“Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space”

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George Johnson is a prolific science writer—the author of nine books and hundreds of articles. He has written 14 articles for the New York Times in 2014 alone. Here is a brief summary of his  Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space.

Humans may have been demoted from their central place in the heavens by modern science, writes Johnson, but we still believe that we will eventually figure out how the universe works. It is generally believed we will do this by utilizing four basic concepts: matter and energy interacting in space and time. But there are some skeptics who think we might need a few more concepts, notes Johnson.

The first is the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He thinks there is more to the universe than physical forces, and that evolutionary laws need to be expanded to explain sentient life. Needless to say, Nagel’s views have caused consternation. The psychologist Steven Pinker denounced Nagel’s latest book as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Nagel, for his part, is an atheist who is not promoting non-scientific ideas like intelligent design. Instead, he argues that science must continue to expand to find more complete answers. Nagel writes: “Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning … but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that the tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.” (Any thoughtful scientist would agree.) 

The discovery or invention of a mathematics so in tune with reality also amazes Nagel. (Many evolutionary epistemologists are not surprised that brains, which evolve from nature, are thus in tune with nature.) Even neuroscientists cannot yet explain how mind emerges from the electronic circuitry of the brain. (That “they can’t explain that” posits some as yet unknown explanation. It is one thing to say this explanation is supernatural and by definition such explanations are outside the purview of science. It is another to say that further explanation is needed, and no scientist would disagree with that.)

To fully explain mind, Nagel argues, requires another scientific revolution. Such a revolution posits mind as fundamental and a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” This would require directional, possibly even purposeful evolution, and would expand on the model of random mutations and environmental selection. “Above all,” Nagel writes, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” (Again few scientists would disagree. Thus Nagel’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear.)

In addition, notes Johnson, the biologist Stuart Kauffman also suggests that Darwinian theory must be expanded to explain the emergence of intelligent creatures like ourselves. (There is nothing surprising about this. My article on “Piaget’s Biology” in The Cambridge Companion to Piaget (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) notes multiple biologists who argue similarly.) And David Chalmers, an important philosopher of mind, has seriously considered panpsychism–the idea that rudimentary consciousness pervades everything in the universe. (However, Chalmers does not say that panpsychism and the physicalism underlying contemporary biology conflict, although he does say, in this interview, that panpsychism “is a radical form of physicalism precisely because it introduces mental properties as fundamental.” So Chalmer’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear. It seems to me that panpsychism might even be expected given the evolution of higher intelligence from lower ones. It also seems, on briefest reflection, that this does not mean mind is more fundamental than matter, but rather that it is an emergent property in evolution. My basic point is that the reference to panpsychism doesn’t clearly challenge scientific orthodoxy.)

Johnson also notes that the renowned physicist Max Tegmark argues that mathematics is an irreducible part of nature–perhaps the most fundamental part. Johnson marvels at mathematics’ effectiveness in describing reality. (Piaget wrote extensively about how children’s reflective abstractions largely explain how the mind evolves, as well as the correspondence of mathematics and reality. And there are Platonic, evolutionary, and other explanations of this correspondence.) Tegmark argues the universe is a mathematical structure from which matter, energy, space, and time emerge. Other mathematicians note that most mathematics doesn’t describe reality at all. But for Johnson, Tegmark provides another example of a challenge to scientific orthodoxy.

Johnson’s conclusion from all this is mixed. On the one hand, we’ve come a long way in understanding our universe in the 5,000 years or so of civilization. On the other hand, from the vantage point of 5,000 years hence, our science today will be primitive. So Johnson is not sure of the extent to which challenges to the orthodoxy are substantive.

My conclusion is that Johnson is correct about the former claim—we have come a long way since the dawn of civilization, but I’m not sure about his latter claim—that today’s science will be primitive in retrospect. In some ways this is true, but in others, it may not be. There is a good chance that evolutionary, quantum, relativity, gravitational, and atomic theories will survive almost intact. Why? Because while revolutionary disruptions occasionally happen in science, as Kuhn suggested, more often change is slow. Change is mostly gradual, evolutionary change, not radical, revolutionary change. Newton’s theory of gravity is not wrong—it works fine at speeds much slower than light—although Einstein’s theory of gravity is more complete.  The ancient atomists were correct that atoms are small indeed even though they didn’t have a modern atomic theory. And Euclidean geometry is not invalid because of non-Euclidean geometry–parallel lines still don’t meet in Euclidean space! In the far future, we may find out we know a lot more than we thought we knew.

As for new ideas that challenge scientific orthodoxy I think Carl Sagan said it best: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

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7 thoughts on ““Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space”

  1. Such a vain species we are! We absolutely refuse to accept the notion that we are just one more component of the universe. We had to be the center of the universe; when Galileo demolished that belief, we clung to the notion that we are God’s special creation — until Darwin demolished that (for only the more educated portion of the population; many people still refuse to accept the truth.) Now we cling desperately to “consciousness”, the secular version of “the soul” and the fervent belief that our intelligence somehow transcends the laws of physics. When will Homo Sapiens grow up?

