Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Question

Tom Robbins has a scene in one of his novels in which a character speculates on what the most important question is.   Camus says that the most important question is should you kill yourself or not and according to Einstein the most important question is, does time have a stop?  But the character then says, "... but I say that the most important question is, what can make love stay?  If you answer me that, I'll tell you if time has a stop and whether you should kill yourself or not."

Or something to that effect, and I am too lazy to find the quote, and in any case I don't think those are the most important questions (and I doubt Robbins does, for that matter)  The most important question seems to me to be: is this the only world?  In other words, is the world described by science in terms of the interactions of forces and particles, what we call the material world, a complete description of reality,  or is there a wider plenum of which what we are pleased to call objective reality or 'the universe' is but a portion, rather on the analogy of the visible spectrum of light.  Until late in the 19th century, for example, all we knew of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible light.  We used electricity, but the relation of electromagnetism to visible light, that the two were part of a greater whole, was then unknown.  Such EM phenomena as X-radiation, the various types of radioactivity, radio waves, and microwaves were entirely unknown.  These forms of energy, although undeniably real, and vital to our existence, were outside our ability to observe and control. The experience of science for a long time has been that there are real phenomena that we cannot sense without special instrumentation.

Despite this history, however, it remains the unquestioned assumption of people who hold the scientific world view that the universe described by science at any particular time is complete, and that nothing lies beyond it that is not ultimately discoverable by scientific instrumentation of the sort we now use.  There may be other universes, some modern theories hold, but we don't project that they would have different laws or constituents.  This view, historically known as positivism, firmly rejects the idea that there is anything else that can be called real in the sense that science has revealed the real.  Thus, the entire experience of the vast majority of humans who have ever lived and who, in fact live today, attesting to a much wider version of reality, including the universe of spirit, of the dead, of dreams, of angels and demons and so on, is rejected as fantasy, as superstition, as, (to use the current term) woo-woo.

Unfortunately for this view, woo-woo seems to be striking back, not from outside but from within the corpus of science itself.  It is a long time now since actual scientists have taken seriously the mechanistic and deterministic world-view that scientific popularizers seem still to think constitutes science.  It is now nearly a century since JBS Haldane wrote "...the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we can suppose," and since then the queerness has been piling up.  The usual suspects:

--the the two aspects of the universe in which we have the most experimental confidence--quantum mechanics and relativity--don't seem to belong in the same universe together.  That is, when the equations that describe each are fitted together they produce nonsense

--that efforts to produce a Grand Unified Theory that includes both theories have produced a swarm of theories that cannot be experimentally tested 

--that all of physics seems to deal with only fifteen per cent of the mass-energy in the universe, the rest being dark matter/energy, at present almost entirely opaque to our instruments

--that the genome turns out not to be a simplifying code that explains how organisms develop, analogous to the software in a computer, but a kind of organ that organisms use to create themselves using something called top-down control, that no one pretends to understand

--that while there is a great deal of electrical activity in the brain, this activity does not seem to be connected in an obvious way with the more interesting functions of the brain, like consciousness and memory, nor are there any generally accepted theories of how consciousness or memory works

--the origin and distribution of species cannot be entirely explained by neo-Darwinism, as it has taken place far too rapidly given what we know of the rate of tiny mutations required by the theory of natural selection; nor do we have a good theory of how the 'big jump' evolution required by the fossil record could work

These and other scientific crises are discussed at length in John Horgan's excellent book, The End of Science, and those interested in this would be well-advised to consult it.  In brief, however, Horgan's point is that we know enough about the universe to know that there will be no more big breakthroughs.  There will be technology advances, perhaps, but these will be trivial compared to those that have gone before.  We will not fly to the stars or live indefinite youthful lives.

