What If There Is No Reality Separate From Its Observation?

As we have seen, the title of this sub-section is very similar to asking what are the consequences of having no hidden variables. We shall concentrate on the first form of the question.

You may have already noticed that the question is a variation on the old philosophical saw regarding a tree that falls in the forest with nobody there to hear the sound.

A conflict between the assumption of reality and Quantum Mechanics has been suspected long before Bell. For example, in referring to the trajectory of the electron in, say, the double slit experiment Heisenberg stated "The path of the electron comes into existence only when we observe it."

People have long known that any measurement disturbs the thing being measured. A crucial assumption of classical sciences has been that at least in principle the disturbance can be made so small that we can ignore it. Thus, when an anthropologist is studying a primitive culture in the field, she assumes that her presence in the tribe is having a negligible effect on the behavior of the members. Sometimes we later discover that all she was measuring was the behavior of the tribe when it was being observed by the anthropologist.

Nonetheless, classically we assume a model where we, as observers, are behind a pane of glass where see what is going on "out there." Now we suggest that the pane of glass has been shattered. Wheeler suggests that we should drop the word observer entirely, and replace it with participator.

Wheeler has thought more deeply on the consequences of a participatory universe than anybody. He devised the figure to the right, whose caption is:

“Symbolic representation of the Universe as a self-excited system brought into being by ‘self-reference’. The universe gives birth to communicating participators. Communicating participators give meaning to the universe … With such a concept goes the endless series of receding reflections one sees in a pair of facing mirrors.”

Reference: J.A. Wheeler in Isham et al., eds, Quantum Gravity (Clarendon, Oxford, 1975), pg. 564-565. The colors were used by Wheeler in a colloquium in the Dept. of Physics, Univ. of Toronto some years ago.

You may have noticed a similarity between this view of Quantum Mechanics and the Idealist philosophy of Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley would likely have been very happy about Bell's Theorem. Dr. Johnson was, of course, opposed to Berkeley and used to argue against his philosophy by bellowing "I refute it thus!" while kicking a large rock. Apparently Johnson found sufficient comfort from his argument that he didn't mind hurting his foot.

d'Espagnat also tends to believe that the reality assumption is incorrect. Thus he wrote: "The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment."

In a participatory universe, I can argue that you owe your objective existence to my kind intervention in allowing you into my own consciousness. Thus, there is an inherent solipsism in this position. Wigner was one of many who was greatly troubled by this.

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