When you ask someone if it is possible to conduct an experiment in which a cat is both dead and alive simultaneously, she will wonder if you have gone mental (believe me, I tried it at work several times). “Off course this is not possible. That is complete rubbish!”
Or could it be that reality is much weirder than most people realize? In this short essay I will explain how this experiment is possible, why it works like it does, and what it means for our understanding of the world (it will turn out I have indeed gone mental, but in a different way). If you are willing to accept a paradigm shattering worldview, the result is not so crazy at all.
By the way, if you’re not yet familiar with the observer effect of quantum mechanics, check out this video first:
The Austrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961) came up with the famous thought experiment to show how ridiculous the widely accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is. According to this interpretation, physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured, and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities that measurements will produce certain results. The act of measurement causes the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement. This feature is known as wave function collapse.
The experiment works like this: a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a Geiger counter, a bottle of poison and a radioactive particle that may or may not decay after an hour. If the Geiger counter detects that the particle has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed. But because no one is observing the box, the radioactive particle exists in superposition, meaning it exists (or actually doesn’t exist) in all possible states at once. It is not until someone opens the box that the wave function collapses, the particle assumes a definite state and the cat is either killed or not.
The paradigm that the world exists as independent reality and we are merely innocent bystanders is smashed by Schrödinger’s experiment. Nevertheless, this is still the dominant worldview today, especially in the West, while these experiments are already a century old. The observer is not observing an independent reality, but is in fact creating it. Not by herself; we are all part of a bigger consciousness that is determining what is manifested reality and what is not. It turns out that we are not living in a material world, but in a mental world. The only way to escape from the weirdness of the dead-alive cat is to accept mind as a property of reality besides matter. Off course I don’t mean mind as created by the material brain, but a mind that is linked to it, but also exists independent of the body.
What quantum mechanics shows us is that reality consists of two levels. One level is the everyday world we observe. Within this level we – as conscious observers – materialize objects within our relative perspectives of space and time. The other level is that of pure potentiality. At this level, everything merely exists as possibility, but nothing exists in a determined state. Within this level – that lies beyond the veil of our perception – space and time don’t exist as independent bedrock realities. And because these dimensions don’t exist, it is no longer possible to separate anything, so at this level we are all one. This is hard to grasp from our individual ego-states, but in special states of consciousness, such as near death, people experience it all the time.
That is the real radical stuff that quantum mechanics tells us, and most physicists don’t like it much. Schrödinger himself wanted to return to the objective worldview in which events were deterministic (meaning that if you have all information about a reality, you can predict what will happen). His experiment has become the perfect vehicle to demonstrate why this deterministic view does not work at all.
Quantum mechanics has shown us that a pure mechanical, material universe without mind could never exist. It has also shown us that living creatures could not have arisen out of dead matter, because without a conscious observer to begin with, matter has no definite place within reality. Consciousness must therefore be the unified basis of all existence.
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