  2. I believe that a part of the growing up, of which Chris writes, is the recognition that our science does not and cannot cover everything that exists in the universe. Due to the most basic physical facts which have been discovered, such as the speed of light and the forces inside the atom, there must have been a Creator that preceded these things. His holy Name must essentially be a part of what we are and how we live, although the developments of A I might one day more totally challenge this apparent assumption. Please tell me that it all began from absolutely nothing and prove it, otherwise, as a mature and responsible adult person, I will continue to ascribe it all to God.

  3. Mr. Chester, I have no desire to attempt to discredit your spiritual beliefs. You’re quite right that science has not yet discovered everything; indeed, science will never know everything, because humans are finite creatures. I see no god hidden in the cracks of our edifice of knowledge, but if you do, I have no quarrel with you. I will also point out that proof is, strictly speaking, a mathematical concept; nothing in science has been or ever will be proven.

    I respect your spiritual beliefs and I expect you to extend me the same courtesy.

  4. Well said Chris. I had to correct my students through the years who asked if something was “proven.” You can’t “prove” with 100% certainty that OJ was guilty (perhaps he had an unknown identical twin we don’t know about who was in hiding all his life, did the deed, and then went back in hiding.) However no rational person would believe such nonsense hence he was proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

    As for “god of the gaps” arguments, even most theologians reject them. If you place your god in a gap, science will slowly close the gap as it has been doing since its beginnings. At this point religion has already retreated to its final gap “why is there something rather than nothing?” But as any first year philosophy student knows filling in the gap with some god or gods doesn’t answer the question, it just introduces another mystery.

    As for science, even its most certain ideas are, as you know,always open to further revision, they are always provisional no matter how much evidence supports them. That is its strength and why it progresses, it continual revisions its ideas as it evolves closer and closer to the truth. Rational persons proportion their ascent to the evidence. And if the evidence is overwhelming, as it is for quantum, gravitational, atomic, and evolutionary theories, for example, then I feel very very confident they’re true even though its always possible they are mistaken. I feel more confident they are true than anything else in my experience. But then we live in world where more people believe in virgin births, resurrections from the dead, etc. than in our best tested knowledge. In short people just are very rational; they don’t want to know they want to believe.

  5. What about a cleaner cut in beliefs about reality? I propose top-down (covers any supreme agent beliefs) and bottom-up (which covers scientific beliefs). *1* The problem with this clash of where the power began is this: a supreme agent is capable of purposeful deceit which would make scientific beliefs always both false and compelling.

    Since I doubt I have to convince you why scientific beliefs are compelling, think about what you give up when accept that paradigm I would challenge as only capable of using dominoes and dice, the inert events caused and random. I believe Chris hits this point in the first comment about the secular soul, it is very difficult to not let science be responsible for all comforts but one, it eats your head and spits out dominoes and dice for your soul. To find *1* plausible you need a reason for this deceit. For this I would offer evidence as counter-evidence, that the wholly diminishing effect scientific beliefs have about one’s self constitute a theme, and this particular theme a supreme agent would be quite interested in. This sting in the tail of science is that if you let it eat your head you have given up all coherence native to everything that one has endured in all of this life, every value one claims, to tie that final knot worth everything, you confess you are made of science particles and ruled by dominoes and dice. You might call yourself a modified monkey and turn to despairing stoicism because of this. That is quite an effect to complete the themes of the scientific model.

    I would say a supreme agent would have to value themself all the way. That if they were never told who they were, that if they found themself even in so diminutive a form as a person agains the cosmos, that if no wall moved for them and no miracles occurred except the advocacy of their worth and necessity of who they were claimed by their own voice against the quiet, they would not see the cosmos standing a chance in the impossible fight made up to give all of worth the contrast of a backdrop of all worthlessness.

    This cosmos would be as a suffocating mold of nothing worth mattering except the image it would offer in relief. To one who would value themself so, perhaps this would be like the “Bargain” sung about by The Who. Romantic in a self-reinforcing way. The impossible view of this scientific perspective offering an impossible fight showing why there is someone instead of no one. From the top, there can only be who and not a what could ever really be true.

  6. Just a notion. Getting beyond energy, matter, time and space seems at least, metaphysical, if not downright ethereal. We can only go just so far down the turtle stack before the immensity of it all, renders pointless the weight of all, preceding and subsequent. This seques into the Buddhist riddle: what is the sound of one hand clapping? An acolyte misses the point, entirely, focusing on the hand, the act while forgetting the outcome: sound. In quasi-modern parlance, the sound of one hand clapping is smacking oneself in the forehead for not having a can of vegetable juice. Or, whacking a child, on the butt, for misbehaving. But, we don’t do that anymore, right?

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