Why do some physicists countenance a mind-dependent reality?



Bernard D'Espagnat in this article in Scientific American writes:

Of the three premises realism is the most fundamental. Realism can be stated formally as the belief that a mere description of data is not all that should be required of a theory. Even an empirical rule for predicting the patterns of future measurements is not enough. The mind demands something more: not necessarily determinism-there is nothing intrinsically irrational about randomness-but at least objective explanations of observed regularities, or in other words causes. Underlying this demand is the intuitive notion that the world outside the self is real and has at least some properties that exist independently of human consciousness.

The last sentence appears uncontentious: There was a time when there were no human beings and yet the universe existed. Thus the universe is independent of human consciousness. However this objection seems such an easy one to make that there must be other good reasons why some are prepared to countenance a mind-dependent universe even on physical grounds and why they forego the previous objection. It seems plausible that a distinction has to be made between mind-indepedent and human-mind-independent, and its the latter that the forgoing objection disposes of. Is this it, or am I missing something else more fundamental here? If so, what are they?

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2018-02-12T15:28:57.137

Reputation: 1

There's another line of argument one could hold, perhaps, which is not to deny that there's a mind independent reality, but (in a Kantian spirit) to deny that it is knowable by human minds. – Quentin Ruyant – 2018-02-12T16:24:49.490

@QuentinRuyant: sure, D'Espagnat does go into Kant in the book and I think he personally is sympathtic towards that view. – Mozibur Ullah – 2018-02-12T17:05:21.153

Are we starting from assumptions, such as "there was a time when there were no human beings and yet the universe existed?" These assumptions seem trivial. They're even baked into religious documents long before the dawn of science. Yet they are frustratingly hard to prove, unless you weaken the meaning of the verb "prove." – Cort Ammon – 2018-02-12T18:53:06.173

I think the last statement is a better expression of realism than "the belief that a mere description of data is not all that should be required of a theory", which any pragmatic empiricist would agree with. "There was a time when... universe existed" already presupposes that categories like "time" and "universe" are objective, which is highly doubtful given their human roots. Many, like Wittgenstein, object to such "God's eye view" that traditional realism is forced to adopt. The question is not so much mind-independence, everything we conceive is mind-dependent, as independence of our whims. – Conifold – 2018-02-12T20:44:43.327

@Conifold: with that view how do you explain a finding like from say geology that says the Earth is four billion years old? – Mozibur Ullah – 2018-02-12T20:59:40.377

This reminds me Meillassoux' argument against transcendental idealism from the "arch-fossil". "The Earth is four billion years old" is as dependent on the historically developed human categories and practices as anything else, it is fancying ourselves to "step out" of them that creates the appearance of tension. There is no reality, or realism, outside a "form of life" that gives them meaning, but once it is established we do not get to decide at will what is true of reality, that is objective.

– Conifold – 2018-02-12T21:23:19.723

@conifold: Whereas this reminds me of Bernard D'Espagnant bon mot where he called solipsism 'an impregnable fortress defended by madman'! – Mozibur Ullah – 2018-02-12T21:34:22.100

Solipsism wouldn't work, to develop categories one needs a community with practices that support language, pursuit of knowledge, etc. And in traditional solipsism those do not merely frame the world, they generate it. – Conifold – 2018-02-12T21:38:59.647

@conifold: Well inter-subjective solipsism. D'Espagnant is sympathetic towards idealism, but I think they still struggle to explain counter-examples like the 'arch-fossil' in an intuitive way. – Mozibur Ullah – 2018-02-12T21:41:52.117

1Maybe relevant is Rovelli's relational interpretation of QM where physical states are relative to "observers", and observers are any physical system (not necessarily human). However he doesn't mean to say that this is mind dependence. – Quentin Ruyant – 2018-02-13T07:54:45.487

You make an important distinction between human-mind-dependent and mind-dependent. This does away with all the objections to idealism from the fossil-record etc. One reason for believing that there is no mind-independent phenomenon (besides the ground-of-existence) is that it would be impossible to prove otherwise. This impossibility must have a cause. Kant is relevant but his theories are shaky. He did not know that we cannot know Reality, he just knew that we cannot know it from the evidence of our senses. – None – 2018-02-13T13:14:42.173

I'm not sure I quite understand the question - "why do some physicists countenance a mind-dependent reality" - because different people have different opinions?.. I'm just not sure about the meaning of the question, are you asking what's the argument against/in favor of mind-dependent reality? Are you asking why not everyone thinks the same about the subject? – Yechiam Weiss – 2018-02-13T16:45:03.453

