The Final Basis of Physical Reality
What is the organizing principle of the universe? Is there one?
This question has not been answered by physics. Indeed, it is not even being asked except in indirect ways. According to many people, the question may not even be a proper one to ask of science. It smacks too much of philosophy.
For others, the question has inherent flaws. First, they might say, it assumes that natural reality must necessarily have an organizing principle. Must it? Secondly, exactly what constitutes being organized?
Despite these challenges to the question itself, it is abundantly clear that the universe is indeed organized, as opposed to being a meaningless chaos. We see this organization in terms of objects that can be classified into groups, in terms of the interactions of matter and energy, their locations in space, and in the flow of time.
But does this apparent organization mean that there really is a systematic organization of physical reality? And if so, does this apparent organization arise from an underlying principle, or is it merely a chance arrangement of chaotic elements?
The question is too large to answer succinctly. Even if the question itself is phrased simply, the very terms of definition are not shared among us to a sufficient degree. We can quickly get lost in semantics. We saw a hint of this when we asked “what constitutes being organized?”
It’s fairly easy to identify something as being organized when it is built by human hands. Some human, with a plan and purpose, deliberately organizes raw material into something that he builds. But it is also possible that a complex arrangement of materials might be haphazard, with no plan or purpose at all. Abstract art may sometimes be an example of this. A more unlikely example is the proverbial explosion in a print shop, which might, just might perhaps, result in the printing of a book.
So it is not a slam dunk conclusion to say that physical reality is necessarily organized. And even if it is organized, it is conceivable that this organization--- even a self-sustaining organization--- arose by chance. Which in turn would mean that there is no ultimate organizing principle of reality.
We must backtrack momentarily, and revisit a point we just made. “Some human, with a plan and purpose…”
There is a subtle component to this phrase. It states that humans do exhibit plan, purpose, or in other words, some level of organizing principle. We can ask, then, what role if any do we, as humans, play in the grand scheme of things? Are we only incidental byproducts of reality? Some say yes. But quantum physics suggests a different answer.
Is it Turtles All the Way Down?
According to an often told story, the ancient Hindus imagined the world as being flat, like a table top. They wondered what held it up. Of course, a table top is held up by its legs, but, they asked, what holds up the world? The Hindus said that the world is held up by a giant turtle. And what holds up the turtle? Well, another turtle. Of course, the question can be asked repeatedly, what holds up that turtle? And it’s always yet another turtle.
Thus, we have the familiar phrase (at least among those who are concerned with such questions), “It’s turtles all the way down,” meaning that there is no final answer, no ultimate foundation of reality.
To many people, that is very unsatisfactory. But at least it sets the stage for us to seek, if not a better answer, at least a better question.
“Turtles all the way down” is not a good answer, because it makes an unsupported assumption that there is indeed an “all the way down,” that is to say, an open-ended, bottomless well of reality. It leaves unsatisfied the quest for an ultimate, final basis of physical reality. It seems to assert that there is an endless regression of ever more fundamental particles, ever more basic forces, and a never ending series of underlying principles.
But is that true? Is there no final answer? At least the story urges us to ask.
For millennia, great minds have sought to discover the ultimate basis of all reality. Or, to put it another way, they have asked, why is there something instead of nothing, where does everything come from, and why are things just exactly as they are, instead of some other way?
For Democritus, the final reality was the atom, a particle so small that it could not be divided into anything smaller. For certain other ancient Greek philosophers, reality must have been imparted by a “First Cause,” a Prime Mover, or an uncaused cause. For St Thomas Aquinas, this uncaused cause was God. And for Rene Descartes the final truth was “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). And today, the great minds of science continue to probe for ever more complete explanations of physical reality.
But as of now, science does not have an answer to the question of ultimate reality. Indeed, some claim that that is not even the proper role of science to seek such an absolute finality. But even so, scientists cannot completely avoid the issue. They are constantly trying to get closer to an answer, to move toward it. Can they get there? Or is theirs a futile quest for the end of an imaginary rainbow?
The Hindu approach to the problem is often ridiculed as a silly and illogical myth. But if we take it as a symbol, we find that it poses a conundrum with which science continues to struggle (or else, according to others, to carefully avoid altogether).
While today we know that the world is not flat, we nevertheless need to understand what it is that, figuratively speaking, holds all of reality up, if indeed, anything does.
What is the final basis of all reality?
When Democritus proposed that the atom is the fundamental particle, and that it could not be divided into anything smaller, he had no proof. He only supposed that there must be such a particle at the root of all physical reality. He seemed unprepared to accept the possibility that there might be an endless series of ever more basic particles.
Centuries later, when science once again made use of the word “atom,” it was soon discovered that the atom was not the final answer after all. The atom of modern science is composed of even more basic parts, and of more basic forces. And these parts, called protons and electrons, could themselves be split into more basic parts.
Yet, scientists today still seem to share the attitude of Democritus, the attitude that it must not be turtles all the way down. The well of reality must have a bottom. There must be a final answer. And like Democritus, we have no proof of that, only an inherent quest for simplicity, elegance, and finality.
Is There a Quintessence?
In a sense, however, we have indeed reduced reality to its few and basic constituent parts. These are space, time, energy and matter, which I cleverly reduce to the single acronym, STEM. All of reality, if you’ll accept my oversimplification here, “stems” from space-time, energy-mass.
These four elemental realities are in essence, one single thing. For, space and time compose the continuum, while energy and mass are inter-convertible, and energy-mass occupies (and affects) space-time.
