Naïve Realism, Or the Strange Case of Physics and Fake Philosophers (Part 2)
By Deepak Chopra, MD and Menas Kafatos,PhD
Scientists have assigned the role of Mister Answer to science, the source of knowledge on every subject. This is peculiar because science does not accept a complete body of knowledge at any one time as final, therefore no answer can be final. This is how science progresses. Scientists though often forget that and they go on as if their current knowledge is all there is to know. By the very nature of science, some subjects are beyond science. Does this mean they are beyond knowing? That’s a tricky and at times disturbing question. Doubts arise on many fronts. Can science tell us what it means to be human, or how molecules developed the ability to think, as they seem to do in the brain? These are questions that science was never meant to be able to answer. It does not mean they are not valid and fundamental. However, the most troubling issue is whether science can continue to perform its most basic function, describing the nature of reality. As we saw in the first post of this series, there’s every indication that reality is becoming more mysterious, not less, as one probes deeper into it.
Some leading scientists are on record dismissing philosophy as “junk,” “useless,” and “an obstacle to progress,” because philosophy consists purely of thinking while science produces hard facts, experiments, and provable findings. Yet in its disdain for so-called “metaphysics,” these scientists have become over confident. It turns out that there are three areas where philosophy is likely to resurge in a new guise, bringing answers about reality that all of us need to know, including the most advanced scientists.
The first area has to do with how we know what we know, which is called epistemology. How do you know a rock is hard and heavy, the sun is hot, and a red rose is red? You use the five senses, which seem to be trustworthy in the everyday world. This trust is called naïve realism, and as the first post revealed, the five senses are totally untrustworthy in the quantum domain. The fact that a rock can be reduced to a cloud of vibrating energy that in turn is only describable as a smear of probabilities knocks naïve realism off its pedestal. Even more devastating is the fact that the brain, which we rely on to know everything about the world, isn’t a privileged object. Like a rock, it too can also ultimately be reduced to a smear of probabilities, undercutting our assumption that what the brain reports is true knowledge.
Neuroscience is entirely based on the premise that the brain can do things a rock cannot do, yet if the brain and a rock are embedded in the same quantum domain, where did the brain acquire its ability to know anything? What is the difference between the elementary particles in a rock from the elementary particles in a brain? None whatsoever. Brain scientists would argue that it is the incredible complexity of the brain that makes it different but incredible complexity in machines created by man does not make them capable of even the tiniest of thought, or feeling for that matter. Science has offered no credible answer, and the vast majority of scientists would be baffled by the possibility that the brain doesn’t in fact know anything, any more than a rock does. Rather, it’s the mind, using the brain to express itself, that knows, just as Mozart, knowing music, used the piano to express himself.
The second area where philosophy can guide future science is ontology, the study of existence itself. To be or not to be isn’t just Hamlet’s dilemma as he contemplates suicide. What it means to be has challenged great philosophes for centuries. Naïve realism tries to cut the Gordian knot by declaring that ontology is dead simple: What you see is what exists. End of story. But just as with epistemology, this position is untenable, using the findings of science itself and in particular quantum physics, which has shown conclusively that the visible universe emerged from a pre-created and unknown state. This state contains nothing, if what we mean by “something” is physical objects in time and space.
Because the human brain operates in time and space, not to mention that it is a physical object, there seems to be no way to reach the pre-created state of the universe where time and space did not exist. Science faces the prospect of a dead end, even as news reports about the so-called God particle trumpet that Nature is on the verge of revealing its deepest secrets. The truth is that quantum theory, along with the mystery of dark matter and energy, calls ordinary existence into question. (In the case of dark matter and energy, the problems are twofold. First, there is so much of it, amounting, perhaps, to 96% of everything in creation. Second, “darkness” is related to the quantum vacuum from which the universe arises but in no relation to the familiar scheme that builds the cosmos out of waves and particles.)
Philosophy long ago encountered the mystery of existence. An idea arose that can be of immense help to modern science. This is the notion that the void—the nothing from which everything arose—isn’t alien to us. It may exist beyond time and space but not beyond consciousness. In our own awareness we meet the primal “stuff” of creation, which is mind. A cosmic mind wouldn’t be like an individual mind. It wouldn’t think one thought at a time; it wouldn’t identify with a separate ego; it wouldn’t be limited by the abilities of the brain (which after all, is constantly evolving).
