Everyone looks at the world, and their lives, assuming that they know the truth. This isn’t truth with a capital T but simply the truth about everyday things, like how to drive a car, buy groceries, and do one’s job. We know other basic things that are true, such as when we are awake as opposed to being asleep. In other words, the world works, more or less to our satisfaction.
Somewhere beyond everyday affairs there are experts, professionals, and thinkers who deal in deeper truths, still not with a capital T but getting closer. Scientists especially are trusted to give us the truth about Nature from the most microscopic regions of quanta to the most cosmic regions, where quasars and black holes exist. We trust that if the everyday world is working, science must have a handle on why it works, operating from its deeper perspective.
So it comes as something of a shock, even though it doesn’t touch us personally, that the scientific view of the world is so wobbly that it is on the verge of becoming either untrue or obsolete or both. At the farthest edges of exploration, the basic elements of physics—space, time, matter, and energy—vanish, either because they disappear into a black hole or because the scale of measurement reaches the limit, known as the Planck scale, where there is no way to calculate anything. At the same time there is the whole issue of dark matter and energy, which are barely known and may not be knowable by the human mind, since our brains are set up for regular matter and energy.
Because the scientific world stops working so far away from everyday life, including the everyday life of 99.99% of professional scientists, why should anyone but cosmologists, quantum physicists, and abstract theoreticians care? Even they rely upon their cars to get to the places where they do their advanced theoretical thinking.
The reason we should care has to do with that elusive thing, truth with a capital T. When it felt secure about space, time, matter, and energy (i.e., ever since Galileo and Newton), science thought it was getting closer to truth with a capital T, otherwise known as the Theory of Everything. If you know that the world, including the human brain, is totally based on material things, eventually you can compute every natural process, and you could declare that everything has been explained.
But if there are all kinds of things that do not have a material explanation, you are back at square one, because truth with a capital T is actually where our models of the world come from. In an age of faith God was truth with a capital T. Posit the existence of God, totally believe in this model of reality, and you are set until something comes along to disprove your model.
Science felt that it disproved the existence of God, because God isn’t subject to scientific measurement, data collecting, experiments, and the replication of experimental results. But there are other things besides God that are disproving science. Maybe black holes, dark matter and energy, and the origin of the universe will one day be squeezed back into some kind of materialistic model, but it is clear that one thing—the mind—cannot.
In a recent dialogue with the farseeing cognitive psychologist Donald D. Hoffman, we started from a premise that will shock most people. The objects we perceive around us only exist because our perception is trained to perceive them. There are no atoms, quarks, quasars, trees, clouds, or even the human brain, without humans constructing them to fit our way of navigating the world. Prof. Hoffman’s view is based on evolution. His basic premise is that creatures survive not by seeing reality but by adapting to survival signals. A cat will ignore everything in a room except a mouse, driven to catch and eat it. If the cat paid attention to reality, i.e., everything in the room, it would have gone extinct long ago.
Humans beings are more complex in our evolution, because so much of it is based on the higher brain, but we still only perceive the tiniest fraction of electromagnetic frequencies, for example, and hear only a middle slice of sound frequencies. Using our higher brains we have constructed a human world, and as long as it works, we feel okay. We are not overly concerned that we cannot see the infrared spectrum or hear the ultrasonic spectrum.
No one would disagree that humans have our own specific models of reality, but the niggling problem of truth with a capital T enters the picture. If you trust your five senses to bring you the “real” world, your notion of truth with a capital T has no basis, because when you trace sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell back to the brain, the trail ends. As Prof. Hoffman puts it, despite decades of effort and the input of brilliant neuroscientists and related cognitive sciences, no one has shown that any brain activity can be measured scientifically to cause a single thing we perceive “out there” in the world.
The brain is certainly active all the time, but it is dark, soundless, and silent. There is no way to get at truth with a capital T when you start with the brain.
So, if God is no longer truth with a capital T, and the material-physical basis of science is quickly losing its grip on truth with a capital T, what does reality actually rest on? This is a fascinating question, because only when the world stops working can you see beyond false assumptions and old conditioning to get a view of the truth. The purpose of this post is simply to get us to that point. In the next post we’ll see how the truth and reality can be reframed in a way that makes our persona lives quite different from what we assume them to be.
(To be cont.)Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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