Q: What is the connection between quantum physics and consciousness?

Physicist: No connection.

The idea that consciousness, or observation, can affect the physical world around us is called the “Copenhagen Interpretation”.  According to the Copenhagen interpretation, as long as there is no consciousness observing a system (a system of particles, planets, light, McNuggets™, etc.), then the system will evolve in time according to the rules of quantum mechanics (waves and super-positions and whatnot).  However, the moment that a conscious observer observes the system it suddenly stops obeying the laws of QM and, rather than being in a superposition of states, snaps to one state.  Essentially, the act of observation creates a definite reality.

You’ll notice that at no time does the Observer have any control over what state they’ll observe (I’m looking at you, The Secret).  This has been shown experimentally (so many times).

Just to be clear, the Copenhagen interpretation is wrong.

The Copenhagen interpretation leaves a lot of questions unanswered:

What’s consciousness?

If there’s more than one conscious observer, then who’s observation determines reality?

If you fall asleep or die, and no one observes you, is your body now in a superposition of states?

How does consciousness affect the physical world (what is the mechanism)?

How fast does the effect of the observation move?  This is a good one.  If you say “instant” or “faster than light”, then (for relativity based reasons) the effect can move backwards through time.  If you say “at the speed of light or slower”, then different observers of the same event can create different realities.

In fact, the Copenhagen interpretation was originally introduced as a snide joke.  As in, “Your theory is so stupid, that consciousness plays an active role”.

Among the physicists who bother to think about these things, the best theory is the “Many Worlds Hypothesis”.  Here’s the basic idea:

Light was the first thing that clearly demonstrated super-position (being in more than one state at once).  After that we saw super-position in electrons, protons and neutrons, alpha particles (helium), and even Buckyballs (also called “Buckminsterfullerene”, a molecule with 60 carbon atoms).  The larger a thing is, the harder it is to do an experiment that shows super-position, but so far everything seems to be capable of being in a super-position of states.

So, extend this from “everything we’ve ever been able to measure can be in a super-position of states” to “everything can be in a super-position of states”.  Where “everything” includes people.  Now the QM laws apply at all times, without awkward questions, exceptions, and explanations.  And, even better, the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness is revealed to be: nothing.

For example: Schrodinger’s Cat.

Copenhagen: Before the box is opened the cat is in a combination of alive and dead.  When the box is opened the cat is exposed to a conscious observer and the act of observing the cat forces it into only one state or the other.  This one reality then goes along it’s merry way.

Many Worlds: Before the box is opened the cat is in a combination of alive and dead.  When the box is opened the cat and the observer are allowed to interact and the larger system is now in a combination of cat-dead / observer-horrified and cat-alive / observer-hugcat.  These two realities then go along their merry ways.

I can’t give you a good definition for consciousness, but I can say that it doesn’t apply here.

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35 Responses to Q: What is the connection between quantum physics and consciousness?

  1. Scott says:

    You know, Griffiths never talks about this, as far as I remember. He’s all about the Copenhagen convention right from Chapter 1.

  2. The Physicist Physicist says:

    I think that what Griffiths is doing is using the Copenhagen convention to make the calculations easier (possible). If you don’t ignore every possible outcome that is now impossible (for you) to observe, then you might very well wear out your slide ruler.

  3. Scott says:

    I don’t know, you could probably do a lot of calculations with one of those giant demonstration slide rules. Also, isn’t that what Feynman was all about, including every possible path, even the ludicrous ones?

  4. The Physicist Physicist says:

    Even F-Dawg’s calculations assume that the particle is (more or less) where it is (instead of everywhere it could be), then he integrates over all possible histories. When he removes that conditional, then the discussion suddenly becomes much more philosophical.

  5. pdf23ds says:

    Hmm. To fully answer this question, it seems like you’d have to respond to Penrose. OTOH, the answer wouldn’t change.

