If we perceive the universe, does it exist? And what if we fail to perceive?
Why Does the Freemason Care?
I’m going to start off with something that people usually place at the end of one of these conversations: how does this question tie to Freemasonry? As we talk through these concepts, I’d like you to keep in mind several key notions which inform Freemasonry and the ideals of Freemasonry.
- Freemasonry works towards the perfecting of Humanity; in doing so, it does not tell the Freemason what to think but how to be: moral, just, tolerant, seek truth and practice liberty under the law. Only the Free-Thinker can conceive of the ideal humanity and what that may achieve.
- A Freemason’s foundation is founded on the principles of human solidarity, freedom of conscience, and the facts of Brotherhood. It places no restrictions on the search after Truth, and in order to secure that freedom, it demands the greatest tolerance from all members of the Order.
- To a Freemason, the freedom of thought, speech, and action belongs to all Mankind – regardless of race, religion, or gender.
While we talk about the concepts contained in this discussion, allow yourself to keep coming back to these core ideas of Freemasonry. You can view an example of these principles here: http://universalfreemasonry.org
A Distant Philosopher’s Take
In 17th Century England, the Age of Enlightenment was underway. New discoveries in biology, astronomy, alchemy, chemistry, and physiology gave birth to an even wider range of philosophies. Many of the things we think about today were beginning to blossom in the minds of great thinkers.
One of those great thinkers was George Berkeley. Berkeley was born in 1685 near Kilkenny, Ireland. After several years of schooling at Kilkenny College, he entered Trinity College, in Dublin, at age 15. He was made a fellow of Trinity College in 1707 (three years after graduating) and was ordained in the Anglican Church shortly thereafter. At Trinity, where the curriculum was notably modern, Berkeley encountered the new science and philosophy of the late seventeenth century, which was characterized by hostility towards Aristotelianism. (Stanford, Philosophers)
Two Competing Ideas
Materialism of this time period meant “the concept that material things exist.” Berkeley’s take on this was that if one only believed in the senses, one type of perception, that this was a false view of the nature of the universe. The core idea of materialism is this: a thing exists independently of the thinking mind. A tree is a tree, whether or not there is a mind to perceive the tree.
Berkeley charges that materialism promotes skepticism and atheism: skepticism because materialism implies that our senses mislead us as to the natures of these material things, which moreover need not exist at all, and atheism because a material world could be expected to run without the assistance of God. In other words, there is no ideal of a tree, no spirit of a tree, so therefore there does not need to be a God to have a tree.
What Berkeley proposes is “idealism.” This is not the modern interpretation of idealism; Idealism to Berkeley is the fact that a) We perceive ordinary material objects and b) we perceive ideas, therefore c) Ordinary material objects are ideas. Although there is no independent material world for Berkeley, there is a physical world, a world of ordinary objects. This world is mind-dependent, for it is composed of ideas, whose existence consists in being perceived. For ideas, and so for the physical world, esse est percipi. To be is to be perceived. Berkeley believed that while physical objects exist, the concept of them does not exist unless we perceive them as collections of ideas. These ideas are the construct of the human mind, and therefore, they, as individual objects, cannot exist without the human perception of them.
There are three main arguments against “idealism.”
- The most obvious objection to idealism is that it makes real things no different from imaginary ones—both seem fleeting figments of our own minds, rather than the solid objects of the materialists.
- What is the purpose of internal mechanisms and hidden structures to a world of ideas rather than a world of material existence? In other words, what is the point of the internal workings of a watch, if we don’t need to see them for the structure to work?
- Science should reveal the efficient causes of natural things, processes, and events. Isn’t it a step backward to imagine that all our physical substances are really based in “spirit?” Spirit in this sense is attributable to God.
A Modern Take
Fast forward 400 years to 2002. John Wheeler, a physicist and contemporary & colleague of Einstein and Bohr, pondered the idea of existence from another angle.
Wheeler postulated that the universe is participatory. In the final decades of his life, the question that intrigued Wheeler most was: “Are life and mind irrelevant to the structure of the universe, or are they central to it?” He suggested that the nature of reality was revealed by the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics. According to the quantum theory, before the observation is made, a subatomic particle exists in several states, called a superposition (or, as Wheeler called it, a ‘smoky dragon’). Once the particle is observed, it instantaneously collapses into a single position.
A Grand Experiment
Wheeler’s belief was that the universe is built like an enormous feedback loop, a loop in which we contribute to the ongoing creation of not just the present and the future but the past as well.
To illustrate his idea, he devised what he called his “delayed-choice experiment,” which adds a startling, cosmic variation to a cornerstone of quantum physics: the classic two-slit experiment. The “two slit” experiment illustrates a key principle of quantum mechanics: Light has a dual nature. In the experiment, light — a stream of photons — shines through two parallel slits and hits a strip of photographic film behind the slits. We have even seen, now, a photograph of a particle in both states. This photograph seems to undermine some of the concepts presented here, but for now, we’ll continue building our overarching discussion.
