The Crumbling of Certainty

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Charles Eisenstein

[SL: The following article, originally published in DNA MONTHLY some years ago, is Chapter Six of the author’s excellent book, THE ASCENT OF HUMANITY: CIVILIZATION & THE SENSE OF SELF. Enjoy!]

The End of Objectivity

Every aspect of the regime of separation—the objectification of the world, the conversion of life into money, the program of understanding and control, the alienation of a discrete and separate self—is written into the official dogma of our civilization, the religion of science. Like many religions, science encompasses an ideology, a program, and a method. The first comprises our fundamental story of the world and how it works, our parsing of the possible into the real and the imaginary, and our definition of what types of knowledge are valid. The second is the Scientific Program, the ambition to bring all phenomena into the realm of measurement, predictability, and control, so that all knowledge rests on a firm foundation of experimentally verifiable, objective truth.

The third element of the religion of science, the Scientific Method, draws its validity from the ideology of science and its motivation from the program of science. I have already discussed how the Scientific Method depends on the replicability of experiments, the testability of hypotheses, and ultimately on the assumption of determinism or objectivity. Scientific inquiry in general—as well as a scientific, rational approach to life—assumes that there is a reality out there that we can query, test, understand, and perhaps eventually predict and control. Herein lies the quest for certainty, in which understanding rises from a foundation of facts. By sticking with the facts and reasoning from there we remain objective, and obtain knowledge of superior reliability.

The assumption of the possibility of objectivity has infiltrated nearly every sector of human endeavor, anything that tries to be scientific. It is in fact very hard to define such terms as “scientific” or “rational” without resorting to some variation of objectivity. A few examples will be helpful. In science, the experimenter is supposed to maintain an objective distance from his experiments, assuming that there is no necessary, ineliminable connection between himself and the system under study. In medicine objectivity is embodied in the controlled double-blind study, which seeks to isolate the objective effects of a therapy under study, so that it can be applied scientifically according to objective criteria unconnected to the whims or personality of patient or doctor. In agriculture we might plant two identical fields with crops differing in only one significant variable, and measure the difference in yield. In journalism the belief in objectivity implies that a reporter is just that: someone who “reports” whatever facts are already out there. She is not supposed to actually be taking part in those events, for then she would no longer be objective.

In other words, in taking the “scientific” approach to any endeavor, we seek to remove the subjective desires and prejudices of the experimenter. The result will be principles that purport to apply generally, because, after all, they are valid without reference to the experimenter. It does not matter whether the patient or doctor believes antibiotics will cure strep throat: their efficacy is an objective fact. It does not matter the intentions of the canoneer: the cannonball will follow the same trajectory no matter what, as long as the initial angle and propulsive force are controlled. Right?

This is the founding philosophy that galvanized the Scientific Revolutionaries and motivates still the program of complete understanding and control. There is a reality out there that can be observed, measured, quantified, and controlled. It is the same for you and for me, indeed for any experimenter. Its laws are invariant: God does not operate the world according to some changeable whim, nor do its laws operate differently for me than for you. Statements like, “The unicorn was there—really there—for me, but not for you” we take to be the very epitome of irrationality. Come on—was it there or wasn’t it? The same holds for “The computer works for you but not for me, even when I do nothing different.” Reason as we know it insists that something must have been different, either between us or in the environment, to make the computer behave differently this time.

For several centuries after Galileo and Newton, the Scientific Program extended the foundation of control by gaining an ever-finer understanding of the “reasons” and the “reason” of the world, making ever-finer observations of the reality out there, until it got down to the base level of the subatomic realm. Here were to be the building blocks of the determinism and objectivity that embody scientific reason. And then calamity struck.

The calamity for science and reason is simply that at the subatomic level, the very bedrock of the whole edifice of science, determinism and objectivity do not hold. At the most fundamental level of reality, our scientific intuitions (embodied in the above statements about unicorns and computers) are simply wrong.

As a result, the last eight decades or so have seen a proliferation of interpretations of quantum mechanics that attempt to reconcile the indeterminacy and observer-dependence of the quantum realm with the determinism and objectivity that we “know” characterizes the world of everyday experience. None of these attempts have been successful—a marked contrast to Newtonian mechanics, which provoked little serious dispute about what it all meant because it fit in with the tide of the times. The present lack of agreement about the interpretation of quantum mechanics—which after all lies lies at the basis of physics—testifies to its incompatibility with our fundamental ontology.

It is beyond the scope of this book to give a thorough summary of precisely how quantum mechanics violates determinism and objectivity. I refer the reader to the vast non-technical literature on the topic, in particular the works of Paul Davies, Nick Herbert, David Wick, Roger Penrose, Fritjof Capra, David Deutsch, and Johnjoe McFadden. I particularly recommend the last two: Deutch’s THE FABRIC OF REALITY for its lucid exposition of the many-worlds interpretation that is currently in vogue, and McFadden’s QUANTUM EVOLUTION for its elegantly clear introduction to the basic paradox of measurement.

