The Experience of Consciousness vs Knowing Our Own Mind

By Doug Marman

The New York Times just ran an opinion piece that is a good example about how articles on neuroscience often get the big issues wrong.

Photo by Miranda Knox.

Picture by Miranda Knox.

The author, Alex Rosenberg, isn’t ignorant of the topic. He’s a co-director of the Center for the Social and Philosophical Implications of Neuroscience. In other words, he is fully informed of the science of the brain. So, he clearly has every right to state his opinions. Unfortunately, he misses the point badly.

Right from the opening paragraph, Rosenberg misdirects and misrepresents the issue. I don’t mean to say that he is doing this intentionally. I believe he is stating the problem honestly as he sees it. He’s just using the wrong lens.

Here is how he begins: Ever since Plato, philosophers have made it sound like a truism that we know the reality of our own thoughts:

“They have argued that we can secure certainty about at least some very important conclusions, not through empirical inquiry, but by introspection: the existence, immateriality (and maybe immortality) of the soul, the awareness of our own free will, meaning and moral value.”[1]

Rosenberg then goes on to berate two recent authors for continuing with this tradition, as if something that seems so fundamentally true can “trump science.” Not so, he tells us. We might think that we know what’s going on in our own minds, but numerous studies show that this simply isn’t true. We don’t know.

Here’s the first problem with this article: Plato wasn’t talking about knowing our mind. He was talking about knowing our self. He never said that we can ever truly know our own mind our even the true nature of our thoughts. The fundamental truth that Plato and many other philosophers have pointed to is the experience of being conscious.

Using “introspection” to study our thoughts isn’t even in the same ballpark as the experience of consciousness. Experiences are far more fundamental than thoughts.

A lot of neuroscientists mix these up. They do so for a good reason: They are using third-person lenses. In other words, they are taking the traditional scientific approach of viewing the matter as if they are outside observers—as if they are completely outside of the mind or the experience of consciousness and looking in. This is the objective approach, and it has long been used in science for a good reason, because it is excellent at understanding cause-and-effect relationships like we see in mechanisms and chemical reactions.

However, this is the wrong lens to use for understanding the experience of consciousness. If we insist on using a third-person approach, then we have assured our failure to see it at all. The only way to understand the nature of experience is through experience, not by mental analysis.

Trying to understand the mind by thinking about it with the mind is like trying to find reality in a hall of mirrors. Photo by Bjoern Lotz.

Trying to understand the mind by thinking about it with the mind is like trying to find reality in a hall of mirrors. Photo by Bjoern Lotz.

We might as well use a telescope to look for microbes in a drop of water. We will see nothing. Even worse, we can fool ourselves into thinking that microbes don’t even exist, because we can’t see them.

We need to use the right lens, the right tool. In this case, the only perspective that works is a “first-person” lens. This is how we experience everything, whether it be a new car, eating lunch with a friend, or our own consciousness. Every experience is a first-person perception.

What does an experience mean? That’s a different story. That’s a question we ask with our minds, as if we could interpret an experience or reduce it down to a thought. As soon as we start thinking about our experiences we’ve left the first-person world behind.

Therefore, the point that Rosenberg is making does not prove that science trumps experience. Quite the opposite. It shows us that science doesn’t understand consciousness. This is exactly why philosopher David Chalmers calls consciousness the hard problem. He writes:

“Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”[2]

Third-person lenses don’t work because they move us outside the world of experience. Outsiders can’t see consciousness. This is why we need to use a first-person lens. Chalmers says the same thing:

“If one takes the third-person perspective on oneself—viewing oneself from the outside, so to speak—these reactions and abilities are no doubt the main focus of what one sees. But the hard problem is about explaining the view from the first-person perspective.”[3]

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only problem with Rosenberg’s article. In his zeal to show how much scientific evidence there is that we don’t know our mind, he makes some rather serious blunders. He writes:

“In fact, controlled experiments in cognitive science, neuroimaging and social psychology have repeatedly shown how wrong we can be about our real motivations, the justification of firmly held beliefs and the accuracy of our sensory equipment. This trend began even before the work of psychologists such as Benjamin Libet, who showed that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act—a result replicated and refined hundreds of times since his original discovery in the 1980s.”

The first sentence in the above paragraph is right. Subconscious influences affect our choices and decisions all the time. We often try to “explain” our behavior as if it is rational, when, in fact, our subconscious colors everything we do. So, the point Rosenberg is making—that we don’t fully know our own minds—is right.

