History reminds us that what is scientific truth today probably won't be tomorrow, and yet as a society we adopt meaningless science as our main social paradigm because it is 'true', regardless of the destructive consequences of those beliefs.
NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE recently reported three remarkable new findings that could revolutionize both biology and physics. (Oct 1st edition)
The first involved a landmark study by Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanjing University, China, which shows that the genetic material from our food can alter the expression of our genes. Zhang found that short strands of RNA from our diet, strands between 19 and 24 nucleotides long, called microRNA or miRNA, have been identified in the cells throughout our body, and that they can modify gene expression in those cells by binding to messenger RNA. Quite how they survive cooking and the digestive process, is not entirely understood yet, but this finding explodes the myth, perpetrated by scientists and especially genetic engineers, that ingested genetically modified foods are harmless because the unnatural genetic material is broken down in the digestive system before it can be absorbed by the body. These "experts" now have egg on their faces as it is now entirely scientifically legitimate to be concerned about the presence of modified genes in our diet.
New Scientist does nothing but briefly scratch the surface regarding the potential dangers associated with GM foods, playing down concerns by citing the ambiguity of gene transfer research. But considering that most of that research is done by the industry itself, that studies are never long-term, and that none have actually looked specifically for GM miRNA in our body cells but rather focused on gut flora, it is not surprising that the results are ambiguous. And as New Scientist is a magazine funded by advertising revenue from the scientific community (including many biotechnology companies), one would naturally expect the potential dangers of GM foods to be downplayed. Indeed, the writer of the article, Ferris Jabr, brushes past GM safety concerns and rushed on to the exciting possibility that we can now have designer diets with therapeutic benefits. [The irony is that if we ate natural, unadulterated diets, we probably wouldn't need "therapeutic benefits" in the first place! Nature knows best, but we keep tinkering and tinkering because there is little profit in unadulterated food and natural healthy lifestyles.]
And it is amusing how the New Scientist editor, in the editorial, tries to dismiss the implications of this ground-breaking research regarding the dangers of GM foods with the following paragraph:
"The idea that the genetic information in the plants we eat alters our health is startling, not least because we now alter food in a way that was not possible by conventional breeding. However, let's keep a sense of proportion. There is no reason that genetic information from GM crops would find its way into our blood more readily than that from unmodified plants."
Huh?? Yes, I thought that too. The fact that there is "no reason that genetic information from GM crops would find its way into our blood more readily than that from unmodified plants" bypasses concerns regarding what effect miRNA from GM foods might have on our gene expression. It is a bit like dismissing the dangers of the Death Cap mushroom because it is no more absorbable than edible mushroom varieties — hardly a comforting thought! But this is the sort of wriggling that is common place in industry-supporting magazines and journals.
The same October issue of New Scientist October that reported on this dietary miRNA also included a special report on the recent measurement of neutrinos travelling faster than light, and also an article by Michael Brooks (an author who is always a pleasure to read) on the controversial claim that life is a direct macro-expression of quantum physics — in other words, quantum physics is not restricted to the sub-atomic domain and/or to extremely cold temperatures. (The expression of quantum physics at non-atomic scales and at the temperatures that life operates has always been dismissed by most physicists and professional skeptics as New Age mumbo-jumbo.)
Whilst faster-than-light neutrinos can be brushed off as experimental error or dimensional tunnelling (although another experiment has just confirmed the first results — and so physicist Jim Al-Khalili will be eating his boxer shorts on TV, and time travel may now be theoretically possible), and whilst the quantum basis for life is still in the early stages of being researched and formulated, these challenges to the sacred beliefs of modern science are an important reminder to us that science has an ever-changing perspective, and we can never assume that it has finally found "Truth". No matter how certain a scientist might be, no matter how much he might point to this or that scientific research to back up a certain theory or perspective, if the history of science is anything to go by, he will be defending a theory that future observation and research will eventually show up as incorrect or incomplete. Science from a historical perspective is a continually moving conveyor belt of belief systems and scientific models, ones that we repeatedly mistaken for the idea called "reality" — that part of experience that is assumed to exist independently of our perception of it. [This conveyor belt of belief systems actually moves in a jerky fashion, with large slippages called "paradigm shifts" punctuating a perpetual flow of new theories.]
The interesting question on this movement of scientific theory is whether it is diverging towards what might be called "truth", or whether the theory is just morphing in response to our collective social beliefs and what scientists focus on. Effectively, what is being asked here is whether science is evolving to some level of true objectivity, or whether it is meandering — dancing to its own reflection in the mirror of social paradigms and psychology.
