Science and the Subjective

The word science is derived from Latin, scire, meaning to know. Man’s quest to unravel the secrets of reality began as natural philosophy, a branch of philosophy proper. Philosophy (from Greek philosophia, love of wisdom) had a wider scope, including topics such as ethics (study of the right way to live), epistemology (study of the true nature of knowledge) and metaphysics (study of essential nature of things). Any attempt to comprehend reality in a logically consistent manner came under the scope of general philosophy. Science dealt with external reality while ethics, epistemology and metaphysics attempted to deal with questions of a more subjective nature.

Science succeeded remarkably while other branches of philosophy made little progress. This has resulted in a bizarre skewness in modern man’s thought process. Every aspect of reality is considered fit for scientific investigation. The wisdom that conceived natural philosophy as only one aspect of man’s quest is buried deep under the success stories of science and technology.

Is it possible to represent reality using numbers and mathematical models alone? I believe a big NO is the answer. Reality consists of something more than the measurable. I am not referring to supernatural concepts of popular religion. There is no evidence to suggest that Gods, as they appear in religious literature, form part of reality. But there is another aspect of human experience – both real and non-quantifiable. We may call these purely subjective experiences. Feeling of bliss and peacefulness achieved through deep introspection is an example.

How do we understand such purely subjective experiences? Ignore since these appear to have no causal connection with material world? Or should we say that people who experience such things have something wrong with their genetic make up (a dangerous propensity for delusions, similar to a computer that occasionally hangs)? A third option would be to claim such experiences originate from the brain and are real only as far as they can be represented objectively.

I believe these explanations fail to do justice to the obvious reality and essentially subjective nature of such experiences. They must have a deeper meaning. I believe these are glimpses of a fundamental organizing principle that connects all aspects of reality – something that is at the root of all patterns we see in nature, including patterns revealed through science. This organizing principle could be called Creativity or Universal Mind.

We spend most of our time dealing with external world in objective terms. We could live a normal life without ever bothering about purely subjective phenomena. But occasionally some individuals take a deeper plunge, gaining fleeting glimpses of the underlying pattern. A scientific breakthrough or a great work of art results when such glimpses are used to interpret hither to unknown aspects of reality. One famous example from science is August Kekule’s dream of a snake swallowing its own tail. Kekule was working on the problem of benzene structure and in a moment of sudden insight realized that benzene molecule contains a closed ring of carbon atoms.

Let us explore few possible objections to this Creativity hypothesis.

Q: First of all, why is it necessary to hypothesize an underlying creative principle in nature? Aren’t we doing well enough currently, without such a hypothesis?

A: Well, we are not doing all right. We live in an age of extraordinary insensitivity. According to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day due to poverty. Half the world (nearly three billion people) is estimated to live on less than two dollars a day while we spend more than a trillion dollars a year on weapons and war machinery. Such appalling facts don’t shock us anymore, but would appear inexplicable to an intelligent alien observer.

I firmly believe that we suffer such insensitivity because we lack the framework to understand the whole of reality in a logically consistent manner- without separating out natural phenomena into Real and Delusional or Scientific and Religious. Scientific curiosity is only the human expression of a primitive restlessness that pervades the entire universe.

Q: Why not believe that science will eventually unlock the mystery of purely subjective experiences?

A: I think this is impossible. The objective knower or human rational mind itself is an expression of universal creativity. How could it ever objectify itself? Any explanation that science puts forth for the purely subjective would be an attempt to explain it away.

Q: Isn’t this fundamental organizing principle a supernatural force, another name for God?

A: Supernatural implies something not rooted in reality. No, we are not talking about supernatural things here. We are talking about an organizing principle that is natural, something that can be perceived by employing both the subjective and objective faculties of human mind. You may call it God, but that would only mean that God is a property of nature.

Q: Doesn’t such a hypothesis lead to miracles, blatantly opposed to the laws of science?

