I had an acquaintance in my early twenties who was clever, charming, Ivy-educated, and wealthy, the heir to a family fortune.
I’m going to call him Gallagher. He was free to do anything he pleased.
He dabbled in subjects such as neurology, law, philosophy, and others.
But he was so critical and picky that he never found a job that he liked. For him, nothing was good enough.
For the same reason, he never found love. He also chastised his friends’ actions to the point of alienating us.
He became bitter and lonely as a result of his experiences.
At least, that’s what I’m guessing. Gallagher is someone I haven’t spoken to in decades.
When it comes to things like job, love, and nutrition, there is such a thing as being too choosy (even the pickiest eater has to eat something).
That’s the takeaway I got from Gallagher.
However, most of us aren’t discriminating enough when it comes to solving big puzzles.
We come to conclusions for the wrong reasons, such as because our parents, priests, or academics believe it.
We believe we must believe something, yet we do not. We can and should determine that no solution is satisfactory.
We should all be atheists.
Some people conflate apathy with agnosticism (the state of not knowing) (not caring).
Take, for example, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
He is a devoted Christian who believes in Jesus’ miracles, death for our sins, and resurrection.
Collins refers to agnosticism as a “cop-out” in his 2006 blockbuster The Language of God.
I informed him I am an agnostic and objected to “cop-out” when I interviewed him.
Collins expressed regret.
“That was a slam that shouldn’t be used to sincere agnostics who have weighed the data and yet can’t come up with an answer,” he said.
“I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which I believe is not based on a thorough analysis of the evidence.”
I’ve looked into the evidence for Christianity, and I’m not convinced.
Any scientific creation tales, such as those depicting our universe as a bubble in an oceanic “multiverse,” do not convince me.
People I respect criticize me for being overly wary.
Huston Smith, the late religious philosopher, once described me as “convictionally impaired.”
Another is old buddy and megapundit Robert Wright, with whom I’ve had many debates about evolutionary psychology and Buddhism.
“Don’t you believe anything?” Wright once exasperatedly questioned.
I believe in a variety of things, including the fact that war is bad and should be ended.
But when it comes to ultimate reality theories, I agree with Voltaire.
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd,” Voltaire said.
Doubt safeguards us from dogmatism, which can quickly turn into fanaticism and a “premature closing of our accounts with reality,” as William James puts it.
Below, I argue agnosticism as a position on the presence of God, quantum mechanics interpretations, and consciousness theories.
We should be as discerning as my old friend Gallagher when it comes to alleged answers to these three riddles.
THE EXISTENCE OF THE EVIL PROBLEM
Why are we here? The major monotheistic religions, including the Catholic faith in which I was reared, believe that we were created by an all-powerful, supernatural being.
This deity adores us, much like a human father adores his children, and desires that we act in a certain way.
He will reward us if we are good. He will punish us if we are unfaithful. (I use the word “He” since most texts portray God as a man.)
The problem of evil is my biggest objection to this interpretation of reality.
A cursory examination of human history and current events reveals great suffering and injustice.
Why is life so horrible for so many people if God loves us and is omnipotent? God gives us free will, therefore we can choose to be bad or good, according to a common response to this topic.
In his book Dreams of a Final Theory, the late, famous atheist physicist Steven Weinberg, who died in July, slams the free will argument.
Weinberg, who lost many families to the Nazis during the Holocaust, wonders if millions of Jews had to die for the Nazis to exercise their free will.
That does not appear to be equitable.
What about children who develop cancer? Is it reasonable to believe that cancer cells have free will?
Life, on the other hand, isn’t always a living horror.
Love, friendship, adventure, and devastating beauty are all part of our journey. Is it possible that all of this is the result of random particle collisions? Even Weinberg admits that life might be “more beautiful than technically required” at times.
If the problem of evil makes it impossible for me to believe in a loving God, the problem of beauty prevents me from becoming an atheist like Weinberg.
As a result, agnosticism.
THE INFORMATION PROBLEM
Quantum mechanics is the most precise and powerful theory of reality known to science.
It has foreshadowed a slew of experiments and created a slew of applications.
The problem is that physicists and philosophers dispute what it signifies in terms of how the world works.
