Can Physics Save Your Soul?

10/08/2011 12:36 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

Hold everything! The Nobel Committee has made a terrible mistake! Sure, Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess thought they were seeing a bubble Universe expanding at increasing speed, but that was before string theorists told us that it's all just a sort of great big holographic movie, like the ghostly Princess Leia popup in the original "Star Wars." You can't award a Nobel prize for watching a 3-D simulation in a 2-D flick!

OK, settle down, I'm only joking -- sort of. My point is that some sort of dark energy seems to be driving observation and theory in physics apart at a rapidly accelerating pace. In his book "The Trouble with Physics," theorist Lee Smolin laments that for the last quarter century his field has made no progress. Physics, he said, has "hit the wall." That was before the Large Hadron Collider went to work. Two years later, the wall remains unscathed.

And that leads to an even more important point. With reality revealing itself to be so much weirder under the hood than it looks it in the showroom, this may be just the time to reopen the argument over Cartesian dualism -- that is, whether you possess, along with your body, a soul. For half a century and more, the educated answer has been an ever more resounding "no."

Materialism has commanded the heights of science and philosophy since at least 1949, when philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively dismissed dualism as "the ghost in the machine" in his book "The Concept of Mind." The rise of neuroscience in the decades since has demonstrated that the brain is indeed analogous to a machine. It has evolved components that serve specialized functions -- mapping and remapping the body that contains it, for example -- and its mental experiences are clearly subject to material influences such as electrical stimulation or alcohol.

The credible evidence in favor of a soul? Zip. Bupkis. Nada thing.

Indeed, to stand up for mind-body dualism in an academic setting today is to look as foolish and naive as a flat-earther. Yet, to accept strict materialism is fatal to nearly any religious worldview. It means viewing yourself, the universe and everything as nothing more than the interplay of matter and energy, governed only by physical law and chance.

Such a worldview scares the pants off people across the spectrum, from reactionary creationists to postmodern New Agers. Ken "Answers in Genesis" Ham built himself a $27 million rebuttal. His "Creation Museum" has drawn over a million fundamentalist Christians eager to see model dinosaurs queuing up at a prehistoric McDonald's or whatever.

New Age mystic Ken "Shambhala" Wilber, who makes his pile by the simple expedient of putting scientific papers and New Age ravings into a Cuisinart and hitting the "blend" button, terms materialism "modern flatland pathology."

However, it must be admitted that materialism also poses a steep challenge to the rational reconciliation of sane religions with science, which is where my interests enter. Happily, present-day physics may offer grounds to reconsider the whole question.

There is much from which to recoil, Kurtz-like, in contemporary cosmology. At the quantum end of things, the best-accepted interpretation, Hugh Everett's Many Worlds, states that at every possible decision point the universe splits in two, with each alternative realized. As some wag has pointed out, this implies that if you're unhappy with your life, you should go out, buy a lottery ticket and a gun, and then play Russian roulette. In some universe you'll open your eyes a millionaire, and in most your troubles will be over.

At the cosmological end, the view among the cognoscenti is of a multiverse filled with an infinite number (or as near to infinite as makes no nevermind) of randomly cast universe-bubbles. Now, this idea makes for a great explanation of how it might be that an undesigned universe comes equipped with laws suitable for life. However, it comes with baggage.

An infinite multiverse amounts to an house of mirrors in which everything you or I do is repeated endlessly elsewhere. Moreover, every possible variation is enacted, over and over and over. It's back to the Many Worlds madness on a cosmic scale. I trust you see that if the world, broadly conceived, contains an infinite assemblage of "you" in every possible variation -- ax murderer, movie star, stamp collector -- it becomes impossible to identify a morally meaningful soul with any or all of these.

Now, madness is no grounds for falsification. These ideas may be right, but so far there's no evidence one way or another. What we do know, beyond doubt, is that reality big and small looks very strange indeed. A somewhat different solution just might reopen room for a soul in a scientific context.

Decades of study of black holes has led to the mindbending notion that we live in a holographic universe. That is, all of the observable material world may actually be the interplay of bits of information encoded on a huge but finite 2-D sphere. Research is underway now to try to determine if this wildly counterintuitive proposition is true. (There's a fun insider's account here.)

If true, what would this mean? Well, for one thing of course it means that we and The Simpsons have even more in common than we'd like to think. But it would also mean that information is the fundamental stuff of nature. Is information processing a sufficient explanation for "you"? Let's hope not. Who's to say that "you" do not exist on the far side of that sphere, in constant engagement with that information? Matrix, anyone?

Now, some may object that introducing metaphysics into the argument amounts to an unnecessary complication, like Richard Dawkins' "fairies at the bottom of the garden."

But there are two critical differences. First, unlike fairies, we need to account for ourselves somehow. This is known as the problem of consciousness, but that horribly vague term misses the mark. It is so broad that some people argue that a thermostat is consciousness because it exhibits awareness of the environment and alters its behavior accordingly. In contrast (presumably) to thermostats, our strongest, most unshakable intuition is of our selves.

"I think, therefore I am," DesCartes declared, and it's hard to argue with him on that. Nevertheless, many have. Philosopher Daniel Dennett made a brave stab at demystifying consciousness and ended up declaring it to be the narrative center of gravity in our brains. More recently, computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter declared the self to be a "strange loop" -- an emergent awareness and memory complex in the brain that turns back on itself, like a television camera aimed at its monitor. It would take vastly more space than I have available here to justly critique these positions. Let me simply say that neither one satisfactorily accounts for what I feel when someone steps on my toe.

The other important distinction is that I am not making a supernatural claim. Extra-natural, yes, but supernatural, no. We simply know nothing about the physics -- if any -- beyond the infinitesimally thin wall of the universal hologram. The principle of mediocrity says to expect more of the same. Occam's Razor urges us to take the simplest adequate supposition. Logical positivism (which Dawkins seems to advocate) tells to expect nothing whatever without some evidence that there is a "there" there. These are generally good guidelines, but none is a logical imperative.

And we still have to account for that subjective "you." Are "you" a subroutine in a vast program that simulates the Great Hologram? Maybe. But maybe that metaphor is a little too convenient to our times. Perhaps as technology advances we will develop more apt, less clunky metaphors for what "you" are. Or are you in some inconceivable metaphysical sense a "soul" out there, beyond the diaphanous wall? Again, maybe.

That is where, without running afoul of physics, faith or mere wonder wanders in. Gee, Wilber, maybe flatland's not so bad after all.