Lord Kelvin and the Hubris of Scientism

True or not, the story of the annual Royal Society dinner in the year 1900 is now famous. At that summer gathering of the most respected and confident scientists of the turn of the century, the esteemed Lord Kelvin stated that science had pretty much solved all that we needed to know. Since Isaac Newton, we had devised a scientific worldview that did a great job explaining our surroundings. Astronomy, medicine, biology, and physics were all advancing and taking us out of the world of superstition. The genius of science and rationalism was well on the way to creating technologies that would reduce our physical suffering and move us into the contemporary era.  Things were good and the confidence was well deserved. Alas, all was not completely settled in this dinner speech. Lord Kelvin conceded that there were still just two little clouds of uncertainty remaining. Trifles, really.

He felt that this pair of petty anomalies would be quickly resolved. As it happened his optimism was to come undone. In fact, these two “little” unsolved mysteries were actually quite monumental as one led to the theory of relativity and the other to quantum mechanics—both were scientific revolutions that we will discuss a bit later. For now, it suffices to say that these open questions were far from being minor but completely upended the way that we see the universe. At a time when science was at its most confident, these two meager open items were simply waiting to capsize the entire traditional scientific boat.

Today in our scientific worldview we again find two little problems that also have not been solved. The first of these deals with our inner experience and sense of self. We call this first one the “hard problem” of consciousness. This problem asks why we must actually be experiencing things like colors, sounds, and emotions.  Machines and robots can all perform tasks, but we would not call them conscious. They input information, process it, and output some effect. But that is not our existence. We have these constant stories running in our heads about what it means to be who we are—a narrative of our lives. The most intimate part of your existence is your personal consciousness—one thinker explains it as “the movie of yourself running in your head.” However, science tells us little if anything about this internal motion picture of ourselves where we are each the ultimate main character. Yes, medicine can point to places in the brain that are activated when signals come in from our eyes or ears that have been generated by external wavelengths, but as to why those signals are understood by us as colors, sounds, or memories, we simply don’t know. In fact, science seems to mostly ignore questions of consciousness altogether. Core matters of our existence are left unanswered: Why do we see sunsets when they are just certain wavelengths outside of our heads? Why and how do we fall in love? Why do we choose any aspects of our lives? Consciousness is the thing closest to us that we know the least about. When we say it means something to be a human, we are really talking about the fact that we have these rich internal lives. This streaming movie inside our heads seems to be reserved for . . . well, as we will see later when we talk about animals and really smart computers, we aren’t exactly sure for whom (or what) consciousness is reserved. But we do know that it is central to what makes us . . . . us.

The second anomaly is what we can call “high strangeness.” Sometimes this strangeness is found in contemporary quantum physics where the scientific laws of space and time that have been known since Newton simply no longer apply. Things in the scientific world have gotten, for lack of any better term, really weird. Things that were deemed impossible until a short time ago are now repeatedly performed in labs. We have replicated scientific experiments that show future events influencing past events and subatomic particles blinking in and out of existence with no idea where they went or where they came from. We have quantum teleportation that can instantly (faster than the speed of light) cause one particle to impact another. Weird, indeed. Or, and we are unsure if these things are related, high strangeness can be found in peer reviewed reports of people who seem to know or influence things but have gained their knowledge by means other than the traditional five senses. The activities of such academic institutions as the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Center and the Stanford Research Institute point to events and experiments that really don’t make any sense to us. This covers experiments and reports of what used to be called the paranormal. Now, I’m not stating that all those reports be accepted, but at least in many of the published experiments, there is clearly very small but statistically significant evidence of anomalies. People can know things or influence things that they simply should not be able to do, based on current scientific models. Contemporary science doesn’t pursue these anomalies, but like Lord Kelvin’s dinner, they are waiting out there and causing us to question the foundations of how things work. You see, the anomalies of the world described to us by the latest developments in physics and other unusual phenomena are (to borrow from the great geneticist J.B.S. Haldane) not only stranger than we imagine, but they are stranger than we can imagine. This, as Terence McKenna quips, leaves us a lot of room for strange imaginations.

Those thinkers of today who are exploring ways to account for consciousness and high strangeness are the basis for this guide. They are mapping alternate worldviews to account for things we actually experience in our lives. They recognize that today’s dominant worldview known as scientific materialism is simply unable to explain much of our existence and the things that go on around us. Now, be warned, they are coming up with ideas that will seem at first to be . . . how to put this . . . unusual. But we will show that a number of these new ideas are actually well grounded and fit into an overall context that makes sense. That doesn’t mean that they are all correct—in fact, they likely aren’t—but it will show that these strange ideas are worth considering.