I am establishing a context for my blog here, because ultimately it plugs into a central meaning for me and that is the meaning of life.
I started this discussion in Part 1 which can be found here. In this I talk about my search and why I think a meaning of life is so important for us all.
Now before we are ready to move on to the actual meaning of life, we have one more piece to examine.
We need to visit the nature of reality. Physics? String theory? Higgs boson? Unified field theory?
No. More basic than that. And I’m not a physicist. We are only going to examine two possibilities or two factors in the nature of the universe or the nature of existence – or the nature of nature. But the two biggest factors.
I have to credit the philosopher Ayn Rand with exposing me to these ideas at a young age when I fell in love with her thinking and approach. I no longer hold the same axioms as she did (as I once did) but she is a wonderful thinker, working within a very narrow framework. She believed in the power and beauty of ideas and she saw the universe as a benevolent place for humanity. Those ideas have never left me and are really stronger in me than ever.
So the ultimate question on the nature of the universe or reality is: what is primary? Physical existence or consciousness? Stuff or thoughts? What comes first? Is consciousness a product of matter? Or is matter a product of consciousness?
This question points to the existence or non-existence of God, but not cleanly. It’s messy. You can click on the link to read my previous ode to messiness. And you can give that global or first consciousness any one of many (dare I say infinite?) names – the one, the ultimate, God, the all – whatever you wish. So we’ll leave aside the nature of that first consciousness because that is a very messy and distracting question. And that question is not primary.
But the preceding question is central to any examination of a BMOL, in my opinion. Or at least in my BMOL, which I’m trying to make as big as possible. We don’t have to figure out God – physicists certainly haven’t figured out the ultimate nature of matter if that is first, so the consciousness first side is not at any disadvantage.
So the question before us is: what comes first – matter or consciousness?
Conventional science is firmly in the physical material camp. Stuff or matter “appeared” with the Big Bang and the universe was formed. Human consciousness and any other forms of consciousness, and life in general, formed somehow, from that lifeless material of sub-atomic particles.
Now perhaps my conclusion is showing here, but I think it is important to frame this in a fair way. For most people living today, to say there is a consciousness that made everything seems to be an absurd and extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary proof or explanation. In our modern scientific world, it seems obvious that matter is primary and that life and consciousness arose from that. And if it is claimed that a consciousness made the physical universe, then how did that consciousness arise? Good question, but you have to start with something – an axiom – a starting point. Either matter or consciousness. Each starting point is just as valid as the other, if you examine the question without prejudice.
As Terence McKenna rightly puts it:
“Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.”
There is just no getting around it. The fact of our existence is a miracle no matter where you start, so it is profoundly up for grabs which came first – matter or consciousness. Most of modern scientific orthodoxy is just biased for matter and against consciousness.
When you really look at scientific claims and theories about the origin of our universe – the big bang – it’s wild and extraordinary too. It seems less so because it is the orthodoxy – the standard story that we’re told. It is the standard axiom in our culture. Stuff came first. We accept it as obvious, when it is no more than an assumption – it has to be. It is the starting point – the ultimate axiom for existence. No proof is possible – you just have to start with matter or consciousness and see where it leads you.
Most of us are not well versed in theoretical physics and lack the education to dispute the notions inherent in the current orthodoxy of matter coming first. So we are intimidated when considering the alternative. If all these smart and knowledgeable people think this way, then who am I to contradict their basic premise? I will talk more about the necessity of claiming your own sovereign power over your own mind more in the future. But it is important to know that not all physicists agree with the orthodoxy and historically we know that it is not unusual for the majority to be wrong. For now, please simply accept that you are competent to judge ideas regardless of your own credentials. This does not mean that anything goes in the claims of truth, but I think it does mean that anything goes in the search for truth. Peace, love and exploration rule.
Now the tricky part is that matter seems obvious. Bang the table. Try to fly off a garage roof. Life seems physically obvious. So if there is no evidence for anything before or beyond physical matter, can we go there? Yes we can, because we have to start somewhere and that somewhere is an axiom.
