Theories are great at describing the world—but we need to take them less literally
Do you want the good news or the bad news first?
I agree, always start with the bad news.
As a former science student, I have great respect for science and the principles behind science. The problem here is not so much with science itself, but with scientists.
They’re human after all, and we humans are always trying to understand things. This means we inevitably make assumptions about the world based on what we think is real.
And, well, things are not always as they appear.
The very foundations of the type of science many scientists fall back to by default — the Newtonian, cause-and-effect type of science — has been on tremendously shaky ground for over a century since the advent of quantum physics.
You see, the deeper you look into our universe, the stranger it becomes. Cause does not always precede effect. Things appear to not really be things at all.
And this is why scientists are so confused by quantum mechanics.
In the early 1900s, scientists were trying to work out whether subatomic particles really were particles, or whether they behaved more like spread out wave of information. So they set up the now-famous “double slit” experiment: shooting electrons through two slits to see if they produced a double-band pattern, meaning they were particles, or an interference pattern, indicating they were waves.
The results dumbfounded them.
When not observed, the electrons formed a spread-out, wave-like pattern. But when they set up an observation device at the slits, it changed the result: the electrons acted as particles, producing two bands. The electrons behaved differently, depending on whether someone was watching them or not.
And the weirdness didn’t end there. The more scientists explored these types of experiments, the more confounding they became. When two “particles” were superposed — or combined so that they were entangled — and then spread out over a distance, observing one would instantaneously affect the other, seemingly defying the law that nothing can travel faster than light-speed
There is too much information out in the world for us to be able to process and understand it all, so our brains make short-cuts, or “hacks” in order to let us function in at least a semi-reasonable way.
So far, so good, right? The problem arises in what comes next: with turning our assumptions into being a collected body of knowledge we hold onto as “the way things are”.
Scientists really do their best to try and avoid this, but they aren’t immune to it. The psychological need for understanding runs deep, so when things are unclear, we tend to latch onto whatever seems most reasonable.
But the most reasonable answer may not always be the right one.
Scientists begin with legitimate observations about how the world can behave in given circumstances. And this is fine, there’s nothing wrong with this part of science. Then they begin to construct models to explain the world based on these observations. Which, again, nothing really wrong here, either.
The problem begins, however, when there is no evidence for the models themselves, only for the observed phenomena — for our perceptions through the senses — and we take the models to be real, physical realities, as opposed to merely models describing the behaviour of our conscious perception. When scientists take these models literally, they have not built valid theories at all.
Scientists have built castles in the sky.
But look, you can’t blame them. To a degree, we actually need these castles. Even though it makes absolutely no sense from a quantum physical standpoint, when you turn the handle of a door, it almost always opens. When you consider what’s happening at the quantum level, the kind of indeterminacy that’s present there, it’s pretty magical that it happens at all.
It’s almost enough to make you think we live in an intelligent universe. Almost.
The main argument against this is known as the “anthropic principle”. According to this, it is obvious that we would find all — over 200 —highly specific physical conditions amenable to supporting life. If it wasn’t that way, we simply wouldn’t be here to observe it.
But the probability of us just being the lucky few, standing on top of an infinity of possibilities, who made it into a universe capable of supporting life is…effectively zero, so I wouldn’t exactly call that a strong argument.
Going back to my earlier point: we simply can’t walk around all day not using any constructed models. We’d be non-functional.
But as humans — and scientists are almost always humans — our minds grasp at understanding. We think that, if we could understand the world better, then we could make it a more enjoyable place to live. At a very subconscious level, understanding gives us security.
So, to scientists everywhere: use your models, make your predictions, engage in behaviour in accordance with these predictions. Just don’t construct a belief system out of them.
Beliefs are the antithesis of science — they are what form when you’ve decided you have an answer and stopped looking at any more evidence — but it’s what humans default to almost every time.
Not having a belief system is unsettling; it feels like we’re on shaky ground.
And the truth is: we are. We need to get used to that.
The future of physics is not going to get any simpler to understand — time and time again quantum weirdness has reared its head. It is here to stay. We have to accept that our brains most likely didn’t evolve to have the capacity to understand our universe at its deepest level.
Our Newtonian brains just can’t stretch that far. (Not without breaking Hooke’s Law, anyway).
We have to have some humility. Admit that we might just be unable to understand how the universe really works, but give thanks for the fact that at our level, things still seem to mostly work as though they do, more or less, make sense.
Even though it makes absolutely no sense from the perspective of quantum mechanics.
In other words, become a true scientist.
A Not-knower. A Maybe-so-er.
Someone who makes observations the universe and attempts to make predictions based on them, but who never says they understand the way something works. Because around the next corner there could always be something that says, “Nah, I don’t behave like that. I don’t fit that model.”
And that is exactly what has been happening for the last 100 years. In the early 1900s, the universe said, “No, you guys don’t get me.” And the scientists responded with, “Yes we do, yes we do. Just let us think this over some more.” And the universe said, “No, you really don’t get me.”
And scientists have been struggling to pretend ever since.
I’m not saying stop trying.
Definitely keep trying.
I’m just saying: I don’t think our brains evolved to be able to understand the universe at its deepest level. We’ll just be encountering weird stuff that makes absolutely no sense to us. We’ll just have to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, fuck, this science tool is really useful, but it’s not going to give us the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything.”
Because how could it?
How could an investigative method within the system it’s investigating ever claim absolute knowledge about the nature of the system itself? It’s a logical impossibility.
I think it’s time for scientists to acknowledge this and say, yep, we won’t ever get ultimate answers, but at least what we’re doing here is pretty damn useful for us.
And now for the good news: there is a solution to all this, and it solves all these dilemmas. It’s called the “biocentric” or consciousness-centric universe.
Championed by Robert Lanza, whom the New York Times called one of the three most important scientists alive today, this is the approach it suggests: coming at the universe from a consciousness standpoint instead of an inanimate physical or energy standpoint. It explains away every single problem quantum mechanics has thrown at physicists for the last century.
As Lanza states: “It becomes clear why space and time, and indeed the properties of matter themselves depend on the observer.”
Obviously, Robert Lanza is a much better quantum physicist than I am and the explanation of his theory is a whole other article for a whole other day. For now, I’ll leave it to him to explain it himself. Take a look at the link in the attached bibliography.
Thanks for reading, and happy sciencing!
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