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Why We Need To Expand Our Scientific Methods: Empiricism Old & New

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Modern science some time ago became enamored of attempts to “be objective.” To be objective implies eliminating a personal point of view as much as possible from science. Science writing itself still reflects this trend today with awkward passive phrasing such as “it is shown” or “it was found,” rather than “I show” or “we show.”

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There is, of course, in any attempt to be objective a pretense of there not being a person making the statements at issue. But there is in fact always a person, a scientist, doing the science. In this manner, science is inherently and irrevocably subjective, not objective.

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Erwin Schrödinger, one of the key architects of quantum mechanics in the early part of the 20th Century, labeled this approach in 1954 the “principle of objectivation” and expressed it clearly:

By [the principle of objectivation] I mean … a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it, we exclude the subject of cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavor to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world.

This practice, of “being objective,” is part of what I call in this column “old empiricism.” It’s a way of doing science that pretends there isn’t inherently a person doing the science. And in this manner, the simplicity that objectivation once afforded is now outweighed by the confusion that the pretense leads to.

tambookNow that science is firmly engaged in examining consciousness itself—a shift from even a couple of decades ago when it wasn’t considered very scientific to engage in such studies—it is time to drop the pretense and face the subjective realm head on. One of the key tasks of today’s science is how to resolve, scientifically, the classic mind/body problem. The mind/body problem is all about establishing the relationship between objective/external reality and subjective/internal reality.

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A good example of what I mean by old empiricism is Sean Carroll’s argument, in his 2010 book, From Eternity to Here, for entropy as the explanation for the observed arrow of time we see in the universe around us and in our daily lives. The arrow of time is considered a problem because many of our physical theories suggest that there is no inherent direction or arrow to time. So why do we remember the past and imagine the future?

Carroll explicitly leaves out any substantial discussion of the psychological flow of time or questions of consciousness or first-person empiricism in his book. He starts, rather, with the traditional “objectivist” viewpoint that has defined modern science for some time. He raises the question of the psychological passage of time as an issue in physics but then says that he’s not going to address it. But addressing the experienced passage of time is as much a physics question as anything else in physics, and is perhaps fundamental to the nature of reality and thus to physics. We can’t ignore this issue if we are to have a more complete physical understanding of the world.

My feeling is that modern science, while it has achieved tremendous gains in human knowledge, is in some ways running out of steam in our attempts to tackle the remaining “big questions,” and this is largely because of this historical commitment to “objectivation.” It’s time to expand our scientific methods to include the half of nature—subjectivity—that were explicitly left out of many areas of science in order to simplify our approach. It is time to correct that simplification by seeking a more complete account of nature that includes the subject. This expansion in our scientific perspective is what I call “new empiricism.”

“New Empiricism”

The new empiricism I’m suggesting relies on first-person experience as the primary form of empiricism, recognizing that all experimental evidence is ultimately first-person experience. Experiments using physical equipment are ultimately first-person experience because there is no data, no information, without a human apprehending such data. But simple experience independent of any physical equipment is also data available to science. All experience is data.

The second important point contained in the new empiricism I’m advocating here is the need to take primary experience more seriously than has been the case for the last couple of hundred years. Where our physical theories clash with primary level empiricism—the direct evidence of our senses—in most cases, the resolution should be to prefer the evidence of our senses over the experimental evidence.

Where exactly we decide the dispute in each potential conflict is a matter of debate. We can offer an example where the evidence of our senses is indeed misleading: judging whether the earth is flat or round. In everyday experience the earth does seem flat and yet we have no problem accepting that this is an illusion resulting from the scale of our planet compared to our human scale. When we pull back from the surface of our planet, we can see very clearly that the planet is a sphere. It didn’t even require that we get in an airplane or a spaceship to accept that the earth is round. Rather, theories and evidence gathered from various experiments convinced most people that the earth was round long before the era of mechanized flight. For example, Aristotle deduced that the Earth was round by observing that ships on the horizon disappeared hull first, then mast and sails.

