“What is consciousness if you cannot poke it with your finger?”
During a moment of classroom epiphany in 2004, Erin, an honors student at James Madison University, spontaneously put her finger on science’s most perplexing question and why science was loath to take the bait.
For all their erudition, scientists are not unlike the seven-year-old who stumbles upon a toad in her path and succumbs to the temptation to poke the creature to learn something about it in the process. Indeed, experimental physics is a formalized way of poking things and evaluating the responses. In the abstract, an experiment requires just three essential ingredients: energy, object, and detector. Energy is directed at the object, some fraction strikes the detector, and something is gleaned about the object from the pattern of transmitted or returned energy.
Ernest Rutherford’s iconic atom-probing investigations of 1911 were vintage “poke-and-watch” experiments. When Rutherford hurled minuscule “alpha” particles at presumably solid gold foil, most passed through unimpeded. Occasionally, a rare alpha bounced back. An astounded Rutherford mused, “It was as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you!” He concluded that atoms, the building blocks of matter, are more than 99.9 percent emptiness.
The material world of Rutherford’s investigation has remained the principal domain of science since the 17th century, when French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596–1650) partitioned the cosmos into distinct magisteria: the res extensa (i.e., matter) and the res cogitans (i.e., mind). Rendered asunder, philosophy diverged. Natural philosophy—modern-day science—claimed matter as its domain. Philosophy claimed mind. An uneasy truce prevailed, seeding mistrust between reason, the principal tool of science, and intuition, that of spirituality.
The “Galileo affair” of 1616-1633 deepened that mistrust, driving a wedge between science and religion that persists to this day. Summoned before the Inquisition at 70 years of age, the once-mighty Galileo was reduced to a shell and barely survived. His crime: the promotion of Copernicanism.
“Of all discoveries and opinions,” observed Goethe, “none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus.” By shifting from a geocentric cosmological perspective to a heliocentric one, Nicolaus Copernicus, literally made the earth move. The publication of Copernicus’s masterpiece, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), launched a revolution in cosmology that dislodged humans from the center of the cosmos and exploded the size of the known universe. Big Bang cosmology and enthralling deep-space images from the Hubble Telescope are but modern aftershocks of the seismic paradigm shift unleashed by Copernicus.
“[Darwinism],” observed Freud, “was the second … blow to human narcissism.” Prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), humans sat atop a pinnacle of divine creation. Origin and its sequel, the Descent of Man (1871), displaced humans from that seat of high honor, relegating us to one branch of a “tree of life,” no different in kind from other living organisms, only in degree.
Science and religion—long separated—divorced after Darwin. The back-to-back punches thrown by Copernicus and Darwin disfigured the human face in the mirror of self-perception. Are we not what we thought we were, the focus of the physical and biological universes? The message from science is strangely dissonant to that of religion, which proclaims our divine origins and exalted status. It is like having two parents, one who underscores our uniqueness and the other our commonness. Which are we to believe?
Much of Western dysfunction can be traced to the tragic choice “between an antiscientific philosophy and an alienating science.” Besieged by crises on multiple fronts—ecological, economic, political, and moral—we humans struggle at a time of “historic confusion.” “We are in trouble just now,” observed the late eco-theologian Thomas Berry, “because we do not have a good story. We are between stories.” Mercifully, like morning fog, that confusion may be lifting as humanity enters a third great “Copernican” revolution.
The central scientific challenge facing 21st-century science is the problem of consciousness. That science finds itself exploring the nature of mind comes unexpectedly. First, mind appears to be resolutely immaterial; science can’t poke it with a metaphorical finger. Second, mind as a domain of inquiry has been off-limits to science since Descartes.
In actuality, there are two problems of consciousness: the “easy” problem and the “hard” one. The first concerns how sensory perception correlates with neural activity. Twenty-first century imaging techniques allow modern Magellans—cartographers of the neural realm—to map brain function at a submicron level of resolution. Progress is rapid, and it is virtually certain that the “easy” problem will be solved.
The “hard” problem is altogether else. In a nutshell: “Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world.” How do physical stimuli generate subjective experience? Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why RED. The mind is not a tabula rasa. Uninterpreted sensory input is useless, “less than a dream,” observed Immanuel Kant. In today’s lingo, uninterpreted sensation is noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image, or caresses devoid of care. Mind and brain are not synonyms.
Lured into the study of consciousness by the Trojan horse of physics—quantum mechanics—science has entered no-man’s land. At the quantum level, the world turns topsy-turvy. Matter looks like Swiss cheese, mostly holes. Worse, matter has an alter ego: energy. Matter, it seems, is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter. Moreover, there is the immensely troubling duality of matter/energy, revealed by “double-slit” experiments with light or electrons. Electrons, for example, manifest sometimes as particles—which are localized in space—and sometimes as waves—which are distributed, but never as both simultaneously. What then is an electron when it behaves as a wave? Physicists concede that an electron’s wavelike nature expresses its tendency to exist when observed. The dissolution of the material world into probabilities led Einstein—a strict determinist—to grumble, “I would rather be a cobbler … than a physicist.”
Dominating the landscape of quantum mechanics is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that one can never know simultaneously the velocity and position of a quantum object. You can know where it is, but not where it’s going. Or where it’s going, but not where it is. Whatever the experimentalist does to determine the one destroys the determination of the other. On this virtually all physicists agree: the uncertainty principle collapses the Cartesian partition. “The very act of observing,” articulated Heisenberg, “alters the object being observed.” Subject and object interact. Mind and matter are not disjoint as Descartes presumed. “It would be most satisfactory of all,” envisioned Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli, “if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.”
By forcing a schism between scientific and religious worldviews, Copernicus and Darwin upset our perceptual cosmos. In the new physics, however, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to once again take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air. Philosophy—the love of wisdom—may once again become whole.