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Dialogue Excerpt

There's Plenty of Room at the Side

{This is an excerpt from a dialogue between Piet and Steven recorded in Berkeley on April 25, 2005. In it, Piet introduces some aspects of his ideas about a possible new direction for science to explore. Steven's responses and alternate perspectives are presented in other WoK articles.}

Many physicists will immediately recognize that I am referring in my title to the famous lecture given by Richard Feynman in 1959 at Caltech. The subtitle of his talk was An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics. In this talk he presented a bold vision of what he thought could be done on an atomic scale, thereby predicting the emergence of the field of nanotechnology, decades before even the term was coined.

What I would like to talk about today is both more modest and more bold. I want to address the question of how much room there is, not at the bottom, but at the side of what we have currently covered in science. Have we covered all bases, roughly, in our current understanding of matter and energy and space and time? Is there anything left over to be explored, in a fundamental sense? My answer will be modest, in the sense that I will not venture out into specific predictions. But at the same time I will be bold, many may say far too bold, in sketching the contours of a future science, a hundred or more years from now, in which we may have discover plenty of room in directions we haven't even dreamt of today.

Only Two Choices?

Steven, we have been talking together now for a while about this notion of reality research. To convey what we mean by this is not easy. People will either assume that we are extending some form of standard science or that we have some crazy ideas akin to religious sects that try to look at everything in a completely different and strange way. These seem to be the two alternative ways of thinking about "research into the structure of reality."

The central problem in even starting a discussion about `room at the side' is that science has been so very successful and doesn't seem to leave any room for something else. What possibly can there be which is more than what science already has to offer? Let us begin by looking at the different ways in which there could be something more. Can we enumerate the different ways and then choose where to look?

One obvious possibility would be that we could discover that there is another type of substance or building block or basic ingredient besides the atoms and molecules and the energy and matter in the space and time that science has explored so far. Could there be some other type of stuff, some basically other things or substance? That would be the first logical option.

The second option would be to start with the stuff that science has already discovered and then to see whether there are other emerging properties we can talk about, layered upon and arising from that same basic `stuff.' In general, once you know the rules of a game you may still stumble upon quite a number of different aspects of that game that were totally nonobvious to you when you had first learned the rules. When you study the properties of a single atom of water, or even the way that a handful such atoms interact, there are no clear signs that lots and lots and lots of water atoms can show phase transitions between different states such as ice and water and steam. In general, emergent properties can be quite surprising and completely invisible on the level of the individual building blocks.

Those seem to be the two options that science leaves open to us, and most scientists would take it for granted that it is only along those two lines that we could hope to discover more `room at the side.' Now the first one seems to be very unlikely. For all intents and purposes it seems that the behavior of nature on the scales of daily life has been explained in great detail by science, or at least is explainable in a straightforward extrapolation of current research. The one question which is still open with respect to basic substance or stuff is what ultimately things are made from on a very very small deeply subatomic level; whether it is string theory or something else that will turn out to describe this most fundamental layer of substance, we do not yet know -- and probably the word substance will not be a very good characterization of whatever we will find there. However, whatever it will turn out to be, that seems to be hardly relevant for questions about the connections between science and contemplation and everyday life, the topics you and I have been talking about. I can't imagine that we will have to go to the Planck scale in order to find more room at the side.

Therefore, my guess would be that most scientists would by default prefer the second option, and presume that whatever we call mind or soul or spirit is somehow related to emergent properties of the brain. The brain is the part of our body that we associate with thinking and feeling and information processing in general. This implies that the question of science and religion, or of science and contemplation, will boil down to the question of what emergent properties we can find in the brain that are related to such the traditional topics as contemplation or mysticism or spirituality.

Scientists who think this way, and they are probably in the majority, often consider such an attitude as being the opposite of reductionism. They will point to emergent properties as the one alternative with respect to reductionism. And as long as we are given a choice between only those two options, a simple hard-nosed materialism and a more subtle way of looking at the world as given through properties emerging from matter, the latter view is definitely less reductionistic.

