Pseudoscience and Victor Stenger’s Quantum Gods
Mistaken, Misinformed and Misleading
by David Scharf, Ph.D.
Dr. Scharf is currently an independent researcher in the greater Boston area, and was formerly an Associate Professor of Physics at Maharishi University of Management. He received his Ph.D. in 1986 from Johns Hopkins University, in the philosophy of physics. The title of his dissertation was: Quantum Mechanics and the Program for the Unity of Science. His broad work experience ranges from extensive industrial computational engineering to university teaching in physics, mathematics, computer science, and philosophy. Dr. Scharf’s current areas of focus include Quantum Field Theory, Quantum Neuroscience, Computational Physics, History and Philosophy of Physics, and Philosophy of Mind.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”—Albert Einstein
Quantum spirituality—the idea that some aspect of consciousness plays a fundamental role in the universe and that advanced physics should be interpreted as having to some extent already incorporated this principle—has had distinguished representation among both physicists and philosophers. It has generated an upsurge ofgrassroots enthusiasm because of the widespread sense that science and spirituality, rather than being fundamentally separate or even opposed, are in fact deeply connected and mutually reinforcing. Victor Stenger’s purpose in writing Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness is to “debunk” this idea—but attention to the details shows that it is actually Stenger’s arguments that need the debunking.
Stenger—a retired physicist who is leveraging his scientific background to try to discredit anything and everything that smacks of spirituality—doesn’t respect his intellectual opponents enough to get their positions right; in some instances he appears to deliberately misrepresent their views; and, most important, his own reasoning is characterized by unremitting carelessness. Moreover, there is a method to his carelessness—it enables him to systematically avoid addressing the tough arguments of his opponents. Hence we find him frequently setting up a straw man by misrepresenting the debate as a simple matter of science and reason versus superstition. Once having defined this as the issue, all he needs to do is assume the attitude of an outraged scientist and heap on the ridicule. But if he had done his homework and taken the trouble to really understand the science and logic supporting quantum spirituality, he would have discovered that it is harder to dismiss than he had imagined. Indeed, the more carefully—and yes, critically—one considers the issues, the more one finds quantum spirituality to
be eminently worthy of serious consideration, as a plausible and measured approach to the most long-standing and intractable questions at the basis of science.
In my view, quantum spirituality will prove to represent a phase transition in the history of science of immense proportions. In this context Stenger’s books, and those of like- minded debunkers, represent a futile rear-guard action, intended to forestall what will come to be seen as the inexorable progress of science toward a more profound understanding of natural law. Download PDF of full article. 579 KB
Table of Contents
Debunking The Debunkers
Quantum spirituality embodies a phase transition in the history of science of immense proportions, and the intense hostility this important idea engenders in some quarters should be understood in this context.
Why Is Stenger So Careless?
Stenger consistently misunderstands, misrepresents or otherwise evades the arguments of scientists who oppose his reductive materialism. Examples include his misunderstanding Amit Goswami’s idealism, Isaac Newton’s theism, and Roger Penrose’s non-computational conception of intelligence.
What is reductive materialism and why is it difficult to reconcile with advanced physics?
Quantum measurement and quantum entanglement may provide a better framework than classical physics for understanding the physics of consciousness.
We set the record straight on the teachings and achievements of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and quantum physicist John Hagelin, especially the theory and research behind the Maharishi-Hagelin identity principle, identifying Transcendental Consciousness with the unified field.
We critique Stenger’s own version of reductive materialism, and explain why it contributes nothing to the debate beyond the well-known principles of traditional atheism. In this context we explore the deep structure of order at the basis of consciousness and matter.
We settle the question of whether Stenger’s book is pseudoscience.
Debunking the debunkers
With the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century, consciousness and matter were assigned to radically different spheres. Mathematical physics pursued the investigation of matter as far as it could go without invoking consciousness or spirituality, while God and soul were assigned to the religious sphere. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, this uneasy truce was disturbed by the advent of psychology as a scientific discipline, which reintroduced questions about the relationship between science and religion that had been dormant since the overthrow of the geocentric worldview. But with the introduction of relativity theory and quantum mechanics, the assumption that physics can proceed without addressing consciousness has been called into question at an even more fundamental level.
