San Francisco Chronicle: Are We the Masters of Time?

We live in an age where massive amounts of money are spent for research into the brain and almost nothing into researching the mind. This represents a huge demotion. In prior centuries the mind was exalted. It was the mind that perceived beauty, experienced love, and reached for god.  Can the brain really do all those tings on its own? Neuroscience says yes, but that’s a leap of faith. why would a neuron have any interest in beauty, love, and God to begin with? Its whole life is spent exchanging chemical and electrical signals with other neurons. On the fringes of speculative thinking, the mind is coming back into its own.

Instead of trying to rehabilitate the mind, we think it’s more fruitful, and far bolder, to put the mind at the very center of reality. Nothing exists except in your own awareness.  If you can’t see, hear, touch, taste, and smell a thing, if you can’t even think about it, the thing cannot exist.  Yet even without a world of things, consciousness does exist, and it has enormous untapped potential. That was proven decades ago when physics discovered the observer effect. Technically, the observer effect applies to light. Light can act like a wave or a particle, but not both at the same time. It defies ordinary logic, but Einstein and his colleagues discovered that light “decides” whether to act like a wave or particle depending on the observer.

Until it is observed, light exists in suspended animation, so to speak. It doesn’t take the form of particle or wave until an observer tries to measure it. After that, there’s no turning back. Whatever the observer sees is reality. This implies that observation is a creative act, and quantum physics has lived with that fact for two generations or more. Only or ordinary people, the observer effect hasn’t had much to do with their lives.

Or has it?

Children who are raised under a disapproving eye, who are made to feel bad, worthless, and unlovable, are very likely to grow up to feel that way permanently.  Isn’t a judgmental parent a kind of observer, creating the very flaws he sees?  On the other hand, children raised under a loving eye have a far greater chance of loving themselves and developing the good qualities seen in them. You can come up  with many examples of how the observer effect might influence daily life.

But what if we are missing the forest for the trees? What if consciousness is creating much more than we suppose. It could be creating something as basic as time and space. At the quantum level, Nature isn’t bound by either one. Not only is time relative, but certain phenomena travel faster than the speed of light, needing no time at all to cover billions of light years in distances.  that, too, is well known in modern physics.  But few thinkers have applied the same effect to the mind.

Here things get tricky. Let’s say you are an observer. You watch an event unfold such as the action of light deciding whether to be a wave or a particle. Since your brain is composed of quantum interactions, it isn’t a stable observer. Waves are watching waves, particles are observing particles. Which implies that your brain only “decides” to be a brain at the moment you perceive anything. This quirky notion drops us immediately into the quantum soup, where nothing is stable at all.

To get out of the soup, we need to know why time and space look so stable. I don’t expect the room I’m sitting in to collapse a minute from now, and I don’t expect my car to shoot off at the speed  of light, even though photons and subatomic particles are the basis for my car and my room. The reason we have a stable sense of time and space issn’t because they are “real,” in the sense that time and space don’t need an observer. They absolutely do, for without a mind, nothing exists but randomness and chaos at every level.

The mystery of how time and space become real is tied to the mystery of mind.  Some cosmologists, looking at the evolution of the universe, can’t tolerate randomness. They don’t believe that the explosion of the Big Bang could create the complexity of DNA, any more than a hurricane blowing through a junkyard could create a 747 jetliner. It has been proposed that the visible universe is matched to our own minds. The events we observe that lead to our existence here on planet Earth are precisely the events that can be observed by the human mind. One can imagine life forms on other planets that see an entirely different universe, the one that led to their existence.

Calling an idea tricky doesn’t make it absurd. This so-called “anthropic principle” rests upon an irrefutable basis: nobody can observe anything that the mind isn’t set up for.  Silicone crystals may be vibrating in a language that sings and makes up poetry, but we have no means of eavesdropping since our minds can’t conceive of minerals leading complex social and artistic lives. Now let’s go a step further.

Instead of hogging the limelight by saying that the mind must be human, what if we posit that life is in charge of the universe? This was certainly true before the rise of science.  The creation emanated from a living God, and since God was everywhere, life was everywhere. Science traditionally considered this a matter of faith rather than reason. They could point to atoms and molecules, amino acids and enzymes, proteins and primitive life forms, all the way from blue-green algae to human DNA. Isn’t it obvious, they say, that life develop  from non-life over billions of years?

Actually, no, The tracks of evolution are just that, footprints to show that something or someone has passed here.  A radio playing Mozart is just such a footprint. It proves that Mozart once lived, but you can’t tear apart the radio and find Mozart inside.  You and I are the children of evolution, but only part of our evolution is visible; the rest, the most mysterious part, is invisible. Therein lies the answer to how we became masters of space and time.

(To be continued)

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle