interpretation of quantum mechanics, quantum measurement theory

The Idealistic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

It may be 25 years old, but Amit Goswami’s (Department of Physics and the Institute of Theoretical Science, University of Oregon) interpretations stand true today as they did then…


A paradox free interpretation of quantum mechanics is given using the philosophy of monistic idealism. This idealistic interpretation is developed as an ontological extension of the Copenhagen interpretation, and it is shown to correct the dualistic errors made by Wigner and others who have tried to invoke consciousness in quantum measurement theory. I also compare the idealistic interpretation with such realistic alternatives as the hidden variables theory or the many-worlds hypothesis that are closest to the present idea in spirit. The new interpretation leads to a new way of thinking about the mind-brain and our self-reference problems.


Quantum mechanics gives us a revolutionary view of reality, a view radically different from the deterministic, causal, continuous, and objective view of the world with which classical mechanics mesmerizes us. Quantum mechanics depicts the world of appearance as a succession of discontinuous events, and what’s more disconcerting to the classical physicist, it seems to say that no event is an event unless it is an observed event.(1) This appears to invite subjects, observers, into the affair of objects, the observed; and if subjects and objects get mixed up, then the traditional doctrine of strong objectivity – the observer independence of objects – doesn’t hold. And more recently Bell’s theorem(2) and Aspect’s experimental demonstration(3) of EPR-Bohm nonlocality(4) have challenged the doctrine of strong objectivity even further.

The subject-object mixing and nonlocality form the core of the quantum mechanical measurement problem. In the standard Copenhagen interpretation, the assumption of collapse of the wave function upon observation (the reduction postulate) is introduced in order to connect theory and experiment, but the question of what constitutes a measurement has been left unanswered. And in view of the EPR-Bohm nonlocality, the collapse is clearly nonlocal. The ontological implication of nonlocal collapse has not been studied.

Any explicit role of the subject is avoided in the standard interpretation, but the price is the baffling quantum/classical dichotomy. This dichotomy finds a straightforward resolution if we assume as von Neumann(5) and Wigner(6) have done, that consciousness, the observing subject, collapses the state function of a quantum system, not the “classical” measuring apparatus. Unfortunately, at least two major objections can be raised against the von Neumann-Wigner hypothesis. The first is the question of mind over matter, and the second is solipsism (see below).

Recently d’Espagnat discussed the philosophical inadequacy of the current interpretations of quantum mechanics (including the standard Copenhagen interpretation) in dealing with the paradoxes of quantum measurement (such as Schroedinger’s cat and EPR-Bohm) without, however, suggesting any immediate remedy.(7) Interestingly, he has left out of the bulk of his discussion one philosophy, monistic idealism (according to which the primary fabric of reality is consciousness), perhaps for the obvious reason that this philosophy has never been tested seriously to interpret quantum mechanics (although Bohr and Heisenberg, the two founding fathers of the Copenhagen interpretation, clearly leaned toward it in some of their writings).

The purpose of this paper is to examine whether the philosophy of monistic idealism can come to the rescue of quantum physicists in their 60-year-old struggle to find a paradox-free interpretation of quantum mechanics. This philosophy, originally developed by Plato, has more recently been studied by Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer.(7) Its guidelines are concrete, not arbitrary, and as the reader will discover, pertinent to the present problem.

In particular, I will show that if the von Neuman-Wigner collapse of a quantum system by consciousness is interpreted within idealism with its succinct philosophy of consciousness, the objections of mind over matter and solipsism find ready resolutions. Additionally, the ontological meaning of nonlocal collapse becomes clear.

In short, in the idealistic interpretation, we will find a parsimonious solution to the quantum measurement problem without upsetting our generally held beliefs and mathematical formalisms, and yet this solution is open to new experimental investigations.

In Sec. 2 I will give a brief review of the philosophies that are most relevant to the present discussion. Section 3 considers the ontological problem of quantum objects and develops an idealistic ontology. Section 4 is the heart of the paper and presents the main ideas of the idealistic resolution to the measurement problem. Not only are the paradoxes of Schroedinger’s cat and Wigner’s friend unambiguously resolved, but the question “When is a measurement?” is also succinctly answered.

Section 5 compares the nonlocal hidden-variables approach of Bohm(9) with the present one. In addition, this section clarifies the ontological significance of nonlocal collapse. In Sec. 6 I discuss the relationship of the present theory with the many-worlds interpretation. (10) I also discuss such cosmological questions as one that is often asked to embarrass an idealist: If consciousness is needed to collapse the world of appearance, how could the universe come into existence 15 billion years ago when there were no conscious beings around? The question of irreversibility in quantum measurement is briefly dealt with in Sec. 7. Section 8 presents a resolution of the idealism-realism dichotomy within a basic idealistic approach. What is the relation of quantum and classical in the idealistic interpretation? Both Secs. 7 and 8 touch upon this question. Finally, Sec. 9 gives a summary of the paper along with an outlook.


To begin, without being too technical, I will review the major philosophies at issue:

  1. Realism. This philosophy holds that the fundamental elements of reality are independent of consciousness – this is the doctrine of strong objectivity. A tree in the forest is real, even when it is not being perceived; the moon continues in its space-time orbit, even when nobody is looking; and so forth. The doctrine of strong objectivity is further augmented by another doctrine – causal determinism. There are many different sub-philosophies within this basic realist view, and I will only mention two that are useful in the discussion of quantum philosophy:
    1. material realism, which considers matter to be the only fundamental reality; there is only one order of reality, matter (and its extensions, energy, and fields), according to this view. All else, including consciousness, are epiphenomena and are ultimately reducible to matter. Thus materialism comes hand in hand with epiphenomenalism and reductionism. Furthermore, since the only reality is that defined by space-time, the doctrine of locality is held fundamental.
    2. non-physical realism, which permits orders of reality other than matter, although we may directly experience only the material order. Bohm’s idea of implicate and explicate order is an example of non-physical realism.(9) Since there is more than one order of reality, locality is no longer essential; neither are epiphenomenalism and reductionism.
  2. Idealism. This philosophy holds that the fundamental elements of reality must include the mind. Within this broad category I will mention two subdivisions that will be important for our discussion:
      1. dualism (or pluralism), which considers mind and body to be separate worlds both having primary importance. This philosophy hardly needs further elaboration.
      2. monistic idealism, which considers consciousness to be the primary reality. The world of matter is considered to be determined by consciousness as is the subtle world of mental phenomena, such as thought. Besides the material and the subtle (which together form the immanent reality or the world of appearance), idealism posits a transcendent archetypal or ideal realm as the “source” of the lower immanent worlds of appearance of the material and the subtle. However, monistic idealism is fundamentally a monistic philosophy; any subdivisions such as the three orders above are in consciousness – thus, ultimately, consciousness is the only reality.

    Plato characterized the plight of human beings in their experience of the universe in the following way. We are in a cave strapped in our respective seats, our heads fixed so that they always face the wall. The phenomenal universe is a shadow show projected on the wall. And we are shadow watchers. We watch shadow-illusions that we mistake for reality. The “real” reality is behind us, in the light that creates the shadows on the wall, shadows of archetypal objects, idea forms. In this allegory, the shadow show is the immanent world of appearance, the archetypes belong to the transcendent world, but in truth, the light is the only reality, light is all we see. In monistic idealism, consciousness is like this light in Plato’s cave.

    Although diametrically opposite in their basic premise, both realists and idealists agree, however, that it is possible to speak about reality; in fact, it is imperative since questions of the nature of reality are the most meaningful questions that face us. But there is a third way of doing philosophy where one refuses to talk about reality.

  3. Logical positivism. This philosophy is summarized by Wittgenstein’s dictum, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” In the United States, slightly different statements of this philosophy are commonly used. For example, there is phenomenalism – one can only talk about phenomena and the relations among them. Phenomenalists define the task of physics as this: to give “definite prescriptions for successfully foretelling the results of observations.” The goal is success and communication (pragmatism), not understanding. All we need is a set of operations that determines the success of predictions (operationalism).As is well known, the Copenhagen interpretation was influenced the most by logical positivism, and yet from the beginning, realists have (rightly) suspected its idealistic leanings though always mixed with pragmatism. This idealistic bent has only become more pronounced in some writings, especially that of Wheeler, who puts it this way: “no elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is a registered (observed) phenomenon.”But the Copenhagen interpretation stops with a philosophy of experience. Instead of the idealistic dictum that there is nothing outside of consciousness, Copenhagenists hold on to the positivistic idea that there is nothing outside of our experience. But all attempts to develop quantum mechanics along strictly positivistic lines have failed, and it is now clear, as Einstein and other realists have always maintained, it is impossible to do science without ontology metaphysics. And yet, the metaphysics does not have to be realism, it can be idealism as we will see. In a sense, what I am proposing in this paper is to take the positivistic shackle off the Copenhagen interpretation and bring its idealistic bent to its natural fruition.