It’s the second sentence that is the problem. Benjamin Libet did not show “that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act…” And no other experiment has proven this either. It is easy to show why Rosenberg is just plain wrong about this. Here is how I explained it in my book,

“None of the experiments show the brain making a decision before the person did. Scientists can’t prove such a claim, since they have no way of determining when a choice is made. Decision-making is a subjective process. They can’t observe it scientifically. No instrument can measure the act of choosing. They can only detect outer activity in the brain, not the inner content of consciousness.”[4]

In fact, not only is Rosenberg wrong about what Libet’s experiment shows us, there are quite a few experiments that contradict his conclusion and one shows clearly that he is wrong. In that case, the “readiness potential” brain signals that Libet detected show up whether a person decides to do something or not, so they can’t be an indicator of a decision being made:

“Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller, psychologists from New Zealand, asked a group of subjects to press a key every time they heard a tone. A second group was told to do the same thing—press a key on a computer after a tone sounds—but only half of the time. It was their choice when to push the button and when not to.

“It didn’t matter whether the subjects in the second group pressed the key or not, the same readiness potential signals were detected. This is proof that this brain activity is not the same as a conscious decision. In fact, it suggests that the term ‘readiness potential’ was right all along. The brain is simply getting ready to act.”[5]

Rosenberg makes the matter worse. He goes on to say: “there is compelling evidence” that our own self-awareness is simply our brain trying to guess at what we ourselves might be thinking. This is a misrepresentation. I’m giving Rosenberg the benefit of the doubt when I say this.

If you interpret “self-awareness” the way I do, as the experience of our own consciousness, then Rosenberg is flat out wrong. But I think what Rosenberg is getting at here is that we often guess about our own behavior and our intentions, the same way we guess at the intentions of others. He is absolutely right about that, but this is not the basis of our self-awareness.

If Rosenberg limited his conclusion to the ideas that we form about ourselves and the picture we might have of who we are, then I would agree with him. But that isn’t self-awareness. That’s our ego he is talking about—the image we have about who we are and how we fit in the world.

Self-awareness is something we gain through the direct experience of our consciousness. No thought involved. No guesswork. It is purely an experience—not an interpretation. That’s what makes this an issue that “trumps science.” Science can’t crack that nut, but we can prove to ourselves the reality of it through our own awareness.

Then Rosenberg really does it. He makes an absolutely ridiculous statement that has no scientific foundation at all, while acting as if it is shored up by empirical evidence. He writes:

“The upshot of all these discoveries is deeply significant, not just for philosophy, but for us as human beings: There is no first-person point of view.”

Photo by Gabor Kalman

Photo by Gabor Kalman

Here is the logic that Rosenberg just used to arrive at this conclusion: If you first decide to use a third-person lens, and only a third-person lens, to study the problem, then you will discover that first-person perception doesn’t exit.

Well of course it doesn’t exist if you use a lens that requires you to be an outsider looking in. How could you ever experience consciousness that way? How could you ever experience anything?

What’s the real upshot of all this? Science can’t see, detect, measure, or photograph the experience of consciousness. So, what do some scientists do? Well, they make up a story as if they understood the mind well enough to know that it is just making up the experience of consciousness. In other words, they are doing exactly what Rosenberg was telling us the mind does: guessing at the things it doesn’t understand.

If Rosenberg is right that we can’t know our mind through introspection, and I agree with him on this, then how could anyone ever come to the conclusion that the mind is fabricating the experience of consciousness? That makes no sense.

If a person is smart enough to make such a statement, why wouldn’t they be smart enough to realize that the only way it could be true is if they really did understand their mind?

It baffles me. I don’t have the answer to this question, but if you do, please explain it to me. I really would like to know.


[1] Alex Rosenberg, “Why You Don’t Know Your Own Mind,” The New York Times, July, 18, 2016.

[2] David J. Chalmers, “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995), p. 200. Also posted on http://consc.net/papers/facing.pdf.

[3] David J. Chalmers, “Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 4, no. 1 (1997), p. 3–46, Section 2.2. Also posted on http://consc.net/papers/ moving.html.

[4] Doug Marman, Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe (Washington: Lenses of Perception Press, 2016), p. 277.

[5] Ibid., p. 278-281.

From the Blog of Marcha Fox

“Lenses of Perception” by Doug Marman: An Interesting Summer Read for Science Aficionados

Let me start out by saying that this book has 359 references that comprise eleven pages of endnotes. If you’re not impressed by that, then this is probably not the book for you. However, if you love science and appreciate revolutionary ideas supported by considerable research that relate to an enigma no one, including Einstein, Feynman or Hawking, has been able to solve, then you would probably enjoy this book.

As a physicist and science fiction writer myself, I was fascinated by the book’s precepts. When I really get into such a tome, I become a librarian’s worst nightmare: highlighting key passages, scribbling notes in the margin and, heaven forbid, dog-earing pages. For what it’s worth, my copy sports 46 pages in that condition as well as more marginal notes and highlights than I care to count.

The premise of this fascinating book has been touched on ever since the double-slit experiment suggested some mysterious interaction existed between consciousness and physical matter. Rather than argue this, the author makes an a priori assumption that such a relationship exists. That in and of itself is not particularly remarkable, since it has been the stance of various other authors for decades. Marman, however, does not stop there. It’s not simply a matter of human consciousness influencing subatomic particles. He systematically builds a credible case for the tiniest subatomic particles possessing consciousness as well.

