The Mysterious Disappearance of the World Out There

Printed in the Spring  2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  HagenSteve, "The Mysterious Disappearance of the World Out There" Quest 105.2 (Spring 2017): pg. 18-24


By Steve Hagen

Steve HagenScience is the religion of our time. Much of what we assume of reality, our Weltanschauung, has been shaped by the general view that is em­braced by most scientists today. Often called “realism,” it is a “substan­tialist” view. This scientific realism, according to physicist James Cushing, “requires roughly at a minimum that our scientific theories are to be taken as giving us literally true descriptions of the world.” Yet all conceptual thought—all theory, concept and belief—leads inevitably to contradictions. Indeed, some scientists themselves view scientific realism as suspect. Physicist Asher Peres, for example, reaches the conclusion that “any attempt to inject realism in physical theory is bound to lead to inconsistencies.”

In this discussion we’ll examine what we believe we know. We’ll ques­tion the view of scientific realism and test its foundations. We’ll find that it’s not merely this system that is without foundation, but all belief systems. In the process, we shall gain a radically different perspective on some of our most profound problems of reality.

We’ll see that the problem isn’t merely some logical limitation or in-built defect in our methods. We will see that we do not find a conceptual ground to experience at all, for the same reason flat-earthers do not find an edge to the earth: because there is none. We’ll see that what “ground” we can find is utterly nonconceptual.

Most of our effort, our thought, our habits, our desires, our culture and our education is designed to suspend us in conceptual thought. Below we’ll attempt to break through conceptual thought.

Science as a System of Belief

Scientists are in the business of knowing. As physicist Johann Rafelski put it, “Science is about knowing. It’s not about believing.” Science, we say, is not a belief system, but rather a methodical search for knowledge. Science is a way of going about the world in search of what can be es­tablished as “justifiably true”—which is how contemporary philoso­phers define knowledge.

Our modern definition of knowledge, however, as “justified true belief” was dealt a serious blow in 1963, when Edmund Gettier showed that one can have a justified true belief and yet not know what one be­lieves. His argument runs like this: say a man believes there is a sheep in a field, but it is actually a dog that he’s mistaken for a sheep. Yet, as it turns out, there actually is a sheep in the field, but it remains unseen by the man. The three criteria for knowledge (belief, justification, and truth) appear to have been met, yet we cannot say that this person ac­tually knows there is a sheep in the field, since his “knowledge” is based on having mistaken a dog for a sheep.

Since the arrival of the “Gettier problem,” as it has been called, others have put forth new ideas of adding yet a fourth criterion—e.g., that knowledge is a “nondefective” or an “indefeasible,” justified, true belief. But, as we’ll soon see, adding this fourth criterion does not get us any closer to knowledge or certitude. Indeed, piling up criteria turns out to be utterly futile.

As it’s commonly practiced, science is our attempt to arrive at con­cepts that yield greater and greater doubt-resistance—that is, concepts that come with stronger and stronger justification. Science gets in there and examines the world, carefully and in great detail. No theorizing is taken on faith; every theory is put to the test. The irrational beliefs of scientists, and their biased attachments to pet theories and projects, shouldn’t have many deleterious effects in the end, for everything is open to peer review. The effects of human weakness and folly get ironed out over time. In short, science is honest work done in the open. Any­one can repeat an experiment and verify or reject what the experiment purported to prove.

Clearly, science has been humanity’s one great attempt to get to the bottom of things. And so, we tell ourselves, we can put our faith in sci­ence. The conclusions—concepts—we arrive at through the scientific method come only after slow, hard, thorough research, yet even then we maintain that all is subject to being overthrown by further research and information. What more can we do than this?

Science is the predominant belief system today. Even those of us who possess very little knowledge in science still treat it somewhat as a religion. As a society we put our faith in and make use of the “mir­acles” of science. For the most part, we believe that the beliefs scientists hold about the universe are indeed justified and true. And it’s our sci­entists to whom we typically turn for answers, explanations, and wis­dom, much as people in earlier cultures turned to shamans, village elders, and medicine men.

