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Letter to Adam Becker, Author, What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
Visiting Scholar, Office for History of Science and Technology
University of California, Berkeley

Science has staked its legitimacy on sensory perception -- the observation and measurement of quantifiable matter -- as the sole arbiter of reality. Matter at the level of quanta has revealed that it is not bound by the reality so defined. The logical foundation that science has chosen for itself, and the material reality it stands for, is called into question.

There being no alternative reality for which sensory perception can serve as proof, science must turn to systems thinking to understand its discoveries. Metaphysics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the logic of reality, belongs in the conversation. This should include ontology, the branch of metaphysics concerned with the logic of being. The dynamics of human motivation, personal growth, feelings, and relationships come into play, and this involves psychology. Yet another field to consult is theology, because it offers insights into mind that orders all forms of creation.

Yesterday, I submitted a letter to the Mind / Brain Editor of Scientific American commenting on an article by a neuroscientist, Christof Koch. His article, “Tales of the Dying Brain,” prompted my letter because it adheres to the article of faith in sensory perception that has rooted science in subjectivity and irrationality from the beginning, and I believe the time has come to place it on firmer logical ground.

My letter cites two invaluable sources: Your own What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics and Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Both you and Rovelli appear troubled, as Einstein was, by matter that doesn’t respect science’s article of faith. Both, commendably, encourage physics to follow the trail wherever it leads, Rovelli with an open appeal for help from philosophy. But while you're both alert to the question of material reality, neither appears willing to question your faith -- to question the role of traditional physics and its dependence on sensory perception.

My letter to Scientific American suggests that the world revealed beyond matter, through quantum mechanics, and the dying brain, through near-death experiences, is one of two competing realities, only one of which can be real. Hawking was unapologetic in championing his profession's bias in favor of sensory perception. It was his, and yours and Rovelli’s prerogative, to do so. But it comes at a cost. Science insisting on the incorrect reality, in service to its institutional purposes, leads human understanding down the wrong road.

It leads to incorrect conclusions devoid of meaning and purpose. Add to this the cost of not leading human understanding toward correct conclusions that awaken us to meaning and purpose. Quantitative science measures. It doesn't evaluate. The courageous and talented physicists whose work is highlighted in your book are an inspiration. But they and their work -- their profession -- can't be the source of "meaning" in quantum physics. For this, we need other sources.

Weaning science off rigid dependence on sensory perception must be a paradigm shift too far or it would have happened over a century ago. I do not make light of yours or science’s institutional self-interests. But more than Professor Koch’s article, it is the state of our world that says it’s time for change, and what must change is our thinking. What must change is for theorists in every field, like yourself, to state the obvious: that humanity is succumbing not only to mass irrationality but also to mass extinction, that it’s flawed reasoning that got us here, and we must shift to a new paradigm of thinking before it’s too late.

My letter to Scientific American alludes to attributes of mind -- “intuition” and “reason beyond appearances” – that can access the objectivity this new paradigm will need. They deserve an explanation, and, hopefully, they will get it in the book I’m preparing for publication, tentatively titled The Story of the Child. I have criticized science for overplaying the story of matter when it’s the story of mind that can guide us. My book is an attempt, from one individual’s perspective, to explain what it means to “tell the story of mind.”

With integrity, honesty, and humanity, you are no doubt making great progress in your work. I would be honored if my letter to Scientific American, which follows, and my book were any help. Science needs help from philosophy, and I am pleased to humbly offer one response.

David C. Harrison
June 1, 2020

Science’s reliance on sensory perception to establish what’s real is neither objective nor rational. It is inherently subjective and irrational. This was pointed out by the physicist-philosopher Erwin Schroedinger, an admission that was noted in Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017). Our bodies and their senses being part of their own material environment disqualifies them from attesting to its reality. For this another perspective is needed, one that is not built into its own environment and doesn’t have to be “spiritual.” It only needs to be mind, which is manifestly not coterminous with the brain, as distinguished neuroscientists have concluded.

Putting sensory perception on the witness stand to attest to its own reality is self-referential circular reasoning. It isn’t reasoning, which means the logical foundation for all of body-centered “science,” including the science of mind, is inherently illogical. It means “science,” which prizes objectivity, is subjective. A “science” that denies itself access to the perspective of mind, that rigidly adheres to bodies’ sensory perception and their brains’ circular reasoning, sacrifices not only objectivity for subjectivity, it sacrifices its legitimacy.