But wait. There is a problem here. In ancient times, science had already reduced reality to a set of four elementals, or essences, albeit different in name. They called them earth, air, water and fire. If earth represents matter, if fire represents energy, and so forth, then the ancients were not so terribly far away from where we are today.
But the ancients found the need for a fifth essence, in the properties of stars, which seemed to them to obey natural laws fundamentally different from those found on earth. Granted, today, we now understand that the heavenly bodies are not different from the same space-time-energy-mass essence of reality here on earth. Granted. But here on earth, we nevertheless find a need for a fifth essential constituent of reality, without which there can never be any understanding at all. And of all the realities we consider, this one is the most pervasive of any. This fifth essence, this quintessential part of reality, is conscious perception.
Here is why we (arguably) know that.
One of the most astonishing scientific experiments ever performed (in my opinion) is the famous double-slit experiment. Anyone trained in physics will instantly understand my point. For the rest of us, the point is this--- perception is reality.
Well, sort of. Without doing the math, and without asking you to look it up, the double-slit experiment demonstrated clearly that particles within an atom behave differently when they are observed, than when they are not. This result is so astonishing that many people, if not most, will not, cannot, accept that conclusion until they become very familiar with how the experiment works. For my part, once I became convinced that the experiment was valid, I was stunned. At first, there seemed no context, no reference, into which I could fit the inescapable conclusion that subatomic particles can somehow, as it were, “know” that they are being observed, and change their behavior accordingly. But, they do know. Sort of.
And there is even more astonishment than just that.
Are We “At One” With the Universe?
Yet another astounding scientific experiment reveals to us the natural principle of “quantum entanglement.” Once again, perception plays a major role, and once again, you can look up the details if you wish. But I will jump straight to the conclusion. And the conclusion is that everything in the universe seems to be constantly connected to everything else, no matter how far apart they are.
The following experiment strongly urges us to reach this conclusion.
A photon is a subatomic particle (or wave) that has a property called “spin.” It is not spin in the sense that you and I generally understand it, it is just the name of a property that all photons have. The direction of spin of a photon is called either “up” or “down.” Once again, these are not to be confused with our everyday use of these terms.
A very peculiar fact about subatomic particles is that their properties do not become specific until they are observed.
For example, a photon’s spin is either up or down, but it is neither of these until the photon’s spin is observed. I know that sounds crazy, but here is a way of thinking of it that might help. A coin can be said to have two opposite sides, one that we can call “heads,” and one that we can call “tails.” If we flip the coin in the air, we can predict that when it lands, it will land either heads side up or tails side up. But until the coin actually does land, it is neither heads side up nor tails. Using this as a tool for understanding, we can say that an unobserved photon is like a coin flipping in the air, during which time its spin is neither up nor down, but merely a probability wave. But when it is observed, the spin becomes definitely up, or definitely down. (In other words, the coin has landed.)
When an atomic reaction produces a pair of photons, they are like two sides of a coin. To put it another, more scientific way, the paired photons are always of opposite spin. (This is because the total spin of a pair is always zero, since up and down cancel each other out.) But since we have not yet observed the spins, we cannot say with certainty which photon is up, and which is down. We can say, however, that if one of the pair is up, then the other must be down. But remember, that until we actually observe the photon’s spin, it does not have a specific direction. Its spin is indeterminate, a mere probability, a coin flipping in the air.
If two photons are produced, and are traveling at the speed of light in opposite directions, then there is no way for information to travel from one photon to another, because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So if at some point we observe the spin of one photon, let’s say we observe it as being “up,” then we can conclude that the spin of the other photon is “down.” (Whenever one coin lands, then so does the other one, but on the opposite side of the coin.)
Experiments have verified that this is in fact the case.
But wait. The second photon is traveling, at the speed of light, away from the first photon. And its spin is neither up nor down. There is no way for information to get from photon A to photon B. So then, what could possibly cause the spin of the second photon to instantly become “down?”
Physicists say that the explanation for this is something called quantum entanglement. The paired photons are somehow entangled with each other, interconnected. That sounds more like a description of the observation than like an explanation, but so far, it is the best that science can do in this regard.
Furthermore, quantum entanglement does not apply only to pairs of photons, nor only to spins. For according to physics, at its earliest moment, all of the universe was one particle. If everything was connected at the beginning, then everything remains connected now, no matter how far apart things are.
Distance may not be what we think it is.
So now we have two truly astonishing conclusions from experiments in physics: perception is reality, and everything is interconnected. Can we unite these two into a single framework?
A Unifying Theory
Very well then, we have established that four essences of reality (space, time, energy and mass) are not enough to explain everything that we observe. In addition to these four, we have established that conscious perception is also a critical component of what we see. It is a fifth essence, the quintessence, of reality.
And why should that astonish us? It should not. For, in a way, perception is all that we have, all that we are. If we do not perceive, then we do not really exist.
Perhaps you disagree. Very well, then, let’s explore further. Maybe you will change your mind. Maybe not. But at least we can journey along the path for awhile.
Consider that, without an inclusion of conscious awareness among its elementals, science’s definition of a possible universe might include that of a sterile, lifeless object, unseen, unheard, unknown.
Imagine (if it is possible) a universe just (or much) like ours, except that it is devoid of all life, or at least, devoid of all conscious life. Stars shine, planets orbit, chemicals react, and photons spin (but never with any definite spin). Is such a universe even possible?
