What is Fundamentally Fundamental?
Throughout our entire scientific history, we've recurred to a reductionist approach to understand the natural world. Since humans started understanding what Science is all about and devise the principles of the scientific method, finding the smallest piece possible of matter has been at the core of our scientific endeavor. First came the atoms, then the subatomic particles, then Quantum Mechanics, then String Theory. The deeper we dive the less real (or realistic or deterministic) our natural world seems to be. At this point, it's probably no exaggeration to say that the most fundamentally irreducible aspect of matter would probably be no matter at all, but more like an idea, a mathematical concept of some sort, from which everything else derives.
More recently, a few articles have caught my attention questioning the "fundamentality" of the very fabric of space-time, within which, supposedly, everything exists. At this point, we're not even talking about matter, but actually of the very substrate, or structure, that establishes and organizes the relationship (the mechanics) between all existing matter in our universe. Those articles raise the idea that space-time is not ultimate reality and that something else lurks beyond.
These are just a few in a rapidly growing body of knowledge in the field of fundamental reality:
- A Jewel at the Heart of Quantum Physics
- The Most Famous Paradox in Physics Nears Its End
- How Space and Time Could Be a Quantum Error-Correcting Code
What I find intriguing about these recent findings is that reality, after all, might be not at all real.
Many philosophers and philosophies have proposed that our perceived, conscious reality is all there is. The entire universe, including you, me, all the planets and galaxies, and all the science, would exist only within our consciousness (or some consciousness, as our individual consciousnesses could be just pieces of a larger, all-encompassing unitary consciousness). In that scenario, all science, no matter how sophisticated or advanced, would fail to grasp the true nature of such reality. In fact, that's what we currently observe. Despite the great strides of Science, it still embarrassedly fails to deal with the most omnipresent and least understood physical phenomena of all: our consciousness. That failure should be noticed, for it probably hides greater truths. Might ultimate reality exist outside space-time and within consciousness?
A first-person worldview
In our worldview today, there is the universe, the Laws of Physics that govern it, and us, simple observers who have no significant impact on the universe. Our understanding of the world has been that we, individual and tiny observers, are not fundamental to the universe in any way. It is well known that Quantum Mechanics can be interpreted as being influenced by the observer. Nevertheless, every Quantum Mechanics interpretation still assumes there is a world and the observer is contained in that world. The Multiverse interpretation of Quantum Mechanics says that we, as observers, could have many (or infinite) versions of ourselves inhabiting countless parallel realities. Still, an observer would be contained in each and every one of those possible worlds.
But, what if, just what if our understanding of the world today were one that the most fundamental aspect of reality is consciousness, like many have already proposed? Proposing such a paradigm from an exclusively academic perspective is one thing. Embracing that understanding and bringing it to our lives is of an entirely different order. Never, as a species, have we operated as if we were the ultimate creators of reality. Yet, that might be exactly where we are. Instead of viewing ourselves as disposable, tiny and insignificant aspects of reality, we would be reality.
Anthropocentric worldviews have been historically always problematic. Science pulled us out of the shadows by showing us, for example, that it was the Earth that orbited the sun, and not the other way around. The problem with Science, though, is that if there is indeed a first-person reality, that reality would be, by definition, out of its reach. The scientific method is all about reproducibility by independent experimenters. The purpose of Science actually is to serve as a means for individual consciousnesses (us) to come into agreement about what reality really is. That's the whole point of Science. Science thus is a way to assess and understand third-person reality. That doesn't mean, however, that first-person realities don't exist. It is just that, if they do exist, Science would be not very instrumental assessing and understanding them. Reasoning and mathematics still can come a long a way helping us explore those first-person worlds without bringing us back to the shadows. But the scientific method would need to be somehow adapted.
Until then, it seems like we have a decision to make as individuals as well as a society: is consciousness the ultimate fundamental reality? Is consciousness or first-person reality more fundamental than third-person reality? Are we fated to live at the will of an outside world's dynamics and mechanics or are we destined to create our own realities and our own worlds as conscious beings? Science is unlikely to give us an answer. It may turn out that the type of reality that "really" exists is entirely up for us to decide. But would not the very fact that allows us to decide which reality is more real a clue to which reality actually is more fundamental? That's something only you can decide.