Mother of Sciences
The realness of reality is an inquiry appropriate to philosophy. The realm of science is reality as we perceive it. All constraints in perception are, therefore, mirrored in science. How can we identify and remove perceptual constraints from science, or at least, understand their manifestations? Before attempting to answer this question the next ten chapters, let’s first look at how we organize our knowledge under different domains.
1.1 SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY AND SPIRITUALITY
Science stems from the basic curiosity innate in all of us. Why is something the way it is? How does something work? Implicit in such questions is an assumed ability to answer them. Science represents that ability, that body of knowledge from which logical answers can be elicited at will. At the other end of the spectrum of knowledge is spirituality, representing our collective ignorance, addressing questions to which we do not have logically satisfying answers. What is right and wrong? What is the meaning of life? Philosophy sits in between these two, dealing with problems such as the nature of knowledge and reality. These vast domains of knowledge may appear to be distinct subjects dealing with totally different problems at the outset of a life of scientific investigation or philosophical inquiry. It takes the wisdom that comes with maturity to realize and appreciate the extent of the overlap among the three.
Philosophy is considered the mother of sciences. To a student of science whose faith is entirely with physical sciences, this claim may sound like the wishful thinking of a frustrated philosopher, but philosophy is a unique field. It addresses questions in every aspect of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy; it is nothing less than the attempt to understand the universe as a whole. Its sphere of interest is boundless. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. Philosophy seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. These techniques, of course, provide the basis for modern sciences.
Despite this basic connection, philosophy seems irrelevant to physics mainly because of the apparent ease with which physics seems to answer the “why” and “how” questions up until the undergraduate years. Once one passes the undergraduate level, the arbitrariness of some of the assumptions and hypotheses in physics begins to shake the logical faith we have developed thus far. We may suspend our disbelief mainly because the theories, despite their arbitrary nature and extreme complexities, seem to work. But by that time, we realize that the role of physics is no longer to explain why things are the way they are, but to describe how they behave in a mathematical fashion. This role, of course, is a lot less satisfying. But it is when we begin to question the hypotheses themselves that we find ourselves on a slippery slope toward philosophy.
1.2 ASSUMPTIONS AND KNOWLEDGE
Nature’s laws are tricky to figure out, but once we do figure them out, they are surprisingly simple. This simplicity is what Albert Einstein hinted at when he said, “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not.” Note Simplicity also implies the absence of arbitrariness. For this reason, arbitrary assumptions and axioms to explain physical phenomena and complicated computations describing them should always be viewed with skepticism.
Some of the arbitrary assumptions in physics are easy to spot—e.g., the speed of light is a cosmic speed limit; nothing can travel faster than light. This is one assumption we will go into in great detail. Another palpable assumption introduced in modern cosmology is the one about dark matter.
Dark matter was postulated to account for the speed anomalies in galaxies. The speed at which stars and galaxies should be moving was calculated based on the visible matter in galaxies. The calculated speeds did not agree with the observations. The celestial objects were moving faster than predicted, as though the galaxies contained more matter than the scientists could see. They postulated dark matter as the matter that could not be seen.
A similar ad hoc assumption of dark energy was introduced to account for another anomaly; the universe is expanding faster that it should be. Dark energy is the invisible force pushing things away from each other. Such ad hoc assumptions in physics are easy to spot.
The assumptions dealing with the nature of reality itself are far trickier to spot. Examples of such assumptions are: there is a three-dimensional space, there is a continuously flowing time, and so on. These fundamental assumptions are as philosophical as the statement that there is a God. In this book, we will ponder over these philosophical assumptions as well. We may not be able to explain away all these assumptions and arbitrarinesses. However, we may be able to see what they are based on, where they come from. Some of these philosophical assumptions are embedded so deeply in the way we look at the world that they form the fundamental concepts on which our physical sciences are built.
1.3 NATURE OF REALITY
One of the foundations of physics is the concept of time. Time is so pervasive in our daily lives that we take its existence to be self-evident. Despite this appearance, time is in fact an abstract and arbitrary concept. It is a mathematical construct much like numbers. How such imaginary things as time and numbers could describe “real” physical phenomena is indeed a surprise.
Later on, we will find a plausible explanation for the existence of time, not in physics, but in evolutionary biology. Evolution has played a large role in our perception, and thereby in physics. The role of evolution in our sense of reality (which includes space and time) is an insight that provides surprising answers to a wide range of questions.
While the realness of time may be logically debated, we never find ourselves suspecting space, because we sense and perceive it directly. Despite this direct perception, our faith in space is easily shaken by a cursory exposure to neuroscience and the study of consciousness. Losing faith in the realness of space is not all bad, because in the process, we gain insights into one of the most arbitrary assumptions in modern physics, namely the sanctity of the speed of light. The speed of light is considered a kind of cosmic speed limit for matter. It is also a constant no matter how we measure it (i.e., irrespective of our state of motion). Once introduced to this assumption, the immediate question that confronts any serious student of physics is, what is so special about the speed of light? Why the speed of light? Why not some other number, the speed of something else? We will see later that the answer lies not just in physics but in neuroscience, in how our brain creates a reality for us.
The nature of reality used to be in the realm of philosophy or even religion and spirituality, but sciences have started staking a claim to it. In the last couple of decades, cognitive neuroscience has begun to understand the true nature of reality  as a representation of our sensory inputs. Reality is a model created by our brain. It is a representation that maximizes our chance of survival. Once this scientific understanding of reality (as opposed to a philosophical conjecture) percolates to other modern sciences (especially physics), what is explored in this book will become part of our basic knowledge. We will see clearly the role of sensing and perception in the theories of physics.
The unreal nature of space and time may be a little unsettling at first. However, it is important to realize that our perceived reality is the reality we have to live by. It is this perceived reality that we have to describe in our sciences, that we have to build theories on. The physical causes behind the perception, the absolute reality of which our perception is only a representation, is largely irrelevant to us. This irrelevance is precisely the reason why our senses did not evolve to sense the physical reality as it is.
We will come back to the virtuality of time and space (mainly in the form of the distinction between a sensed reality and an absolute reality) again and again in the book. We will use concepts from evolutionary biology, neuroscience and, most of all, from physics to understand the unrealness and its implications. We will see interplay between modern sciences (biology, physics, neuroscience, etc.) and the philosophical schools of thought. We will see clearly what it means to say that reality is a representation of our sensory inputs.
If our reality is merely a representation created in our head, what is it that is being sensed? Paradoxically, the absolute, physical reality cannot be known. The sensed reality, the representation is the Unreal Universe. The distinction between the sensed reality and what is being sensed is not a new insight. Such questions about the nature of reality have been articulated and attempted in metaphysics and in many lines of Eastern philosophy. Similar inquiries into the basis of reality and knowledge are found in epistemology.
What is novel in this book is the application of these philosophical concepts to answer some real physical questions. This book is an attempt to extrapolate from what is known into what is not knowable. We hope that the insight represented in this extrapolation will have some impact on the way in which we understand the workings of the universe, that it may take us a little closer to “God’s own thoughts.”
Toward the end of the book, we will see how the workings of physics, and indeed of all sciences, are inextricably intertwined with our philosophical stances on the nature of reality. Philosophy provides the ground rules and the arena where the sciences play out their games. Perhaps this line of thinking, rather than worries about its own irrelevance, is behind the maternal claim that philosophy stakes on sciences.
Read Chapter 2.