  6. The Physicist Physicist says:

    Fair enough. I didn’t quite follow the argument, but if you’re saying that Bohr believed in the “reality assumption” and that QM just can’t explain what we see, then he was wrong. Luckily for him he died before Bell’s theorem was published. If you’re saying that he believed that the complexity of a measuring device/measured object is to complex to understand, then I find that difficult to believe. If someone believes that the universe is fundamentally impossible to understand, they rarely become physicists. Meta-physicists sure, but not physicists.
    There are people who believe a form of “modified Copenhagenism”, where the conscious observer is replaced with anything with enough mass. It sounds less spooky, but most of the problems remain.

  7. Anders says:

    The Copenhagen interpretation is not a homogenous view. This is still not generally recognized.
    “Many physicists and philosophers see the reduction of the wave function as an important part of the Copenhagen interpretation. But Bohr one of the founding fathers never talked about the collapse of the wave packet. Nor did it make sense for him to do so because this would mean that one must understand the wave function as referring to something physically real. Bohr spoke of the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics, including the state vector or the wave function, as a symbolic representation. Bohr associated the use of a pictorial representation with what can be visualized in space and time. Quantum systems are not vizualizable because their states cannot be tracked down in space and time as classical systems’. The reason is, according to Bohr, that a quantum system has no definite kinematical or dynamical state prior to any measurement. Also the fact that the mathematical formulation of quantum states consists of imaginary numbers tells us that the state vector is not susceptible to a pictorial interpretation (CC, p. 144). Thus, the state vector is symbolic. Here “symbolic” means that the state vector’s representational function should not be taken literally but be considered a tool for the calculation of probabilities of observables.
    Bohr flatly denied the ontological thesis that the subject has any direct impact on the outcome of a measurement. Hence, when he occasionally mentioned the subjective character of quantum phenomena and the difficulties of distinguishing the object from the subject in quantum mechanics, he did not think of it as a problem confined to the observation of atoms alone. For instance, he stated that already “the theory of relativity reminds us of the subjective character of all physical phenomena” (ATDN, p. 116). Rather, by referring to the subjective character of quantum phenomena he was expressing the epistemological thesis that all observations in physics are in fact context-dependent. There exists, according to Bohr, no view from nowhere in virtue of which quantum objects can be described.
    Although Bohr had spoken about “disturbing the phenomena by observation,” in some of his earliest papers on complementarity, he never had in mind the observer-induced collapse of the wave packet. Later he always talked about the interaction between the object and the measurement apparatus which was taken to be completely objective. Thus, Schrödinger’s Cat did not pose any riddle to Bohr. The cat would be dead or alive long before we open the box to find out. What Bohr claimed was, however, that the state of the object and the state of the instrument are dynamically inseparable during the interaction. Moreover, the atomic object does not posses any state separate from the one it manifests at the end of the interaction because the measuring instrument establishes the necessary conditions under which it makes sense to use the state concept. It was the same analysis that Bohr applied in answering the challenge of the EPR-paper.”

  8. Pingback: Q: What is the meaning of the term “random”? Can thinking affect the future? « Ask a Mathematician / Ask a Physicist

  9. Now I’m not a physicist, but my understanding of the need for observation in the Copenhagen interpretation was a result of the small scale of interactions being dealt with in quantum mechanical systems. In order for an observer to observe the state of a quantum mechanical system, a photon will have to interact with the system, fundamentally altering the system. It is the photonic interaction that causes the waveform to collapse into one state or another.

    Is this not correct?

  10. The Physicist Physicist says:

    You may be thinking of the uncertainty principle. A better experiment to see collapse through is the “double slit experiment” (that thing demonstrates freaking everything). It turns out that there’s nothing special about photon interaction. In fact, if the interaction stays isolated, then the whole thing (including the results of the interaction) will still be in a super-position of states (uncollapsed).

  11. Fill says:

    I met a guy with a PHD in Physics who actually believed that the universe didn’t exist until somebody looked/observed it. *face palm* In QM scientists often use the term ‘observed’ but what is meant is some condition that forces the state of something to be resolved (e.g. it hits something and the wave collapses). It doesn’t mean observed by intelligence, necessarily.