Quantum mechanics’ violation of determinism is somewhat less challenging to conventional beliefs about self and world than is its violation of objectivity, so let’s start there. Determinism holds that initial conditions completely determine final conditions: in other words, if you do the exactly the same experiment twice, you’ll get the same result. This is a key assumption in the requirement of repeatability used to determine scientific fact. But in quantum mechanics the assumption is false. Fire a stream of electrons, photons, or indeed any particle through a slit onto a detector screen, and the final detected position of each one will be different. The overall distribution of particles is fully determined by mathematical equations, but the fate of each individual particle is random. One might go left, the next right, the next straight through, and there is no explanation for that behavior. It is acausal, which violates a central assumption of the Scientific Program that with sufficiently diligent querying of nature, the reason for everything can be found. Yet here, at the very basis of the reductionist pyramid, matter behaves acausally, unreasonably, a state of affairs so troubling to scientific orthodoxy as to incite Einstein’s famous protest, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

The same indeterminacy affects not just the path of a particle through an aperture, but also the decay of a radioactive particle, the polarity of a photon or electron, and many other properties. But the challenge to our conventional world-view runs much deeper than that, because not only are these measured quantities random; apparently, until they are measured they don’t have any definite status at all. Interference experiments such as the double-slit experiment, the Stern-Gerlach experiment, and countless others demonstrate that in the absence of measurement or observation, particles behave as if they occupied all possible states at once. What’s more, the very presence of observation can affect the evolution of the system being observed, even in the absence of any physical force operating between system and observer, even when the observer is outside the space-time light cone of an affected part of the system (as in the Aspect experiment). In other words, the Baconian view that there is an independently existing universe “out there,” and that science can discover all its properties by sufficiently precise measurement, is fundamentally flawed. Observer and observed are intimately linked; the distinction ultimately does not even make sense.

Art Prints

The consequences of this discovery are too huge for our culture to digest, so antithetical are they to the reigning orthodoxy. The quantum measurement “paradox” is a product of attempting to weld the observer-dependence of the quantum world with the supposed objectivity of the world of everyday experience, which boils down to a discrete and separate self looking out onto the universe. Quantum mechanics invalidates the discrete and separate self. Because quantum mechanics represents such a profound challenge to our very self-conception, for eighty years scientists and philosophers have gone through paroxysms of interpretation to somehow mediate the two realms of non-objective, acausal quantum events and the classical reality we think we experience.

Again, none of these attempts has been successful. On the practical level, most deny the extension of indeterminacy and observer-dependence into the macroscopic world essentially by claiming that quantum uncertainty tends to routinely cancel out, approximating classical mechanics on the scale of everyday experience. Thus while there is a finite chance that a marble flung through a hole will diffract onto a non-classical path, this chance is so close to zero that it can be ignored. While this solves the practical problem of why classical mechanics works so well for, say, designing machines and bridges, it doesn’t deal with the ontological problem: what is the fundamental nature of reality? Moreover, as the founders of quantum mechanics, particularly Shroedinger, realized, the ontological problem does not go away, but becomes especially pressing when quantum events are magnified into classical observations (which is essentially what a quantum measurement does).

Some unconventional thinkers such as Roger Penrose and Johnjoe McFadden argue that quantum effects are projected into macroscopic reality routinely in living systems, and not just in the contrived conditions of a physics lab. Some, more radical, even cite indeterminacy as an escape clause from Mechanicism that allows free will, and other quantum phenomena as evidence to support various approaches to healing and spirituality. Such speculations range from the ignorant to the highly sophisticated, but I believe that someday science will establish a quantum explanation for many presently unexplained (and for the most part, unacknowledged) phenomena. However, a detailed discussion of the measurement paradox, and the dominant misunderstanding of decoherence, will have to await a future book. For now I claim no direct link between quantum paradoxes and the world of ordinary experience; instead I’ll limit myself to their metaphoric significance.

The counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics referred to above are only counter to those intuitions that are contingent on the modern conception of self and world. To people before the Age of Separation was well underway, descriptions of quantum phenomena such as “It occupied two positions simultaneously,” or “It wasn’t there until you looked for it,” or “It was there for you but not for me” may not have seemed paradoxical at all. To them, there was no clearcut distinction between observer and observed, imagination and reality, human and nature, self and other. To the extent that such distinctions existed, their provisional nature was recognized, perhaps as a play, a creative artifice. Hence the original identity cited in Chapter Two between ritual and reality, and in the Original Language between the name and the thing named.

The mind of the primitive is often irksomely irrational to the Western visitor. I must admit having suffered the same annoyance in my early encounters with New Agey people who would (it seemed) taunt me with such statements as “It’s true for you but not for me.” I would say, “I believe that if ‘qi’ really exists we would have detected it with scientific instruments” and my friend would respond, “That belief is why you cannot detect it with your instruments.” I would say, “I don’t believe out-of-body experiences are possible,” and he’d say, “Then for you they are not possible.”

It was maddening. “I don’t mean ‘for me,’ I mean not possible for real.”

“Then for you, it is not possible for real.”

