Reality, that most important concept about everything that exists, has gotten out of kilter, and yet very few people have noticed or are paying attention. The problem goes deep into the heart of things, however, so deep that future generations may look back and wonder why this generation didn’t wake up. The reason isn’t mysterious, actually. It has to do with how much we have come to rely upon contemporary science and to trust it: science has been appointed to inform us about what is real and what isn’t. Myths, superstitions, personal prejudices, and obsessions are unreal, while facts, data, and measurements are real.
Nothing seems more secure than science in most people’s minds. As long as technology keeps progressing on all fronts, it’s commonly believed that the most intractable problems, such as curing cancer and reversing global climate change, are open to scientific solutions. But what if reality has something else in mind? Quite apparently it does, if you bother to look deep enough. Reality has decided to bring physics, for example, to a profound crisis, not on one front, which might be easily circumvented, but on almost all fronts. This sounds like a drastic statement, but it’s actually a foreshadowing.
Judging by the current state of affairs, certain difficulties are now at least forty years old without solution and sometimes a century or more. To name the top seven dead ends that science faces,
No one knows where the Big Bang came from.
No one knows how life began.
The origin of time, space, matter, and energy remain obscure.
The relation of mind and brain is as up in the air as it was at the time of Plato and Aristotle.
The nature of consciousness and how it evolved — if it evolved — cannot be agreed upon.
The process by which the brain creates a three-dimensional world of sight and sound using only chemical and electrical signals is totally mysterious.
The two leading theories in physics, General Relativity (which explains how large objects work) and quantum mechanics (which explains how tiny things work) turn out to be completely incompatible.
In previous posts over the past five years we’ve gone into detail about each of these difficulties, and as much as mainstream science resists any crack in its armor, a host of leading thinkers acknowledges exactly what these problems are. But let’s back away from details to look at the big picture. If there are seven dead ends in our understanding of reality, isn’t something drastically off kilter? If the answer to that question is obviously yes, then why doesn’t science self-correct and change course? We emphasize “science as it is being currently practiced,” because quantum reality is drastically different from the outmoded assumptions of classical physics that still dominate in the everyday work of physicists. Why this gap exists is a complex issue, but let’s ignore the details once again and give a simple, workable answer: inertia. Science advances through the momentum built up over the decades, and like a car rolling downhill, inertia will keep things moving even if the engine is dead.
In this case, the driving engine behind science has been its reliance on reductionism, which means breaking a hard problem down into the smallest part necessary to make it easier to solve. The flu can manifest as a host of symptoms, sometimes mild, at other times fatal, but by breaking down the flu to the action of a virus, a viable solution is in hand. Kill the virus and the flu is cured (not that medical science can actually do that yet). But reductionism falls apart when you have already arrived at a level of Nature so fundamental that it can’t be broken down any further.
Time cannot be broken down into anything more basic, for example. Subatomic particles cannot be broken down without vanishing from sight. Space, which in advanced physics consists of various dimensions attached to specific particles, comes out of a dimensionless realm that cannot be measured with empirical data. The precreated state before the Big Bang is unreachable by any known method beyond pure mathematical speculation. On all of these fronts, the mystery of how the familiar physical universe disappears into a vacuum, void, zero point, black hole, or void—choose whatever term you like — has enormous kickback, because if you reverse your viewpoint, there is no way to explain how something was created out of nothing.
Let’s say that a reasonable person would acknowledge this widescreen view of how things stand. If reality is out of kilter and the tools of scientific investigation haven’t been effective in solving seven massive, fundamental problems, what’s next? In our view, what’s next isn’t theoretical. A starting point would be to take seriously the reality that quantum mechanics has thrust upon us. This would close the gap between theory and practice, so that science could stop being schizophrenic, accepting the enormous successes of quantum theory while not taking its consequences seriously. Reality has more to say about human existence, but to hear the message, we must stop being ruled by inertia. A new track or paradigm or worldview — choose your own imagery — is crying out, which is why we consider the current situation to be a foreshadowing. The current confusion cannot persist forever; therefore, the next paradigm will bring clarity. Only on that basis can it survive.
By general agreement, assuming that someone isn’t stubbornly attached to the current paradigm (a big assumption that most working scientists won’t accept), the next paradigm is likely to follow one or more of the following tracks — all have gathered optimistic supporters:
The universe isn’t random but exhibits aspects of purpose or goal-seeking.
Consciousness, as quantum mechanics holds, in some way is built into the scheme of Nature.
Instead of individual human minds, there may be a cosmic mind that the individual mirrors.
Matter behaves in mind-like ways, again as quantum mechanics holds; therefore, the separation of mind and matter isn’t valid.
The universe as we perceive it is perfectly tuned to give rise to human beings; in that sense, we inhabit a human universe.
What we call facts are actually states of knowledge, giving back to us the assumptions we feed in.
Reality is a field of infinite possibilities that cannot be simplified into a satisfactory model. Instead, we must work from the only common basis of everyone’s reality, which is experience.
No matter how you parse or revise these seven new paths, what stands out over and over is the necessity to put consciousness, meaning, and experience back into the equation. The current paradigm has led to astonishing achievements by excluding these very things. But it is axiomatic that theories are right about what they include and wrong about what they exclude. Reality doesn’t care if human beings consider the universe random, mindless, and without purpose, just as it didn’t care if human believed in the divine right of kings. Humankind exists to pierce the veil of appearance in order to discover the essence of what is real. That project will never come to an end; the important thing is to recognize when a change of course is needed, because the alternative is that inertia, illusion, and hidebound prejudice persist.