2.1 The Copenhagen Interpretation

According to the Copenhagen interpretation, quantum mechanics consists of six principal elements.

  1. The state of a quantum system is determined by the solution of the Schroedinger equation, the state or wave function. The square of the wave function determines the probability of finding a certain result, the average of a group of similar events.
  2. Quantum objects are governed by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle – that it is impossible to simultaneously measure pairs of conjugate variables such as position and momentum.
  3. The complementarity principle of Bohr asserts that quantum objects have complementary wave and particle aspects, and only one of these aspects can be measured with any given experimental arrangement.
  4. Discontinuity and quantum jumps are fundamental aspects of the behavior of quantum systems. For example, a measurement leads to a discontinuous collapse of the state function of a system from a coherent superposition to an eigenstate of the observable being measured.
  5. The correspondence principle, also due to Bohr, affirms that under certain situations (for example, in the case of closely spaced energy levels), quantum mechanical predictions reduce to those of classical mechanics. This guarantees that we can use classical mechanics for making predictions about macro-objects in most situations.
  6. Inseparability – quantum systems cannot be unambiguously separated from their measuring apparatuses.

The above is basically Bohr’s version of the Copenhagen interpretation. Heisenberg gave a slightly different version. According to Heisenberg, the wave function represents not the real system but our knowledge of the system. Thus the collapse of the wave function is not a real physical event but represents a change in our knowledge of the system as a result of our measurement.

It is this last aspect, item 6, of the Copenhagen interpretation that causes the most consternation to the realist. Ultimately, all measuring apparatuses refer to a subject doing the measurement; thus in the Copenhagen interpretation, a mixing of subjects and objects is implied, and this compromises the strong objectivity of scientific realism Thus to the question “Is the moon there when we don’t look?” a Copenhagenist can answer “no”(11) (although Bohr probably would say “It does not matter”), and this continues to baffle realists as it did Einstein.

But the Copenhagenists never did a very good job in explaining their position to allay the realists’ concern; their ontological position was never clear (for example, to the above moon question they would refuse to give a clear ontological answer). Moreover, the Copenhagenists are unable to resolve such well-known quantum measurement paradoxes as Schroedinger’s cat (due to their introduction of a subtle quantum-classical dichotomy) and the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox (due to their reluctance to explore further the nature of quantum nonlocality, for example, the nonlocality of the collapse of the state function).


As an unspoken alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation, many physicists today look upon quantum mechanics as purely instrumental, as merely a mathematical method to calculate the behavior of submicroscopic objects. But Bohr, the father of the Copenhagen interpretation, also gave us the complementarity principle that hints at something much more. The complementarity principle declares that the wave and particle aspects of a quantum object are complementary; yet for a single quantum object, the wave nature never manifests; whenever we look we always “see” a quantum object localized, as a particle. This opens the door to a transcendental interpretation of complementarity – the wave aspect of a quantum object is transcendent; it exists in another domain transcending space-time.(12) This is exactly what complementarity means in idealistic philosophies; for example, in Buddhism, of the two complementary concepts of emptiness and form, emptiness refers to a transcendent order.

The transcendent domain is also reminiscent of Whitehead’s process ontology.(13) According to Whitehead, the events that characterize our world of appearance are not to be conceived as the motions of persistent material objects in given space and time. Instead, he said, “space and time [and material objects] must result from something in process which transcends objects.”(14)

The same ontology underlies the discussion of a quantum object’s trajectory under the spell of the uncertainty principle. When we look, we find the center of mass of the moon exactly where we would expect it; yet we cannot define a trajectory for it. Where was it in between observations? The straightforward answer is “in a transcendent domain.”

In general, one notices, as Schroedinger did, that out of the 6n classical position and momentum variables of an n-particle system, only 3n are observable at any given time. But, as observed by Rohrlich, this does not imply that a quantum ontology is impossible. It simply means that we redefine the ontology as a blurred one.(15) Instead of using the conventional position and momentum to define a particle, Rohrlich proposes that we define it with the help of such intrinsic properties as charge and mass that arise from superselection rules. This is certainly supported by the delayed choice experiment.(16) But why stop at mass and charge? According to the gauge theories of elementary particles, it is conceivable that particle mass and charge arise from the details of symmetry breaking in the early universe. Hence it makes sense to postulate that all properties of subatomic particles are brought about by immanence.(17) In the transcendent domain these particles remain as formless, albeit highly mathematical, ideas.

The experimental demonstration of quantum nonlocality by Aspect, et al. adds further substance to the “rumor of transcendence” in physics. According to Stapp, the message of quantum nonlocality is that “the fundamental process of Nature lies outside space-time, but generates events that can be located in space-time.(18) Henceforth, I will use the term “nonlocal” in this “outside of space-time” transcendent sense (albeit the fact that “outside space-time” can be understood only paradoxically as both nowhere and everywhere in relation to space-time; paradox is always involved when we try to explain the idea of transcendence via concepts).

Further support for a transcendent ontology can be found by invoking quantum logic. The conjunction

(x1 or x2 … or xn) and (p1 or p2 … or pn) (1)

as implied by the transcendent ontology is correct quantum logic, as pointed out by Putnam.(19) However, this does not make the transcendent ontology a realistic one as claimed by Putnam, since the distributive expansion

(x1 and p1) or (x2 and p2) or … or (xn and pn)

is not valid in quantum logic. Thus one still is not allowed to have particle trajectories since simultaneous values of x and p are not permitted; so to claim that quantum logic supports a realistic ontology is meaningless.(20) The other option is to interpret Eq. (1) to support an idealistic ontology, and this is what I propose.

One can still ask, can the transcendent ontology be incorporated within realism by postulating another order beyond the material order? In Bohm’s theory.(9) there are two orders of reality: the implicate order (the nonlocal realm of the quantum pilot wave or hidden variables) and the explicate order (the world of appearance); however, there is causal continuity between the two worlds. This not only raises the old specter of determinism but also stops short of transcendence in idealism, which is causally discontinuous from the ordinary realm of appearance (recall the allegory of Plato’s cave).

But there is another alternative for interpreting quantum mechanics – to embrace an idealistic view (in the Platonic or Kantian sense) that there is a transcendent domain of archetypes (Plato) or a priori (Kant), a domain of consciousness that is the source of the empirical world of appearance, and this is the alternative followed in this paper. In this view, quantum objects are posited to be “archetypal,” a priori; they exist in potentia (to use Heisenberg’s term) in this transcendent domain until translated to the manifest world of appearance by the discontinuous act of measurement. And the EPR nonlocal connection between quantum objects is seen as a connection via the transcendent domain of consciousness (see below). As we will see, this view not only leads to a consistent interpretation of quantum mechanics but also to new insights on the mind-brain-consciousness problem.


The collapse of the quantum wave function, said Heisenberg, changes our “knowledge” of a quantum object. But a more explicitly idealistic view of the quantum collapse is that of von Neumann and Wigner.(5), (6)According to them, it is our consciousness that collapses the wave function of a quantum object as a result of measurement. Argues Wigner, if a quantum object can affect our consciousness (for example, as stated by Heisenberg), then our consciousness must be able to affect a quantum object. But the attempts to justify this argument rely heavily on the elusive mechanism of psychokinesis.(21) Furthermore, one can raise paradoxes against this approach (for example, the paradox of Wigner’s friend; see later).

The fundamental problem with the von Neuman-Wigner idea of collapse is that theirs is a dualistic view – conscious mind separate from the body; their idealism is more like Descartes’ dualism and is unacceptable from the monistic point of view of both the material realism of classical science and the idealism that has grown out of the philosophical tradition of Plato. Of course, in material monism, consciousness is regarded as an epiphenomenon of matter; thus collapse of a matter wave by consciousness in such a philosophy is causally circular and embarrassing. Fortunately, there is a philosophy of consciousness other than dualism, the monistic idealism in the Platonic tradition; looking at the quantum collapse with this philosophy does not lead to dualistic paradoxes (as will be shown below).

What is this view of consciousness? Plotinus, a neo-Platonist, saw consciousness (he called it “spirit”;consciousness is a relatively recent word in Western languages) to have a unitive character – there is only one self or subject of experience; the self is unitive and transcendent or nonlocal, to use the term of physics. More recently Schopenhauer reached the same conclusion about the unitive and transcendent character of consciousness.

What I will show in the following sections is that the paradoxical aspects of quantum mechanics are paradoxical, because we habitually look at quantum phenomena with the conceptual lens of material realism or dualistic idealism; the paradoxes disappear like bashful maidens under the a stable stare of monistic idealism.

