There is a debate at the foundation of physics that even physicists avoid thinking overmuch about, and yet it goes to the heart of our sense of who we are and where we come from.
The mainstream scientific view is that the universe is an objective, physical entity made up of elementary particles and associated force fields. Life was an accident. Intelligent life was a further accident. And consciousness is a big mystery that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with physical matter, but somehow arises from the electrical activity in the brain, or maybe…
“The conception of the objective reality of the elementary particles has evaporated not into the cloud of some new reality concept but into the transparent clarity of a mathematics that represents no longer the behavior of the particles but our knowledge of this behavior.”
— Werner Heisenberg, describing the Quantum revolution
In view of the fundamental re-entry of mind into basic physics, it is nigh on incomprehensible that so few philosophers and non-physicist scientists entertain today, more than nine decades after the downfall of classical physics, the idea that the physicalist conception of nature, based on the invalidated classical theory, might be profoundly wrong in ways highly relevant to the mind-matter problem…The orthodox quantum ontology is in essential accord with the dualistic ideas of Descartes…
This conclusion that nature is fundamentally mind-like is hardly new. But it arises here not from some deep philosophical analysis or religious insight, but from direct examination of the causal structure of our basic scientific theory”
— Henry Stapp, from How Consciousness Became the Universe
Henry Stapp is a theoretical physicist, an emeritus professor of at UC Berkeley. My interpretation of this quote:
The idea of an objective physical universe was the height of 19th Century science, but it has been supplanted by 20th Century quantum physics. There is no room for mind in 19th Century physics, but there is an explicit place for mind in quantum physics. So why are we still working with an understanding in which our world is dead, our brains are meat computers and consciousness is an illusion?
The light of consciousness is our primary experience, something we know before we know anything else. Science is supposed to be empirical, that is, rooted in experience. Why would science want to deny the most fundamental fact of our experience? If physical theory led inexorably to the conclusion that the physical universe is a complete, objective system, with no room in its laws for interference by anything mental then we might understand science, pushed into a corner, would be at a loss to embrace consciousness as anything else but a curious epiphenomenon. But this was 19th century physics. Why has the scientific world-view worked so hard to avoid the quantum implication that consciousness has a role in fundamental physics?
Stapp has many articles and 3 books in which he offers us one alternative understanding of physics and its relation to life. Conscious observation and conscious intention exist outside of the physical world of particles and fields, but exchanges information with that physical world. Intention can alter quantum probabilities. And brains are so exquisitely constructed as to be able to leverage the tiny quantum effects of our intentions turn them into thoughts, ideas, and motor triggers.
Do you remember the butterfly effect? The weather is such a complex system, poised on the knife-edge of chaos, that it is unpredictable, because the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Tahiti six weeks ago might affect the weather in New York tomorrow. It appears that our brains are designed on an analogous principle, but not to make neuronal activity chaotic, but to make it exquisitely sensitive to tiny quantum events that can, conceivably, be affected by this entity I call “me”.