Most scientists would say that it is evolving because scientific theories of today are more accurate at predicting reality than conceptual maps of yesterday. But does being more accurate make a theory, or more descriptively a realitymap, more objective? Can we ever really know whether our maps cover objective experience when new technologies are always opening up new experiences? Does the map really converge with the territory the more accurate it becomes? And how do we judge accuracy — do we mean in terms of its predictive accuracy or do we mean in terms of its philosophical implications?
Take Special Relativity: this realitymap of the motion of objects (outside of atomic scales) was developed by several scientists at the beginning of the 20th century, including Einstein. It is based on two postulates: that light has a fixed, maximum speed in a vacuum no matter what speed the object omitting the light is travelling; and that the basic laws of physics are identical for all uniformly moving observers — in other words if you are travelling at a uniform speed through space you will not be able to measure your absolute motion by any experiment (you will only be able to see your relative motion to other bodies — hence the term "relativity"). The theory mathematically encapsulates the consequences of these two postulates, and it represents the best realitymap we currently have for predicting motion on a macro level — in fact it is a fantastically accurate model.
And yet both of the postulates on which relativity is founded are now being questioned: the speed of light through a vacuum may not be the fastest possible speed, and the concept of the "ether" — a medium through which light travels and which could therefore give a framework with which to invalidate relativity — is starting to make a comeback. (Years after dismissing the concept of an ether, Einstein himself realized that, for light to travel through a vacuum, that vacuum must have certain properties, which means it cannot be completely empty.) Experiments to prove the non-existence of an ether rest on the assumption that it is a fixed medium through which waves of light travel much like water is the fixed medium for waves of disturbance. But this assumption is invalid as light can also behave like particles. So because we do not really understand what light actually is, then using false or incomplete ideas of light to try to infer the existence or non-existence of a classic "wave" medium is not a particularly valid approach. No wonder the ether has been so elusive during attempts to experimentally confirm its existence!
So here we have a realitymap called Special Relativity based on two questionable postulates, and yet the theory is extremely accurate outside the quantum realm. Likewise, its predecessor, the less-accurate Newtonian realitymap, is also based on questionable postulates — that we live in a non-relativistic, fixed framed, 3-dimensional, linear-time, Cartesian and objective universe. And like Special Relativity, the fact that the postulates of the Newtonian realitymap are questionable does not detract from its usefulness: it was, after all, accurate enough to have been used to send humankind to the moon and back.
The fact that scientific theories can accurately model certain behaviours of reality, but still be based on false postulates, is an important reminder that they are predictive models or maps of reality, and there always has to be some distortion and omission in such a mapping process by definition. As Alfred Korzybski would say, the map is not the territory. Scientific realitymaps are certainly becoming more and more accurate, but in no way can we conclude that somehow our scientific maps are becoming the territory because they are now extremely accurate.
So we cannot say, for example, that the Relativistic realitymap is truer or more objective than the Newtonian realitymap. Relativity is certainly more accurate mathematically (that greater accuracy coming at the price of greater complexity and more difficult maths), but there are no grounds to equate that accuracy with greater objectivity. The philosophical implications of relativity — that we live in a curved space-time universe — are no more valid than the philosophical implications of Newton’s classical mechanics — that we live in a fixed-frame Cartesian universe. This is because the map never becomes representative of the territory, but merely models certain aspects of it.
But because we confuse our models with reality, we are always tempted to extrapolate those models to give us anthropocentric worldviews — to translates our mathematical equations into stories of reality that fit our psychology far better than cold mathematics. However, because these models are distortions/reductions of reality in the first place, due to the mapping process, such extrapolations only magnify these distortions and omissions so that the philosophical implications of our models are not necessarily valid and cannot be said to represent the reality concept. So our expanded models are actually fantasies masquerading as reality, reflecting perhaps some of the ideas and prejudices of the researchers and theorists who formulated them. Other realitymaps are so abstractly mathematical that they were not formulated to reflect any worldview but just to fit the data, thus throwing up some very unusual perspectives when extrapolated out into a human-centric worldview. An example of this sort of realitymap is quantum theory.
One of the implications of quantum theory is that consciousness could be intimately involved in a process of manufacturing reality, and therefore the quantum realitymap is often used as justification for putting consciousness back into the center of objective experience, rather than it being the by-product or epiphenomenon of nervous systems (a reductionist point of view). This justification of reality-creation through the process of consciousness is central to New Age documentaries like What the Bleep! and Down the Rabbit Hole. But the quantum realitymap is ultimately just a mathematical model for predicting a certain subset of experience (usually at sub-atomic dimensions and/or at cold temperatures), and extrapolating it up into a worldview of strange paradoxes may be intriguing, but may not actually have any validity regarding normal human reality.
