Science, Philosophy, and Woo-Woo — Part 2

Posted on 2014 March 13


%22science, philosophy, and woo-woo - part 2%22

There’s no theology in science! There can’t be. Science is about finding the truth as it is, not as we wish it to be. Science is not about faith; it’s about facts. It’s the most powerful, objective, clear-headed means of discerning the facts that humans have yet invented. 

Scientists are rightly proud of their achievements, which dwarf the claims of charlatans, true believers, and religionists. After all, a fakir might appear to climb a floating rope or turn a cup of water to rice, but science has flown us to the moon and beyond, provided food for millions, and charted the universe’s history back thirteen billion years. In its plodding, methodical way, the tortoise of science has beaten the hare of superstition, not by a mile, but by untold light years, to reveal entire stars crushed to a pencil point, and gigantic celestial explosions whose light can be seen billions of years later, and temperatures that would incinerate a furnace or freeze air … and a universe so vast it may have no end.

Science often scoffs at the claims of religionists, many of whom believe stoutly that the Theory of Evolution is a myth and the universe is a mere 6,000 years old. Science has carefully accumulated facts that lay waste to numerous arguments for the existence of an all-powerful god. (As philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell asserted, there may indeed be a God, but He is unnecessary to the ongoing functioning of the universe.) 

Sometimes science brings unsettling news; sometimes it’s just no fun at all, especially when it pops the balloons of our favorite superstitions. Science can be chilly, but it is always powerful, presenting us with cool facts instead of warm fallacies.

And yet … and yet … There is a teeny-tiny bit of theology that seems to have wormed its way into the thinking of most scientists. It’s a trifle, really. It’s something nobody would take issue with. It’s so commonsensical that it’s considered a fact in itself. Not a fact, a law of the universe.

This thing we assume to be true is simple and straightforward. It’s the belief that the universe is a form of reality separate from our conscious awareness. It’s there whether we see it or not. It’s there whether we’re alive or dead. The universe is always there.

This makes sense. It makes scientists’ work easier. After all, they’re toiling together on a common project, the universe; it’s a thing outside themselves, so to speak; it’s an object that they can be objective about, that they can study together. It’s so real!

There’s only one problem: this real universe doesn’t exist

It’s outside our conscious awareness — outside our sensory perception — so it has no color or texture or size or heat or cold or anything recognizable. All we can say for sure about it is that it can be represented by mathematical signs and equations. So it’s a thing, yet it has no characteristics of a thing, aside from symbols. It’s a contradiction.

Okay, wait, there’s a second problem: the theory of a Separate Physical Universe causes a series of dilemmas. For one thing, it relegates our consciousness to the status of a ghost that floats, somehow, through the “real” universe, touching it yet utterly divorced from it. This leads to the perennial problem in science of figuring out how consciousness came to exist in the “real” universe, and how two completely different types of reality can interact. Also, it causes a hiccup in Quantum Theory, because subatomic particles are affected — accelerated, moved, altered — by conscious observation.

These dilemmas remind me of the “epicycles” invented by medieval theologians to explain why Mars and Jupiter and Saturn would periodically skid backward in their orbits around a stationary Earth. The math to explain these behaviors became ridiculous, and eventually people figured out that the entire thing could be explained much more simply if we abandoned the pleasant belief that the Earth was at the center of things and recognized, instead, that the Earth is traveling around the sun, alongside the other planets. 

Maybe there’s a simpler solution, too, for the idea that our consciousness somehow floats through a separate physical universe. We’ll get to that.

…Okay, wait, there’s a third problem: this entire theory — of a reality that’s separate from our consciousness — smacks uncomfortably of religion. The problem is that it invokes something that can never be proven, like all those theories that try to demonstrate that there’s a God. How can we ever escape our own awareness to go and witness directly this supposed separate universe? A genius can look at a pocket watch and figure out how its innards work, and then open up the watch and see if those ideas are correct. But how do we open up a separate physical reality to inspect it? We can’t get outside our senses and our thoughts to do so. We can’t escape our own awareness to look beyond it.

We can’t ever prove or disprove that there’s a physical universe apart from our consciousness. And, as philosopher Karl Popper would say, if it can’t be falsified, it’s not science.

