Physicists announced recently that they had discovered gravitational waves, confirming a one hundred year-old prediction of Einstein’s General Relativity theory. As remarkable as the discovery seems, it does little or nothing to resolve a profound quandary in physics that is indicative of a larger dilemma within the whole idea of the “scientific world-view.”
First let me say why this matters to me, as someone whose formal studies were in literature, that softest of all subjects. I’ve actually been fascinated by the world of cosmology and theoretical physics for a long time. I grew up with the ideas of two great humanist popularizers of science, Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos), intimately beamed into my brain by television. The story they told me was that modern science was a hard-won triumph over bigotry and ignorance; it was the ultimate homage to nature. It had discovered many of the laws that governed the physical world, and yet there was much more to know. Science was a great adventure, and there was room for us all to join. Carl Sagan said that we were “star stuff,” grown to be able to contemplate itself and the cosmos, and now longing to return to the stars.
As a student of narrative I would come to recognize these stories as a new rationalist mythology. One that could even, potentially, take on the central role ancient myth had played in helping us comprehend the cosmos and our place in it.
Theoretical physics was the only contemporary endeavor seeking to present a complete picture of the cosmos and explain how it is and why it is as it is—without social coercion, without closing off the process at some point by attributing it all to a metaphysical dimension or suspiciously anthropoid super-power. Even without a background in the hard sciences, I could see that physics was striving for a fundamental, all-encompassing, coherent, and beautiful picture of reality.
But since those heady days of my youth there has been trouble in physics. And much of it springs from the unintended consequences of the best theory we have on the nature of the laws that may guide the cosmos: Einstein’s General Relativity. An elegant attempt to unify aspects of reality that were previously seen as disparate: space, time, and matter – it has left us with conundra that proliferate like the brooms of the Sorceror’s Apprentice as physicists attempt to fill in the gaps it left in our understanding.
Ironically, the model of reality that physics has developed in Einstein’s wake is not coherent or all-encompassing, and it cannot say what is truly fundamental. It cannot unify the behavior of matter at the subatomic level with matter at the largest scale; rather there are two radically discontinuous theories. String theory, one of the most elegant attempts to produce a unified model (as Einstein was unable to do) of the fundamental physical forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and binding forces within the atom, has even flirted with the idea that if the mathematics is internally consistent enough, observation and experiment are no longer necessary to the establishment of scientific truth.
Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems committed to its disappearance in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter we cannot observe and do not understand, and is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.
Thus the universe described by theoretical physics today is an obscure, conflicted place. Organic life is considered a freakish anomaly, and apparently doomed to remain so. Isolation and disorder will inevitably dominate the universe as it expands ever faster and degrades into eternal darkness and possibly utter annihilation.
The subjective experience of this, irrelevant to science, is still a powerful one. How could we ever see ourselves as at home in such a place? If that great medieval mythologizer Dante had lived today, he might have found it the perfect description of the structure of hell.
And yet the deeper we look into space, all of what we actually see is beautiful, dynamic, multiform, filled with light and the possibilities for life – and grandly structured, with all visible matter connected in a great web that stretches across unimaginably vast distances.
But the bigger trouble today is not really with the counter-intuitiveness of theoretical speculation in physics, or with the scientific method itself. It has more to do with what some scientists somewhat disparagingly call the “sociology” of science. And it extends far beyond the bizarre cul de sac that theoretical physics seems to have entered.
Scientism and Modern Civilization
To most of us today, what physics talks about is really no different from science fiction – except that the plot is thinner. The Big Bang, black holes, wormholes, multiverses, superstrings, dark matter, dark energy – not one of us can independently confirm the existence or non-existence of these, or even grasp more than dimly the means scientists have used to hypothesize them. They are like mythological entities revealed to us by modern priests with hieratic knowledge.
This is not just because there has been a failure to teach science adequately in schools, or because our mass communications media have no incentive to convey complex information, although both of those things may be true. It is simply characteristic of societies that are highly specialized that extreme concentrations of wealth, power, and knowledge emerge. And those who possess them seek to retain their elite status, and have disproportionate leverage to do so, so the distance tends to increase. After more than seven thousand years experimenting with hierarchical civilizations, it seems time to we acknowledged that whatever its pretexts, the only ultimate goal of concentrated power is its own preservation.
At some point – but the big question is what point? – the anti-social effects of concentrations of knowledge come to outweigh, even compromise, the value of the insights gained, however compelling they are. I would give you the example of the Mayan priest class’ astoundingly complex and elegant understanding of time, which could not save their civilization from the perpetual war and ecological overshoot that brought about its collapse.
A few contemporary scientists have begun to sound an alarm. Science as it is being practiced in the 21st century is at risk of turning reductionism, abstract mathematics, and pet theories into dogma, of violating its own spirit of open-ended inquiry. While internal critics like theoretical physicist Lee Smolin have approached this problem with their recognized experience in and love of science foremost, they are outriders nonetheless. They have largely been ignored or even insulted by their colleagues both for their chosen scientific approaches and their concern with the sociological ramifications of science. This is at least in part because they were saying that scientists were not immune to behaviors that characterized the larger society.
The most positive aspect of science – its ability to self-correct – was at risk of being crushed by scientism – the false idea that science was somehow immune to the influence of power, and that it reduced all other human ways of knowing to irrelevance.
In 1996 a physicist named Alan Sokal had perpetrated a hoax that gained him notoriety throughout the academic world. He submitted an article to the journal Social Text called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The article, published as written, was gibberish, purporting to Sokal that the triumph of postmodern approaches in the humanities made it impossible to distinguish profundity from tripe, or privilege the kind of falsifiable claims to truth that science prided itself upon. His demonstration was meant to prove that science would never stoop to such obscurantism or lack of rigor.
But when I read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics (2006), I noted that he also spoke of physics entering a “postmodern” phase – by which he meant that the elaborators of theory, particularly string theory, had developed such an insular arrogance about their abstract mathematics, and were so sure it was right, that they no longer felt compelled to defend it scientifically. In fact, he said, the mathematics produced a model of reality that was incapable of generating unique predictions testable by observation or experiment. There were also a functionally infinite number of potentially valid string theories. String theorists had unleashed a cosmological mise en abîme.
So Smolin was claiming that physics too was guilty of postmodern obscurantism, and of succumbing to making non-falsifiable pronouncements. Sokal had scoffed at the idea that science was simply one more way humans had devised to tell themselves stories about the world. But Smolin said that the founders of quantum theory, upon discovering what’s called the “observer problem” at the sub-atomic level, also became social constructionists in a way. They decided that it simply did not matter if the presence of an observer always determined what could be said about quantum states; the theory was too good to jettison. So they would give up looking for what Smolin called the Real World Out There at the smallest level, and simply keep on cataloguing the behavior they could observe. Making Sokal seem wrong again to deride only non-scientists for saying that truth was “merely” a human construct.
Reciprocity, Subjective Experience, and Power over Dead Matter
At the same time, there’s considerable evidence that human social behaviors, even in the most specialized and highly technologically mediated societies, have not really evolved much in sophistication and may even be said to have regressed in some ways, compared with the prior understandings of peoples living at a much lower level of specialization and technological intervention. For we have accepted monstrous imbalances of power and seem to have lost the determinative notion of reciprocity that gave some earlier forms of social organization their stability. And sadly, it is science, aiding and aided by capital, which has actually been key in dismantling the idea of social and environmental reciprocity and instead justifying a profoundly anti-social and anti-ecological set of behaviors.
Above all, contemporary science is complicit because it presents us with the consensus idea that the world, at almost every level, consists of non-living, non-conscious material, which can thus be acted upon without the consequences of acting upon conscious living things. In fact, experimental science, with its barricaded prison labs full of rats, mice, dogs, and monkeys, has demonstrated that even other living things can be acted upon by humans exclusively for our own benefit, without the need for reciprocity of any kind. This is said to be progress over the old, unenlightened view that the cosmos and everything in it was alive and had the right to free existence.
The model of nature accepted by the majority of contemporary scientists is that of a highly complex machine, something that – once certain unchanging laws and basic parts are identified – can essentially be manipulated at our will. Everything in the physical world functions this way, including ourselves. The parts are separable from one another and the whole is reducible to the sum of its parts.
In science, anything that persistently confounds quantitative analysis is considered an irrelevancy, a so-called epiphenomenon. For many evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists today this includes all subjective experience, and the phenomenon of human consciousness itself. All the more so, then, any other types of consciousness there might be in other types of matter.
This view, of course, will continue to alienate us not just from other species but from ourselves, as it bears no relation to life as we actually experience it. “The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know,” says science journalist Jonah Lehrer, defending art (including the storytelling arts) as a way of knowing, in Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2011).
Is it Reactionary to Fear Science?
Some scientists, like the world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, complain about the irrational fear of science. He is right that a blanket rejection of science is an enemy of understanding and has become a tool of dangerous reaction, particularly in the US, where it has played right into the hands of powerful backers of an ecocidal status quo. As the existential threat posed by rapid climate change becomes clearer through the haze of sponsored lies, the champions of science are gaining ground. But fighting dogma with dogma, as Dawkins does, misses the real issue: is “faith in science” any more likely to get us into right relationship with the living world than faith in the supernatural?
For what, precisely, is irrational about fearing something demonstrably capable of erasing reality as you know it, something whose processes and mechanisms are in the hands of others who are largely unknown and completely unaccountable to you? Is it only our ignorance, or is their hubris also to blame for that fear?
Great scientists are among our modern heroes. Yet 20th century physicists created the first weapon capable of extinguishing all life on earth. Chemists developed poison gas. Psychologists have been involved in refining torture techniques. Biologists are exuberantly manipulating genetic material in ways that could be bringing about the collapse of large-scale, complex ecosystems. They do not say no, even when the stakes are that high.
