THE BLOG
07/14/2010 07:42 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is Consciousness the Center of the Universe?

Unfortunately, proponents of an empathic science must endure the perennial charge from critics that they seek to denature science, destroy its objectivity, and hold it hostage to the emotional whims of sloppy investigators. What do philosophers such as Goethe, or psychologists such as Kohut and Maslow, know about doing science? The criticism can be vehement. When the French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) proposed a teleological direction in evolutionary biology, he was attacked by his fellow countryman and Nobelist Jacques Monod, mentioned above. Monod seems to have had a hissy fit. He screeched, "For my part I am most of all struck by the intellectual spinelessness of this philosophy. In it I see more than anything else a systematic truckling, a willingness to conciliate at any price, to come to any compromise."1 This was not exactly a memorable "Meet Mr. Wizard" moment in science, but is reminiscent of a statement by a scientist critical of parapsychology, who blathered, "This is the sort of thing I would not believe, even if it were true."2

Even if empathy were completely boarded up by critics as an important factor in doing science, this would not save the reputation of science as an exercise in complete objectivity. The role of the neutral observer is a goner. The death sentence for this concept has been obvious since the advent of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century. In the words of physicist Wheeler:

"Nothing is more important about the quantum principle than this, that it destroys the concept of the world as "sitting out there," with the observer safely separated from it ... To describe what has happened, one has to cross out that old word "observer," and put in its place the new word "participator." In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe."3

Physicist Henry P. Stapp of UC-Berkeley, a leading authority in the theoretical foundations of quantum physics, takes a similar view:

"The new physics presents prima facie evidence that our human thoughts are linked to nature by non-local connections: what a person chooses to do in one region seems immediately to affect what is true elsewhere in the universe ... [O]ur thoughts ... DO something [his emphasis]."4

To say that the universe is participatory is to say that consciousness matters. But the conventional view, that we're just "a pack of neurons" or "computers made of meat," or that "we're all zombies," as Crick, Minsky and Dennett assert, respectively, says otherwise. This view has no place for any meaningful degree of participation. This is an outdated perspective lodged in classical physics. It stems from the assumption that the brain's material particles and fields can give a full account of consciousness. But as physicist Stapp says,

"This [view] ... is motivated primarily by ideas about the natural world that have been known to be fundamentally incorrect for more than three-quarters of a century." 5

Young students don't have to forfeit their conscious minds and freedom of will and choice on entering science. They could be presented a hopeful, upbeat view of consciousness that is consistent with evolving science and their intuition about the nature of their own minds. But they seldom are. The issue is simply ignored by the science sellers, because most scientists remain wedded to an outdated, classical definition of how the world works that, when it comes to minds, consciousness, and brains, will brook little opposition. And when young people entering science stumble years later into the Saganesque and Crickish view of consciousness, the confrontation can be shocking.

The notion of an empathic, participatory observer may be a stretch for many conventional scientists. But today's plugged-in kids get it intuitively. They know instinctively that "everything is connected," as they literally strive to be 24/7. For them, "participation" is not hypothetical, but a way of being. If science educators were bold enough to emphasize explicitly the connections between modern science and kids' participatory, empathic instincts, this might be a turn-on that would pivot many of them toward a fascination with science in general.