Either matter is primary and came first. Or consciousness is primary and came first. The first seems obvious and intuitive and the second seems absurd and extraordinary, but only because of our modern scientific culture. A science founded on the primacy of consciousness would be just as valid and useful as one founded on the physical primacy. The scientific method and process would carry on in the same way. In fact, if the primacy of consciousness is the true nature of reality, science based upon it would be more valid and more useful. The primacy of consciousness does not negate science – just some of the axioms and conclusions of modern science. But if the primacy of consciousness is our reality, the recognition of this will open up enormous new vistas in science. Science founded on a false axiom will be limited by that axiom, or starting point.
Science can be thought as two things that get mixed up or combined – science is a process of discovery and testing to arrive at conclusions and the truth – one hopes, but constantly open to revision. Science is also considered to be a body of orthodox knowledge, or collection of facts. This serves to make a body of knowledge, the one that most current scientist think is so, the one that is considered to be THE TRUTH. And it can get trickier.
For instance, people used to believe the world was flat. Science now knows that the earth is a type of sphere. Saying it this way implies that ignorant people used to believe an error about the nature of our world and now scientists have corrected this erroneous belief to establish the truth that the earth is spherical. By saying “science” it implies that this is some sort of dispassionate entity, apart from normal human behavior, in search of scientific truth. It appears to remove the human and individual components of science. But science is like any other human endeavor – a product of individual humans.
In this context, there is no real “science” except as a consensus of opinion held by people, presumably using the scientific method to establish facts and opinions. It always comes down to people performing scientific inquiry in the best way they can, but it means that new data and interpretations are always a possibility and so “science” in this context is not established – it is constantly in flux and much more open to change then many scientists would care to admit to the rest of us. They know it when they discuss their field of expertise with themselves, but for the rest of us, the monolith of science appears largely intact.
I certainly don’t consider myself a scientist, but I do have my Masters of Science in human growth and development. I did perform clinical research on people as part of my thesis. I am familiar with science and it is much, much messier than we often think. I can forget how messy it is when I’m reading some science story in the media.
That messiness is not a bad thing. It can actually be a very good thing. It is certainly inevitable. But it is vital to constantly be aware of that messiness in science – and really anything else.
I am not criticizing science or scientists, but we have to keep in mind that scientists are all working to figure things out just like the rest of us. They have specific training which can help them. They have the time and resources to study and perform experiments. But scientists make mistakes. They have prejudices just like anyone else. In fact, their expertise can make them more prone to prejudice. They have perhaps spent decades in their field with a relatively stable orthodoxy and changing that can be very hard. They have limited knowledge, just like the rest of us. Science is a wonderful process of discovery, but it can only be performed by imperfect humans. Never forget that science is a process and not a destination. Science is not “truth”, but a method of discovery, testing and arriving at knowledge.
Back to our starting point with the nature of the universe. If axioms are a starting point and can’t be proven, then what do we do to decide upon which is the truth? We look at where those two axioms take us. Which one fits better with our observations and data?
I’m going to make a pretty simple case here. We don’t have the time or space to fully explore this fundamental question, but I hope to show that the answer is not as obvious as our modern scientific view would have you believe. I will be exploring this idea more in future blog posts because it so fundamental and it’s so interesting.
As I said, I started my real philosophical explorations with Ayn Rand and her thinking. She was firmly in the primacy of matter camp. She actually cheated and called it primacy of existence, which assumed her conclusion – cheeky. She should have at least said her axiom was the primacy of physical existence as opposed to the primacy of consciousness – the only alternative.
For most of my life, I was firmly in the primacy of physical existence camp. I followed the modern scientific, mechanical, physical universe theory or axiom. But in the last few years I started to doubt that this theory could explain the universe as I was coming to understand it. I started to explore ideas and theories that required the primacy of consciousness and sure enough, I started to see that there were holes in the physical first theory, or axiom. That physical first axiom led to problems.