Many physicists—probably the majority—support Danish scientist Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation.
But this is an anti-interpretation, according to which physicists should “shut up and calculate,” as physicist David Mermin memorably put it.
Tim Maudlin, a philosopher, laments the situation.
He shows out that numerous interpretations of quantum mechanics describe how the world works in detail in his 2019 book Philosophy of Physics: Quantum Theory.
Ghirardi, Rimini, and Weber proposed the GRW model; David Bohm proposed the pilot-wave theory, and Hugh Everett proposed the many-worlds hypothesis.
The irony is that Maudlin is so meticulous in pointing out the problems in these readings that he only adds to my suspicion. They’re all utterly clumsy and ridiculous.
Maudlin ignores views that recast quantum physics as an information theory.
Beyond Weird by writer Philip Ball and The Ascent of Information by astrobiologist Caleb Scharf are two books that provide positive viewpoints on information-based interpretations.
However, information-based interpretations of quantum physics, in my opinion, are even less credible than the theories that Maudlin examines.
Without conscious beings to send, receive, and act on the information, the concept of information is meaningless.
The introduction of awareness into physics calls into question its objectivity.
Furthermore, consciousness appears only in particular organisms that have existed for a short time on Earth, as far as we know.
So how can quantum mechanics, which is a theory of information rather than matter and energy, apply to the entire cosmos since the big bang, since it is a theory of information rather than matter and energy?
Information-based physics theories appear to be a relic of geocentrism, which held that the cosmos revolved around us.
Given the difficulties with all explanations of quantum mechanics, agnosticism seemed to me to be a reasonable position.
PROBLEMS WITH THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION
Even more acrimonious than the dispute over quantum mechanics is the controversy over consciousness.
What is the process through which matter creates a mind? A consensus appeared to be forming a few decades ago.
In his cockily titled Consciousness Explained, philosopher Daniel Dennett stated that consciousness derives from neurological processes such as electrochemical pulses in the brain.
Consciousness is formed by networks of neurons vibrating in synchrony, according to Francis Crick and Christof Koch.
As scientific evidence supporting neuronal models of consciousness failed to materialize, this consensus began to crumble.
There is now a dizzying range of theories of consciousness, as I point out in my latest book Mind-Body Problems.
Christof Koch is a supporter of the integrated information theory, which claims that awareness is a characteristic of all matter, not only brains.
This theory has the same issues as information-based quantum mechanics theories.
Quantum effects may underpin consciousness, according to theorists like Roger Penrose, who earned the Nobel Prize in Physics last year, although this hypothesis is even less supported by data than integrated information theory.
Even on what shape a theory of consciousness should take, researchers can’t agree.
Is it necessary to write a philosophical treatise?
Is it possible to create an entirely mathematical model?
Perhaps a massive algorithm based on Bayesian computation?
Should it borrow Buddhist concepts like anatta or the doctrine of no-self?
All of the aforementioned?
None of the aforementioned?
The consensus appears to be further away than it has ever been.
This is a good thing.
We should be open-minded when it comes to our thoughts.
So, what’s the difference between me and Gallagher, my former friend, if there is one?
I prefer to believe it’s a matter of taste.
Gallagher despised other people’s decisions.
He reminded me of one of those sneering atheists who mock the believers for their faith.
I make an effort not to be dogmatic in my disbelief and to sympathize with individuals who, like Francis Collins, have found solutions that work for them.
Also, even though I can’t accept them, I enjoy imaginative explanations of everything, such as John Wheeler’s “it from bit” and Freeman Dyson’s concept of maximum diversity.
I’m a sceptic at heart.
I doubt we’ll ever know if God exists, what quantum mechanics entails, or how matter gives rise to consciousness.
These three problems, I believe, are diverse manifestations of a single, impenetrable mystery at its core.
But one of the benefits of agnosticism—perhaps the most valuable benefit—is that I can keep searching for answers and waiting for a breakthrough just around the corner.
the author is John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science, The End of War and Mind-Body Problems, available for free at mindbodyproblems.com. For many years, he wrote the immensely popular blog Cross Check for Scientific American.
Read more: https://mysteriousofscience.com/new-scientists-supersize-the-quantum-effects-with-entangled-drum-duet/