At the same time, however, we are aware that our scientific beliefs are subject to change and modifications as the result of future research and discoveries. This is rather curious. We seem to be willing to accept what science tells us—and equally willing to accept that what we have so easily accepted may turn out to be false! In short, we accept science only as a belief system, never as a source of truth, knowledge or cer­titude. (Of course, it’s rare that a whole platform in scientific theory is dismantled. Usually only a few planks get replaced or removed or turned around.)

We’ve managed to convince ourselves to accept a system that can yield only a “maybe” at its best. As it was put in Skeptical Inquirer magazine by Lys Ann Shore, “The quest for absolute certainty must be recognized as alien to the scientific attitude, since scientific knowledge is fallible, tentative, and open to revision and modification.”

We no longer believe our science is about the search for truth. And so, because relative knowledge is all that science (or any belief system) is capable of dealing with, relative knowledge is all that science ever finds. And it’s all we’ve come to expect is possible. Though science astounds us in how precisely it has allowed us to define and manipulate the phys­ical world, when it comes to enlightening humankind on ultimate truth and reality, it fails. In the end, science is not capable of providing cer­titude. And this is fine, as long as we don’t conclude that certitude is therefore impossible.

Even so, science is in the business of acquiring knowledge—that is, justified beliefs. Yet science rests upon an unfounded belief. Science, not by necessity but by common assent, rests upon the enormous com­monsense assumption that an external world is really “out there.” As we shall see, we cannot assume this without rushing headlong into paradox.

The Religion of Science

In his book The World within the World, astronomer John Barrow ob­served that “the practice of science . . . rests upon a number of presuppo­sitions about the nature of reality. We usually take them for granted.” He lists nine of these presuppositions:

    1. There exists an external world which is external to our minds, and which is the unique source of all our sensations.
    2. This external world is ultimately rational. “A” and “not A” cannot be true simultaneously.
    3. The world can be analyzed locally without destroying its essen­tial structure.
    4. The elementary entities do not possess what we call free will.
    5. The separation of events from our perception of them is a harm­less simplification.
    6. Nature possesses regularities, and these are predictable in some sense.
    7. Space and time exist.
    8. The world can be described by mathematics.
    9. These presuppositions hold in an identical fashion everywhere and everywhen.

For good measure, I’ll add a tenth: “A thing is what it is.” This, of course, is the law of identity: a thing is identical with itself and implies itself.
Barrow says that the presuppositions of science “enable us to proceed most effectively from simple experience of the world to knowledge of the world.” But this is precisely how we confuse belief with knowledge! As Barrow’s statement reveals, we have already missed what bare attention provides as base experience, and replaced it with a set of beliefs (what he calls presumptions).
Most scientists, and indeed most people, believe there’s a great deal behind these propositions. As science writer Martin Gardner puts it:

The hypothesis that there is an external world, not dependent on human mind, made of something, is so obviously useful and so strongly confirmed by experience down through the ages that we can say without exaggerating that it is better confirmed than any other empirical hypothesis.

It is not difficult to find others who agree. Mathematician Morris Kline, for example, has written that, despite the denials, qualifications, and reservations of certain philosophers,

Physicists and mathematicians do believe that there is an exter­nal world. They would argue that even if all human beings were suddenly wiped out, the external world or physical world would continue to exist. When a tree crashes to the ground in a forest, a sound is created even if no one is there to hear it. We have five senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—and each of these constantly receives messages from this external world. Whether or not our sensations are reliable, we do receive them from some external source.

