Is it scientific?

Louis XIV visiting the Académie des sciences in 1671. Public domain image.

“You can believe this, because this is very scientific.” We often hear similar statements from people or organizations eager to convince us of certain theories or points of view. According to the standards of our materialistic society, whose origins go back to the European Enlightenment, a statement or position is only respectable and deserving of belief if its derivation has been grounded on the scientific method. Because of that, many people who attempt to promote something, be it a product, a technique, or a theory, seek to associate that something to science. As a result, today we are witnesses to a deluge of attempts to hijack science in all sorts of manners: dubious products whose efficacy has been demonstrated by “scientific studies;” self-help or spiritual techniques grounded on supposedly scientific principles; even a re-dressing of positions that were originally purely religious under the clothing of science.

The European enlightenment embodied a reaction to the superstition and arbitrary morals that had ruled European society for centuries. It attempted to dispel nonsensical assertions about reality by the simple use of reason and observation. Overtime, that led to the formalization of what has become a very strict method: the scientific method. The reliance of societies worldwide today on the scientific method is explainable by science’s spectacular success in modeling nature for engineering purposes; that is, by science’s efficacy in leveraging the materials and forces of nature in the service of men. It is, after all, undeniable how the application of the scientific method has improved the length and quality of our lives over the centuries.

The effectiveness of the scientific method rests on its clear and strict application. Saying that something is “scientific” must, therefore, entail strict compliance to that method. This is not an easy constraint to meet! Perhaps more often than not, things popularly purported today to be “scientific” are not scientific at all. As physicist Richard Feynman once pungently asserted, following merely the forms of science does not entail compliance to the scientific method any more than the “cargo cults” of pacific islanders after the Second World War. True science requires much more than white coats and the use of scientific jargon: it requires staunch and systematic skepticism about one’s own hypothesis until the only reasonable alternative left, in the framework of the reigning paradigm of the time, is that such a hypothesis is true.

So does that mean that assertions about nature that are not strictly grounded on the scientific method are valueless? To answer "yes" to this question logically requires at least two things: first, that the scientific method be effective; and second, that the scientific method be sufficient to explore all aspects of nature. There is no doubt about the correctness of the first statement, but there are at least two ways in which the second statement is false.

Indeed, the scientific method is eminently a third-person method. In other words, according to the scientific method an observation is only ontologically acceptable as true if first objectified (that is, quantified) and, thereafter, confirmed by independent observation. Largely due to its roots as a reaction to superstition, the scientific method is fundamentally skeptical of one’s own perceptions, placing all ontological value on external, or objective, reality. Yet, the existence of an objective external reality cannot be proven beyond doubt, for we are all confined to our own individual perceptions and private inner worlds. Even the observations of nature reported by other people are themselves but elements of our own captive inner worlds. Therefore, science seems to leave out a legitimate avenue for exploring nature: that of a first-person method. Many aspects of our private inner worlds are ineffable and cannot be objectified. It is conceivable that such inner worlds, through subjective perception mechanisms not yet understood, may give us access to aspects of nature no less valid than anything objectively verifiable, but which are inherently beyond the scope of a third-person approach. Since our inner worlds are, beyond any doubt, a part of nature, this is one way in which science is an insufficient method for exploring nature.

Another way in which science is insufficient is its inability to capture the underlying ontological qualities of things and processes as we perceive them. Indeed, the scientific method allows one to make models of nature, but is fundamentally limited when it comes to establishing what nature really is. After all, a model is merely an abstract mechanism whose elements and dynamics merely correspond to elements and dynamics of nature in an isomorphic manner, but are not nature. The making of an accurate model allows us to predict and explain natural phenomena in an abstract framework, but not to make assertions about their underlying reality. Indeed, a scientific model is as far removed from reality as a computer-based flight simulator is removed from real flight: one would hardly claim that a flight simulation is flight. Think of String Theory, for example: it models nature according to imaginary, abstract, mathematically-described “filaments” that oscillate in certain ways, such oscillations corresponding to observed phenomena of nature in an isomorphic manner. But it leaves out the obvious ontological question: just what are those filaments?

Philosopher Ray Tallis captured both these limitations of the scientific method in a brilliant recent article:
Science begins when we escape our subjective, first-person experiences into objective measurement […] You think the table over there is large, I may think it is small. We measure it and find that it is 0.66 metres square. We now characterise the table in a way that is less beholden to personal experience. Thus measurement takes us further from experience and the phenomena of subjective consciousness to a realm where things are described in abstract but quantitative terms. To do its work, physical science has to discard "secondary qualities", such as colour, warmth or cold, taste - in short, the basic contents of consciousness. For the physicist then, light is not in itself bright or colourful, it is a mixture of vibrations in an electromagnetic field of different frequencies. The material world, far from being the noisy, colourful, smelly place we live in, is colourless, silent, full of odourless molecules, atoms, particles, whose nature and behaviour is best described mathematically. In short, physical science is about the marginalisation, or even the disappearance, of phenomenal appearance. (Ray Tallis, “You won't find consciousness in the brain”, NewScientist 2742, 7 January 2010)
Yet the world we live in is a world of color, warmth, cold, taste, etc. By abstracting away from this first-person perspective, science restricts itself to a utilitarian role as enabler of engineering, but has nothing to say about the true nature of what we actually perceive as conscious entities. Therefore, while science has a fundamental and incalculably valuable role to play in our society, to truly understand the nature of our condition we need more than science.

