A closer look at observation

What is an observation?.

If you know something of quantum mechanics you will know that this is not as straightforward as it appears at first. I will use an illustration that Feynman used to explain the basic problem.

When we look at a window we see some light that is reflected from it and we know that some light passes through it. However we do not know how any given photon (particle of light) decides whether to be reflected or to go through the glass. We even have to consider that for any photon, it has BOTH gone through the glass AND been reflected until we observe which way it went!

This is a dramatic departure from considering light and matter generally as having defined properties that we can, in principle, measure to any accuracy we like. Now the measurement itself has a critical influence on what is observed.

For this reason a restatement of the aims of scientific investigations called the Copenhagen interpretation is generally used. This states that science investigates not what is actually there as such but rather, that science investigates just the interactions between what is actually there.

Since all observations are interactions, this interpretation has introduced the problem of what exactly is an observation? This is a problem that is not well resolved. It is a crucial ingredient to our accepted framework of knowledge since it is a problem that is intimately related to the problem of ‘what can we know?’. If observation is to be a source of knowledge and it isn’t clear what amounts to an observation, then it is also not clear what amounts to knowledge.

Some might say that what can exist is only that which we can in principle know - other things being disregarded as unnecessary (as I mentioned earlier, this position is unjustified). Consequently, this opportunity to change the boundaries of what we can know has encouraged a great deal of speculation as to what actually exists. I shall avoid such speculation. Rather, I shall restrict myself to a more natural definition of the framework of knowledge to be used. Taking these concerns on board I say that whenever we refer to what we can know in principle, we should keep in mind that we are talking about human knowledge. It is therefore always a subjective knowledge. I must consider that I can know something, in this subjective sense, if I am convinced that it is true. (I intend to use the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘know’ etc., in this sense from now on.) This does not contest that something I know might be objectively true but to answer that question is to delve into the speculation I have denied myself.

The process of becoming convinced is deeply lodged in our nature. It is something that we may get to know better in the future. The observations through our eyes are made real in our brains. This process, of making the observation of our eyes into something that we are convinced by, is not itself known. This general problem might lead people to the statement that the strongest assertion we can make about what we know is that we know that we perceive something as true. We cannot assert that it actually is true simply because we are convinced by our perceptions. This is however in danger of going too far. We might be tempted to go into the speculation that maybe all that really exists is in ourselves. This is going in the opposite direction to materialism where all that really exists is the material external to our self-awareness. In being natural and making a balanced judgement, we must accept our own selves and natures as really existing and our observations as really existing and therefore we must accept external reality as really existing.

A good model of world thought can be built by considering the difference between man’s observation of the material world and man’s self-awareness. This is done well in ‘Alija’ Ali Izetbegovic’s book "Islam between East and West".


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