Within a picture of reality there are many mind-independent things, but the picture itself is always mind-dependent, "dependence" is equivocal. Solipsism can only be conceived within a picture, so the latter dependence is the wrong kind to entail it. And it is independence in the latter sense that we need to assert realism, which we clearly can not have since "realism" is itself our concept. Seems pretty intuitive to me, as long as one does not confuse reality with its pictures. Brassier's Nihil Unbound discusses arche-fossil and its pro/contra in detail (Ch.3), pdf is available online. – Conifold – 2018-02-13T21:26:41.357



Quantum mechanics doesn't just give probabilistic futures, it does the same to the past. The anthropic principle takes that to a futhest extent, did the presence in this universes timeline of minds, collapse the wave function into just this set of fine-tuned fundamental constants?

We can't truly escape our observations being through minds, being subjective, even when we balance that by network and comparing notes with other subjective instances of mind.

Cause & effect, time, materiality, all open to question.


Posted 2018-02-12T15:28:57.137

Reputation: 5 272

The past is fixed, even in QM... – Mozibur Ullah – 2019-05-05T09:10:09.197

@MoziburUllah Ah yes - it seems conservation of information was proved in 2007 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-hiding_theorem I was referring to reading that is clearly out of date, based on the idea the past can only be known with limited accuracy

– CriglCragl – 2019-06-02T17:10:11.050


And speaking of quantum mechanics, it's fairly widely known (without going into detail) that many quantum-mechanical measurements depend on the observation itself being carried out. The so-called double-slit experiment, for example, or Einstein's "spooky action at a distance" referring to the quantum-state entanglement of distant particles, both of which "collapse" into the measured state when only one is measured, etc. This well-known "observer effect" in QM seems to me, in fact, to support a least some version of idealism. Additionally, if you happen to credit the (it seems to me related) experimental results of parapsychology, these also seem to me to support some version of idealism. See Griffin's book (passim) listed below.


Kastrup, Bernardo. The Idea of the World (2018)

Griffin, David Ray Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration (1997)

William Pennat

Posted 2018-02-12T15:28:57.137

Reputation: 117


This is a problem of interpretation of quantum mechanics, more precisely the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. Far from settled. Quantum mechanics is a nice, linear theory (in terms of PDE's, for example Schrodinger's equation), but when a measurement is performed hell breaks loose (the collapse of the wave function in the standard Copenhagen interpretation, for example). It might be a problem related to a threshold of the capability of information processing of the observer (the entity performing the measurement, or even the apparatus), or it might be something completely unrelated , nobody actually knows. Or it might just be a misinterpretation/misunderstanding of the mathematical framework governing quantum mechanics, or quantum field theory. In any case , as you noted the universe existed long before human consciousnesses existed, so objectively it must be independent of it. But if you define reality through our perception (of it), then surely human (but not necessarily) consciousness plays an important role. It depends on the definitions. Ultimately , what we mean by reality is mind dependent, isn't it ?

Cristian Dumitrescu

Posted 2018-02-12T15:28:57.137

Reputation: 147

Sure, but that isn't what I was asking. I was asking how can an objective notion of the real world be mind dependent. What 'we mean by reality' doesn't really help then. – Mozibur Ullah – 2019-05-05T09:06:33.383

Comments can be edited for 5 min. I must hurry, otherwise I might leave some typos there. Anyway, I am not defending a mind dependent reality, actually I am convinced that this is caused by a misunderstanding of chaos theory , but I am not going into that. What is your definition of "objective reality ", if it's independent of mind? – Cristian Dumitrescu – 2019-05-05T09:36:24.950

Translation of "mind independent reality " - unknowable. So any arguments following this point are irrelevant. We must define, :"the rules of the game", otherwise what are we talking about? – Cristian Dumitrescu – 2019-05-05T10:10:24.587

Think about it. We "construct the world from the world" and then experience our construction as the world. That is, the world as we experience it is entirely a construction of our minds based on a synthesis of sensory input. This view in and of itself is not solipsism as it doesn't deny that there's a world "out there". Just that that's not what we actually experience. (Basically Kant via Husserl.) And this process is not essentially different from the process by which we construct our dreamworld(s). We just use a different set of materials, which is why some dreams can, in fact, seem as real. – William Pennat – 2019-05-06T01:22:34.830