The Observer Effect: Why Science Can’t Explain Everything


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You’ve probably heard these claims umpteen times: “Everything originated in the Big Bang” or “We all evolved from a primeval soup”. A more careful scientist would avoid making such universal claims, because of the observer effect.

What is the observer effect? Much misunderstanding can be avoided by distinguishing between the pragmatic value of a theory and the veracity of that theory. Most scientific theories are considered ‘true’ based on their pragmatic value, the fact that they make accurate predictions and help us get things done (forecast the weather, launch rockets, etc). For such theories (judged on their pragmatic value), skepticism about the general reliability of our cognitive apparatus, à la Descarte, is not an issue. Even if we are all brains in a vat, such theories would still be valid within the realm of human experience (e.g. Newton’s Laws can still apply in the experience of a brain in a vat, even if they don’t apply outside the vat).

It’s a different ball-game when you’re judging a theory on its veracity, whether it tells us what the world is ‘really’ like in the absence of observers. Theories that attempt to explain the origin or complete workings of the human cognitive apparatus (such as naturalistic theories of biological evolution or the origin of the universe, and even atomic theory; all of which purport to account for human cognitive functions among other things) are often claimed to have veracity, alongside any pragmatic value they hold. Take the claim “We all evolved from a primeval soup.” “We”, of course, refers to us as observers. A more cautious scientist would qualify that by saying “Our bodies …” instead. The problem with “we” is that it also refers to consciousness, and that runs into the observer effect. We cannot observe how consciousness works, we can only observe the objects of consciousness.

Imagine if we’re all born wearing goggles that possibly distort our vision, and we can’t take the goggles off. Can we explain how the goggles work if we don’t know whether (and if so, how) they distort our vision? See the problem? Scientific theories can’t account for the way consciousness affects our observations, so the claim that such theories can explain the origin of our full cognitive faculties (which includes consciousness) is unwarranted. Such a claim rests on the unsupported assumption that what we observe of how our cognitive faculties work is how our cognitive faculties really work.

This kind of observer effect is only a problem for the veracity of theories that purport to explain the origin or functioning of the human cognitive faculties as a whole (I call them ‘global theories’). It is not a problem for the pragmatic value, if any, of such theories (e.g. atomic theory has practical applications within human experience). So the veracity of naturalistic evolutionary theories, and all other global theories, is very much in question. The only global theories that are immune to the observer effect are those that do not rely on empirical verification (i.e. are a priori). Such theories are either philosophical or religious (and there is no consensus on either front).

To sum up: From a pragmatic point of view, yes, our cognitive faculties are generally reliable. On the question of their general veracity, all bets are off as far as science goes. However, most of the time, only the pragmatic implications of our theories, perceptions and memories matter to us. Your decision to have eggs for breakfast doesn’t rest on whether you believe the eggs ‘really’ exist in some metaphysical sense. Having said that, if you had metaphysical beliefs about how things ‘really’ are, those beliefs may affect your everyday decisions. They add an extra dimension to the purely pragmatic considerations that would otherwise solely motivate us.

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.