The observation is repeated ad nauseam: mathematician John Casti referred to a straw poll taken recently in a small university’s department of physics, where ten out of the eleven members of the faculty “claimed that what they were describing with their symbols and equations was objective reality. As one of them remarked, ‘Otherwise, what’s the use?’” Similarly, when Copernicus replaced the earth with the sun as the center of the solar system, he believed he was offering a description of how things “really are.” This has been the dominant attitude of sci­entists ever since. Physicist and author Nick Herbert, who has superbly and insightfully presented the bizarre realities that seem to lie behind the “phaneron” (the phenomenal world), has argued that, unlike some philosophers, but like ordinary people, “physicists cannot deny the ev­idence of their senses. The indubitable reality of measurement results is a solid rock on which to found an empirical science, or from which to launch speculative voyages into deep reality.”

I could go on citing such comments, but clearly belief in an objective reality and an external world is a central tenet of modern scientific faith.

But such a belief is not a very solid rock, I’m afraid. Gardner believes that no one “except a madman or a professional metaphysician” would doubt such a belief. But I would argue that an empiricist fully attending to what is provided by perception alone would doubt it, and I would have us doubt it here.

Oddly enough, after declaring that only a madman or a metaphysi­cian would doubt an external world, Gardner adds that this hypothesis says “nothing about the essential nature of the external world; only that something lurks behind the phaneron to preserve its complex regular­ities.” But what is this lurking something and why is it there at all? Or more appropriately, what is it doing “out there”? Like Bertrand Russell, who said that for him the great mystery is why there is something as opposed to nothing, we do feel something’s “out there.”

For Bishop George Berkeley, the something “out there” is the mind of God. For materialists (“substantialists”), the something is an objective reality. But to one who attends fully to what is given in experience and not to thought constructs—in other words, to a pure empiricist—there’s no ground to support the notion that there’s a regulating “behind” to the phaneron. There’s not even ground to support the idea that there’s any substance to the phaneron’s “front”! I’ll say more about this shortly.

The power and validity of science would seem to arise from the ap­parent fact that it relies on empiricism and indubitable mathematical deduction. But the fact is that science rests not upon any such solid ground at all, but upon presumptions that, by their very nature as pre­sumptions, must harbor doubt, and upon deductive reasoning that must remain uncertain so long as these presumptions are rooted in the metaphysical and not in the empirical. Science thus rests upon nothing solid, but merely examines and assists in an endless series of furniture rearrangements in a room. Science, as it’s currently practiced, will never lead us to glimpse the nature of the room itself.

Furthermore, scientists must believe in an external world, simply be­cause it’s the task of the scientist to measure, test, and observe the world “out there” so that conclusions about reality (or at least about phenom­ena) may be drawn. In other words, without a belief in an external world, science itself cannot proceed—or so, at least, it would appear.

Here It Is, but What Is It?

I do not mean to argue that an external world is not “out there”—nor am I arguing the converse. I am simply suggesting that the existence or denial of an external world are in fact propositions we cannot make with any validity. In fact, I intend to demonstrate that the question of the existence versus the nonexistence of an external world is meaningless—much as questions regarding the edge of the earth have been rendered meaningless.

I’m not the first to come to this conclusion. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, thought that no accurate model of reality was possible. Kierkegaard, however, felt that reality contained a fundamental ambiguity or paradox that would forever block our vision of truth. I am suggesting, however, that what appears as a fundamental ambiguity or paradox does not block our vision of truth, but, rather, leads directly to it. Indeed, to abandon our pursuit of truth simply be­cause no model can be made is to give up precisely when the first glim­mer of truth is present.

Let’s look at the phenomenal world. The realness of there being any­thing “behind” phenomena is questionable. If we read the writings of such philosophers as Berkeley, Locke, and Hume, we have to consider that what we are aware of, when we think we are observing a world “out there” apart from ourselves, is nothing more than our sensations. As Berkeley pointed out, if there were an external world, we should never be able to know it; and if there were not, then we should have the same reasons as now to think that there is one. As we have already discussed, this observation cannot lead us to any solid ground—but it does indi­cate the need for us to leave our belief (in either an external world or the lack of one) suspended.

Nevertheless, something—phenomena, at least—is there. Something is moving our senses—or so it seems. But what is it?