My main point, though, is that both ways of looking at the world, and at ourselves, are incredibly impoverishing in being incredibly reductionistic. And I mean that in a intensely felt way. I can get tears in my eyes if I see that this is what we tell young people who grow up in a world that is so crowded with established information that there seems to be no room whatsoever left for exploring a more contemplative angle on reality. No matter how strong someone's intuition and inclination may be, anyone who is not willing to sacrifice his or her rationality seems to be doomed to view the contemplative side of reality as a quaint type of psychologistic attempt at `feeling good', perhaps by doing some meditative exercises that somehow may succeed in generating somewhat unusual combinations of brain chemicals that may give us a sense of inner peace.

Telling ourselves and others that this is the way it is, is really incredibly reductionistic, reducing everything to fit into a very limited framework. Everything gets shoehorned within a little slot in the existing systematic scientific framework, as if that framework is put in stone. They forget that science has metamorphosed itself time and again during the last few centuries, and will undoubtedly do so again, before too long.

A Radical Alternative

The alternative to the two reductionistic choices that I mentioned would be to take an extremely radical stance. Even though it seems that our realm is already completely filled up, and even though it seems to be completely self-contained, this whole world itself can be just a small part of something much larger. Just a a movie seems to be self-contained but is in fact a small part of what is going on in a movie theater, so our world may be only a fiction playing out in a larger setting, one that is unknown to us, players in the fiction. A similar methaphor would be to view our world as given in a dream, with the question then arising: would it be possible to wake up from the dream, perhaps while staying in the dream, with the dream continuing?

I am much more sympathetic to this alternative than I am too the two reductionistic interpretations. And indeed, many religions have offered metaphors of this type, comparing our sensed and felt reality with images reflecting on a body of water -- forerunners of our more direct metaphors of a movie or a virtual reality. But at the same time I am not satisfied with a move to such a view. Somehow it seems like too cheap a way out. I can see someone saying, okay, during the day I'm a scientist from 9-to-5, and that is where I put my energy and intelligence while doing research, buying into the scientific picture wholesale; and then when I think about human values and about what is most important to me and for my relationships with others, I consider myself to be part of a much wider world of which I know almost nothing.

It would be too much of a defeatist attitude for me to take a quick leap to considering ourselves to live in a rich and wonderful world of spiritual values, for the sake of finding room for hopes and aspirations on that level -- while at the same time considering ourselves to live a very circumscribed and reduced life in a material reality that seems to be empty of anything wider. Such a view may be better than nothing, and one can hope that one day one may get a deep form of enlightenment, in this life or perhaps in a future life or perhaps in an afterlife. But how to discriminate such ideas from wishful thinking?

It would be easy to laugh about what I called a radical alternative, and throw it out because it doesn't seem to fit in our ideas of what is real and because it doesn't seem to lead to any particular form of knowledge or other practical application. I don't want to go that far. On the contrary, I do think that this alternative can lead to very practical insights. But just paying lip service to some form of blind believe in some mightily radical alternative won't lead to such insights. We'll have to do better.

A Tempered Alternative

The program I have in mind tries to steer a middle way between the reductionist and radical alternatives. I will try to reason out what I think this program can give me, but to make it really clear where I am coming from, I would prefer to tell you how I stumbled upon these ideas, back when I was in high school, 35 years ago.

When I asked myself what is true and what it is that we can really know about reality, I saw that science has definitely the pride of place. Science can tell us so much about so many things in ways that can be critically checked that it would seem that science is a good place to start for any systematic investigation of the structure of reality. At the same time, I did not want to get stuck in the present framework of science. So I did not want to throw science away, in a blind attempt to make room for wider spiritual or contemplative views, but I also did not want to consider science of the day as the ultimate arbiter about what a scientific view could possibly be.

There is an interesting parallel here. Someone who views life as a dream may hope to wake up into a more real world, some day in the future. In my case, I considered the scientific story of today a type of dream or at best approximation, and I was hoping for science itself to develop into a more precise understanding of the world, some day in the future.

