20 November 2014

The Observer Effect

In a post back in September I talked about how emotions hate being explained in a sort of poetic point of view. But any truth when coming from an infinitely creative God will be echoed by a thousand other Voices, and now I'd like to look at the same truth through the voice of science--and yes, science actually has a lot to say on the matter. 

Look at it this way. You're five years old. You wake up one morning and see a blanket of snow covering your backyard. You jump out of bed, throw on your clothes, and choke down your breakfast faster than you ever did for school. Your mom bundles you up and you plunge into that white stuff like you're walking on the sky. At the end of the day, as you sip your hot chocolate and look out the window, you see that smooth blanket of snow is now trodden with footprints and green patches that you used to make snowmen and snowballs. And all the sudden, you have the oddest feeling of guilt. You can't say where it's coming from, but you have a vague feeling that  it is somehow connected to you.  Do you remember that feeling? I do. Nowadays when I see snow, I just start the day with the hot chocolate and keep it that way.  I mean, it's not as if the cold bothered me anyway, but footprints are just so...well, ugly. Like anything humans do.

It's a weird feeling. I never knew how to explain it. But later in science I learned about this thing called "The Observer Effect."  It works like this: if you stick a thermometer into a pot of steaming water, a small fraction of the heat will be transferred from the water into the thermometer. As a result, the temperature you read will be ever so slightly lower than the actual temperature. No matter how expensive your thermometer is, you're never going to know the exact temperature of the water. You change the temperature just by measuring it.

But this isn't just a science problem--it's a life problem. Don't you ever sometimes get the weird feeling that applause ruins a beautiful symphony, that some sunsets are just too perfect to be photographed--in short, that certain things best go unspoken? It permeates all of our existence, and few people have yet realized that we are all struggling with the exact same thing: the unobservable yet undeniable phenomenon that the act of observing alters the thing we observe.

Heisenberg broke the whole thing down to the subatomic level when he discovered that you can know either where an electron is currently located or predict where it is going to be located, but not both at the same time. Why? Because the electrons are so infinitesimally small that simply shining a light on it will literally blow it away.  It's called the Uncertainty Principle, and it basically means that nothing you see is exactly the way it is. You change something just by looking at it. 

Let me give you a more human example.  In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a beautiful French girl named Cosette is adopted and raised in a convent for the first twelve years of her life. When her adopted father takes her out to live in 17th century Paris, it has a huge psychological effect on her. For her entire life she had been raised in a place where she had never looked at her reflection once, and all of the sudden she finds herself in a place where being physically attractive is the only thing that matters. One day, as Cosette was tending flowers in the garden, she overheard the neighbors talking about her. They were gossiping about what a pretty young girl she was turning out to be. Cosette dropped her watering bucket and rushed inside to look at herself, and lo and behold, she was beautiful. But in that instant, something happened.

The act of observing changes the thing being observed.

She didn't actually start looking uglier, of course--the change happened from the inside. She began wearing more flamboyant colors and expensive hats.   That flash in her eyes, the way she smiled and walked, told the world that she could see what they saw, and she knew what effect it had on them.  Her adopted father noticed it too, and he had the same feeling I felt as a five-year-old looking over all that trodden snow. It's over now. She knows. There's no going back. Cosette had discovered Pride and Self-Consciousness, and it was all because of one look in the mirror.

I swear I didn't mean this to be a really philosophical OneDirection shout-out, but hey, maybe they were on to something when they say that not knowing you are beautiful is what makes you beautiful. At any rate, it's pretty hard luck on whatever girl they're singing about, because now she knows that her smile at the ground gets you overwhelmed and will probably start using it to her advantage. And who wants to date a girl like that?

The hard fact of life is, if you're pretty or clever or funny, you're going to find out eventually, and that finding out is inevitably going to make you ever so slightly less pretty, clever, or funny. You're going to run out there and mess up the snow one way or another, and if you don't, someone else will.  In the end, it all boils down to being versus knowingYou can either live life or think about life, but doing both at the same time is next to impossible. Scratch that, it is impossible. Perhaps a story would help explain this.

(Don't mind the illustrations...I wasn't on a real artistic swing that day...)

There once was a man who was so ashamed of existing that he wanted to kill himself. But he had read the Bible and knew that wouldn't do. Fortunately, he had read enough books to know exactly what the problem was. Unfortunately, the problem was that he had read too many books. He had turned himself into a brainless intellectual who understood everything and at the same time understood nothing. He had thought himself to death.

In fact, he knew everything a man needed to know to be happy: and that is that knowledge makes you unhappy.

Pretty bad fix, huh?

In order to be happy, he needed to know how to get from here:

(that's a brain, in case you couldn't tell)

Unfortunately, that was the only thing he didn't know how to do. So I guess you could say that he knew what he NEEDED to know, but didn't know what it was, nor did he know how to know. Because the whole point of it was not  knowing, but simply being.

What was the obstacle?

Usually when he wanted to learn something, he learned it by studying it.

But the moment he tried to study BEING...

It ceased to be being...

And became knowledge again.

His only tool had been taken away. Eventually he realized that it would do him no good to read about it. He simply had to experience it. 

But obviously, that was easier said than done. For experiencing is a heart activity, not a head activity. The very thing he needed to get what he needed was the very thing he needed.

(Are you beginning to see how hard this is?)

So Existential Man rationalized with himself. Thomas Edison probably could have invented the light bulb much faster if he had a light bulb to work by...

But that would quite defeat the point of him inventing it.

(I had a similar experience when I invented airplanes ten years ago).

"Sooooo..." thought the Existential Man, "if Edison didn't need a light bulb to invent the light bulb, what did he need?"

Then he had his epiphany.

Edison used something simple to make something complex. He went backwards to go forwards. Existential Man knew that he could not acquire being by learning to be. He had to unlearn things in order that he might be.  

The End.

Okay, I probably made things even more confusing with that story. But it was fun to make. And by now you're probably thinking, "wow, brilliant conclusion, Raymond. Thanks for taking away ten minutes of my life I'll never get back." But there is a moral to all this. The first moral is sometimes you just need to splash your head in some really cold water. The second moral is: the longer you live, the more you have to go backwards to remind yourself what life is really about. But you're never really going to get there, at least not in this life, because it's like a rainbow--slipping out of your hands as you arrive. To put it the words of Thornton Wilder's beautiful play: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

Thanks for reading, and now I think I will go splash my head.
-The Minstrel Boy

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