The Role of the Observer

The enigmas of quantum mechanics: tunneling, the uncertainty principle, collapse of the wave function, etc., all involve space and time dimensions and all involve the role of the observer.  The enigmas of special and general relativity also involve space, time, and mass, and the role of the observer.  The place to look for a deeper understanding of what modern physics is trying to tell us would be, therefore, in the relation between dimensions and conscious experience.  Where we have always assumed that consciousness exists inside the body, inside the brain, and therefore inside of space and time, it will be interesting to see what happens when dimensions are considered to exist within consciousness.  What happens to the enigmas of modern physics if space and time, rather than physical structures of an external universe, become physical structures of consciousness itself?

So radical a role reversal can come only after serious challenges to the external existence of dimensions.  In the last century we saw that space, time, and mass could not be distinguished in the momentum of subatomic particles, the spatial location and momentum of subatomic particles cannot be determined at the same time, the “act of observation” causes collapse of the wave function, dilations in space, time, and mass occur between observers when they are moving at high relative velocities,[i] and the speed of light remains constant in relation to all observers, regardless of their velocity relative to each other.  It is plain that dimensions no longer constitute a rigid external structure independent of conscious experience, and it is time to consider an alternative relation between dimensions and consciousness.

I am reminded at this point of the metaphysical challenges faced by Nicolaus Copernicus nearly 500 years ago.  The enigma of his time – retrograde motion of the planets – was simpler than our own enigmas, but the metaphysical barriers he faced were far greater.[ii]  Anyone could go outside and see with their own eyes that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that anything a few feet above or below the Earth’s surface was beyond the scope of human concern.  Everyone knew instinctively that if the Earth were to move, all of the buildings would fall down, and that if the Earth were truly coursing through the heavens, we would have heard about it in the Bible.  The centerpiece of God’s creation could only be the center of everything.  Copernicus had to confront all of this metaphysical certainty when he lifted the Earth up into the sky with the other planets, up where dwelt only God and the angels, moving through the heavens where mere humans had no right to be.  He had to consider this enormous metaphysical expense for the mere benefit of a better explanation for planetary motion.  The entire universe was turned on its head for the sake of a few tiny points of light in the night sky.  The heliocentric theory plunged the learned world into a metaphysical tailspin for over a century, but was so convincing ultimately that, once it broke through the hardened barriers of the medieval mind, it brought the modern mind into a much larger understanding of who we are and where we are.[iii]  

But before we jump back into the metaphysical wilderness for the sake of quantum physics and relativity theory, there is another enigma to mention, a macroscopic enigma that is common experience to everyone – inertial mass.  Inertial mass is so familiar a part of our everyday lives that we no longer ask to have it explained.  It’s just there.  For some reason (physical science has never explained how) massive objects resist acceleration.  They take their time going from zero to sixty miles per hour, or from sixty to a hundred.  They resist stopping or slowing; they resist turning right or left or up or down.  They drag their feet whenever there is a change in the direction or magnitude of velocity.  This would not be surprising if points in space were fixed and absolute.  But they are not; points in space are only relative to other points in space.  Since the ether experiments of Michelson and Morley[iv] in the late 1800s, we have known that there is no absolute space and that velocity of objects (uniform motion through space) is only relative to other objects.  But non-uniform motion (acceleration) is not relative; it’s absolute.  Space impedes the motion of physical objects under acceleration (meters per second per second) but not velocity (meters per second).  Massive objects seem to extend their claws into space when it comes to changing velocity but have no attachment to space when moving uniformly.  What sort of space are they digging into?  How can empty space be relative for uniform motion and absolute for non-uniform motion, and how can it tell the difference?  And it gets worse.  We cannot feel velocity, but we do feel acceleration.  You can be in a train or a airplane or a space ship traveling uniformly at a million miles per hour and feel like you are standing still.  But as soon as you speed up, slow down, turn or go over a bump – even slightly – you feel acceleration throughout your body.  You do not feel meters per second; but do you feel meters per second per second.  You feel the additional per second.  Physics has never explained this.