Other illusions of our normal experience include the feeling that the sun orbits the earth, when it is more accurate to say that the earth orbits the sun. Another obvious illusion of our senses is our brain’s ability to fill in the blind spot in each of our eyes with the surrounding image, a phenomenon that arises from the evolutionary accident that our optical nerve goes through our retina rather than attaching to the back of the retina as in some other species. The filled-in field of our vision is entirely fabricated by the brain to match the area near the blind spot. But as we can see from the classic spot on a piece of paper experiment, this trick of our brain can be misleading.

There are a ton of illusions like this that have become apparent to modern science. It is no surprise, then, that the scientific pendulum may have swung too far toward the view that even fundamental aspects of our existence, like the passage of time, may in fact be an illusion. I’ll discuss this particular “illusion” more below.

“Old Empiricism”

Old empiricism takes the implications of mathematical theories further than empirical facts should allow. For example, the various physical theories that take time to be symmetrical (as space is symmetrical) should be re-considered with great scrutiny in the light of the direct evidence of our senses and of our experiments that time seems to pass in one direction only, and that the subjective passage of time is real.

Other than the reality of our own consciousness, there seems to be nothing else that we can know more firmly than the fact of the experienced flow of time, from moment to moment to moment.

Another good example of what I am calling here “old empiricism” comes from Huw Price’s 1996 book, Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time:

This book is about the need to think about time’s puzzles from a new viewpoint, a viewpoint outside time. One of my main themes is that physicists and philosophers tend to think about time from too close up. We ourselves are creatures in time, and this is reflected in many ordinary ways of thinking and talking about the world. This makes it very difficult to think about time in an objective way, because it is always difficult to tell whether what we think we see is just a product of our vantage point.

Price’s viewpoint is perhaps an extreme point of view because he is calling explicitly for a non-empirical point of view. He realizes that everything that we know and experience is, of course, within time, and yet he calls for science to ignore this obvious and direct empirical basis for science in creating a physics that is truly a “view from no-when,” to use Price’s phrase.

Price seems to get it exactly backwards in terms of his understanding of the relationship between the world and physical laws. He states: “[W]hat is puzzling is why the physical world should be asymmetric in time at all, given that the underlying physical laws seem to be very largely symmetric.”

It should be an uncontroversial point that physical “laws” are entirely human creations, derived specifically from empirical facts and deduction, not the other way around. So it shouldn’t be at all puzzling that the physical world shows temporal asymmetry because if our physical laws are symmetric and the world is asymmetric then the physical laws are wrong or at least incomplete. The fact that someone of Price’s stature can make such statements without seeing this problem illustrates the degree to which modern science and philosophy have strayed from empiricism and common sense.

A good thought experiment for assessing whether our common sense view of a particular phenomenon is illusory in some manner is to zoom in and out on the phenomenon, literally or figuratively, just as we do in assessing whether or not the Earth is actually flat or round.

When we zoom in and out with respect to the passage of time we can see that no matter how much we zoom in or out on any particular phenomenon there is always the passing of time. The phenomena observed are always changing in some manner no matter how close up we look at, say, cellular processes, or subatomic particles; similarly, no matter how far we zoom out, at far-away galaxy clusters, for example, we still see change and thus the passing of time. So it seems that empirically we have no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that the passage of time is illusory.

Price and his co-thinkers are left arguing based on indirect evidence alone as follows: that our mathematical theories that explain much of the physical phenomena we see suggest in some manner that the passage of time isn’t real because the time term (usually denoted simply “t”) can be reversed with no fundamental impact to the equations. But the direct evidence that shows the passage of time is real surely should outweigh the indirect evidence that suggests the opposite. Rather than take our mathematical theories as indirect evidence of the illusory nature of time, perhaps we should adjust our theories!

Time For A Change?