We can say that it is, if we rule out conscious life as a basic, necessary constituent of reality. And conventional physics seems to do just that. Conventional science considers life to be just a byproduct, a happenstance result, of natural law. We know of no definable “life force,” by which we might explain life. Instead, we fit the phenomenon of life into our chemistry. In that view, life is merely a set of chemical reactions, and nothing needs to be added to chemistry in order for life to exist.
And since consciousness is deemed to arise from complex biological systems, then we still do not need to add any fifth essence to explain consciousness. For, we know of no particle to explain consciousness, no “conscion,” no force of “awarity.”
And yet, as we said, conscious awareness is so all pervading that we are paradoxically, often unaware of it, or at least, of its fundamental role in nature.
But it is entirely reasonable to propose that life and consciousness are not merely byproducts of reality. The evidence points to consciousness as something more than a mere accident of nature, more than a mere byproduct of natural law. The double slit experiment connects mind and matter, the entanglement theory connects all of nature, and something called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle adds further weight to the contention that nothing has a specific reality until it is perceived (by a conscious entity) to have one.
If life and consciousness are not mere byproducts of nature, then what is the alternate conclusion? It is that life and consciousness are a fifth essence. Just as space, time, energy and mass are fundamental parts of reality, so also are life and consciousness. Take away any of the five essences of reality, and you do not have reality. You have absurdity.
If we do make that proposal, if we do assert that life is a fundamental necessity of physical reality, then it becomes necessary for us to flesh out in further detail what we mean by that. So let’s journey further along that path.
Life, Consciousness, and Free Will (Cogito, ergo sum)
Modern science has made amazing advances into our understanding of living things. Biophysicists have unraveled so many of the secrets of life, that some claim to be on the verge of creating life in the laboratory, life from inert matter that is itself not alive.
Looking through a microscope, the simplest living cell is found to be strikingly complex. And so it should be, for even the simplest functions of life pose a daunting challenge. To remain alive, a cell must obtain energy and nutrients. It must then combine these in such a fashion as to replace any parts of the cell that need replacement, or even more astonishingly, to manufacture another cell just like itself. That is far more easily said than done, even for the simplest living organism.
There is more. Life is not only demonstrated in the existence of simple cells. These are just the beginning. Over millions of years, living things have adapted, mutated, and evolved into ever more complex creatures, interacting with their environment, and with each other, to produce a fascinating array of organisms, all existing in an intimate relationship with the planet earth to form a continuous ecosystem.
And there is even more than that. For, among all the myriad creatures that exist on the face of the planet earth, there is one species that has developed not only a brain, but a mind, a biological organ that perhaps can eventually decode the universe itself.
It is this mind which perceives. It perceives not only space-time and energy-mass, but much more than that, the human mind can even perceive itself. Contemplate that, for a moment.
There are two ways to define consciousness. One way is to define it from the outside. This is what we do when we observe other humans, and when we observe conscious animals. By observing the behavior of living creatures, we can assess whether they are conscious, and if so, the level of that consciousness.
But this way of observation can be deceptive. For, as we said before, there is no “conscion” particle by which we can measure and prove consciousness. We can only surmise that a creature is conscious, based upon the external evidence provided by its behavior.
But there is one person for whom you do not need external evidence of consciousness. That person is you. You yourself are the evidence. You yourself are the proof. But here is the kicker. You cannot transmit this proof to anyone else. If some space alien were to land on earth, and if that creature were somehow to think that you were a computer, or some biological construct merely mimicking consciousness, you would have no way of proving the fact that you are indeed conscious.
Furthermore, this leads us to somewhat of a paradox. Because although your own inner sense of consciousness is all pervasive in your own life, you cannot define it in any objective way. All dictionary definitions of consciousness involve the external appearance of consciousness. But within yourself, those external definitions are useless and unneeded.
Instead of a space alien, imagine that a robot from the planet Zrkon landed on earth. Imagine that that robot were so complex and advanced that it seemed to us to be a conscious, sentient creature like ourselves. We would have no way of proving that it was not. We would have no way of looking inside the robot’s mind, no way of detecting its “conscion.” So far as we know, there is no such thing.
Yet, there is.
I say that with great trepidation that I may cause a misunderstanding of what I mean. But consider. We have never detected dark matter. We have only surmised its existence because we cannot explain the behavior of galactic gravitational fields unless we “plug in” an explanation. So we plugged in the words, dark matter, and voila, the behavior of galactic rotation, and gravitational lensing, suddenly make sense.
Likewise, we cannot explain our inner perception of consciousness, unless we surmise that there is something there that we cannot directly detect or measure. So we can give that something a name, whether it be the “conscion” particle, “awarity force,” or simply, Dark X. (I like the latter one best.)
We cannot explain the double slit experiment, nor the Uncertainty Principle, nor entanglement, except in reference to the conscious awareness of a perceiver.
But if all of this sounds too speculative to merit attention, there is one more aspect of the fifth essence that must force our attention. And that one is the question of free will.
Does Free Will Exist? Can Anything Exist Without It?
As a layman informally studying physics and cosmology through popular outlets such as the internet, I am repeatedly struck with the impression that physics is by and large the personal story of individual physicists.
One wonders where the state of natural science would now be, had Albert Einstein never been born, or if Neils Bohr had suffered brain damage in his formative years, or if some tragic fate had befallen Enrico Fermi or Werner Heisenberg. Indeed, one can look upon Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, and ask whether his work was hindered or helped by his tragic infirmity.
