What is real? A short exercise in reality

When I’m discussing quantum physics in company of friends or presenting a course in quantum physics and consciousness, and I present the substantiated conclusion from the quantum physics experiments – especially the delayed choice experiments of John Wheeler – that we create reality by observing it, the common and very understandable reaction is often that people shy away from it because of its unimaginablity. As if it would imply that the everyday world is an illusion and therefore not ‘real‘. I answer them usually by giving them the metaphor of the rainbow, definitely not an illusion but a ‘real‘ phenomenon. But if you think that the rainbow above you is a material arc, then you are clearly wrong and suffering from an illusion.

The words “real” and “material” have become so closely linked by our upbringing that, for most people, they have taken on the same meaning. What is considered ‘real‘ is something that can be measured – so to speak – with a yardstick. If you can’t measure it, it is not ‘real‘. In this way ‘Real‘ means nowadays a permanent existence without the involvement of an observer. I wonder though: Are thoughts, dreams, fantasies not real? Are my thoughts not real as long as I have expressed them not in words, like I am doing here now?

A VR fantasy

To disconnect that engraved automatic link between the concepts ‘real‘ and ‘material‘, I propose now that you do the following simple VR imagination exercise. You don’t have to be in possession of a VR headset. A little bit of imagination will suffice.

Nursing home residents using VR headset ‘visiting’ the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Imagine then that a VR headset is ready and waiting for you on the table, including a pair of wireless earbuds. You place the headset over your eyes, plug the earbuds in …. and find yourself looking out over a plain covered mostly with fresh green grass, blooming flowers and scattered here and there a bush. Above you the blue sky with some white clouds floating quietly with the wind. Birds fly, and you can hear their songs. In the far distance you see an imposing mountain towering high into the sky, a super Mount Everest. It’s upper half is covered in snow and you notice wisps of clouds streaming away from the top.

Then you turn 180 degrees. Now you do notice that you are standing firmly on the top of a ridge overlooking a sea. Down below you see a beach where the waves roll in. Now you understand where that background noise came from. A sailboat is passing far away. The crew waves to you.

Now the reality question. Where’s that mountain you saw a moment before? Has it disappeared from reality? Does it still exist? You turn back again and there is the mountain again. Did you just recreate it from nothingness? By observing it?

Creation from non-existence by observation?

I do not think so. The image of that mountain was just not displayed on the LCD screen of the VR headset when you were looking in the direction of the sea, but its source still existed. It existed in the memory of the headset’s VR software all along, ready to be displayed if you turned your head in the right direction. The image of the mountain thus constantly exists as an opportunity to be shown and thus seen.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly like the quantum behavior of the reality that we experience every day. The moment I look at the table before me, it becomes real through my observing. Before I looked at it, it did exist “really” as a well-defined stable possibility wave pattern in the quantum field. The larger the object, the smaller the relative deviations of its physical properties that are allowed by the quantum probability wave distribution. That is what makes the world appear so sharp and concrete to us with our relatively coarse senses. As far as I’m concerned, the world is ‘real‘ enough to be careful when crossing a busy road.

No creation out of nothingness

So, it is not the case that by observing we create something out of empty nothingness. It is already there, but in an unmaterialized form that leaves some room for deviations from the exact outcomes as predicted by Newtonian mechanics. That’s more room than you perhaps think. It has been calculated that after 7 or 8 collisions the movement of a billiard ball has become fundamentally unpredictable because of the accumulated and exponentially increasing Heisenberg uncertainty. Thus, the deterministic mechanical predictability of the universe, á la Laplace, collapses. That’s all. We are creators, but not free to create anything we want.

Not yet anyhow.

Paul J. van Leeuwen graduated in applied physics in Delft TU in 1974. There was little attention to the significance of quantum physics for the view on reality at that time. However, much later in his life he discovered that there is an important and clear connection between quantum physics and consciousness. What he learned between then and today resulted in a post academic course in quantum physics for non-physicists. A little bit later he decided to put the contents of that course, and more, in a book published in Dutch: Kwantumfysica, Informatie en Bewustzijn - and started a website on the subject. He translated the Dutch version of his book in English, titled: 'Quantum Physics is NOT Weird'.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.