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Zenith Grant Awardee

Markus Mueller

University of Western Ontario

Project Title

Emergent objective reality – from observers to physics via Solomonoff induction

Project Summary

One of our most deeply rooted concepts in science and every-day life is objective reality: the idea that there is one single, objective, external world. However, quantum mechanics has challenged this idea, by telling us that microscopic particles sometimes have no objective properties before they are measured by an observer. The notion of an “observer” is also omnipresent in several other puzzling problems of science, for example in the Philosophy of Mind, when we ask what a person would observe if we simulated her brain on a computer. Here we suggest to pursue a radically unconventional idea: maybe objective reality is only an approximation, and it is instead observers and observations which are truly fundamental? By formulating this idea in terms of a rigorous mathematical theory, we are able to find powerful new insights into the questions raised above. Moreover, it allows us to study where the appearance of objective reality comes from, when it breaks down, and why we see an external world that seems to be governed by simple laws of nature. In this project, we will analyze the potential and limitations of this approach, and use it to address some important conceptual problems in physics and philosophy.

Technical Abstract

According to our currently predominant understanding of physics, a good physical theory is supposed to describe the objective evolution of a unique external world. However, this picture of physics is challenged by quantum theory, which indicates that particles do not always have predefined values of all their properties before a measurement. It has been suggested that quantum states are best understood as an observer’s degrees of beliefs, instead of physical properties themselves. Moreover, the notion of observer plays an important role in several other important conceptual problems of science, like the Boltzmann brain problem in Cosmology, or questions of personal identity and brain emulation in the Philosophy of Mind. In this project, we suggest to address aspects of all these questions in a unified way, by taking a radically unconventional perspective and by asking: what if the notion of “observation” is truly fundamental, and physics as we know it is an emergent phenomenon? We formulate this hypothesis in terms of a rigorous mathematical theory, based on the notion of “Solomonoff induction” from algorithmic information theory. We use it to obtain fresh new insights into the problems mentioned above, and explore the thoroughly novel worldview that is suggested by its formulation.

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