This, I think, is ample reason to question Christof Koch’s “hypothesis that all our thoughts, memories, percepts (sic) and experiences are an ineluctable consequence of the natural causal powers of our brain rather than of any supernatural ones”. If what he means by “supernatural ones” is mind, nothing could be farther from the truth. Reason says so, and that’s what near-death experiences (NDE’s) are telling us. NDE’s reveal that, in the space between sensory perception and what lies beyond, attributes of reality take over that mock the limits our bodies impose.

They do so just as the behavior of quanta mock the limits of reality that physics imposes in the space between matter and what lies beyond. Whether the neuroscientist Koch is willing to question all-knowing sensory perception, theoretical physics concerned with quantum mechanics long ago expressed its doubts in Nils Bohr’s “Copenhagen Interpretation” [ref: Adam Becker, What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics (2018)] and, more recently, in Rovelli’s appeal for help from philosophy to make sense of quantum gravity.

What the brain during NDE’s and quanta under observation may both be telling us is that what lies beyond material reality is another reality. Koch says NDE subjects describe it as “realer than real,” a subjective valuation that can’t be measured, so he and science will leave its significance to us. But to NDE subjects and to this observer, its significance seems obvious: The reality they are experiencing is mind beyond matter.

Koch explains that NDE’s “are triggered. . . when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia, shock, and so on.” Then why does it change the logic of what transpires when the cortex is stimulated electrically or “exciting the gray matter elsewhere”? In either case an external force physically alters the brain, the subject’s mind is released from the body, and it takes with it all the powers of consciousness – observation, thought, and feeling – except the power to act and sense with the body. What transpires is a clear separation of a part of consciousness that belongs to mind from a part that’s tethered to the body, and that would be the brain. Electrical stimulation of the brain only differs from the usual causes of NDE’s by being deliberate.

The “origin” of NDE’s can only be traced to the brain because, by definition, a “near death experience” refers to a condition of the body and its brain. It has nothing to do with the death of the mind or “spirit.” Since there was never any logic to declaring that the “origin” of NDE’s is “spiritual,” it’s absurd for Koch to conclude that “subjective experience provides support for a biological, not spiritual origin” – to declare, in effect, that the origin can’t be “spiritual.”

The issue isn’t “origins.” The issue is causes and effects. The cause is physical alteration of the body’s brain, one that places the brain in a weakened, dying state, that gets it out of the way of mind. The effect is an irrefutable experience, documented many times over, of an other-worldly state of consciousness which can only be mind.

If we can get the distinction clear between brain and mind, and the cause-effect relationship between brain alteration and mind that’s unattached to body, NDE’s will begin to make perfect sense. They clearly suggest that there’s another reality that’s not matter but mind. And, if NDE subjects are to be believed, it’s the reality of mind that’s real and the other that isn’t. It’s the reality of mind that’s natural and the other that ought to be labeled “supernatural.”

But we don’t have to go there to make a point. The point is that messing with the brain is no grounds for siding with body-centered science that there’s no reality beyond sensory perception or that all consciousness is seated in the brain. To do so is to fly in the face of evidence provided by NDE’s. Worse, to do so is to side with circular reasoning -- not to be truly “scientific” but to be hopelessly subjective and irrational.

Let Rovelli search for quantum gravity and Professor Koch study the brain. But while they’re at it, let’s all get off our self-referential addiction to sensory perception and acknowledge its subjectivity. Let’s get serious about metaphysics and trace the story of mind. Why? Because only in intuition, an attribute of mind, will we find objectivity. Only there will we find reason beyond appearances, the perspective that’s qualified to distinguish between competing realities. And because that’s what quantum mechanics and NDE’s are telling us to do.

Like the story of the brain and matter, all accounts of the human experience are ultimately the story of mind. To learn it is not to surrender to unreason, to contradictory ideologies that science rightly fears, but to open the door to guidance that is both rational and felt, that provides values and meaning. It is guidance that science dependent on numbers and measurements cannot provide by itself. Should Professor Koch convince us that we have only the brain, matter, and measurements to guide us, that the evidence of NDE’s to the contrary can be ignored, it will be a disservice to his own cause – to the cause of reason and knowledge, science and learning. It will be a disservice to the cause of mind.

Letter submitted to Scientific American
Commenting on Christof Koch, "Tales of the Dying Brain"
In Scientific American (June 2020 pp. 71-75)

May 30, 2020