Okay, here’s a nerdy post that will get you thinking…
About the nature of reality.
And the limits of science.
And what we believe exists…
If you’re here, you probably believe in some kind of spiritual reality.
That there’s more to the world than what you see.
And you’ve probably wondered if any of those beliefs are at odds with current science…
Or questioned whether this is all there is…
Even if it was only for a moment.
I’ve written before about how there’s no real conflict between science and spirituality.
About how the problem is with materialism.
But science has become so infected with materialist philosophy, that it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins…
Particularly if you don’t have a passion for theoretical physics. (And sometimes even then!)
If you’ve spent any time at all exploring altered states of consciousness…
Or trying to describe your experiences to a non-spiritual friend…
You’ve been confronted with the opinion that everything that you described was just brain states and neurochemistry.
Nothing but molecules of emotion, inspiring a delusion of something more.
It’s the favored argument of zealous materialists everywhere.
But before we resign ourselves to a life of rocks and dust—of physical matter and energy—it’s good to take stock of where we’re at.
And examine just how much we actually know about rocks and dust (and brains) in the first place!
The Universe So Far
You may have heard the current estimates, that visible matter and energy make up less than 5% of the universe.
It’s not an appealing number for folks who thought that science was on the edge of a final answer…
But the better our technology gets, the more that we can see.
And the further out we look, the more we see things bending and moving in ways that they shouldn’t…
So, like it or not, it seems that 5% is the number that we’re stuck with.
And the other 95%?
Well, we’ve got some tentative theories… but we’re not really sure!
You also may remember that we have four forces of nature…
Gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.
At least, that’s what we call them right now…
It’s not that there are really four forces of nature.
That number just reflects our current understanding.
Back before we discovered the nuclear forces, we had two.
And before that—before Maxwell’s theories connected electricity and magnetism—we had three.
In the future it will change again… Up or down. (Probably both.)
But most physicists believe that we will eventually have a unified theory of physics.
Where all of the interactions of nature will be revealed as elegant expressions of a single underlying symmetry.
Of course, it’s possible that this isn’t true…
That nature is just intrinsically fractured.
But it’s hard to believe that the universe is actually uglier than our own ideas!
If anything, it should be the other way around!
So let’s just assume that they’re right—that that underlying beauty is there—and that we’ll eventually discover the elusive symmetry that connects it all.
But for now, this is where we sit…
Four forces. And 5% of the universe.
Now, materialists believe that physical matter and energy are the only things that exist.
Some of it may be “dark”… Some of it may be visible…
But whatever the details—whatever the numbers—that’s all there is.
Because if we can’t observe something in any way… Even if it’s indirectly… Then why should we believe that it exists at all?
And that’s not a terrible place to start.
The ancient world was rife with metaphysical clutter…
Ideas that either needed to be cut loose, or backed up with something more substantial than “the word of God” or the weight of tradition.
Do we really need evil spirits to explain disease? Or a Prime Mover to turn the stars?
The myths of the premodern world have been banished from the realm of science, and materialism has sped that process along.
And for the most part, science is better off for it.
The problem is that we adopted a single criterion to determine what stayed and what went…
Everything that we could see—through microscope or telescope—fell into the realm of science.
Anything that we couldn’t was cast out of the kingdom forever.
And so science became the study of physical matter and energy…
But few people bothered to ask what “physical matter” actually was—or how we were observing it.
The answer was simply assumed…
Physical matter is what exists. And we are observing it directly!
Unfortunately, that belief is just one more bit of metaphysical clutter that should have been left in the ancient world…
Seeing is Believing
If there were ever a single cliché that could capture both the liberating insight, and the reductionist pathology of contemporary science—this would have to be the one…
Seeing is believing.
And that’s the whole problem in a nutshell.
When materialism took up Ockham’s razor—and began hacking away at everything in its path—it never stopped to ponder what that fabled razor was made of.
Or where this all was headed.
It just got straight to sorting…
If it could see it with its eyes, or kick it with its foot, or examine it under a microscope, or observe it through a telescope—then it was “real.”
If it couldn’t—then the razor was put to work.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t make science the standard for determining what’s real.
It makes electromagnetism the standard for determining what’s real.