As Dirac has stressed, the solution of all major problems of physics has required the abandonment of some major prejudice. Examples are the prejudice of absolute time, the prejudice of causal determinism, etc. Perhaps the time has arrived for us to examine (and if necessary, give up) the prejudices of looking at objects apart from consciousness and of looking at consciousness as an epiphenomenon of matter, or as part of a dualistic matter-mind pair.

But where does such a solution of the quantum-interpretation problem based on Platonic idealism leave us? Can science proceed without some grounding in realism? I will show that contrary to a popular misconception of idealism, it is a philosophy that can accommodate the assumptions of scientific realism in the limited domain of macro-objects [with some minor modifications, for example, replacing strong objectivity – observer independence – by weak objectivity, observer invariance.(22)]; only the philosophy of materialism (that everything is made of only matter) is incompatible with idealism. Heisenberg clearly saw that the answer to the riddle of the interpretation of quantum mechanics lay in Platonic idealism and not in the materialism that grew out of the atomistic ideas of Democritus. He envisioned that quantum objects are more like Platonic archetypes than billiard balls of Democritus’ vintage.(23)

4.1 Consciousness, Schroedinger’s Cat, and the Measurement Paradox

Suppose we put a cat in a cage with a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter, and a poison bottle; further suppose that the atom in the cage has a half-life of one hour, a 50-50 chance of decaying within the hour. If the atom decays, the Geiger counter will tick; the triggering of the counter will break the poison bottle, which will kill the cat. If the atom doesn’t decay, none of the above things happen, and the cat will be alive. What is the state of the cat after the hour?

If we think classically, like a true material realist, we will make a mental analogy of the situation with a coin that somebody has flipped’ but which is hiding under the flipper’s palm, and we don’t know if it is heads or tails. But of course, it’s either heads or tails, the cat is either dead or alive with a 50 percent chance for each outcome; we just don’t know which.

How does quantum mechanics describe the state of the cat after the hour? Literally, as a half-alive and half-dead cat, as a coherent superposition,

Of course, nobody has actually seen a coherent superposition. Indeed, if we make an observation, the cat is found either alive or dead. And then the question arises, What’s so special about our making an observation that resolves the diabolical dichotomy?

One way to get out of the predicament is to say that the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the prediction of coherent superpositions as above, must not be taken literally. Instead, we can opt for the statistical interpretation that quantum mechanics only makes predictions about experiments involving ensembles. Maybe for a single cat the theory just does not apply. On the other hand, isn’t this tantamount to giving up on finding a physical theory for the description of a single object or single events? But single events do occur, and now even single electrons have been isolated. So a resolution for the paradox of quantum measurement of a single quantum process, as raised in the example of Schroedinger’s cat, does need to be worked out.

The Copenhagen interpretation tries to mollify the consternation with some success using the complementarity principle. The coherent superposition is an abstraction; as an abstraction the cat is able to exist as both live and dead. This is a complementary description, complementary to the dead or alive description that we give when we do see the cat. Moreover, “we never see this coherent superposition.” Posing as logical positivists, Copenhagenists say that we should confine our discussion of reality to what is seen instead of trying to find ontological significance to what we cannot observe. “There is no quantum reality,” Bohr is supposed to have said more than once.

But even Copenhagenists must face up to the second paradox:

Who/what determines the outcome when an observation is made, when the cage of the cat is opened? Who plays dice with the fate of the cat? as Einstein would have asked. Or what constitutes an observation?

But of course, one resolution is obvious, and it is this: Since our observation seems to do the magic of curing the schizophrenia of the cat, it could be us, consciousness, that collapses the cat’s wave function. This idea causes problems for material realism, because this injects mind as an independent entity, and admitting that would be like driving home nails in the coffin in which material realism finds itself in this whole business of Schroedinger’s cat. But materialism notwithstanding, Wigner, following the lead of von Neumann and others,(24) has endorsed this resolution to the paradox.(6)

I will restate Wigner’s resolution in the complete idealistic context: It is our consciousness whose observation of the cat resolves its schizophrenic alive-dead dichotomy. Coherent superpositions, the multifaceted quantum waves, exist in the never-never land of a transcendent order, until we bring them to the world of appearance with the act of observation. And in the process, we choose one facet out of two, or many, that are permitted by the Schroedinger equation; it is a limited choice, to be sure, subject to the overall probability constraint of quantum mathematics, but it is choice, nevertheless.

But questions remain. How does the idealistic interpretation tackle the issue of mind over matter? Or of solipsism, that is, the paradox of Wigner’s friend? Or the difficult question of when is a measurement?

It is important to address these questions especially because the answers point to the possibility of a change in our world view, a genuine paradigm shift

4.2 Can Consciousness Affect Matter?

Can it be that consciousness is decisive in shaping the reality of the physical world of the quantum? Doesn’t this imply mind over matter? Yes, definitely. But that is a problem only for material realism. Then only the question will haunt us if an epiphenomenon of matter can act on the very fabric of which it is built.

However, it is true that Wigner’s own writing contains an implicit dualism(25) which the materialist is quite right in rejecting. But dualism is not the only way to conceive of mind over matter. No, mind-body dualism is not the resolution of the paradox of Schroedinger’s cat, as the paradox of Wigner’s friend will demonstrate later. The resolution is monistic idealism, a philosophy in which consciousness is primary. In consciousness coherent superpositions are transcendent objects. The subject to consciousness chooses one of the facets of the multifaceted coherent superposition when it brings it down to immanence by conscious observation, subject of course to the probability constraints of the quantum calculus (consciousness is lawful).

One will ask the following question. If the cat is a coherent superposition (both live and dead) before we look, but has a unique state, dead or alive, after we look, then we must be doing something by just looking. But then, wonders Pearle, “It is hard to believe that a tiny peek at a cat would have a big effect on the physical state of the cat.” (26) This is a problem that dualists a la Wigner vainly seek to answer trying to find evidence of psychokinesis, moving matter with the mind. But in monistic idealism, objects are already in consciousness as primordial, transcendent archetypal possibility forms. The collapse is not about doing something to objects via observing, but choosing and recognizing the result of choice.

A simplistic example of what is happening can be found by looking at a gestalt picture with dichotomic meanings, such as the famous, “My wife and my mother in law.(27) Both pictures lie hidden among the same lines. When we see the wife (or the mother-in law), we are not doing anything to the picture but just recognizing. The process of collapse by consciousness is to be understood as something like this.

4.3 The Paradox of Wigner’s Friend

Next, let’s examine the paradox of Wigner’s friend. Suppose that instead of making the observation of the cat himself, Wigner asks a friend to do so. His friend opens the cage, finds the answer, and then reports it to Wigner. At this point, we can say, Wigner (his subject-consciousness) has just actualized the reality that includes his friend (the observer) and the cat. But there is a paradox here. Was the cat alive or dead when Wigner’s friend observed it, but before he reported the observation? To say that the state of the cat did not collapse when his friend observed the cat is to maintain that his friend remained in a state of suspended animation until Wigner asked him, that his friend’s consciousness could not decide whether the cat was alive or dead without Wigner’s prodding. Here is that problem of solipsism.

Wigner has compared this state of affairs with one in which an inanimate apparatus is used to make the observation. In the latter case there is no paradox; there is nothing paradoxical or upsetting about a machine being in limbo for a while. But experience says that there is something decisive about a conscious being. As soon as a conscious being observes, the material reality becomes manifest in a unique state. Says Wigner:

It follows that the being with a consciousness must have a different role in quantum mechanics than the inanimate measuring device…. This argument implies that “my friend” has the same types of impressions and sensations as I – in particular, that, after interacting with the object, he is not in that state of suspended animation … It is not necessary to see a contradiction here from the point of view of orthodox quantum mechanics, and there is none if we believe that the alternative is meaningless, whether my friend’s consciousness contains either the impression of having seen or of not having seen [a dead cat or a live cat]. However, to deny the existence of the consciousness of a friend to this extent is surely an unnatural attitude, approaching solipsism, and few people, in their heart, will go along with it.(28)

The paradox is subtle. But Wigner is right; we do not have to go as far as to say that until Wigner manifests his friend, his friend stays in a state of suspended animation But realists worry that the world would be a pandemonium if individual people were to decide the behavior of the objective world, because we “know” how different subjective impressions can be sometimes. Hence the argument of solipsism is used, because it is believed that only with solipsism can we make sure that all subjective impressions will conform with mine, because then only my subjecthood is true, all else is my imagination. But there is an antidote to solipsism. Wigner has to appeal to common sense to refute solipsism. But Wigner’s problem arises from his dualistic thinking, his consciousness separate from his friend’s. The paradox disappears if there is only one subject – not separate subjects as we are used to thinking. The antidote of solipsism is a unitive subject-consciousness.

