Put on your philosophical wading boots. I'm about to jump into the deep end of some interesting, but sort of complex, questions about the nature of reality as seen through the eyes of quantum physics.
But rest assured that, in accord with the focus of this Church of the Churchless blog, I'll be drawing some inferences about what makes sense, and what doesn't, when it comes to religious, mystical, and spiritual claims about reality.
This might take a few blog posts, so I'll do my best to keep this initial post as short and simple as possible.
(Which means, it is going to seem lengthy and complex to many readers; sorry about that, it's the nature of the philosophical beast we're trying to come to grips with.)
I'm about two-thirds of the way through a fascinating book, "What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics," by Adam Becker. Becker is a science writer with a Ph.D. in astrophysics.
The key word in the title is meaning. Here's why.
Historically, the prevailing view of quantum physics is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, which often is pithily summed up as "shut up and calculate!" In other words, most physicists don't worry about the underlying meaning of what is known about the quantum world.
They're content with the fact that the mathematics of quantum mechanics are amazingly accurate and precise, which is why we've experienced such fantastic accomplishments in fields such as computer technology, lasers, medical imaging, and so much else.
Now, I'm going to quickly jump into the religious/mystical side of life, to avoid readers of this post heading off to another corner of the World Wide Web.
In Becker's "More Things in Heaven and Earth" chapter, he discusses a useful analogy to illustrate the core philosophical debate between the "shut up and calculate" folks, and the "let's dig deeper for underlying meaning" folks. This is basically the distinction between logical positivism and realism.
Before we get into that analogy, I need to say that I'm not arguing for a simplistic direct connection between logical positivism and mystical ways of thinking, versus realism and scientific ways of thinking, because the situation is murkier than that. Here's some quotes from Becker:
The logical positivists were understandably opposed to philosophical castles in the sky and the tortuous prose they were often defended with. But the logical positivists weren't merely against metaphysics -- they believed they could actually dismiss metaphysical claims as meaningless.
Meaning, they held, was a matter of verification: knowing what a statement means is equivalent to knowing how to specify it using your senses. According to the positivists, when you say "it's hotter outside that it is in here," you really mean "if you go outside you will feel hotter than you do in here."
The statement's meaning is the method of verifying it empirically -- and if there's no way of verifying a statement against your senses, then that statement has no meaning.
...But idealist and theological claims aren't the only kinds of statements that make no contact with the senses.
There are also more straightforward claims like "the couch is in the living room even when nobody's there," that can't be confirmed directly. Statements like these about the existence and persistence of material objects independent of perception are realist claims -- they're statements about a real world that exists whether or not there are any humans around,
These statements are fundamental to science. Yet some of the positivists, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, dismissed realist claims as meaningless too, because they can't be verified by experience. All that is meaningful, on the positivists' account, are statements about perceptions, along with the purely logical statements of mathematics.
Obviously mysticism isn't a mathematical enterprise. But leaving that aside, over the fourteen years I've been writing on this blog I've heard countless (more or less) stories of how someone had a vision of God, or of Jesus, or of a guru, or of divine light and sound, or whatever.
When I and other skeptics would ask for evidence that those mystical experiences were real, typically the response would be along this line: "I know what I experienced, and it felt genuine to me, so you should believe that it was real."
This is basically a positivist argument.
Of course, unlike scientific positivism, there really isn't any way for other people to reproduce that experience -- though believers in mystic visions like to say things like, "You just need to meditate in this fashion for a long time, and have faith in God/guru/angelic beings/whatever."
I'm going to turn now to Becker's analogy, which hopefully will make my point more clear. He uses something most of us are familiar with, a TV remote control that has stopped working, to illustrate the distinction between positivism and realism.
Quine's paper, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," took aim at the core of the positivist program, the verification theory of meaning. Quine pointed out that there was no way to verify single statements -- all attempts to verify a statement inevitably involve the assumed truth of other statements, which are themselves subject to the same problem.
For example, say the remote control for your TV isn't working, and you can't turn the TV on. You suspect that the batteries in the remote are dead. You can verify this by replacing the batteries and trying to turn on the TV with the remote again. You do this, and the TV turns on.
Does that mean you were right? No.
It's entirely possible that the batteries in the remote control weren't dead at all. Maybe the remote had a short and will only work intermittently, no matter what batteries you use. Or maybe the old batteries were in backward, and you didn't notice; you just popped them out and put in new ones pointing the right way.
Or maybe something more exotic is going on: maybe the remote always worked, but when you tried it before, the TV mysteriously shifted its picture to the infrared and its sound to the ultrasonic, so you couldn't see or hear it; the TV happened to go back to normal after you changed the batteries, but not because you changed them.
The last idea is clearly preposterous -- how could that happen? -- but the point remains that in testing out the new batteries in the remote, you've assumed a wide variety of basic facts about the world, all based on previous experience, and any of which could, in principle, be wrong.
This isn't merely true of suppositions about batteries in remote controls; verification of any statement behaves this way
Looking out the window and saying, "It's raining outside," assumes that your view through the window's glass gives you an accurate picture of the outside world, and that your eyes are functioning property, and that the dimmed light and falling droplets are in fact caused by a rain cloud and not an alien spaceship blotting out the Sun and dropping some exotic substance onto your front lawn.
So you can never verify a single statement: you're always stuck verifying the entirety of your knowledge about the world, or at least a very large fraction of it. As Quine put it, "Our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body."
With the verification theory of meaning left gasping for air, Quine dismissed the idea that it's meaningless to talk about unobservable things. Unverifiable statements must have meaning, because no individual statement is verifiable.
Thus the "metaphysics" so dreaded by the positivists came roaring back: rather than speaking simply of sensations, Quine contended that it was perfectly intelligible to speak of physical objects with existence independent of the speaker.
So this gets me back to the title of this post: reality requires a broad scientific look, not narrow mystic visions.
I'll talk about this more in another blog post, because this one is plenty long already. For now I'll simply observe that without using these terms, for quite a few years I've been engaged with positivist believers in mystical experiences who don't want to take a broad realistic view of the cosmos.
For example, a supernatural experience typically demands that someone assume that human consciousness can function outside of the physical brain; that there are spiritual realms of existence beyond the physical universe; that there are "laws of nature" unknown to science, and so on. This sort of worldview requires a very different understanding of reality than is known either to science or everyday experience.
Which is why I no longer believe in it.