Luckily, Einstein, Price, Carroll and the many other physicists and philosophers who see time as illusory, face the opposing viewpoint from an increasing number of other scholars who see a strong need to re-establish the reality of the passage of time. Lee Smolin, a physicists with the Perimeter Institute in Canada, and Tim Maudlin, a philosopher with a strong background in physics, have both argued in recent years that conventional physics’ rendering of time as somehow illusory is a major mis-step. Smolin has made his case in two recent books, Time Reborn and, with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Tim Maudlin has argued his case in his book, The Metaphysics Within Physics, in the chapter called “On the passing of time.”

Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most pre-eminent physicist of our time, also provides some support for the “time is real” camp. Hawking states:

In the standard positivist approach to the philosophy of science, physical theories live rent free in a Platonic heaven of ideal mathematical models. That is, a model can be arbitrarily detailed and can contain an arbitrary amount of information without affecting the universes they describe. But we are not angels, who view the universe from the outside. Instead, we and our models are both part of the universe we are describing.

These are not easy topics to get one’s head around, but I highlight the issues surrounding the nature of time because the bottomline here is pretty clear: everything we see, experience and measure shows the passage of time. Once today’s physics gets its head around that empirical reality we can start to really make headway on other thorny issues like the nature of consciousness and the mind/body problem.

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Consciousness

The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Consciousness is appearing to be a fundamental property, just like liquids, solids and gas, consciousness and its connection to the physical material world is now gaining big time credibility.

  • Reflect On:

    How much do we have yet to discover? Are we ready to abandon what we thought we knew in light of new discoveries and evidence?

The world-renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, spent nearly two decades working alongside the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick. Their mission was to find the neurobiological basis of consciousness. They discovered many insights into cognition and the functioning of perception, yet the central enigma, the nature of consciousness itself, remained mysteriously elusive.

In 2009, Koch shocked the scientific community by publishing his conviction that consciousness probably isn’t just in brains, but is a fundamental feature of reality. This is a view known to philosophers as ‘panpsychism.’ The theory Koch is now dedicating his research to is called ‘Integrated Information Theory’ or ‘IIT.’ It is the brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In explaining his theory, Tononi asks us to consider a simple light sensitive photo diode like those found in a digital camera. A simple diode might respond to just two states: light or dark. We could present our diode with any number of images, yet regardless of the picture, the diode conforms to one of only two possible states. Is it light, or is it dark?

Now consider yourself looking at the same picture, lets say, of the Eiffel Tower on a beautiful spring day in Paris. For us, looking at this image results in a reduction from a near infinity of possible states. Not an image of the Andromeda galaxy, not a childhood picture of your mother, not cells dividing in a Petri dish and so on.  Because of the vast number of images we are capable of recognizing, each one is highly informative. For Tononi, the vast amount of information capable of being integrated in the brain means that we have a comparatively huge capacity for consciousness.

Tononi’s theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with high integrated information, has novel ways of being tested in the laboratory.

In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send a ripple of activity through the cortex of sleeping participants. The researchers found that when dreaming, this ripple reverberated through the cortex longer than when participants were in stages of dreamless sleep. This demonstrated that during dreaming, when the brain is conscious, the cortex has a higher degree of integration.

In another experiment, the researchers built tiny robots known as ‘animats’ that were placed into mazes. The animats used simple integrated networks capable of evolving over sequential generations. To their surprise, the greater the degree of integration that the animats evolved, the quicker they were able to escape the mazes. For Tononi this finding suggested that consciousness may play a more central role in evolution than had previously been thought.

The mathematical value of integrated information in a network is known as phi. But Tononi’s theory, now the topic of serious mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn’t just occur in brains, -it is a property of any network with a total informational content greater than its individual parts. Every living cell, every electronic circuit, even a proton consisting of just three elementary particles have a value of phi greater than zero. According to Integrated Information Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a glimmer of ‘what it is like’ to be them. Tononi states:

“Consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or charge. Wherever there is an entity with multiple states, there is some consciousness. You need a special structure to get a lot of it but consciousness is everywhere, it is a fundamental property.”

