Sensing the Universe

What, exactly, is the Universe?

What, exactly, is the Universe?

Everything we know about the Universe comes from sensing it or from scientific inquiry. The two methods seem to be very different.

Sensing involves seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting. Yes, scientists have added complexity in recent times to our understanding of both the number and capabilities of the senses to include “modalities” like sense of place, pain, balance, temperature, vibration, and awareness of chemical concentrations inside the body—like salt and carbon dioxide. All this complexity pushes us into deep weeds, which we are going to avoid in this essay. It will work just as well to stick with the traditional five senses kids learn about in elementary school.

Until science developed, sensing—and making sense of what was sensed through the mental process of reasoning—was how people formed ideas about what the universe is. But there was a big problem.

Our senses told us the sun looked yellow, thunder sounded loud, rocks felt hard, roses smelled sweet and almonds tasted bitter. The problem should now be obvious. These qualities don’t exist in the physical universe. They are hallucinations of living brains created when organs like the eye, ear, skin, nose or tongue interact with elements of the universe which, in themselves, share none of these qualities.

sensing the universe 8

These qualities don’t exist in the physical universe. They are hallucinations of living brains.

These hallucinations are inaccessible to all but the living organism who experiences them. They are unique and not detectable by others, in this sense: you can ask someone if they see the same yellow color you see. If they say yes, you can decide to take them at their word, or not. It is not possible to prove they are telling the truth. In fact it’s not possible for them to answer the question truthfully, because they can’t know how you experience the color yellow.

The interaction of sense organs, like eyes, with electromagnetic radiation is selective. Only a limited range of frequencies will stimulate the retina of the eye, for example, to emit the necessary electric and chemical messaging the brain uses to construct the hallucination called vision.

Some of the radiation falling into the eye does not interact with any sensing organ and remains undetected. In fact, the human eye can detect only wavelengths of light between one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half one-hundred-thousandths of an inch long (400 to 1,000 nanometers).

This narrow range is transformed by structures in the retina into messaging the brain can use. Wavelengths up to a thousand times longer (one thirty-second of an inch) can be felt as heat. To the rest of the light spectrum, we are completely blind. This spectrum includes light with wavelengths as long as sixty miles (called radio waves) down to wavelengths of light called gamma rays, which are many millions of times smaller than the wavelength of violet, the shortest wavelength the human eye can detect.

The reason that people (and other life) see and feel a limited range of frequencies is because the energy of the sun that is able to penetrate our atmosphere and reach the surface of the earth lies in this limited band. Of the sun’s energy that reaches earth’s surface, forty-three percent is in the narrow visible spectrum we can see. Forty-nine percent is in the form of heat, which we feel. Ultra-violet light—which some insects see—makes up seven percent. Life on earth evolved to sense the light that was able to reach it and make a physical impact on it.

The other parts of the light spectrum—like X-ray and gamma light—are deflected or absorbed by the nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. Only one-percent of the sun’s energy that manages to reach the earth’s surface lies in these high frequency bands. 

And a great deal of the light that reaches earth from outside our solar system falls into the range of low-energy radio frequencies to which we are completely blind. Radio frequency light waves are weak and fuzzy. The sun produces very few. They are useless to all life.

An ability to sense radio waves makes no impact on living things; if offers no survival advantages. Yes, here on earth intelligent life forms (human beings) have recently learned to amplify and convert radio light into sound to communicate and entertain themselves over large distances. Scientists continue to search for evidence that far away life, should it exist, might share the same aptitude. So far, the search has found nothing; no evidence for any kind of life whatever.

The image of light formed by the mind is fantastic; which means, it is useful to the organism that sees the image, but the image doesn’t contain many (or any) clues about the external physical phenomenon that triggered its creation.

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There is nothing even remotely similar between the color yellow (or any other color) and the electromagnetic radiation that oscillates trillions of times per second to ignite the mechanisms of vision.

There is nothing even remotely similar between the color yellow (or any other color) and electromagnetic radiation oscillating trillions of times per second. The hard solid feeling of rock has nothing in common with the silicon atoms from which rock is made and whose nuclei are separated from one another by spaces many thousands of times their size. Nor does it have anything in common with the hundreds of different molecules which make up the nearby skin and nerve cells—themselves many millions of times larger than silicon atoms and separated from them by large distances.

The feeling of hard solid and the color yellow exist in my mind. I am sure of it. But can I find, for example, the color yellow in your mind? The answer is no. A brain surgeon might probe a part of someone’s brain, and they report seeing yellow. But if she examines the area of the probe, she has no chance of discovering the color yellow. She will never find it.

My experience with the color yellow is subjective. If you tell me you also experience yellow, I believe you, because you are like me, and it seems reasonable we will experience things in the same way. But if you were asked to prove you see yellow the way I see it, you couldn’t do it.