It is important to state here that just as the quantum realitymap cannot be used to justify the central role of consciousness in reality creation, does not mean it does not play this role. Giving consciousness a central role is actually outside the remit of science because it erodes the objectivity that forms the bedrock of science. We can never be definitive about consciousness and reality because, once again, the map can never be the territory, and all we can every formulate in our minds are maps of reality, maps which must have some level of conceptualization and therefore objectivity. As consciousness is at the foundation of every experience, all objectivity is ultimately inferred. Therefore, there is nothing to define consciousness because it is all consciousness.
Those who assume that there is one ultimate reality believe that all the different realitymaps that cover different areas of human experience must at some point be consistent. But as an objective reality out there is always inferred, this can only ever be an assumption. We try hard to keep everything consistent because of the persistent idea in a single, objective reality, and this can lead to an ever-nagging feeling that inconsistent realitymaps need to be brought together — like quantum theory and relativity, which remain fundamentally incompatible. In fact, the holy grail of modern physics is to identify a theory of everything — a single scientific theory that predicts all physical forces at all dimensions. But if reality is not a thing with consistent properties and behaviours, properties and behaviours fully explained by reductionism, then this will always remain a pipe dream.
Reductionism is the scientific view that all phenomena can be explained by the collective behaviour of their components, so that consciousness, for example, is regarded as the collective behaviour of networked neurons, which in turn is regarded as the collective behaviour of a biochemical system, which in turn is regarded as the collective behaviour of atoms and sub-atomic particles. In this way, something as central to our experience as consciousness can become, conceptually, a figment of our imagination, despite the fact that all and every interaction we have in the world is predicated on consciousness, even when those interactions are mediated by technologies like microscopes, telescopes and particle accelerators.
Consciousness is the bedrock of all experience everywhere, and so any view of reality that discards it in favour of objectivism can only be an artificial model of the reality concept. And yet, as a society we are quite happy to allow these sterile realitymaps to define our existence, realitymaps that mirror the sterile laboratory environments in which they were created, and the brilliant but often emotionally-retarded minds that conceived them. Do we really want to don the worldviews of a collection of men and women who are have trained for many years in systematic but sterile realitymapping in which anything that cannot be measured in a laboratory is dismissed? The paradigms they present to society are not paradigms to live by. But unfortunately, they are paradigms to make money by because they are materialistic paradigms — they can dismiss unscientific concepts like integrity, ethics and quality of life.
Of course, there are scientific paradigms, like the quantum paradigm, that can be paradigms to live by. But the problem with adopting such paradigms is that we are still giving science permission to be the arbiter of truth in our lives; we have given away our own authority to create our own meaning… to tell our own stories. When at some point in the near future quantum theory is modified to get rid of the role of consciousness (a development already successfully underway), how are all the quantum New Agers going to justify reality-creation? The same of course applies when/if quantum theory is replaced entirely by a new more-deterministic theory — what happens then? Eventually we will realize that the magic of our lives does not need scientific justification or permission, and if we insist on giving it scientific justification, we will always live in fear that that justification could be taken away at any time with some new experiment or theory.
But what about something like global warming? Surely this is a paradigm to live by? Global warming is not so much a paradigm as a theory, and even though it is based on the same sterile scientific worldview outlined above, it does at least attempt to galvanizes people into taking more ecological consideration. At least that is the theory based on the assumption that people are rational and will not want to destroy the Earth for their own short-term gain. Unfortunately, if people feel their lives are meaningless — that we are accidents in a mechanical universe — then they tend to act in ways that can often seem at odds with their own interest. In a meaningless universe we tend to want to grab what we can and forget the consequences, on our downward spiral into self-destruction — eat, drink and be merry… and fuck the consequences! Humans thrive on meaning — it is oxygen to the soul.
There are meaning-filled, life-giving perspectives that also make us conscious of our ecological impact, delivering that message through a more meaningful paradigm. Such worldviews might include animistic/shamanistic perspectives, spiritual ecology and some religious perspectives. Unfortunately, the military-industrial complex that controls society has become so indoctrinated by science — a paradigm that justifies control over nature and people — that the global warming perspective becomes its only ecological message. And as that message is in the context of a meaningless mechanical worldview, the message itself does little to modify behaviour except through legislation.
