Monday, 17 August 2015

The debt we all owe Bernard d’Espagnat (1921-2015)

It was only in the last few weeks that Bernard d’Espagnat died. Sadly, not many people were aware of this… nor of his contribution to what we now know about quantum reality. And this is because despite what he (and others) have revealed in their lifetimes, people still believe the Materialism world-view is the de-facto accepted nature of reality. This is thanks to the evangelistic fervour of über-atheists (such as Richard Dawkins etc.) whose world-views have long since fallen apart ardently dis-informing the public of what scientists, through the work of d’Espagnat, know to be the fabric of all reality… and it isn’t Materialism.
d’Espagnat (theoretical physicist and philosopher) was born in 1921 in Fourmagnac, and established himself as a major voice in the field of Quantum Mechanics (working alongside Fermi, Bohr and Bell). And when in 1979 wrote “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment” he paved the way for his description of physical reality as a ‘veiled reality’ in the context of Quantum Mechanics and his experiments with Bell's inequalities he furthered this concept of veiled reality and won the attention of the John Templeton Foundation to become the 2009 Templeton Prize winner for his "work which acknowledges that science cannot fully explain 'the nature of being.'”
But it is for something else for which we owe so much to d’Espagnat, because his work sprang from his issues with his fellow scientists. He remained, till he died, troubled by the scant attention most physicists paid to the interpretational questions raised by quantum mechanics, as he wrote in the Guardian newspaper in 2009:
And then a real breakthrough took place in that John Bell, a colleague of mine at Cern, published his famous inequalities, which - for the first time - opened a possibility of testing whether or not entanglement-at-a-distance had experimentally testable consequences.
“The outcome confirmed my anticipations. Entanglement-at-a-distance does physically exist, in the sense that it has physically verifiable (and verified) consequences. Which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that some of our most engrained notions about space and causality should be reconsidered.
It was way back in 1965 (showing my age here) that his first book, Conceptions of Contemporary Physics (1965), asked these questions and sketched possible resolutions, underscoring his insistence that scientists face the issues raised by their own pursuits. And yet, even in 2009 he felt that scientists were ignoring the real issues of science, as he explained in his address upon winning the Templeton Prize
When all is said and done I therefore consider that the – apparently so sensible and self-evident – world view we called transcendental realism is to be dropped after all. I think that our scientific knowledge finally bears, not on reality-in-itself – alias “the Real,” alias “the ground of everything” – but just on empirical reality, that is, on the picture that, in virtue of its structure and finite intellectual capacities, human mind is induced to form of reality-in-itself. And, account being taken of the hidden wholeness I mentioned before, I even claim that we must drop the view according to which objects, be they elementary or composite, exist by themselves and are at any time at some definite place is space. To state that we see them so because the structure of our senses makes us perceive the Real in this form seems to be nearer to the truth. Admittedly this conception of mine is not the one the bulk of the scientists’ community favors. Note however that it is quite far from just being my personal one. On the one hand it meets with the views of outstanding contemporary neurologists specialized in cognition theory. And on the other one it obviously bears quite a definite relationship with the main Kantian views, which were adhered to by a great many philosophers as well as by some physicists such as Henri Poincaré.
Because of his insights during the ‘60s, and his work with more recognised quantum scientists like Bell and Bohr, d’Espagnat was an early interpreter of the deep philosophical significance of experimental research agenda in quantum physics. He encouraged physicists and philosophers to think afresh about questions long considered marginal but which today serve as the foundation for new fields of research into the nature of reality. And in ‘Le réel voilé, analyse des concepts quantiques’ (Veiled Reality, An Analysis of Present-Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts), he coined the term “veiled reality” and explained why significant experiments over the past decade had not restored conventional realism. And when he published ‘On Physics and Philosophy’ (published in France in 2002 as Traité de physique et de philosophie) it was hailed as “surely the most complete book to have been written on this subject and one likely to last a long time…” by Roland Omnès.
His contribution to science should not be forgotten, lest we want science to continue to stagnate and feed the monster that is Materialism. And although he did not describe himself as a monistic idealist, maybe because his philosophy had never been tested to his satisfaction (although Bohr and Heisenberg, the two founding fathers of the Copenhagen interpretation, clearly leaned towards monistic idealism in some of their writings).
d’Espagnat recognised that Quantum Mechanics gives us a revolutionary view of reality, a view radically different from the deterministic, causal, continuous, and objective view of the world with which classical mechanics mesmerises us. Quantum Mechanics depicts the world of appearance as a succession of discontinuous events, and what’s more disconcerting to the classical physicist, it seems to say that no event is an event unless it is an observed event. This appears to invite subjects, observers, into the affair of objects, the observed; and if subjects and objects get mixed up, then the traditional doctrine of strong objectivity – the observer independence of objects – doesn’t hold. And more recently Bell’s theorem and Aspect’s experimental demonstration of EPR-Bohm non-locality have challenged the doctrine of strong objectivity even further.
The subject-object mixing and non-locality form the core of the quantum mechanical measurement problem. In the standard Copenhagen interpretation, the assumption of collapse of the wave function upon observation (the reduction postulate) is introduced in order to connect theory and experiment, but the question of what constitutes a measurement has been left unanswered. And in view of the EPR-Bohm non-locality, the collapse is clearly non-local, yet the ontological implication of non-local collapse has still not been studied.
Any explicit role of the subject is avoided in the standard interpretation, but the price is the baffling quantum/classical dichotomy. This dichotomy finds a straightforward resolution if we assume as von Neumann and Wigner have done, that consciousness, the observing subject, collapses the state function of a quantum system, not the “classical” measuring apparatus. Unfortunately, at least two major objections can be raised against the von Neumann-Wigner hypothesis. The first is the question of mind over matter, and the second is solipsism. But this subject is for another post. For now, let us remember the man without whom these questions might not have been heard today.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