Quantum spirituality—the idea that some aspect of consciousness plays a fundamental role in the universe and that advanced physics should be interpreted as having to some extent already incorporated this principle—has had distinguished representation among both physicists and philosophers, including many of the founders of quantum theory itself. Quantum spirituality has generated an upsurge of grassroots enthusiasm precisely because of the widespread sense that the uneasy relationship between science and spirituality has been based on a misconception, and that science and spirituality, rather than being fundamentally separate or even opposed, are in fact deeply connected and mutually reinforcing. Victor Stenger’s purpose in writing Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness is to “debunk” this idea as much as possible. In his view it is “the result of misunderstanding and, in some cases, intentional misrepresentation” (p. 18) of what science really says and means.1
Stenger believes that he is bringing a scientific outlook and much needed critical thinking to the debate, and he encourages his readers to persevere in reading his book “since science and the ability to think critically, inside or outside science, can be learned only by diligent effort” (p. 18). However, as we will soon see, it is actually Stenger’s arguments that need the debunking. Even the British philosopher of physics Gordon McCabe, himself not particularly receptive to quantum spirituality, remarks about Quantum Gods that “there seems little evidence that Stenger has a knowledge of philosophy, or the philosophy of science. As a consequence, he commits the most obvious and egregious of errors” (McCabe, 2009).
In my view, quantum spirituality will prove to represent a historical phase transition of immense proportions. In this context I see Stenger’s books, and those of like-minded debunkers, as a futile rear-guard action, intended to forestall what will come to be seen as the inexorable progress of science toward a more profound understanding of natural law. One major problem with trying to keep consciousness and spirituality outside the domain of physics is that physics can’t responsibly accept the idea that anything is outside its domain. If something affects physical processes, physics is going to assign variables and operators, and start to model the interactions with equations. In this sense, the domain of physics is infinitely expandable. The old dichotomy between natural and supernatural phenomena, for example, is being superseded. From this perspective , even God’s interventions would not be understood as a violation of natural law; they would embody a deeper level of natural law, perhaps, but physics would still want to understand and model the operative principles.
There are two broad hypotheses about how consciousness should be integrated into the domain of physics. The first is that consciousness is to be understood as a localized product of brain processes. This appears to be what Stenger has in mind when he confidently asserts, “No empirical evidence supports the notion that mind is anything other than the product of purely material forces.” (p. 262) This approach has been the perspective of materialist philosophies of mind for a long time; but these have generated longstanding and apparently insoluble skeptical problems—such as the brain-in-a-vat premise on which the popular movie The Matrix was based —suggesting that this whole approach may be flawed. Incidentally, one need not look far for empirical evidence that mind is something other “than the product of purely material forces.” The inexplicable existence of consciousness and the cognitive autonomy inherent in moral responsibility and rational thought prima facie provides such empirical evidence. Stenger gives no argument whatever for why we should discount this evidence from everyday experience. Probably he means that neuroscience may someday provide an exhaustive account of mind and consciousness, and it is incumbent on anyone, who doubts neuroscience’s boundless capacity, to provide evidence to the contrary. But the distinguished philosopher of mind, Hilary Putnam, would consider Stenger to be over-confident:
Saying “Science may someday find a way to reduce consciousness (or reference, or whatever) to physics” is, here and now, saying that science may someday do we know¬not-what we-know-not-how. And from the fact that those words may in the future come to have a sense we will understand, it no more follows that they now express anything we can understand than it follows from the fact that I may someday learn to play the violin that I can now play the violin” (Putnam, 1999, p. 173).
The second hypothesis is that consciousness and spirituality enter into physics at a more fundamental level of natural law and, indeed, if there is to be a reduction, it will be the material world that will prove to be a product of consciousness. This is the theme proposed by physicists and other researchers who ascribe to the model embodied in quantum spirituality. From this perspective, the reason that quantum spirituality generates such intense hostility in some commentators is not because it is an unscientific idea, but precisely because it would represent a scientific revolution of such enormous magnitude. Its acceptance would destabilize the worldview of those for whom the materialistic paradigm has become a de facto belief system—a faith-based secular religion. This would explain the degree of hostility displayed by Victor Stenger in Quantum Gods and by Michael Shermer, the Scientific American editor who wrote the foreword.
As a physicist and philosopher of physics, naturally I look for scholarship and thoughtful analysis in writings about important foundational and scientific material; but in this book I was severely disappointed. Stenger is a retired physicist who has decided to leverage his scientific background in order to discredit anything and everything that smacks of spirituality or religion. Certainly there are clear-thinking atheists and materialists who have made valuable contributions to the debates regarding mind and its place in nature. And, although I ultimately don’t agree with their positions, I can appreciate the carefulness of their analysis —and my own thinking is clarified and enriched as a result of reading their work. But Stenger’s book is not like that. As we will see, his writing is polemical rather than conscientious; he doesn’t have enough respect for his intellectual opponents to get their positions right; in some instances he appears to deliberately misrepresent their views; and, most important, his own reasoning is characterized by carelessness throughout the book.
