Summary of Scott Brennison's talk "The Self-Aware Universe",
by Don Brautigam
Scott Brennison presented a talk based on his reading of "The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami. Goswami was born and raised in India, immersed in the Eastern philosophical tradition which is based on the premise that "Consciousness" is fundamental and that the phenomenal world arises from it (referred to here as monistic idealism). The "Consciousness" referred to here is capitalized to distinguish it from that aspect of it which we typically associate with our common 'ego-centered' experience. This viewpoint is opposite to that of "material realism" which assumes that "reality" is built out of some substantive fundamental building blocks of matter, and that consciousness arises from the complexity of matter and is irrelevant to the overall structure of the universe. Scott discussed various issues from the vantage point of "material realism" vs "monistic idealism".
Descartes is attributed to separating the universe into the realm of mind and matter. A pertinent quote from the philosopher David Abram is, "The mechanical philosophy became a central facet of the scientific worldview precisely because it implied the existence of a maker (a divine interpreter) and thus made possible an alliance between science and the Church (the dominant social and political institution of the time)." This differentiation of the universe into mind and matter is merely a cultural artifact employed to simplify theoretical discussion of our experience, and in no way should be taken as any absolute description of nature. Five principles of material realism are 1) strong objectivity, 2) causal determinism, 3) locality, 4) physical monism, and 5) epiphenomenalism. The strong objectivity implies that 'reality' exists independent of any observer, and can be scrutinized and modeled from a fully objective 'outside' perspective. Causal determinism says that the world can be explained in terms of cause and effect relations. Carried to the extreme, it says that if one were somehow able to acquire a complete set of information about all the 'fundamental material units' in the universe at one given instant of time, then the future of the universe would be forever determined. Locality is related to the concept of causality. It says that information can not be propagated from one space-time point to another at a speed faster than that of light; that is, it rules out instantaneous effects. Physical monism and epiphenomenalism are unfamiliar terms to me, so I'll pass on those. Material realism is a philosophy which implies that the human experience, with our notions of free will, emotions, and meaning, is an irrelevant foot note to the workings of the universe. Since science has been (is) such a dominant cultural force, one may wonder how the paradigm of classical mechanistic science (material realism) has impacted and shaped our lives and environment.
Since science is part of an evolutionary process, classical mechanistic ideas eventually became superseded by the new ideas embraced by quantum mechanics and relativity, the science of complexity, and so on. Scott described the 'Delayed Choice' experiment which 'proves' the idea that 'nonlocality' must be viewed as a 'real' attribute of the universe to explain certain experimental arrangements/observations. The physics of today points to an image of reality which is much different from that which reigned up to the advent of 'modern physics'. Classical physics dealt with the macroscopic phenomena which we could 'contact' with our senses and which were compatible with our 'common-sense' notions of everyday experience. Modern physics deals with an entirely different aspect of reality, one which transcends that world of 'common-sense', everyday reality. Scott recounted the Indian story of the monkey, which upon sticking its hand into a jar to grab a handful of chickpeas, found that it couldn't remove its clenched fist from the jar. Refusing to let go of the chickpeas, the monkey was forced to remain captive to the jar. This may be taken as a metaphor for our tendency to cling to conceptual frameworks, even after it is apparent that they are no longer viable.