This question—“what is it?”—arises with the appearance of something—that is, with any mind object. It generally goes unnoticed, though, because we’re so quick to conceptualize experience and explain it to ourselves in familiar terms. The “what is it?” aspect of experience, however, often becomes noticeable when we see something (the mind object) from an odd angle, or in dim light, or under some unusual cir­cumstance—or when what we see is simply unfamiliar. For an instant (or, in rare cases, for several seconds) after we first make out an object in our mind, we do not know what it is, or what to call it, or how to re­spond to it. In that instant of awareness prior to recognition, we may feel uneasiness or even outright distress. We then struggle to reframe bare perception into familiar terms once again, hoping to scratch the “what is it?” itch in our mind. Thus we easily buy into some definition or label (“that’s a banana squash”). Once this occurs, our attention to our object, and to what is actually taking place, diminishes greatly.

We have not really adequately answered the question of “what is it?” We have merely answered the question “how do we conceive of it?” or “what do we call it?” Some deeper question remains. And if we continue to scrutinize our mind object, sooner or later the question will reappear. In fact, if we just persist in strictly observing things, however they hap­pen to appear, the question “what is it?” invariably recurs—a persistent and troubling uncertainty. We never arrive at anything solid.

For example, if I say, “Here, in this cup, is water,” you may ask, “What is water?” We could end our discussion at this point if you were to just take a drink. But as scientists we might wish to point out, “Water is hy­drogen and oxygen.” (This would not be an answer we could give on the basis of having drunk some, of course—that is, on the basis of direct experience. We can obtain this answer only after we have conceptual­ized and analyzed the water very carefully.)

Thus by using scientific methods it seems we can discover what water is “made of.” With confidence we say, “What is really in this cup is hy­drogen and oxygen, combined and transformed into this unique sub­stance we call ‘water.’”

But the questions continue. What is hydrogen? What is oxygen? And so we look again, using scientific methods, and say, “Hydrogen is an el­ement made of atoms, each consisting of a single proton and a single electron.” But still the questions remain: what are atoms? What are pro­tons and electrons?

It seems that we’ve started on a never-ending regression. At no time do we ever really get to the other end of the question “what is water?” We can name the mind object, even break it down and name its parts, but we still don’t really answer the question. In the end, water (or any­thing else) is just like the banana squash I encountered in the farmers’ market (which at first I could not identify). We can discover what it is called, but we can never really say—or know—what “it” is. Yet, paradoxically, we can experience what’s going on. We can drink the water.

When we look “out there” for the answer to “what is it?” we find endless regression. We can only point to some other thing (or set of things) and say, “it is this” (or “it is like this”). But try as we will, we can never gather all of what “it” is together into one place to reveal what it truly is.

In fact, phenomenal reality always presents itself in human con­sciousness in the form of “here it is” and “what is it?” I’ll henceforth refer to these two aspects of phenomena as this and what. Here’s the cup (this), but what is it (what)?

What can be more accurately thought of as pure interrogative. It’s a state of mind often depicted in the comics as a question mark appearing over the head of some bewildered character. It’s the fragile state of mind I had when I happened across the banana squash at the farmers’ market. It’s a state of mind we will inevitably come to if we persistently an­alyze the phenomenal world.

It’s this what aspect of phenomena that our commonsense view of the world typically overlooks. (In fact, common sense demands that we overlook this aspect of reality.) But it’s also this very aspect that deter­mines that science cannot reveal absolute truth, for science can never truly answer “what is it?” It can only answer “what is it called?” and, superficially, “what is it made of?”

If we try to ignore this troublesome what aspect and examine the presumed external world in detail, and if we go far enough in our in­quiry, we’ll discover that we can’t get a conceptual handle on things. Rather, we’ll find that the what aspect will appear to us in at least three ways: first, an objective world can’t be discerned from what is sub­jective; second, this presumed substantial, external, physical world will eventually appear devoid of all substantiality; and, finally, the only truth revealed through the study of an external world is merely relative.