Of course, betting against the march of science has never been a good bet.  A previous incarnation of Horgan, writing in 1895, might have come to the same conclusion: physics was at an end, merely a matter of adding decimal places; in biology, while evolution was widely accepted, the mechanism of inheritance was unknown and life still seemed a mystery;  in chemistry, while the laws governing chemical composition were known, no one knew how they worked, and many scientists regarded atoms as a calculating metaphor without real existence; in astronomy, the universe was fixed, had always existed as it appeared, time was a constant; in geology, the continents were of more or less fixed shape and the earth was between 20 and 40 million years old.  My point was that no one can tell when breakthroughs will come and from where--that's why they call them breakthroughs.  In that year, Roentgen discovered X-radiation and the rest is etc.

So perhaps Horgan is wrong and future science breaks open nature in a colossal and entirely unexpected way, yielding unprecedented power over it--this version established once and for all as the only world there is--and all the fantasies of hard sic-fi come true, including star travel, practical immortality, matter transmission, body customization, the works.  We all march toward the atheist heaven of the Singularity, end of story.

But if he's right and if this wonderful childlike faith in scientific progress is not to be, what then?  Well, the dominant society of the planet would lose its prime ontological anchorage.  It would be a collapse similar to the collapse of the Christian world-view before the forces unleashed by the rise of Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment.  If science cannot explain the world perfectly, what can?  There will still be technological advances and some science will still actively fill in some important gaps, but in general we can look to a more stable culture, approaching a steady-state economy, perhaps something like ancient China; providing the moral blow does not unhinge us so that we use our technology against ourselves and destroy civilization entirely in any of the ways now open to us.

What would be most interesting, I think, coming round again to the point of all this, is to answer the Question, which is to imagine that the schism created over the past four centuries by science in the relationship of humans to the world we inhabit can somehow be healed, that the objective view can surrender its absolute dominance over the subjective view.  What if, for example, we consider that mind or consciousness is not just a convenient exudate of a brain attaining a certain complexity, but rather a basic component of a more broadly conceived universe, with a status equal to that of mass-energy or time.  This was Jung's view, of course, and he tried, within the limits of his era, to establish a research project that took the psyche seriously as an object of study.  With indifferent success, it should be added, although what success means here would have to be redefined.   The same goes for all the other efforts to heal the break.   It's in the nature of our current world-view that we can't quite conceive of what such a different world-view would be like or feel like, any more than a medieval philosopher or a pre-contact shaman could grasp our familiar scientific world-view.  But I can just imagine a culture in which the primary way we interact with nature is  a little like science, a little like art, a little like magic and a little like athletics: woo-woo indeed.


stargazer8 said...

Hi Mr. Gruber, I love your books esp your Jimmy Paz books. Have you read 'The Holographic Universe' by Michael Talbot? There is also the parallel universe theory which a physicist told me was not a theory but now a fact! This would explain psychic predictions and other phenomenon. Another thought: Are we men dreaming of being a butterfly or butterflies dreaming of being men?

Rain said...

Hi, Michael,

Bob Grossman just introduced me to your blog and directed me to this post, which is quite consistent with a book I'd like to write myself someday: "The Denial of Consciousness."

As I wrote in a recent email to Bob, "Science continues to have this ridiculous Victorian view of itself that ceased to be even apparently justified with Einstein. In fact, rightly understood, Science itself really has no view of itself, since it is just a useful method for gathering a specific class of highly reliable knowledge. But that method has wrongly been taken for a world view--namely, a world view that is characterized by doubt of anything that could be remotely consoling to the human heart.

It is right and good that the Scientific Method has vanquished merely belief-based religion, but it also has been used to reject subtle, experiential knowledge that is available through, for example, meditation and intuition. In other words, the Victorian interpretation of Science tends to throw out the baby with the bath water. However, as your friend M. Gruber points out, Science the Method actually eclipsed Science the World View long ago; it's just that this news hasn't yet reached the Victorian crowd, which unfortunately continues to be Voice of Science for the huddled masses.

John "Rain" McManus