What I meant by “for real” was “objectively.” One friend, the healer and musician Chad Parks, tried to explain a psychic invisibility technique taught him by some (to me) dubious New-age guru. People choose not to look at you. “But surely if they looked, the light rays bouncing off your body would still reach their eyes,” I said, “so you’re not really invisible.”

“To them I am.”

A similar situation arises in one of Carlos Castenada’s books, in which the narrator, trying to get a grip on Don Juan’s shamanic powers, challenges him, “But what if someone was waiting in ambush on your path—surely you couldn’t stop a bullet, could you?”

“No, I could not stop a bullet. But I would not take that path.”

Castenada could have continued, “But what if the situation required you to take that path?” and Don Juan could have replied in kind, “Then I would not enter that situation.”

In the prior example, I could have proposed to Chad an experiment: “Okay, make yourself invisible—I bet I can still see you.” He would have said, “It won’t work, I am already here for you.” His invisibility is essentially untestable because the very grounds for objective testing embody a conflict of assumptions. It is testable only in an objective universe, and it only works in a non-objective universe. The whole idea of certainty of knowledge, built through objective reasoning, is only as sound as the objectivity at its basis. Question that, and we question the soundness of the entire edifice of experimentally-derived knowledge.

The reason that primitive and New Age logic seems irrational is that it is irrational, in the original sense of the word described in Chapter Three. That paragraph bears repeating:

Not only scientific objectivity but reason as well is a natural outgrowth of our gradual abstraction from nature, reflected in and propelled by the innovations of language, number, agriculture, and so forth. David Bohm explains that reason is essentially the application of an abstracted relationship onto something new. We observe the relationship between A and B, and say that the relationship between C and D will be like that too. For example: “All humans die; I am a human; therefore I will die.” A is to B and C is to D. Or, A:B::C:D. That is a ratio; in other words, it is rational. Reason is the recognition and application of abstracted regularities. The criticisms of professional skeptics on such forums as “reason” dot com, that New Age spirituality and other denials of objectivity-based science are irrational, has merit. Reason as they understand it is contingent upon, and not prior to, the assumption of an objective reality from which we can abstract. If this assumption is untrue, then other forms of cognition are valid, and reason fraught with peril.

Professional skeptics are fond of railing at the abysmal stupidity of their opponents, who seem dispossessed of that key function of higher cognition, reason. Like a fish unaware that it is wet, these scientists rarely perceive their own immersion in assumptions of self and world that constitutionally limit them to certain narrow modes of cognition, those that we call rational. These are powerful in a certain domain, having enabled us to build the towering edifice of our civilization; they are behind the vast program to engineer the world and remake nature. As this program falters, we open to the possibility of other, higher modes of cognition and relationship.

As quantum mechanics slowly replaces our Newtonian-Cartesian intuitions with those that are non-dualistic, all of the fruits of Separation will lose their deepest rationale. For even if conventional philosophy is right that quantum indeterminacy and observer-dependence has no practical consequences for consciousness, mind, and self; even if no one ever proves that our level of matter departs appreciably from the classical description, there still lurks at bottom an implacable exception to the claim that “the universe is just like that.” If only by way of metaphor, quantum mechanics confers upon us a new logic, a new framework of possibility. No longer will the discrete and separate self be the only conceivable, the only cogent way of understanding the world.

Quantum mechanics heralds a momentous shift in our intuitions that will rapidly accelerate as the failure of the old ways of life and thought become increasingly obvious. Just as the regime of separation both set the stage for, and was reinforced by, its apotheosis in the science of Newton and Descartes, so also will quantum mechanics quicken the emerging realization of our interconnectedness with each other and all of nature, which will in turn allow us to more fully digest quantum theory’s profound ontological consequences. In other words, quantum theory is both a cause and an effect, a harbinger and a symptom, of a larger shift in consciousness.

Armed with the intuitions, or at least the metaphorical possibilities, that quantum mechanics foretells, the beliefs of primitive humans will take on a new vitality, relevance, and import. Already we feel their pull, as the popularity of “Native American spirituality” testifies. (That this form of cultural capital is rapidly coopted and converted into money does not alter the kernel of its appeal.) Already, we are becoming more willing to believe that our thoughts, words, and actions have a power beyond their classical physical description as a mere shifting of masses and flux of chemicals. Already we grow more at ease with the idea of a fluid reality, not separate and absolute, but defined by our relationship to it and molded by our beliefs. Little do we realize that the stage is being set for a wholly different science, and a wholly different technology, no longer based on the premise of separation and no longer reinforcing that premise. And no aspect of human life will remain unchanged.

Copyright © Charles Eisenstein. All Rights Reserved.

Charles Eisenstein is an author, Penn State faculty member, and transformational counselor. After graduating from Yale University in 1989 in Mathematics and Philosophy, he spent most of the next decade in Taiwan, where he became one of that country’s leading Chinese-English translators and editors. His first book, THE YOGA OF EATING, a Nautilus Award finalist, describes a transformational path of self-trust applied to health and diet, and is the basis for his “Willpower Free” workshop for weight loss, health, and personal transition. THE ASCENT OF HUMANITY was published in 2006.

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