Everything that we understand about physics, I am sure, is the result of the individuals who forged ahead into the frontiers of science. One might say that, had not Albert Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity, then surely, someone else would have done so. But would they? And even if it were so, when? Would we still be awaiting the profound insights that Einstein bequeathed upon us? For each and every great mind that plumbed the depths of nature’s secrets, we might ask, where would we be in our quest for understanding, without that particular individual and his contributions?
But wait. Did Einstein and the others really act according to the ideals of science? Or were they all merely robots, puppets on a cosmic string, asking only what nature compelled them to ask, and concluding only as nature forced them to conclude?
Of course those are rhetorical questions. But they point out the illogical way in which many people go about addressing what is certainly one of the most critical, most central questions that science must ask before it can even get started. The question is, do we have free will?
To some degree, the question of free will poses a paradox. Many highly intelligent people say that free will cannot exist. And they have a point. Physics, as it currently stands, can be understood to affirm that free will would violate causality. But on the other hand, if free will does not exist, then neither does true rationality. We find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma.
What is free will? What is it not?
Free will is the ability of a person to make a decision that is not forced upon him by nature. It is his ability to exercise autonomy. In this view, free will is the ability of a person to make a decision that breaks free of the chain of cause and effect, a decision that does not rely upon random chance.
Free will is not the ability to flap one’s arms and fly. Free will can operate only within certain limits, within certain parameters of the possible.
The reason so many intelligent people resist the idea that there can be true free will, is because as physics now stands, it forbids true free will from existing. If so, then physics is paradoxical.
Consider. If there is no free will, then there is no true science. One can easily (well, perhaps not quite so easily) demonstrate this by a thought experiment, or perhaps even by a real experiment. In either case, the experiment involves programming a small virtual world into a computer. In that virtual world, one could program a scientist to seek to understand the program that controls his every thought, word and deed. Is it even theoretically possible that one could write a program in which the program itself could discover that it is a program, and that it could formulate the rules by which its own program-self operates?
Of course, in this virtual world, the scientist could not even ask the questions involved in this discovery, unless he were programmed to ask them. He could not freely choose to do so. If so programmed, he could only ask the questions he was programmed to ask, and only pursue those lines of inquiry and experiment that he was compelled by the program to ask and pursue. Finally, he could make only those conclusions that he was compelled to conclude.
At no point in this process, could the virtual scientist break free of the constraints imposed upon him by the program. He could not become more complicated than the program itself. He could not mentally step outside of the computer and read the code that defines him. And of course, he could not rewrite the code so as to change his course of action.
Our virtual scientist has no free will. He can discover only what he is programmed to discover, and those discoveries might include falsehoods that he could never detect were false.
Of course one can speculate that the virtual scientist could somehow, through some ambiguously stated principle of emergent complexity, develop the ability to do all these things. But if so, then he would have developed free will, the ability to overcome at least some of the limitations of the program that defines him.
The question then arises, is this potential for free will embedded in the code of the program itself?
It should be clear that true science requires at least a modicum of volition, at least some minimum ability to break free of the constraints of the “program” of cause and effect, to break free of randomness, and to become, as it were, a “programmer within the program.” Such a programmer might not be able to rewrite the entire program (would he?), but he would at least be able to rewrite the portion of it that dictates what decisions he will make.
Even if he does not completely master himself, he would not be totally and completely subservient to the computer in which he resides.
To proclaim that free will does not exist is to proclaim that one is compelled to make that proclamation.
Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grade Student?
There are many levels of intelligence in the human population. Some people are smarter than others. There are also many different kinds of intelligence according to one’s talents. Some people are mathematical geniuses. Others have a knack for running a business profitably. Still others are musically gifted, and so forth.
When comparing myself to people with doctorates in physics and cosmology, I prefer to think of myself as having a different kind of intelligence, but not less. Of course that is only because I am an egotistical boor who just cannot bear to admit that I am stupid. And when I take my car to the repair shop where some high school dropout who cannot even spell “Chevrolet” quickly diagnoses and repairs the problem (and perhaps has the acumen to get me to overpay), I prefer to think that I am more intelligent than he is, only not as specifically trained. Once again, my egotistical boorishness clouds my judgment.
But despite my egotism, I am painfully mindful of the fact that when I question the great minds of science, I am a mental midget among intellectual giants. I am truly awestruck by the breadth and the depth of their knowledge. My brain simply (double entendre intended) cannot begin to memorize all the facts that Michio Kaku and his fellow scientists can remember with ease. I cannot begin to work out the Gordian puzzles and problems to which they immediately find “obvious” solutions. Nor will I ever be able to do so. My brain is less than a thimble compared to their fifty-five gallon barrels. Awestruck is a word that is not adequate to describe my reaction to their achievements.
I am not expressing humility here, just the undeniable fact of my painful limitations.
So it is that when I step into the intellectual arena, the boxing ring as it were, and question certain statements made by my intellectual superiors, I find myself woefully inadequate. I am less than a featherweight confronting giants. What right do I have to be so pompous as, for example, to assert that there is such a thing as free will, when truly great minds dismiss the notion? I am not even worthy to hold the water bottle to the mouth of such champions.
Okay, a bit of false modesty there. See? I’m not even good at being humble.
