Dr. Joshua Mitteldorf - The Other Half of Science

Theoretical biologist - primary occupation these days: evolutionary biology

ScienceBlog, posted on December 31, 2017

This time each year, I take the liberty of posting something more speculative and personal. In this essay, I propose that everything we consider the "scientific world-view" is only half the story, and that science must expand its foundations if it aspires to be a complete account of reality.
A reductionist approach to science has become so ubiquitous that many scientists find it difficult to imagine that science can be done in any other way. Interactions among elemetary particles are the ultimate explanation, the only final cause. Biology can be reduced to chemistry. Chemistry is the science of large numbers of atoms, interacting according to the laws of quantum physics.

But reductionism is only a habit of the way we do science. It is logically possible that there are global laws, interconnections, entanglements; and that these are discoverable by investigation that is rigorously scientific .  Teleology is commonly dismissed as "unscientific", but it is precisely teleology that we may need to explain a host of diverse findings that conventional science has swept beneath the carpet.

One of my oldest friends is a professor of computer science at a great mid-western university. An Israeli-American, Uri is descended on his mother's side from an ancient line of Kabbalist mystics, but his philosophy is strictly materialist. He believes that "the mind is what the brain does", that the brain is a computer, and that electronic computers can be programmed to do anything that our brains can do. Like a great majority of computer scientists, he believes that subjective consciousness is something that arises when computation attains a certain kind of complexity.

Last summer, Uri told me a story from his youth. In college, he had dated a young woman, a passionate political activist. Years after he had lost touch with her, she sunk into depression with the election of Ronald Reagan. Uri awoke one night, sweating and screaming, from a nightmare in which she had jumped from a building. Though he had not talked to her in several years, he reached out and tried to contact her the next morning, and her parents informed him she had killed herself that very night, jumping from the window of her apartment. Uri was shaken at the time, but he has filed the experience in his memory as a coincidence, a curious anecdote with no particular message about the way our world works.

Sitting in a canoe, listening to Uri's story, I asked him if he thought an artificial intelligence might ever have such dreams. What would he think if his story and many like it were collected in a stastical database, and it could be demonstrated that such "coincidences" were far too frequent do be dismissed, that their composite probability was far rarer than "five sigma" (roughly "one chance in a million"), which is a conventional threshold for announcing that physics has discovered a new particle. He responded thoughtfully: He didn't have time to do that kind of analysis. It depends on so many people's stories, and people's memories of such things aren't so reliable. But if it could be established, he said, he would be forced to conclude there were new sub-atomic forces that brains can use to communicate, and that physics had not yet discovered. In any case, he was committed to the idea that reality is physical - space, time, matter and nothing else - and that every phenomenon of nature must be explainable in reductionist terms. By definition.

"Don't doubt the Creator, because it is inconceivable that accidents alone could be the controller of this universe."

- Isaac Newton

How Science came to be narrow-minded, with universal ambitious
Newton's scientific ambition was prodigious. He first conceived the idea that the universe was governed by precise mathematical laws that were independent of place and time. But he never imagined that physics was a complete picture of the world. It was only in the 19th Century that the idea took hold that physical law might explain everything. Science had been enormously successful in accounting for diverse phenomena, expanding again and again to explain more of our world. Then scientific philosophy made an audacious leap: Every phenomenon in our universe is regular. All of our experience can be accounted for in terms of deterministic mathematical laws.
Is this statement true? We all assume it is. But in fact, it is an empirical statement, a bold one, to be sure, and all the more reason it should be challenged and tested experimentally.

Of course, it's not literally true that two experimenters doing the same experiment always find the same result. There's experimental error-mistakes and misjudgments that enter any human enterprise. And in biology, there is the complication that no two organisms are exactly alike. These things were understood and accounted for in the Nineteenth Century. This was the time when "vitalism" was stripped out of biology, and living things were boldly assumed to depend on the same mechanistic laws as non-living matter. Biology was conceived to be built upon chemistry, and chemistry could be understood as the interactions of atoms. It was at the level of atomic physics that the Universal Machine operated in a manner precisely determined by mathematical laws.