Integrated information theory is in its infancy and there are still many questions it must face. Did the information of brains operate at the level of the neuron, or the protein, or something deeper still? The electromagnetic field of the brain, as observed by psi researcher Dean Radin, is always re-establishing its quantum connection to the entire universe. Could a much richer informational interaction exist than has yet been imagined?

Physicists such as John Wheeler have laid the groundwork for a radical new understanding of reality, in which matter, the laws and constants of nature, and indeed the entire universe is best described, not in terms of physical objects, but through the play and display of a fundamental dynamic information.

Quantum mechanics suggests that at the deepest level of nature, the entire physical universe is interconnected. Might the total information of the universe be integrated in some deep sense? Is it in a mysterious way conscious of itself?

As spiritual traditions throughout the ages have long asserted, instead of isolated and separate experiencing beings, we may experience on behalf of the greater evolving system in which we find ourselves.

In Koch’s highly anticipated 2012 book, ‘Consciousness – Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’, he states:

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers but the evidence from cosmology, biology and history is compelling.”

Regardless of the validity of Tononi’s theory, today increasing numbers of scientists and academics are convinced that the existence of consciousness simply cannot be sensibly denied. The study of fundamental consciousness is now entering the mainstream. This movement consists of thinkers in and outside of the mind sciences. Yet despite their different academic backgrounds, they are united by two common convictions: that consciousness is an intrinsic rather than incidental emergence in the universe, and that any complete account of reality must include an explanation of it.

 Sources:

 Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American.

 Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

 Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch C., Tononi G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10).

 Radin, D. I. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in quantum reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press Books.

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Alternative News

If You Could Power Your Entire Home With 60 Minutes Of Cycling, Would You Do It?

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Mechanical energy, converted into kinetic energy can provide the energy that we use on a regular basis to power our homes and electronic devices.

  • Reflect On:

    Rather than focusing on the current problems in our world it is great to change gears and have a look at all of the solutions that are popping up all over the world.

Imagine if your morning workout could power your home for the entire day, all the way until your next morning workout. Well, you may not have to imagine, as this technology exists now. Manoj Bhargava has invented a new exercise bike that can power some homes for 24 hours after use for only sixty minutes per day.

This invention was a part of a new initiative to bring electricity to places that undergo frequent power outages or may only have access to power for a few hours during the day. In our modern age, going without electricity can really separate a person from the rest of the world. Bhargava’s mission is to bridge the gap for those who suffer from poverty and make it easier for them to access the same information as the rest of the world, potentially giving them more opportunities in life.

The Free Electric

The above heading is also the name of this awesome and innovative bike serving as a solution to a pretty significant issue in the underdeveloped nations of the world.

According to Bhargava, the Free Electric is meant to lead to “better health, more leisure time, better access to education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.” He also feels that it could, “literally change the world.”

Power to change the world? Bold statement, but if this is able to be implemented worldwide, I would absolutely have to agree with him. This technology not only has the capacity to assist those in poverty, but can also be used by the rest of the world as well as more and more people around the world who are aiming to reduce their usee of fossil fuels. I have a feeling that Millennials (such as myself) and younger generations would be all over this if its made available! Not only is it a great way to get your cardio in, but it provides FREE electricity that produces no other pollution.

As mentioned in the video, it is also a great solution in the face of natural, or even man made disasters because this type of electricity would not rely on that generated and sold by power companies. Perhaps even one day a way to stock up and store this energy will be possible — then, the opportunities here will be much more plentiful and could be a huge factor in reducing the amount of pollution our current methods of energy production are creating.