Here are the major issues that concerned me about the primacy of physical matter:
If you accept that humans are conscious – among other animals and who knows what else – then you have to figure out how consciousness arises from physical matter. This is the subject of much speculation and includes scientists and philosophers who don’t believe that humans really are conscious. Some people recognize that explaining how consciousness can arise from lifeless physical matter is difficult, and perhaps impossible. Yet they believe they must hold on tightly to the primacy of physical existence, so they dismiss consciousness as essentially an illusion.
To me, that points out how dedicated some people are to that axiom of physical matter as the basis of our reality, in spite of contradictory evidence. I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced that I am conscious. And my whole life has confirmed that I am witness to that same spark of consciousness in every human being I’ve ever met and in all the animals I have interacted with. I’m not saying that it is not possible to get consciousness from physical stuff, but I really have my doubts. And the materialist approach that runs science now doesn’t show much promise.
So if you believe in consciousness, then it is a problem to get that from physical matter. The problem may have a solution, but no sign of that yet.
Never mind consciousness – how do you get life from non-living physical stuff? The current scientific thinking is that a primordial chemical soup from both earth and space (from comets) was able to form the chemical components of life over a long period of time. If this is true, it is a great start. But those chemicals still have to make the connections and the spark that is life. A very tall order, but perhaps not impossible. Again, modern science is a very long way off from showing how this happens. No artificial life so far.
The double slit experiment is a classic one for quantum physics and one that shows a very weird property of the universe at least at the quantum level. This quantum level is the submicroscopic world of photons – particles of light and electrons – a major sub-atomic particle. In one form of the experiment, photons are sent to a screen with two narrow slits. These particles can act as discrete particles or they can act as waves – actually waves of probability. The wave doesn’t describe anything real per se, but really represents the possibilities of position. Quantum physics is very non-intuitive and some say “spooky”.
So these photons act like particles or waves and it seems to be related to the presence or absence of a consciousness to interpret information about the photon. With no consciousness to access the information on the nature of the photon as it passes through a slit, it acts like that wave of probability. If there is a consciousness with a detector to collect that information, the wave form is said to “collapse” to become an actual particle.
The important feature is that information and consciousness appear to play a direct role in the physical reality of those particles. That is huge and for some, it implies or confirms the primacy of consciousness, or information as a manifestation or substrate of consciousness. There are other interpretations that seek to preserve the primacy of physical reality and I am only stating how I am interpreting this. But for me, this is a case of the first and most basic science, physics, challenging the primacy of physical reality – wow! Consciousness is directly affecting physical matter.
Another finding in quantum physics is entanglement. When two twinned particles exist, they have opposite and complementary properties. One may (metaphorically) spin clockwise, while the other spins counter-clockwise. If you change the spin of one particle, the other will instantly change to continue the complementary relationship. And note – instantly. This applies even if the particles are kilometers apart – and presumably light years apart – instantly.
But this means that the information of the spin of one particle is instantly transmitted to the sister particle, even at a great distance. This means the information travels at a much greater speed than that of light, but that should be impossible. One interpretation is that if reality is really a field of information beyond or containing our physical reality then this can be explained. This can imply that physical reality is a kind of information system, similar to a game or simulation run within a computer. The computer is used to manipulate information in the physical world and likewise, an information matrix outside of physical reality could be running our physical reality.
For me, these four issues are solid, physically based reasons, to call into doubt the primacy of physical existence.
It is interesting to note how physics is a shadow of its former self. Technically it continues to do remarkable things with super colliders and such. But the first half of the 20th century was the most amazing period of revolution in physics and those days have not returned. Could it be that most physicists, since the mid 20th century, have worked so hard to deny the fundamental shift in our notions of reality that this resistance has led to a stasis?
At some point one has to step out of a paradigm to make progress. This is what happened in 1900, when Max Planck ushered in the quantum revolution. He was an unlikely figure to do so. He considered himself conservative and cautious, but at the same time very rigorous. That rigor and a desperation to explain a phenomenon and fundamental problem in physics, led Max Planck to come up with a radical notion that opened the door to the disruptive theory of quantum mechanics that turned the world upside down.
