"We often discussed his notions on objective reality. I recall that during one walk Einstein suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked whether I really believed that the moon exists only when I look at it."
—Pascual Jordan, a theoretical physicist who made significant contributions to quantum mechanics and quantum field theory
The mystery, murkiness and debate surrounding quantum physics has led some to believe that science shows proof that an object doesn't exist without an observer and that it instead, awaits in a perpetual state until detected. However, this argument seems to take advantage of a very complex and obscure science topic that even few scientists really understand.
Richard Feynman, who earned a Nobel Prize for his contributions to quantum mechanics once said:
We always have had a great deal of difficulty in understanding the world view that quantum mechanics represents. At least I do, because I’m an old enough man that I haven’t got to the point that this stuff is obvious to me. Okay, I still get nervous with it. And therefore, some of the younger students…you know how it always is, every new idea, it takes a generation or two until it becomes obvious that there’s no real problem. It has not yet become obvious to me that there’s no real problem. I cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there’s not real problem, but I’m not sure there’s no real problem.
As physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser confirms, "We know how to use quantum physics, but we don't know what it is telling us about the nature of reality."1 In other words, scientists are saying that they’ve found something very strange at the subatomic level that goes against their expectations about how nature works. Due to this uncertainty, a lot can be read into quantum physics. Without hesitation, some spiritual proponents and even some scientists (see Robert Lanza) have already jumped to the conclusion that physics shows that consciousness influences experience. While Vedanta effectively shows that consciousness is fundamental to our experience using a process of reasoning that explains away conflicting observations, the current trend toward "quantum mysticism"2 only invites much speculation and opens the door to irrational beliefs such as the idea that directed thoughts can influence the universe. As a result, we get outlandish concepts like the "Law of Attraction" and "quantum healing." Deepak Chopra, in particular, has championed making quantum mechanics into something of a New Age fascination that, to his credit, has enjoyed longevity in the spiritual marketplace. But for now, it's probably best to leave quantum mechanics to the physicists and hope for more revealing findings in the near future.
While Vedanta effectively shows that consciousness is fundamental to our experience using a process of reasoning that explains away conflicting observations, the current trend toward "quantum mysticism" only invites much speculation and opens the door to irrational beliefs such as the idea that directed thoughts can influence the universe.
But back to the original question: According to Vedanta, do objects exist when nobody is looking at them?
To understand Vedanta's perspective, we first need to provide some context. According to Vedanta, the world exists due to a deluding power that seemingly creates form from consciousness. While this might sound like just more quantum mysticism, it's worth examining. "Maya" describes the faculty that creates the world and makes objects appear substantial. The classic example is the clay and the pot. When we look at a pot, we may not realize that what we’re looking at is really just clay. The pot is only name and form, while the clay is the actual substance—the "truth" of the pot. You can have clay and no pot, but you can't have a pot and no clay. Similar to how from clay an artisan can creates saucers, mugs, bowls and hundreds of other shapes and forms; out of awareness, maya is able to create an entire universe.
Why maya or anything exists at all is a great mystery. In Vedanta, maya isn't so much an entity as it is God’s creative, sustaining and destructive power. Vedanta describes maya as being made of three forces or constituents, including knowledge (sattva), energy (rajas) and matter (tamas). Relative to the individual, maya also has the psychological aspects of projection and concealment. Maya and its forces are what keep us in the dark by distorting reality and hiding the truth from us.
While it's counterintuitive to think that the world comes out of consciousness, Vedanta reminds us that when we dream, we construct our own private world of objects made from mere thoughts. We are both the material and intelligent cause of our dream! And while it can be argued that the dream and waking states are not identical, they share most of the same qualities. One prominent aspect is that objects we experience in both states feel substantial. In fact, we usually don't know a dream is a dream until after it's over. One would think that after experiencing thousands of dreams within a lifetime that we would no longer fall for the same old trick! But sure enough, chances are tonight when you fall asleep and enter the dream state, you will once again identify with your dream character and never once question whether the dream world you created is real or not.
While it's counterintuitive to think that the world comes out of consciousness, Vedanta reminds us that when we dream, we construct our own private world of objects made from mere thoughts.
As for the waking state, on close analysis all objects are shown to be something other than what they appear. All objects when examined closely only reveal more objects, and if examined at the subatomic level, are found to be mostly just empty space! Furthermore, all objects are in constant flux—that is, they are created, sustained for a while, and then destroyed/recycled into something else. And while the dream state is our own personal reality, the waking state might be said to be God's dream in which God projects reality. In a sense, we are all living God's dream where objects come and go and nothing on the surface really is what it seems.