Let’s look at these three points more closely. You may note that, as we consider these, the distinction between mental and physical phe­nomena will become considerably less clear.

An Objective World Cannot Be Discerned from What Is Subjective

A cup of coffee sits on my desk in front of me. From five or ten feet away, I can see the cup very clearly. I can hear and feel it as well, if I snap my finger against its rim. When I include a relatively large part of the world that surrounds the cup—the air, the light, my finger, my eyes and ears, the desk beneath the cup, the room in which the cup appears, etc.—I can discern “cup” quite easily.

But suppose that you and I, using scientific instruments, move in closer for a better look. When we do this, we quickly lose the “cup of coffee.” First we see just a ceramic wall. Examining more closely, we find merely a lot of rapidly moving molecules. At this point we are no longer viewing anything that we may rightfully call a “cup.” Our object has now become a collection of molecules.

Once we’re in close enough to “observe” the cup’s atoms, we start to notice that something very strange is happening. The atoms, which we say “make up the cup,” seem to be losing many of the properties we at­tribute to everyday, commonsense, physical entities such as cups, clouds, planets, and people. Atoms seem to have less definite positions in space, for example. They seem, rather, to be somewhat fuzzy or in­determinate.

If we get in close enough to view our object on the level of the sub­atomic particle, we find that these very minuscule bits of matter (can we call it matter at this point? If we cannot, then where did the matter go?) simply do not have qualities such as position, or momentum, or size, or velocity, or any number of other such physical attributes.

At this point, we have not only not answered the question “what is a cup of coffee?” but we have ended up posing several others: “What are molecules?” “What are atoms?” “What are subatomic particles?”

Furthermore, the closer we look at some of these things, the more bewildering they become. An electron’s position, for example, is not something that really exists—until we look for it. Electrons have specific locations only when someone is looking, it seems. Until we looked for it, the electron didn’t possess anything that we would commonly call a position. On the other hand, if we look for its position and nail it down—to a general area, anyway—it seems that, by virtue of our know­ing its position, we’ve now forfeited the possibility of knowing much about its momentum. And if we choose to look for an electron’s mo­mentum rather than its position, we would be able to measure that mo­mentum, but we would discover that the electron doesn’t seem to have a position! This is what physicists refer to as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It’s an essential ingredient of physical reality.

This is precisely the sort of thing science finds when it takes a close look at phenomena. Without the consciousness of an observer, the stuff underlying this physical reality does not seem to exist. Only when we look for something does it appear to leap into existence—and, at the same moment, what we do not look for cannot be said to exist.

We tacitly assume that reality only presents us with this (our object of consciousness). But we don’t know what to make of a reality where things are instead weirdly blended with, or take their identity from, what they are not.

No matter how we slice it, this is physical reality at close range. Sub­jectivity, it seems, enters the “objective” world at a very profound level.

The Insubstantiality of the Physical World

The second reality we discover, when we attempt to put to rest the what aspect of objects through a careful study of the material world, is that substantiality disappears. When we drink coffee from a cup we naturally assume the cup is “there.” We say it’s “substantial.” But what are we talk­ing about? What does it mean to be substantial?

We say the cup is made of atoms, which in turn are made of sub­atomic particles. Yet if we take two subatomic particles—say, protons— and smash them together at extremely high speeds, we find that the two original colliding particles fly apart, along with two new additional particles. The two new particles didn’t exist anywhere in time or in space before the collision. Physicists have done this repeatedly, with the same results every time. One physicist said it would be like smashing two watches together, but in addition to the expected wheels, springs, gears and cases flying apart, we also find two new, completely whole watches among the wreckage!

What’s going on here? Where did these new bits of matter come from? Out of nothing? Perhaps so—but first we notice that these new particles came from the reduction in speed of the original two particles. In other words, the new particles were created from motion.

This is very interesting, because it doesn’t support our everyday, com­monsense view of things. How substantial is matter—the book you’re reading now, or the hand that holds it—if it can be created from some­thing as apparently insubstantial as motion?