  12. Pingback: Q: Copenhagen or Many Worlds? « Ask a Mathematician / Ask a Physicist

  13. Justin says:

    Congratulations Physicist, that was, indisputably, the most intelligent statement containing the term “F-Dog” in the history of written language. Good work

  14. Bruce Stram says:

    Obviously there are people here who know more than I, but how does one explain the double slit experiment without some sort of unusual explanation?

  15. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    If you’re looking for an intuitive, sensible explanation that doesn’t rely on quantum weirdness, then I’m afraid there’s nothing for it.
    There’s just no way to “explain away” the wave nature of things, and go back to classical physics.
    If by “unusual” you mean “stuff with consciousness”, then the best way (I think) is the Many Worlds approach.

  16. siddeinstein says:

    i always thought copenhagen was meant to imply that the observer was meant to be interpreted as a system of detection just like any thus obscuring the definition of “reality”

    besides isnt the point of modern day physics supposed to be to unseat your confidence in your familiar perspective of reality anyway?

  17. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    It’s not the point, it’s just something that’s (unfortunately) happened.
    The big problem with Copenhagen is the measurement approach in general (whatever the source). “Wave function collapse” is bad business.

  18. Ken Jinks says:

    This Copenhagen interpretation requires a certain viewpoint. Just bare with me and breath slowly.

    Imagine every state that can exist, exists all at once. The current state of a mind is the co-ordinates of the mind in the superpostion problem space (every possible outcome of wave function collapse) which creates the sense of now. This mind has a velocity vector, the transformations the mind experiences as it travels through the problem space is perceived as time. Since the velocity is uniform the transformations the mind witnesses are logical and so physical laws can be ascribed to them. (different velocity vector different laws of physics) Other minds that are traveling at the same velocity will have enough common experiences due to their proximity and velocity that they feel they exist in the same reality eventho each is perceiving reality uniquely.

    I have more to say but I will keep this brief.

    I don’t lift my arm, I go to the problem space where my arm is lifted; but did I have a choice?

  19. Andy says:

    I agree that movies can give bad interpretations of QM, but I think the Secret is saying something quite different, though they do include the opinions of at least a couple of quantum physicists. I think the bigger problem came in What the Bleep. Quitting taking your anti-depressants because you think you can collapse your reality into the specific state you would like to observe is quite different than allowing yourself to focus on the things that you want in order to try to “attract” them into your life. The fundamental basis is just completely different than what some interpretations of QM might describe as the role of a conscious observer, not to mention that the potential harm from its proposition is much less than what you see in What the Bleep.
    However, I do think that “No connection” as a response is terribly patronizing to someone who might be trying to find a good explanation of QM. They’ve probably heard that there is a connection, and whether one feels that the connection has been accurately described in popular media, it would be more helpful to explain the observations which of have led people to whatever interpretation of quantum phenomena they happen to tout. There is certainly a connection between physics and consciousness, even if that connection lies only within the interpretations that people have and discuss. I would say that the approach given in Quantum Enigma with a discussion of the experiments that have led to this debate and a list of interpretations would be more illuminating for the typical person asking this sort of question.
    As I understand the observable phenomena, when one places an object in a super-position state by splitting its wave-function in two with a semi-transparent mirror and then catching the split wave in two separate boxes, the option does exist to prove either that the object was in one box or the other (though, critically, as I think you would agree, not WHICH box) by opening them individually, or that it was in fact in both boxes at the same time by opening them both at the same time and observing the interferance pattern you would expect from a double slit experiment. If one has the chance to determine which of two contradictory outcomes one would like to prove, it is hard to say that there is “no connection” at all with consciousness. This is, however, far from saying that consciousness creates its observation according to its own desire. As I said, we are powerless to prove which of the two boxes the object was in, though we can prove it was one or the other, or both, depending on the mehtodology we chose for our experimental observation.
    I love the question about how observation travels. From what I’ve read, it is possible for the “spooky interactions” Einstein described to occur, where information does travel faster than light. It makes me curious about the possibility of extra-dimensional connections between objects. If the universe does in fact have 10, 11 or 26 dimensions, it seems completely possible for there to be connections between things that we don’t readily observe in the 4 dimensions we are used to experiencing. If you consider the possibility of a 5th dimension, the manipulation of time in the reverse direction could be feasible. These are certainly preliminary understandings, but interesting to consider.

  20. Dimensionless says:

    It would help with my understanding of all of this Quantum weirdness if someone could explain why the possibility described below is wrong.

    1) Our universe/reality is defined by a set of dimensions.
    2) We not only can observe things within our universe/reality, but are also able to observe some things that are ‘outside’ of our universe/reality.
    3) Those things that are outside of our universe/reality are subject to a different set of dimensions.
    4) That being the case, we should not be surprised to find that these things do not obey the rules of our universe/reality, as the universe/reality in which they exist is defined by a different set of dimensions.

    While I’ve simplified the ‘explanation’ above by describing things outside of our universe/reality as being part of a different one, I suspect that there’s nothing else in existence that even remotely resembles our universe/reality. The only thing that they have in common is that each of them is defined by a unique set of dimensions. In fact while there may be things out there that are defined as having a different set of dimensions than our universe/reality, it seems both possible and likely to me that ‘existence’ will not be a characteristic of most of them

  21. Dimensionless says:

    BTW – I don’t think that it’s all that unusual that particles can be in more than one place within these other worlds. Prior to the Big Bang wasn’t everything in our universe/reality in one place? These other universes/realities do seem to me to be much like the ‘multiple worlds’ that some theories about Quantum Mechanics say exist. If there are indeed an infinite number of other worlds, that might suggest the existence of an infinite number of dimensions, or perhaps an infinite number of variations of one dimension.

    If nothing else, at least the possibility described above is not quite as weird as many of the other explanations that I know of.

  22. Dimensionless says:

    One final thought on this matter…

    A universe/reality that lacks the dimensions needed to give it physical characteristics, could be infinitely small, infinitely large, or both. I think that ‘both’ is closer to the truth. If we are peering into a dimensionless umiverse/reality when we observe Quantum weirdness in things perceived as being incredibly small within our universe/reality, then perhaps that’s why elements within it APPEAR to interact with one another even though they are widely separated. If this other world, or universe/reality does not possess physical characteristics, then should we be surprised if someone peering into it from one end of our universe/reality, influences the observations of someone else doing the same from a second location in our universe/reality.

    These explanations don’t seem to be particularly weird to me and they do appear to reinforce one another. So I’m curious and would very much like to know, what is it within the mathematical examinations that shows this interpretation to be wrong?

  23. Mindbeenblown says:

    In the double slit experiment, it is said that the “observer” changes the result, to put it simply. But if the “observer” were a camera that no one would ever see the footage of, would it still change the results? I guess my question put simply is, is consciousness the observer, or would something that can merely record events but not process/know/understand them count as an observer? Or is this a sort of paradox? Basically it boils down to what qualifies as an observer?

  24. I’m having real difficulties with an article that attempts to explain how Bell demonstrated the spookiness of QM. It isn’t clear if the example provided was faulty, or if there was a fault in Bell’s methodology.

    The results of random tests were analyzed and the example given found that 3 of 9 combinations of things were associated with half of the ‘positive’ results. It implies that half should been associated with 4 1/2 of 9 combinations. Nowhere is the use of combinations explained. Why not use the permutations of 3 things taken two at a time? In that case the positive half would be associated with 3 of 6 permutations of 3 things taken 2 at a time, and no spookiness would be apparent. The use of combinations rather than the permutations must be explained, or the example provided has no value.

  25. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    There’s an old post here about what a measurement is, that talks a little about what qualifies as an “observer”. The very short answer is that there’s nothing special about people, or animals, or cameras. Anything capable of interacting is an “observer”.

  26. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    There’s a post about Bell’s theorem here. The argument behind Bell’s theorem is notoriously hard to follow, so I tried hitting the same example a couple different ways.