The author is an engineer and inventor who holds various patents and is thus experienced on the technical side, but is not a PhD physicist. This is a good thing. Stepping beyond the bounds of conventional science tends to be a career-limiting experience. Some have referred to scientific progression as occurring only via funerals, e.g., German physicist, Max Planck, who stated, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Marman’s theory is imaginative to the point of resembling one of Einstein’s thought experiments. While he doesn’t do the math, it goes beyond philosophizing, conjecture or excursions of fantasy. As indicated in the first sentence of this review, this book is well documented. The author states his theory then backs it up with existing scientific research.

[To read the rest of March’s blog post, go HERE.]

The Vital Question — Part I

By Doug Marman

Nick Lane recently published a new book, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. It isn’t an easy book to read, but it is packed with the latest research about the evolution of early life, and it offers a number of provocative new theories.

The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

Everything in Lane’s book fits perfectly with the theory of how life began that I presented in Lenses of Perception. However, Lenses fills in some important gaps in Lane’s story. That’s what I’ll be reviewing in this post.

Lane explains why we need to start looking at living organisms in a different way. The question we should be asking ourselves, he says, is not what is life, but how do creatures live? How do they extract energy from the world to keep them going? It’s an interesting perspective.

Lane then describes the process that all living things use to control energy. He even has a good story about where such a process probably began. But he can’t explain how living things gained the ability to intelligently control energy in the first place. This is where current science hits a wall. Fortunately, the Lenses of Perception theory shows a way to understand this missing key of life.

Lane’s book is filled with valuable insights. For example, out of date origin-of-life stories don’t work. The idea that lightning hitting the “primordial soup” (in the oceans) was able to create larger, more complex molecules, is a dead end. There is no way these molecules just arranged themselves into the right pattern and leaped the hurdle to life. Lane says the whole conjecture is misguided and should be forgotten.

The problem isn’t making complex molecules, he says. It is how to extract the energy needed to survive. Lightning can’t create the spark of life, because organisms need a continuous source of controllable energy to live. Lane believes the whole idea of the primordial soup is a big mistake that has led countless researchers in the wrong direction.

Lane then dives deep into describing how all life forms on Earth use energy:

“Essentially all living cells power themselves through the flow of protons… The energy we gain from burning food in respiration is used to pump protons across a membrane, forming a reservoir on one side of the membrane. The flow of protons back from this reservoir can be used to power work in the same way as a turbine in a hydroelectric dam… At the level of proteins, we now know how proton power works in detail. We also know that the use of proton gradients is universal across life on earth—proton power is as much an integral part of all life as the universal genetic code. Yet we know next to nothing about how or why this counterintuitive mechanism of energy harnessing first evolved.”[1]

In other words, even the simplest forms of life have a way of moving protons, one at a time, across a membrane, where they are stored like money in a bank. Later, they spend their proton loot to power everything they need to do, in order to survive. It’s an amazing discovery, but how exactly does the cell intelligently control this process? And how did the first life form learn this trick? Biologists don’t know.

That’s where the Lenses of Perception theory comes in. It proposes that the “all-for-one” bond is the secret of life we are looking for. This bond compels molecules of a cell to work in a coordinated way together for the cell’s survival. Outside forces can’t pull this off. The forces known to physics can’t make inorganic matter alive. Chemists and physicists haven’t found the right lens to see how this happens. But an understanding of relationships can explain it.

The process must start within the cell. The molecules must act in just the right way, to allow the cell to live. Why do they do this? According to Lenses of Perception, a special form of entanglement makes this possible.

The molecules in a cell are not only entangled with each other, forming a cohesive group, but they are also entangled with the cell itself. As a result, the molecules act as a team that is aligned to the cell.

This is admittedly a controversial theory, because most physicists believe that the unpredictable nature of quantum particles is, first of all, completely random, and second, it only happens at the subatomic level. Neither of these are true, however, since we see the same unpredictable behavior at the level of living cells, as well as at the level of complex organisms such as animals.

Lenses of Perception shows that the relationships between living creatures display all the same puzzles and paradoxes of quantum mechanics. This isn’t a coincidence. Fundamental particles are unpredictable because they, too, are conscious. This turns out to be a useful explanation because the spontaneous actions of quanta can’t be explained by outer forces.

If particles are conscious, then they should form relationships. This ends up being the true cause of attraction and repulsion between particles that creates the forces of physics. This might sound preposterous, but it’s completely consistent with quantum theory. (See Lenses of Perception for a detailed discussion.)

One type of relationship that forms naturally when beings come together is for them to work as a group. They form unified teams if they have good leaders. This bond, I believe, is the key to unlocking the secret of life. Once we realize the universal nature of what I call the “all-for-one bond,” we gain a new lens that shows us life in a completely different light.

For example, at the subatomic level, we see quarks coming together to form protons and neutrons. The units they form are so tightly bound together that they act as singular entities. They don’t spin like a group of quarks—they spin as one.