The Future Is Friendly

As much as there is sometimes destruction all around us, there is also innovation and ingenuity. Human beings have tremendous potential. Even though there are many problems that we as a society are facing, solutions are popping up and fast, and in most cases they already exist. Finding solutions doesn’t seem to be the problem, so ask yourself, what is?  It’s so great to see ideas such as these being conceptualized and then created and put into use so efficiently, it shows how our species is capable of stopping and potentially reversing some of the destruction that we have caused over the years.

This is absolutely a double win! We are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles that are telling us to be more active, stop sitting so much, and now with the Free Electric, we will have to be active before we can relax and enjoy the use of our precious technology.

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Discover

Physicists ‘Grow’ A Man Made Diamond From Nuclear Waste That’s Able To Generate Electricity

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have developed a technology that can convert leftover radioactive materials into diamond batteries to power a wide range of electronics.

  • Reflect On:

    Could this be the solution to use op all the radioactive materials on the planet and shut down nuclear power plants worldwide?

Currently there is more than 2 billion tons of nuclear waste across the globe. This nuclear waste is a hazardous threat to the environment if not disposed of correctly. Scientists have recently begun attempting to transform nuclear waste into batteries that could last for thousands of years. If they are successful with this conversion project it would be a double win, less nuclear waste contaminating our environment, and a way to reuse energy that was generated to give power to whatever requires it.

Diamond batteries that use the energy from leftover radioactive materials have been developed and tested by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are now hoping to be able to recycle the waste leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK. According to the University, “New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery….A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.” (source)

How Does This Work?

According to The Independent,

Carbon-14 isotopes extracted from graphite blocks produced by the plant are infused with wafer-thin diamonds to create the batteries, which researchers say are capable of providing power on a “near-infinite basis”.

Potential applications range from powering hearing aids and pacemakers, to extending the range of spacecraft to distances much further than are currently possible.

“Eventually, a highly powerful version of a diamond battery could power a mobile phone,” James Barker, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, told The Independent.

“Primarily though, they are best for devices requiring long lifetime, low power and where it is difficult to replace energy sources.”

In order to make these diamond batteries safe for medical and consumer use they are encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer, which will absorb any radiation given off by the C14 source.

According to the University,

Unlike the majority of electricity-generation technologies, which use energy to move a magnet through a coil of wire to generate a current, the man-made diamond is able to produce a charge simply by being placed in close proximity to a radioactive source.

Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute, said: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Could This Be The Solution We’ve Been Searching For?

“The ultimate aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes Carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries. This would significantly reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage,” said Professor Tom Scott, director of the South West Nuclear Hub.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

Time will tell how effective this method that scientists have come up with will be able to be implemented worldwide, but if it is, just imagine the implications of what this technology could represent.

Is It Time To Move Away From Nuclear Energy?

You’d think since the Fukushima disaster there would be a worldwide agreement for countries to stop generating power from nuclear reactors and to safely shut down these plants. Nuclear disasters have devastating effects on our planet and all of it’s inhabitants, recovery from such accidents can take tens of thousands of years to lose their hazardous radioactivity. Take the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986 and is now contained under a metal shell, this site will likely remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years.

Instead of waiting for these disasters to occur, shouldn’t we be safely dismantling these sites before any more devastating disasters occur? Thankfully many countries are vowing to shut down their nuclear power plants and we can only hope that the rest of the world will follow suit.

The Future Is Here

There are so many amazing technologies that have the capacity to revolutionize the way we use energy on this planet. Of course many of those are hidden from us, especially if they cannot be in some way profited from, and unfortunately as it seems, if they don’t exploit the environment and our resources in some way.

As innovative ideas abound and technology continues to rapidly develop, we have to assume that safer and more innovative means of producing electricity will be uncovered. Hopefully these technologies will also have the capacity to undo some of the damage that we have done to our planet.

At the end of the day, using nuclear energy is not needed anymore, and in reality nuclear waste should not even exist at this point in our development as a collective.

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