From Quanta to Qualia: The Mystery of Reality (Part 2)

Most people would not be deeply stirred if they were told that an arcane scientific theory contains flaws. On the other hand, they would certainly sit up if told that their own lives are totally unreal. For at least a century, ever since the quantum revolution, finding out what is real and unreal has been gradually creeping from the physics laboratory into everyone’s living room. Now it has finally arrived. One way to approach reality – scientific measurement of data – has run headlong into another – experiencing the world as a person.

The clash is inescapable, even if it has been slow in coming. In the first post of this series, we pointed out that science has been triumphant in explaining the physical world, the world “out there.” Quantum theory improved the accuracy of measurement by a factor of ten million. Therefore, it was possible to set aside the subjective world, the world “in here,” as somehow irrelevant, even though there was a crashing fact that no one could really get around: Everything we experience happens mentally, including science. As someone wittily put the basic conflict, “What’s the mind? It doesn’t matter. What is matter? Never mind.”

The clash between “in here” and “out there” does matter, very much. “In here” is all mind – thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations rule the inner world. Mind organizes our lives. It enables us to know that we are conscious, and ultimately it is the source of life’s meaning. Yet all around us, the world “out there” is mindless, we are told, because random events measured as probabilities are the only valid way to look at everything from the collision of electrons to the firing of synapses in the brain.

Our aim is to take the leap from quantum science, the most sophisticated model for explaining the fundamentals of Nature, to a new model that can account for “in here” and “out there” at the same time. Their uneasy co-existence isn’t satisfying; more to the point, it isn’t good science.

Inner Reality
Let’s not get carried away by the success of quantum theory, or with the end game it predicts once a Theory of Everything fits the four fundamental forces of the universe together. “Everything” isn’t everything without understanding the mind. More and more scientists, particularly in the younger generation, recognize this. Quantum mechanics and its great challenge, measurement theory, say something profound about the participatory nature of the observer, as we saw in the first post.
Since we are conscious beings, it is undeniable that we are participating in the universe. That means we must face head on that the universe we are participating in behaves unlike ordinary objects such as rocks, trees, and clouds. For one thing, those objects are local – you can easily find their position in time and space. Quanta are non-local, a principle that applies to the cosmos as a whole. It is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, since reality is based upon fields that are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Certain events in the quantum world are entangled, meaning that Event A (such as measuring the spin of a subatomic particle) can create Event B, equal and opposite, billions of light years away without communicating through spacetime: a matched particle “knows” instantaneously what has happened far away, defying the speed of light.

This “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein dubbed it, is undeniable and deeply disturbing. You can’t base reality on one set of rules, where there are absolute constants like the speed of light, and at the same time fudge those constants through another set of rules that are relative, flexible, and perhaps ever-changing. Who is to decide between them? Only mind fits the bill. Attempts to deliver a unified mathematics that will encompass relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, dark matter and dark energy – to name just the major sticking points – have not succeeded and are unlikely to. Even if a Theory of Everything did manage the job of grand unification (reducing the four forces in Nature to a few simple equations), reality would continue to pose huge mysteries.

Once you allow mind into the picture, either you blow up everything or you take a creative leap into new knowledge. What does it mean to blow up everything? Let’s look at a concept a non-scientist can grasp but which forms the cornerstone of modern science: Randomness. Random chance has become the key to evolution (through random mutation of genes), neuroscience (through random chemical activity in brain cells), cosmology (through the roiling chaos of the Big Bang), and quantum mechanics (through the random collapse of the wave function). The clincher in all these cases – and many, many more – is mathematics. When you can measure the probability distribution of genes as they randomly mutate over millions of years as well as the distribution of proton collisions that take a few millionths of a second in a high-speed particle accelerator in Switzerland, all the bases seem covered.

Only they aren’t. Imagine that you are perched on top of the Empire State Building watching traffic as it courses down Fifth Avenue. Each car either keeps going straight or turns. When it turns, the car can go left of right, and it can choose which street to turn on. If you fix your telescope on a single car – perhaps a taxi far north at 85th St. – the most sophisticated mathematics in existence cannot tell you with certainty where it will turn off Fifth Avenue. But if you look at all the cars on the street, you can devise an elegant model that will predict their behavior. A certain percentage will go straight, another percentage will go left at 57th St. and right at 43rdSt, and so on.

The flaw in this elegant model, which calculates the probability of how many randomly moving cars will go this way or that, is that cars don’t move randomly. Each one is driven by a driver who knows where he wants to go. The random activity you spot from your perch on the Empire State Building is only an appearance. No matter how accurately you can measure the probability of how cars behave, you’ve missed the whole point if you think that they are not guided by mind. (At the other extreme, your model can be wrong if it moves in too close. A microscopic examination of the molecular structure of pigments in the Mona Lisa won’t reveal that Da Vinci had a plan in mind, to paint a woman’s portrait.)

The same flaw may exist in models that depend on the random activity of electrons, quarks, genetic material, and brain chemicals. Their randomness may be a mere appearance. We can surmise this from one overwhelming fact: the universe keeps developing complex forms that defy random chance. A famous example was raised by the British astronomer and mathematician Fred Hoyle, who in a radio broadcast in 1982 noted that, according to a colleague of his, there are approximately the same number of parts in a yeast cell and a Boeing 777. We know that a jet plane must be constructed in an orderly, organized fashion, yet evolutionary science claims that the yeast cell, like all life forms, arose through chance. Changing the model of the jet plane when he put his example into print, Hoyle asked a pointed question:

A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing-747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there?
The chance is nil, of course. Hoyle was arguing that using random events to explain the emergence of life isn’t logical; it is nothing less than bad science. Yet as a mathematical model, randomness works so well. What seems to be a paradox can be resolved this way: Models aren’t the same as reality, just as maps aren’t the same as the territory. Only if you stand outside the traffic moving down Fifth Ave. does it seem random; if you are inside one of the cars, you know perfectly well that the driver has a purpose in mind. Only if you focus on the random way that a painter dabs at his palette does art look random. Those random dabs have a purpose once you get inside the painter’s head.

As accurate as the quantum model is, it stands outside the events it measures. This kind of objectivity, so long a cornerstone of science, has reached the limits of its validity, precisely where mind is concerned. The observer effect hinted that quantum events mysteriously depend on mind, but that wasn’t the same as crossing the threshold and actually participating. Reality is something we all participate in. Can this be understood scientifically? Not until a clear admission is made: Quantum theory, although it opened the door to consciousness, cannot account for it.

The subject at the center of the conscious process cannot be studied as an object, a thing. Intuitively each person knows he isn’t a thing – we are living, thinking, feeling creatures – and yet we accept the prevailing notion that we came into consciousness because of a thing: the brain. Here is a yawning gap that must be closed, as we will attempt to do in the next post. Having spent the last four centuries explaining the universe quantitatively – through laws, axioms, constants, matter, and energy – can science begin to explain the quality of reality – our everyday experience of love, truth, intelligence, creativity, and all the other things that make life worth living? We think the answer is yes.
(To be cont.)