Protons and neutrons also bond together in the same way to form atoms. And this shows us one of the amazing results of this bond: It creates hierarchies. Not only do quarks combine to form protons, and protons combine to form atoms, but atoms also bind together to create stars, and stars form galaxies.

You might think that stars spin in galaxies only because of the force of gravity, but this is wrong. Scientists say that dark matter is needed to explain a strange problem: Why do the outer stars in galaxies spin as one? Gravity, alone, can’t explain this. The outer stars should spin slower, if only gravity is involved.

Unfortunately, physicists have no idea what dark matter is. And they don’t know why the outer sheath of the sun spins faster than it should, as well. Plus, a similar situation exists at the level of protons and atoms, called the “mass gap problem.” All of these problems are resolved, once we see the role of all-for-one bonds. (While I’m trying my best to make this understandable to newcomers, I can’t possibly cover all of the background in Lenses of Perception, so this is understandably a very quick summary.)

All-for-one bonds always create hierarchies because the group is held together by following a higher level leader. This is exactly why cells work together to allow complex organisms to live, and are even willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the creature. We see the same thing on a human level, when parents make sacrifices for their family, and when people come together to work for a company or a cause larger than themselves.

If this theory is right, then it paints a new picture of how cells first formed. In fact, the LoP theory is quite specific about how this must have happened. It had to start with a group that formed behind a leader who was one of their own. In other words, one molecule stepped forward to lead, but this role was temporary.

Any leader that steps forward from a group can be replaced. Actually, the members of the group can be replaced as well. This is exactly what we see in companies. They might get started with an entrepreneur, but other leaders take over as they expand, and employees come and go.

This first step is called a weak all-for-one bond, according to Lenses of Perception. The group isn’t held together as tightly as a cell, an atom, or an organism. In fact, weak all-for-one bonds can easily split into separate groups that go off in different directions. This is exactly what we see with companies. It also shows that reproduction probably existed before the first true cells emerged.

But weak all-for-one bonds have one big advantage over strong all-for-one bonds: They can survive indefinitely, as long as individuals continue stepping in to keep them going. That’s not true with organisms. When an animal dies, the cells that form its body all fall apart and decompose. This shows how closely their lives are entangled.

So, the first stage in the emergence of life is a loosely formed group that follows a temporary leader. A major evolutionary leap was needed to transform this group into a cell with a will of its own, creating a strong all-for-one bond. But I’m not going to discuss that stage in this post. I’ll address it in Part II.

Back to the pre-cellular stage. It probably survived for a long time, replacing leaders and members, before making the leap to becoming a unified conscious cell. In other words, it started as a community of molecules, and it must have taken a long time to evolve the ability to keep the group going. How did this happen? you might ask.

Hydrothermal vents deep under the ocean, near the Marianas Trench. Photo by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hydrothermal vents deep under the ocean, near the Marianas Trench. Photo by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Let’s turn back to Nick Lane. He tells an interesting story. Deep in the oceans on Earth are alkaline hydrothermal vents that offered exactly the right conditions for this process to begin. The vents are porous, with millions of tiny openings, making a perfect gathering place for molecules to settle and combine. The vents also supply a continuous flow of charged ions, while the rest of the ocean was much more acidic in those early days.

This allowed molecules to gather in the porous openings, creating something similar to membranes. And the vents supplied a natural source of protons, in the form of hydrogen ions, making a reservoir on one side. This created an electrical potential compared to the acidic ocean on the other side of the membrane. Therefore, there was a steady flow of energy that lasted for hundreds of millions of years. This is how long it took for a community of molecules to develop the ability to survive as a group.

This picture that Lane paints is consistent with the origin of life story in Lenses of Perception. It does seem like a realistic place for life to emerge. However, I don’t see how molecules could have evolved the ability to act as a group for its own self-preservation without the all-for-one bond. It can’t be created by external forces. That’s impossible. How could outside forces give creatures a will of their own? It must, by definition, come from within. This means that molecules must have first learned to keep the group going. Then the leap to cellular life was possible.

If consciousness exists first, and all particles possess it, then groups should naturally form, and the way they relate to each other should develop. In other words, they will gradually begin working as groups. That’s where molecules come from. But their abilities are very limited.

However, when molecules work together, they have far more flexibility (degrees of freedom). With a continuous source of energy and hundreds of millions of years, they could have learned how to work to preserve the life of the group, to keep the community alive. This makes sense if particles and molecules have some element of consciousness. And alkaline hydrothermal vents offer exactly the right environment, as Lane says.

The gaps in Lane’s story are where the Lenses of Perception theory shines. For example, he admits that he can’t explain how the first cells formed, or why molecules joined together to form genes:

“I was evasive on details such as how the genetic code arose, but focused on the conceptual argument that these conditions could theoretically have produced rudimentary cells with genes and proteins.”[2]

Unfortunately, when he tries to explain how this happened, he makes a common mistake. He says:

“Populations of cells were subject to perfectly normal natural selection.”[3]

Natural selection isn’t some kind of magic wand that we should wave to explain the things we don’t understand. Unfortunately, biologists do it all this time.

