The Common-Sense World

06/11/2007 02:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a series of recent posts I've been offering evidence of the possibility that the mind exists outside the brain. This isn't a concept that pleases materialists and skeptics of various stripes. The cruder ones complain that this is all "woo woo." The ad hominem ones deride my inability to understand basic science (this isn't to be taken personally--I assume anyone who thinks outside their rigid parameters would be equally scorned). The sophisticated ones invoke statistical errors and dubious research methods. But in essence the basis of skepticism comes down to a single claim that must be true and can never be violated. This is the claim that we live in a common-sense world. The rules of the common-sense world are reassuring, and if skeptics are right, it is the role of science not to overturn such a world but to reinforce it.

In the common-sense world things have to make sense, obviously. So what makes sense? If you can see something, it makes sense. If you can touch, smell, taste, or hear it, it makes sense. Time runs by the clock, not in some corkscrew Alice-in-Wonderland fashion. Space is mere emptiness, like the space inside the walls of a pickle jar. Above all, the common-sense world is inhabited by solid objects relating to each other in predictable ways. These objects may be Newton's famous billiard balls bouncing off each other to follow predictable trajectories, or they may be brain cells, the molecules circulating in those cells, or the shadowy atoms that clump together to from molecules.

The common-sense world poses few difficulties in everyday life. We all operate inside it. In college we may have been exposed briefly to a recondite field known as quantum physics, which completely and utterly defies common sense. In the quantum world two electrons separated by light years turn out to communicate with each other, and they "talk" instantaneously, without regard for the speed of light. In the quantum domain the entire universe winks in and out of existence thousands of times per second. Time is interchangeable with electromagnetic charge and position. None of this matters to the common-sense skeptic, who is blindly certain that an iron wall separates the quantum domain form ordinary existence.

Over the years it has shocked me how many renowned skeptics, up to and including the highly publicized Richard Dawkins, evince a complete lack of interest in science post Einstein. Still less do they care about the mysterious connection between mind and body. Or the essential nature of time. Or the enigma of creation. To keep the common-sense world intact, these mysteries are dismissed as anomalies. At the end of the 19th century it was confidently assumed that the behavior of atoms was completely understood except for a tiny anomaly. No one could explain why the electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom didn't eventually lose momentum and fall into the nucleus. Planet Earth is gradually losing momentum as it orbits around the sun, and if the sun doesn't expand to swallow us up first, our planet will fall into the sun given enough time. A physical law known as entropy guarantees this result. But electrons don't fall into the nucleus, no matter how much time elapses; they don't even nudge closer by a millionth of a degree.

As it happens, this so-called anomaly became the basis of quantum theory and thus of the entire field of modern physics, along with Einstein's general theory of relativity, which abolished the common-sense world at its very root by erasing the notion that time and space are fixed. Now we know that space isn't even empty but crammed with more energy in virtual form than the visible universe by many times over. Skeptics would have you believe that the quantum revolution has no effect upon the common-sense world as detected by the five senses. Yet the only way to detect the world is through the brain, the brain is made of atoms, atoms are quantum mechanisms, and therefore the existence of any thought--even a skeptical one--is a quantum operation planted firmly in quantum spacetime. Thinking about what to eat for lunch is not a common-sense event but a deep quantum mystery. The ability of two brain cells to "talk" to each other from opposite sides of the cortex involves the same enigma as two electrons talking at opposite sides of the cosmos. This irrefutable fact gets ignored by skeptics all the way up the ladder.

It seems to me that skepticism isn't a viable response to quantum reality. There is merit in attacking bogus science and holding researchers to high standards of truth. (Thanks to the common practice of peer review, we don't really need professional skeptics for this purpose, but let that pass.) The viable responses to quantum reality are two. You can accept the truth of post-Einstein science and stop claiming that the common-sense world has survived untouched. Or you can walk to the ambiguous boundary that encloses the common-sense world and try to see what is on the other side. The boundary is expanding all the time, and what was absurd to the common-sense mind yesterday, such as time travel or teleportation, has already been achieved in laboratories. Skeptics scoff at the extrapolation of quantum principles into everyday life, ignoring, for example, the practical application of a quantum phenomenon known as the tunneling effect to the production of transistors or the possibility of superconductivity, another quantum effect, in future transportation.

But what really outrages the common-sensers is any attempt to explore consciousness. When anyone proposes that there might be an information field at the quantum level, and that this field is the source of mind, the skeptical response is, ironically enough, mindless. I am baffled by the sense of threat and the howls it evokes. The brain is like a sacred monstedr in today's science, and tyring to explain it in quantum terms provokes irrational resistance. Fortunately, these howls are sounded offstage. No one seriously working in speculative science could advance a single step without a willingness to accept that nature is radically ambiguous. The common-sense world allows me to put bread in the toaster and count on toast popping out two minutes later. The quantum world, which must be taken into account when trying to explain both mind and body, deprives me of such easy assurances. You never know what might pop out. Certainly the braying naysayers don't.

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