Stenger has published eight recent books in this vein, and his previous one, God:The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist , was number 21 on the New York Times bestseller list. His books generally get enthusiastic reviews by the “new atheist” crowd, including such like-minded writers as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. Shermer’s foreword establishes the polemical tone for their book with its provocative title, “Quantum Flapdoodle and Other Flummery.” This foreword refers to “quantum flapdoodle” or “flapdoodlists” four times in four pages, with “New Age nuttiness,” “airy fairy deity” and “pseudoscience” thrown in, to make sure we get the point.2
With this inauspicious beginning, the book takes the reader on a grand tour of science and spirituality, taking on not only “quantum spirituality” and “quantum theology” but also more traditional topics such as the argument from intelligent design and free will, not to mention the problem of evil and suffering, which has been vigorously debated for millennia. Stenger has a chapter devoted to debunking psychic phenomena,3 and he even takes a few swipes at alternative medicine. He ends with a chapter laying out his own conclusions about the implications of science for spiritual and philosophical questions, which he characterizes as “nothingism,” according to which, “The universe is truly comprehensible as a purely material system. We can fit all observations to a model of elementary particles…that move around in an empty void —just as the Greek atomists’ conjectures from thousands of years ago…”(p. 239).
Stenger takes special aim at the two recent, popular films, What the Bleep Do We Know and The Secret, and particularly at the featured scientists in those films, including Fred Alan Wolf, Stuart Hameroff, Jeffrey Satinover, Amit Goswami and John Hagelin. He devotes a full chapter to assailing not only Hagelin but also Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Transcendental Meditation organization and Maharishi University of Management. In Stenger’s view, “Popular films and books over the past generation have promoted the notion that modern physics and particularly quantum mechanics have revealed a connection between human consciousness and reality that is purported to provide a scientific basis for a spiritual component to the universe.... However, none of these claims stand up under critical scrutiny…” (p.242). As we will soon see, however, the problem is not that Stenger’s scrutiny is overly critical but that, on the contrary, he is not nearly critical or careful enough.
In the next sections we will analyze Quantum Gods from two points of view, one negative and the other positive. First, we will ask: Is Stenger’s book a paradigmatic example of pseudoscience? Debunkers love this word. Pseudoscience claims the prestige and authority of science but lacks the careful attention to detail and rigorous method characteristic of real science. Second, and more important, although Stenger’s treatment of quantum spirituality is unremittingly slapdash, he does touch on important issues concerning science and spirituality that deserve proper development. We will take this opportunity to do what Stenger ought to have done, namely, explain why serious-minded people think quantum spirituality is important and why it presents a profound and plausible alternative to the atheist/materialist option. Even if one ultimately disagrees with quantum spirituality, scientific method requires an accurate presentation of the ideas and a careful consideration of the best reasons for their adoption.
In the following pages, we will look at Stenger’s misrepresentation of a number of the important themes underlying quantum spirituality, including:
o The powerful idea that there is a fundamental aspect of consciousness that is scientifically primary, and how this differs from the silly idea of individual solipsism.
o The manner in which key scientific theorists, such as Isaac Newton, attempted to integrate science and spirituality.
o The idea that a fundamental component of intelligence is non-computational, meaning neither deterministic nor random .
o What reductive materialism means and why it is difficult to reconcile with advanced physics.
o Why quantum measurement and quantum entanglement may provide a better framework than classical physics for understanding the physics of consciousness.
In addition, we will examine Stenger’s ham-handed criticisms of the views of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and quantum physicist John Hagelin. Finally, we will conclude with an evaluation of Stenger’s version of materialist metaphysics, which he characterizes as nothingism, and we will show that there is substantially less to nothingism than Stenger imagines.
1 All Stenger references are to Quantum Gods, (Stenger, 2009).
2 Shermer, who like Stenger considers himself to be a professional skeptic, invoked the “quantum flapdoodle” epithet in his Scientific American critique of What the Bleep, entitled “Quantum Quackery” (Shermer, 2005). He particularly targets the Hameroff-Penrose model of quantum consciousness. Hameroff’s response, “Hackery/Quackery in Scientific American,” addresses Shermer’s objections, and concludes with the advice to “lighten up!” Thus Hameroff writes, “Whatthebleep? is entertainment. Lighten up! The early animations of Jules Verne’s moon landings were crude by later standards, but planted the seed of a wonderful idea in popular culture.” (www.quantumconsciousness.org/hackery.htm. This is a link to Stuart Hameroff’s pages.) Evidently, Shermer hasn’t taken Hameroff’s advice.
3 For a balanced discussion of psychic phenomena, see Alcock, Freeman, and Burns (2003).
Return to Table of Contents
Why is Stenger so careless?
Stenger begins his critique of quantum spirituality with an overly simplistic statement of the theme of What the Bleep Do We Know!?:
The theme is simply stated: Quantum mechanics teaches us that we make our own reality. As we will see, this theme is central to what I call quantum spirituality, going back to the 1970s to an era that was called the New Age. (p.35)
This statement is simplistic because, to begin with, quantum mechanics doesn’t teach philosophy, although it affords conceptual tools that may provide a richer framework for understanding and modeling the nature of consciousness and spirituality. Second, the we in “we make our own reality” refers to the idea that consciousness is the fundamental principle of reality; it needs to be emphasized that this is not the solipsistic idea that there are no natural laws and that we, as private individuals, can immediately have anything we want merely by wishing. And, third, the idea that consciousness is the fundamental principle of reality goes back farther than the 1970s.
