The Observer and the Universe

I have recently been reading some books on quantum mechanics which is leaving me quite stunned as to how the universe actually operates. One thing in particular that I have a very hard time understanding in the nature and effect that observation has on the universe.

If my understanding is correct, until observed, particles exist as a wave probability field. However once observed this field collapses. What is it about observing a particle that causes this collapse?

When a particles comes to be observed, what exactly is meant by an observer? Does the observer have to be something that has self-awareness or is sentience enough? Or can the observer even be something like a rock or another particle (i.e. would a carbon atom qualify as an observer)?

If the observer does have to have some type of sentience or awareness, does that mean that prior to these lifeforms appearing that the entire universe existed only as a wave probability field? If the universe existed only as such, how can we deduce what the universe was like prior to when observations began since not concrete universe would had existed.

And if my understanding is correct, once observed the entire probability field for that particle collapses through time. For example, when we observe a star in the sky, up to that point the photon existed as a probability field, but afterwards that field collapses from its point origin onwards (which if the star was 100 LY away would travel that far back in to the past to collapse it). If this is the case, isn’t the entire universe that we observe now not the universe as it was in the past but actually only a collapsed probability field of what it was.

I find QM fascinating but very puzzling.

I have a limited understanding of QM, but I believe the basic premise is that you can’t measure all the properties or “observables” (position, momentum, energy, angular momentum) of a quantum partical without the measuring device imparting some alteration on that property. Because of that you can only get a probability distribution (or waveform) of what those properties should be. If you measure all the components of that probability distribution, it “collapses” as in you have now altered what you were trying to measure.

Someone with a bigger brain might be able to explain it better and more accurately.

It’s magic and that’s official, though there are mumblings about decoherence. The Many Worlds way of thinking extinguishes the problem.

When talking about QM, there’s a conceptual stumbling block that most people never really get over. When we talk about elementary “particles” on the quantum level, we aren’t talking about little bits of stuff, like miniature ping pong balls. We’re talking about objects that have properties that are analogous (on the macro level) of both particles and waves; that is to say, they act at a point when they interact with something else, but exist as a statistical distribution in terms of predicting their properties of location and momentum. This doesn’t mean that there’s a paradox, merely that they are a phenomenon that is not accurately represented by anything we see on the scale of the everyday world with which we are familiar.

Composite particles (baryons, like protons and neutrons as well as more exotic particles, and hadrons, which are all pretty unusual) are even weirder, in that their “forces” come from interactions moderated by other particles; in other words, they’re constantly juggling, and with a few exceptions, none of them juggle all that well so that they end up disappearing into the vacuum or turning into something more stable. The whole thing is terribly complex–hence, why very smart people study for years just to get a basic grasp on the whole business–and a comprehensive explanation would require far more detail and background that can be provided here.

With regard to what happens/causes the process of “waveform collapse”, the Copenhagen Interpretation has the widest acceptance. Note that it doesn’t require any kind of consciousness; “observation” could be done by an inert object, or by a “cat in a box”; see the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, which illustrates that if such a paradox existed (i.e. all probablities genuinely existed in parallel, only collapsing when directly observed) and you could escape decoherence such that quatnum phenomena could discretely impact actions on the macro scale, you would end up with a result that is both highly counterintuitive (two cats, or a cat that is literally half-alive, half-dead) and inexplicable in normal experience.

Aside of spurious claims from some fuzzy-headed New Age “scientists” who have co-opted the venacular of QM without a comprehension of it, there is no evidence that consciousness has any aspect on the quantum level; the phenomena of cognition can be explained, at least as far as we can explain it at all, in terms of plain old biochemistry.


I prefer to think of it as a cat which is 1/sqrt(2) alive, and 1/sqrt(2) dead.

I refuse to answer on moral grounds until you say which books. If the titles include the words “tao” or “wu li”, burn them. You’re getting a lot of bullshit and little actual information about QM.

I stand corrected.


Probably the biggest difficulty is in not knowing exactly what we are assuming in our way of thinking about things. We seem to have some beliefs that are so basic to us that we don’t recognize them as beliefs, and around which we have built our typical reasoning of the world and our language - but they’re wrong. Not even knowing that we think the things we do makes it that much harder to spot problems with them.

In his theory of special relativity Einstein considered that time was a phenomenon that only worked the way it does in the very place you occupy. The time other people experience some distance away from you doesn’t work the same way. So, for instance, there really is no such thing as “the same time” in another place. Two events can’t happen simultaneously because they can’t also occupy the exact location. But to have it to occur to you that this might be the case requires very openminded thinking about a thing as obvious as time.

Likewise, it doesn’t occur to many of us - maybe not to any of us - to let go of whatever important assumptions we make wrongly relating to quantum mechanics. So we’re stuck with things that appear paradoxical or at least absurd when we look at them the only way we know how.

The book I’m currently reading is called “the physics of Consciouness” by Evan Harris Walker. I’ve read other books also such as the elegant universe series and a brief history of time by Hawkins. I’ve not finished Walker’s book yet so I don’t know what the end conclusion that he arrives at although he does seem to spend a fair amount of time talking about Zen Buddhism

According to the jacket cover, he holds a PhD in Physics from the University of Maryland (1964), has puplished 100+ papers in scientific journals, and is the founder of the Walker Cancer Institute.

I haven’t read, but I’ve heard of the book, so I can’t really comment on it. However, parallels between quantum mechanics and Buddhism, while popular, are generally pretty shallow. Might I recommend Feynman’s fairly accessible Q.E.D.: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter and more popularized Six Easy Pieces as good introductions to the foundations of quantum mechanics, and Ian Glynn’s An Anatomy of Thought: The Origin and Machinery of the Mind as a not-too-technical comprehensive walkthrough on what (little) we know about consciousness and cognition. You wll get far more substantial and grounded information from these references than you will from anyone making allusions to Zen Buddhism.


My limited, layman’s understanding is that the observer of one quantum entity can be another quantum entity in close association with the first. Thus, the quantum entities in a solid object are all in close association with each other and so they all have assumed one of the states allowed by the wave function. And they will keep that state so long as they remain close. An “observer” in quantum mechanics doesn’t need to be sentient. “Interactor” might be a better name."

Thanks everyone for the clarifications and replies. Having a better understanding of just what is meant by an observer (or interactor as the case may be) has helped me tremendously.

I’ll be certain to read those links you’ve provided Stranger on a Train. I greatly appreciate it.