I’d go a step further. Using Occam’s Razor — which tells us to chose the simplest explanation at all times — it’s easier to conclude that there is no physical universe at all. All that remains, then, is our awareness. Science, then, makes maps of our awareness, so to speak, and then scientists (or, at least, their awarenesses) can compare those maps for accuracy.

Let’s go further. Maybe we can prove there’s no hard universe outside our awareness. The proof is simple. Consider your own awareness. Now, find its edge. You know, the place where your awareness ends and something else begins. Can’t find it? I’m not surprised. Edges and borders are qualities that exist inside awareness, not outside, for the simple reason that there is no outside to your awareness! There’s no frontier to it. And that means there’s nothing beyond your awareness. It’s all there is. If there’s nothing outside it, there can certainly be no separate physical universe lying somewhere beyond. Beyond what? No frontier, no outside reality.

To assert, without proof, that there’s a physical universe apart from consciousness is tantamount to asserting that there’s a God. Such an idea, though convenient to scientists, is unprovable, yet we’re being asked to take it on faith. Where’s the difference between that and a Sunday sermon at church?

We accept this notion of an outside universe on faith. And then we start to think that science has catalogued a reality that’s more real than our own awareness. We end up believing that our concepts about our world are the real world, and that our awareness is merely a representation, an interpretation. Our entire conscious experience seems like a mirage, a shadow of the real thing. We start thinking that our beliefs are more real than our senses.

But believing that there’s a universe separate from consciousness is like thinking all the symbols on a map of South America represent real things, and then we travel to Ecuador and expect to see the equator as a huge dotted line marching out to sea. Or it’s like going to a restaurant, looking at a menu’s picture of a food dish, and trying to eat the picture.

All we can say for sure is, not that there’s a tree outside our house, but that if we walk outside and look, we’ll see a tree. Everything we know, then, isn’t about some purported universe out there but simply about the rules of our own awareness.

Science, then, makes maps of awareness rather than a separate physical reality. Anything else is epicycles — or a “proof of God” — that survives more on hope than reality.

(For you Wikipedia buffs, my argument is a form of “anti-realism”, and my support for science is called “instrumentalism”. I’m not the only oddball who’s thought about these puzzles: professors actually get paid to argue this stuff. And the details matter to the conduct of science.)

“Wait, wait, wait!” you protest. “There’s only awareness? There’s no universe? This sounds crazy! I mean, if there’s nothing outside of awareness, how can there be more than one awareness? How can there be more than just one of us who’s conscious?”

Good question. I’ve discussed it at length in a separate essay. And I’ve tarted it up in the form of a short story. Suffice it, for now, to consider that every conscious awareness, if somehow written out as a mathematical statement — including all the details of every sense perception and thought — would be equal to every other person’s awareness, in much the same way that the left side of an equation is equal to the right side, though written differently. So my consciousness is the same, mathematically, as yours, except the “terms” (i.e., my viewpoint) look different.

No awareness is “outside” another; they’re all the same thing, seen from different angles. Those whose “terms” of awareness are similar are likely to be in the same local universe, and those whose terms are really similar are likely to live near each other or cross paths or become acquainted.

Science searches for truth, wherever it leads. The presumption that science is, first of all, about a physical universe is just that: a presumption. It’s an unnecessary, if useful, fiction; it can give rise to logical tangles. 

Scientists sometimes like to pooh-pooh philosophers, believing them to be adherents of an outmoded system of thought that suffers from poor critical thinking. “Science is all we need,” they say. But the physical-universe belief isn’t science; it’s philosophy — specifically, metaphysics, the realm of “what is reality” but also the realm of religion and gods and other unprovable beliefs. And that’s where philosophers — who invented critical thinking, logic, and science itself — can spot the untested assumptions, the snares in the path of science that might trip up the next big theory from particle physics or cosmology.

It is philosophers who can point out the places where scientists, however inadvertently, have wandered into the realm of religious belief. If a “physical universe”, separate from consciousness, is the god of science, then — like all gods — it can be toppled. And, once out from the shadow of that deity, scientists might see further into the mysteries of this world. Whatever it’s made of.

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UPDATE: For another take on this topic, click here.