As ecosystems are complex systems, they tend to be modelled by computer simulation rather than laws of ecology because the mathematics of complex systems is just too difficult to formulate and solve, and so the mapping process becomes even more approximate. This is why scientists find global warming so difficult to predict. However, just because it is difficult to model does not mean that it is not happening, but it does mean that the primary causes of global warming are not necessarily clear cut. Human activity is undoubtedly a contributory factor, but temperature rises seem to be happening throughout our solar system — all the planets seem to be heating up — which implies that human activity may not be the only cause for global warming on Earth. In fact, the solar influence was ignored until relatively recently, but is now thought by some scientists to be the primary cause of global warming.
Does this mean we can ignore the threat and burn as much fossil fuels as we like? No, because cause and effect is very hard to establish in complex systems, and it will never be certain how big our influence is on the warming process. Probably better to side with caution and reduce our carbon footprints, which has the added benefit of going hand in hand with general care about our environment. But it is a pity that the message is being delivered in such a sterile context — the scientific context — as this only weakens our resolve to act collectively for the greater good.
The reality-modelling process of science, with complex systems like weather, involves systematised data collection — the more data the better — which is then fed into the computer models to try to make accurate predictions. For less complex systems, the modelling is more exact and gives us useful technologies — electronics technologies, chemical technologies and biological technologies. If we insist on trying to live by scientific paradigms, we become a technology, rather than living beings; we become systems, rather than consciousness. And when we conceptualize ourselves, we end up psychologically blocking out the novelty and indeterminism that is central to human experience. Much of this novelty is labelled by those who live in the box as "paranormal" for external events and "pathological" for internal events. (To those outside the box, it is just more experience.)
The stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences, the realitymaps which we use to give ourselves positionality in the world, must be chosen with care so that who we are and what we do has meaning. It does not matter if that meaning is not universally shared; what is most important is to live within some kind of meaningful context. Otherwise we end up in a meaningless society, one which is prone to self-destruction, anomie and nihilism — hallmarks of today’s Western societies.
There are, of course, non-scientific paradigms which have specifically been created to inject meaning into our lives — religion and other spiritual belief systems. These type of realitymaps give people’s lives a meaningful context, and that is why so many still cling to "outdated" religious belief systems (including a good portion of scientists). In fact, it is estimated that 9 out of 10 Americans still believes in God or some sort of supreme being, in a nation that leads the world scientifically!
However, there are scientists, like biologist Richard Dawkins, who believe that science should completely replace religion, thinking that it would spell a new age of scientific enlightenment. However, sterile visions of the world can only lead to sterile thinking and sterile behaviour, and so routing out religion and replacing it with science is a recipe for disaster. Human society just does not function well on scientific belief systems such as Darwinian "survival of the fittest" — a meaningless tautology if there ever was one and one that and one that is inconsistent with the actual fossil record with its notable lack of missing links. This biological scientific worldview reduces morality and integrity to means to the end of gene transfer. Indeed, the book that first put Dawkins on the map was depressingly entitled, "The Selfish Gene". If society accepts these beliefs, then any behaviour can be justified because everything becomes a survival strategy. These sorts of poisonous paradigms need to be questioned, because they cause nothing but trouble, all in the name of "truth" and objectivity. And anyone naive enough to think that these worldviews somehow represent "truth" and so should be taught at schools no matter what the consequences does not understand the scientific mapping process, or the responsibility we have to seed new generations with paradigms to live by.
The vast majority of people, Dawkins actually included, can only thrive if life has some real meaning, and this is why many scientists are religious, placing their science worldview inside a larger and more meaningful religious worldview. In Dawkins’ case, his world has meaning from both his position as a top academic and his opposition to religion. In fact, it is surprising how many scientists and those who call themselves scientists gain meaning by locking horns with other paradigms. If the scientific paradigm had no competition, If there were no need to defend it, individuals like Dawkins and many other skeptics would be as lost as the next person. Opposition generates meaning for those who peddle rational meaningless belief systems.
Our children grow up in a world that we paint for them — they grown up largely with our meaning or lack of meaning. If we insist on adopting scientific paradigms because science is based on observation and therefore must be accurate, a viewpoint that disregards the whole reality mapping process, then we pay dearly for such naivety. Religion was once the glue that gave society meaning, but as the religious paradigms have given way to secular paradigms (largely based on science), society is becoming fragmented. Social cohesion has been eroded and most young people today feel directionless. Nobody is denying the technological benefits of science, but allowing the same realitymaps that create technology to then define our place in the universe, is a misuse of science. And we are paying dearly for that misuse.
