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“One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”  - Albert Einstein


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Is the Universe a Mental Construction?

Updated: Jan 30

Physicist John Wheeler: “To describe what has happened, one has to cross out that old word ‘observer’ and put in its place the new word ‘participator.’ In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe.”

In a mental universe symbolism and reality are one and the same

Everything that we experience can be interpreted symbolically, being both a mental concept and a real physical experience.

A simple example would be how a triangle can represent delta, or change, while also being a physical object in itself. In the same way a circle or sphere can represent unity while also being a physical reality.

Physicist David Deutsch: “There are mathematical symbols in physical reality. The fact that it is we who put them there does not make them any less physical.”

Natural food is another example. The colors and shapes of fruits make them stand out from their environment, representing the physical importance of their nutrients.

What are the implications of this dual nature of reality as both physical and conceptual, and why does it matter?

Every phenomena that we experience can behave like, or represent, something else, making attempts to fully distinguish the elements of our reality next to impossible.

Before the discovery of the atom, physics described a reality that resembled our everyday experience of light and matter, where they are independent and fundamentally different from one another.

Instead, light was found to be two things at once, being both spread out (a wave) and condensed (a particle). Soon afterwards, physicists discovered that the double nature of light also applied to matter.

The first-ever image of light behaving both as a particle and a wave from 2015
Einstein: “We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”

This dual nature arises from the nature of information itself.

Everything we experience emerges from a mental process. Without it, the information of light and matter couldn’t reach us.

Does information even exist in any meaningful way without a mind to interpret it? The very definition of information implies a participant: information is data that has meaning. Data, the triangle, and meaning, delta. Or data, the fruit, and meaning, nutrients.

All of this sounds a lot like the workings of language, where symbols represent meanings that then allow us to have experiences. We can immerse ourselves within language, as with any good novel, and be in another world.

Is our entire universe a story constructed using symbolism?

Albert Einstein: “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

Quantum mechanics tells us that when we zoom into matter all we find is condensed energy, and what we consider to be stuff is an emergent experience of that energy.

What is energy without a mind to interpret and experience it? In an objective sense, all the stuff around us is nonphysical in the same way the scene described in a novel doesn’t actually exist. Or in the way that computer language can render a virtual reality.

Does virtual reality exist without a player? Does a scene in a novel exist without a reader? How about the data on an old CD that we can no longer play because we don’t have a CD player?

If data doesn’t meaningfully exist without being interacted with and interpreted, wouldn’t that imply that the entire universe in itself must be a conscious experience? From this perspective, the energy of the universe is not only immaterial, but utterly irrelevant without participants around to experience it.

If we do indeed live in a conscious universe, this would mean that every myth, every design, every concept ever conceived actually exists in its own right. It may not be experienced in a physical way from our perspective, but it has been created and experienced through thought.

The big question is what determines when and if something is experienced physically in the material world. Does art, or any creation, imitate life, or does it actually prophesize it? Ask the writers of the Simpsons. Is it inevitable that a mental process results in the physical manifestation of that idea, at least somewhere at some time?

This loosely points to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where every possible probability plays out somewhere, just maybe not in our reality.

If so, be careful what you think, because it would imply that even if thoughts don’t appear physically in our reality, all thoughts are literally written into the fabric of the universe in the same way that data is written onto a hard drive. And by extension, that data can be accessed.

After all, thoughts are energy patterns, and once they are formed they are very real in an energetic sense.

Just like on a hard drive, it’s conceivable that this data could be corrupted or lost or processed in some way, as with a black hole, but it’s unclear what that could even really mean without a concept of absolute time. Einstein taught us that time is relative. The implications of a universe with relativity are that once something exists, it always exists somewhere/time.

Physicist Leonard Susskind: “Einstein, in the special theory of relativity, proved that different observers, in different states of motion, see different realities.”

At this point we get back to the question of whether or not we actually live in a mental universe. The physicalist argument is that we live in a physical reality and our awareness of that reality emerges from how our brain processes the stuff around us. But quantum mechanics tells us that all that “stuff” is actually just energy that interacts with the energy of our bodies.

An object feels solid to us because the electrons in atoms dance, not randomly, but in distinct patterns, as with synchronized dances or the movement of a flock of birds.

Electrons move in complex fluctuating patterns similar to how starlings undulate and move together in large flocks

What appears to us as a solid object is just a cloud of subatomic particles moving in special ways relative to one another, which together produce the experience of something solid. Light interacts with these clouds, preventing us from seeing through the object.

The elephant in the room is that all of this processing happens mentally, so there is no way to ever conceive of anything outside of the mental realm. Science itself is a product of mental processes.

Physicist Max Planck: “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

Now we have come full circle, back to how symbolism is as real as physical reality, because both are equally processed by our awareness of them.

Living in a mental universe would explain why symbolism throughout history has been such a powerful tool, not only mentally but physically.

It could also explain why nonphysical experiences can be manifested physically in a symbolic way, as we see with the cymatic patterns produced by sound frequencies.

Sounds made visible with water, showing how each frequency has its own shape.

The physical realness of symbolism could explain why dreams feel real, why people experience the placebo effect, why meditation affects health, and why sports imagery training affects physical performance.

What we conceive of as real is what our mind tells us is real. In a mental universe, any thought anywhere at any time is real somewhere at some time to someone.

It could be wise to think twice before thinking. But even with the pitfalls of our thoughts being ever-existing, living in a mental universe would mean that the power of the universe resides within all of us, figuratively and quite literally.

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger: “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.”

Guided investigations


Albert Einstein, Hanoch Gutfreund, 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity

Albert Einstein, Leopold Infeld (1938). The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta. Cambridge University Press. Quoted in Harrison, David (2002). "Complementarity and the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics". UPSCALE. Dept. of Physics, U. of Toronto. Retrieved 2008-06-21.

David Bohm, Basil Hiley, The Special Theory of Relativity

Abeln V, Kleinert J, Strüder HK, Schneider S. Brainwave entrainment for better sleep and post-sleep state of young elite soccer players - a pilot study. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(5):393-402. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2013.819384. Epub 2013 Jul 18. PMID: 23862643.

Zampi DD. Efficacy of Theta Binaural Beats for the Treatment of Chronic Pain. Altern Ther Health Med. 2016 Jan-Feb;22(1):32-8. PMID: 26773319.

David, J Ben; Naftali, A; Katz, A. Tinntrain: A multifactorial treatment for tinnitus using binaural beats. The Hearing Journal: November 2010 - Volume 63 - Issue 11 - p 25-26,28 doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000390818.17619.65

Max Planck, Interview in 'The Observer' (25 January 1931), p.17, column 3

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