When I observe, what I see is the whole world of appearance, but this is not solipsism. Because there is no individual “I” that sees, as opposed to other “I”s. We fall into the dualistic trap of thinking about “my” consciousness because of the use of the word I, which must be thought of purely as a linguistic convenience and must not be taken literally. (Similarly, people fall into thinking about having consciousness, such as in the question, does a cat have consciousness? But really, consciousness is something to be possessed only in material realism, only if it were an epiphenomenon.)

4.4 The Watched Pot Does Boil

However, the question of Schroedinger’s cat being a conscious being is worth considering for another reason. In fact, we can make the issue even more acute by putting a human being inside the cage with the radioactive atom and all. Suppose we open the cage after the hour and, if he is still alive, ask him if he experienced a half-alive half-dead state? Of course not! he will say. Are we getting into trouble here with the idealistic interpretation? But what if we ask him if he experienced being alive all the time? Of course! he will say, maybe a little puzzled. But he would be misrepresenting his case, because the fact is that we are not conscious of our body all the time; the continuity of the stream of our consciousness is only illusory, similar to how we see a motion picture – our brain-mind cannot discern the individual still pictures when they are paraded before our eyes at a speed of 24 frames/s. Thus what seems to be continuity to a human observer watching himself is really a mirage, fraught with many discontinuous collapses.

It is sometimes argued that the idea of consciousness collapsing the quantum wave function and bringing it to the world of appearance must be wrong, because then we could prevent change of any object by staring at it.(26) At first glance it seems that such an object would never have the opportunity of time evolution, its wave function would remain collapsed all the time. This paradox is sometimes called “the watched pot never boils” phenomenon. But the above argument about the limits of our perceptual apparatus also nullifies this criticism. The world comes into being discontinuously, event to event. Any continuity, such as watching a pot continuously is imposed by the mind-brain, but there is no reality to it. Thus the watched pot does boil.(29)

4.5 Can We Draw the line? Looking Through the Bohr-Heisenberg Microscope

We cannot develop a theory of quantum objects without injecting us into the picture. When we struggle to understand the collapse of a sprawling probability wave as we attempt to see it, the question naturally arises “Who/what chooses the outcome of the collapse of the wave of a quantum object?” Wigner says that our consciousness is responsible for the collapse, for the choice. Wigner’s point is that unless we observe, the quantum wave does not collapse; the undisturbed wave sustains the quantum dichotomy. Did the atom decay or not decay in the cage of Schroedinger’s cat? Did the cat die or not die? Does the electron pass through one slit or the other slit in a double-slit experiment? The answers to such questions languish in limbo, in the transcendent land of the coherent superposition of mutually exclusive possibilities – until we, conscious observers, look at a slit with a flashlight or open the cage to determine the cat’s condition.

But materialists continue to try finding ways to deny the role of consciousness in the collapse of the quantum wave function; many physicists, even today, believe that somehow, the cat’s wave function never becomes schizophrenic in the first place; somehow the wave function of the atom (which does become schizophrenic; denying that would mean denying quantum mechanics) collapses somewhere in between, before its schizophrenia invades the cat.(30) But nobody has been able to prove it; nobody has been able to draw the line of collapse somewhere between the observed and the observer without interjecting ad hoc assumptions.

In order to elucidate the uncertainty principle, its discoverer, Heisenberg, formulated a thought experiment that Bohr clarified further. Recently Bohm has given an account of it that we will adapt for the present discussion.(31) Suppose a particle is at rest in the target plane of a microscope and we are analyzing its observation in terms of classical physics. To observe the target particle, we focus (with the help of the microscope) another particle that is deflected by the target particle onto a photographic emulsion plate leaving a trail. From the track and knowing how the microscope works, according to classical physics, we can determine both the position of the target particle and the momentum imparted to it at the moment of defection The intermediary, the specific experimental conditions, drop out from the final result.

But all this changes in quantum mechanics. If the target particle is an atom, and we are looking at it through an electron microscope in which an electron is deflected from the atom onto a photographic plate, the following four considerations enter:

  1. The deflected electron must be described as both a wave (while it is traveling from the target atom to the image) and a particle (at arrival at the image point and while leaving the track in the emulsion.
  2. Because of this wave aspect of the electron, the image point tells us only the probability distribution of the object. In other words, the position is determined only with a certain uncertainty delta x.
  3. Similarly, argued Heisenberg, the direction of the track gives us only the probability distribution of the momentum of the object and thus determines the momentum only within an uncertainty delta p. Using simple mathematics, Heisenberg was able to show that the product of the two uncertainties is given as delta x times delta p is greater than or equal to h.
  4. Bohr pointed out that it is impossible to specify the wave function of the observed atom separately from the electron used to see it. And in truth, said Bohr, the wave function of the electron cannot be unentangled from that of the photographic emulsion. And more. We cannot draw the line in this chain with unambiguity. Bohr’s position is explained by Bohm as follows:

This means that the description of the experimental conditions does not drop out as a mere intermediary link of inference [as in the classical case], but remains inseparable from the description of what is called the observed object. The “quantum” context thus calls for a new kind of description that does not imply the separability of the “observed object” and “observing instrument.” Instead, the form of the experimental conditions and the meaning of the experimental results have now to be one whole in which analysis into autonomously existing elements is not relevant.(32)

But in spite of the ambiguity in drawing the line, Bohr also felt that we must draw the line because of the “indispensable use of classical concepts in the interpretation of all proper measurements.” The experimental arrangement, said Bohr reluctantly, must be described in totally classical terms; the dichotomy of quantum waves must be assumed to terminate with the measuring apparatus. But, as pointed out cogently by Schumacher,(33) all actual experiments have a second Heisenberg microscope built into them: The process of seeing the emulsion track involves the same kind of consideration that led Heisenberg to the uncertainty principle. Can we ignore the quantum mechanics of our own seeing? And if not, isn’t our observer-consciousness inexorably connected with the measurement process?

Returning to Schroedinger’s cat, according to Bohr, we cannot separate the wave function of the atom from the rest of the environment in the cat’s cage (the various measuring devices for the atom’s decay such as the Geiger counter, the poison bottle, and even the cat), and the line we draw between the microworld and the macro is arbitrary. Unfortunately, Bohr said that it was necessary, if only for the sake of communication, to go along with the idea that the observation by a machine, a measuring apparatus, resolves the dichotomy of a quantum wave function.

But, ultimately, any macrobody (the cat or any observing machine) is a quantum object, and there is no such thing as a classical body unless we are willing to admit a vicious quantum/classical dichotomy in physics.(34)It is true that a macrobody’s behavior can be predicted in most situations from the rules of classical mechanics (as dictated by the correspondence principle); this is the reason that we often loosely refer to macrobodies as classical. But the measurement process is not one of these occasions; the correspondence principle does not apply here.

Bohr knew this, of course; in his celebrated debates with Einstein, he often invoked quantum mechanics for describing macrobodies of measurement in order to refute the acute objections that Einstein raised to probability waves and the uncertainty principle.(35)

Thus it is difficult to deny that all objects ultimately obey quantum uncertainty and pick up quantum dichotomy. And then as von Neumann first argued,(5) if a chain of material machines measures a quantum object in a coherent superposition, they all in their turn pick up the dichotomy of the object, ad infinitum. This has been rightly compared with a Godelian knot.(36) How do we get out of such a logjam? In a very Godelian fashion – by jumping out of the system! Out of the material order of reality.

We know that an observation by a conscious observer ends the dichotomy. Thus it is obvious that the act of observation must be a jump out of the system, that the subject to consciousness must work from outside of the material world; in other words, the subject to consciousness must be transcendent.

Bohr is also right, of course. The quantum system and all the measuring apparatuses do remain inseparable, but in the transcendent domain, until consciousness collapses their correlated wave function.

4.6 When Is a Measurement?

There is, however, a subtle criticism that can be applied to unitive, nonlocal consciousness collapsing the wave function of quantum objects – consciousness is omnipresent. If we attribute a persona to consciousness, it is as if an omnipresent God is doing the collapsing. This raises the riddle expressed by the following two limericks:

There once was a man who said, ‘God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there is no one about in the quad’

and the reply

Dear sir, your astonishment’s odd
I am always about in the quad
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God.(37)

An omnipresent God collapsing the wave function does not resolve the measurement paradox because we can ask, at what point is the measurement complete if God is always looking? The answer is crucial. The measurement is not complete without the inclusion of the immanent mind-brain. Indeed, this agrees with our common sense observation that there is no experience of a material object without a concomitant mental (or subtle) object such as the thought “I see this object” or at least awareness.