The enigma of inertial mass is a clue to what I will say next as we take the plunge into metaphysics.  But before we jump, I feel a need to say that, though I will pass through what science would consider “subjective” territory, I will not stray into any aspect of consciousness that is not experienced by everyone on a regular basis.  I will speak of the qualia of direct perception (the actual, in front of your face experience of seeing, feeling, etc.), but only of what you, or I, or anyone else can experience for themselves at any time: no loose opinions, no dogma, no conspiracy theories.  I have done this already in speaking of the acceleration that you or I feel.  Such sensations are construed as subjective because they are difficult or impossible to measure objectively.  Their presence cannot be proven or disproven by the scientific method, even though there is general consensus that these sensations are experienced universally.  I will keep to this sort of “subjective” in what follows.  As far as metaphysics as a whole is concerned, I will challenge the assumption of a space-time universe external to consciousness, but will not challenge the concept of a physical universe subject to scientific analysis within a dimensionally structured consciousness.   

Once we take the leap and are surrounded on all sides by the wilderness of metaphysical speculation, we find that anything goes.  We can think anything and question anything at all.  Why does the physical world seem to be external to consciousness?  Why do scientists think they need the concept of matter to do science? And, why does consciousness appear to be inside of observers?  The wilderness is not a good place for answers, but a wonderful place for questions.  Copernicus must have spent some time here, questioning the obvious.  It will be the quality of the questions we consider here that will determine their viability upon re-emergence into everyday life.

Two considerations I have brought home from the wilderness are:

1:  mass as a dimension

2:  space, time, and mass dimensions as channels of sensory information

Let us see if they survive the transit to the physical world.

Mass, as we have already seen, is an enigma even in everyday life.  We think of it as a measure of “material substance,” but it may work better as a dimension, along with space and time.  We measure mass in terms of force (kg – m/sec2) or acceleration (m/sec2), both of which show an additional time value.  Mass is already expressed mathematically the same way time is expressed.  It works as a dimension mathematically, though it remains difficult to see at “right angles” to space-time.  Mass is difficult to feel ourselves in, the way we think of ourselves in space and time.  Inertial mass manifests not as an orthogonal space dimension, but as a second time dimension foreshortened in the first.  Acceleration appears wedged into the first time dimension the way the third space dimension is foreshortened into the first two space dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, such as a photograph.  In the General Theory of Relativity, space-time as a whole is curved in the vicinity of gravitational mass.  But into what is it “curved?”  A two-dimensional surface (such as that of the Earth) can be curved, but this implies the existence of an additional dimension into which the curvature takes place.  As far as feeling “in” mass is concerned, we feel the second time dimension whenever accelerated to another magnitude or direction of velocity.[v]  The “g” force is always proportional to the additional “per second” of non-uniform motion.

It may seem unusual to bring something as unlikely as a mass dimension home from the wilderness: I justify it only to the extent that it helps explain the enigmas of modern physics.  If mass is a dimension along with three space and one time dimension, we have five physical dimensions, one of them foreshortened in four-dimensional space-time.  We also have five sensory realms of consciousness, one of which is clearly identified with the tactile realm, or the body.  Do the other four sensory realms also correspond with dimensions?  This consideration – the identity of dimensions and realms of perceptual consciousness – is more metaphysically disturbing than mass as a dimension; we will have to see if it proves viable on both the macroscopic and quantum levels of experience, thereby exceeding the more common sense view of dimensions as external to consciousness.

Information is an actual within a potential.  It is something known or experienced that could be something else: a yes that could be a no, a dot that could be a dash, or an order of alphabetic letters that could be some other order.  The potential brings meaning to the actual; we have to know the two possibilities of a yes or a no, a dot or a dash, or the 26 possibilities of the alphabet before the meaning of an actual arrangement emerges from the wire or from the page.  Sensory information is no exception.  An information potential most suitable for a living organism would be one infinite in range, with more important actuals displayed more prominently, overlapping smaller, less important actuals – something like a dimension.  Actual information would remain distinct in each perceptual realm, but the potentials would be inter-coordinated into a single space-time-mass universe.  