To illustrate the deluding power of maya, we might compare it to a virtual reality (VR) game. With any VR game, it’s only the programmer who knows the actual limitations of his creation (including all the game characters, objects and various stages). Using the game analogy, we might compare the programmer to God and say that all the game objects exist because they are known by God (even if there are no individuals/players to validate them). In the case of a VR game, the unperceived game objects really do exist in a perpetual state as code until triggered by certain conditions.
From Vedanta's perspective, God is like a programmer who wields its maya to create and maintain the Field of Experience (the game). God creates all the objects, but like a programmer, doesn't become the objects. Similarly, God as the programmer, is also the intelligence behind its creation, which means God makes the game rules and knows all the possible game moves and outcomes. Thus, it might be said that while certain objects are not known by an individual (the player), they are known by God. Whether in God's reality objects are just invisible "code" waiting for some kind of interaction with an observer to manifest, is unknown.
From Vedanta's perspective, God is like a programmer who wields its maya to create and maintain the Field of Experience (the game).
In the material world, the strange unseen behavior of subatomic particles still isn't completely understood. As a result, for example, we aren't able to make sweeping generalizations and say that what happens at the micro level also applies at the macro level. Most likely, quantum effects wash out at large scales and we are reading too much into the secret behavior of subatomic particles (something in which we may lack the brain power to ever fully understand). However, putting theories of quantum mysticism aside, probably the best and most logical way to answer our question is to ask where all objects ultimately reside?
If we examine our experience closely, we will see that everything we perceive is taken in from the sense instruments (eyes, ears, tongue, nose, skin), interpreted by the "sense organs" (the part of the mind that decodes sense objects), which are then sorted by the mind and analyzed by the intellect. Objects don't enter us, nor are they ever actually perceived by us as a cohesive whole. Instead, we perceive the object's properties—such as size, color, shape, texture, smell, sound or taste—which are then constructed into, for example, a "table" based on what the mind already knows from past experience. What this means, and what science confirms, is that attributes such as color, utility or beauty are strictly human constructs and sense objects are just stimuli. In his book, Cosmological Koans, physicist Anthony Aguirre writes:
Modern understanding of neurology and cognitive science confirms that perception is by no means a passive endeavor, but is a continuous bidirectional process in which the reality we experience is, like a dream, constructed out of the raw materials of sensory input, memory, feeling, awareness, prediction, and pattern matching, moment by moment.
Thus, the entire universe is actually just a construction of thoughts cascading in the mind. The mind constructs reality based on individual thoughts entering and leaving awareness one after another, just like an old movie projector projects the frames of a film onto a movie screen. This gives reality a sense of space and time. Because your experience of the material world is similar to my experience, we tend to have similar thoughts (e.g., if looking at a house, we will both have a similar house-thought). Given the same data, we only differ in how we interpret those thoughts based on our conditioning (e.g., the house looks nice / the house looks ugly).
In the end, life is a kind of dream-like existence where seemingly substantial objects have no independent existence and ultimately, are just thoughts that come and go on the screen of awareness. We can't ever fully understand maya or how the Field of Experience works because our capacity to know it is limited. However, the name of the game isn't to figure out how the world and all the dream objects exist, but to wake up from the dream.
All objects are ultimately thoughts playing on the screen of awareness.
Objects are created out of awareness by a deluding power called maya. This occurs much in the same way we create dream objects while in the dream state, the only difference being that our dreams are personal, while reality is universal (God’s dream).
To the individual, objects don't exist when they aren't a thought. For example, where's your cat when you're not thinking of it? Fortunately, God's game allows that your cat continues to exist even when you're not thinking about it, otherwise life would be inconstant and unpredictable.
This leads to the question of how God (consciousness + maya) operates and sustains the universe. Because we are in the game and can't ever be outside as actual observers, we can never fully appreciate or understand it. The code is proprietary, it’s complex and the programmer refuses to reveal its secrets!
To conclude, all objects exist even when not seen because they are known by a "cosmic knower” (God). We perceive an object because the mind, as a reflecting medium, reflects consciousness and illuminates the object. Similarly, God has a reflecting medium that illuminates the entire universe. In other words, God, as pure intelligence, is conscious of its creation even when we aren't.
1 Gleiser, Marcelo. "Can quantum mechanics explain consciousness?" Big Think. https://bigthink.com/13-8/quantum-consciousness-2/