It is a commonly-held and growing conviction that science is a fundamental fact, a methodology which itself is true and unquestionable, and which, when followed, will inevitably lead to all ultimate truths: anything science can’t answer now, it will undoubtedly be able to answer in the future. However, science is actually born of the philosophy of Materialism, a philosophy which believes that physical matter is the fundamental (so-called ‘first-order’) building-block of reality. Science further assumes that material reality is mechanical, and scientific methodology is used to understand how this material, mechanical reality works. It seems almost to have been forgotten that science is itself a theory about reality, based on a set of assumptions, and it is practically heretical to ask the question, “What if the theory underpinning science is wrong?”
Scientific method is based on premise and theory. One makes certain premises (assumptions), theories are formulated, then evidence gathered (directly or indirectly) by your senses which either supports or contradicts a theory, but a theory can never (never, ever!) be proved, only “supported by evidence”. Evidence must be observable, either directly or indirectly via our senses. Results must be verifiable, therefore relying on the existence of the past and our memory. The fact that science depends upon your senses and memory should be enough to convince you it is a system of trust and belief: trust that most of what your senses tell you are in fact real, and the general beliefs that the past actually happened and the senses of others are largely consistent with yours.
Scientific principle states you can not prove the non-existence of something – it is nonsensical to speak of empirical evidence for non-existence – but it is often forgotten that science can also not be used to prove something does exist! Even if you find evidence to support your theory that something physically exists, both the evidence and the thing — and even you — might, for example, be an illusion of your consciousness or a more complicated reality, and no scientific test can be devised to determine the difference.
Science is said to be fact-based, but that’s only true when one makes certain premises about facts, for example that what we observe exists, that the past existed (i.e. time is real and moves in one direction), and that there is consistency in experimental outcomes. Virtually everyone takes these things for granted, but no-one has incontrovertible proof. The only “facts” which exist are those things taken to be true based on assumptions about reality and supported by overwhelming evidence (evidence which, itself, is also based on those assumptions about reality). Contrary to popular opinion, in science there is no such thing as “incontrovertible proof” of anything. Indeed, a scientific “fact” is never more than an extremely consistent result, not yet proven to be false and not expected (based on our assumptions about reality) to be proven false. But every scientific theory ever produced could be contradicted (indeed, a theory must be falsifiable in order to be scientific). I mean, for all you know, the past never existed: you certainly can’t scientifically prove it did, it could be some illusion of your consciousness, and reality may not be what you think it is. And since belief without proof is faith, by definition, science is faith-based.
But the clearest proof of science being faith-based, is its assumptions about reality which form the very foundation of science as a theory: Called “axioms”, they are assumptions – premises to the rest of science – because they cannot be proven, and must be assumed to be true in order to proceed with the application of scientific methodology. The basic premises about the nature of the first-order building-blocks of reality, are believed by scientists, but never proven. To proceed using scientific methodology, you must have faith that the primises underpinning science are true. And, interestingly, while science assumes physical reality to be true, no one has ever been able to explain precisely what ‘physical’ means!
Stating that science is faith-based is not a criticism or refutation of science’s usefulness, but an observation intended to open the mind to bigger possibilities. Indeed there’s essentially nothing we consciously do in life which is not somehow based on a faith — beliefs based on evidence we have learned to accept as facts, but not proven. To be human is to have faith, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning without belief, and without faith in that belief. Science is a very valid and useful faith, but we know there are things science cannot do, e.g. it can prove neither the existence nor the non-existence of anything. So we know there are things it cannot do, and therefore we know it is incomplete. And since science is incomplete, we know there is a greater whole of which science is only a part. This shouldn’t be seen as a threat, but as liberating.
Indeed, as science is “an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence,” it could be argued that science fits all the definitions of a religion without a deity. It has its followers, it has its heretics (e.g. creationists), it has its fundamentalists (people who believe that science can eventually describe absolutely everything about reality, and it that it is the sole vessel for/of truth, to the exclusion of all other belief-systems). It has its doctrine, traditions and rituals (principles, methods, schooling, accreditations, publications), and places of worship (museums, universities, hospitals, awards). It has its high priests (e.g. Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Witten, Hawking). It has an organised collection of beliefs which may only be changed or expanded if done in strict adherence to the rituals. And the stronger a religion takes hold, the less the laity are able to accept or even comprehend that it might not be complete, or that there might be valid, more complete systems: To state this possibility in discussions often results in ridicule. Meanwhile many of the most notable scientists, like the high priests in a church, know that reality is not what it seems, and that what the laity are told is actually a drastically over-simplified version with much uncertainty.