What came first: Consciousness or Matter? (Does it matter? What do you think?)

"Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society." 
Doris Lessing ― The Golden Notebook

Following on from my last post, it is now time to delve into what being a Monist Idealist Panentheist Catholic means for me. As explained in said last post, these words are merely labels, and labels can mean different things to different people. Also, if some labels are not recognised, but others are, then misunderstanding can creep in, adding bias to the unknown labels towards the recognised label. This is ironic given that the reason for multiple labels in the first place is so that they all refine each other. So, what exactly does this set of labels mean?

These labels are simply a shorthand way of describing my personal world-view. They are not my actual world-view, but close enough to act as quick-n-dirty pointers. But before describing my own personal view of reality, perhaps a brief definition of each label (as it relates to my world-view) is first needed:

  • Monism - that all of reality, both physical and mental, are actually a single realm
  • Idealism - that of the two experiences: consciousness is the reality, and matter the illusion
  • Panentheism - that all of reality (ie consciousness) constitutes a 'universal mind'
  • Catholicism - the model I choose to represent this panentheism in practice

Being the adopted model I choose to represent my world-view, Catholicism is a stage once removed and thus immaterial to the formation of my world-view, instead it is the conclusion to which my world-view has lead me. If you are interested in seeing how religion might fit into this scientific philosophical world-view, I suggest checking out this Panentheistic Christian's video on how he equates his religion to panentheism.

Why Monism?

As explained in my prior post, the most fundamental question to be answered is: given we each experience both consciousness and a physical world we live in, how are both these incompatible experiences connected? Philosophers since Descartes (and to a lesser degree back to Plato) have struggled with this question. This dualistic nature, according to Descartes, is just as it seems... a separate non-physical realm tied to elements in the physical realm... a ghost in the machine. However, the mechanism of this connection has yet to be found. Alternatively, it is possible that there would be no problem connecting the two, if there exists only one realm rather than two. This monistic view however also creates problems, since if everything is purely material... what is consciousness and where does it come from? Similarly, if everyone's consciousness creates its reality... why do we all experience the same 'illusion' of reality.

Why Idealistic Monism?