But I will say this about people who are smarter than me. Some of them have their weak points. I say this from the experience of having worked around some of them. I’m not sure how to explain it, but sometimes, a highly intelligent person cannot see the obvious. In those situations, I often doubt myself, and think that it is me who cannot see the obvious. So for a time, I defer to the greater intelligence of my superior.
But sometimes, at last, it becomes too obvious that little old me has, in this very narrow case, outsmarted the great one. It might be in something as simple as pointing out the most efficient way to arrange file cabinets in an office, or something more complex, such as deducing that a bookkeeper has been committing a clever fraud. Of course, in such situations, it is much better to get the supervisor to think that it is he who has worked out the answer, than to embarrass him by telling him the answer. Such is the life of us intellectual peasants.
In his book, The God Particle, Dr Leon Lederman wonders aloud whether the human brain has evolved to the point where it can yet fundamentally understand the universe. Others have asked if it ever can. If it turns out that the eye cannot see itself, if no part of a computer program can ever understand the whole, or if there is some other preventive principle at work--- then all of science may be, in a sense, a futile quest.
But it could get even worse than that. Could it possibly be that, for lack of free will, we are not only inherently incapable of understanding the universe, but that we have been going down the blind alley of falsehood? Could our conclusions about the nature of nature be a convincing illusion? Have we been attempting to square the circle? Have we ingeniously deceived ourselves? Has our intelligence actually worked against us? (I think you get the point, by now.)
In one particular debate available (at this writing) on YouTube, the topic was, does the universe have a purpose? It was, as the topic suggests, a confrontation between two basic worldviews, that of material objectivism (atheism?), and that of an intelligently designed universe (theism?). But interestingly, the most morally-based argument, in my opinion, was introduced by one of the proponents of the atheistic view.
Somehow, he was able to introduce the topic of same-sex marriage, and then to accuse those who opposed making it legal, of immorality.
Now here is one of those cases where I, the mental midget, feel compelled to point out that an intellectual giant has revealed his blind spot. Here is a man who is arguing that the universe has no discernible purpose, that man has no special place in it, and that there are no demonstrable moral absolutes. Yet, somehow, he finds it relevant to advocate a policy of legalizing same-sex marriage.
To which my reply would be, you are entitled to your opinion, but in a universe devoid of moral absolutes, your opinion on the matter is just another opinion among many equals. For, according to you, there is no objective principle in nature that says that we should accept or reject the idea of same-sex marriage, abortion, wars of conquest, capital punishment or any other policy of society, whether good or bad. Nature does not care.
To me, a universe without purpose is just that, pointless, independent of any concepts of justice or injustice. But maybe I’m just too stupid to understand what I’m talking about. No sarcasm is intended, seriously.
Returning to the question raised by Dr Lederman, I submit that the question is phrased incorrectly. (How dare I? Just call me a rebel.)
He asked, and I paraphrase, has the human brain evolved to the point where it can fundamentally understand the universe? But if I understand the concept of evolution at all, it is that evolution is not goal oriented. Evolution does not care where it takes us. It only responds to chance mutations and the requirements of survival and procreation. If by understanding the universe we are more able to survive and procreate, then perhaps eventually there will evolve a human brain that can indeed understand the universe. But it will evolve only by chance, not in pursuit of any lofty goal.
On the other hand, such an understanding may be inherently impossible, just as it is inherently impossible for a model of a structure to contain a model of itself (without containing an endless regression of them).
However, all of this discussion so far is based on the idea of a universe with only four essences, STEM. If there is a fifth essence, if life, consciousness and free will are essential ingredients without which no model of the universe can possibly work, then everything changes.
Is Life a Fundamental Constituent of Natural Law?
As we have already said, life can be well understood in terms of chemistry. Chemistry could exist without life, but life could not exist without chemistry. Life then, seems to be an outgrowth of chemistry, a special case, a coincidental result of many convergent properties of atoms and molecules.
Likewise, consciousness arises from living things. Therefore, we might conclude that consciousness itself is just chemistry.
But wait. Does that make sense?
Anyone who engages in any serious introspection will observe in himself something (called consciousness) that cannot be explained in terms of chemistry, or physics, or mathematics. Those might explain the observable activities of life, and the outward appearance of consciousness. But nothing so sterile can explain the ineffable experience of experience that we call consciousness.
This opens the door to two conclusions. One is that consciousness is not simply a product of chemical reactions. Instead, it is something else apart from those reactions. The other is that consciousness is not merely an unnecessary detail in the universal scheme, but rather, that it is integral to reality. Reality cannot exist apart from the conscious perception of it.
If these conclusions are valid, then we must recant something we said earlier. While we may still say that life could not exist without chemistry, we might have to also say that chemistry could not exist without life.
Once we begin thinking that life and consciousness are at the very root of reality, as much so as are space-time and energy-mass, once we think along those lines, then we can begin to understand the double-slit experiment, the Uncertainty Principle, and quantum entanglement.
Nor can we ignore free will. If life is the basis of consciousness, then consciousness is the basis of free will. And since free will enables us to “violate” causality, so to speak, then the entire picture of reality changes. (I have put the word “violate” in quotes, because as I shall develop shortly, there is no violation taking place.)
No longer must we regard the universe as a clockwork mechanism. No longer must we regard it as a potentially sterile system that just happened by unlikely convergences to develop living, conscious, volitional creatures.
No longer are we cosmic afterthoughts, nor are we puppets on a cosmic string.
But then, what are we? And what is the universe?