In my last year in high school, when I was 17 years old, I had to decide what to study in college. I was thinking about philosophy and physics and ancient languages such as Sanskrit, because I thought that each of them, in different ways, could help me probe reality from different angles. Even though physics was the most narrow of the three, in specifically excluding large parts of human life, it was physics that attracted me most. And the reason for that attraction was the historical path that physics had taken, and the promise that its path had for the future.

When I read about the history of physics I was so amazed by the fact that seemingly completely opposite poles were brought into contact with each other in meaningful ways. For example, physicists had started to investigate electricity and magnetism as separate topics, but then they found electromagnetism as a unified way in which both could be described. This by itself would seem like a real miracle, because the first experiments you do with electricity give you such different results than the first experiments you do with magnetism. And indeed, it was only gradually that people began to see that these two might have something to do with each other, and it took even longer before they postulated that electricity and magneticsm might be two sides of the same coin.

Could things have happened in a different way? Probably not. It would be almost inconceivable to consider that humanity could have found electromagnetism just one day from scratch. Can you imagine that somebody would do some experiments here and there, then would think about them deeply and say, ``hmm, let me write down Maxwell's equations'' -- that is just not how science works. If there would be intelligent life on any other planet, I bet that they would have stumbled upon things in a piecemeal fashion too: find something here, find something there and get more familiar with it, and then see more and more of the whole picture.

The word unification, by the way, is rather misleading. When Maxwell succeeded in unifying electricity and magnetism, what he was unifying was our understanding of the two phenomena. Nature had already unified the two from the beginning; in fact they had never been separate. The current physics project of searching for a unified theory of all fundamental forces is likewise a search to unify our understanding, which is currently still fragmented. We now know that electromagnetism is in turn only one aspect of what we now call the electroweak interactions, and we hope that a future theory can embrace the strong and gravitational interactions as well.

The unification of (our understanding of) electricity and magnetism, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was just one step. At the beginning of the twentieth century, special relativity showed us that space and time culd be seen as aspects of a more fundamental space-time. And as a bonus it showed us that matter and energy are different sides of the same coin. Now that was really shocking, since what can be more different than matter and energy?!

So here I was, age 17, thinking about a career choice, and I was so amazed about the progress that physics had made, in just one century. I found it easy and natural to extend the dotted lines, from Maxwell's electromagnetism through Einstein's special and general relativity through quantum mechanics, which unifies in a way potentiality and actuality, an even more shocking step . . . . for me, the next thing clearly seemed to be a unification of body and mind.

What could be more different than space and time, or matter and energy, or actuality and potentiality? What polarity could be waiting, as the next pairs of candidates to be unified in our understanding? What else than body and mind?

At that age I was not very sophisticated philosophically, nor scientifically, for that matter, and I would not have been able to put my intuitions into as clear a language as I can do now. But my conviction was clear, to me at least. And I found it quite shocking that nobody else seemed to get when I meant, when I tried to talk about it with others, young or old. They would be either laughing at me or scratching their head -- looking very puzzled, or thinking that I was trying to push some weird esoteric sect. Well, I quickly learned to shut up and not talk about these things. Instead I decided to just investigate these topics for myself, trusting that in due time I would be able to talk about them more coherently. Little did I expect that it would take me three and a half decades to do so.

The way I would describe my views now is not as unifying mind and matter, since I realize that such a way of talking would seem to place mind within the same arena as science. Instead, what is needed is, first, an enlarged stage. Our understanding of matter and energy cannot be unified in space. We have to extend space to spacetime, before we can see that energy and matter can be transformed into each other. Similarly, quantum phenomena simply cannot occur on the stage of classical mechanics. That picture has to be enlarged to include a description in terms of Hilbert spaces, before we can find room for entanglement, superposition, and the like.

So in the case of my unsophisticated hunch of a future unification of our understanding of matter and mind, what was missing was an appreciation of the fundamental need to move to a wider stage. Let me sketch what I now see as a candidate for such a stage.

The Role of the Subject

Instead of talking about body and mind, I now prefer to use the words object and subject. Physics, and in general natural science, is focused on a study of objects. It has done so for four centuries, but now it is bursting at the seems, and it is time to broaden the stage of natural science, to allow subjects to play an equally fundamental role as objects.

