In science, we forget the place of human experience at our peril

By | January 3, 2020

Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson write:

The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total system. We need to make measurements of the positions and velocities of its constituent parts, such as particles, atoms, fields and so forth. This problem hits a hard wall when we deal with the origin of the Universe itself, because we have no view from the outside. We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is. A First Cause is not only unknowable, but also scientifically unintelligible.

The second part of the challenge is philosophical. Scientists have taken physical time to be the only real time – whereas experiential time, the subjective sense of time’s passing, is considered a cognitive fabrication of secondary importance. The young Albert Einstein made this position clear in his debate with philosopher Henri Bergson in the 1920s, when he claimed that the physicist’s time is the only time. With age, Einstein became more circumspect. Up to the time of his death, he remained deeply troubled about how to find a place for the human experience of time in the scientific worldview.

These quandaries rest on the presumption that physical time, with an absolute starting point, is the only real kind of time. But what if the question of the beginning of time is ill-posed? Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it. But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.

Behind the Blind Spot sits the belief that physical reality has absolute primacy in human knowledge, a view that can be called scientific materialism. In philosophical terms, it combines scientific objectivism (science tells us about the real, mind-independent world) and physicalism (science tells us that physical reality is all there is). Elementary particles, moments in time, genes, the brain – all these things are assumed to be fundamentally real. By contrast, experience, awareness and consciousness are taken to be secondary. The scientific task becomes about figuring out how to reduce them to something physical, such as the behaviour of neural networks, the architecture of computational systems, or some measure of information.

This framework faces two intractable problems. The first concerns scientific objectivism. We never encounter physical reality outside of our observations of it. Elementary particles, time, genes and the brain are manifest to us only through our measurements, models and manipulations. Their presence is always based on scientific investigations, which occur only in the field of our experience. [Continue reading…]

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