Science, Philosophy, and Woo-Woo — Part 1

Posted on 2014 February 27



Recently an online blogger wondered whether atheists could believe in spiritual things. (You know: ghosts, reincarnation, ESP.) I posted a reply:

1. Buddhists are spiritual but don’t believe in a deity that runs everything.

2. Scientists believe in a physical universe that exists separately from awareness, yet they can’t prove such an assertion, for the simple reason that we can’t step outside our awareness to confirm something beyond it. All “evidence” of such a thing is conjectural, like medievalists arguing for angels on pinheads. In a way, then, scientists believe in a “material universe” the way religionists believe in God: neither can prove or disprove it. And if — as Karl Popper insisted — something can’t be falsified, then it isn’t good science. (On the other hand, a universe made up entirely of awareness is possible … but that’s another story.)

… For both these reasons, it’s misleading to assume that atheism and materialism are necessarily connected, except perhaps culturally.

Boy, did I step in it. Immediately I got called out by another commenter, who said sharply:

Wrong. Absolutely wrong. Flat out, unequivocally wrong. This is inaccurate, in error, a mistake, and supports a trope that the two methodologies – faith-based and evidence-adduced beliefs – are equivalently justified by reality. They are not. [ . . . ]

But that’s not what I meant! The commenter evidently thought I was arguing for a faith-based interpretation of reality. I responded:

My apologies; I wasn’t clear. I’ll stipulate that science is all about evidence and religion is largely about arbitrary belief. So you can drop your weapons.

HOWEVER: Most scientists, I contend, casually assume an unscientific metaphysical belief, which is that there is a hard physical universe that exists outside our awareness (or consciousness, or “experience”, or whatever you want to call it). This belief — though convenient in the same way that we “believe” the equator is a real thing even though it’s just a symbol — can cause weird ripples in one’s viewpoint, like the terror of believing our consciousness will be erased when we die, or the puzzle of why sub-atomic particles behave differently when observed differently. (The same category error would cause us to go to a restaurant and start chewing on the menu, thinking it’s the real food.)

My original purpose here was to present evidence that there are varying metaphysical crosscurrents among scientists and non-believers about what’s real and what’s not [ . . . ] So again: Science rules, yay! Agreed. Science is about using sophisticated tools to discern the truth, whatever it may be, and not about defending a particular presupposition, such as that there is a physical universe and not a spiritual one. I maintain neither one exists of itself. And, in any case, neither are any more provable than is God.

This wasn’t good enough. The commentator fired back:

[ . . . ] The notion that consciousness is somehow separate from the brains that produce it is really quite bizarre when we look at the claim with any seriousness because there’s zero evidence to suggest it is possible or even likely. It harkens back to a dualistic notion that consciousness and brain are two ‘things’ that have a relationship that produces causal effect on the world we inhabit. This is a scientific claim. [ . . . ] Look, when people try to use woo to explain stuff in or about reality, it’s a pretty good indication the explanation is going to be about as useful as breasts on a bull. [ . . . ]

Do you get what’s going on here? We’re talking past each other. The commentator thinks I’m making the religious argument that awareness can influence matter, while in fact I’m taking the somewhat strange viewpoint that there is no matter, only awareness. Dauntless, I picked myself up and re-entered the fray:

The notion that consciousness is somehow separate from the brains that produce it is really quite bizarre . . . ” — That’s not what I said or what I think. I’m not arguing about proof versus faith. It’s a completely different topic. I stipulate that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between mind and brain states. In this conversation I’m being tossed onto the heap with woo-woo religionists and then scolded, as if I share their beliefs. Please stand down from DEFCON 4. You’re arguing with someone else’s beliefs, not mine.

But my concern isn’t with science itself! It’s with the philosophical viewpoint of many scientists, a viewpoint that’s easy to adopt but not, strictly speaking, scientific. Mine is an arcane cavil, and it in no way denies the work or the value of science. (It might, however, have some influence on the Observer problem in quantum physics and, therefore, the Standard Model of physics. Long story for another time.)

If your life were merely a dream, you wouldn’t need to assert a separate physical reality that underlay your dream. Why bother? Besides, within the dream there would be no way to ascertain the existence of a physical reality underlying the dream, since any such examination would still be within the dream awareness. This argument works equally well for the world we all live in. That’s the point I’m trying to make. The religionists you think I represent will mostly agree with you, not me, about the “hard reality” outside their awareness. I’m not with your group or theirs. I’m standing on the outside and pointing at an assumption that both sides make.

In fact, I’m trying to use Occam’s Razor to solve the problem of consciousness as an irrelevant “ghost” — which somehow floats next to the physical universe, affected by it but having no effect itself — by eliminating the physical universe altogether from the equation. This doesn’t eliminate science, just a casual presumption that most scientists make about reality. Most seem to conclude that awareness is an unimportant byproduct of the “real” universe, whereas I take the opposite course and assert that awareness is all there is, and the physical universe is as imaginary as the equator. But instead I’m accused of asserting that consciousness somehow impinges itself on hard physical reality. Clearly I’m being misunderstood, so I say again, “There’s NO physical reality,” and they answer, “How, then, can you explain how scientists perform research on physical reality?” Well, because I think there’s NO physical reality! And so forth, endlessly.

I can’t be heard because people literally can’t imagine existence without a “hard physical universe”. That idea simply doesn’t compute for most people. They will conflate this “external real world” hypothesis with the basic principles of science, assuming they must go together, and conclude I’m attacking science itself. But I’m not. I’m commenting on people’s untested philosophical assumptions that aren’t strictly related to science but happen to impinge on it and have a great allure. A hard physical reality, a world which exists whether you see it or not, makes things seem stable and concrete. It’s an easy explanation for why we find our cars in their parking slots every day. Easy, but likely mistaken. There’s a simpler way. And that simpler way includes science and its discoveries, just not the unprovable notion about a separate physical universe.

What I’m saying — that there’s no physical universe outside of our awareness — makes no sense to most people. It’s like I’m speaking Greek. So they try to shove my statement into a slot in their worldview where it looks like it will fit, and then argue against my idea in terms of the slot they’ve chosen. But my idea won’t fit into slots that store concepts about a hard, separate physical universe! We need a new set of slots.

I’m trying to have a “meta-conversation”, not about science, but about philosophy. I’m not getting very far, alas.

This stuff is super-hard to think about. It’s as hard as physics or math. It’s philosophy, but most scientists tend to give philosophy short shrift, thinking science has displaced philosophy as a system of knowledge. But that, in itself, is a philosophical position! We can’t escape philosophy. It’s a conversation about knowledge, not the knowledge itself. It requires taking a step back from our daily work and wondering about the big picture.

Good science can make deeper inroads into that big picture if, firstly, it doesn’t presume to dismiss out of hand philosophical questions like the one I’m asking. It’s hard to talk about epistemology or metaphysics to a scientist who thinks philosophy is a waste of time and all that matters is data.

Science is a massively powerful tool. But to a hammer every problem looks like a nail. And philosophical questions about reality appear, to many scientists, like quaint silliness that long since have been solved by science. My hypothesis contains signifiers that remind them of woo-woo religionists, so they dismiss me out of hand. I can’t finish my statement before I’m being scolded for believing things I don’t believe at all. I love hammers, but I’m feeling like a nail.