Consciousness, that is our awareness of the world through our senses, is not a subject usually associated with physics. Only recently has it become acceptable to mention it because it intrudes itself into certain quantum results in a way that is both unavoidable and (so far, at least) inexplicable. This so-called “quantum enigma” invites a closer look at something as philosophical as consciousness. At the beginning of our age of science, in the seventeenth century, our awareness of the world, or our consciousness, was very much a part of what was then usually called “natural philosophy”. Its thinking went back to the Greeks, who divided the world very clearly into two realms of perception. Our world of nature, as perceived through our five senses, was the “low” world. Our consciousness, either of ourselves or of nature around us, was totally subjective and therefore unreliable. The knowledge that could be obtained by contemplation of this low world was of an equally low order. Real or true knowledge could be obtained only by contemplation of the “upper” world, which lay beyond the reach of our senses and existed quite apart from our presence in it.
To the Greeks, everything around us in nature was still full of being. It was much more alive than it is today and man was intimately connected with all kinds of natural processes and nature beings, who continued to be mentioned in tales and legends long after they had ceased to be perceived by the ordinary person. Whether all this was “really” an illusion is not the point. It was believed in, it affected people’s lives and was part of their reality, their awareness of the world, just as we today believe in quantum mechanics, although most of us have no idea how it works or even what it is.
But man was not connected only to a living nature around him then, he was also affected by forces from the stars and planets: he felt that certain plants and their planting seasons were dependent on phases of the moon, that there were intimate connections between certain metals and certain planets, gold with the sun, silver with the moon, iron with mars. lead with saturn and so on. All these connections led to certain “humors” and character characteristics, which again depended on personal factors such as the date of one’s birth and the position of the stars at that time.
All such subjective consciousness factors lasted a long time, from the ancient Greeks and right through the Middle Ages. Then came Galileo, who saw the world very differently. He no longer felt all these connections and correspondences with nature or the stars. He no longer even felt any connection between himself, the observer, and the object observed.
The effect that Galileo had on all subsequent thinking can hardly be exaggerated. With one chop of the philosophical ax he removed the entire upper world of the Greeks and also redirected the attention of science into a very narrow field, matter and motion, which he felt were the only two “qualities” of nature worthy of scientific investigation. As a result, modern physics recognizes only one reality: the awareness of the world through our five senses, that is to say the subjective consciousness which needs our presence.
This is becoming a bit awkward because the mathematical treatment of both relativity and quantum theory (especially the latter) requires many more dimensions than the three spatial and one time dimensions that we are aware of through our senses. This means that much ingenuity and effort must be devoted to devise some experimental proof, which can be perceived by our limited senses, of for instance the eleven dimensions that are required to explain string theory.
However, from the point of view of consciousness, the sudden appearance of Galileo so soon after the Middle Ages, raises the interesting question of a possible change or evolution of our consciousness in time. It is usually denied by most scientists that our consciousness itself has changed over time, only that the true and real consciousness, unencumbered by animistic, magical or religious baggage, has gradually emerged from the fog of the past.
There is some evidence that our consciousness of the world might indeed be capable of change, even in the short period of time between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. There is the matter of perspective, for instance. For a person to think of himself as quite separate from the object he is observing, he needs to be conscious of a certain distance between himself and that object. Western art showed this distance very clearly between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by achieving perspective. The medieval artist did not have it yet. It was invented only in the fifteenth century by Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect who designed the Duomo in Florence and who, like Galileo, was another difficult, cantankerous genius under the protection of the Medicis.
Once this cool, analytical distance between man and object had been achieved, once all interference from an unperceived upper world had been eliminated and once nature was seen as a sort of specimen on a slab, the new age of physics could begin. It went on through the Newtonian era, right up to the 1920s.
At that watershed period of physics, relativity and quantum mechanics left the investigation of the perceived objects of this world and began the investigation of other, far-off worlds in stars and galaxies beyond our unaided vision, as well as the investigation of inconceivably tiny particles, equally beyond our ordinary sight. These investigations are now beginning to approach the origins of matter and life, to the ultimate beginnings, like the Big Bang, and the limitations of our consciousness to the subjective realm of our five senses is beginning to be felt as very constricting.