There is a causal circularity here, and it is this: Awareness is needed to complete the measurement, but without the completion of measurement, there is no awareness. The causal circularity gives rise to a “tangled hierarchy”(38) and to self-reference in the brain-mind.(39) It is also completely in line with the idealistic philosophy that it is always the manifest participation of a brain-mind that is instrumental in collapsing the wave function. London and Bauer made a similar point.(24)

This also helps define what a measurement is as compared to an interaction, a not-so-easy distinction if one thinks that a measuring apparatus can collapse a quantum State function. As objects time-evolve in the transcendent domain, they obviously interact with one another as governed by the Schroedinger equation. But such an interaction does not lead to any collapse, because although consciousness is present, manifest awareness is not. When is a measurement? When both consciousness and awareness are present, and the participation of a brain-mind is needed for the latter. A cognitive experiment described below supports this idea.

4.7 I Choose, Therefore I Am

The idealistic resolution of the paradox of Schroedinger’s cat demands that it is the observing subject that chooses the fate of the cat. The subject is the chooser. It is not cogito, ergo sum; as Descartes thought, butopto, ergo, sum, I choose, therefore I am.

From this dictum, “I choose, therefore I am,” we can extract a definition of subject-consciousness, thus removing one of the objections sometimes leveled against idealism – the lack of a proper definition of the observer-consciousness that collapses the wave function. Subject-consciousness is that entity which manifests experience through choice.

Actually, there is even some experimental support for the idea that out of three concomitants of our subject-consciousness – thought, feeling, and choice – choice is singled out. The data have come from the cognitive laboratory. Thoughts and feelings arise in response to unconscious perception of stimulus events but not choice. What is unconscious in us? Unconscious is that for which there is consciousness but no awareness. So we are speaking of events that we perceive but are not aware of perceiving. According to the data, consciousness really does not seem to exercise choice unless consciousness is accompanied with awareness.

4.8 Unconscious Perception Experiments and the Question of Choice

Can there be a phenomenon called “unconscious perception”? Isn’t perception synonymous with awareness? And yet, new data in the cognitive laboratory point toward a distinction between these two concepts, perception and awareness.

Humphrey and Weiskrantz removed the cortical areas connected with vision from some monkeys. Since cortical tissue doesn’t grow back, these monkeys were expected to be permanently blind. Yet the monkeys gradually recovered enough of their sight to convince the researchers that they could see. The phenomenon was called blindsight.(40)

One of the monkeys, Helen, was often taken outside on a leash; she gradually learned to do some unusual things for a blind creature. For example, she could climb trees; she also took proffered food when it was near enough to grab but ignored it when it was too far to reach. Clearly, Helen was seeing, but with what?

It turns out that there is a secondary pathway for optical stimuli from the retina to a structure in the hindbrain called the superior colliculus. This collicular vision was enabling Helen to “see.”

This is the physiological explanation of blindsight, yes, but there’s still more. By chance, Humphrey came across a human subject with blindsight.(41) A failure in this man’s cortex had caused him to become blind in the left visual field of both eyes. But now the experimenters were able to ask what was happening in the man’s consciousness while he did the tricks permitted him by blind sight. And the answers were strange.

For example, if the man was shown a light to his left (his blind side), he could point to it with accuracy; he could also distinguish crosses from circles and horizontal lines from vertical ones, all in his left field. But when asked how he “saw” these things, the fellow insisted that he didn’t see; he claimed that he just guessed, in spite of the fact that his “hit” rate was far beyond chance.

What does all this mean? There is now some consensus among cognitive scientists that blindsight is an example of unconscious perception, perception without awareness.

Further physiological and cognitive evidence for unconscious perception has come from research done both in the United States and Russia.(42) These researchers measured the electrical responses (evoked potential) of the brains of various subjects to a variety of subliminal messages. The responses were usually stronger when a meaningful picture, such as that of a bee, was flashed on a screen for a thousandth of a second than when a more neutral picture, such as an abstract geometrical figure, was shown. Furthermore, when the subjects were asked to tell the researchers all the words that came to their minds after the subliminal exposure, a meaningful picture yielded words that were clearly related to the image flashed. For example, the picture of the bee elicited such words as sting and honey. Clearly, there was perception of the picture of the bee, but there was no conscious awareness of that perception.

These experiments have been hailed in the popular press as experimental proof of Freud’s concept of the unconscious that startled the scientific world at the turn of the century. Additionally, by showing us that unconscious-perception events occur in our brain as well as conscious ones, these experiments open us to a crucial question.

Are any of the three common concomitants of conscious experience – thought, feeling and choice – absent in unconscious perception? The experiment above suggests that thought is present, since the subjects thought of sting and honey in their unconscious perception of the picture of a bee. Obviously, we go right on thinking even in our unconscious.

How about feeling? Here, an experiment done with split-brain patients has given us important evidence. In these subjects, the left and right halves of the brain were surgically disconnected except for the cross connections in the hindbrain centers that are involved in emotion and feeling. When a picture of a nude male model was projected into the right hemisphere of a female subject in the middle of a sequence of geometrical patterns, she showed embarrassment by blushing. However, when asked, she denied being embarrassed; she had no conscious awareness of these inner feelings and could not explain why she blushed.(43) Thus feeling is also present in unconscious perception.

Finally, we ask, does choice, too, occur in unconscious perception? To find out, we must send an ambiguous stimulus to the brain-mind so that there is a choice of responses available. In a cognitive experiment, the psychologist Tony Marcel used polysemous words; his subjects fixated visually on a screen as a series of three words were flashed one at a time at intervals of either 600 ms or l.5 s between flashings.(44) The subjects were asked to push a button when they consciously recognized the last word of the series. The original purpose of the experiment was to use the subject’s reaction time as a measure of the relationship between congruence (or lack of it) among the words and the meanings assigned to the words in such series as band-palm-wrist (congruent), dock-palm-wrist (unbiased), tree-palm-wrist (incongruent), and clock-ball-wrist (unassociated). For example, the bias of the word “hand” followed by the flashing of palm may be expected to produce the hand-related meaning of palm, which then should improve the reaction time of the subject for recognizing the third word, “wrist” (congruence). But if the biasing word was “tree,” then the lexical meaning of palm as a tree would be assigned and the meaning-recognition of the third word, “wrist,” should take a longer reaction time (incongruous). And indeed, this was the result.

However, when the middle word was masked by a pattern that made it impossible to see with awareness but that did not inhibit unconscious perception, there was no longer any appreciable difference between the congruent and the incongruent cases. This should be surprising, because presumably both meanings of the ambiguous word were available, regardless of the biasing context, yet neither meaning was chosen over the other. Apparently, choice is a concomitant of conscious experience but not of unconscious perception. It is our consciousness that chooses – we choose, therefore we are – but we choose only when awareness is present.

It fits. When we don’t choose, we don’t own up to our perceptions. Thus the man with blindsight denies seeing anything when he avoids an obstacle; the woman with a split cortex blushes but denies feeling embarrassment.

If the quantum explanation of the Marcel experiment given here is correct, then the experiment is also demonstrating the existence of coherent superpositions in the mind-brain. Before choice, the quantum description of the ambiguous state of the brain-mind subject to a pattern-masked polysemous word-stimulus, is none other than a coherent superposition.(45)

Finally a reminder. I choose, therefore I am. But the idealistic lesson of quantum measurement also says that the “I” that chooses is a unitive, transcendent I, not the personal ego “I” that I identify with.


Is there any direct experimental evidence that our subject-consciousness is transcendent which means nonlocal? This question is taken up in this section.

From the previous sections it should he clear that quantum systems evolve in time in two distinct manners. One manner is continuous. A superposition of waves may produce different complex wave patterns via interference. But all the complex states can be traced to one another continuously in time, this way and that way. Mathematically, these wave patterns are connected to one another by unitary transformations.

But, said von Neumann, compare this to the development that happens in the act of measurement. Suddenly, discontinuously, all but one of the contributing waves are discarded, and only one is chosen. The collapse of the complex multifaceted pattern to a single facet is also irreversible) impossible to undo. We can never restore the original complexity. This kind of change is a nonunitary transformation.(46)

Now here is a fundamental problem that we face. The first kind of time development is determined unambiguously by quantum mechanics, the Schroedinger equation. But the second kind is outside the jurisdiction of quantum mechanics, because we can never simulate a nonunitary transformation with unitary ones. Thus the consideration of quantum measurement is imposing upon us the idea of a causal discontinuity. In the idealistic interpretation, this causal discontinuity manifests itself as the discontinuous collapse of the quantum wave function via the choice of nonlocal consciousness.

