Really Big Questions?
Some years ago I was at a talk where I asked some questions. Afterwards, the speaker came over to me and commented that it seemed I had a great many interests.
I said that was not true. I actually only have two interests:
1) What is the nature of reality?
2) What is the nature of consciousness?
It was kind of a joke, given that these two interests cover most other big questions. Einstein said it this way: “I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details.” I would just leave any gods out of it.
I studied physics hoping to understand the nature of reality. The early 20th century brought us the revolutionary ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics that promised to get us closer to that deep understanding. But biologist JBS Haldane cautioned in 1927 “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Nearly a century later we have validated the queerest aspects of quantum theory as being very real. Notably, the phenomenon of “entanglement” of widely separated particles. What Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” It is so real that quantum computers and quantum security systems are being built that use this phenomenon to advantage.
Yet we are still far from understanding what is the true nature of reality. MIT physicist Max Tegmark claims that, fundamentally, the physical universe is just mathematics. I would argue this is exactly wrong. Mathematics is a rich, powerful language for expressing what we learn about the world. But it is not the world.
We marvel at the vastness of the universe as we look out at the sky on a dark night. But I marvel at the fact that there is even one particle at all! No amount of math adds up to the existence of even one particle. How is it that anything exists at all? And who pays for it?
I would call this the “Hard Problem of Physics” although the answer almost certainly lies outside the realm of physics.
I take this name from my other question. Philosopher David Chalmers coined the term “Hard Problem of Consciousness” in 1995. What is the Hard Problem of Consciousness? The fact that you have any phenomenal experience of anything at all. I attended a resulting major conference Chalmers helped organize called “Toward a Science of Consciousness” in Tucson in 1996. I have attended many subsequent rounds of this conference ever since.
The other organizer of the conference was University of Arizona anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Anesthesiologists have a very practical reason to understand consciousness: They want to be sure you don’t have any when they cut into you. He and Chalmers dream of a “consciousness meter” they could point at you to see if you have any.
Many scientists argue these Hard Problems are non-problems. There is nothing but “details.” Learn enough about the laws of physics and you know everything there is to know about reality. Learn enough about how brains work and you know all there is to know about the mind.
Other scientists acknowledge that these problems are real, but there is no way to gain traction in solving them. Other than to keep plugging away at the “normal science” of physics and neuroscience. I respect this view: At least they acknowledge the reality of the questions.
Some philosophers argue that the two questions are related, perhaps in a surprising way. Perhaps consciousness is fundamental and physical reality is built on that substrate? Buddhist and secular meditators seek direct understanding through meditation.
Rupert Spira offers this perspective: Think of how it is when you dream. There are many characters and a vast universe of objects. From rocks and trees to oceans and mountains. Yet all of this is contained in your one consciousness. Perhaps everything in “reality” is all part of a single shared consciousness in the same way? Do I believe this?
We marvel at the vastness of the universe as we look out at the sky
on a dark night. But I marvel at the fact that there is even
one particle at all! No amount of math adds up to the existence
of even one particle. How is it that anything exists at all?
And who pays for it?
My UCSB colleague Jonathan Schooler answers: We can “entertain without endorsing” a new idea.
This might seem like idle speculation in a world with very real problems. I agree that unless we solve existential problems like the Climate Crisis nothing else matters.
But I would also argue that while we solve our survival problems we also remember the Big Questions. And is it also possible that revolutionary discoveries in answering these Big Questions might turn out to have very practical consequences? A century ago, relativity and quantum physics seemed like idle speculation. But they brought us nuclear energy and the modern information technology age.