I’ve not read all your blog posts, rounaqb, but this one just has to be one of your best ever! And here’s my motivation for saying so:
1) You start by describing the phenomenon called “the observer effect”
1.a) You define it as “Observation changes reality”.
1.b) You even give us a textbook definition of the phenomenon: “In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.
2) For those wanting deeper information I can recommend this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_a_tree_falls_in_a_forest .
2.a) In that Wikipedia article you can read this (I quote): Albert Einstein is reported to have asked his fellow physicist and friend Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, whether he realistically believed that ‘the moon does not exist if nobody is looking at it.’ To this Bohr replied that however hard he (Einstein) may try, he would not be able to prove that it does, thus giving the entire riddle the status of a kind of an infallible conjecture—one that cannot be either proved or disproved.
2.b) And you can read this (another quote from the article): The anthropic principle suggests that the observer, just in its existence, may impose on the reality observed. However, most people, as well as scientists, assume that the observer doesn’t change whether the tree-fall causes a sound or not, but this is an impossible claim to prove. However, many scientists would argue as follows, “A truly unobserved event is one which realises no effect (imparts no information) on any other (where ‘other’ might be e.g., human, sound-recorder or rock), it therefore can have no legacy in the present (or ongoing) wider physical universe. […]
2.c) The British philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar, credited with developing critical realism has argued, in apparent reference to this riddle, that: If men ceased to exist sound would continue to travel and heavy bodies to fall to the earth in exactly the same way, though ex hypothesi there would be no-one to know it.
End of quotes.
I would say that you summarize all this very well in your blog post, rounaqb!
3) Some believers in the concept of a Cosmic Intelligence (or Divine Being) may object and call the given explanations a misrepresenting simplification of the matter.
They seem to mean that the implications of the “observer effect’ are much more profound than we humans are able to understand.
3.a) According to such New-Age-ish believers, the “observer effect”, if true, must be considered to mean that before something can manifest in the physical universe it has to become observed by someone ore something.
3.b) A corollary of that statement could be as follows: Presumably observation cannot occur without the pre-existence of some sort of consciousness to do the observing.
3.c) That is, the “observer effect” seems to imply that the physical Universe is the direct result of ‘consciousness’.
3.d) This notion, by the way, has a striking resemblance to perennial esoteric theory which asserts that all phenomena are the result of the consciousness of a single overriding intelligent principle, seemingly full of awareness.
3.e) This is, IMHO, just another way to refer to the Mind of God.
4) Anyhow, rounaqb, you outline the problem with the “observer effect” by breaking it down into three basic components:
4.a) First, you focus on the measurement process in itself. Claiming that it is the measurement per se, not the observer, that causes what is called the “observer effect”.
4.b) Then you claim that humans are not necessary to make a measurement. For example, it is possible for robots or computers to make measurements, and in a near future we can expect that robots and/or computers will be capable of assembling new copies of themselves. Either with or without a consciousness of their own.
4.c) Which immediately takes us to your point #3, that consciousness is an ill-defined concept.
Especially if you are looking for similarities between a consciousness and an eternal soul. Or expressed in a simpified way: From where does the robot, or the computer, get its eternal soul? Did the Divine Being (or Cosmic Intelligence) create also robots or computers “in imaginem Sui” (In Its image)?
5) I can also recommend you, rounaqb, and all who are interested in this subject, to have a look at what is written here on this site: http://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=1228 .
It’s a Q&A site. The answers given to the questions posed about the “observer effect” – and its possible consequences – complement your eminent blog post very well.
6) Finally, I want to thank you, rounaqb, for taking your time to address this interesting question of what the “observer effect” really is and what it means – and doesn’t mean.
You did an excellent job! Now let us both wait for the God believers to have their say.
I remember the time when I was a total Cosmology geek, I read a joke where he says, “Oh Jenny, I love you and only you.” and she replies, “But, in a quantum world, how can you be sure?”
Really, this is kinda the situation now. One often hears the creepy statements like “Observation changes reality” or “The moon is not up there if you don’t look at it”, and the ironic part is that these statements mostly come from certain physicist’s mouth or from some famous science show, which usually have their own biases and love catching phrases and thus use certain strawmans to state opinions as facts. I cannot dream of claiming that I am somehow unbiased and authentic in my practices, but I hope to make a reasonable case for my own bias of scientific skepticism in this article. I shall also clear that this is…
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