Consider Stenger’s report on his verbal sparring with the respected physicist and Vedanta philosopher Amit Goswami:
I accused Goswami of solipsism, which is the doctrine that the self is the only reality and the world is all made up in our heads. Goswami objected vehemently that this was not at all his position. However, he has said elsewhere that our notion of being separate individuals is an illusion. I still do not see how the existence of one common “self,” the cosmic consciousness in which we all participate that manufactures reality, is any different from the solipsistic self who does the same. (p.39)
The fact that Goswami objected vehemently should have been a clue to Stenger that he needed to work harder to understand his opponent’s viewpoint, and his not doing so is an indication of his unwillingness to take his intellectual opponents seriously. Anyway, is it really so hard to understand the difference between the idea of consciousness as the fundamental reality and the solipsistic idea that “the world is all made up in our heads”? Certainly consciousness is intimately related to “our heads”—the brain and nervous system—this aspect of consciousness is individual, and obviously there are many different and separate individuals. But Goswami is suggesting that consciousness has a deeper level, which is universal, and it is this fundamental level which is at the basis of all reality. Goswami’s viewpoint—which is close to our own—is that this fundamental level of consciousness manifests both as the material world and as many different, conscious individuals. By contrast, solipsism is an unsophisticated view that you might hear at a late night freshman bull-session, where someone will provocatively argue that his own private inner life is all that there is, and everything else —including especially everyone he is debating—is just a figment of his imagination.
By trying to associate Goswami’s sophisticated viewpoint with solipsism, Stenger is setting up a straw man. It’s easier to change the subject and argue against solipsism than it is to address Goswami’s real position. Stenger has a persistent habit of misrepresenting the views of his opponents, as we will see, and this lack of rigor is part of the reason why his book should be characterized as pseudoscience.
The idea that consciousness has a deeper, transcendental level which constitutes the ultimate reality has a long and influential history, especially in the ancient Vedic tradition of India, where it has predominated for millennia, with a resulting rich and comprehensive theoretical framework—together with systematic empirical methods—based on the primacy of consciousness. We will return to this Vedic conception when we discuss Maharishi’s views below, in the context of Stenger’s chapter on them.4
In Western thought the primacy of consciousness has had many distinguished representatives, including Plato, Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Hume, George Berkeley, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Edmund Husserl. In one of the simplest presentations, called idealism, George Berkeley proposed that all material objects exist and interact in consciousness; ultimately they are all ideas in the mind of God. In response, in what must be one of the most famous non-sequiturs in Western philosophy, Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and proclaimed, “I refute [Berkeley] thus!” But, from Berkeley’s point of view, Samuel Johnson, the stone and the laws of nature governing their interaction are all embedded in consciousness; so Johnson simply failed to understand the implications of idealism.
What’s worrisome in the present context is that Stenger also fails to understand the implications, or to consider them in a serious or thoughtful manner:
I will not take seriously the idealist view that there is only spirit. Samuel Johnson quickly refuted that by kicking a rock. The rock kicked back. (p.64)
But why isn’t he taking this seriously, given that the 292 pages of Quantum Gods are entirely devoted to arguing against spirituality and the primacy of consciousness?
Stenger’s carelessness is also evident in his reporting on the distinction between theism, which emphasizes the view of God as personal and actively intervening in the world, versus deism. The aspect of deism that Stenger is most interested in is the view that God “created the universe but left it alone thereafter” (p.16). Stenger mistakenly places Newton in the deist camp, maintaining (p.98) that “according to Newton we live in a clockwork universe with everything predetermined.” Although Newton’s laws of physics are deterministic, only if they are assumed to be universally applicable would this imply a clockwork universe with everything predetermined. And Newton himself explicitly rejected this view.5 Newton thought that the deterministic laws he had discovered had limited applicability, and that their limitations provided information about the nature of God’s interventions. Throughout the history of science, many of the most important contributors have been profoundly engaged in the harmonizing of science and spirituality. Yet, in his rush to portray the debates about spirituality and religion in terms of a simplistic struggle between science and superstition, Stenger rides roughshod over the historical record.
