Science and Spirit: Two Sides of the Coin of Understanding(Part I)

  1. The Boundary: Scientific vs. Philosophical or Spiritual Inquiry

It might be said that religion begins where science ends. And it may be turning out that quantum theory has indeed taken us to that point. But first of all, let’s take a quick look at what science is. Science is fundamentally about the observable world — it’s about what we can collectively observe and measure, and about which we have some basis for supposing that we’re all looking at the same thing and seeing it in essentially the same way. Thus, it is fundamentally based on a clear subject-object distinction, where in general many inquiring subjects (theorists and experimenters) are analyzing and measuring the same object. However, as we move to smaller and smaller scales of observation, we find that this is not so easy or straightforward to do; and this is because we run into a fundamental problem with our usual assumption that we can separate our modes of detection (which is required for any observation) from what it is we are trying to observe.

At the quantum level, ‘objects’ behave in what is called a ‘contextual’ manner. That is, they exhibit different kinds of behavior based on how we choose to measure them. This is the well-known ‘wave-particle duality’, in which a quantum object such as an electron will exhibit wavelike interference in an experiment designed to measure its wavelike (extended, non-localized) properties, but it will exhibit particle-like behavior (such a spot on a detection screen) in an experiment designed to localize it. This tells us that the same underlying reality (electron as a quantum system) can give rise to very different phenomena, and that we can never ‘pin down’ that underlying reality to one unambiguous phenomenon. This is not just a pragmatic difficulty: the theoretical description of the underlying reality — the so-called ‘wave function’ that is the solution to the Schrodinger equation of quantum theory — has a mathematical property that literally says that the electron is neither a wave nor a particle, but potentially both.

“Potentially” is the operative word here. Werner Heisenberg, a key pioneer of quantum theory, had this to say about quantum objects described by this ‘wave function’ or ‘probability wave’: “The probability wave …was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality. [1]

He also put it this way:

Atoms and the elementary particles themselves… form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than things of the facts.”[2]

By “things of the facts,” Heisenberg meant the empirically observable world–the world of appearance. Thus, he understood that quantum theory was pointing to something beyond the world of appearance, and in order to do that, he was allowing for the possibility that reality consists of more than the world of appearance. In doing so, he was of course venturing beyond empirical science and into philosophical territory. And of course, beyond the purely philosophical lies the domain of spiritual inquiry.

  1. Appearance vs Reality

In the West, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato already had useful insights into this distinction between the observable and the unobservable levels of reality. He said that reality consisted of two different levels: (i) the level of appearance and (ii) the level of fundamental reality–the underlying, hidden reality, which he conceived of as a realm of “Perfect Forms.” His famous allegory of the The Cave was designed to illustrate this distinction. In this story, prisoners are chained deep in a cave, facing a wall on which shadows are cast. The wall is all that they can see, and the phenomena on the wall seem to them to be their entire reality. However, unbeknownst to the prisoners, just outside the mouth of the cave there is a bright light, and people are coming and going between the light and the prisoners, carrying various objects whose shadows are cast on the wall. For Plato, the exterior of the cave, the objects being carried by the people, and the bright light comprise the hidden world of perfect forms (the fundamental reality), while the wall upon which the prisoners gaze is our ordinary world of experience.

We encounter the same contrast between a fundamental, unmanifest reality and an emanated, manifest world of appearance in the Vedic concept of ‘Maya’. While this term has been used in various ways throughout the Easten world, one of its chief uses is to denote the world of appearance as distinct from–and even as obscuring–the underlying, hidden reality. As mythologist Wendy Doniger observes, “to say that the universe is an illusion (māyā) is not to say that it is unreal; it is to say, instead, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is something constantly being made. Māyā not only deceives people about the things they think they know; more basically, it limits their knowledge.”[3] This is very similar to Plato’s allegorical warning that we are deceived when we take the phenomenal ‘shadow play’ as the final story about reality.

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant also distinguished two fundamental aspects of objects: (1) the object of appearance and (2) the ‘thing-in-itself’, apart from its appearances, which he stated was unknowable. Kant used the Greek term ‘noumenon’ for this second unseen aspect of an object, which translates roughly as ‘object of the mind’. Kant also proposed that there are ‘categories of experience’ that make knowledge of the world of appearance possible. But, unlike Plato and the Eastern philosophers and theologians, Kant assumed that “knowledge” was only about the world of appearance–he held that the world of noumena was unknowable. Kant’s ‘categories of experience’ consisted of concepts like space, time, and causality. But we should take note that Kant proclaimed that Euclidean space was an ‘a priori’ category of understanding, meaning a necessary concept behind any knowable phenomenon—an assertion which has since been decisively falsified by relativity’s non-Euclidean accounts of spacetime. This error illustrates the danger of making categorical assumptions about what principles are required (or conversely, are to be excluded) in order for gaining knowledge about reality, whether at the level of appearance or otherwise.

Twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell also had some interesting things to say about the distinction between appearance and reality. In the first chapter of his book, The Problems of Philosophy, he takes us on an exploration of an ordinary table, which leads to an unexpected puzzle. He notes that the table appears differently depending on the conditions under which we observe it, and even to different people who may have different visual capabilities. Finally, he says:

“the real shape[of the table] is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see. And what we see is constantly changing shape as we move about the room so that here again the senses seem not to give us the truth about the table itself, but only about the appearance of the table. Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table, and also upon what part of the body we press with. Thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, which is not actually apparent in any of them. … it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by site or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Thus, two very difficult questions at once arise: (i) is there a real table at all? (ii) If so, what sort of object can it be?”[4]

Recall that this was the same contrast that Plato highlighted in his allegory of The Cave. He noted that the world of appearance is quite different from the real world or the underlying reality–just as, according to the concept of maya, reality is not what it appears to be. Bertrand Russell laid out quite effectively how hard it is to actually know anything about the underlying reality: something as trivial and obvious as a table has been analyzed to the point where it seems to have almost disappeared; we are having trouble getting at what the real table is, or even whether there really is one at all.

This is a notorious problem in philosophy, and there are various approaches to solving this problem and perhaps getting around it. There are a great many modern philosophers who feel that they may have resolved this problem by revising the whole way that we approach the question of how we know about the “real table” that we think is out there. But the bottom line is that we have to take into account that what is directly accessible to us, especially as scientists, is the world of appearance. Western empirical science is first and foremost about the world of appearance by definition, because it’s about what we can observe. In that respect, it must be limited to the ‘Cave.’ It is very hard to justify, within empirical science, saying anything at all about the reality that underlies the appearances.

On the other hand, it is Western science that came up with quantum theory, which ironically seems to point to a domain outside the Cave, in that the mathematical properties of the theory dictate that what it describes is not something that can be contained within the Cave! This is the fundamental source of the controversy over the interpretation of quantum theory–it is why many practitioners of quantum theory wish to deny that the theory actually describes anything real. To do so would be to admit that ‘reality’ must go beyond the Cave-world of appearance.

Thus, while science as a system of knowledge is very rigorous and capable of providing us with well corroborated theories, when we want to talk about those theories as providing facts, we need to take into account that what we take as facts have to be limited to the world of appearance. When we consider using science to talk about an underlying reality, we enter into some very difficult and puzzling issues –and much attendant controversy–because we are faced with a choice: either (i) to acknowledge that science cannot answer all our questions about reality, or (ii) if we want to insist that it does, to make a philosophical (as opposed to scientific!) choice that all there is to reality is the world of appearance. The reason that (ii) cannot be a purely scientific choice is that empirical science, being limited to the world of appearance, cannot itself determine whether or not there is an aspect of reality beyond the world of appearance! If we opt for (i), as scientists and as philosophers of science, we celebrate the power and utility of science, but we acknowledge its limitations as well. In the next installment, we’ll look more closely at the pitfalls of opting for (ii), especially without being aware that doing so goes well beyond science.

[1] Heisenberg, W. (2007). Physics and Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (1986). Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities. University of Chicago Press, p. 119.

[4] Russell, B. (1912). The Problems of Philosophy. Public Domain.

[5] As quoted in Jammer, M. (1993). Concepts of Space: the History of Theories of Space in Physics. New York: Dover Books. p. 189.




10 thoughts on “Science and Spirit: Two Sides of the Coin of Understanding(Part I)

  1. Eric Dietrich and Chris Fields have a wonderful essay on the way in which science generates “limit paradoxes” — close attention to our reality as human beings ultimately undermines that very reality:

    Click to access limits-pre.pdf

    The question that I always have with regard to such challenging but important ideas as you express here and in your Possibilist Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics is: How much can we ever accurately say anything about what constrains the “possible”? That is, according to such ideas, the evidence of our senses always underdetermines “reality,” and the idea of quantum measurements opening the door to a directly inaccessible realm of possibility is truly paradoxical. Aren’t we really just watching what exits that door? We have only our best guesses as to how the door operates, our understanding of the possibilities beyond hinging on what will always be fragmentary data and our own mathematical self-confidence?

    Forgive me for offering a very detailed example of what I’m talking about, an apparent verification of the reality of a particular virtual particle as described by Gordon Kane:

    “At the LEP collider at the European particle physics laboratory CERN, millions of Z bosons–the particles that mediate neutral weak interactions–were produced and their mass was very accurately measured. The Standard Model of particle physics predicts the mass of the Z boson, but the measured value differed a little. This small difference could be explained in terms of the time the Z spent as a virtual top quark if such a top quark had a certain mass. When the top quark mass was directly measured a few years later at the Tevatron collider at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, the value agreed with that obtained from the virtual particle analysis, providing a dramatic test of our understanding of virtual particles.”