Attempts to hijack the hard-earned trustworthiness of science, by illegitimately associating to it things or ideas that do not have a scientific basis, are unfortunate and potentially dangerous. The scientific method is very strictly defined, so the term “scientific” cannot be used lightly. Yet, it is that very strict definition of the scientific method that severely limits its ability to inform us about the true nature of reality. The scientific method, while invaluable as the enabler of engineering and technology development, has very little to tell us about the nature of the only world we live in: the world of colors, sounds, and feelings.

The primacy of experience

Representation of consciousness from the 17th century. Public domain image.

An author who has significantly influenced my thoughts over the past few years is David Chalmers, professional philosopher and author of “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory”. Below, I quote a passage from his work that I believe captures the essence of his thinking:
Despite the power of physical theory, the existence of consciousness does not seem to be derivable from physical laws. […] If the existence of consciousness cannot be derived from physical laws, a theory of physics is not a true theory of everything. So a final theory must contain an additional fundamental component. Toward this end, I propose that conscious experience be considered a fundamental feature, irreducible to anything more basic. (David Chalmers, in “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience”, Scientific American, December 1995, page 96.)
Chalmers leaves room for a dualistic view wherein consciousness is separate from a causally-closed material world whose existence is not dependent on conscious observation. That said, all experience ultimately only exists within consciousness, including scientific experience. Models, experiments, observations, theories, all reside in the domain of the conscious perception of the scientists who work with them. This line of argumentation leads irrevocably to the conclusion that conscious perception is the only absolutely unquestionable reality. Enters Robert Lanza, professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, with an intriguing article:
Living in an age dominated by science, we have come more and more to believe in an objective, empirical reality and in the goal of reaching a complete understanding of that reality. [...] Most of these comprehensive theories are no more than stories that fail to take into account one crucial factor: we are creating them. It is the biological creature that makes observations, names what it observes, and creates stories. Science has not succeeded in confronting the element of existence that is at once most familiar and most mysterious — conscious experience. (Robert Lanza, in “A New Theory of the Universe”,, Spring 2007.)
If one looks at Chalmers' ideas against this backdrop, their dualistic aspect disappears: the separate material world itself collapses into the realm of consciousness.

The parallels of Pandeism

Johannes Scotus Eriugena was among the first to propose a form of Pandeism. Source: Wikipedia.

I need to start with a disclaimer: this article does not necessarily capture any of my personal beliefs, philosophical or otherwise. It is simply an intellectual exercise in trying to relate radically distinct, but curiously complementary concepts, for the sole sake of intellectual exploration.

In discussions about strong Artificial Intelligence, a debate often emerges around the “hard problem of consciousness”. As I discuss in my upcoming book, with our scientific understanding of today we can tentatively explain physical phenomena in terms of structure and function. A model encompassing structure and function alone can be envisioned to eventually explain and simulate the full set of external behaviors manifested by a human being, without any need for conscious experience to be involved (the resulting simulation would be a so-called philosophical zombie). However, there is one property of the human mind that seems to escape reduction to structure and function: our ability to experience things in a subjective manner. As David Chalmers puts it: “What makes the hard problem hard? Here, the task is not to explain behavioral and cognitive functions: even once one has an explanation of all the relevant functions in the vicinity of consciousness — discrimination, integration, access, report, control — there may still remain a further question: why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?” (David Chalmers, in “Consciousness and its Place in Nature”)

There are materialistic points of view that deny the existence of the “hard problem of consciousness” (see Dennett), or trivialize it, including a school of thought that contends consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently-complex systems. Others seek a solution to the “hard problem” by associating consciousness to some intrinsic causal powers of specific substrates (see Searle). Penrose and Hameroff go a step further in theorizing about the specific origin of these causal powers, and proposing quantum effects as the basis of the manifestation consciousness.

Below, I draw some intriguing parallels between the debate around the “hard problem of consciousness” and the philosophy of Pandeism. The result is, by its very nature, utterly and hopelessly speculative. Still, it provides an intriguing, holistic view encompassing all sides of the debate.

Pandeism is a school of thought that holds that the universe is identical to God, but also that God was initially an omni-conscious and omni-sentient force or entity. However, upon creating the universe, God became unconscious and non-sentient by the very act of becoming the universe itself.

The central ideas behind Pandeism have been captured in a very accessible way by the most unlikely of authors: Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams. In his book “God’s Debris” (available for free download here), Adams surmises that an omnipotent God annihilated Itself in the Big Bang because It would already know everything possible except Its own lack of existence. To experience Its own non-existence would be God’s only conceivable action, and Its own obliteration the only avenue for its fulfillment. After essentially blowing Itself to bits with the Big Bang, God supposedly exists now as the smallest units of matter and an associated, intrinsic law of probability. Adams further surmises that God (i.e. the universe) is currently reassembling Itself though the continued formation of a collective consciousness/intelligence in the form of e.g. the human race (“we are God’s debris”). The innate drive for such cosmic reassembly would explain the natural human need for communication and sharing, as reflected in the development of technologies like the Internet, mobile communications, etc. Upon completion of this reassembly process, consciousness (God) would again be omnipresent, but now complete in the experience of its own non-existence.

