Wrong But Interesting?

By Robert Bernstein   |   December 21, 2021

Since I was a child, I have asked big questions about life, the universe, and everything (credit to Douglas Adams for that expression). I was fortunate to have a scientist father and a psychologist/philosopher mother to offer helpful answers.

Out in the real world I discovered that people will often offer “helpful” answers that are not so helpful. When something awful or unjust happens, some people will say, “Everything happens for a reason” or “God has a higher purpose that we cannot understand.” These same people will say that we can pray to a sky god to help us when we are in need.

For much of my life I would argue with such people to show how they are wrong. But in more recent years I have adopted a new standard: “I don’t mind if you are wrong. Just be interesting.”

I am grateful to be sponsored at UC Santa Barbara by the very creative and highly cited professor Jonathan Schooler. He has his own version of this: “Entertaining without endorsing.” He even published a paper with that title. In his version, he is trying to stay open to “anomalous” phenomena without claiming he understands them or that they are real.

In a way, this is what it means to do research. Some things are obviously impossible, and we don’t waste time experimenting to find them. But the real world is full of surprises, and I am grateful that some people do the tedious work to see if an “impossible” claim might turn out to be true. Examples are the effectiveness of prayer, the existence of ESP or the predictive power of astrology. Most evidence indicates these are dead ends. I have little respect for claims about these things, but I do respect people who investigate them scientifically.

One of my big questions: What is consciousness? I was told by my biologist father that consciousness is just what the brain does. Nothing more or less. I have never been able to accept that. But the usual alternatives are no better. Some religious people will claim that we have an immortal soul.

Descartes offered a more secular version: That “I” am a “homunculus” sitting in what has come to be called the Cartesian Theater. Watching the world on a screen in my head. Unfortunately, this leads to an infinite regress of needing a homunculus within a homunculus.

Leibniz saw the same problem that I had with my father’s answer. It is called the “mill argument.” He imagined going inside the workings of the brain and finding some complex mechanism like the gears inside the mills of his day. But that would not give us consciousness.

He invented “monadology”: Instead of the world being made of atoms, the most fundamental bits of reality are “monads.” These are inherently psychical, conscious things. For him, the material world of atoms was an illusion created by that reality.

A variant of this is “panpsychism,” which says that all material things have bits of consciousness built in. This creates the “binding problem” of how bigger consciousnesses are built out of the little ones. A fellow colleague of Schooler is offering a “resonance” theory of how little bits vibrate together to build big ones. I put this in the category of “wrong and not interesting.” I could be wrong. But I am just tired of hearing about “vibrations” from the New Age crowd. The New Age stuff is all “wrong and not interesting” to me. Old stuff that was tried and already proved to be a dead end. Not “new” at all.

However, I have been entertaining without endorsing something even more wacky. I am quite sure it is wrong. But for me it is interesting. I first heard the idea from Rupert Spira. It is a dream analogy. Everything in the world is just stuff in one common dream. There is just one consciousness having the dream. It is panpsychist without the “binding problem.”

I recently learned that there is an ancient philosophy Advaita, which is similar. Advaita means “not two” and goes beyond the “one” of Leibniz’ monads. I was recently privileged to converse with Advaita Swami Sarvapriyananda. I posted this short exchange on YouTube just to share with a friend and it has more than 5,000 hits. Apparently, this view is very popular.

Wolfgang Pauli famously said “Not even wrong” about a bad idea. I am more forgiving. Just be interesting, OK?


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