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One of the breakthrough ideas in physics has enormous relevance to everyone’s personal life. The idea is known as the participatory universe, which goes a long way to establishing the role of human beings in the cosmos. Traditionally, the universe was non-participatory. We stared at it from the outside like children with their noses pressed to a bake shop window. Humans occupied an isolated space here on Earth, which somehow created the potential for advanced life.

A participatory universe changes our status. Your body, mind, feelings, thoughts, sensations, in fact, the very existence of the three-dimensional world, are intertwined with cosmic creation. This is a revolutionary concept for physics to arrive at. The accepted view of reality holds that human beings exist in the context of a vast physical universe “out there.” Only an extreme mystic would doubt this description, but all of us should. Sir John Eccles, a famous British neurologist, and Nobel laureate, declared, “I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound – nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent.” What Eccles means is that all the qualities of Nature, from the luxurious scent of a rose to the sting of a wasp and the taste of honey, are produced by human beings.

That’s a remarkable statement, all the more because it’s all-inclusive. The most distant star, billions of light years away, has no reality without you because everything that makes a star real—its heat, light, and mass, its position in space, and the velocity that carries it away at enormous speed—requires a human observer with a human nervous system. If no one existed to experience heat, light, mass, and so on, nothing could be real as we know it. If the qualities of Nature are a human construct, the existence of the physical universe “out there” must be seriously questioned–and along with it, our participation in such a universe.

When you break experience down into its tiniest ingredients, the physicality of everything begins to vanish. The story we keep telling ourselves depends on reality “out there” having a physical explanation, but it doesn’t. For example, we depend on sight to navigate through the world. No matter what you see “out there”—an apple, cloud, mountain, or tree— light bouncing off the object makes it visible, but how? No one knows. What makes seeing mysterious can be summed up in a few undeniable facts:

  • Photons, the particles of light, are invisible. They aren’t bright, even though you see sunlight as bright.
  • The brain has no light inside it, being a dark mass of oatmeal-textured cells enveloped in a fluid that is not terribly different from seawater. (There are extremely faint traces of photon activity in the brain, but the optic nerve doesn’t transmit photons to the visual cortex.)
  • Because there is no light in the brain, there are no pictures or images, either. When you imagine the face of a loved one, nowhere in the brain does that face exist like a photograph.

At present no one can explain how invisible photons being converted to chemical reactions and faint electrical impulses in the brain create the threedimensional reality we all take for granted, Brain scans pick up the electrical activity, which is why an fMRI contains patches of brightness and color. So something is going on in the brain. But the actual nature of sight is mysterious. One thing is known, however. The creation of sight is done by you. Without you, the entire world— and the vast universe extending in all directions— can’t exist.

Expand this known fact to everything you experience, and every quality of life requires human participation. “Requires” means two things, first, that experience is the ground state of everything, including the activity of doing science, and second, that every quality is a human construct. Another species with a different nervous system would participate in the universe in a way completely unknown to us with our human nervous system.

Physics has had decades to process the insight of John Archibald Wheeler, the eminent American physicist who originated the notion of a “participatory universe,” a cosmos in which all of us are embedded as co-creators, replacing the accepted universe “out there,” which is separate from us. Wheeler used the image of children with their noses pressed against a bakery window to describe the view that kept the observer separate from the thing being observed. But in a fully participatory universe, the observer and the thing observed are one.

You are one with the universe because you experience Nature in your awareness, and there is no other source for reality as we know it. If anything is real that cannot enter human consciousness, we will never know it


Deepak Chopra The writer is MD, FACP, FRCP founder of the Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global

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