We have mapped and measured, we have formulated to degrees of mathematical complexity beyond the capacity even to measure with the tools we have – or possibly ever, in the case of some cosmological theories. And yet none of that captures essence in any way. Nor, the most humble and righteous scientists will quietly allow, is it meant to. The more arrogant scientists would have us give up the idea of essence, or say that it lives Platonically in mathematics alone. But mathematics, no matter how eerily well it reproduces patterns and gives holographic representations of many aspects of the physical world, is still a human language. Our best formulae are radically simplified approximations; they do not exist as such in the Real World Out There any more than does Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or the subject-verb-object construction of a sentence.
The Role of Capital
Ironically, of course, in climatology, ecology, and zoology scientists are trying desperately to warn us of major, rapid, irrevocable changes in the biosphere, but their graphs and models have so far proved no match for the power of unimpeded flows of capital, and the unleashed infinities of human desire. Here, at the opposite end of the methodological spectrum from string theory (which has achieved a kind of mainstream scientific consensus without any physical evidence whatsoever) climatologists have been laboriously accumulating data for decades and developing rigorous standards for testing theories – but the problem is that nobody really wants to believe the story they are telling.
This is because it is not about infinite possibility – like multiverses or hyperspace – but about the dreary, real constraints of living systems, even at the largest scale we know. It is not the story of humans as “star stuff,” launching ourselves out into the infinite cosmos, but of humans as contingent, dependent, limited beings, unique only in the sense that we may be the first species ever to be entirely responsible for its own extinction.
Capital, perfectly buttering its bread on both sides, thus manages to benefit from the usefulness of science for the ceaseless production of new consumer products, and from the fear and resentment science induces in the mass imagination when it comes to the need for system-wide behavior change.
Science as it is practiced today is clearly not sufficient to guide humanity to a socio-ecology that is dynamic and harmonious – one that can mimic a complex ecosystem capable of thriving for hundreds of thousands of years, like a forest or a coral reef – or even the tens of thousands of years that some indigenous peoples managed without any reliance at all upon the scientific method.
On the contrary, scientistic hubris could just as well lead to our extinction. The scientific method gave humans unprecedented power over matter – and we used it to make possible the relentlessly efficient machinery that is already facilitating rapid climate change and the earth’s sixth great extinction of species.
But somewhere else in our minds we know that unchecked aggression and hubris will destroy us too. We have a short history relative to the cosmos, but it is long enough to have given us the lessons of great failures. In fact, mythic stories recounted those truths for millennia. But a reductive materialism has degraded the meaning of myth today to a “counterfactual belief.”
The Minority Report
At every step, in every field since the late 20th century, the pre-existent nonhuman world has been telling the physical sciences how far ahead of them she is. Even the mind-bogglingly complex (and beautiful) recursions and bifurcations of chaos theory produce only drastically simplified approximations of common dynamic processes in nature, ones that you observe by watching a flowing stream or the passage of clouds.
Their own mathematics warns scientists that their solutions to complex or non-linear problems is so approximate as to be useless in most cases. A more profound insight that can be derived from them is how a finite natural system can contain and be bounded by almost infinite complexity, and thus, how sensitive it is to change. Emerging systems theories, like biologist Stuart Kauffman’s, are just beginning to sketch the minority report on irreducible complexity – while the reductionist consensus, with vast resources to back it up, gallops on towards the machine dreams of its venture capitalists and “visionaries.”
The scientific method constrains science to isolate things in space and remove them from the passage of time in order to make statements about them, to act upon them. But a warning bell is ringing: reality eludes all efforts to reduce it too much, or to use only formalisms to describe it. It seems to be trying to tell the scientists who will listen that things in connection with one another, evolving in time, are not just different in scale from things studied in isolation but fundamentally different in kind.
Time has lost any causative importance in mainstream theoretical physics, another of Einstein’s unintended gifts. And yet time’s flow not only rules our human lives and everything our senses can perceive, but may actually be essential in creating qualitative differences in reality. All known life is characterized not just by a set of molecules but its particularly creative relationship to the flow of time. Even the laws of physics may evolve, a radical idea Smolin has begun to explore.
I still appreciate the power of science to take on the ultimate questions, and the rigorous beauty of some of its hypothetical answers. I’m inspired by scientists in many fields who are challenging the reductionist and mechanistic paradigm. But I’m afraid they may always be the minority report. If science remains dominated by the lure of power over matter, or the belief that its own abstractions are the ultimate reality, it will never be able to weave us back into the story of a single, living world.
If we fail the evolutionary challenge, I’ll wager it won’t be because our theoretical physics, biochemistry, or neurology wasn’t good enough, or our engineering, technology, or medicine – or even our art, music, or literature. It will be because the stories we accepted as most profoundly true, the ones that determined our social behavior, dismissed the idea that treating our world as dead might ultimately be deadly to us too.
Recommended Works by Anti-Reductionists:
Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics; Time Reborn
Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe; Reinventing the Sacred
James Gleick, Chaos: The Making of a New Science
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order
Terence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter