Perhaps the deepest question humanity can bear to ponder is what is it all about? In what I see as a mechanism to deal with the absurdity of life, our minds created purpose. But what is purpose? Surely it has no meaning outside of our small and insignificant existence? It’s a human construct, and the universe doesn’t give a shit.
There have been many attempts by our greatest minds to answer this most profound of questions. One philosopher, Descartes, summarised his two cents into the timeless mantra “I think, therefore I am”. And maybe he had a point. With this statement he hints at an interesting school of thought; solipsism.
Solipsism suggests that we can be sure of nothing but our own existence, of our own mind. This is difficult to refute, and requires no faith. In fact, it is sickeningly logical. I know I exist, as here I am, knowing. However, I do not know that you exist, at least as a separate entity. You could be but a mere creation of mine.
Recent research in quantum mechanics has shone new light on this. Before now, solipsism’s sheer simplicity stood strong and proud against judgement, its point so sharp that any critic faced with it cowered in disbelief or ignorance. Quantum physics has the potential to throw all that we know about the physical world to the wind, and push us outside the box. A box which is bigger than we could have ever imagined.
Atoms, the building blocks of the universe, are made up of what are known as quantum particles, which include photons and electrons. These particles can exist as superpositions of many states at once. For example, an electron spinning clockwise can also spin anticlockwise, simultaneously. An electron can exist in two different positions, at the same time. Yes, it is mind-blowing. However, this has never been observed, as any attempt to do so results in an odd occurrence; we see only one state. So the question is, how do so many possibilities become one reality?
That is the question behind quantum mechanics, and there are a lot of answers, each with their own merit. The prevailing proposal however is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, which says that nothing is real until it is observed or measured. So once the superposition phenomenon is observed, it collapses. But what exactly is an observation? It’s such a broad word, and physics doesn’t do broad. A Hungarian mathematician, John von Neumann suggested that an “observation” is the action of a conscious mind.
This is where my personal opinion starts to erode, as it suggests that consciousness, and Humanity, is somehow special, that we’ve been endowed with this exclusive skill. As a fierce atheist, this displeases me. But I guess I should at least entertain the idea.
Von Neumann suggested that there is one huge quantum superposition, created by the existence of everything in the universe, but somehow the conscious mind is different. It is able to make real, one of the possibilities on offer. Before consciousness, there existed what could be described as a multiverse of potential universes. Our universe is reality simply because it is ours, and is observed through our consciousness.