Starting with the history of science, we see that around the year 1600 Galileo and others started to make a fundamental distinction between primary and secondary qualities. They decided to investigate only the so-called primary qualities such as mass, length, time, measurable and quantifiable aspects of our experience which could be attributed to specific objects. An experimental procedure was invented whereby different scientists would compare their measurement. When they agreed in their measurements, the results were considered to be objectively valid, as properties of objects.

Of course, each time we measure the length of an object, there are three aspects involved: the subject doing the measuring, the object that is measured, and the measuring activity. Notice how this last sentence itself is already an attempt at making an objective description! Let me repeat that sentence, by describing it within the subjective experience of the experimenter. Each time I measure the length of an object, there are three aspects involved: me as the subject doing the measuring, that thing there as the object that I measure, and my experience of measuring. It is that last experience that has three parts: a subject pole and an object pole, connected by an act of consciousness. I see thing. I measure thing. Subject sees object. Subject measures object.

Any normal type of experience we have is an experience of something. Conversely, anything we come across, in reality as well as in a dream or fantasy or memory, is always presented to us in a certain way. There is us, there is us experiencing it, and there is it being experienced by us. A cup can be seen, remembered, anticipated as when we order a cup of coffee, and so on. The philosopher Husserl has given us a very rich language to describe and analyze the subject-object relationship, something we may want to go into further at some point. But for now, let me just sketch how I see the birth of science as a well-planned precise enterprise of charting the object pole of the subject-action-object structure of experience.

And by telling the story of the birth of science in this way, I have already laid down my cards: I expect that the next breakthrough in natural science will lead to an equally detailed study of the other two aspects of the structure of experience. After all, natural science, or natural philosophy as it used to be called at first, is an empirical Enterprise. It is based on an analysis of experience, and it is about time to take all of experience into account, rather than throwing away two third of it right from the beginning.

This is not to say that we can disregard what we have learned about objects, since Galileo. On the contrary. The sign of a successful extension of a scientific understanding of a topic is precisely that the enlarged understanding can naturally accommodate the phenomena that the previous stage of understanding could already accommodate, albeit with a possibly radically different interpretation. Quantum mechanics has abandoned the strict repeatability of experiments, but it can still account for all the successes of classical mechanics. Similarly, a future science of subject-action-object should embrace whatever we now understand about physics, chemistry, and biology, although the interpretation of all that knowledge may well be radically different.

Why does what I have just sketched sound so alien to most scientists? The problem is that we have forgotten that we made a particular filtering move, four hundred years ago, in which we only let through the object side of experience. Since then, we took what came through as being the only building blocks of our view of reality. The only novelty in my suggestion is to go back and take a wider filter instead. Perhaps we can retrace the steps of how science was built up by taking subject and object and subject-object interaction as three equally fundamental ingredients of reality.

It is this move that can give an answer to the question ``is there more room?'' The answer to ``is there more room?'' in a world made out of objects is a resounding ``no''. There is no room in terms of a new substance and there is no room in terms of emerging properties, at least not in any really fundamentally new way. However, if you look at the world of objects as comprising just one aspect of a wider view in terms of subjects and objects and interactions between them, then everything is suddenly all open again, with us basically entering a new game. And my guess is that in the next few hundred years this will be the new game of science, to open up this terrain and to explore it in detail.

Cracks in the Object Picture

Let me try to show you that this is not all just wishful thinking, or a form of speculation. Let me point to some specific cracks in the object-dominated picture of the world. If what I've sketched is really a new kind of science, a wider way of doing science, that I should be able to point at concrete topics that we can begin to investigate, even though we're not quite sure yet of what the most appropriate technology will turn out to be.

For starters, let me throw out three different suggestions that I think are pointing toward the science of subjects, or better a science of subject/object/interaction, as a new stage in science.

Quantum mechanics

My first pointer is related to quantum mechanics. We now know that nature is not cast in stone and not present independently from us, in the type of objective way that classical mechanics has always taken for granted. The best way to summarize what we have learned from quantum mechanics is to say that matter is responsive. Matter shows its nature in a measurable way, but not in a purely objective way. What a piece of matter shows depends on how you want to measure it, on how you ask questions.