The Pandeism ideas summarized by Adams have interesting parallels with the debate around the “hard problem” of consciousness:
  1. Consciousness is a property associated intrinsically to God. This is consistent with the thoughts of Theists like William Dembski, who denounce the materialistic view that consciousness can emerge simply from physical complexity.
  2. It follows from 1 that, because the universe consists essentially of the “debris” of God’s self-annihilation, the potential for consciousness should be intrinsic to the matter and energy in it. This is consistent with Searle’s views that consciousness is causally dependent on its physical substrate.
  3. The idea of a final cosmic re-assembly of God into an omni-conscious, sentient being is somewhat analogous to Kurzweil’s post-singularity vision that technology evolution will inexorably lead to a future where intelligence will permeate all matter in the universe.
  4. It follows from 2 and 3 that consciousness should somehow manifest itself on substrates that have reached an appropriately-high level of re-integration in the course of God’s on-going process of re-assembly. This is analogous to the need for sufficiently-high integration and complexity behind the idea of Emergence as an enabler of consciousness.
  5. The idea that the essence of God is intrinsic to the properties of the sub-atomic particles, and to an associated law of probabilities, relates directly to the non-deterministic properties of quantum mechanics that Penrose identifies as essential for consciousness.
The ontological validity of Pandeistic views aside, I cannot help but find it intellectually intriguing that, under the parallels above, every side of the heated and long-lasting argument around the “hard problem” of consciousness seems to be simultaneously correct. Factual or not, the mere fact that a philosophical system can be conceived wherein those apparently mutually-exclusive views no longer contradict one another is remarkable.

Intellectual furnishings

Image author and source: Salvatore Vuono /

We live in a culture of easy, readily-available media and entertainment. Our senses are blasted with messages on the streets, on television, and on the Internet, all creating the illusion that we live immersed in a varied and meaningful intellectual environment. However, the intellectual content we are usually exposed to is culture-bound, unbalanced, low-grade, and remarkably shallow in its pill format, targeted for easy consumption without even modest mental effort or critical thought. As a result, we live in an environment extremely conducive to intellectual numbness.

The constant exposure to external stimuli distracts us from having a good and frank look at the intellectual furnishings of our inner minds. Even when we wisely use our freedom and time to deepen our knowledge of certain subjects, the competitive pressures of our society often push us towards utilitarian subjects that help us further our careers or solve some specific problem, but which do not nurture our thoughts on the questions that we, deep inside ourselves, consider truly important and meaningful to us. The house is empty.

Though external stimuli may numb us, there are moments when we have no alternative but to confront the state of our own inner habitation. When we go to bed at night, in those moments when we are still alert before falling asleep, we are confined to our inner dwelling. Then we may realize that we live in an empty, bare, unfurnished, undecorated house, cold and exposed. We may feel bored and uncomfortable at best, unbearably lonely and vulnerable at worst, lacking the most basic and vital reassurance about our condition. We feel empty.

As a reaction, we tend to seek even more of the mind-numbing entertainment junk that seems to rule modern society; a precarious means for keeping our delicate mental balance. This perpetuates the cycle and takes us ever farther from the truly important, meaningful questions of life.

There are alternatives to this misery, though. Never before have we had so much, so easy, so cheap, and so immediate access to so much information, knowledge, perspectives, and points of view. Dispersed in the ocean of mind-numbing crapola, there are intellectual jewels that, just a couple of decades ago or so, would have been completely inaccessible to most of mankind. In addition, more and more often those are unfiltered by any kind of third-party agenda or editorial control, giving you direct access to the thoughts of other kindred spirits.

The sources are there. You can furnish your inner habitation with meaningful content: ideas, art, images, concepts, points of view, music, people, all those things that are meaningful to you. As you do so, connections will grow naturally between the intellectual pieces you bring into your inner home. Whole new, original pieces may then pop out of the recesses of your mind and gain a life of their own, generating yet more textures and colors to decorate your inner habitation and keep you comfortable, warm, and reassured in those moments when you are alone with yourself. As you explore your rich new home, colorful ideas and concepts will seem to be waiting for you, hovering weightlessly in each room you visit, popping into existence like quantum particles in a vacuum.

Find your sources. Find the others whose thoughts and ideas resonate with yours. Information and access are at your fingertips. You will need discipline to cast a wide net at first but, like a detective, once you find your initial clues, one thing will lead to the other. Hundreds of thousands of books are published each year. Millions of videos are freely available online. Thousands of new blog articles are put up on the net every day. The diamonds are often buried in piles of foul-smelling material (the price we pay for wide-spread access), but eventually you will develop the ability to quickly and efficiently sort jewel from rock. Your inner life will then be a richer, warmer, more colorful and reassuring adventure.