Stenger’s confusion about Newton’s theism is, sadly, an all-too-typical instance of his superficial treatment of the deepest issues. A more conscientious examination of Newton’s thinking would have discovered that, although Newton did not have the benefit of the 20th century scientific advances, he was already anticipating key insights of quantum spirituality at least in this respect: Scientific precision—rather than being inimical to spirituality—permits us to make a more exact determination of the nature of the interface between spirituality and the material world. Given that so many of the greatest scientific geniuses took this issue very seriously, if someone like Stenger wants to co-opt science for an anti-spiritual conclusion, it must be on the basis of careful and detailed arguments, because an anti-spiritual conclusion was not at all what these scientists had in mind. But careful argumentation is not what Stenger’s book is about—where possible Stenger will avoid the need for argument by misrepresenting the historical record and, failing that as we will see, he will substitute ridicule for argument. In fact, this formula is so easy to replicate, it is surprising that he has only produced eight books in this vein since 1988!6
By the way, Stenger has also misrepresented the deist side of the theism/deism controversy. Although he is hostile to spirituality and religion in all their forms, he is a little more tolerant of his version of deism, because he sees it as a half-way house on the way toward atheism. But his claim that deists “broke openly with Christian teaching” (p. 16) is untrue of most deists—Descartes and Leibniz being among the most prominent—who saw themselves as reconciling Christianity and science. Likewise, his attempt to set up a contradiction between the personal God who responds to individual needs and prayers and the deist god who “created the universe but plays no further role in it” (p.27) is simplistic and misleading. The subtleties of the deist doctrine of pre-established harmony have evidently eluded Stenger, where God’s responsiveness to our prayers and his intercession on our behalf were built into the clockwork universe from the beginning. According to pre-established harmony, God anticipated our needs and prayers, and incorporated his responses in the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the creation.7
And it is not just the history of ideas that Stenger misrepresents. Contemporary physicist Roger Penrose has leveraged non-computational mathematics to support his argument for looking to new physics for the physical correlates of mind and consciousness. An important result in mathematics due to Kurt Gödel has been taken to show that mathematical intuition is non-computational—in other words it cannot be modeled by a computer algorithm. From this, Penrose suggests that the physical basis for human intelligence, in general, must involve a level of physics much deeper than the deterministic, mechanistic processes assumed by contemporary neuroscience, for which the brain is essentially just a complex computer. Moreover—and here is where Stenger gets it wrong—non-computational does not mean random. Contemporary computers have pseudo-random number generators built in, and Penrose makes a convincing case that randomness, as for example from a quantum mechanical decay process, “indeed does nothing useful for us; if anything, it would be better to stay with the pseudo-randomness…” (Penrose, 1996, p.26). Randomness does not get at what is distinctive about human intelligence any more than deterministic processes do. Deterministic/random is not a comprehensive dichotomy—non-computational means both non-deterministic and non-random.8 These ideas are central to Penrose’s argument, and Stenger ought to have gotten them right.
But Stenger misunderstands and therefore misrepresents Penrose’s argument:
The brain could operate that way, being basically classical and deterministic, but occasionally being jolted by a random quantum event. What is interesting is that the decisions made on [sic] this fashion would be indistinguishable from creative acts or free will. Is that all there is to it? (p.190)
No, that is not all there is to it. Mathematical intuition, and any genuinely creative thought process, evidently—if Penrose is right—involves something more, which cannot be modeled by any combination of deterministic and random processes. Incidentally, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi referred to this something more as creative intelligence and, like Penrose, argued that this principle had to represent the fundamental level of nature’s functioning. As we will see below, Maharishi, together with quantum physicist John Hagelin, came to the conclusion that creative intelligence—representing the deepest level of consciousness—must have its source in the unified field, which quantum physics has recently come to understand in terms of superunification, involving the unification of all of nature’s force and matter fields.
Penrose’s argument is a strong one, and it ought to be accurately presented and addressed, if Stenger is going to dispute Penrose’s conclusion that consciousness will be incorporated into physics at its most fundamental level. Stenger consistently evades the forceful challenges to his materialist dogma, preferring to cast the arguments for the primacy of consciousness in terms of psychic phenomena, for which the evidence is controversial, or miracles, which are considered to be rare and elusive. Then he can set to work debunking, with his characteristic scientistic indignation. Although I think that psychic phenomena and miracles should be researched in a serious manner, Penrose’s argument can be understood to mean that there are plenty of miracles much closer to home, intrinsic to the functioning of intelligence and intelligent intuition. We will take this up again later, when we discuss the theme emphasized by Nobel laureate, Eugene Wigner, regarding the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.
In his review of Quantum Gods, Gordon McCabe answered the question posed in the title to this section—why is Stenger so careless?—as follows:
The principles of scholarship dictate that a professional researcher should be acquainted with all of the relevant literature, yet Stenger, and most of the physicists who write about philosophical subjects, do so with a blithe disregard for this principle. Curious. (McCabe, 2009)
In the next section, we will consider Stenger’s lack of acquaintance with the philosophical literature relating to reduction and emergence, and show how it leads him to misunderstand and to obscure critical issues relating to the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Although this discussion involves some dense analysis, I think it is worthwhile to clarify the relevant terminological distinctions because, in so doing, we can better understand why it is reasonable to think that quantum holism involves consciousness and spirituality.