    Now, the mathematical formalism would seem to suggest that we can know the Z boson spent some time as a virtual top quark. But, again in a realm unfettered by such things as actualized spacetime transactions, why would we tie ourselves to the possibilities that one particular formalism has come up with? And certainly even the Standard Model has to be incomplete if dark matter really exists. Why didn’t the Z boson spend some time as something we have no mathematical formalism for (or otherwise engage in its own, inaccessible reality) but which still gets funneled into a particular kind of spacetime collapse/measurement? This just seems to me to be a natural question given possibilities which defy the limitations we can be sure of. Mustn’t there necessarily be possibilities unconfirmable as possible or impossible by way of our spacetime experiences?

    Again, more simply, how to constrain the “possible”?

    Thank you for your attention to this question. Sorry for its complicated length.

    1. Thanks Mike for your interesting question. I would make a distinction between general theories such as QM (together with its relativistic form as QFT) and the more specific models of particle species, such as the Standard Model. There are two levels of description here: the basic Hilbert (or Fock Space) structure of QM and particular applications of that structure to the kinds of fields we seem to find in Nature. I think the latter level is still a work-in-progress, as is evidenced by the quote from GK. Regarding dark matter/energy, the latter (“dark energy”) comes right out of a discrete spacetime such as emerges in PTI (this was pointed out by Sorkin et al in the context of their discrete causet model of spacetime). So my point here is that some aspects of physical theory are more speculative than others. The specific nature of the fields is not yet fully understood; while on the other hand there is little doubt about the basic vector space structure of quantum possibilities. It’s the latter than PTI addresses. Does this answer your question? If not, please ask again.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Ruth. I like your explaining how there are two distinct levels of description involved in the question I asked. Your comment that “some aspects of physical theory are more speculative than others” seems right on point to me.

    I think the risk I’m considering here is that the great human enterprise of understanding reality ends up spinning its intellectual wheels in a field of inquiry that is constrained only by human imagination. I know some physicists would argue that string and multiverse theories, supersymmetry, and maybe even the Everettian project have already gotten there, with a furious degree of ingenuity, mathematical sophistication and imagination unable to make effective contact with the evidence of our best scientific senses. As I’ve mentioned before, as a layperson I find PTI very intriguing and I guess I’m just a little preoccupied with that sometimes fretful distinction between scientific speculation and human imagination in all its astonishing breadth, wonder, and unreality.

    Thank you again for taking the time to respond to my perhaps naive query.

    1. Indeed, once science gets into theoretical constructions that cannot be empirically corroborated, we arrive at the very boundary of science. But I think there is a way to make real progress in theorizing without getting into speculations that cannot be grounded empirically. I think this is best captured by Feynman, who said in his Lectures on Physics: “Now in the further development of science, we want more than just a formula. First we have an observation, then we have numbers that we measure, then we have a law which summarizes all the numbers. But the real glory of science is that we can find *a way of thinking such that the law is evident.* ” (My emphasis) IMHO, TI is a ‘way of thinking’ such that the laws of quantum mechanics (especially the Born probability law) become evident (rather than just ad hoc laws that work). This is in contrast to theoretical constructions such as string theory, which doesn’t serve that same function–i.e. I don’t think one can say that string theory really explains a pre-existing set of empirically observed regularities.

  3. I’m looking forward to Part 2 of this. :) I thought you might want to know–I just finished the book you helped inspire, and it actually (amidst all its many absurdities–low humor, puns, pratfalls and obscure philosophical jokes) ended up focusing on the very sorts of things you discuss above. Incidentally, I did a lot more of my own thinking and research beyond our own conversations, and it ended up being 615 pgs. long (I have no idea how much longer that will be in book format). And there is a Bertrand Russell-like discussion in the novel–not of a table, but of a stop sign. Ultimately, my characters (and I) reach two possible conclusions: that the sign exists but not as an object of sensation–that it is red, in a sense, because its mathematical description says that it WILL be, but it isn’t truly red (as we understand red to be) until a conscious being experiences its redness. The second possibility is that it is truly red ‘even when no one is looking at it’ because redness is in some sense experienced by its constituent parts (presumably from the quantum level up), with the idea being that all ‘physical’ properties are, at the most basic level, purely mental sensations–though not necessarily OURS. The stop sign doesn’t require contact with a human consciousness to be red, because ultimately the stop sign IS consciousness.
    Oh–I didn’t set out to do this; it just kind of happened. A character in the book conceives of something very much like your quantum substratum, which she calls the Beautiful Background. If the visible universe is consciousness, she says, the Beautiful Background is the subconscious–though, of course, this does NOT mean that it is unconscious.
    Of course, I’m planning on giving you a dedication, when it is published. :)

  4. DrKastner,
    What a wonderful article! Clear,precise,inspiring…Reminded me
    of Russell’s style…
    Don’t you think that the argument that the universe must come from nothingness ,because quantum mechanics allows that something may sudenly appear in the vacuum,very naive?Yet respected scientists are often divulging it,as if it were an absolute truth!Isn’t that another example of denying the possibility of a reality outside the cave?

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