Letter to Adam Becker, Author, What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
Visiting Scholar, Office for History of Science and Technology
University of California, Berkeley
Science has staked its legitimacy on sensory perception -- the observation and measurement of quantifiable matter -- as the sole arbiter of reality. Matter at the level of quanta has revealed that it is not bound by the reality so defined. The logical foundation that science has chosen for itself, and the material reality it stands for, is called into question.
There being no alternative reality for which sensory perception can serve as proof, science must turn to systems thinking to understand its discoveries. Metaphysics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the logic of reality, belongs in the conversation. This should include ontology, the branch of metaphysics concerned with the logic of being. The dynamics of human motivation, personal growth, feelings, and relationships come into play, and this involves psychology. Yet another field to consult is theology, because it offers insights into mind that orders all forms of creation.
Yesterday, I submitted a letter to the Mind / Brain Editor of Scientific American commenting on an article by a neuroscientist, Christof Koch. His article, “Tales of the Dying Brain,” prompted my letter because it adheres to the article of faith in sensory perception that has rooted science in subjectivity and irrationality from the beginning, and I believe the time has come to place it on firmer logical ground.
My letter cites two invaluable sources: Your own What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics and Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Both you and Rovelli appear troubled, as Einstein was, by matter that doesn’t respect science’s article of faith. Both, commendably, encourage physics to follow the trail wherever it leads, Rovelli with an open appeal for help from philosophy. But while you're both alert to the question of material reality, neither appears willing to question your faith -- to question the role of traditional physics and its dependence on sensory perception.
My letter to Scientific American suggests that the world revealed beyond matter, through quantum mechanics, and the dying brain, through near-death experiences, is one of two competing realities, only one of which can be real. Hawking was unapologetic in championing his profession's bias in favor of sensory perception. It was his, and yours and Rovelli’s prerogative, to do so. But it comes at a cost. Science insisting on the incorrect reality, in service to its institutional purposes, leads human understanding down the wrong road.
It leads to incorrect conclusions devoid of meaning and purpose. Add to this the cost of not leading human understanding toward correct conclusions that awaken us to meaning and purpose. Quantitative science measures. It doesn't evaluate. The courageous and talented physicists whose work is highlighted in your book are an inspiration. But they and their work -- their profession -- can't be the source of "meaning" in quantum physics. For this, we need other sources.
Weaning science off rigid dependence on sensory perception must be a paradigm shift too far or it would have happened over a century ago. I do not make light of yours or science’s institutional self-interests. But more than Professor Koch’s article, it is the state of our world that says it’s time for change, and what must change is our thinking. What must change is for theorists in every field, like yourself, to state the obvious: that humanity is succumbing not only to mass irrationality but also to mass extinction, that it’s flawed reasoning that got us here, and we must shift to a new paradigm of thinking before it’s too late.
My letter to Scientific American alludes to attributes of mind -- “intuition” and “reason beyond appearances” – that can access the objectivity this new paradigm will need. They deserve an explanation, and, hopefully, they will get it in the book I’m preparing for publication, tentatively titled The Story of the Child. I have criticized science for overplaying the story of matter when it’s the story of mind that can guide us. My book is an attempt, from one individual’s perspective, to explain what it means to “tell the story of mind.”
With integrity, honesty, and humanity, you are no doubt making great progress in your work. I would be honored if my letter to Scientific American, which follows, and my book were any help. Science needs help from philosophy, and I am pleased to humbly offer one response.
David C. Harrison
June 1, 2020