Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What's Really Real?

This is a post I've run before but am reposting since it's relevant to some topics my students and I have been discussing in class:

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries it was the consensus view among scientists and philosophers that reality, the universe, was fundamentally material. The belief was that everything was reducible to matter and energy and that if there was any immaterial substance, it was a property of matter. Thus, in this materialist view, there was no such thing as mind or soul that existed independently of matter. Mind, if it existed, emerged from matter.

All this began to change in the 20th century with the development of quantum physics, and as that century came to a close and the new century began a number of experiments were done which led physicists to believe that, in fact, mind is fundamental and that the material world is an emergent property of mind.

Rather than seeing the universe as a machine, as thinkers had done ever since Isaac Newton in the 17th century, the universe was now being viewed, in the words of Sir James Jeans, more like "a grand idea."

The following video gives a fairly good description of two experiments in physics which have led many (not all) scientists to agree with Jeans. The video moves quickly so you might wish to replay parts of it.

There's resistance to accepting the notion that the universe as a product of mind because such a view both refutes the materialism upon which atheism rests and fits nicely into a theistic view of the world (see the quote from physicist Alain Aspect below).

Nevertheless, this is the view accepted by a growing number of quantum physicists. Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.” Max Planck (1944)

“Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.” Erwin Schroedinger.

“It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” Eugene Wigner 1961, Nobel Prize winner in 1963

"If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history." Philosopher Thomas Nagel

"What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving 'entanglement' (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices, and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices...To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time." Antoine Suarez, 2013

"Why do people cling with such ferocity to belief in a mind-independent reality? It is surely because if there is no such reality, then ultimately (as far as we can know) mind alone exists. And if mind is not a product of real matter, but rather is the creator of the “illusion” of material reality (which has, in fact, despite the materialists, been known to be the case, since the discovery of quantum mechanics in 1925), then a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism (solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist)." Alain Aspect, 2007

So far from mind being a product of a more fundamental material reality, these thinkers have concluded that matter actually is a phenomenon created by mind. Thus, in their view, the fundamental reality in the universe, and perhaps beyond, is mind.