This is why the limitations of science, indeed any belief system, should be a central part of any educational system. Scientific realitymaps may be based on systematised observation, unlike many other belief systems, but the philosophical interpretation of those undeniably useful scientific models is an entirely philosophical endeavour. By allowing scientists to interpret the world for us, we get a technician’s view of the world where life is just a blind biological process. Fortunately, the human mind has a strong penchant for meaning, which has allowed other realitymaps to flourish, despite the technological success of scientific realitymaps. And it is these other realitymaps that have helped to mitigate much of the destructive potential of the scientific paradigm.
However, there is one very important caveat here: traditional religious realitymaps often promote a uncompromising "them and us" perspective, laying claim to absolute truth and the word of god, and as such have caused untold suffering and bloodshed, despite the fact that they give life a certain meaning and perspective. Religious realitymaps are often just traditional systems of social control and manipulation, systems that enslaved humanity before science managed break it free (only to become the new jailor). Scientific realitymaps, however, do promote a more unified vision of the world based on experience rather than philosophy, and this has allowed it to cross all borders, unifying the world in its grand but meaningless vision.
When science broke the stranglehold of region, many religious sects were forced to update their doctrines in order to keep pace with their audiences. Some of those doctrines may have remained the same, but the context of those doctrines is very different. Those religious groups that refuse to update are either dying out, or becoming increasingly fanatical and fundamentalist in order to resist change. As they become more fanatical and fundamentalist, they become more dangerous to anyone and everyone outside of their membership. In this way, they may be paradigms to live by within their own organisation, but in the context of humanity as a whole they become paradigms of separation and destruction.
This is why we should not be afraid to create realitymaps without needing scientific or religious approval. And this is what the New Age/New Consciousness movement does, although it still tries very hard to keep in step with science — cherry picking fringe science\scientific paradigms to corroborate its worldviews. This is why the New Age movement is rife with pseudoscience, and why so many of its proponents masquerade as scientists, kowtowing to the Quantum God.
Ultimately, our relationship to our realitymaps is more important than the realitymaps themselves. As we become conscious that our realitymaps are not reality itself but maps of reality that are merely useful in different situations, we stop the whole drive for "truth" and no longer identify with our realitymaps. For the ego itself is a realitymap of who we think we are and what we deserve — one that we spend our lives trying to uphold and defend. This process of becoming aware of the mapping process is called awakening in some spiritual circles. It means we become free of the tyranny of conceptual self. Waking up to this reality-conceptualizing process is perhaps the most important thing that we can do, for when we awaken, the drive to defend our illusions — to fight ideological wars which is the cause of all wars and conflict, both out in the world and in our own hearts and minds — is finally brought to peace.
Until we awaken, until we grok the reality mapping process, we need life-promoting realitymaps — we need meaning in our lives. After we awaken, however, we no longer confuse our maps with the territory. But what exactly is this territory that we are always trying to imperfectly model in our realitymaps? Can we ever touch it directly?
Not with our minds. Minds cannot touch reality; all they can do is spin models of that reality — conceptualizing experience. That is the nature of mind — it is forever blind to reality because it is a fantasizing system, period. So all we ever see with our minds is a shadow puppet show — the vague reflection of reality in the distorting mirror of our minds. If we don't realize the futility of conceptualization, we can spend our lives in endless pursuit, trying to chase down a mirage.
But there is one aspect of our experience that can experience reality directly, and that is our basic awareness. Awareness is the only constant in all experience. In fact you could say that reality is awareness; and awareness is reality. The problem with awareness is that we hardly ever directly experience it because our minds are always fixating on the object of our awareness — they are always spinning realitymaps because that is the nature of mind. Like the fish who lives in water and therefore is unconscious of it, we live in our minds, and so are unconscious of basic awareness because we are mesmerized by the story. The story of life; the story of I; the story of the universe; the story of god; the story of science; and, perhaps the most important, the story of awareness itself. Even when we think we can experience awareness, we are actually conceptualizing it. And if we think we can trigger a direct experience of awareness by controlling the object of our awareness, for example through a special visualization/meditation technique, we will again be lost in the conceptualisation of awareness.
That is why most people, even experienced meditators who are focused directly on consciousness, will usually reject awareness as the ultimate reality or Truth because it just doesn't seem sexy enough. So those that are spiritual are generally fantasizing reality just as much as those that are scientific. The story is different, but both are fiction.
To wake up to reality, we have to understand realitymapping; we have to examine how our minds manufacture illusions of reality. It is all there if we bother to look closely. But as long as we are continually prepared to allow systems of knowledge — whether those systems are scientific, religious, spiritual, political or psychological — to tell us what reality is, then we will remain lost in the conceptual dream, we will continue to be mesmerized by the shadow puppets in our minds.