On the macroscopic level, a physical object actually perceived at any location in space-time would be potentially perceived at the same location in every other realm.  What an object looks like or smells like has nothing to do with what it actually sounds or feels like, but where and when it is seen or smelled is where and when it is potentially heard or touched.  It is this inter-coordination of potentials that creates a sense of independent existence of the object.  As I look out across the room I know that I can touch the things I see right where I see them, as if they are waiting for me in space-time.  If I close my eyes or leave the room, I can come back and they remain potentially perceivable, as if they are there whether or not I am looking.   

Space-time-mass forms a four-dimensional plus one “screen,” analogous to the pixel screen of a television or computer, encompassing the five realms of perceptual consciousness.  On the macroscopic level, the screen appears perfectly smooth and continuous; space, time, and mass appear infinitely divisible.  But on the quantum level the pixels begin to show.  Individual bits of information poke through the larger patterns of which they are a part.  The dimensional structure of space-time-mass unravels on the quantum level due to the tactile reduction of photons.  

Photons in their aggregate, wave state constitute visual consciousness on the macroscopic level, but they are also minute tactile sensations in their particle state on the quantum level.  A visual object is a macroscopic pattern of photons arranged in space-time.  The pattern is seen, while the momentum of each photon is felt.  As the size of the pattern becomes smaller and smaller, approaching the size of individual photons, the pattern appears quantized, or “grainy.”  The pattern cannot be smaller than the quanta of which it consists; a subatomic particle is so small it no longer fits in space.  As the particle nature of light emerges, the momentum, or “touch” of individual photons replaces the “vision” of aggregate photons.  It is precisely at this point – where visual consciousness merges into tactile, that space, time, and mass dimensions merge into one another.  There are no separate realms of perception at this level and no separate dimensions.  Subatomic particles seem to “tunnel” through the space between one observed location and another because the space-time-mass context in which they are observed breaks down on the quantum level.

Biological structure is another way to understand the structure of perceptual consciousness and the enigmas of quantum mechanics.  As multicellular organisms are composites of cells, so multicellular perception is a composite of cellular perception.  We experience what our cells experience.  Or, more precisely, what we experience on the multicellular level is reducible to cellular experience. “Packets” of information are received from individual cells and arranged into composite patterns in space-time that the organism as a whole perceives.  Visual, auditory, and olfactory information, in particular, consist of individual cellular experiences arranged into dimensional patterns that the cells themselves are incapable of experiencing.  We see, hear, and smell; our cells do not.  (Cells experience the chemical and tactile realms.)  Seeing, for instance, is “nothing but” an arrangement of the tactile experience of retinal cells, but the dimensional order of the arrangement creates a level of perceptual consciousness over and above that of individual cells.  Visual objects are the macroscopic, multicellular experience of the retina as a whole, as assembled and interpreted by the central nervous system.  On the quantum level, the dimensional structure of multicellular perception is deconstructed into unicellular perception.

Space dimensions are built from time: one second of time is “c” meters of space.  “C” is expressed in terms of meters per second, as are velocities, but “c” is the structural relation of space to time and not a velocity as such.  Light does not exist in or travel through space.  Light is visual consciousness; space-time is in it.  Physicists have spent centuries trying to find light “in” space and time, but it is not there.

This brings us to a final question: if the physical world is in consciousness as I am suggesting, whose consciousness is it in?  Yours?  Mine?  Somebody else’s?  How do we ensure the objective quality of scientific investigation if it cannot escape the subjectivity of somebody’s consciousness?  It seems we may not have emerged entirely from the metaphysical wilderness.  Or have we?

If consciousness is the same as self, the world must be me (or you or whoever else claims to be conscious).  This view holds a certain logic in the depths of the wilderness, but is far too complicated a notion to survive in the physical world.  In the Western tradition we assume that consciousness is contained by the body and that each observer “has” its own separate consciousness, while other traditions are more thoroughly versed in this problem.  Rather than exploring the problem further here, suffice it to say that self is not the same as consciousness.  The more relevant problem for the discussion at hand is the difference between individual and collective consciousness.  The scientific tradition and the Western tradition as a whole would suggest that collective consciousness is reducible to individual – that it is no more than the sum of individual consciousnesses.  But there is a more nuanced way to resolve the problem that preserves the objective integrity of science and is consistent with other considerations I have proposed here: observation is an additional realm of consciousness.