4 An analogy frequently used by Maharishi to illustrate his Vedic conception of consciousness invokes the simple image of waves on the ocean. The ocean represents universal consciousness and individuals who appear to be separate and distinct on the surface are, like the waves, integrated at the deeper levels. Philosopher Jonathan Shear extends this analogy by noting that, while the weather for hundreds of miles around is dependent on the ocean in the vicinity, it is not due to any single wave. The latter would be a metaphor for "solipsism", but not the former. Accordingly, it is universal consciousness that creates reality; it is not we, as individuals, who create reality. It is important to note, however, that according to Maharishi we can become more integrated with the universal aspect of our consciousness—we can become more enlightened—and this will allow us greater support from the laws of nature than an individual can ordinarily expect to have. Given Stenger’s materialistic bent, it is not surprising that he would be antithetical to Maharishi’ s conception of enlightenment; but unfortunately, he does not so much critique Maharishi’s conception as jeer at it, as we will see.
5 For example, according to Newton’s calculations, the planetary orbits are inherently unstable and divine intervention is necessary in order to keep the planets in their orbits. Newton proposed that God periodically intervenes by sending a comet through the solar system in order to adjust the planetary orbits as needed! The fact that Newton’s calculations were subsequently corrected by Laplace does not affect the philosophical point that Newton himself thought that something more than mechanical clockwork was involved in the functioning of our universe. The implications of this example for theology are discussed in (Lindberg and Numbers, 2008, p.83 ff). Newton himself regarded science as providing explicit support for theology: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being....” Principia Mathematica Book 3 (1687).
6 Stenger has a ninth book now available for pre-order on Amazon, entitled The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason.
7 Philosopher Ezio Vailati explains Leibniz’s understanding of divine providence in the context of deism: “Leibniz also reproaches Newton for claiming that things need correction by extraordinary divine concourse in the world’s machine. He claims that divine providence is not eliminated but confirmed by the fact that in the world’s machine everything occurs by preestablished design without the need of any correction, since it entails that God has foreseen and predetermined everything.” (www.siue.edu/~evailat/lz-cl.html . This is a link to Ezio Vailati's pages. He's a Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University)
8 There is a long tradition in ethics and the philosophy of mind that freedom is an essential characteristic of mind. If our thought and action were determined by external constraints then we would not be morally responsible for our bad behavior and, likewise, we would not be responsible for whether or not our thinking is logical and coherent. If our minds were dependent on deterministic physical processes, these would seem to be external constraints of the objectionable kind. Materialism has long had to contend with these objections and has never found an adequate response. Moreover—and this is the key point for Stenger’s misunderstanding of Penrose—freedom does not mean randomness. If our thought and action were determined by random processes it would still not be free in any way that would support moral responsibility or intellectual coherence. Evidently, freedom means freedom from any external constraints, whether these are deterministic or random. See (Scharf, 2009) for an extensive analysis of this issue. In this context, one can appreciate the insightfulness of Maharishi’s proposal that, at its deepest level, consciousness is self-referral, which implies that it is not dependent on anything external.
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Reduction, Emergence, Wholeness and Consciousness
Stenger’s argument involving the related ideas of reduction and emergence takes aim at holism, the idea that there are important circumstances in which a whole is more than the sum of its parts and that this emergent wholeness may have spiritual implications. But, given the importance for quantum spirituality and even for Stenger’s own worldview (characterized by universal reduction to material particles), his treatment of reduction and emergence is surprisingly muddled. To explain in simple terms, the essential thing about reduction is the idea of nothing over and above and so, for Stenger, this would mean there is nothing over and above material particles and their mechanistic interactions. Frequently cited reductions from classical physics include the temperature of a gas as nothing but the average kinetic energy of its molecules, water as nothing but H2O, light as nothing but a form of electromagnetic radiation and so forth.
And what about consciousness? Stenger’s commitment to universal reduction to elementary particles implies a reductive view of consciousness. In his view:
The universe is truly comprehensible as a purely material system. We can fit all observations to a model of elementary particles (or perhaps strings or other forms of basic objects) that move around in an empty void—just as the Greek atomists’ conjectures from thousands of years ago …. (p.239)
But consciousness is the phenomenon most resistant to a reductive analysis. Today, most philosophers of mind (even those sympathetic to the materialist perspective) have abandoned a fully reductive approach and believe that, even supposing neuroscience will someday provide an exhaustive account of all neurophysiological processes in the brain, consciousness will remain unaccounted for. In other words, consciousness—what it is like to have subjective experience—seems to be irreducible to neurophysiology. Most contemporary discussions in the philosophy of mind acknowledge “the hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers, 1996), according to which the fact of consciousness will remain unexplained even if—and this is a big if—all the functional capacities of the mind could be accounted for in terms of neurophysiological processes. Even Jaegwon Kim, regarded as a leading advocate of a hardcore materialist perspective of mind, has backed away from a fully reductionist approach (Kim, 2005 and 2006).
