The Scientists’ Superstition

Posted on 2015 June 25

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Mind and matter alike, I should say, are only convenient symbols in discourse, not actually existing things. — Bertrand Russell

(Let’s take a jump down the rabbit hole. I promise I’ll have you back on the surface in just a few minutes. Until then, enjoy a short intellectual adventure.)

Years ago, a magazine printed a cartoon of a scientist’s chalkboard, on which was written a lengthy equation. In the center ran a long arrow that linked the equations’s two sides. Above the arrow was scribbled, “Then a miracle occurs.

Cute.

Of course, normally science doesn’t form a theory from invisible, unobtainable evidence. Religious worshippers, on the other hand, base their beliefs on faith. Spirituality isn’t made of rocks or leaves or rainwater; it comes from “other stuff” that you can’t see or touch or taste. If there’s a spiritual paradise to attain, out beyond this universe, we simply have to take our preacher’s word for it. We have faith — which is to say, we hope — that our religious leaders really have seen the light of this future world and aren’t leading us blindly off a cliff.

Scientists base their beliefs on data and observation. They have no interest in claims built out of stuff they can’t see, touch, or taste. Instead, they’re trained in critical thinking — which, among other things, tells them that “Trust me” is a blinking light that warns of a blazing wreck of falsehood just up the road.

Researchers often scoff at elaborate theological arguments for the existence of God. “Look,” they argue, “if you can’t field-test it, it’s moot.” If the god in question causes no demonstrable effect on this universe, by Occam’s Razor (which pares ideas down to the simplest ones that work), the god can be dispensed with.

…Science 1, Religion 0.

Despite all this, scientists themselves often believe in something that’s invisible, untestable, and has no effect on the outcomes of their experiments. Their arguments in favor of this thing are theological in nature — “It makes sense, therefore it must be believed, even though we can’t test it” — and if you question them on it, they can respond like impatient religionists insulted by your doubt.

The “thing” in question is the physical universe that exists beyond our conscious awareness. In that universe, the moon is up there in the sky whether you look at it or not, and your car is parked in the lot even if you’re not standing there staring at it. It’s a universe of gigantic galaxies that wheel out of sight whether we know of them or not. It’s made up of something that can’t be seen or touched, since seeing and touching are what we experience inside our consciousness, and the always-there physical universe is outside the bounds of sensory awareness.

To most scientists, consciousness is a sort of ghostly cloud that clings somehow to the physical universe, a reflection of the true state of affairs but somehow less real. Many thinkers have tried to explain how these two types of reality — awareness and the physical world — can coexist. But none have come up with satisfactory answers, so the debate goes on.

How do people arrive at this belief? We begin with sensations and thoughts, and as we grow up we make maps of our consciousness, learning how to navigate our sensorium — by moving our feet, for example — so that we can get to the closet to find our shoes, or walk to the car to drive to the store. Pretty soon we have an elaborate map of our awareness. And then we get the idea that this map represents, not simply our sensorium, but a thing out there that exists whether we witness it or not. This is a great intellectual achievement. It makes it easy to think about things we don’t see at the moment but expect to see when we move into their vicinity. Still, it’s only a rule of thumb — useful, if fictitious.

Imagine, for a moment, that your life is simply a dream. It’s a grand dream, to be sure, but ultimately only a reverie. There is no need, in dreams, to infer an outside reality that the dream merely reflects. After all, it’s only a dream! It’s not related to anything real. It’s evanescent. Yet this waking dream, unlike a nighttime dream, has tremendous logical consistency. You can map it out and make plans, and the elements of your “life as a dream” remain constant and don’t move around arbitrarily or disappear, like in a nighttime dream. But still, it’s only a dream.

So why would we need to impute a hard reality that this waking dream merely reflects? As with a nighttime dream, we wouldn’t bother.

In that case, maybe your life really is only a dream!

The point of this exercise is to loosen the tight connections we have made between our awareness and our belief in an external reality that somehow controls that awareness. Such an outside universe, when you think about it, is as unnecessary as an outside world would be to a nighttime dream.

Either your knowledge amounts to a map of your awareness, or your awareness maps to a persistent outer reality. Either way, your awareness behaves identically. You don’t need an outside universe to prop up your awareness. It’s redundant. It’s moot.

And — here’s the weirdest part — you can’t ever prove that such an outside reality even exists! Why? Because you can’t escape your own awareness to “witness” something beyond it and see if your theory is really true.

(Basically, this means there is nothing outside your awareness. But that’s for a different essay.)