This “two slit” experiment outlines the theory of The Observer Effect: In physics, the observer effect is the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. Thus, the basic idea is that observed, photons act like particles. Unobserved, they act like waves. Observation equates to a choice; Lack of observation provides multiple options/actions.
A Grander Experiment
Wheeler came up with a cosmic-scale version of this experiment that has even weirder implications. Wheeler’s version shows that our observations in the present can affect how a photon behaved in the past. This is a fairly large and complex experiment, described here by Mary-Jane Rubenstein, in “Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse.”
“Imagine a quasar — a very luminous and very remote young galaxy. Now imagine that there are two other large galaxies between Earth and the quasar. The gravity from massive objects like galaxies can bend light, just as conventional glass lenses do. In Wheeler’s experiment the two huge galaxies substitute for the pair of slits; the quasar is the light source. Just as in the two-slit experiment, light — photons — from the quasar can follow two different paths, past one galaxy or the other.
Suppose that on Earth, some astronomers decide to observe the quasars. In this case a telescope plays the role of the photon detector in the two-slit experiment. If the astronomers point a telescope in the direction of one of the two intervening galaxies, they will see photons from the quasar that were deflected by that galaxy; they would get the same result by looking at the other galaxy. But the astronomers could also mimic the second part of the two-slit experiment. By carefully arranging mirrors, they could make photons arriving from the routes around both galaxies strike a piece of photographic film simultaneously. Alternating light and dark bands would appear on the film, identical to the pattern found when photons passed through the two slits.
Here’s the odd part. The quasar could be very distant from Earth, with light so faint that its photons hit the piece of film only one at a time. But the results of the experiment wouldn’t change. The striped pattern would still show up, meaning that a lone photon not observed by the telescope traveled both paths toward Earth, even if those paths were separated by many light-years. And that’s not all.
By the time the astronomers decide which measurement to make — whether to pin down the photon to one definite route or to have it follow both paths simultaneously — the photon could have already journeyed for billions of years, long before life appeared on Earth. The measurements made now, says Wheeler, determine the photon’s past. In one case the astronomers create a past in which a photon took both possible routes from the quasar to Earth. Alternatively, they retroactively force the photon onto one straight trail toward their detector, even though the photon began its jaunt long before any detectors existed.”
At the time that Wheeler conceived of this idea, it had already been demonstrated in a laboratory. And, as I noted above, a recent photograph of a particle behaving in both ways has been seen floating around the internet.
In 1984 physicists at the University of Maryland set up a tabletop version of the delayed-choice scenario. Using a light source and an arrangement of mirrors to provide a number of possible photon routes, the physicists were able to show that the paths the photons took were not fixed until the physicists made their measurements, even though those measurements were made after the photons had already left the light source and begun their circuit through the course of mirrors.
Wheeler conjectures we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself — and building itself. By the choices we humans make, in observing the world around us and acting on those observations, we are creating the universe as it continues to move through time and space.
Wheeler isn’t alone in his thinking; other notable, modern scientists have weighed in on our perceptions of the universe. Stephen Hawking noted: “The laws of science, as we know them at present, seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.” Fred Hoyle, in his book Intelligent Universe, compares “the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by a chance combination of amino acids to a star system full of blind men solving Rubik’s Cube simultaneously.” Physicist Andrei Linde of Stanford University stated: “The universe and the observer exist as a pair. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of the universe that ignores consciousness.”
Participatory Anthropic Principle
The anthropic principle is a philosophical consideration that observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it: Sapience – to taste or to perceive, consciousness – aware of the mind and surroundings, of space and time. Wheeler speculated that reality is created by observers in the universe. “How does something arise from nothing?” he asked about the existence of space and time. He also coined the term “Participatory Anthropic Principle.” In 1990, Wheeler suggested that information is fundamental to the physics of the universe.
According to what he called the “it from bit” doctrine, all things physical are information-theoretic in origin:
It from bit. Otherwise put, every it — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe. (Wheeler, Interview)
Wheeler’s theory was that, in an analogous manner, consciousness may play some role in bringing the universe into existence. This is the core of what he called The Participatory Anthropic Principle.
We may choose to believe that the universe is made up of entirely material items and its existence would be here, whether we are or not. From at least the 17th Century, and probably earlier, people have conceived of the idea that the universe is created from our own minds, our observations, our “experimentation” on the world.
What we do in our day to day life, in our spiritual life, in our interactions with others has an effect on the world around us, causing the interplay of life and the stream of consciousness of time.
Perceiving the universe as a participatory place gives us a glimpse of the answer to the question: why are we here? I personally believe we humans are meant to create – life, activity, buildings, art, ideas, new thoughts – many things. To tie this back to the beginning, with regards to Freemasonry, we are working together, in ritual and in groups, toward perfecting humanity. If we are doing this, we are perfecting the universe – past, present, and future.