Given the hard problem of consciousness, Stenger’s reductionist outlook—“We can fit all observations to a model of elementary particles …”—immediately beaks down; moreover, his reductionist project quickly runs into trouble with macroscopic phenomena as well, since these reductions typically invoke consciousness indirectly. To see this, consider the reductive analysis of the temperature of an ideal gas. This is a case that has been extensively discussed in the philosophical literature. In saying that the temperature of a gas reduces to the average kinetic energy of its molecules, part of what is meant is that temperature is not a new or additional property of the gas. In other words, the average kinetic energy—and hence the temperature—would already be implicit in a detailed specification of all the individual molecular kinetic energies. So Stenger’s following assertion seems peculiar, given his reductionist outlook:
Properties of the whole gas such as pressure and temperature are meaningless for a single molecule. The gas can be thought of as a higher level of complexity with … “emergent properties” such as pressure and temperature. (p.158)
The important issue that Stenger is obscuring, here, is that reduction means there are no physical properties of the gas over and above those already inherent in the individual molecules.
To make this clearer, if temperature reduces to the average kinetic energy of a large ensemble of molecules, then there is no property “of the whole gas” other than this average kinetic energy. This is what the reductive analysis of temperature means in this context. And further, on this analysis, the average kinetic energy of the ensemble provides no new information, since the average is a summary of the detailed specification of individual kinetic energies and, as a summary, it contains less information than the detailed specification. The bottom line, for the reductionist, is that this average is not a new physical property over and above the individual kinetic energies. Contrast this reductive analysis of temperature with the irreducibility of consciousness: A detailed specification of the neurons in the brain and their physical processes will still not explain why we have subjective experience—the fact of subjective experience is new information.
Emergence, by contrast to reduction, involves the occurrence of something new in the sense of a property of the whole which is not already implicitly contained in the separately specified states of its independently existing constituent particles. But what kind of property could this be? As explained above, temperature is not a genuinely novel physical property. So, given that Stenger considers temperature to be emergent, in what sense could temperature be understood to involve something new, occurring as a function of wholeness?
Here, Stenger might have benefited from greater familiarity with the philosophical literature, since this issue has been vigorously debated since the foundation of modern science in the seventeenth century, and it gets to the core of the relationship between consciousness and matter. (John Locke’s famous doctrine of secondary qualities represents a traditional way of framing the issue.) Briefly stated, reductionists have typically invoked consciousness, in some form or other, as the basis for what is new and emergent. This enables the reductionist to say that nothing physically exists over and above the particles and their motions, but that something new emerges in the way we perceive, understand or describe the whole ensemble. On this analysis, temperature is a composite idea, with an objective component consisting of material particles and their motions, and a subjective component, involving consciousness. This subjective component has a number of aspects which contribute to our understanding of temperature. One familiar aspect involves our sensations of heat and cold; these sensations—today philosophers refer to them as “qualia”—exist in the mind of the observer and we project them out onto the material world. Consciousness, in this conception, is conceived of as separate from objective reality, although the motions of the particles “out there” causally influence—filtered by our sensory apparatus and nervous system—the qualia that occur in our conscious minds.
Stenger’s concept of “reductive emergence” would correspond to the traditional conception of reduction, outlined above, except that Stenger would emphatically not accept an essential and irreducible role for consciousness in his analysis. But if the property of the whole is not ultimately something subjective—a sensory appearance or qualia, or the meaning we have in mind when we describe an ensemble—depending on the consciousness of the observer, then it would seem to be a real, objective property of the whole. And, if it is, Stenger’s term “reductive emergence” is as oxymoronic as it sounds—positing a real property of the whole (emergence) while at the same time insisting that there is nothing over and above particles (reduction). Stenger would have been better off to leave emergence out of his self-contradictory conception of “reductive emergence,” since he just means reduction.
