Imagine a creature, about the size of a football, which has long green fur, and several purple tentacles with a glowing red eye at the end of each.
You have never seen such a creature; you are never likely to see such a creature. But I bet you were able to imagine such a creature, and perhaps your mind also filled in additional details than the ones I described. Perhaps you added a mouth, teeth, perhaps the creature moved, the wind ruffled its fur. Maybe it had feet. Maybe it made a sound. Maybe you found that a whole environment sprung into existence around it.
Now try to imagine a sphere, a snooker ball say, which is spinning in one direction, and also, simultaneously, spinning in the opposite direction.
Again you have never seen this, but this time, you could not imagine it.
The simple difference is that the creature, however unlikely you are to ever encounter it in your day-to-day life, is possible. It is entirely feasible that this very creature exists somewhere in the universe. The ball spinning in opposing directions is impossible, by the very definition of “spin”.
Now, something amazing comes out of this seemingly futile exercise. Your mind is capable of imagining only what is possible. If something is possible, you can imagine it, just by someone describing it to you, even if it bears little or no resemblance to anything you have seen before — provided it can be described in terms that you understand. But if it is impossible, you cannot, no matter how well it is described.
Imagination explores Probability-Space
If our imagination is simply a product of our experience, then we should find it equally easy, or equally difficult, to imagine anything that we have not seen before. But we don’t. In fact, our consciousness seems to be a good arbiter of whether something is possible.1
I believe that many people trip up on quantum physics, and particularly superposition, because it is often described in terms that make it impossible: that a thing can exist in two opposite and incompatible states simultaneously, much like a ball spinning both ways at once. But there is a simple way around this, and it’s the only way I know of to make the results of quantum physics possible and imaginable. This is to invoke multiple universes, separated not by space or time but by probability.
Schrodinger’s Cat cannot be both alive and dead in our universe. We cannot imagine a cat to be both alive and dead, therefore it cannot be. But we can easily imagine a single cat dividing into two cats in two universes in probability space: One cat is alive, the other dead, and when I open the box, there is no collapse of superposed states, there is just the realisation of which of those two universes my consciousness is in. The same applies for any states which are mutually exclusive. And, even if the cat is dead, I can still imagine, dream, daydream, make-believe, that I opened the box and the cat jumped out and dug its claws into me.
Imagination, dreaming etc, are simply states where our consciousness detaches from our bodies and is free to move around. But as I’ve explained, it cannot go anywhere. It can only go into what is possible. So, here’s my point: consciousness can move freely through probability-space. When we imagine, when we dream, we may not be creating something from nothing; we may simply be exploring what already exists, but in a different universe from the one we have directed our bodies to inhabit. Consciousness can move between universes, almost effortlessly. This would explain why your imagination can surprise you, and especially why you can dream of things you might never have thought to imagine. If consciousness created these realities, then surely we would know everything that our imaginations were going to come up with. If we are simply exploring what already is, or (because this is probability-space), what might be, then it is obvious that we will encounter things of which we have no knowledge. 2
Every time we make a decision, we can imagine what might have happened had we made the opposite decision. We do this by sending our consciousness over to the universe where we did make the opposite decision. Even if your imagination “runs riot”, you will still never imagine anything which could not possibly have happened. It might be very improbable, but never totally impossible. And since the chance of life existing at all is very improbable (which is why you see such bizarre notions as the anthropic principle invoked, in a desperate attempt to avoid God). In fact, anything you can imagine is likely less improbable than your being around to imagine anything in the first place.
Implications of current technological developments
Now, point #2. Quantum computers are being built. These exploit the phenomenon of superposition (exactly how they do this is still not fully understood, but we don’t let a small thing like that get in the way of progress…) Superposition effectively provides a link between multiple universes across probability-space, so quantum computers may therefore have the potential to navigate probability-space in a similar way as consciousness. That doesn’t mean they “are” conscious in the same way that we are, merely that they have some of the capabilities that have hitherto only been available to conscious beings.
At the same time, the internet is changing. At the moment, it’s a repository of information which can ultimately only be understood by humans. Computers can search this information and hence build up huge reservoirs of knowledge, but they cannot yet understand what they read and infer new knowledge from it. But there is a huge effort underway to build the Semantic Web, which is a way of encapsulating knowledge so that computers can “understand” it and build inferences from it. Even on regular computers, this is a powerful concept — it means that computers are no longer limited to knowing what humans tell them. Their knowledge can, and in a very short time will inevitably, overtake the combined knowledge of all humanity.
Now add into this the ability to traverse probability-space. The ability to “imagine”. Where will quantum inference engines take us? The whole of human knowledge will be explained to them in terms they understand, and from there, their imagination will take over. The possibilities are quite staggering.
And no-one seems to be talking about this. The semantic web on its own must rank alongside splitting the atom in its potential for massive harm as well as good. But quantum computers will add an entirely new dimension — or possibly an infinite number of new dimensions. Are you ready for the fact that humanity is about to become subordinate to its own creation? Maybe then we’ll know what it’s like to be God.
1 The classic objection to the idea of consciousness as a judge of possibility, is that we should not limit our idea of what is possible to what we can imagine. We are constantly told that science makes advances which “could not have been imagined” years ago. But I don’t believe it. My own experience suggests that everything that can happen has been imagined, or can be, whether or not the imaginer has any scientific knowledge related to what they are imagining. There is a tendancy to dismiss human experience as “unscientific”. I think there is nothing more scientific than trying to formulate a model for physics which includes the whole of human experience, rather than just the “neat” parts which can be nailed down to repeatable experiments. Which parts of your life are repeatable?
2 Some people claim that, with practice, we can direct our normal, waking consciousness in the same way that we can direct our imagination, and therefore that the “real world” around us can actually be shaped by our own minds — only to the extent of what is possible, but lots of things are possible. This verges on solipsism. But whether the outside world is “really out there”, or whether it is a product of some inaccessible part of our mind, is moot as long as there remain things that are outside our conscious control, things that surprise us. I think we can “create our day”, to coin a phrase, to a limited degree by what we choose to do and by how we choose to interpret, integrate and react to what happens around us. I don’t believe we have absolute power to create reality out of the full pallette of probability. We can certainly fool ourselves into thinking we have such power, but as far as I know, no-one has ever convincingly demonstrated that they really do have it (though many have claimed to).