Over time, the balance between the candidates for reality has shifted between the three. Now, despite the insistence of some teaching establishments and vocal pop scientists that the question has been solved... in their favour, developments in science in the nature of reality have steadily revealed the true nature of reality at the quantum level. And so Materialism was the first to fall some eighty years ago (though adherents refuse to accept defeat and have tried since to find contrary evidence... to no avail); Dualism waned as the search for a unified Theory of Everything began in earnest; and all the signs from quantum experiments pointed to the counter-intuitive Idealism as the true reality. And as more discoveries are revealed, each candidates' supporters try to find reasons to disprove the others. But one thing is now certain... Materialism is dead as long as David Chalmers's 'Hard Problem of Consciousness' remains unresolved. And it is far from even being defined, let alone solved.


Since the discovery of the nature of quantum reality, and more importantly the problems of superposition, measurement, double eraser, Schroedinger's cat, and Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it can no longer be denied that what we perceive to be reality, is in fact not true. Evolutionary Theory favours Fitness over Accuracy, in order for us to react quickly and with little cost to energy, so it makes sense for our perception to perceive an environment that facilitates this at the expense of irrelevant 'truth'. This has repeatedly been shown to be true, now that evolution can be described mathematically and computer modelled. What we discovered is that to perceive is less to do with the true depiction of reality, and more to do with reproduction. And this has been confirmed via fMRI scans which show that a full third of the brain is occupied when opening one's eyes. Now if the eyes were merely recording what was 'out there', then there is no need to waste valuable calories in brain activity. But since the brain is active, what is it doing, and what is the true nature of reality?

What is happening in the brain as we look around, is that it is creating an interface to what is really 'out there' to enable us to survive and reproduce. This is what we perceive as time and space. For example, the following video is not a small window to a little man inside the screen... but a representation of computer parts and computer bits that is hidden behind an interface that we perceive as a video of a TED event.  But if we cannot trust our senses to deliver accuracy and truth, how can we answer the Hard Problem of Consciousness as thus exposed?

Up until now, this has been left to the philosophers to argue over, but for science to tackle this new arena effectively and decisively, it will need the help of mathematics (as this appears to be the language in which reality is written). Luckily, this too is close to hand... in the form of pioneering work by Donald Hoffman (as summarised in his TED address):

This non-duality (Monistic Idealism), unlike Materialism which takes a top-down approach, effectively 'begging the question', is a bottom-up mathematical model of consciousness (which as the image at the top of this post shows) not only resolves the Mind-Body question, but also appears to answer the problems of quantum mechanics in that the mathematical formula for the wave function turns out to be mathematically identical to Hoffman's formula for consciousness. This Theory of Consciousness pretty much sums up my own personal observations and rationalisings, and is what I describe as Idealism for me. And I am not alone... scientist and now philosopher Bernardo Kastrup has also arrived at the same conclusions from yet another different direction. And although there are some of his conclusions I may not fully agree with, I thoroughly recommend you check out him and his books.

So where does all this leave us?

If we are seeking the meaning of life, the universe, and everything then (along with the number 42 ringing in our minds) we have the ingredients of a workable framework: a single shared consciousness created by the interaction of consciousnesses, a faux-reality created by said consciousness, and self-aware individual consciousnesses within the created material faux-reality. So to answer the question: "but what does it mean?" we can search models derived from belief-sets such as theism, atheism, pantheism, panentheism, panpsychism, and New Age et al, to see which (if any) is compatible with this monistic idealist model... and its meaning. For me, I found this to be Panentheism in the Catholic tradition.

Hopefully this begins to unravel my own personal worldview: it is not woo... it is evidence based, repeatable and falsifiable... supported by evidence, observation and mathematical proofs, built from the ground up and a priori reductionist foundation. And despite what certain university philosophy departments might teach, and ubiquitous popular science promoters with funding on their minds, the Hard Problem of Consciousness is still very much an area of intense debate... unlike the validity of Materialism which has long since been shown to be demonstrably false.

Beware the woo, and remember... Don't drink the Kool-Aid!