Huffpost Science
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dave Pruett Headshot

Science's Sacred Cows (Part 9): Conclusion

Posted: Updated:

"There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could produce the human molecule." -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Before Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) earned renown as a titan of philosophy, he was an amateur astronomer, and a damn good one. Kant correctly hypothesized that extragalactic nebulae are in fact "island universes," galaxies like our own Milky Way, albeit so remote as to appear cloud-like, their individual stars beyond the resolving power of telescopes of his day. Not until the 1920s did Edwin Hubble, peering through the Mt. Wilson Observatory's massive 100-inch telescope, prove Kant right, decisively ending a long-standing debate over nebulae.

Kant's brush with astronomy quickened him to the problem of perception. He concluded that Das Ding An Sich (ultimate reality, literally "the thing in itself"), lies beyond the grasp of perception because our senses and mental structures filter and invariably distort what is sensed. Kant went so far as to speculate: "It is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible."

*****

Science has recently busied itself with the most profound question it has ever asked:

How does consciousness emerge from material reality?

Kant's speculation above turns the scientific entry-point on its head to suggest the converse question:

How does material reality emerge from a conscious universe?

Herein lies much of human conflict: two rigid metaphysics compete -- at times aggressively -- for human allegiance. Transcendental monism, the metaphysics of religion, claims: "In the beginning was the Word." That is, all originated from psyche (or, to the spiritually inclined, "spirit"). Material monism, the metaphysics of science, asserts the pre-eminence of matter -- and dominates in our scientific and materialistic culture. As discussed in the previous post, materialism alienates many. In particular, the Romantic poets reacted strongly against scientific materialism's "desacralization of nature."

There is considerable circumstantial evidence, however, that materialism, as an overweening paradigm, is collapsing under its own weight. Major scientific advances have chipped away at science's bedrock. Here's how the revered British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington summarized scientific progress early in the 20th Century: "The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances."

By a "world of shadows," Eddington meant that material reality is no longer the hardy stuff we once thought it to be. The primacy of matter lies in doubt. Ernest Rutherford's gold-foil experiments revealed the atom, nature's building block, to be mostly empty space. Einstein's famous paper equating matter and energy suggested that energy is the primary stuff of the cosmos. The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics collapsed the Cartesian partition between Descartes' res extensa (matter) and his res cogitans (mind). Moreover, every quantum object has both a particle-like nature and a wavelike nature. And what does its wavelike nature express? A mere tendency to exist when observed.

The dissolution of the material world, and its merger with the psychic world, led Eddington to conclude that "the stuff of the world is mind stuff." Similarly, Sir James Jeans, the great thermodynamicist, astronomer, and popularizer of scientific thought, was drawn toward a non-mechanical view of reality: " The universe," he observed, "begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine."

*****

The two metaphysics -- matter first or psyche first -- collide in what philosopher David Chalmers terms the "hard problem of consciousness." That is, how does subjective experience arise from material reality? The problem is now being investigated on multiple fronts: from "inside" via psychology, and from "outside" via biology and neuroscience. To date, both assaults have utterly failed. Why?

"When we try to look directly at our consciousness, we find that it is transparent to our gaze," writes pioneering experimental psychologist Lawrence LeShan in Landscapes of the Mind (2012), his opus magnum. LeShan then summarizes a litany of frustrations expressed by psychologists who have tried in vain to investigate the nature of consciousness. Consciousness defies definition, much less investigation. As early as 1912, William James had concluded that consciousness is the "name of a non-entity." Consciousness is not a thing; it is the relationship between things. Different states of consciousness produce different relationships.

External investigations through the lens of hard science have fared little better. The mathematical physicist George Stokes put his finger squarely on the problem in 1869: "Science can be expected to do but little to help us [in the study of consciousness] since the instrument of research is itself the object of investigation; the mind which we study is the mind by which we study." Sir Charles Sherrington, who shared the 1932 Nobel Prize for his contributions to neuroscience, expressed the paradox of consciousness in these terms: "Thoughts and feelings are not amenable to the matter concept. They lie outside it. Mind goes, therefore, in our spatial world more ghostly than a ghost, invisible, intangible; it is a thing not even of outline; it is not a thing, but remains without sensual confirmation." And in its October 2007 issue, Scientific American summarized as follows our progress on the "hard" problem of consciousness:

"How brain processes translate to consciousness is one of the greatest unsolved questions in science. Although the scientific method can delineate events immediately after the Big Bang and uncover the biochemical nuts and bolts of the brain, it has utterly failed to satisfactorily explain how subjective experience is created."

When sustained attempts, over many decades and by the world's greatest minds, fail miserably, the fault most likely lies in our assumptions. In his keynote address at the Second International Conference on Science and Consciousness in 2000, author Peter Russell suggested that the science of consciousness today is where the science of cosmology was before the Copernican revolution. "We're still 'epicycling,'" he noted, searching desperately for an elusive fix to an inadequate paradigm.

By flipping the scientific paradigm -- from matter first to psyche first -- Kant believed he had instigated a new "Copernican" revolution. While sympathetic to Kant, I believe that recent developments suggest a different paradigm shift. Regarding which monism deserves ascendancy, poet Charles Finn writes: "Pox on both their smug houses."

"If we wish to have a science of consciousness, we must build it on questions [that] can be answered. Since we cannot, in principle, separate 'consciousness' from 'external reality,' we must study the synthesis produced by the two." A lifetime of studying consciousness, therefore, has led LeShan to conclude that the res extensa and the res cogitans cannot be separated. Matter and psyche are complementary aspects of a single reality. Neither monism suffices.

The collapse of the Cartesian partition in quantum mechanics has led some physicists to express similar views. In The Emperor's New Mind (1989), eminent mathematical physicist Roger Penrose writes "... I am arguing for some kind of active role [in physics] for consciousness, and indeed a powerful one ..." Two Nobel laureates in physics, Eugene Wigner and Wolfgang Pauli, earlier concurred. In particular, Pauli envisioned a new science in which "physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality."

Consciousness is not the magical by-product of a mechanical cosmos. It is an inherent attribute of the stuff of the universe. And some day, "enriched with the spoils of all analytic investigations," prophesied William James, "we will get round to that higher and simpler way of looking at nature."

(This essay is amalgamated from chapter 15 of the author's book Reason and Wonder and chapter 2 of LeShan's Landscapes of the Mind.)