Does the universe exist outside of our consciousness? Einstein said he was reluctant to give up on trying to solve this question, and yet he had to. It is an enigma that arises because quantum mechanics keep revealing a universe that is dependent on the observer. That is to say, the presence of the observer influences experimental results.
The ramifications are deep, all right. Starting around the time of Newton, scientists assumed that there is an objective universe out there, that existed before life or consciousness sprang into being, and exists independent of our measurements of it. In short, the basic framework of reality, called “local realism,” is an essentially dumb, random cosmos that is independent of our minds.
But quantum theory insists that such a worldview is wrong, because one’s observations (of, say, entangled photons or particles) produce immediate distant physical effects. The famous Double Slit experiment consistently offers hard evidence of nature and consciousness being correlative: existing interdependently.
In this view, there is nothing outside of consciousness. As the late famed physicist John Wheeler put it, “No phenomenon is a real phenomenon unless it is an observed phenomenon.”
The easiest doorway into this new perception may be right before our eyes, since all visual images do not occur “out there” in an external reality, but form only in the occipital lobe of the brain. That’s where everything visual is occurring: in the brain. So it’s mind out there in front of us, the only place the “world” and its images and tactile impressions can form and be apprehended. It’s only language and custom that make us think that what we perceive is “out there” in some external realm removed from our beings. Even Newton wrote about this in his short monograph, The Rays Are Not Colored, strongly suggesting that the distinction between internal and external does not exist.
Far out? You bet – especially when contrasted with the mainstream view that consciousness exists only as isolated pockets (within you and me) dependent on individual neural structure. This seems true. When you encounter an unfortunately dead dog on the road, it’s clear that he is no longer aware of you.
The problem is, if consciousness solely arises from biological structure, how does it do so? This simple question has never been answered. Indeed, major studies of consciousness, like Daniel Dennett’s classic Consciousness Explained, ended up admitting that consciousness’s nature is an insuperable mystery, and that the best that science can do is determine which areas of the brain control which function, which is now often characterized as among the “easy issues” of consciousness.
When we try to go deeper, and ask how a sense of “being” or experience or awareness can ever arise from any combination of elements like hydrogen and carbon, this is the “hard problem of consciousness.” And here, science hasn’t a clue. Adding to the mystery is the so-called “enlightenment experience” of mystics, who proclaim it to revolve around a feeling of certainty that consciousness is deathless and eternal, and unconfined to any individual.
That’s outside mainstream science, sure. But there’s more than enough science justification for us to admit that it just might be true.