But 20th Century science shattered determinism. The Scientific World-view retreated just far enough to allow for quantum randomness and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

"Philosophers have said that if the same circumstances don't always produce the same results, predictions are impossible and science will collapse. Here is a circumstance that produces different results: identical photons are coming down in the same direction to the same piece of glass. We cannot predict whether a given photon will arrive at A or B. All we can predict is that out of 100 photons that come down, an average of 4 will be reflected by the front surface. Does this mean that physics, a science of great exactitude, has been reduced to calculating only the probability of an event, and not predicting exactly what will happen? Yes. That's a retreat, but that's the way it is: Nature permits us to calculate only probabilities. Yet science has not collapsed."
- Richard Feynman

To Einstein's consternation, God does play dice with the world. When the Twentieth Century discovered quantum indeterminacy, most philosophers of science made the minimal modification to their deterministic picture. To them, the future state of the universe is determined by its present state plus pure chance. In this paradigm, there is nothing outside physics, or if there is such a thing as "soul" or "spirit" or "free will", it is irrelevant to science and to experience. It can have no observable effects, because the physical universe is a closed system, governed perfectly by a combination of deterministic laws and pure chance.

This is the philosophy of "materialism" or "physicalism" that has become synonymous with the scientific world-view today. But it is far more explicit than the original scientific world-view, which says only that our knowledge of the world depends on empirical observation plus mathematical logic. In fact, the original scientific world-view is a system for discovering truth, but it is silent about what that truth ought to be. This expanded scientific world-view is not just a statement about methods, but contains a description of the nature of the world. It is a scientific theory, in the sense that it says something about the empirical nature of reality. Like all scientific theories, the expanded scientific world-view can never be proven true, but it can be falsified by observation.
The original scientific world-view as bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment is an epistomology which we can accept or reject, but no arguments can be adduced for or against it. The expanded scientific world-view is a statement about the world, and we may legitimately ask, "Is it true?"

On the one hand, science seems to depend on reproducibility, at least in the statistical sense. If different experimenters at different times and places get different results from the same experiment, how can we ever hope to come to agreement about the world we live in? Reproducibility - in the expanded, statistical sense - seems to be a necessary feature of the world if we are to be able to study the world with science. On the other hand, we may treat reproducibility as an empirical question. Is it true that the same experiment always results in the same results, at least statistically? To rephrase more provocatively: Is it true that the universe is governed by scientific laws that always hold true, or are there exceptions and one-off happenings, things that occur sometimes but without a regularity we can codify?
We might ask, "are miracles real?" Should the scientific world-view take a firm stance on this issue and answer, "No!"? Or should science be open-minded, and consider the possibility that those who report miracles are not always deluded or mistaken?

Evidence that we need a new model
From one stage of our being to the next

We pass unconscious o'er a slender bridge,

The momentary work of unseen hands,

Which crumbles down behind us; looking back,

We see the other shore, the gulf between,

And, marvelling how we won to where we stand,

Content ourselves to call the builder Chance.

- James Russell Lowell

There is no shortage of credible reports that cannot be explained by the reductionist paradigm of science, but most have been shunted out of the mainstream journals, attacked or simply ignored.
Perhaps you have had a dream or premonition similar to Uri's. If not, you probably know someone who has. It has become common for scientists to dismiss "anecdotal evidence" without feeling a need to explain it. This comes from a ubiquitous assumption that all experiments are replicable - exactly the assumption which I think we need to challenge.

Daryl Bem is an emeritus professor in the Cornell Psychology Dept, recently retired after a long and distinguished career doing mainstream research about stimulus and response. In one of his last publications, he broke into a well-regarded psychological journal with an article that documented responses in human subjects that preceded the stimulus. This is precognition. The subject's subconscious knew or sensed what image was about to appear before him on a computer screen. Julia Mossbridge summarized a substantial body of research, which collectively corroborates the reality of precognition with 99.999999999% certainty.

Robert Jahn, retired dean of the engineering school at Princeton University stumbled (through his student's term project) upon evidence for the ability of human intention to affect probabilities that ought to be "quantum random". Jahn had the curiosity to investigate further.  When the anomaly wouldn't go away, he refined the experiment and collected data over 30 years, by which time his results had achieved 5-sigma statistical significance - on a par with evidence for the Higgs Boson. Jahn was ostracized and ridiculed, and colleagues began to discredit his work in aerospace engineering based on his willingness to openly consider the possibility that the human mind might be able to affect quantum processes outside the organism.

Dean Radin has conducted a broad array of experiments that demonstrate different aspects of telepathy, precognition and telekinesis. He has a background in physics, and routinely takes extraordinary measures to guarantee the isolation of his experiments from extraneous physical influences. In one recent project, he found that focused attention of a person who is not in physical contact with the equipment can shift interference fringes of laser light passing through two slits. This connection between thought and quantum is akin to results reported by Jahn.