The radical notion is that reality is not continuous – it is divided up into quanta – the plural of quantum, a term that Planck coined. Water is uniform and appears to be continuous – no gaps. Planck found that reality itself is not continuous – not just atoms of matter with spaces, but space and time are actually chopped up into tiny chunks. It is like the pixilation in a photograph on a computer screen – at some point of magnification, the picture is seen to be made up of those little dots. Reality is the same – space and time can only be resolved down to tiny chunks. Reality turns out to be like a computer with pixels and the clock ticks of a computer chip. We see the world as continuous on the scale we operate, but it’s more complicated under the surface.
This has opened us up to a new way of seeing our reality. It is not the intuitive view that we have come to depend upon. That day back in 1900 was the day that our universe revealed itself to be very different from what it seemed to be.
This was really a revolution that is still reverberating. It has really not been integrated into the scientific community, let alone in the general population. I was not exposed to any of this when I was taking physics and chemistry, up until the introductory level at university, when I entered dental school. Newtonian physics is still useful in the day to day world, but not even to be exposed to quantum field theory and mechanics was a major deficit in my education.
I know why this was done, and likely still being done. Science portrays itself as a fearless quest for truth, so it has a vested interest in appearing to be a consistent edifice of knowledge.
Lord Kelvin said around 1900, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
A poorer prediction could not have been made at that time. A number of brilliant men, including the iconic Einstein were on the verge of blowing up the prevailing edifice of physics by developing relativity, and then quantum physics. Quantum field theory has been a wild and non-intuitive theory that defies common sense and our real world notion of reality. And its claims and predictions have stood the test of time and changed our world from theory to practice. The first half of the 20th century brought us a revolution in thinking and knowledge that simply cannot be exaggerated.
After that revolution and those great physicists who discovered and developed quantum field theory? Meh. I’m not trashing physics – just the current physics that looks at the basic structure of matter and the universe.
Quantum physics is certainly not an end point in discovery – there is much to explore and discover. We’re not going to make the same mistake as Lord Kelvin. But after all this time, the best we seem to have is string theory.
If you Google “string theory is”, Google gave me the following suggestions as of Jun 29, 2016:
“a dead end”
“Islam” – I have no clue how that one came up.
String theory is a further attempt to explain reality in physics. Any theory meets resistance when it’s first developed and Google suggestions are not proof of anything, but they do suggest. String theory was developed in the 1960’s and it’s been a pretty underwhelming performer. The last half of the 20th century and the first part of this one are dwarfed by the revolutionary discoveries of the quantum era in the early 1900’s. String theory has not made useful predictions and from this non-physicist, it appears to be a pretty leaky boat. It is not the only candidate for moving past quantum field theory, but it seems to be the front-runner of a poor lot.
Quantum field theory isn’t perfect – nothing is – but it has been as astoundingly successful as it is weird and strange.
Moving to the primacy of consciousness from the primacy of physical matter is a radical notion. But after the radical notion of quantum physics, there is precedence for such an upheaval in our understanding of reality. Quantum physics may not prove the primacy of consciousness yet, but it certainly opens up the question. And again – you can never directly prove an axiom – matter or consciousness as the starting point. Start somewhere and see where it leads you.
Scientific convention remains committed to physical matter as the starting point of the universe, but there are certainly those who question that. I am most interested in the physicists who question that starting point. These are the people who did the experiments, came up with the theories and went way beyond Newtonian physics to bring us the quantum revolution.
Quantum physics is science and it is wild and non-intuitive, but it cannot be used to justify every single New Age belief and theory. I’ll talk about Quantum physics and the New Age more in subsequent blog posts, because it is both interesting and relevant.
I’ll leave you with some quotations from physicists, all of whom, with one exception, are from the first half of the twentieth century.
All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.
Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.
In order to more fully understand this reality, we must take into account other dimensions of a broader reality.
John Archibald Wheeler
Quantum physics thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe.
If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.
I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actual philosophy.
For me, and many others, it would now seem that the most logical and reasonable starting point for existence is consciousness and not matter. I am certainly prepared to change my mind with new data or theories, but for now it simply makes the most sense.
So I believe that our existence begins with consciousness and not matter. I think we can now move onto my meaning of life – my big picture meaning of life – my BMOL.
We are here to change the world.