And that’s an entirely different measure…
When we look out at the world around us, we are not seeing the world itself.
We are seeing light.
We are seeing electromagnetism in action.
The same is true of our scientific observations.
When we send satellites into orbit to observe the furthest reaches of the cosmos, we are using electromagnetism to gather the information.
When we use electron microscopes and particle accelerators to reveal the nuances of quantum field theory, we are using electromagnetism to gather the information.
When we split lasers to discover the gravitational waves rippling through the Earth, we are using electromagnetism to gather the information.
Stubbed your toe on the coffee table? Electromagnetism.
No matter how or where we collect our scientific data, we are using electromagnetism to do it.
We even use electromagnetism to observe the other three forces.
Not surprisingly, every last one of them appears to be damned mysterious…
We use electromagnetism to observe the effects of gravity, and we are baffled by the motions of distant galaxies. (And discover that we don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of.)
We use electromagnetism to observe the nuclear interactions, and we puzzle over things like quark confinement and weak symmetry violations. (And wind up with two extra forces of nature.)
It’s kind of humbling, isn’t it?
Realizing that everything that science has accomplished… boils down to one of four interactions… that only applies to 5% of reality… to observe approximately 0%… of a potentially infinite universe!
But here’s the thing…
The situation is actually worse than that…
Because that’s all based on what we know so far!
If there’s really a unified theory in our future…
If nature is not fundamentally fractured…
Then we’re not just using one fundamental interaction to study the other three.
We’re not discovering two kinds of stuff in the universe. A familiar kind that’s us, and a majority that’s dark.
It means that electromagnetism is just one facet of a deeper, more beautiful symmetry.
It means that, through that symmetry, everything interacts with everything else.
It means that there aren’t two kinds of stuff in the universe.
And that means that we have no fucking idea who, or what, we are!
Because we didn’t just adopt electromagnetism as our sole means of observing physical matter…
…and you should read this next line twice, just to make sure that it sinks in…
We used it to define physical matter in the first place!
So what is a brain, anyway?
We’ve all grown accustomed to the idea that electrical impulses are responsible for our awareness.
And that chemical compounds are the source of our emotions.
We see sparks of static electricity, and bolts of lightning, and imagine that the same crackling energy flickers within us…
Illuminating bits of gray matter, and spurring thoughts into existence.
But what are electrical impulses and chemical compounds?
Identifying these factors in our brains may be a monumental achievement in the pursuit of practical medicine, but it tells us absolutely nothing at a philosophical level.
If we follow the concepts of neurophysiology to their most basic foundation, we are not left with a periodic table and a string of DNA.
We are left with philosophy.
With assumptions about space and time and “property.”
With four irreconcilable forces of nature.
And a definition of “matter” that’s hovering at around 1% of what it should be.
We aren’t just studying our brains.
We’re defining what a brain is.
Poke it… Measure it… Weight it… Scan it… Zoom in closer… Slice it all to pieces…
It’s electromagnetism in action.
But do we really think that we’re seeing the whole picture?
Why would “normal matter” only make up 5% of the universe—but make up 100% of us?
Are we really that special?
And what happens when it turns out that physics is unified after all?
Even now, we have to admit that what we call a “brain” isn’t actually a brain. It’s just the portion of a brain that interacts electromagnetically.
(And, if the rest of the universe is any indication, that could turn out to be a very small potion.)
And that leaves room for some really cool possibilities…
What if nonphysical realities are just as ill-defined as our physical one?
…Given that we still define them as “nonphysical,” is it even possible that they aren’t?
What if our spiritual experiences are just as real as any other?
…What if it turns out that there is no meaningful distinction?
What if terms like spiritual and physical are just more lingering, metaphysical clutter?
Brave but faltering attempts to describe a single, elegant universe?
What if we’re living in a vast and beautiful landscape?
One that extends far beyond what we can see?
A tiny part, of an unfathomable ecology?
At home in the universe?
Yet somehow strangers to ourselves?
If you liked this post, please consider sharing, along with a brief comment of what you thought… It doesn’t sound like much. But these small gestures make a tremendous impact on building our community, and helping other wayward rebels find a perspective that they can resonate with.
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In any case, thanks so much for stopping by! – \m/ – Z
About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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