Outside the world of parapsychology, there are uncontroversial animal behaviors that defy explanation. Fish, turtles and cetaceans routinely navigate thousands of miles through the ocean, their guidance system unknown to science. Each fall, a generation of Monarch butterflies is able to retrace the 2,000-mile migration path flown by their great, great, great grandparents six months earlier. Flatworms have been conditioned to respond to light, then they are ground up and fed to other flatworms, who acquire some of the conditioning through cannibalism [skeptic's account].

Dozens of labs around the world have successfully replicated the cold fusion experiments of Pons and Fleischmann. Reports of their work are sequestered in this on-line journal because mainstream physics journals have declared that cold fusion is impossible. In fact, there is nothing in fundamental physics that precludes cold fusion; it is, after all, a highly exothermic reaction, and the energy release is exactly as predicted. But cold fusion implies a new bulk quantum effect (akin to superconductivity, superfluidity and lasers) for which there is yet no theory. The physicist who taught me quantum mechanics at Harvard was a Nobel laureate who became irate when the American Physical Society refused to publish his proto-theory of cold fusion.

Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker are medical doctors who have each spent decades investigating cases "suggestive of reincarnation". Children recall past lives, with details about the circumstances of that life that are later corroborated. Stevenson noted the frequent presence of birthmarks where former selves suffered trauma at death. Helen Wambach and Carol Bowman have used hypnosis to help adults find access to information about past lives.
The ganzfeld protocol is the most reliable experimental procedure for demonstrating telepathy. A meta-analysis of 59 ganzfeld studies reports a combined success rate of 30% in identifying a target photograph when the chance hit rate should be 1 in 4. The improbability of this result has been calculated in different ways, with results from 10-12 to 10-8.

Through a glass darkly: Where post-reductionist science is headed
All the progress in science since the Enlightenment has built on a reductionist paradigm: breaking down the whole into parts, explaining the parts in terms of influences that are nearby in time and space. If this is not the whole story, then we might imagine there are relationships among distant events. There might be large-scale patterns that cannot be explained as "emergent" from local laws. There may be relationships that appear to us as retrocausality. There might be destiny.
It is clear to me that what physics calls "quantum random" is not random at all, but rather is determined non-locally, via quantum entanglement.  Events distant in time and space are linked in a manner that baffle our usual methods of scientific inquiry, but that may be discoverable by a new kind of science. There is nothing un-scientific about such a hypothesis, and in fact quantum mechanical "entanglement" suggests that such patterns must exist. David Bohm has laid foundations for a science based on holistic patterns in an Undivided Universe. He offers us a beginning toward understanding an "implicate order" that may complement the explicit order in time and space that is the basis of all of mainstream physics.

The Constellation, by Joan Miro
Possibly related is the idea that mind has an existence separate from matter, that free will operates in a sphere that is able to influence matter on a quantum level. This could be a resolution in Cartesian dualism of David Chalmers's hard problem. One link between the realm of the self outside of space and time and the realm of physical matter could be through the quantum mechanics of the brain. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have proposed a model. Stuart Kauffman cites evidence that neurotransmitters in the brain are poised on a quantum knife edge where their behavior is dictated either by randomness (in the conventional view) or could this be the portal by which intention enters into physical behavior?
It may turn out that life is not an opportunistic parasite in a vast, cold and meaningless cosmos. Life may be built into the laws of physics at the very foundation. It may be that living behaviors are woven into the fabric of the cosmos. Or it may be that awareness and free will live in a realm separate from time and space, but linked to physics at the quantum level. This would be a way to resolve the Anthropic Coincidences without resort to an embarrassment of universes.

These ideas are not un-scientific, but they are difficult to study with current scientific methods. At the dawn of the Twenty-first Century, experimental science is bursting at the seams with phenomena crying out for an expanded scientific paradigm. The crisis will not be resolved by keeping speculative science out of the mainstream journals. It is not likely to be settled by a brilliant guess about the nature of reality that resolves all our anomalies in one fell swoop. The only way forward is for science to expand its methods and entertain a broad array of wild, new ideas, most of which are bound to fail. But if we open the gates to speculative ideas, if we shake off taboos about teleology and holism, if we broaden the scope of experiments and our ways of understanding them... then I trust that our collective brainpower will be up to the task of formulating a picture of the world that comprehends a greatly expanded - dare I say "wondrous" - vision of our world.

Josh Mitteldorf has worked in astrophysics, optical design, and energy conservation. He has have taught (statistics, physics, math, astronomy, and evolution) at Harvard, Berkeley, Temple, UPenn, LaSalle, and Bryn Mawr.

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