Historically, there are also the hidden-variable models that have called for a causal extension of quantum mechanics – the hidden variables are seen as the causes behind the acausal and discontinuous behavior of quantum systems. The question of this section is then, what is the better way to extend quantum mechanics? Hidden variables and causal continuity, or consciousness and discontinuous collapse? Einstein thought that quantum mechanics is incomplete as the mechanics of matter, witness the paradox that probability and uncertainty create (such as wave-particle duality and Schroedinger’s cat), and his solution for a time was hidden variables, hidden parameters that guide a quantum object’s behavior from within space-time. With such local hidden variables, Einstein thought he could restore determinism and material realism. Ironically, however, Einstein’s own work paved the way for showing that no hidden variables can restore material realism.

5.1 Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox

The point of EPR is basically this.(4) If we look at the structure of quantum mechanics, we find in it examples of correlated pairs for which the observation of one object of the pair not only collapses the wave function of that object but must also collapse the wave function of the other object of the pair, even though the other object is spacelike separated from its partner.

The simplest example of such a correlated pair is a Spin singlet state of two electrons:

According to quantum mechanics, if we make a measurement of one electron of the above pair and find it to be spin-up along a certain direction, its partner must take on spin-down along the same direction even if spacelike separated. Since it is our measurement that collapses the spin of the two electrons in a particular state, we, our observation, must have the ability for nonlocal collapse, and this is a paradox for EPR.

For, argues EPR, if quantum collapse is indeed nonlocal, then quantum mechanics violates the locality principle; but this is not permitted by the relativity theory. As is well known, EPR’s preferred resolution of the paradox was hidden variables.

But the paradox is easily resolved if the locality assumption is given up. Thus one way out is to theorize that there is an “ether” behind the space-time scene where faster-than-light signals are allowed, and the two electrons are correlated by this superluminal connection. This is still realism, but in postulating an ether we are going beyond the legitimate bounds of material realism.(47) But this kind of theory gets into trouble with relativity (crudely, it seems to allow for time travel to the past), and this was not Bohr’s answer to Einstein. Instead, Bohr thought that we cannot measure one part of the correlated electron system without disturbing the other. Correlated quantum systems are inseparable from their observers.

But Bohr, as we saw in the previous section, was not very specific about what he meant by an observation; in particular, he sometimes went along with the notion that a measuring apparatus can terminate an observation whereas that gives rise to the dichotomy of quantum and classical. The idealistic resolution is to say that an observation always means an observation by a conscious observer. Thus the lesson of EPR may well be that a correlated quantum system has the attribute of a certain unbroken wholeness not only among its parts but also with consciousness, an innate connection that transcends space – a nonlocal relationship. It is impossible to assert self-nature for quantum objects independent of consciousness if this is the case – thus ultimately, the lesson of EPR for quantum mechanics may be to embrace idealism.(48)

If we believe in material realism, then there is something strange about correlated quantum objects, because something we do to one electron is simultaneously affecting its partner at a distance. How does the electron know which way to steer unless it is “hearing” from its partner?

“It is rather discomforting,” wrote Schroedinger in 1935, “that the [quantum] theory should allow a system to be steered or piloted into one or the other type of state at the experimenter’s mercy in spite of his having no access to it.”(49)

Material realists have wondered for the last 50 years about the implication of such “strong” correlations between quantum objects. It was still possible to argue that a local signal between the photons must be mediating their “communication,” but Aspect and his collaborators proved in their revolutionary experiment in 1982 that the “communication” was instantaneous, occurring without the intermediary of a local signal.(3)

And an interesting twist has arisen from the discovery of Bell’s celebrated theorem: Any hidden variables introduced in quantum mechanics must also be nonlocal. Thus EPR really discovered a neat double-bind. Either way, with or without hidden variables, quantum mechanics is nonlocal.

5.2 Hidden Variables and Bell’s Theorem

The hidden variables that Einstein invoked to explain the EPR paradox were designed to be consistent with locality; they were to act in local fashion as causal agents on quantum objects, their influence traveling through space-time with a finite velocity during a finite time. Locality of the hidden variables is consistent both with the theory of relativity and with the deterministic belief in local cause and local effect.

But not with experimental data. Bell was the first to suggest a set of mathematical relationships to test the locality of the hidden variables; these are the Bell inequalities,(50) and it was these that Aspect falsified in his experiment with correlated photons, thus also falsifying the locality of the hidden variables. Not coincidentally, quantum mechanics, with its built-in nonlocal correlations that EPR pointed out, also demands that the Bell inequalities do not hold for physical phenomena. Hence states Bell’s theorem: Hidden variables, in order to be compatible with quantum mechanics, must be nonlocal.

Nonlocality is an unanswerable paradox for the material realist, because the material realist, with just one order of reality, has to hold on to locality; relativity does reign supreme in space-time; that is an experimental fact. As mentioned earlier, one can get out of the paradox by postulating superluminal signals, but this would mean giving up locality and materialism anyway, and most physicists don’t like it.

Bohm does a better job of incorporating non-locality within realism in his causal hidden-variables theory of implicate and explicate orders. We can understand his explanation of the Aspect experiment with the analogy of a fish being seen as two distinct pictures in two individual television sets.(51) Whatever one fish (image) does, the other fish (image) does the same thing. From the explicate order of fish images this seems strange, but from the causal implicate order of the “real” fish it is all very simple. But Bohm tinkers with the equations of quantum mechanics, and this makes his theory dubious.

But the idealistic interpretation of the Aspect experiment is more succinct. According to this interpretation, it is our observation that collapses the wave function of one of the two correlated photons in an Aspect-type experiment, forcing it to take on a certain polarization axis. And from what has been said above, the wave function of the correlated partner also collapses immediately. But a consciousness that can collapse the wave function of a photon at a distance instantly must itself be nonlocal, transcendent Thus instead of nonlocality being a property of objects (via superluminal signals), the idealist posits nonlocality to be an aspect of the collapse and of consciousness that does the collapsing.

Returning to Bohm’s analogy of the fish and its two TV images, the idealistic interpretation agrees with Bohm that the fish exists in a different order of reality, but it is the transcendent order of idealism. And the fish is a possibility form already in consciousness. In an act of observation, the fish images are simultaneously projected into the world of appearance along with the subjective experience of observation. And what is projected is a question of free choice, not determined beforehand.

Bohm claims that his interpretation saves realism, and yet by abandoning materialism it is able to make some allowance for the phenomena pertaining to the living and the conscious, for example, the phenomenon of creativity.(51) But as I have shown elsewhere,(52) real creativity needs discontinuity, a jump out of the system, transcendence, as does subject/consciousness. Thus, in my opinion, Bohm’s ideas, interesting as they are, are not the final story.

In the idealistic interpretation, as mentioned before, it is the nonlocal collapse of the wave functions of the correlated photons by consciousness acting nonlocality that leads to the violation of the Bell inequalities. Hidden variables are not needed. And whereas there is very little verifiable experimental consequence of the causal hidden-variable theory, the idealistic interpretation can claim the virtue of additionally opening the possibility of a solution to the mind-brain self-reference problem.(39)

We can gain further perspective by considering another facet of the Aspect experiment. One hope makes the Aspect experiment and quantum nonlocality seem like a new age boon to some authors, the hope that somehow a violation of causality is involved. But since each observer in the setting of Aspect’s experiment always sees a random 50-50 mixture of the two possible photon polarizations, one could never send a message through them. The correlation that we see between the two observers’ data appears only after we compare the two sets; its meaning arises in our minds.(53) Thus what Bell’s theorem and the Aspect experiment really imply is not a violation of causality but that simultaneously occurring events in our spacetime world can be related to a common cause that resides in the nonlocal realm outside space and time. This common cause is the act of nonlocal collapse by unitive consciousness.

Thus it is not a message transfer that the Aspect experiment indicates but a communication in consciousness, a sharing, inspired by a common cause. Jung coined the word synchronicity to describe meaningful coincidences that people sometimes experience, coincidences that occur without a cause (maybe through a common cause) in the transcendent domain.(54) The nonlocality of the Aspect experiment fits the description of synchronicity perfectly.

Jung also had a term for the transcendent domain of consciousness wherein lies the common cause of synchronous events – collective unconscious, unconscious because normally we are unaware of the nonlocal nature of these events. Jung discovered empirically that in addition to the Freudian personal unconscious, there is a transpersonal collective aspect of our unconscious that must operate outside space-time, that must be nonlocal, since it seems to be independent of geographical origin, culture, or time.(55) If the nonlocal correlations of Bell’s theorem and the Aspect experiment are examples of Jungian events of synchronicity (they too are acausal coincidences, and their meaning, like the events of synchronicity, always emerges after the fact when the observers compare their data), then the aspect of nonlocal unitive consciousness involved here is none but the collective unconscious postulated by Jung. Our nonlocal unitive consciousness collapses the wave function of a quantum object and chooses the result of the collapse when we observe it, but we are unaware of the nonlocality of the collapse or of making the choice.(1) Acts for which there is consciousness but no awareness are, by definition, unconscious.

The standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics leaves the ontology of the quantum waves undefined. We have previously defined the ontology by asserting the transcendental nature of quantum objects between measurements. Similarly, when it comes to the synchronistic behavior of correlated quantum objects that the violation of the Bell inequalities demands and Aspect experiment verifies, the standard interpretation remains mute. The hidden-variables theories (such as Bohm’s) are causal extensions of all of quantum mechanics. Instead, what I am proposing is that there is no need for any extension or modification of quantum mechanics. The nonlocality and synchronicity of events of quantum collapse are explained as the action of the nonlocal consciousness (or more properly, as seen above, the nonlocal unconscious). However, this interpretation singles out the brain-mind, something like an anthropic principle. This means that the brain-mind must contain quantum machinery at the macro-level so that quantum measurement consideration can apply.(56)

Many authors react negatively to the possibility of an idealistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, because, they ask, “how can mind have any significant effect on atoms (besides, no such effect has been observed)?” But the idealistic interpretation proposed in the fashion above implies no such effect as far as atoms are concerned, no effect of mind over atoms beyond what the Copenhagen interpretation already assumes. The atomic probability calculus is quite fixed by material interactions via the Schroedinger equation, as experiments amply bear out. The situation with the brain may be altogether different, however. Here, there is fertile ground for new quantum theory, because the existing theories based on classical physics are severely inadequate.


Consider the probability wave interpretation of the wave function. Basically, the standard Copenhagen interpretation says that the quantum wave is not a classical wave propagating in space, but must be considered an abstraction that enables us to calculate probabilities of finding the particle in this or that place. However, the wave description does, nevertheless, apply to a single quantum object provided we consider all possible ways to experiment with it.

But the quantum wave of a single object is often a coherent superposition of mutually exclusive possibilities (for example, the electron in the double-slit experiment) making a realistic description rather tricky. (How can an electron go through both slits?) Hence material realists are not satisfied with the Copenhagen interpretation and look for alternatives.

One of these alternatives is the ensemble or statistical interpretation that Einstein favored at one point. Another is the road to realism through quantum logic. Both of these alternatives have been shown to be of limited use,(57) and I will not repeat the arguments here.

At least mathematically speaking, a better attempt to save material realism is to invoke the so-called many-worlds interpretation originally invented to get rid of collapse altogether. Who/what determines the fate of Schroedinger’s cat? Nobody! said Everett and Wheeler in the 1950s,(10) proposing their many-worlds interpretation (although Wheeler apparently has retracted his endorsement since then). In this alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation, both possibilities, live cat and dead cat, occur, but in different material realities, parallel universes. For every live cat we find in the cage, prototypes of us in a parallel universe open a prototype cage only to discover a prototype cat that is dead. The schizophrenia of the cat’s state upon observation forces the universe itself to split into parallel branches. It’s an interesting idea, but unfortunately, by proposing an enormous number of parallel universes, it says goodbye to Occam’s razor, and so most physicists don’t take it seriously. And besides, it is also beyond our experimental or experiential study, and it does not lead to any new arena for experimental investigation either.(58)

And ultimately, the many-worlds interpretation fails to meet its objective of saving material realism. To see this, one can try to use it for resolving the paradox of quantum nonlocality as in the Aspect experiment. A measurement here of a correlated electron still splits the world of its partner there, at a distance instantly. Thus this interpretation must reckon with some kind of a compromise with locality and hence does not uphold material realism after all.

Still, the many-worlds theory can certainly be considered a viable alternative to the idealistic interpretation except for one thing. The idealistic interpretation can easily incorporate the many-world idea with a slight reinterpretation of the latter. Actually, if we carefully examine Everett’s theory, we find a subtle role that conscious observation plays in this theory. For example, how does Everett define when a branching of the universe occurs? Squares has proposed a more explicit role for consciousness in Everett’s theory, which is commendable,(59) but we can do even better.

According to the idealistic interpretation, coherent superpositions exist in a transcendent domain as formless “archetypes” of matter. Suppose the parallel universes of Everett are not material, but archetypal in content; suppose they are archetypal universes in the transcendent domain of consciousness. Then, instead of saying that each observation splits off a branch or branches of the material universe that decouple from this one, we can say that each observation makes a causal pathway in the fabric of possibilities in the transcendent domain of reality; once the choice is made, all except one of the possibilities are excluded (decoupled) from the world of appearance.

This way of reinterpreting the many-worlds formalism gets rid of the ugly (and costly) proliferation of material universes; archetypes are cheap.

One of the attractive features of the many-worlds theory is that the existence of many worlds makes it a little more palatable in applying quantum mechanics to the entire cosmos. Since quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory, one justifiably feels uncomfortable thinking about a wave function for the entire universe: Can one ascribe meaning to such a wave function if there is only one of a kind? Many worlds, even archetypal ones, come in handy in this situation.

Now we can see the idealistic resolution of the cosmological paradox, how come the cosmos before conscious beings evolved in the world? Very simple. The cosmos never appeared in concrete and never stays laid out concrete; there isn’t any place where past universes, one after the other, can be seen like paintings on a canvas that unravel with time. (Although if we think about it, this unraveling universe is how material realists picture it.) That would be as bizarre and as uneconomical as the many-worlds theory. But look at the situation with the idea that the universe exists as formless potentia, as myriads of possible branches in the transcendent domain, and becomes manifest in the world of appearance as and when observed by conscious beings. It is these observations that chart out the universe’s causal history, choosing among the myriads of parallel alternatives that never found their way to the material reality.

This way of interpreting our cosmological history may help solve one of the most puzzling aspects of the evolution of life and consciousness – namely, the low probability for the evolution of life from prebiotic matter and the similar low probability of mutation. But once we recognize that biological mutation (which includes the mutation of prebiotic molecules) is a quantum event, we realize that the universe bifurcates in every such event (in the transcendent domain), becoming many branches, until in one of the branches there is a sentient being that can look with awareness and complete a quantum measurement. It is at this point that a causal pathway is chosen, a pathway that includes the sentient being. Wheeler calls this kind of scenario the closure of the meaning circuit.

This idealistic interpretation of cosmology thus incorporates Wheeler’s idea of a participatory universe.(60) It is also easy to see that the present view supports a strong anthropic principle.(61)


Another idea that is sometimes invoked to save material realism and again has to do with the nature of macroreality is the question of irreversibility of the measuring apparatus, and I would like to elaborate on this issue here.

Now the problem of quantum measurement is the termination of the von Neumann chain. If irreversibility of the measuring apparatus is absolute, if it never returns to its initial state even in principle, then the measurement process can be shown to terminate with the apparatus.

Consider the following. One way to distinguish quantum from classical is the quantum’s ability of regeneration. A quantum interaction, if we don’t measure it, leaves no record at all that it ever took place. But it is the job of the “classical” apparatus to record the event, to make a memory. Anytime a classical measurement apparatus detects a quantum event, if the detection process produces perfect memory, we can never regenerate the event. Then the event can be said to have been measured.

Consider this example. A photon polarized in a direction at an angle of 45o to the horizontal is a coherent superposition of half-vertically polarized and half-horizontally polarized states. If the photon now passes through a polarizer, such as a calcite crystal, it emerges at random either vertically or horizontally polarized as can be seen from pointer readings on a detector. When we say quantum events can be regenerated, what we mean is this. Suppose we place a second calcite crystal in the path of the 45o polarized photon, but inverted, and before we detect it, the original photon is reconstructed back. Thus the polarizer alone is not enough to “measure” the photon, a detector is needed. But then the question arises, is the detector enough?

From the argument that leads to the von Neumann chain of Sec. 4, the answer is no. The detector becomes a coherent superposition of pointer readings. And the same is true for any subsequent measurement apparatus, giving us the von Neumann chain once again. Since these apparatuses have now taken on quantum behavior, it is in principle always possible to envisage a mechanism similar in effect to the reversed calcite crystal that will regenerate the original quantum event so that one cannot tell if it was ever measured. It may take a very, very long time to return all these macro-apparatuses to their original situation; macrobodies have a large regeneration time, but time is not of the essence here.

At first sight, it seems that memories are irreversible. But there really isn’t any conclusive evidence for it, because we have not waited long enough, and in principle it will never be long enough. Thus we have to depend on theory. And thus, more to the point, the equations that objects obey, the quantum equations, are completely time reversible, and any macro-body obeying these equations cannot be truly irreversible in its behavior.(21) Thus even conventional wisdom has it that absolute irreversibility is impossible; the irreversibility that we see in nature has to do with the small probabilities that exist for retracing the path of evolution of a complex macro-body back to the initial configuration that has more relative order.