This doesn’t mean that natural selection isn’t real, but that we shouldn’t use it to paint over the things that we don’t know. Doing so stops us from looking for real explanations.

In this case, it is a serious mistake because natural selection doesn’t work with molecules. Chemical reactions, by themselves, can and do adapt to their surroundings, but they can’t evolve the ability to work together for the purpose of helping their group survive. It’s only wishful thinking to imagine that natural selection could magically pull this off. Something is clearly missing.

How did the first molecules gain the ability to work together as groups? Until we can answer this, we have no idea how genes first formed. Yes, we can see that genes play an important role in life, but what holds them together? How do they act at exactly the right times in synchrony with all the other genes to allow organisms to find food, excrete wastes, and reproduce?

Everything starts to make sense if consciousness is involved from the start. Then molecules will form relationships and groups. Over a billion years, it is possible for more complex combinations to form that allow individual molecules to work as a team, creating something that is larger than any of them individually. Once they experience the benefits, they will want to preserve the group by acting in a unified way.

Here’s another example of a big gap. In Chapter 3 of his book, Lane asks the question, why are proton gradients the source of power for all living things on this planet. Why not thermal or mechanical energy? Why not electrical discharges or ultraviolet radiation?

This deep sea hydrothermal vent is encrusted with tiny crabs and surrounded by life, which is a good sign that this is where life may have begun on planet Earth.

This deep sea hydrothermal vent is encrusted with tiny crabs and surrounded by life, which is a good sign that this is where life may have begun on planet Earth. Photo from Wikipedia by A. D. Rogers et al.

He goes on to suggest that the reason for this is that life began in these alkaline hydrothermal vents in the ocean. But this misses the real answer.

Thermal and mechanical energy, electrical discharges, and ultraviolet radiation, will never work because these are all classical forces based on cause and effect. Those forces only work at the level of masses of particles, not individuals.

We need a quantum process. We need to understand how forces themselves emerge from quantum fields and quantum interactions. That’s where the secret of life can be explained.

Mechanical and electrical forces all play roles in the lives of cells, but they will never explain how organisms act under their own volition or how they act to preserve their own lives. We need consciousness to begin with. Consciousness isn’t a byproduct, it is a necessary cause.

This becomes clear when we look at exactly how living things use proton gradients to power their lifestyles. Lane compares the flow of protons through the molecular structures in cells to shielded wires carrying flows of electricity. But this is wrong. A wire is one long conductor, with atoms lined up end-to-end. Electricity does indeed flow through copper like water through a pipe. Just add a voltage potential, such as a battery, and the current will flow.

This is not even close to what happens in cells. Lane shows this quite clearly. Proton gradients are constructed from 45 proteins, with each protein being made of hundreds of amino acids. This complex structure is needed for cells to move protons across a membrane and then use those protons to create the chemical energy needed to survive.

The protons are moved from one end of this chain to the other. Protons are moved one at a time through the structure, across a series of these landing spots. Each step is a carefully controlled distance from the next, because electrons must make quantum leaps to get from one to the next. In other words, protons are not moved like water or electricity. They’re moved one at a time through the structure with a quantum process guiding them.

A better analogy to what is happening here would be workers in a town, where farmers grow food, food preparers convert the food into usable forms, and movers bring the food to stores and restaurants where consumers can buy them. These consumers are the very same workers, food preparers, and movers. We have a functioning community.

We can’t just connect a battery to a circuit and make a town work. Food doesn’t flow through a pipe. It is passed along from one person to the next. It isn’t forced through the pipe by an external force. Yes, there is an exchange of money each step of the way, but it is the hunger of people that drives the process.

Money is not the cause. Cash flows through a town because there’s a need for food and other goods. In a cell, protons are the goods needed. Electrons are the money.

As electrons jump from one landing pad to the next, protons are handed off and routed to where they are needed.

This is a community effort. Everyone must work together to pull this off. In other words, all of the individual molecules must be aligned to a purpose, guided by common goals, and led by leaders to keep everything coordinated. These are relationships that make this work. Individuals helping each other and the group.

It seems hard to believe that molecules could act intelligently. I admit it. We’ve learned to look at matter as lifeless for so long that it is hard to buy this. But, as difficult as this is to picture, it does explain everything from the origin of particles to the origin of life. And after you get used to the idea, it makes sense.

There are no other solutions to the origin of life without huge gaps. Unless you want to believe that natural selection magically solved the problem, or that electrical currents somehow drive protons exactly to where and when they are needed for cells to survive.

In Part II, of this two-part series, we’ll explore a leap in evolution that is just as amazing as the origin of cellular life. This is the jump that cells took when they changed from being single cells to multicellular creatures such as plants, fungi, animals, and insects. In other words, all of complex life depends on this event when cells changed.

[1] Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (New York City, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015), p. 13.