The Cosmic Box
Modern science has accepted certain axioms as its basis. Among these axioms are that nature makes sense. The universe is governed, that is to say, it obeys or conforms to natural law. This natural law is constant, consistent, and it applies everywhere and at all times. Moreover, natural law is such that it can be discerned by the human mind.
All these axioms are necessary to science, for without them, the pursuit of knowledge by the scientific method would be futile. We could not usefully study the natural order if there were no order. We could not make predictions of what will happen next, if events were so random and chaotic that anything could happen next, one prediction being as likely to be accurate as a completely different prediction.
So then, science requires certain axioms if it is to function at all.
But not all the accepted axioms of science are necessary. Some of them have simply become ingrained with the passage of time, but science can exist just as well without them. Indeed, unnecessary axioms can unduly restrict science, cripple it, even blind it to truth.
One of these unnecessary axioms is what I call The Cosmic Box.
Scientists have come to view nature as a self-enclosed system that requires no resort to any reference outside the--- well--- the box. Everything is inside the box. According to this axiom, everything in the box can be explained in terms of other things inside the box. There is nothing outside the box, and indeed, there is no such thing as outside the box. Even if the box includes other universes, they are all part of the box, the box of the megaverse, the box of nature, the cosmic box.
But if we accept that we do in fact have free will, if we accept that conscious awareness is not simply a chemical phenomenon, but is indeed a fifth essence, then we must indeed resort to explanations outside the box. We must accept that there is an “outside.”
Shall we call it supernature? May we call it spirit? Can we refer to it as the realm of God?
If we as living, conscious creatures with free will are necessary in order for the universe to exist, then we are not merely products of it, we are the very purpose for which physical reality exists.
Why We Can Never Find God
Albert Einstein disavowed belief in a personal God. Instead, he expressed belief in what one may call a sort of “God of Science,” what some have referred to as the clock-maker god. This sort of god is not interested in human beings, neither individually nor collectively. In this view, the First Cause (a term here used generically) created the universe for some purpose which we can never understand, (or perhaps for no purpose), set it in motion (so to speak), and then stood back, perhaps to watch it unfold, but never again intervening in it.
And as we look upon reality, we find a lot of support for this view of nature, even if we discount any describable god, whether Einstein’s or not. We see a universe which seems to be indifferent. In our familiar world, too often, we see virtues punished, we see dishonesty rewarded. The innocent suffer, the guilty prosper. In our world, the lion does not lie down with the lamb, but kills it.
In short, nature seems to be somewhat of a sociopath, neither malicious nor beneficent, but instead, coldly indifferent. These facts on the surface seem to argue strongly against the existence of an interventionist God, a God of justice, a God of mercy.
If we take the world as we see it, and try to logically construct from it a God, we discover that you cannot get there from here. No rules of logic, no path of reason, leads to God. Given all that, why does anyone believe in a God at all?
One theory involves lightning. The Vikings believed in a God called Thor. When Thor struck with his mighty hammer, one could hear the impact in the form of thunder, accompanied by lightning. Anyone who has ever experienced a truly violent thunderstorm, witnessed its blinding light and deafening roar, can appreciate this kind of faith in supernatural power, power beyond the grasp of any human being.
In modern terms, instead of lightning and thunder, we have the awesome recognition that nature itself is wondrous. Who can fail to be inspired by a sunset, by the Hubble Deep Field? The universe is so huge that our ordinary concept of enormity is overwhelmed by the numbers. The complexity of nature seems too much to ask of coincidence.
And so, the theory goes, we have replaced the brute Thor with a more sophisticated God, but still a God of awe and might--- and still a God for the foolish and insecure. We are still trying to get from here to God.
But we can’t.
At the most, we can try to achieve what our God of Science does not--- a world of justice, peace and prosperity for all. But so far, all our efforts, even with their successes, have on the whole resulted in abject failure. The innocent still suffer. Tsunamis still massacre hundreds of thousands. Dictators still rule with iron fists. And even if we eventually do achieve a Pax Romana, it could all blow up in our faces at any moment.
So what should we do? Must we give up on the idea of an all powerful, beneficent God? Is the idea of such a God truly a fool’s dream?
The late Bishop Fulton J Sheen wrote, “The great arcana of Divine Mysteries cannot be known by reason, but only by Revelation. Reason can, however, once in possession of these truths, offer persuasions to show that they are not only not contrary to reason, or destructive of nature, but eminently suited to a scientific temper of mind and the perfection of all that is best in human nature.”
In other words, we cannot get there from here, but we don’t have to. If we accept God as axiomatic, then we can build upon that axiom, and come to a better understanding of science and reality.
But wait. Science does not believe in divine revelation. Science has found no evidence of it. Right?
Wrong. Science itself, as we pointed out earlier, rests its entire edifice upon a few assumptions, axioms, that no one can prove. That’s what an axiom is, an assumption that is so logical, so basic to any further knowledge, that it cannot be proved. But even though we cannot prove an axiom, we can be very sure of its reliability.
For, as soon as we deny the axiom, and try to proceed as if it were not true, we immediately run into impossible situations. In logic, we encounter illogic, contradictions, and falsehoods. In more practical terms, if we deny the axioms of mathematics, we find that we cannot accurately pay our bills, cannot meet our financial obligations, and perhaps worst of all, cannot avoid the wrath of the tax collector.
Likewise, if we deny that reality is founded upon some purpose, plan and meaning, we encounter absurdities and fallacies that have adverse practical consequences.
