Science and Spirit: A Troublemaker In The Cave (Part 2)

Recall that in Part I of this post, I discussed an option (ii) in which scientists make a non-scientific, metaphysical choice when they presume that scientific theories are only about the world of appearance (as opposed to a realm that may not be observable). Now, that is certainly a choice a scientist can make–but for it to be an intellectually responsible choice, the chooser must recognize that it is a metaphysical choice that goes well beyond anything mandated by the discipline of empirical science. This is because empirical science simply has nothing to say about whether there is any unobservable realm, and whether or not its theories refer to such a realm.

I’ll begin this second installment with a bad example of choice (ii) being made irresponsibly:

“The claim that the fields of modern physics have anything to do with the “field of consciousness” is false. The notion that what physicists call “the vacuum state” has anything to do with consciousness is nonsense. The claim that large numbers of people meditating helps reduce crime and war by creating a unified field of consciousness is foolishness of a high order. The presentation of the ideas of modern physics side by side, and apparently supportive of, the ideas of the Maharishi about pure consciousness can only be intended to deceive those who might not know any better. (Pagels).”

Not only does Pagels make a metaphysical (extra-scientific) assumption denying any possible understanding of physical theory as describing anything beyond the world of appearance, he even goes so far as to impute nefarious motives to those who do so. Let us return to the Plato’s Cave allegory to illustrate what is wrong with Pagels’ assertion.  Recall that in Plato’s Cave, there are prisoners chained so that they can only see one wall, and they think that the shadows on this wall are all that exist. (The following is my own version of the parable, of course.)


A Troublemaker in the Cave

Cast of Characters






Late evening, The Cave. The five prisoners are chatting.

Bohrus: Hey guys, I’ve come up with a theory that successfully accounts for what is happening on this wall with these moving shapes.

Suacus: Wow, great! Well done, Bohrus!

Bohrus: Hold on a minute, I’m not sure it’s good news. There are some strange discontinuities going on in these phenomena, at a level we can’t see clearly, and that doesn’t make sense to me. Also, the tiny shapes are not compatible with the big, spread-out shapes–we can never see them both at the same time.

Qbus: But when you apply your theory, it successfully describes our perceptions, doesn’t it?

Bohrus: Yes. I suppose we could just say that the shape world is Complementary.

Qbus: Great term, it has a nice ring to it. What do you think, Socrates?

Socrates: Well, looking at the mathematical structure of this theory, it has more than the 2 dimensions of this wall we’re looking at.

Suacus: So? It works, doesn’t it? Socrates, you are so annoying–always looking for trouble. Always stirring up the pot.

Socrates: Sorry. (Fiddles with chains.)

Same room in the Cave. The next morning.

Pageles: Hey, what were you guys chatting about last night? I dozed off early.

Suacus: You missed something great. Bohrus here developed a theory that successfully describes the behavior of these shapes on the wall. Now, if we want to predict what these shapes are doing, all we have to do is apply his theory. It’s awesome.

Bohrus: Aw Suacus, you’re too kind. I’m still a bit troubled by the perplexities of the theory. The formalism seems to involve invisible entities called Shuanta that seem to transcend the frame of this wall and give rise to mutually incompatible phenomena.

Qbus: But didn’t we decide to call that Complementarity? And isn’t your theory just about our perceptions? Isn’t that the whole lesson of your new theory, in fact? We should enlighten our colleagues with this new insight, and give it a name–maybe a combination of a great logician and a 20th century art movement, all wrapped up in one cool-sounding term.

Bohrus: Yes of course, you’re right. There is no Shuantum world. There is only my abstract Shuantum-Mechanical description.

Suacus: There ya go. It’s all good.

Pageles: Wow, I missed a lot. You guys are awesome. Count me in.

Bohrus: (Noticing dangling chains next to him) Hey, where’s Socrates?

Later that afternoon.

Socrates (rushing in breathlessly): Hey Bohrus! You know that theory you just came up with? Well I just saw the entities it’s describing! To see them, you have to go outside the Cave! There this bright light, I think it’s what the Mystics refer to as “Consciousness”– and all these huge, multidimensional objects that we can’t see in here. When the light shines on them, we see their shadows, but only one side at a time! That’s why you’re getting this ‘Complementarity’ thing!

Suacus: Goodness, Socrates! Sit down and get comfortable, put your chains back on, and stop talking nonsense.

Bohrus: We just decided there is no Shuantum World, so whatever you think you saw, you’re delusional.

Qbus: Yes, you’ve been talking to too many of those religious charlatans, and they’re messing with your head.

Pageles: We’ve all heard those stories about a strange invisible realm of higher beings and/or ‘consciousness’ that has somehow created all the phenomena we see here. But those are just superstitions and myths created by primitive, unscientific people. The claim that our scientific shadow-studies have anything to do with some domain outside this Cave is false. The notion that what we scientists call “shuanta” has anything to do with anything outside this wall is nonsense. The presentation of Bohrus’ theory side by side, and apparently supportive of, the ideas of the Mystics about a realm beyond the Cave can only be intended to deceive those who might not know any better. Now sit down and shut up, before we feed you hemlock.


Now, of course, Socrates might be wrong. He might be deluded. He may simply have drunk one too many Cave-Cocktails. But the point is that his scientific colleagues cannot use empirical science to make that judgment, one way or the other. And when they try to do that, they misuse their scientific authority by extending it beyond its legitimate purview.













5 thoughts on “Science and Spirit: A Troublemaker In The Cave (Part 2)

  1. Ruth, thank you for your continued attention to these fundamental issues in physics (and metaphysics).

    I’m curious to know how familiar you are with the work of physicist Ulrich Mohrhoff, who (influenced by the work of Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo) has arrived at the same conclusion you have as regards the existence of a “pre-spacetime” or a reality outside of spacetime, though not by way of the Possibilist Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics. He deduces it from the impossibility of any spacetime differentiation “all the way down” to the quantum level of reality, which he refers to as “Being” in the process of manifesting itself. But he, too, notes that that other, more fundamental reality cannot be known in any directly observable way and the best we can hope for is that the models we come up with agree with our best scientific empiricism.

    In any case, again, thank you for bringing these ideas to a wider audience. Including me.

    1. Thanks very much Mike. I had an exchange with Mohrhoff quite some time ago concerning his earlier ideas, which I thought were flawed, and I’ve addressed those in several publications (e.g., . I am not familiar with his recent work, but it certainly does sound as though he is reaching the same basic conclusion that I am regarding the sub-empirical, pre-spacetime nature of quantum reality.

  2. Hi, Ruth–I told you I was looking forward to this installment back in September, but I only just saw it today. (As you might have guessed, I’ve been doing some editing on my book.) Your comments on intellectually irresponsible statements reminds me of one I’ve always considered spectacularly irresponsible, though the name of the fellow who made it eludes me at the moment. In any case, he was a cosmologist who listed as his “1st rule of cosmology”–‘There is nothing outside the universe; the universe is everything there is.’ (The obvious reply is, ‘Ever been out there?’) I actually laughed when I read that “1st rule”–though I suppose one could justify it by saying that the concept of the universe should always be expanded to include anything that exists, even if we were previously unaware of it or can never observe it. Still, I took his meaning to be–‘Don’t go looking for anything mystical; science has disproven it’, when all things mystical are, by their very definition, impossible to prove or disprove.
    Another thing I’ve been thinking of (in fact this is also in my book): it is possible ‘to listen to’ a favorite piece of music in one’s mind entirely without sound waves (and in fact the first person to hear the Ode to Joy couldn’t hear it at all). I’m thinking that the ’empiricism-only’ viewpoint MUST struggle with phenomena like this!

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