Fundamentalism means never having to say “I’m wrong.”
Fundamentalism is usually associated with religion, but in fact it is a term which applies to anyone who holds such a strong conviction about a world-view that when evidence to the contrary mounts, they would prefer deception to disappointment. Their view gives them certainty in a world of uncertainty, and they are prepared to pay any price for that certainty. They prefer to remain in their world of (self-)deception, rather than be disappointed by uncertainty. Uncertainty is scary, it means you have a lot more personal responsibility and accountability for thinking and deciding, and you have to admit there is so much you can’t know. If you question the fundamentalist’s beliefs, no matter how delicately and thoughtfully you do so, you will eventually be shut-out, belittled, bullied or designated a threat.
In this life, there is one thing of which you can be absolutely certain. It is your consciousness at this moment. It is the primary thing that is self-evident, self-proving. Of absolutely nothing else can you be so certain. The past may be an illusion, the future may never happen, you could be plugged-in to an alien machine dreaming about all you experience, but you are conscious in this moment. Consciousness = existence, it is existence which is able to self-reflect and to will. The “self” that consciousness reflects on is not a physical body, but the consciousness — the thoughts, the will — itself. With consciousness comes free will, in fact two sides of the same coin, for what is consciousness without the ability to freely ponder, and what is free will without the will?
The very essence of free will is the ability to break the chain of cause and effect. My consciousness is able freely to decide between two thoughts, two choices. There is no repeatable experiment that can determine the outcome. Even statistics can not help, because I can freely choose to infinitely answer “yes” or infinitely answer “no” or just decide not to answer or to answer something completely different. Because matter/energy is bound by cause-and-effect and since consciousness is not bound by cause-and-effect, it follows that consciousness cannot be of matter/energy nor can it be an emergent property of matter/energy. Consciousness is therefore quintessentially non-scientific, our self is by definition super-natural.
Perhaps I am limited in my choices by my previous experience and knowledge gained, or by the options available, but just because I can’t choose between all possible roads in the world when I come to a particular fork in the road, I can still freely choose between the two I have. And if you say there is a 50% chance I will take one road or the other, I can repeat the experiment and take one road 100% of the time, or 97% of the time… whatever I decide. That said, I believe creative geniuses come up with completely new perspectives — original thought — so we are not necessarily limited by previously gained knowledge or options present.
Could consciousness be an illusion? This just begs the question because if it is an illusion, then whose illusion is it? The illusion of consciousness is like a dream within a dream: the dreamer of either dream is the same. Anyone who claims seriously to believe that their consciousness is simply an illusion they experience — an illusion created entirely and solely by a machine made up of non-conscious parts — does so purely for the sake of scientific dogma. What does it even mean for a non-conscious machine to experience something?
Could free will be an illusion? If this is so, then none of us have any choice in our thoughts, and so thoughts and theories are completely irrelevant because they were pre-destined and we have no ability to alter their pre-destined future. You are thinking exactly the thoughts you were pre-destined throughout all eternity to hold, your theories and thoughts no more meaningful than the output of a computer programmed to output pseudo-random numbers. Your ‘opinion’ is in fact just a machine state: any other value choice is not possible because you have no choice.
The moment you acknowledge your consciousness and free will are real, you enter the realm of the non-scientific, the super-natural. And yet there are those who prefer the deception of certainty which comes from a scientifically predictable world, to the disappointment that comes from realising that there are things science can never tell us, starting with the fact that consciousness and free will are not scientific. Despite the overwhelming and indeed uniquely provable evidence of consciousness, they will try to shoehorn it into the concepts of simulations and illusions running on a pre-determined biological machine. They’ll ridicule the man who believes in creationism in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, yet deny the infinitely more substantial evidence of their own consciousness and free will. These are the scientific fundamentalists.
The scientific fundamentalist doesn’t see the irony of theorising that free will is an illusion. That is, you must have free will in order to theorise, so a theory that free will is an illusion is self-contradicting. If you question the notion that science can eventually answer every question, or suggest that it is reasonable to believe in the existence of a super-natural will in the universe, you are labelled a nut-job, science’s equivalent of a heretic. And yet, scientific principle holds that one should discard theories which have been contradicted, and so the theory that science has the potential to explain everything must also be discarded since there is evidence which contradicts it. In this sense, science is self-contradictory!
The scientific method requires observations to collect empirical evidence to formulate and test hypotheses. There are many living things which are unable to observe and perceive reality as we do because they lack some of our senses, so why should we assume we have all the senses needed to observe and perceive directly or indirectly all of reality? If we had no sense of sight nor touch, we might have no idea that light existed. How much of reality are we blind to, how much can science not tell us, because we lack the physical senses to perceive it? What do we miss simply because we are no longer willing to open our minds to unobservable possibilities? And how much do we miss because we assume that what we do observe is reality’s intrinsic form? The scientific fundamentalist implicitly believes we have all the senses we need to explore directly or indirectly all of reality. But the reasonable assumption is that we don’t.
If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.
Science has so far shown itself to be an excellent tool for modelling our universe. That said, if we have evidence there are things outside the realm of science, then we mustn’t allow science to restrict our learning by insisting it be our only tool.
Gradually over the past few hundred years — since around the time of Isaac Newton — the philosophy of Materialism, and the resulting scientific methodology, has gone from theory to unquestionable ‘Fact’. And scientific theories which we can’t afford to question for the risk of bringing down the whole philosophy of Materialism, are labelled “Laws”. Woe unto them who question a scientific Law! But is it so surprising that science, which is how material reality is modelled, is successful, when anything which is observed which does not fit the material, mechanical model is assumed to be due to a faulty observation, rather than a reason to re-examine the philosophy? Life has been turned into a machine, ‘mechanised’ by scientists like Darwin, and despite the fact that life exhibits entirely non-mechanical attributes (including consciousness, creativity and a propensity to increase complexity), it is not the philosophy which is questioned, but the observation: Materialism must be right, therefore a primary consciousness must not exist, and when reality exhibits characteristics to the contrary, materialists refuse to consider they might not have the right model.
For the past several decades — corresponding with the development of the computer — the scientific community has been trending exponentially towards a more and more materialistic and mechanistic position, viewing the universe as a giant mechanism, the ultimate clockwork — and a clockwork has no apparent need for spirit, so the position is also increasingly atheistic (rather than, say, agnostic). While Einstein and Bohr could a century ago conduct thought-experiments involving ‘spooky’ concepts, I seriously doubt they would have had the freedom to do so in today’s scientific culture. Stephen Hawking, ardent atheist, was the new saviour.
At the same time, we have been training young people to view science as all-encompassing and infallible, giving structure and certainty to all, so it’s not surprising we have created a generation of scientific fundamentalists, believers who in many cases never even studied science and scientific principles at an academic level. They are unable to question science and feel threatened when it is. Like fundamentalists of any belief-system, they ultimately prevent progress because they erect boundaries around what it is socially acceptable and reasonable to think. Scientific fundamentalists are threatened by those who believe there are aspects of reality outside the realm of science, and they react with venomous insults to those who do. They react just as religious fundamentalists: people who are in fact afraid of their own doubts within a judgemental community.
What if there was ‘something’ in reality which was neither matter nor energy? There’s no reason for it to obey laws of matter/energy, as it is neither, so science cannot be used to learn about it. Our physical senses would not be able to detect it, so a purely materialistic/mechanistic view can’t acknowledge it. Yet staring us in the face are our consciousness and free will, evidence of just that: an aspect of reality — in fact the one thing in reality we each of proof of — which defies the laws of matter/energy. The scientific fundamentalist takes the approach that if experience (i.e. consciousness, free will) doesn’t fit the model, then we must trivialise and change the experience (“it’s an illusion”), rather than the model, because the model cannot be permitted to be wrong.
If science is unable to tell us more about ‘the rest’ of reality (that which does not consist of matter/energy), then it is reasonable we attempt to develop radically new methods if we are to learn more. It is entirely possible we already have such methods at our disposal, but have been ‘unlearning’ them over the centuries — drowning out the still, small voice; closing the door on the possibility of the super-natural — in favour of scientific thinking, much as most children unlearn creativity in favour of conformity. At the very least, we must nurture creative philosophical thinking so it is valued and pursued in our modern world as much as scientific methods (which were born of philosophical thinking in the first place), and value the kind of radical scientific thinking which was accepted in Einstein and Bohr’s time, before the scientific/materialistic/mechanistic taboos set in in the latter part of the 20th century.
The alternative is to close our spiritual eyes permanently, in the belief that if we can’t see something, it cannot exist. With the risk that we close the door on ever discovering the true nature of reality. The scientific fundamentalists are much worse – indeed, much more dangerous – than the Roman Catholic church of Galileo’s time: they have a bigger majority, and they are much more sure they have the one true path to truth.
copyright © 2014, 2018 Scott Owen