"How Come Existence?" - Nick Kontzie
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"How Come Existence?" - John Wheeler

May 23, 2002

The respected physicist John Wheeler has asked this question, and this is my opinion on the subject. It is more of a philosophical question than a question of physics. What he is really asking is: Does anything exist and does anything happen if no one is there to observe it?

In his delayed-choice thought experiment, Dr. Wheeler suggests that a single photon from a distant quasar can simultaneously follow two paths past two different galaxies to Earth. But the thought-provoking issue is his claim that the path which the photon ultimately took is determined by how it is observed on Earth. Basically, he is stating that the present determines the past. My problem with this is that there could be two separate photons travelling two separate paths, perhaps linked in some way and following mirrored paths, or the light could travel as a wave.

The real dilemma is demonstrated on a much smaller scale in the laboratory, bouncing light off of several mirrors, through two slits and onto photographic film. The light creates a pattern on the film suggesting that it travelled in a wave. If detectors are placed beside the slits then they show that the light always follows one route or the other, but not both. But what is really bewildering is that the pattern supposedly does not appear on the film when the detectors are present. Without witnessing the experiment, I can only suggest that the detectors themselves are responsible for altering the light.

"How come existence?" is definitely a good question for science and John Wheeler's answer is even better because it is one which few will accept due to how different it is from what most people are willing to believe. I have to admit that I have considered questions as to whether events occur in our absence (Shrödinger's Cat, does the fridge light go out when the door is closed?, does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if no one is there to hear it?, etc.) but to actually believe that events, time and even existence itself waits for us to observe it is difficult to believe. Wheeler is not quite so egotistical, he simply states that every possibility exists for every particle until it interacts with matter or radiation. This I can accept.

A past student of Wheeler, Standford University physicist Andrei Linde does believe that conscious observers are necessary. This is a good definition of individual consciousness, but not of existence, unless you believe that the existence of the consciousness of all thinking animals depends upon your own existence. In other words, life is a dream, or more accurately, life is your dream.

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