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How We Collectively Determine Reality

We determine not only our own actions but the structure of spacetime itself.

Key points

  • We, the observers, not only determine what we have for breakfast, but the structure of reality, of spacetime itself.
  • It matters enormously to the laws of reality that we’re here studying and probing it and sharing the information with each other.
  • The cognitive model being built in your mind shapes reality towards a particular, very well-defined structure.
Networks of observers influence the structure of reality.
Source: iStock/iLexx

Our view of the world is much the same as a squirrel’s. It opens its eyes, and the acorn is just miraculously there―it grabs it and scurries up the tree without further thought. We humans are the same―we wake up in the morning and think the world is just magically there.

We have been taught to accept a dichotomy, a split. In this corner stands us, the living—the observer of it all. And in the other corner lurks the entire dumb universe, slamming into itself via random processes.

According to this view, we’re not central to the process of creation, nor to its evolution in any way. We’re afterthoughts―accidents. Life is as inconsequential to the cosmos as Saturn’s rings. In short, we’re not important to the physical world.

But new research suggests we’re not as inconsequential as we thought—that we, the observer, not only determine what we think and feel and what we have for breakfast, but indeed the structure―of spacetime itself.

We drastically change physical quantities at both microscopic and large spatiotemporal scales.

The incompatibility between general relativity and quantum mechanics has puzzled generations of scientists, starting with Albert Einstein. Here I will briefly explain how networks of observers are the key to reconciling these two pillars of modern physics, as well as how they dramatically restructure space itself.

Quantum mechanics works exquisitely well in describing nature at the scale of molecules and subatomic particles, while general relativity is peerless in revealing cosmic behavior on the huge scales between the stars. These two theories find numerous practical applications in our everyday life―such as GPS in the case of relativity and transistors and microprocessors in the case of quantum mechanics. Yet, after almost a century, we lack an understanding of how the two are compatible. At the core of this incompatibility is the issue of the “non-renormalizability” of quantum gravity (the field that tries to combine the two).

Now, a new paper by theoretical physicist Dmitriy Podolskiy, published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics (which published Stephen Hawking’s groundbreaking work on the evolution of the early universe), in collaboration with Andrei Barvinsky (one of the world’s leading theorists in quantum gravity and quantum cosmology), has revealed something remarkable. Namely, that this exasperating incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity vanishes if one takes the properties of observers―us―into account. The study also represents a rare case in theoretical physics when the presence of observers drastically changes the behavior of observable quantities themselves not only at the microscopic scales but also at very large spatio-temporal scales.

It matters hugely to the laws of reality that we share information with each other.

In physics, it’s usually assumed that we’re always able to measure the physical state of an object without perturbing it in any way. This sounds reasonable if we follow our everyday intuition. For example, when we look at an airplane to determine its location (Did it take off? Is it landing?), we have zero influence on its state unless we’re the pilot. But in the realm of quantum gravity, this isn’t possible. When observers measure the state of spacetime foam, the outcomes of their measurements significantly change when they exchange information―the presence of observers themselves significantly perturbs it. Using simplified language, it matters enormously to the laws of reality that we’re here studying and probing it and sharing the results with each other.

This work has a number of fascinating consequences. First of all, the presence of observers not merely influences but defines physical reality itself. If the reality described by the combination of Einstein’s theory of general relativity exists and makes nature operate smoothly, then it also must contain observers in one form or another. Without a network of observers measuring the properties of spacetime, the combination of general relativity and quantum mechanics stops working altogether. So it’s actually inherent to the structure of reality that observers living in a quantum gravitational universe share information about the results of their measurements and create a cognitive model of it. For once you measure something, the wave of probability to measure the same value of the already probed physical quantity becomes “localized” or simply “collapses.”

This means that if you keep measuring the same quantity over and over again, keeping in mind the result of the very first measurement, you’ll see a similar outcome. Similarly, if you learn from somebody about the outcomes of their measurements of a physical quantity, your measurements and those of other observers influence each other―freezing the reality according to that consensus. In this sense, a consensus of different opinions regarding the structure of reality defines its very form, shaping the underlying quantum foam. This variation is testable and can be checked by performing both real and numerical experiments. Indeed, it was already checked numerically with Monte Carlo simulations (using the powerful MIT computer cluster) and will be checked experimentally in the near future.

What if you were the only person in the universe?

You might wonder what would happen if there was only one observer in the universe. The answer depends on whether the observer is conscious, whether he or she has memory about the results of probing the structure of objective reality, whether she builds a cognitive model of this reality. In other words, a single conscious observer can completely define this structure, leading to a collapse of the waves of probability, largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model, which the observer builds in her mind throughout her lifespan.

Recall how you felt as a young child when reality was more of a blur with unexpected and unpredictable outcomes, perhaps even with monsters under your bed. Compare it to now: how much more well-defined reality is as an adult. The more extensive experience you acquire―the more defined the structure of reality becomes for you. This freeze-out of the structure of reality is not due to the intrinsic physical properties of this reality but rather because the cognitive model being built in your mind shapes it towards a particular, very well-defined structure.

Think out of the box.

Finally, one cannot help but wonder what it would mean if we left the consensus, developing a cognitive model of reality very different from the one shared by other observers. Would reality be reshaped? Perhaps so, but it would depend on which values of the consensus were not established, in which case, you would remain in danger because the fine structure of the wave function of the universe around you will remain delocalized and thus largely unstable, much as it is in dreams.

In dreams, we leave the consensus universe and can experience an alternate cognitive model of reality—very, very different from the one shared by other observers while awake. In dreams, the fine structure of the wave function of the universe is also delocalized and unstable. This explains why you often have more power while dreaming; the values of observables representing the basis of reality are more fluid. Indeed, as explained in the new JCAP paper, the presence or absence of a network of observers influences the very dimensionality of the universe.

We’re connected with the universe on every level.

All of this supports a profound shift in our everyday worldview―a change from the long-held belief that the physical world is a pre-formed entity that just exists “out there” to one in which it belongs to the observer. As we and other scientists continue to explore this new line of research, it is becoming increasingly clear how intimately we are connected with the structure of the universe on every level.

This post was adapted from The Grand Biocentric Design, by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavsic, with Bob Berman (BenBella Books).


Podolskiy, D., Barvinsky, A.O., & Lanza, R. (2021). Parisi-Sourlas-like dimensional reduction of quantum gravity in the presence of observers. Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, JCAP 05 (2021) 048.

Lanza, R., & Pavsic, M. (2020). The Grand Biocentric Design. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books.

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