Category Archives: Science

Soundless Falling Trees

It is a riddle we all know well: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?


I admire the beauty of nature, but must remind myself, it is not nature’s inherent beauty that I am admiring any more than a deaf man can admire sound.  It is sensory perception.  It is cognitive processing.  It is human consciousness.

There is no sound without an ear and brain to receive and process the vibrations.  I see light, not because the form I observe is inherent to nature, but because the human eye and brain process certain frequencies of electromagnetic waves to “look” like what I see.  A deaf man doesn’t hear.  A blind man doesn’t see.  Electromagnetic waves outside of the frequencies we hear and see cannot be observed manually.  As Max Planck said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.  I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.  We cannot get behind consciousness.  Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

All of that is just to say: The “wonder of nature” is the wonder of consciousness.

The Illusion of Causality

What makes me “come back down” when I jump?  Answer: gravity.  Every elementary school student knows this.  But what if the earth was not rotating?  What if I was lighter than air?  What if the earth was the size of my back yard?  I would not come back down.  An obvious and perhaps pointless digression, all for the purpose of reminding me that there is never a single “cause” of anything.  Every single interaction in spacetime is effected by a causal chain that runs from the quantum scale to the cosmological scale.  Every time you ever hear an action (or reaction) attributed to single cause, you can rest assured that an infinite regression of causality and contingency has been left out of the explanation.  If the universe we observe is this seeming-infinite interconnected network “causal” interactions regressing back in time, why do we assume (or expect) we’ll find a single cause for time-space, or the existence of our universe at the beginning of it all?

Reality, As Painted By A Five Sense Palette

Are you familiar with NASA’s various Hubble Deep Field observations?  It seems to me an appropriate metaphor for human understanding.  The very short version is that over an extended period of time, NASA pointed the Hubble telescope at an apparently empty and infinitesimal portion of the night sky (below is the amount of sky observed by the eXtreme Deep Field observation):


Repeated exposures to the same area over many years allowed the trickle of photons to accumulate this stunning image:

File:Hubble Extreme Deep Field (full resolution).png

Most of those glowing objects are distant galaxies.  I have read there are an estimated 5000+ galaxies of various ages in that image.  Some date back as far as we have ever observed, approximately 13+ billion years ago.  This is what was observed upon careful and extended observation of an area of space that appeared to be empty to the naked eye.

The naked eye provides a great deal of the information by which we construct our impression of three dimensional space.  As humans, we have little intuitive insight regarding what information we are not perceiving.  Sight – combined with the four other senses of touch, taste, hearing and smell – provide my human perception of reality.  They provide the data on which derivative tools like inductive and deductive reasoning can be employed.  The data provided by my senses is woefully incomplete, limited on two fronts: scope and scale.  The scope of my sensory sensitivity involves just a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum as sight and sound.  We know of animals that perceive various facets of reality that human senses cannot.  Walls and chairs and beds and grass and trees look like what I see, sound like what I hear, feel like what I touch.  But we know from the study of subatomic particles that an atom is well over 99% empty space.  Even time may be an illusion.  Our best cosmological theories require that 96% of the universe be made up of mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that have never been directly observed.

Scale also plays a role.  Maybe an even bigger one (I will write much more on this at some later time).  The diameter of the physical universe is estimated to be over 90 billion light years.  Strikes me as akin to guessing how many marbles are in a bowl, but whatever.  Regardless, the human mind really cannot comprehend the size of the cosmos, nor the infinitesimalness of the quantum scale.  The orders of magnitude are cleverly demonstrated here.  They defy our comprehension.  So we tend to settle for causal coherence, even if it leads to faulty conclusions.  The human brain seems addicted to pattern and predictability, where complexity and chaos may more accurately describe the universe that we inhabit.  Many researchers have shown that the human mind tends to create order, coherence, causality, even where none exists.  It appears to be how we are wired.  And it seems we can’t help but think the “mind” exhibited at our own scale is unique, without properly accounting for evidence of intelligent behavior in clustered matter at orders of magnitude both smaller and larger than us.  There are almost as many bacteria in our body as there are cells with our own DNA.  Yet we seldom recognize these microscopic organisms as individuals, rather we recognize only the collective “me”?   A city exhibits the ordered pattern of an organism, but we view recognize only the individual “me”‘s not the city itself as a “mind.”  Might our particular scale be restricting our appreciation for “mind” at different dimensional scales?

It seems to me that the primary limitation, and one that cannot be avoided within human perception, is the particular nature of human perception.  We cannot know what we do not know.  As Erwin Schrodinger said, “The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”  What I perceive is just one way of experiencing the universe.  It is just one version of the universe, painted using my five sense perceptual palette.  I try to remind myself of that whenever I think I know more.

The Placebo Effect

In recent years, the interaction between mind and matter has become less of a speculative venture and more of a mysterious fact.  There has long been anecdotal and/or observed evidence in the form of faith healings, yogic phenomenon, changes brought about by hypnosis, etc, all of which suggests that our mental states or beliefs relate to material reality in some way. There has been plenty of verified experimental evidence to support the health benefits of meditation. This relationship between mind and matter is often classified and dismissed as mysticism.  While many of the explanations may indeed be mystic in nature, the correlation itself seems fairly incontrovertible to me.  On the quantum scale, observed behaviors like the Observer Effect, Entanglement, and Complementarity would seem to suggest that consciousness plays a role in our experience of reality.  Some dismiss these as strictly a quantum phenomenon, but consciousness continues to play a testable and verifiable role in our material existence on the macro scale, as witnessed in the Placebo Effect.

The Placebo Effect is, in my opinion, the most well-documented and incontrovertible evidence of this relationship between mind and matter.  The rate of effectiveness varies depending upon the nature of the illness, but in one of the landmark research papers on the subject, “The Powerful Placebo”, Henry Beecher cited a efficacy rate of about 35%, + or – 2% margin of error.  That is astonishing: 35%.  One in three people experienced very real psychological, or even physiological effects as the result of believing they were being made well by some agent.

Studies have continued to prove the efficacy of placebo treatments.  Most startlingly, this proved to be true even when patients knew they were taking placebo treatments, as evidenced in a PLOS ONE study on placebo effects by Ted Kaptchuk.

When I first met my wife, she would recite, “I will not get sick” and drink Echinacea.  I suppose Beecher’s research would suggest such a tactic should work around 35% of the time on average.  I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, L4 and L5, when I was 22.  I was unable to walk for two weeks, and was told to have back surgery.  I ignored the advice.  I did nothing, opting instead to rest as long as necessary.  As a lifelong athlete, this was rather trying.  Then, inexplicably, by the age of 28 or 29, my back healed “itself.”  I started playing ultimate frisbee, then basketball, and now (over a decade later) exercise 6 or 7 days a week and seldom experience discomfort.  Why did my back heal?  I have no idea.  Neither do Doctors.  I am not suggesting that my mind necessarily had anything to do with my back getting better. But that’s the point: the relationship between mind and matter, brain and body, remains largely shrouded in mystery.

Neuroscience has helped us understand some of the chemical and neural mechanisms by which this relationship works, but from all I can gather, it hasn’t yet begun to answer the deeper question of why.  I think Erwin Schrodinger effectively captured the problem with a purely physical approach to the problem with this comment in his “Mind and Matter” lectures:

“The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”

In this way, it may be nearly impossible to “objectively” study the relationship between mind and matter, since mind itself is both researcher and subject.

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