2005-09-23 10:07

Sometime during my early formative years I decided that the Newtonian view of space & time must be the correct one — not realizing until years later that this view had been obsolete among practicing physicists for nearly half a century.

When you believe that mind is an epiphenomenon of matter, the universe looks bleak and lonely. This is the worldview that inspires a love of science fiction (oh boy maybe we can go faster than light!) and a hope for SETI (perhaps we are not totally alone in the universe after all!).

This worldview precludes explaining — takes right off the table — phenomena as diverse as consciousness, the placebo effect (the effect of mind on healing the body), acupuncture, deja vu, dreams, peak experiences, and the universal arising of religious beliefs in all times and places; to say nothing of more outré but widely reported occurrences such as near-death phenomena, out-of body travel, telepathy, ghosts, and so forth. (I have experienced several of these myself.) Can we once and for all declare that we understand reality without some attempt to explain such widespread phenomena?

William James posed the question evocatively at the turn of the last century but one (in The Varieties of Religious Experience):

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question… At any rate, they forbid our premature closing of accounts with reality.

A decade before James penned the preceding, the writer H. G. Wells framed the limitations of science in some of the best words I’ve yet read. This quote is the ultimate paragraph in an article, The Rediscovery of the Unique, that Wells wrote in 1891 for The Fortnightly Review.

Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room — in moments of devotion, a temple — and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated — darkness still.

What science is good at is dealing with falsifiable hypotheses.

Wells believed that science is an insufficiently luminous match. As a recovering physicist, I must agree. Science can illuminate the ways of the physical world, and no doubt we are nowhere near the limits of its ability to do so. It can’t say much about mind, and it cannot say anything at all about the meta-questions of origin and meaning. Even if the theory of loop quantum gravity manages to elucidate the Big Bang — and recent results from that theory claim to have proved that that “event” was preceeded by a Big Crunch — it will remain silent on the question of why there is something rather than nothing. (I place “event” in quotes because the normal meaning of an event is something that transpires in time, whereas the Big Bang initiated time itself.)

Just because science must, even from an ontological point of view, fail to grapple with questions that are “meta” to the universe of space and time, that does not mean it will not try. Since John Archibald Wheeler made it scientifically respectable to ask truly deep questions about reality, many hundreds of papers have been written aimed at exploring the Wheelerian Big Questions: Why the quantum? It from bit? and Law without law? A good sampling of recent directions in cosmology and speculation on the meaning of the quantum is collected in the volume Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, edited by John D. Barrow, Paul C. W. Davies, and Charles L. Harper. This book and a 2002 conference were part of a program to honor Wheeler on the occasion of his 90th year. (A couple of reviewers at Amazon knock the volume as “stealth creationism” because the Wheeler 90th events were sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, which exists to promote the coexistence and rapproachment of science and spirituality. This is a crudely misdirected canard, in my opinion. The book contains some wooly and speculative articles, but little that steps outside the limits science imposes upon itself.)

But what if matter is an epiphenomenon of mind, coalescing around the furthermost extension of spirit, its probabilities seeded by our intentions?

That is not a falsifiable hypothesis.