Axioms are not subject to the kind of proof that we find in mathematics and logic. Instead, while we cannot prove that an axiom is true, we can convincingly demonstrate that it must be true. Otherwise, we are forced to accept illogical conclusions and their intolerable consequences.
Just as we can never prove an axiom, so it is also true that we can never find God. But can He find us?
Purpose, Plan and Meaning
Was the universe created for a plan and purpose? Or did it just happen randomly, with no conscious guidance?
Enormous consequences follow from the answer to that question. But perhaps it is a bad question. Since we can disagree on whether the universe was created or not, perhaps instead we should address it from some common ground. Can we?
We can all agree (I am sure) that the universe is organized. It seems to consist of certain components which are organized according to certain natural principles, or laws of nature. Reality seems to be founded on rules of logic that can never be violated. Based on past events, future events can reasonably be predicted within the bounds of probability. The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west, at least as an aphorism.
So, whether or not one believes in a God or gods, we can all pretty much agree that reality is founded upon, or governed by, some cosmic form of an Organizing Principle. If you deny that, then in my opinion, you are just being difficult (grin).
According to the Big Bang Theory (which is actually, a set of closely related theories), the universe was not always in its present form. It was at one time unimaginably tiny. When it was that small, all of space, and everything in it, was compressed, super compressed, squeezed beyond any imaginable concept of squeezing, into a size smaller than an atom.
Here is where two possibilities diverge. One concept of the primordial point particle is that its size was zero (a singularity). If so, then there is a gap in our formulas. For we have no mathematics to describe the properties of such a massive universe when its size is (or approaches) zero. And even once it expands, there is a range of infinitesimally small size in which the laws of nature (within that small size) do not make any sense to us. Only when the universe expands beyond a certain size (albeit still unimaginably tiny) can our mathematics be of any use.
The second possibility is the concept that the universe never was so small that our mathematics could not apply. In that view, the universe began as small, but more than a size of zero.
Although both cases are different, and have profound consequence, what we can say is that once the universe reached (or started at) a certain size, there were rules that governed what would happen afterward. For example, there was already matter and energy. As the expansion began (the bang), there was space and time. All four of the essences were present, and if there is a fifth, we may suggest that it, also, was already there.
But where did these rules come from?
Some have said that they arose randomly. If one begins with a mass of zero, then one can calculate that two masses might randomly emerge from that zero, a mass of plus one, and a mass of minus one, where one can be replaced by any other number.
But the very concept of “mass” itself should not be a given. One should ask, if one begins with zero, what property of this primordial vacuum allows it to divide into two masses? Why not into two gobble-de-gooks, or whatever other name one might give it? And instead of duality, why not triality, a divergence into three offsetting values?
One possible answer is that infinite universes are constantly arising, and that every possibility is accounted for in this infinity of universes. But even that leaves us not with an answered question, but rather, with an infinite number of unanswered questions. Because if reality consists of infinities of universes, what principle of reality accounts for that? It’s the same, age-old question of why is there something instead of nothing?
What we are confronting here is the question of final absolutes. And although such questions are deemed by many to be outside the realm of science, the quest of science is to constantly close in on such questions. Questions that were once over the horizon of scientific inquiry have now, as those horizons expanded, been found to be well within the domain of science.
We cannot prove that there is a single, overarching organizing principle of nature. But if there is not, then in the end, there really is no science at all.
So instead of beginning the argument with, “Is there a God?” we should ask instead, what (if anything) is the organizing principle of reality?
Once we agree that there must be something that accounts for the existence of natural law, then we can ask whether that something is conscious or not, whether or not it has plan and purpose, and whether or not it cares about us, or even takes notice.
One more point of agreement. I think that we can all agree that, whatever the ultimate organizing principle is, it is utterly and forever unknowable.
The Final Turtle
When we began this inquiry, we referred to the ancient Hindu concept of the world as a table-top resting on an endless regression of turtles. In such a model, there is no final turtle.
But we now know that the world is not flat. It is a globe, and because gravity pulls all the mass of the earth to its center, we can say that the earth rests upon itself. Or more precisely, it rests upon its central point.
Using that fact, we can by extrapolation, model all of reality (my, but this is aggressively ambitious!) on the concept of a globe.
For simplicity, let us make the model two dimensional, a circle instead of a globe, since the point will be the same in either case.
Excellent. Now for the diagram. Here it is. Ready?
[Illustration Is In Original Document]
Here it is, the diagram of all reality.
You will immediately notice that it consists of two circles, one inside the other, and a dot in the middle, representing the center of both circles. The outer band is shaded in dark, to distinguish it from the inner disk. And the central point is represented by a black dot.
Hey, it was easier than drawing an endless stack of turtles! But what does it mean?
The outer band represents the outer reality of everyday experience. It is composed of stuff (matter), and of the behavior of stuff (movement, etc). This outer band is the material reality that we can see and feel, measure and observe, and experiment with. We might call it the phenomenological expression of reality.
Next, we come to the inner disk. This represents the abstract portion of reality, the reality that we know is there, but we cannot see. This inner reality is comprised of natural laws, of mathematics and logic, and perhaps of thought and perception. It is this inner reality of principles and laws which gives rise to the outer reality of phenomena.
And finally, we come to the central dot. Immediately, we have to say that the dot in the diagram is only a finite representation of the actual, infinitely small geometric point that has dimensions of zero.
Just as the central disk (abstract laws and principles) gives rise to the outer band (of phenomena), so also does the central point give rise to the central disk. This central dot represents the organizing principle from which arises all reality.