This outside universe is made up of … what? It’s not made of sensory elements, which exist only in consciousness. But without those inputs, we can collect no data. As one philosopher put it, “The sun is light because we have eyes.” Without data, of what is this outside reality made? Mathematics? Fine. But math is a collection of thoughts. It’s not real the way a cold shower is real. It might as well not exist at all.

Yet most scientists assert doggedly, even proudly, that there’s a physical reality beyond consciousness. And then they assume that this rather arbitrary belief is somehow different from the equally arbitrary heavens and hells and gods of the religionists. It must be different because, well, they’re scientists, and scientists wouldn’t think incorrectly on the matter.

…Wouldn’t they?

In fact, it is the same kind of belief as those held in faith by religionists. What’s more, it would be easier to prove there’s a God (if, say, He showed Himself to scientists for testing) than to prove there’s an outside physical reality — which, as we’ve seen, is impossible to witness. Sure, mathematicians can express the laws of physics in elaborate equations (and, by the way, no chalkboard miracles need occur), but none of that proves there’s an outside reality, merely that patterns of awareness can be quantified in mathematical form.

Before you accuse me of practicing Woo-Woo, please understand that I’m not adding woo-woo here but subtracting it. To believe in an unprovable external reality beyond our consciousness is as airy-fairy as believing in an invisible heaven or hell. The humble mind will set aside all of them.

It’s easy for success to make us cocksure, and scientists have plenty of wins to fuel that flame. But arrogance, coupled with arbitrary beliefs, breeds authority — “I know the true answer, and anyone who disagrees will be shunned” — and authority is antithetical to the practice of science. In other words, scoffing isn’t an argument; it’s an attitude. Just because an idea is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Science moves forward on ideas, not emotion.

(As for how to coordinate billions of human awarenesses unconnected by a common outside reality, see my essay “Don’t Read This — It’s Too Weird”.)

Many scientists also believe that philosophy is dead, replaced by science itself. This leads to a confusion between science and metaphysics, to the point where researchers may opine about the nature of reality as if their profession has already spoken on the matter. But beliefs about a separate, outside reality are philosophical, not scientific. Scientists may assume their experiments and theories resolve the matter implicitly, but the matter hasn’t even been addressed. It remains a tacit assumption, unquestioned, undoubted, and impossible to prove.

Strange social artifacts erupt from this belief. “When I die,” a typical scientist will intone, “I’ll be totally gone. My consciousness will be gone, my body will decay. That’s the end of it.” Many scientists take pleasure in these darkly heroic beliefs, holding themselves superior to religionists who can’t seem to accept their own doom and must instead manufacture imaginary afterlives for reassurance.

Yet we end up with scientists also believing in a kind of supernatural realm, a world that can never be witnessed, much less proven — a region they assert by resorting to quasi-theological arguments. This hypothetical reality can’t even be falsified, and it affects daily life as little as the God of Abraham. Occam’s Razor dictates, then, that it, too, must be discarded.

Giving up on this outside-reality idea might help solve some of the mysteries of quantum physics. Scientists have puzzled for decades about how sub-atomic particles show up in different ways depending on how they’re observed, and physicists have performed Cirque-du-Soleil contortions trying to explain how reality can be so contingent. The result is the Copenhagen School and the “Many Worlds” theory and other hypotheses that strain to shoehorn quantum mechanics into the old idea of a separate physical reality.

But these act like band-aids over the giant wound that a redundant belief has slashed across most theorists’ minds. If they were to abandon the “physics is real and awareness is a mirage” conjecture, maybe they’d approach quantum-mechanical dilemmas differently and discover new truths.

None of this is the fault of science per se. Science is a formal, data-driven search for truth that says nothing at the outset about the nature of reality. A belief in a world separate from awareness is reassuring, just as a belief in God is comforting. But that doesn’t make it true. Or scientific.

Scientists as a group may need to come to grips with the possibility that the reality they believe in is as unprovable as the Astral Plane or Heaven or Hell or God Himself. Until then, they can’t lay claim to the intellectual high ground against religionists.

There is reality enough — and science aplenty — in conscious awareness, and no need for a redundant outside reality to explain that consciousness. Otherwise, we struggle like a medieval metaphysician, who had to invent epicycles to explain clumsily the motions of planets around the Earth, when the Earth is simply one of those planets itself. Freed from that bias, there was no longer any need for theology to explain the solar system.

Freed from our modern, more subtle and quasi-scientific superstitions, we will no longer find any need to invoke an imaginary reality to explain our conscious lives.

…We now return you to the state of semi-normality in which we found you.

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