Astrophysicists tell us that motion is an expression of energy, and that the energy of the physical universe is of two kinds. There’s positive energy, such as the energy that is locked up in matter. This is the energy we release when we set off nuclear bombs. It is also the kind of energy generated by the sun. But there is also a negative form of energy—we call it “gravity.” It so happens that the amount of positive energy in the universe is equal to the amount of negative energy in the universe—that is, the total amount of energy in the universe adds up to zero. If we could gather all the mass energy in the universe into one place, it would amount to zero too.

Just how “substantial” is this stuff that is made from motion and en­ergy, and that adds up to zero? Modern philosophy and mathematics have not been able to put away the inherent contradiction in the idea of motion discovered by the Eleatics, the ancient Greek philosophers who noted more than twenty centuries ago that a thing can move nei­ther where it is nor where it is not. Instead, they regarded reality as without motion and unchanging—but this seems a bit extreme, consid­ering that change is evident everywhere we look.

This argument has always reminded me of those who say that “all is one,” even in the face of firsthand evidence that we live in a world of abundant multiplicity. As we shall see, our problem with motion is a psychological one. Anyone who has ever seen a movie can attest to the fact that “apparent motion” looks and feels like what we might other­wise call “real motion.” Yet a movie is nothing more than a rapid series of still photos. “We’re not really seeing moving pictures,” we say.

The simple point I want to make here is that there are serious obsta­cles to overcome before we may attribute any substantiality to the phys­ical world. Even G.E. Moore, the great champion of material realism, finally conceded in the end that he could not answer the skeptics’ doubts about the existence of materiality. Indeed, no one has satisfac­torily answered the skeptics to this day.

The Phenomenal World Reveals Only Relative Truths

Finally, in our effort to exhaust the what aspect of reality, we will dis­cover that by examining the external world, we can arrive only at rela­tive truths—that nothing is certain.

Let’s consider yet another view of my cup. The cup sits upon my desk. But how can it be without a great deal of other stuff surrounding it— and, thus, defining it? At the very least, my cup needs to be surrounded by space. Furthermore, in order that we may experience this cup, we have to be situated away from it. If this were not the case with our ob­jects, then we might not find anything ludicrous about an artist who sells plain white canvases that supposedly depict polar bears eating marshmallows in a snowstorm.

Our objects can be only in a dynamic relation with “other.” Once we package up a small portion of the universe in concept—whether it be a physical or a purely mental object (e.g., an idea)—the only way we can actually have our object is in contrast to what it is not.

But “what-it-is-not” is necessarily an aspect of our object’s actual identity—and, as we shall see, this aspect necessarily involves the rest of the universe.

In conceiving any object, then, we isolate and set it apart from what it is not. Therefore, any “truth” found in such a concept could be only relative and provisional at best. Like a wave sloshing within a basin, or like an endless process of arranging and rearranging furniture within a room, relative truths replace themselves over and over, with (and to) no end. In other words, such truths will not satisfy the deep need of the heart. They are not real truth, and they do not provide us with certitude.

The fact apparent to direct experience is that any theory (or concept), even a “theory of everything” (as scientists have dubbed some of their theories), necessarily leaves the what aspect of existence unresolved. What is the universe? What are atoms? What are subatomic particles? What is a person? What are life and death? What is reality? What is anything? As my Zen teacher used to put it, “Whatever you think is delusion.” Whatever conceptual answer we come up with is relative at best, and is never absolute truth.

Mind Is Moving

The great mathematician John von Neumann concluded that “from a strictly logical point of view, only the presence of consciousness can solve the measurement problem” and “the world is not objectively real but depends on the mind of the observer.”

Our problem of not being able to see what’s going on occurs partly from holding to the commonsense belief in the primacy of matter over mind, of an external world “out there” over perception. But if we insist on the primacy of matter over mind, we will eventually be led to intractable problems.

