How does the universe look to nothing?

November 16, 2017

I had a fascinating conversation with a friend regarding the objective vs. subjective nature of reality. Does the universe objectively exist whether or not someone is there to observe it, or is its existence subjective and in the mind of the observer? This question dates back centuries, but comes back highly recommended from quantum physics, which makes this question no longer a metaphysical one, but a fundamental scientific one.

Neither of us made any particular progress on this question. I believe that our senses plays a large part in how we perceive the existence of the universe, and without our senses, the world is just metadata. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics state that a conscious observer is required for electrons to make up their mind about their attributes, and thus that a conscious observer is required for the existence of the universe. Without a conscious observer, nothing can be said to exist.

My friend has a gift for taking the complex and simplifying it into bitesize edibles. We’ve argued about this topic inconclusively for months, particularly about what role language plays in distorting this entire conversation to begin with, such that the answers are even sillier than the questions. So many of these questions that are fascinating to think about might just be tricks of the mind.

But, I gave it a try nonetheless. He asked, “What does an objective universe mean to you?” I struggled with an answer, but ultimately simplified it thusly: Without our sense of sight, the universe does not have a visual interface. Without our sense of hearing, the universe does not have an auditory interface. Without our sense of touch, the universe does not have a tactile interface. So what’s left? Take away the human, take away the perceiver, and what’s left?

That’s the question that our conversation, and science in general, is trying to get at.

“What you’re essentially asking is ‘What does the universe look like to nothing?’” he noted. I started to laugh, because put like that, it makes you realize what a silly question that is to begin with.

He went on. “What you’re really trying to get at is, how does the universe look to a God-like figure? That’s the objective reality we once knew and loved. This question is a lot easier to answer, since God is a constant observer with a well-defined point of reference. But take away the concept of a god, like we have in modern times, and we’re left sort of struggling: If God is not the center, ever-present point-of-view, then what does the universe actually look like objectively without anyone there?”

Or in other words, what does the universe look like to nothing?

Put like that, it may just be a paradox, or a temporary fascination of our limited mind. Or it may be our mind expanding its bounds. In either case, at our current level, this question might just be nonsensical.