John Wheeler has expressed this in a very nice way as saying that quantum mechanics shows nature as participating in the children's game of twenty questions. Each time we ask a question, we limit the possible answer that can appear at the end, but we can also show that there was no single definite answer waiting for us in the first place. Instead, the answer somehow originated while we asked, and what is more, in part in response to the very way in which we chose to do the asking. In other words, matter is not inert but is responsive.

I suggest we should this as a clue that quantum mechanics is being played out on a stage that is wider than a stage filled only with objects. In addition, there is something else playing a role, a something that is involved in asking question to which matter gives questions-dependent answers. On a very fundamental level there is a form of entanglement between the questioner and what is being questioned. For me, this signals one way in which the subject is trying to shine through, through what we have roped off as being the realm of the object.


The second place where I see a pointer is in robotics research. We have tried for the last several decades to make intelligent robots, but we haven't been very successful. Sure, we have made specialized robots that are fixed to the floor in a car factory, and that can put parts on automobiles in very complex and precise ways. But only very recently have we made robots that can do the simplest of house cleaning jobs, such as vacuuming the floor. Why did it take so long? Isn't it surprising that we could build a computer that was able to beat the world champion in chess, before we could bring a robot on the market that could clean the floor of your apartment?

I think there is a good reason for our sluggishness in building robots. The human race now has a hundred thousand years of experience in making tools that behave like objects, starting with stone axes. After that, from making pottery to building spaceships, we have refined our object building a great deal. But our knowledge is still in its infancy as far as building subjects. Building a robot requires more than a good knowledge of electricity, mechanics, and software. It requires a whole new approach, in which we consider our gadget as more than an object with wheels, arms, and a programmable computer brain. Instead, we have yet to learn to think of a robot as a subject, something for which our current science doesn't even have a basic concept yet.

This lack of a good concept is certainly not the result of a lack of trying. Computer scientists and cognitive scientists in general have made heroic attempts to look at autonomous agents and other concepts in the new field of complexity theory. And in doing so they have generated many interesting novel ideas. However, these ideas are mostly based on the notion of emergence. The world of objects is taken for granted as the one and only stage on which to perform the play, and the behavior of robots is layered upon those, as software on top of hardware, or as something emerging out of a substratum. My suggestion is that this move does not go far enough: instead, I would prefer to enlarge the stage itself, by viewing a robot as something that presents a type of subject pole, along with its obviously present objective properties.

In other words, a robot is a tool which is a subject, not an object, and we don't know enough about subjects to build such a tool. We fall flat on our faces when we try to build a robot because we are trying to use all the ingenuity we have learned in the last 400 years in a scientific approach to objects, but a subject is not just a clever object, or an autonomous object, or all these terms we have been trying to work with. A subject is a subject, and is different from an object, and only when we understand subject-object unification can we show, someday in the future, what is really object-like about the object and subject-like about the subject. We're not there yet.


The third pointer which I see is brain research, neuroscience. We are getting closer to making a dictionary between what corresponds to what, when we think and feel, between brain states and subjective experience. On the one hand, electrochemical phenomena in the brain are objectively measurable. On the other hand, we have subjective, personal experiences of what we feel or think. By series of precise measurements we are beginning to chart the correlations between the two. Perhaps some day, not too long into the future, we will have some form of dictionary, which tells us which type of objective phenomena in the bring go along with which type of personal experiences.

The very fact that we can make a dictionary between the two, means that the objective side of the dictionary is not complete. If English would be the only language in which we can describe the world, there would not be any need or even place for a dictionary, other than one that explains English words in more detailed English descriptions. But if there are other languages, that also describe the world, from different angles and in different ways, then there is room for dictonaries translating the one language to the other.

So I see neuroscience as another place where the object oriented language of sciences is bursting at the seams. By building up a dictionary between the behavior of objects such as neurons firing, and experiences of the human subject, we have already tacitly admitted that there is room on the stage for subjects as well as objects, that a language in terms of objects is incomplete.


Piet, 4/25/05

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