For example, in his book Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, J.S. Bell observed:

The most simple and natural . . . [way] in which quantum mechanics can be presented is called . . . “wave mechanics.” What is it that “waves” in wave mechanics? In the case of water waves it is the surface of the water that waves. With sound waves the pressure of the air oscillates. Light also was held to be a wave motion in clas­sical physics. We were already a little vague about what was waving in that case . . . and even about whether the question made sense. In the case of the waves of wave mechanics we have no idea of what is waving . . . and do not ask the question.

It was physicist Louis de Broglie who first realized that not only that were waves particles (bits of matter), but particles were also waves. As Nick Herbert wrote in Quantum Reality:

New quantum facts destroy the once sharp distinction between matter and field. With two magic quantum phrases we can . . . [turn] matter into field and vice versa. It’s beginning to look as if every­thing is made of one substance—call it “quantumstuff ”—which combines particle and wave at once in a peculiar quantum style all its own.

The world is one substance. As satisfying as this discovery may be to philosophers, it is profoundly distressing to physicists as long as they do not understand the nature of that substance. For if quantumstuff is all there is and you don’t understand quantumstuff, your ignorance is complete.

Distressing, yes. For starters, if everything is one, how do we explain the seemingly self-evident fact of multiplicity? What is this combination with a “peculiar style all its own,” anyway? There’s a Zen story about two monks arguing over a flag that they see waving in the breeze. One monk said, “It’s the flag that’s moving!”

The other monk replied, “No, no. It’s the wind that moves!” Wishing to get to the bottom of this question, they carried on in this way, back and forth.

When their teacher passed by and heard the monks quarreling, he said, “Mind is moving.” What is this mind the teacher referred to?

For those of us who would agree with the definition that the mind is what the brain does (a commonly accepted definition of “mind” today), consider how the brain is made of atoms, made of subatomic particles, made of—what? Motion? Energy? And what are motion and energy made of? What is the material world?

One of the central problems in quantum physics today is how it is possible for an arrangement of atoms to support consciousness (that is, how it can constitute a “measuring device”). But why the foregone con­clusion that consciousness requires atoms? Does it make any sense to suppose that consciousness is constituted of atoms at all? According to scientists, the world remains in a state of superimposed possibilities until a measurement is made, thus determining which possibility is ac­tual. The act of taking a measurement collapses a potential into an actual. And what is the act of taking a measurement? It’s conception itself. Measurement is an apparent alteration of mind— an alteration that opens the door to uncertainty and probability.

What is known as “measurement” is a function of consciousness that collapses perceived reality into conceptual reality, into mind objects.

We can devise a theory of everything and say, “This is reality,” “This is truth.” Or we can even say, “Mind is moving—that’s the truth, believe it.” But our explanations don’t cut it. It’s only consciousness itself that cuts reality—literally.


Barrow, John D. The World within the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Bell, J.S. “Six Possible Worlds of Quantum Mechanics.” In Bell, ed., Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Casti, John L. Paradigms Lost. New York: William Morrow, 1989.

Cushing, James T. “A Background Essay.” In James T. Cushing and Ernan McMullin, eds., Philosophical Consequences of Quantum Theory. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

Gardner, Martin. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. New York: William Morrow, 1983.

Herbert, Nick. Quantum Reality. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1985.

Kline, Morris. Mathematics and the Search for Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Shore, Lys Ann. “Skepticism in the Light of Scientific Literacy,” Skeptical Inquirer 15, no. 1 (fall 1990).

This article is reproduced from Why the World Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense, by Steve Hagen, with permission of Sentient Publications, LLC. (An earlier version was published as How the World Can Be the Way It Is: An Inquiry for the New Millennium into Science, Philosophy, and Perception, Quest Books, 1995.) Steve Hagen is the founder and head teacher of the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His books include Buddhism Plain and Simple (Broadway, 1998).

Steve Hagen is the founder and head teacher of the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His Books inclued Buddhism Plain adn Simple (Broadway, 19998)

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