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Not only colors, but sounds, feelings, smells and tastes will vanish without a trace once life is gone. So again we ask. What, exactly, is the Universe?

If life disappears from the universe it will take the color yellow with it. Only the electromagnetic radiation that triggered the hallucination of the color yellow will remain. But since the radiation can no longer be detected, seen, or experienced by any conscious observer, what is it exactly? Not only colors, but sounds, feelings, smells and tastes will vanish without a trace once life is gone. So again, we ask: What exactly is the universe?

gas sensor

Gas Sensor

Let’s “look” at scientific inquiry for the answer. What does science do? Science examines the universe quantitatively and avoids the qualitative and subjective attributes the senses provide. Or it at least tries to. And science designs detectors to find as much discoverable phenomenon as it can—phenomenon our human biological senses can’t discern or aren’t sensitive enough to experience.

But we have to ask: Aren’t these detectors nothing more than enhanced sensors augmented by gauges and dials to increase the precision of measurement? And don’t living, conscious human-beings use their senses and their brains to make sense of the information the detectors provide? What have we gained by science?

The scientist’s tool of choice is mathematics, because it dramatically reduces the fuzziness—the subjectivity—of the senses, and replaces qualities like the color yellow and the feeling hard solid with measurables like oscillations per second and pounds per square inch; that is, with attributes that can be measured by all observers and which, presumably, exist independent of a conscious mind. But can mathematics really do that?

Special relativity Einstein

The Special Relativity of time.

Mathematics uses logic and simplified representations of objects and forces to create symbolic models. Certain operations can be performed on these models to reveal non-intuitive relationships among the simplified variables.

Ok… again, have we gained anything? Or does mathematics force us to sacrifice information and detail to simplify understanding? Are we closer to knowing what the universe is, or farther away? Can the best sensors and the most sophisticated mathematics really get us closer to understanding what the universe is?

One surprise that mathematics has revealed: telescopes and other sensors show that too much gravity is at work in the universe for the amount of matter and energy scientists see. 85% of the matter that must be out there can’t be seen. 

More shocking: 95% of the energy and matter that the theory of gravity says must be out there, no one has ever observed. Physicists don’t know what this invisible matter and energy is, or even where it is—though some scientists believe it is evenly distributed throughout the cosmos. They call it dark matter and dark energy.  

I don’t want to scare anyone, but the universe is mysterious, and no one understands it. Two questions I’m grappling with:

  1. Can the Universe exist apart from Consciousness?  
  2. Is Consciousness powerless to interact with the universe in a way that can change it?
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Consciousness may exist independent of any individually conscious-being.

These are serious questions.

If the answers to these questions are yes, then consciousness is not necessary for the universe to exist, and the understanding of what the universe really is will probably never be complete—certainly not for humans. Consciousness is something that has evolved over billions of years and will someday be missing once again. The universe won’t notice or care. And conscious beings like humans can think about the universe all they want. They will never change it. This is the current popular view, I believe.

But the answers to these questions could be no. And it might be possible to prove it. 

universe outer space

Consciousness might be something human beings plug into and even share.

If the answers turn out to be no, the implications are profound. No means the physical universe may have evolved from consciousness, not the other way around. No means conscious humans may have the ability to completely understand the universe and make sense of it someday. No means that consciousness may exist independent of any individually conscious-being. No might mean consciousness is something human beings plug into and even share.

No might mean God exists, and—though our bodies die—we never will.

Billy Lee 

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Thanks to Erwin Schrodinger for his Mind and Matter lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, Oct. 1956 for inspiring me to write this article; see  Schrodinger, What is Life?  available at

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Billy Lee

About Billy Lee

Billy Lee is a retired machine designer. His bona-fides include: raised a Navy brat; former anti-Vietnam War activist; Francophile; math lover; Egyptology enthusiast; MSU grad; likes Blues and Culver’s fish sandwiches; father; grandfather; married to Bev, his best friend; Christian—but loves Obama, Hillary, and the gay people. Biggest problem facing civilization?—lack of CAPS on income, which permit the wealthy to loot corporations and public institutions. Possession by anyone of excessive wealth must be a felony enforced by international courts. The alternative is to continue the widespread poverty and human misery that have plagued civilization from before forever.

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One Response to Sensing the Universe

  1. Shaun says:

    I enjoyed reading your article, it was very interesting. I believe that humans are the link between science and religion; it’s up to the individual to use their consciousness to find the link. The human body was created from the same stars as the solar system; therefore we are the universe experiencing itself, and our creator is the universe. It seems a coincidence that the power of god and our universe are both unquestionable.

    I believe that the universe was formed from conscious thought, everything follows a vibrational frequency of life and death. Your energy and conscious thought are transferred to feed the next cycle of life on earth. It is the same with the stars, and galaxies, therefore why would the frequency change for the universe? Only the amplitude (time) of the frequency changes.

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