[2] Nick Lane, The Vital Question, p. 149.

[3] Ibid.

The Unfinished Revolution of Quantum Mechanics

By Doug Marman

Quantum mechanics has proven itself to be the most accurate scientific theory ever known. Plus, some 30% of the US gross national product is based on quantum mechanical inventions. They’re used in everything from computer chips and lasers to CD players and magnetic resonance imaging machines in hospitals.

However, the theory has yet to make its way into the understanding of the general public. As a result, the scientific revolution of quantum mechanics is unfinished.

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Vera Kratochivil

Prague Astronomical Clock. Photo by Vera Kratochivil

Yes, we’ve all heard the term ‘quantum.’ But few understand the science and what it means, even in a simplified way. Scientists aren’t any better off. They know how to use the equations, but they don’t understand what it means either.

Since the modern age of science began, this has never happened before.

Isaac Newton published his book that explained gravity and the laws of motion in 1687. People struggled with the idea at first, that a force could reach across space from the sun and pull the Earth. However, after a couple generations, the idea was accepted by almost everyone. People could picture the universe as a giant clockwork, driven by cause and effect.

Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell launched the electromagnetic revolution in the mid 1800’s. Within fifty years, electrical inventions were springing up everywhere. The term “force field” became widely used and most people intuitively understood what it meant.

Einstein’s principle of relativity also created problems at first. How can the speed of light look the same when speeding toward a beam of light or away from it? How can the measurement of time be relative to our reference frame?

It’s still a challenge for most people to fathom why the world is this way. However, the underlying principle is simple enough: Everyone’s experience is relative. There is no perspective that is truer than any other.

It takes time for major breakthroughs to filter into the understanding of the public. When they do, they literally change the way we perceive the world. In other words, they give us a new lens—a new way of seeing.

But now, for the first time in history, a revolutionary scientific discovery has failed to reach a general understanding. A hundred years after quantum theory was discovered, it still doesn’t make sense, not even to physicists.

This creates a problem. An intuitive understanding isn’t a part of our social wisdom, but something else has filled the void. It happened unintentionally. The void has been filled with a conclusion that many scientists have reached: Life doesn’t make sense. There is no meaning to quantum uncertainty; that’s just the way it is.

This idea is creating a wedge between science and other fields, such as philosophy and religion, because many people don’t accept it. Einstein hit the nail on the head when he said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” In other words, the world isn’t just a bunch of random pointless events. It means something.

Einstein, in a letter to Max Born, 4 December 1926. Often quoted as "God does not play dice with the universe."

Einstein, in a letter to Max Born, 4 December 1926. Often quoted as “God does not play dice with the universe.”

As a result, there’s been a change in the public’s perception of science. Scientists have noticed the shift in attitude. Some believe that this is a sign that our society is sliding backwards towards superstitious thinking, but I don’t think that’s the case. Most of those claiming that something is missing from science are highly educated.

I think a big underlying cause of this growing rift is that we don’t yet understand one of the biggest breakthroughs in science. A deeper understanding of quantum mechanics can heal this problem.

It’s important to realize that this idea—that life is just ‘probabilistic’ and ‘unpredictable’ at the level of fundamental particles, and the best we can do is accept it—is a false conclusion. Physicists haven’t learned this scientifically. They simply don’t know how else to interpret the data.

In other words, this isn’t a lesson of quantum mechanics. It’s simply a sign that physicists don’t know what it means. It isn’t a conclusion. It’s a reminder that the quantum revolution is incomplete.

I say this because it is now clear to me, after I found a way to explain the quantum mystery. I didn’t expect to uncover a simple intuitive explanation. It was an accident. But looking back, it’s now easy to see the huge void, like a dark cloud, that has kept the real lesson of quantum mechanics from our doorstep.

Quantum theory now makes sense to me, and I think that it is simple enough that most people can understand. More importantly, the underlying principles don’t just apply to the subatomic world. They play a vital role in our everyday lives. That was the biggest surprise for me.

My wife, Karen, was my first litmus test. She never studied physics in college. She doesn’t read science books. She didn’t know anything about quantum mechanics. But after reading chapter 13, “The Spooky World of Quantum Physics” in my book, Lenses of Perception, she shocked me and said, “That was fun.” She actually enjoyed reading it.

She even asked me to get her a T-shirt that says, “I sorta understand quantum mechanics.”

Of course, she realized that a lot of the science was over her head. She could see that, but it still intuitively made sense to her.

This might seem like a small thing, but it is something that leading physicists say is impossible: They claim that no one understands it.

More importantly, Karen began seeing the principles everywhere. The world now makes more sense and is easier to understand.

For example, we experience unpredictable effects in our lives everyday, because we never know for sure how others, or even how we, will act in a situation we’ve never faced before. These are true quantum effects. They are an important part of life, because they show us that life isn’t completely driven by outside forces. It also emerges from within.