Note that the rules of mathematics apply differently to zero than to finite numbers. (Indeed, zero is not even on the number line, even though we draw it there.) No number can be divided by zero, not even zero itself. The central point of a circle can be likened in some respects to the central singularity inside a black hole. It just does not obey the rules that apply outside the black hole.
By analogy, then, we can dismiss certain fallacious arguments designed to portray the concept of God as illogical. For example, it has been asked, if we assert that the universe (or reality itself) must have had a creator, then we must also assert that the Creator must have been created by something preceding him.
But, using the diagram as a tool, we can ask, if the circle has a central point as its (so to speak) origin, then where is the center of the central point? The question is redundant. The central point has no central point. It is the absolute center of the circle.
Likewise, if God is the Creator, then He has no precedent creator. He is the absolute central reality. Other than what He tells us of Himself, and gives us capacity to comprehend, nothing can be known of Him. He is not subservient to any laws external to Himself. He is the law, He is the law giver. He is forever and infinitely beyond the reach of human intellect. He is not unreasonable, but simply, He transcends all reason.
The central dot, then, does not represent the final turtle. It replaces all the turtles.
The diagram does, however, have one disqualifying flaw. It attempts to diagram that which cannot be diagrammed.
The circular diagram we just looked at serves yet another function. It can substitute for St Patrick’s Irish Shamrock. As you are no doubt aware, St Patrick used the shamrock as a teaching tool to explain the Trinity, a concept which cannot be explained. But the diagram is useful anyway toward that end.
The doctrine of the Trinity is found at no one place in the Bible. It is spread throughout. That doctrine holds that the One True God is comprised of three divine persons. Each of the three persons is fully and completely the One True God in and of Himself. There are not three Gods, and each of the persons of God is not a fraction of God, but the whole.
Some have said that the three divine persons share the one Godhood in a cooperative fashion of sorts.
The three persons of God are the Father (the Creator), the Son (the Savior), and the Holy Spirit (the Comforter).
If we can keep in mind what we said about there being only one God, then we can use the diagram in a very limited fashion as follows:
The outer band which represented the visible world in the previous section, now represents the Savior, Jesus, who is the God that resides among us in the flesh, in the physical world.
The inner disk, which represented natural law, now represents the Creator, who gives rise to the outer band, the physical world.
The central point which represented God, the ultimate and final origin and organizing principle, about which no human understanding can ever suffice, now represents this aspect of God in the Holy Spirit.
I’ll leave it at that.
The Brain as Computer--- The Universe as Computer
On my computer screen I am looking at the image of a beautiful landscape. It is the photograph of a distant mountain, seen across an open meadow, which contains a lake, which is reflecting blue sky and wispy clouds.
Or is it?
Actually, what I am looking at is a series of ones and zeroes. Anyone who knows even a little bit about how computers work, understands that they operate on a binary system, a system of tiny electrical circuits. Each circuit can hold either one (or the other) of two electric charges, charges of either positive or negative (or zero), which represent a state of either “on” or “off,” of either “one” or “zero.”
These binary digits (one or zero) are called “bits.” One can think of them as the two letters of a very short alphabet. Combining several bits, one can write a “word” in binary. Several of these words form sentences, paragraphs and so forth, that become either “data” or “instructions.” Using the bits, the computer applies the instructions to the data, which then result in an output, such as the image of a landscape on a computer screen.
Somehow it seems odd. Here we are, admiring this beautiful landscape, when in fact, its fundamental reality (so to speak) is a series of ones and zeroes inside the computer.
It gets more odd. Suppose we were to travel physically to the place where the photographer stood when he captured this image on film with his camera. We could then satisfy ourselves that we were no longer looking at ones and zeroes, but rather, at an actual landscape, the actual mountain, and lake, and wispy clouds in a blue sky.
You see, when we see anything, we are not directly seeing the actual reality of what we are looking at. No, what is happening is that photons are reaching our eyes, being focused on our optic nerves, which then cause chemical impulses to be transmitted along a neural path to our brain, much as the digital signals along a wire are transmitted to a computer processor.
In other words, we are not seeing the actual mountain. What we are seeing is the processed result of our visual cortex, the output of our brain to our experience of seeing.
Which then leaves us two questions. One, what is the actual mountain? And two, what is seeing it?
Is there an actual mountain there? And if so, what is it? Is its basic reality as we see it to be? Or is there a fundamental reality to the mountain that is only comprised of numbers and formulas? Are there really colors in nature, or only wavelengths and amplitudes?
And who is it that is seeing this mountain? Is it our brain?
But our brain is not a computer. For, a computer produces an output, to be sure. But the output it produces is, for example, the series and array of pixels on a screen. These pixels have no objective relation to anything that is the actual mountain. The output could just as easily go to a ticker tape as a series of ones and zeroes, something that we could not make any sense out of.
But when a computer produces an output, it formats it into something that we can indeed make sense of. The computer is designed this way, so that we can make sense of its output. But in order for that to happen, the computer must have a recipient for its output, that is to say, a user, and to say even more, a human user.
But when the brain produces an output, who is the user? Is it the brain? If so, then that would be like a computer producing an output for itself. That would make as much sense as a camera producing an image strictly for its own internal use. There would be no need for that image to be composed into any particular form. Since no human would ever see it, there would be no need for focus.
But the brain does have an output. Who is it that sees what the brain processes and formats?