I just thought of a cool thing that could happen in the science fiction book I’m never going to write. I was reading this post at raptitude.com about the mutually exclusive beliefs that a) your conscious experience can affect the physical universe, and b) your conscious experience (I’m saying — thoughts, perception, worldview) can not affect the physical universe because its ‘behavior’ is determined by the rules of physics and so is bound to ‘do its own thing’ regardless of what’s going on inside your brain. The very obvious belief to side with is b), because if you believe in a) then it follows that you think there are people who can start fires just by thinking about it like in Stephen King’s Firestarter and other mutant-like beings who more appropriately belong in X-Men films.
Another reason a) seems unlikely is the commonly cited function of believing in supernatural beings like God and aliens and stuff (it’s also arguable that YouTube ‘conspiracy culture’ exists to serve this function for its individuals). That is, the world is boring. Death is boring. Reality is simple and hard — you’re born, you suffer, you don’t really succeed all that much (like, you don’t become president, a movie star, a billionaire), world peace never happens, your best friend gets cancer, you die, and then: nothing. No forever, no conception of ‘nothing,’ just [ ]. And then like, in three million years, a comet turns our planet into Mars.
A great way to feel better about this is to believe in the most amazing redemption ever: heaven. And you don’t have to be religious to believe in heaven, either. Tons of atheists believe in heaven — they just conceive it differently — as humans colonizing other planets and achieving utopia and making energy from the air or something so that it’s limitless, or humans successfully ‘beating’ death by anti-aging technology and devices that transfer our consciousnesses to ‘avatars’ (a project like this is happening) so that we live forever and ever. Same Christian narrative, different superficial elements.
Or, if you don’t believe in a higher power or any of this other stuff, the next best thing to keep yourself from being bored out of your mind is to feel certain that aliens are visiting us and the government knows about zero-point energy and ultimately if it were just revealed to the public that the aliens and top-level government executives had a secret relationship, humanity would be saved (redeemed) and we’d live forever and ever. Or you can believe in whatever other conspiracy gets you off. Because reality is so much more fun that way. A) (or, in this sense, the supernatural, the other-worldly, the metaphysical) is great to believe, it adds mystery to a reality that at its best is fun sometimes and at its worst is suffering all the time.
But, again, it appears the more ‘logical’ thing to believe is b), of course. I can’t will my ex-girlfriend’s future husband to keel over and die from a heart attack because I want her to think only of me for the rest of her life just by thinking about it. I can’t use The Force on a bank teller and get her to hand me $20,000 in cash the next time I’m depositing a check. I could do those things with weapons, but that involves physics and would place my action back into category b).
But there’s a catch to this. Before going off in a different direction than this discussion, the article at raptitude.com actually argues for a) because when it comes down to it, the universe and its inner workings are entirely mysterious to us. If you think about quantum physics, its scientists are constantly discovering extremely strange new things that are happening at the atomic or sub-atomic level that completely defy scientific convention. From the post–
We’ve built models that seem to explain a lot, but they’re limited by what human beings are capable of understanding, they’re skewed to what we are good at measuring, and they are subject to biases we don’t know we have. Every advance in physics shows us that the universe is far weirder than we had previously imagined. Space is curved now? What?
So it’s foolish to believe you have any kind of certainty about how the universe goes about presenting itself to a human being. The world’s top physicists are probably more aware of their ignorance than you are of yours.
So the idea now is that you can’t say that you know anything about the way the universe works, which allows you to think, like, “Hm, maybe I could move my iPhone a centimeter if I thought hard enough (and didn’t physically touch it).” Maybe it would work — quantum physicists discover weird shit all the time (one of the most famous and oft-cited discoveries is that one electron can appear in two places at one time… there’s also that movie What The Bleep Do We Know? where people apparently stared at different glasses of water and thought sad thoughts or happy thoughts and the molecules in the happy thought water turned out really pretty and the molecules in the sad thought water turned out ugly and tragic looking).
So then, say I write this science fiction book, the one I’m never going to write, and in it a global imperative is decreed that every single human on the planet, all 17 billion of them (year’s like 2160), at noon EST must assume the cross-legged position. Every single human being on planet Earth. There is a plastic chess piece — the king, actually — upright on a marble table at the UN office in New York City. Everyone knows about the chess piece, and most people can see it, because a livefeed of it is being broadcast and everyone at this point in the future has access to digital displays. At 12:10 p.m., each human must focus as hard has he or she can on tipping that king over. 17 billion human consciousnesses concentrating on a comparatively small number of atoms. In my book, it works.
Would it work, though, if we actually tried it today?