I’m at a stage of life where the thing I treasure most (and dread most) is the discovery (more and more) that things I have believed all my life are wrong. I want to know what is true, even if it shakes me up. It’s disorienting, it’s humbling, it’s confusing and damn inefficient, but it’s all worthwhile if only the doors of wonder crack open for an instant.
I now question the very idea of truth, in the sense of an objective reality that can be discovered via observation and logic.
I am a scientist. All of science is premised on the presumed objective existence of an external world, independent of what we think, independent of what we want, independent of the questions that we ask about it and the ways in which we ask them. There must be some reality behind this assumption, because science works so well, and it has led to so much control over our material world.
It’s not just science, of course. The fact that we can (often) agree with others about what has happened, about what is now the case, about what we might do, and what the likely consequences will be. We may argue about what the truth is, but we don’t deny that there is a truth that you and I ought to be able to agree on. The fact that human societies can function at all depends on a substantially universal agreement about what is real.
Two hundred words into this essay, you’re rapidly losing patience with me because only a dreamer (or a pedant) would ever waste time on the question whether there is an objective reality. What possible difference could it make? If I don’t want to lose you, Dear Reader, I’d better hurry on to offering some reason to doubt what you have never imagined could be doubted.
First, the idea that there is no way to separate subjective from objective is built into quantum physics, and this aspect of the theory has been explictly tested.
Second, results of parapsychology experiments tell us that our mental intention has an effect on reality, even when the intention is focused on an object far away with no known mechanism of influence.
Third, there is common experience, if we are honest about it: things that we have dismissed as coincidence because we had no other framework in which to view them, and because we have rejected the mythologies and superstitions of countless generations past.
From the birth of quantum theory in 1925, physicists realized that the relation of subject to object was profoundly changed from classical physics. Some argued for a kind of co-creation of reality between the experimenter and the experimental object. The stark contradiction to our notion of objectivity was brought into focus in the theorem of J.S. Bell, 1964. He showed that quantum randomness is more than just our inability to know what is objectively real. His theorem interprets (and experiments verify) that the world is making decisions based on what questions we ask in our experiments.
An dramatic example is the “quantum Zeno effect”. An atom may be known to decay into another state with a certain probability, but as long as we look at it and continually ask (with our experiment) “Have you decayed yet?” the answer will always be no. “Watched water never boils.”
There is an “inverse quantum Zeno effect” as well, in which you efficiently can move a system along from state 1 to state 2 by asking, “Are you in state 1.01?” and then “Are you in state 1.02?”, etc…
Sometimes, people make things happen by thinking about them. There are small effects that are common and statistically reproducible. There are large, dramatic effects that turn up in anecdotes. There are individuals who have more effective psychic powers than the rest of us. Remote healing. The power of prayer. Psychokinesis. It has all been documented for those who are open-minded and patient with the experimental details. (That excludes most established academics and journal editors.) I recommend Dean Radin’s books for a rigorous and readable introduction to the subject.
- Intuition, common sense, experience, and traditional cultures
I ask you to look back over your life and recall times when something very improbable happened that dramatically changed your course. Perhaps you’ve shrugged and written off the
Remember that the idea of an objective world determined purely by the mathematical logic of physical interactions is only as old as the Enlightenment in Europe, and that a far more mystical, enchanted and animated view of the world is common to all the indigenous traditions of the world, going back into pre-history. With what hubris do we dismiss the entire body of acquired cultural wisdom as superstition, and assert that “we know better now”!
What do we make of this?
It doesn’t mean that we have to throw away any of the practical, experienced-based knowledge we have about how to be in the world, what works and what doesn’t, how to talk to one another about reality. But it does open up the possibility–even the probability–that there are many new ways to be and ways to create that we have yet to discover.
And surely my message resonates with our feeling that we live in a time when the practical is no longer practical, when our ways of doing and ways of knowing have imploded and are ripe for replacement. My guess (I don’t presume to call it a prediction) is that we are unable to change the way we look at our world while surrounded by the culture we are in, and we are unable to change the culture while we are mired in our present world-view. So the two will have to evolve together. Maybe we shouldn’t even aim to discover the ultimate nature of reality, but moderate our goal toward finding a model that is a little more comprehensive than the positivism/physicalism that needs replacing.