Instead, the cosmic mind would be consciousness itself, a field of infinite possibilities. Among these possibilities is the emergence of time, space, matter, and energy. This idea is actually not against quantum field theory. But a cosmologist can counter with a purely physical theory, such as the multiverse, which has no need for God, mind, or metaphysics. The multiverse, in a word, states that if you have nearly an infinite number of universes bubbling up, the odds eventually favor the birth of our universe (akin to the notion that a thousand monkeys typing randomly on a thousand computers will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare). This is a clever end run, but the multiverse isn’t open to experimentation, so it holds no advantage over metaphysics. And, ultimately, it really answers nothing about the real universe where we all live and die. This looks like a stalemate, with some people believing in mind and others believing in matter.
What breaks the stalemate, if metaphysics can do it, is the existence of some very mind-like aspects embedded in the fabric of reality. A number of these aspects are complex, such as so-called non-locality, by which two particles communicate instantaneously, no matter how far apart they are in space, thus disobeying the limit fixed by Einstein that nothing can happen faster than the speed of light. For some theorists, this alone is enough to throw all standard materialist explanations out the window.
But on a simpler basis, we can look at the human mind in everyday operation. It is markedly creative, intelligent, self-aware, and open to new possibilities. Where did these properties come from? Physicalists maintain that they emerged through random chance, which seems more and more unlikely. Metaphysics (principally in the Indian tradition known as Vedanta) declares that the properties of mind are universal. The pre-created state may be inconceivable, but everything conceivable was born there. By employing our own awareness we are actually in contact with awareness itself. Your mind may be smaller than the cosmic mind, but both have the same essence, as a drop of water has the same essence as the ocean. This solves the mystery of existence far better than any physical explanation.
The third area where philosophy has immense value is the vexing question of duality. It’s very hard to see how mind grew out of matter, or vice versa. Thinking about a rose isn’t the same as an actual rose. A mathematical formulation of the nuclear reactions inside the sun isn’t the same as lying on a beach feeling the sun’s warmth. There is no obvious way to stitch mind and matter together so that duality goes away, and yet it’s totally unsatisfactory to let them live apart, either.
To see this, consider a common experience like feeling elated when you hear the words “I love you” whispered in your ear. The words produce a physical state in the brain, measurable as chemical reactions. But words are mental. How do they turn into, trigger, or even connect with chemicals? Is your brain happy? If so, are neurons happy? Not likely, since by reductio ad absurdum, molecules and atoms can’t be happy, yet the brain is nothing but atoms and molecules. We are back to the old problem, how can inert particles that make up everything be capable of feeling in one case but not in another case?
In some way “I love you” belongs in the same scheme as the hormones and neurotransmitters associated with feeling happy. To keep them separate won’t work. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, along with every other great philosopher, had no idea of how the human brain processes input, and in turn neuroscience, despite its exciting discoveries, cannot explain how experience arises. Both modes of explanation have something to offer, out of which a credible view of reality is possible.
Why is this whole argument important in everyday life? Think of a friend who has fallen in love and is about to get married. At one time or other in history, the explanation for his behavior could be any of the following:
God told him what to do.
It was destined for him to find this particular woman.
It was his karma—he loved her in a past life.
Brain chemistry produced the sensations he mistakes for love.
Love is a mystery. Who knows why two people experience it?
These are contradictory explanations, and all can be found, not just historically, but alive in people’s minds today. The beauty of metaphysics is that it makes room for all of them, sorted out into specific categories (myth, psychology, neuroscience, etc.) while giving a privileged position to none. The privileged position belongs to the only thing that unites all explanations, models, theories, and stories: they arise in the mind. Ultimately, consciousness allows these apparently contradictory statements to hold part of the whole truth. But not the total truth.
A mind-based understanding of reality has been the province of philosophy, but now science is having to confront mind at the core of reality. This is actually the view of many of the founders of modern quantum physics. Without philosophy to save us from naïve realism, science will be stuck defending the indefensible. Fairy tales about atoms randomly colliding to eventually form DNA and after more collisions, the human brain will persist. To use an old analogy, this is like saying that a hurricane blowing through a scrapyard can build a 747. That’s why the pretense that molecules can think, feel, create, love, dream, and be self-aware—the very things that humans do with the mind—is collapsing.
Until human experience is taken into account, we remain like children with our noses pressed against the bakeshop window. Far better to recognize that this is a participatory universe, and the way we participate is through an infinite variety of experiences—including the experience of doing science—that must be explained before anything else is explainable.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Join him at The Chopra Foundation Sages and Scientists Symposium 2014.www.choprafoundation.org
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Menas C. Kafatos, is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, and climate change researcher and works extensively on consciousness. He has authored about 300 articles, is author, co-author or editor of 14 books, including “The Conscious Universe” (Springer), and is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, “Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles” (Harmony).