Perception is five sensory realms structured in five physical dimensions.  Observation is an additional realm of consciousness in relation to the whole of perceptual consciousness and defined as potential perception.  To be observational, a phenomenon must be perceivable to any observer under the same conditions.  (This is the essence of the scientific method.)  But it need not be perceived.  Most of what we know from observers we do not perceived directly – we do not see for ourselves that there are craters on Mars and forty-six chromosomes in a human cell – but we know that we would see them if we looked where the observers who reported them looked.  That is what is meant by potential perception.  We are observationally conscious through information reduced to the perceptual realms – through seeing and hearing – but we do not see or hear the objects of observation; we experience them not in the perceptual realms but in a separate realm of consciousness potentially experienced by all observers.  It is the order inherent in the information – in the sounds of language, the letters of the alphabet, etc. – that creates observational from perceptual experience. The observational world we know reaches far beyond that of direct perception and continues to grow as more discoveries are made in science.  The potential for observational information is entropy – the entropy of the universe as a whole, the “arrow of time.”  Actual observational information is order against the background of universal entropy.  This order is displayed only by living observers, and serves as a physical definition of life.

But is there a dimension that serves as the potential for observational information? Calling entropy a dimension takes us further yet from the familiarity of space and time, but foreshortened in space-time (in addition to mass) is a potential for order against the background of universal entropy – non-uniform acceleration.  Uniform velocity is expressed in meters per second, and non-uniform velocity (acceleration) in meters per second per second.  Non-uniform acceleration is the additional dimension-like potential for observation.  (Though it is quantifiable only in terms of probability.)  This is the arrow of time to which all physical objects in the universe are subject.  The behavior of living organisms, or observers, in the form of language, work, or communication, is orderly non-uniform acceleration.  Only observers create localized order in the ever-increasing entropy of the universe.

Collective consciousness is not an arithmetical sum of individual consciousnesses; it is a separate realm created by observational information, that is, information from observers that is perceivable by any and all observers.  Science is the systematic construction of this realm of consciousness.  Science does not reveal an independent physical world waiting to be observed; instead it establishes, through the scientific method, criteria for determining what is potentially perceived by all observers and what is not. 

When Copernicus looked up at the sky at night, he saw the same planets we see today and that the Babylonians saw thousands of years before.  The difference was where he saw them from.  When we look around the room today, we see the same tables and chairs we saw yesterday and will see tomorrow.  The difference is the world we see them in.


[i] Observers do not experience dimensional dilations within their own reference frames; they see them in the reference frames of other observers.  Space contracts, time slows, and mass increases when observers look at the meter sticks, clocks, and scales moving that pass them at high velocities.

[ii] I am indebted in this discussion to Thomas S. Kuhn, especially in his well-known book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996.

[iii] Though generally accepted by 1700, the Heliocentric Theory remained unproven for many astronomers for nearly 300 years after Copernicus.  The positions of nearby stars were not seen to shift in relation to more distant stars when viewed from different positions in the Earth’s orbit around the sun.  This stellar parallax was finally proven in 1838 with the help of a telescope by detecting a slight shift in the position of a nearby star in relation to a more distant star after a six-month change in the Earth’s orbit. 

[iv] As ocean waves and sound waves require a medium such as water or air in which to be propagated, it was assumed in the late 1800s that there must be a medium for the propagation of light waves: the ether.  Such a medium would establish a basis for absolute space.  Michelson and Morley ran a series of experiments attempting to measure the Earth’s motion relative to the ether by comparing the speed of light in the direction of the Earth’s motion around the sun and at right angles to that direction.  No ether was ever detected, and the concept of absolute space thereby abandoned, setting up ground work for Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

[v] Interestingly, it is through acceleration that dilations in space, time, and mass begin to appear in an observer’s reference frame.  If two observers are traveling uniformly, for instance, each reports time slowing in the other’s reference frame and not in his own.  Neither is shown to be “right” in any absolute sense until the first observer decelerates (a form of acceleration) to the reference frame of the second observer, and they compare notes.  Time will have passed more slowly for the first observer, because it was he that experienced the absolute motion of deceleration.  We might say that his space-time axes were temporarily “tilted into” the mass dimension.

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