothingness that the universe actually is into the reality that it appears to be; so, awareness creates the experience of the universe, and the universe is that which we are aware of. Therein lies the eternal cycle of existence.
This expression of the universe as a feedback loop may finally offer a satisfying resolution to these apparently unanswerable metaphysical questions that I have posed. If something did not come from nothing, then something must have come from something, yet that particular something must not be an eternal creator. If the very first thing came from something, then it must have come from itself; in other words, it must have engendered its own existence. What can beget itself other than awareness? If awareness is aware of itself, then it produces the awareness that it itself exists. Put another way – in terms that are hopefully less dense – if I am totally unaware of myself, then I don’t know that I even exist. But the moment that I am aware of myself, I become aware that I exist. Awareness results in more and more awareness, driving the feedback loop.
How is it that our awareness turns nothing into something, and how can we simultaneously create and observe our own realities? I’ll try to answer those questions next week, but for now, I’ll leave you with this quote from the brilliant philosopher Alan Watts, who once said:
“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”
Even if it is nothing more than a spectacular illusion, at least you are the grand magician. Don’t turn it into a disappearing act.
(1) Am I sounding like The Police yet? Interestingly, I’m pulling lyrics from a song on The Police’s Synchronicity album, which is, perhaps obliquely, the very topic that Nietzsche is addressing through his concept of eternal recurrence. Funny little moment of meta-synchronicity.
(2) Note that an agent does not need to be conscious, at least in the way that we traditionally conceive of consciousness, in order to trigger the collapse of a quantum wave function.
(3) It may be the case that the origins of the universe cannot be known to us at our current level of intelligence, and that we need to evolve higher and higher planes of cognitive function before we can finally gain insight into that question.