Karen’s reaction isn’t unique. Another person recently wrote to tell me that he was watching a show on the history channel about Thomas Jefferson, when he suddenly realized it was a perfect example of the scientific lens influencing Jefferson’s perceptions.

Another person told me that she was reading a book on spirituality that she had read many times before, but now she understands it more deeply because she can see how lenses of perception are involved.

Finding a deeper understanding of life—that is the part of the quantum revolution that we’ve been missing.

We’ve been told that quantum shenanigans only exist in the subatomic world. If this were true, then most people could easily ignore it, since it has little to do with their daily lives. However, it turns out that quantum theory is more important to people’s personal lives than any of the other great scientific discoveries.

Why? Because once we see how to understand it, it clarifies so much of what makes life mysterious. This doesn’t mean it ends the mystery in the way that objective analysis often does. On the contrary, it heightens the enigma and pulls us in.

"Single Water Drop" by Petr Kratochivil

“Single Water Drop” by Petr Kratochivil

Here’s an example: We connect with other people through our work, communities, friendships and families. Relationships expand the horizons of our individual lives. These bonds change us and give meaning to our existence. But none of this can be understood with a third-person lens, because it exists between people. It can’t be seen by outside observers. We have to experience it.

This is exactly what it means to be entangled. And this is exactly what quantum entanglement—perhaps the greatest mystery of quantum mechanics—is about. Relationships are real, but they only exist in between. They don’t belong to one person or another, they’re a connection between them.

When two particles become entangled, they are tied together in an invisible way. When something affects one, it affects the other as well. We experience the same thing. When a friend suffers or has a success, it affects us as well.

This isn’t just a similarity. These are examples of true quantum entanglement.

Once we find the right lens, we can see that our lives are woven into the universe.

Think of how this understanding would change your perception of science if this was a recognized lesson of quantum mechanics. Doesn’t it build a bridge between science and philosophy and religion?

It’s been more than a century since the revolution started. I’d say it is high time for quantum behavior to finally make sense, and for our culture to absorb the meaning of this great breakthrough.

The Lens of Science and Its Flaw

By Doug Marman

Our scientific way of looking at the world as outsiders was pioneered by Isaac Newton, over three hundreds years ago. People found it so effective at helping them understand mechanisms and mechanical reactions that it sparked the Industrial Revolution and our modern technological age.

It soon spread across the globe and is now used in almost every field. We use it so often that it’s almost invisible to us. It has, more than any other lens, shaped our ways of seeing. The problem is that it has a flaw that limits our perceptions.

To understand what this flaw is, we need to go back to Newton’s time and see how he first discovered his “laws of motion” and set down the fundamental principles of science. (For a more complete discussion of this subject, see chapter 3 in the book Lenses of Perception.)

Isaac wanted to know why the planets in our solar system circle around the sun. He had a hunch that gravity, the same force that causes apples to fall from trees, is the cause, but how could he prove it?

Newton wanted to understand the force that keeps the planets in orbit around our sun. Illustration by NASA.

Newton wanted to understand the force that keeps the planets in orbit around our sun. Illustration by NASA.

Newton invented a new type of math, called calculus, to describe the changing motion of the planets. Unfortunately, the general formula for changing rates of motion is infinite—it never ends. It looks like this:

The distance an object moves over time = V + ba2 + ca3 + da4 . . .

The three dots at the end means that it goes on and on forever. That makes it way too complicated to use.

Fortunately, Isaac knew what the formula was describing, so he saw a way to make it simpler. For example, if we’re studying an object moving through space at a constant speed, then the infinite equation reduces to this:

The distance an object moves over time = V

V” in this formula stands for the velocity of the object—in other words, how fast it is moving.

This became Newton’s first law of motion. It says that all things continue moving in the same direction, and at the same speed, unless they’re changed by a force. Until a force acts on them, their own momentum keeps them on the same path, moving at a steady pace.

This idea seems obvious to us today because we’re so used to thinking this way. But it was only sixty years before Newton that Galileo first proposed the idea. Galileo claimed that the Ancient Greek philosophers, who said that a force was needed to keep an object moving, were wrong. Newton showed that Galileo was right and this is a fundamental law of our universe.

To describe the movement of Earth around the sun, however, Isaac needed a different approach, since our planet is continually changing its direction. He couldn’t use the infinite formula produced by calculus, but he could reduce the equation to something simple if he once again limited his study to a special case. This time he focused on the change of motion produced by a single force. If that is all we care about, then the formula produced by calculus is:

Force = (m) x (a)

This is Newton’s second law of motion: Force is equal to the mass of an object (m) times the rate at which it accelerates (a). It tells us that acceleration is the direct result of the magnitude of the force. If a force is twice as strong, the object will accelerate twice as fast. It also says that, any time an object speeds up, slows down, or changes its course, a force must be driving it.

So, the impossibly complex formula for movement was reduced to two simple equations: One that describes steadily moving objects, where motion continues because of momentum, and the other describing a single force causing objects to accelerate.

