We see the world as if we were looking through the lens of a camera. In the viewfinder of the digital camera I use for most of my fine arts work, the world appears inside a black rectangle, as if in the darkened theater of my mind. If I press the shutter down half way, a light meter appears across the bottom of my field of vision. There are markings on the screen to aid in focusing the camera. When I press the shutter, light passing though the lens strikes a digital sensor that converts patterns of color and brightness into pixels that are stored as a long string of zeros and ones on a memory card – a paint-by-numbers process in the most literal sense. The object I photograph now exists twice: once “out there” in the world and once as a digital image stored in my camera. We imagine that the mind works more or less the same way, capturing a representation of the world apprehended through the senses and storing it in memory.
As much as a camera might appear to approximate how human consciousness works, the real world doesn’t actually operate that way. This became apparent when quantum physicists reported early in the last century that the subatomic realm does not exist independently of an observer but is fundamentally altered by any observation of it. They discovered that elementary particles exist in an indeterminate state – neither particle nor wave -- until they are measured, a phenomenon that physicists refer to as the “observer effect.” The implications for the scientific method could no be more profound, since we normally presume the experimenter is not part of the experiment. How do you get an unbiased measurement of the natural world if your thumb is always on the scale?
Independently of quantum theory, English philosopher Owen Barfield was grappling with some of the same issues and concluded we are deluded in thinking “the mind of man is a passive onlooker at the processes and phenomena of nature.” He theorized that human consciousness is evolving and has reached a stage he called “camera civilization.” Like the workings of a camera, we believe “the mind is something which is shut up in a sort of box called the brain” – a “mere recorder of an external world, not a participant in its creative life.”
When I look through the viewfinder of my camera, it is easy to objectify what I see through the lens. The world exists “out there,” and I am in here looking not at the world itself but at an image of the world captured on my camera. In effect, there is not one world but two – or three, if you count the image in my mind’s eye. However, quantum physicists would tell us there is no real boundary between what we normally think of as the exterior world and the interior world of thoughts and perceptions. “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived,” wrote physicist Erwin Schrödinger. “Subject and object are only one.”
All the world’s a stage, Shakespeare wrote. But the stage is not in the world; it’s in the mind. And the mind we are talking about here is not the little box camera we call the brain. It is one mind, not many, a single consciousness that encompasses all the world and everything in it, including all we poor players who strut and fret our hour upon the stage. As Schrödinger put it, “There is no kind of framework within which we can find consciousness in the plural; this is simply something we construct because of the temporal plurality of individuals, but it is a false construction.” In reality, there in no “out there” in the world, no “in here” within me; it is all in the mind of God.
Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning; Romanticism Comes of Age
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Erwin Schrödinger, My View of the World