Thus it would seem that irreversibility is not the answer to the measurement problem; it cannot be invoked to save material realism. Moreover, Wigner and others have argued against using irreversibility as a solution to the measurement problem on the basis of negative result measurements.(62) A simple example is to aim a telescope and a counter at only one of the slits in the double-slit experiment, not both, when we inquire which slit the electron is passing through. If the counter does not click, we must infer that the electron passed through the other slit; but in this case there is no interaction of the electron with the counter, and thus it is hard to see how irreversibility of the counter can be relevant. (Of course, a negative result measurement is no problem for the idealistic interpretation; it just signifies nonlocal collapse of the wave function.)

Notice that the impermanence of the memory of macrodetectors is no problem for the idealistic interpretation, where the world of appearance is regarded as ephemeral; temporary memory will do. The macrobodies that we conventionally call “classical” are distinguished from the micro (“quantum”) in that they acquire continuity, habitual behavior, and temporary memory because of the large regeneration time. All these characteristics make the macroworld a suitable reference point for experience.(39) But if there is no ultimate irreversibility in the motion of matter, how does the idealistic interpretation handle the question of time’s arrow? In the idealistic interpretation, time is a two-way street in the transcendent domain, showing signs of only approximate irreversibility for motion of more and more complex objects as explained above. But when consciousness collapses the wave function of the mind-brain, it manifests the subjective one-way time that we observe. There is something irreversible in the process of collapse itself; in quantum measurement as Szilard suspected long ago.(63) The details of what this irreversibility entails will require further investigation.

Finally, there is one more important question. If it is idealism that wins the philosophical debate and realism is a false philosophy, how can we do science? To consider this question in full, it is instructive to go back to the origin of the realism-idealism dichotomy.


The artist Rene Magritte drew a picture of a pipe, but the caption read “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). Then what is it? A little thought will prompt the answer “I see the image in my head caused by the sense impressions of a picture of a pipe.” No one ever saw a picture in an art gallery; one always sees the picture in his or her head. But of course, the picture is not the object, the map is not the territory. But is there even a picture out there? All we know for sure is that there is some sort of a picture in our head (brain), really a “theoretical” image. In any event of perception it is this theoretical, private image that we actually see. We assume that the objects we see around us are empirical objects of a shared consensus reality, objective and public, subject to empirical scrutiny, yet in fact our knowledge about them is always gathered by subjective and private means.(64)

Thus arises the old philosophical puzzle: Which is real, the theoretical image that we actually see, but only privately, or the empirical object that we don’t seem to see directly but about which we form a consensus?

The inner privacy of the theoretical image would be no problem and there would be no discernible dichotomy if there were always a one-to-one correspondence between it and an empirical object that others could verify in the immediate sense. But this is not the case. There are optical illusions; there are creative experiences of subjective images that do not necessarily correspond to anything in the immediate consensus reality. Thus the authenticity of theoretical images is suspect, and this in turn compromises the authenticity of empirical objects as well, because we never experience them without the intermediary of a theoretical image. This is the paradox of perception: We cannot seem to trust the authenticity of either our theoretical image or of the consensus public empirical object. And philosophical “isms” are born out of such paradoxes.

Historically, two schools of philosophy have debated what is really “real.” The idealistic school believes that the theoretical image is more real, that the so-called empirical reality is but ideas of the mind. In contrast, realists hold that there must be real objects out there that are independent of subjects, otherwise how would there be so much consensus about them?

In practice, each of these views has its uses. Without some form of realism, some presumption of empirical objects that are independent of the observer, science is difficult to communicate. But without the conceptualization and validation of theoretical ideas, science is impossible.

Thus the need to transcend the paradox. This was done by Leibniz and subsequently Russell with a seemingly absurd idea: Both views can be right if we have two heads, with the empirical object inside one but outside the other.(64) The empirical object would be outside our “small” head, and thus realism is validated; but the object would simultaneously be inside our “big” head, and thus be a theoretical image of this big head, which would satisfy the idealist. By a clever philosophical maneuver, the object has become at once both an empirical object outside of empirical heads and a theoretical image inside of an all-encompassing “theoretical” head.

But this question can be raised: Is this theoretical big head that we all share (there is no reason to postulate more than one such head since it holds all empirical reality within it) just theoretical, or is there any reality to it? The plot thickens when we realize that this big head embraces all empirical small heads and is thus itself the object of scientific scrutiny. Suppose we take the idea of this big head seriously.

When we look closely we suspect that the big head does not have to be separate. Suppose the head involves a mind with two components, two different ways of organizing reality – a mind that is local, whose actions are confined within the empirical brain, and another global consciousness that encompasses the experiences of all empirical objects, including the empirical brains.

The reader will recognize nonlocality in the last statement; the concept of nonlocality has brought respectability to the seemingly absurd solution of Leibniz and Russell. If, in addition to the local ways of gathering data, there is a nonlocal organizing principle connected with the brain-mind, what then? This is tantamount to our having two heads, and the paradox of perception is solved. What’s more, both idealism and realism are saved.

For if the brain-mind itself is an object in a nonlocal consciousness that encompasses all reality, then what we call objective empirical reality is within this consciousness; it is a theoretical idea of consciousness, and thus idealism is valid. However, when consciousness becomes immanent in a part of this creation, the brain-mind that is local in our head, and looks through its organization of sense perceptions at other locally separated parts of the manifestation as (macro) objects, then the doctrine of realism is useful for studying and communicating the consensus-regularity arising from the near-classical behavior of these objects.

The phenomenal world looks overwhelmingly objective for two reasons. First of all, classical bodies have huge masses which means that their quantum waves spread slowly. The small spreading makes the trajectories of the center of mass of macroobjects predictable (whenever we look, we find the moon where we expect it) producing an aura of continuity. Additional continuity is imposed by our own mind-brain’s perceptual apparatus.

And second, even more importantly, the complexity of macrobodies translates into a long regeneration time. This allows them to make memories, records, temporary as they may be in the final reckoning. Because of these records, we are tempted to look at the world in causal terms independent of consciousness.

But in the nonlocal consciousness, all phenomena, even so-called empirical objects, are “objects” in consciousness. It is in this sense that idealists say “the world is made of consciousness.” Clearly, the idealistic view and the quantum view converge if we accept the nonlocal solution of the paradox of perception.


The idealistic interpretation I am proposing for quantum mechanics can be summarized as follows.

  1. Quantum waves or coherent superpositions have ontological status but in a transcendent domain. They represent a pool of possibility whose time development is continuous and completely determined by the Schroedinger equation.
  2. In an act of observation the wave function collapses or the multifaceted coherent superposition becomes one-faceted. The collapse is discontinuous and is not described by the Schroedinger equation.
  3. Consciousness collapses the wave function in a quantum measurement and chooses one particular facet from the multitudinal possibilities of a quantum coherent superposition.
  4. Consciousness is unitive.
  5. A measurement is not complete without the participation of an immanent brain-mind and awareness.
  6. A quantum event is the experience of both a material gross object and a mental subtle object.
  7. Consciousness is nonlocal. The quantum nonlocality of correlated objects is manifest as nonlocal synchronous events of collapse whenever we observe them.
  8. Quantum measurement is irreversible wherefrom arises the observed time-asymmetry of the world of appearance.

Questions remain, however, about the brain-mind. What’s in the structure of the mind-brain that makes it a suitable vehicle for participation in the world that consciousness collapses? If it is a quantum macrostructure working in conjunction with its classical “computer” that makes the brain-mind unique, then what is quantized in the brain-mind? Also, is there a suitable correspondence principle operating here?

There is also an important question that can be posed against the idealistic interpretation of our subject/self. If the subject is transcendent and unitive, how does our very immanent and very personal “I” arise? Do our assumptions about the macrostructure of the brain-mind lead to a plausible explanation for self-reference? Can we find evidence and devise further experimental tests favoring the idealistic theory for the mind-brain? These questions are important, because we must not only show that the idealistic interpretation of quantum mechanics is consistent and paradox-free, but also that it is useful, that it can lead to a new paradigm incorporating physics in a hitherto little explored field. Thus these questions will be the subject matter of further investigations.(39)


I am grateful to Joel Morwood, Tom McFarlane, Michael Moravesik, and Mark Mitchell for many helpful discussions. Special thanks are due to Henry Stapp for his many helpful comments on an initial draft of the manuscript. I would also like to thank Maggie Goswami for a careful editing of the manuscript.

Received on 3 January 1989.


1 Of course, we have awareness of the collapsed object, the chosen outcome; thus awareness is present during the event of the collapse.

2 This is, of course, the message of the Poincare-Mishra theorem.


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Physics Essays
Volume 2, number 4, 1989

The Idealistic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

Amit Goswami
Department of Physics and the Institute of Theoretical Science
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97405 U.S.A.


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