A: No. In fact, such an organizing principle would entirely rule out miracles. Any claim of miracles (such as resurrection from the dead) would imply the organizing principle is broken. There is only one miracle – this universe that is beautifully organized, and we, intelligent observers capable of perceiving its intricate patterns using a combination of our objective and subjective faculties.

I believe human beings evolved to view reality in this manner. We use two eyes to see the world. Two eyes are required to see geometrical depth. Single eye vision will be flat, two-dimensional. We will only see length and width, not the depth of things (it is not so obvious because we are conditioned by binocular vision, but try estimating the depth dimension with one eye closed). Two eyes are essential for stereoscopic vision. This is the case with perception too. Human cerebral cortex has two halves. Left hemisphere mostly deals with rational ideas and logic, while the right half mainly deals with feelings, artistic abilities and pattern recognition. Both left and right brains are needed for stereoscopic perception. When perception is limited to rational or predominantly ‘left-brain’ mode, resulting experiences will lack ‘meaning’ or depth. We evolved with two eyes and two brains. It is natural for us to see depth in what we observe. It is also natural to perceive meaning in what we experience.

Early scientific explorers attempted to comprehend nature as a whole. Greeks at the time of Aristotle and sages in ancient India tried to do that. This method was doomed to fail as the conceptual tools to understand reality as a whole was not available at that time. Compound reality had to be broken down, with an assumption of convenience that mind and matter are different. This is exactly what science achieved in the past three centuries. It must be stressed that such an artificial separation of mind and matter (attributed to Descartes) was a masterstroke. It made science as we know it possible. Denying the existence of mind was not in Descartes’ plan. Descartes kept his faith in God, believing that he is merely uncovering the laws created by God.

Division of one reality into mind and matter had to be maintained until science became powerful enough to understand the presence of life and intelligent observers. Even though duality introduced some error in the resulting worldview, it could be argued that benefits outweighed damages initially, until science took up the problem of observers themselves. The distortion has now become so damaging that Life may not survive unless it realizes the artificiality of mind-matter duality.

This natural progression is not happening yet. Science of life has got itself trapped in a logical black hole. I am referring to the Neo-Darwinist theory of life, which purports to explain life as the product of the natural selection of random genetic drifts.

We may call this the placebo explanation for life.

Dummy pills cure some illnesses just because the patient believes it is going to work. This is the placebo effect. Scientists look for a causal connection between the dummy pill and cure but can’t find any. So they call it placebo effect. But what is it? Isn’t ‘placebo’ another way of saying We-have-no-clue-how-it-works?

The scientific explanation for the mechanism of evolution – natural selection of favourable random genetic changes – is a placebo explanation. It is nothing better than a re-statement of an observed fact. It is true that life evolves. It is also true that offspring in every generation exhibit genetic variation. What causes genetic variation? Nothing – they just happen (by chance), according life scientists. The greatest support for this affirmation being the absence of a detectable cause. Why don’t life scientists simply say we-have-no-clue-how-it-works?

I think we deserve a better deal. Isn’t it a fact that human beings search for meaning and purpose in their lives? Don’t we deserve something better than placebo explanations, which effectively tell us ‘search for meaning and purpose evolved because such tendencies had better survival value’? Man turns to false prophets and tricksters to satisfy his hunger for meaning only because science has refused to take up the mantle for this ultimate quest by accepting the subjective into its fold.

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2 Responses to Science and the Subjective

  1. Hariod Brawn says:

    You have tackled an array of huge subjects here in this article, and I commend you for that. I greatly appreciate your perspective, and am sympathetic to much of what say here. May I ask of you though, do you believe that life is teleological, that it is working towards some finite and absolute finality of expression in this ‘fundamental organizing principle’? If so, how will it be known that this point has been reached?

    With gratitude and respect.

    Hariod Brawn.

  2. shajanm says:

    Dear Hariod,

    Thanks for your kind words. I tend to believe in natural teleology, but I am not sure stupidity and arrogance of our species was part of the plan! Evolution of Life was a creative experiment with great potential and I hope something emerges to counteract the destructive force of human short shortsightedness.

    Thank you.
    Shajan Mathew

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