Stenger contrasts “holistic emergence”—in which a new property of the whole arises which is not reducible to particles—with “reductive emergence” (reduction). Since he is committed to the view of universal reduction to material particles, Stenger cannot allow that there are any genuine instances of holistic emergence:
The proponents of emergence are not willing to leave it to reductive emergence. They desperately want to find “something there” besides particles, although for the life of me I don’t see what they have against particles. I worked with them all my professional life and found much to like about them … The doctrine that opposes reductive emergence I defined above as holistic emergence. The basic idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that at least some emergent principles … have developed the ability to act downward, that is, have the emergent property of top-down causation. (Stenger, pp. 159-160)
Someone might “desperately want to find ‘something there’ besides particles” for the obvious reason that the macroscopic world of common sense, as well as most of science, involves holistic concepts that are not apparently reducible to particles. This implies either (1) genuine holistic emergence or (2) reduction combined with an explanation of holistic appearances (ultimately involving consciousness, as described above). On this second option, temperature does not involve a new physical property; the emergence occurs in relation to the observer. Similar considerations apply to other holistic phenomena, such as the wetness of water, where part of what is meant by “wetness” involves the sensations that liquids typically produce in us. Neither of these two options is compatible with Stenger’s reductive particle metaphysics: (1) is incompatible because it invokes holistic properties irreducible to elementary particles and (2) is incompatible because it gives an essential role to consciousness.10
Maybe lack of acquaintance with the relevant philosophical literature is part of why Stenger avoids addressing the relationship between emergence and consciousness. But the idea that wholeness is essentially interwoven with consciousness is not a new or even an especially radical idea—it is at the basis of most of the traditional reductive explanations of macroscopic phenomena, as noted above. Although classical physics assumed the working hypothesis of general reducibility to independently-existing, atom-like particles—consistent with Stenger’s belief system—this is not true of quantum physics. As we will see in the next section, quantum physics is evidently replete with the holistic emergence that Stenger so vehemently eschews. Moreover, Stenger’s efforts to impose a reductionist interpretation on phenomena such as quantum entanglement are irredeemably confused.
9 Timothy O’Conner and Hong Yu Wong, writing for the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/properties-emergent/) distinguish “epistemological emergence” from “ontological emergence.” Ontological emergence would involve irreducible physical properties of the whole, and would correspond to what Stenger is referring to as “holistic emergence.” Epistemological emergence has to do with our holistic conception of ensembles, and the epistemological aspect of epistemological emergence has to do with the meaning we ascribe to our descriptions of ensembles—how we understand and think about those ensembles. Hence, although epistemological emergence is compatible with reduction, it ultimately involves consciousness and mind. Stenger’s conception of “reductive emergence” seems to be an untenable blurring of epistemological and ontological emergence.
Thus consider Stenger’s last sentence in this passage:
Summarizing, in the case of reductive emergence we have new principles appearing as systems become more complex. These principles do not apply at the lower level of particle interactions. Yet they are fully reducible to particle mechanics and nothing more. (p. 159)
If he escapes conceptual incoherence by invoking consciousness as the receptacle for qualia, he cannot then say that the emergent principles “are fully reducible to particle mechanics and nothing more.” Likewise, he cannot legitimately conclude that “Emergence is just a name for the evolution of complexity out of simplicity, no doubt a notable phenomenon and little doubt that it arises purely from particles of matter” (p. 161, emphasis added). Given the irreducibility of consciousness discussed previously in terms of the “hard problem,” which Stenger completely ignores, there is no validity to his claim that emergence arises purely from particles of matter.
10 In this discussion of emergence—including what emerges and for whom it emerges—I’ve emphasized the sharing of qualia/appearances between consciousness and the external world, because this is the customary way of framing the problem of macroscopic reality. But similar considerations apply to relational mathematical properties, such as equality and inequality. Take synchrony—equality of a pattern of behavior in time—for example. Two particles might be vibrating in synchrony, where their synchrony could be characterized as an emergent property arising from the individual vibratory patterns of the two particles. Is the mathematical relation—the equality—a holistic property of the physical particles, something in the consciousness of the scientist describing the phenomenon, or an abstract property which interfaces the observer and the observed? Further exploration of these questions from the philosophy of mathematics is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is interesting to note that the ambiguity regarding mathematical relations parallels the ambiguity inherent in qualia.
These same issues, concerning the subject/object ambiguity inherent in holistic phenomena, are embedded in Niels Bohr’s famous complementarity principle. Although he initially developed complementarity to help account for the wave/particle duality, Bohr regarded the complementarity between subject and object as the most fundamental expression of the principle. This is exemplified by his well-known “Blind Man and the Stick” analogy: Suppose a blind man uses a stick to orient himself in his environment. When he holds the stick loosely, he regards the stick as an external object—a part of his environment in which he needs to orient himself. But, if he holds it firmly, he regards the stick as an extended part of himself, giving him information about his environment. Whether the distinction between the blind man and his environment begins at one end of his stick or the other is arbitrary. This subject/object ambiguity, of the blind man’s stick, is a metaphor for the subject/object ambiguity inherent in the world as we ordinarily experience it.
We began this paper with a review of the radical demarcation between consciousness and matter that dominated the classical worldview (since at least the time of Rene Descartes). The complementarity principle embodied Bohr’s recognition that this classical demarcation was an overly simplistic idealization, and one that has proven unsuitable for the increasing precision and refinement of quantum physics. The intertwining of consciousness and matter is at the basis of the orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics and is essential to understanding Bohr’s thinking about the problem of quantum measurement. These issues in relation to Bohr’s complementarity principle are sorted out in a thorough and insightful manner by Henry Folse (1985): The Philosophy of Niels Bohr: The Framework of Complementarity.
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