This is the tool Newton discovered. It describes cause and effect and shows us how to study forces, one at a time, by seeing the changes they produce.

This idea was quickly adopted by every field of science. Even sociology, when it was first founded as a scientific study, used the principle to study the social forces that move people. Around the same time, Freud began describing the psychological forces that are motivating factors in human beings. And economists started seeing the economy as a closed system where prices were driven by the external forces of supply and demand.

What happens when a tool is used so often that it becomes common? It strongly shapes our way of seeing the world. (See What Are Lenses of Perception? for more information.) And this is exactly what happened, since everywhere we look today we see causation at work. Forces move objects, people, and economies.

In fact, within a hundred years after Newton published his laws of motion, it became common to talk about the universe and everything in it being driven by forces. All the stars, galaxies, planets, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and the whole world of nature was nothing but a giant clockwork.

Unfortunately, there’s a flaw in this lens. Can you see where it comes from?

The movements of creatures aren't driven by outside forces. Their actions spring from within. Scientists haven't been able explain this spontaneous behavior. Photo by Davy Siahaan.

The movements of creatures aren’t driven by outside forces. Their actions spring from within. Scientists haven’t been able explain this spontaneous behavior. Photo by Davy Siahaan.

Remember, Newton picked a special case to simplify the formula for motion. He looked at forces acting on objects from the outside. What about living creatures that change direction from within themselves? Can we apply Newton’s approach to see where the autonomous actions of organisms come from? Can we reduce the self-driven movements of plants and animals down to mechanisms? No, we can’t.

“Okay, we may not have the answer today, but every day we get smarter and smarter, learning more and more through new scientific discoveries. Surely, one day we’ll be able to understand the building blocks of life.

“But the problem isn’t a lack of intelligence. We’ve been running into this wall for hundreds of years. Brilliant people have tried solving it. We don’t need more brain power. We’re missing something basic.

“What if we can’t reduce life down because it’s impossible? The question staggered me. I had to think about it over and over. Could this be true? Finally, the realization hit me: Newton’s principle of cause and effect can’t help us answer this question because it tells us nothing about causes originating from within. It applies only to external forces.

“Does this mean that science will never, ever, be able to explain the secret of life? Never? No, but it suggests that we need a different approach. We need new tools and a fundamentally new lens to show us how powers can originate from within.”

From Lenses of Perception, page 28.

The lens of perception that formed from using Newton’s approach to study cause and effect is based on the idea that forces act on objects from the outside. In other words, it is a third-person perspective, as if we were standing outside of the action and looking in as observers. This is the lens of science. It’s a way of seeing that dominates scientific research today, even though it has a number of limitations.

For example, third-person lenses can’t see where forces originate, the intentions behind actions, or the purposes of those action, to name a few of the smaller issues. Most scientists treat these as pesky mosquitos. They’re easily ignored. And if you are dealing with mechanical reactions, they can be overlooked because they play no role.

However, if you only look for truth through third-person lenses, then these three little issues change your whole perspective. Reality no longer seems to have a purpose. You can’t see any meaning to life, since everything is just the result of a chain of reactions. One domino knocks over the next.

This is where the “post-modern” view of life comes from. It has infiltrated every aspect of society, especially our schools. This is the result of seeing only through third-person lenses.

Recently, the problem has grown much bigger, however, since we find ourselves faced with the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and the bizarre behavior of sub-atomic particles. And leading biologists have come to the conclusion that we not only can’t explain the origin of life, we don’t even know where to start looking for an answer.

Plus, physicists discovered a serious problem with the way our universe evolved. For some reason it seems to be exactly designed for life to exist. They don’t know why. This is made worse by the fact that science doesn’t know why life exists in the first place.

Living things possess a spark that cannot be explained by mechanical reactions. Their actions cannot be predicted by any laws. The lens of science can't make sense of it, but other lenses can. Photo by Davy Siahaan

Living things possess a spark that cannot be explained by mechanical reactions. Their actions cannot be predicted by any laws. Third-person lenses can’t make sense of it, but other lenses can. Photo by Kristof Degreef.

And how do our minds move our bodies? Science is no closer to answering this question today than it was two hundred years ago. We simply don’t know. Or how does consciousness emerge from brains, as most biologists believe? No one can explain it.

It turns out that all of these issues, plus many more, originate from the flaw in the lens of science. We need a new approach—a new way of seeing to make sense of these mysteries. A new lens that helps us see things not only from the outside, but from the inside as well.

“Don’t fall for the story that organisms are complicated, as if this explains why reducing them down is difficult. What if life is irreducible? What if we’ve been missing something? What if a new lens could reveal the problem? Then, as Rosen says, “the consequences are profoundly revolutionary.”

“Imagine finding new principles as simple as Newton’s laws of motion that can fill in the missing picture and explain life. If Isaac’s laws of motion changed our world dramatically, imagine how these new principles will transform our ability to see and understand.”

From Lenses of Perception, page 40.

See also the next in this series: A New Foundation for Science