  27. I find the idea that a universe is something that is defined by a set of dimensions quite appealing. It seems to me that this would allow us to say that although we can detect the gravitational force of Dark Matter from within our Universe, it is a part of some other Universe, or Universes. And if we have an example of another Universe that can be perceived from and interacts with our own Universe, couldn’t the same be true of yet another Universe, one without physical dimensions? If photons and electrons have one foot in our Universe and another in some Universe lacking any physical dimensions, that might explain why they can apparently ‘communicate’ with one another transparently (from the perspective of our Universe). It would also explain why the distance between entangled elements (from the perspective of our Universe) does not impact their ability to ‘communicate’ with one another. You might be tempted to say that everything within a Universe without physical dimensions is in the same place, but that would be to ignore the fact that there’s no such thing as a place within a Universe lacking physical dimensions.

    It worries me when I read articles by people who want to link QM weirdness first to consciousness and shortly thereafter to God. I would hope that anyone with a belief in the existence of God, would expect him/her to make his/her presence known by doing something more substantial, than having photons/electrons behave in unanticipated ways.

  28. One final thought on this idea of a Universe(s) without physical dimensions…. I believe that there’s a large number of people who believe that there are many, many Universes. That being the case, would you expect that it would be more unusual or less unusual, that most of them would NOT possess physical dimensions ???

  29. jason schalebaum says:

    unfortunately i would expect most of them to be void of any physical dimension. if you consider the possibility that consciousness, or awareness. that is to say a Presence that precedes or is the source of conscious intent / observation is the determining variable of bringing an “unformed” reality into a “formed” reality. I say this because I believe true Presence or a “Oneness” with this great singularity we’re all apart of, is a quantum leap in our (Humanity) evolutionary process, that much of humanity hasn’t reached yet. Or maybe is simply not well enough for.

  30. Rob says:

    Hi Physicist,
    You say the Copenhagen interpretation is wrong and you conclude Copenhagen interpretation is wrong because light would have to travel backwards through time. Well, haven’t you heard of the double slit experiment in which when performed with a observer-delay-effect electrons mathematically go back in time once observed at the last second?

    Also, since it’s obvious you’re a physicist and not a quantum physicist wouldn’t you deduce the wrong answer any ways since QM rules don’t apply to physics on your scale.

    My deduction is consciousness does have an effect on physics down to the elementary particle. For example, maybe you should read about quantum entanglement. In that experiment conscious observation is necessary as a given for the start of the experiment! In fact any theoretical physicist would tell you the same.

  31. john smith says:

    Pathetic. This swine thinks he can hand-wave the Copenhagen interpretation as “just wrong” with no sources whatsoever, despite it being the most popular interpretation among physicists, and is brazen enough to support the highly-inane MWI (again, with no sources).

  32. Chris Pinadella says:

    What if you think of consciousness as a fundemantal force or field existing outside of time, rather than a temporary construct of the mind?

    If you think of consciousness as a 4th dimensional force, who did the observing or how fast the action of observation effected the physical world wouldn’t matter, they would from our perspective be pre determined. From our temporary perspective the observations would simply be relative to one another.

  33. Kaol says:

    Interesting discussion.

    To quote the founding father of quantum physics….

    “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
    – Max Planck, theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918

    “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter”.
    -Max Planck

  34. Locutus Borg says:

    Does QM affect the idea of free will? I suppose this is more philosophical though.

  35. Calico says:

    You are probably confronted with a vast pile of garbage theories all the time, and I certainly empathize. It must be exhausting. However, when I read a post with such clear disdain for the opposing view, I have to ask: who, exactly, are you writing for?

    Maybe you’ve dismissed the misinformed as hopeless and think it will do no harm to laugh off their views as a “snide joke.” But then, are you merely writing to those in agreement? If so, I think you’re greatly limiting your reach. I believe posts/articles like this are extremely informative but that a bit of empathy toward the misled would go a long way toward actually making new converts.

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