Reality through the looking glass: science and awareness in the postmodern world

by C J S Clarke

Published by Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1996. ISBN 0-86315-216-3 (Out of print but available for purchase from me — see contact form) — at 7 including UK postage)



`What,' it will be questioned, `when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?' `O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, ``Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty"' (William Blake, [4])

I have ... drawn up my chairs to my two tables. ... One of them has been familiar to me from earliest years ... it is coloured; above all it is substantial. ... Table No. 2 is my scientific table.... My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed;... (Arthur Eddington, [15])


This is a book about reality.

Most of us think we have a reasonable grasp on reality. We have sorted out that Father Christmas / Santa Claus is unreal, along with unicorns and fairies. We suspect that those who think they are being manipulated by death-rays beamed from Mars have lost their sense of reality, and we assume that it is the business of science to find out, and tell us, what reality consists of. We assume that when we are awake, sober and healthy then we are fully in touch with reality; but with dreams, drunkenness, drugs or delirium we enter unreality.

This view is regarded as modern. Those who think this way regard older ideas as superstition. They contrast modern thinking with thinking in earlier times, when people were confused about such matters, believing that dreams could tell one about reality, or that myths were as reliable as science. It is often said that the transition between superstition and modern thought took place in the eighteenth century, in a process often called the enlightenment, when society woke up and saw the truth about reality, sweeping away the darkness that went before. We moderns now live with a sure idea of the way things are, which is the only foundation for building the future.

Today, however, this modern view is under attack from all sides. Many of those mounting the attack call themselves post-modernists, anxious to stress that by attacking the modern view they are not simply going back to earlier ways of thought. They argue that what counts as reality varies from one culture to another, and that we have to recognize that the world now consists of many different cultures with many conflicting views of reality which have to be recognized. Quite suddenly the old ideas seem to many to have outgrown their usefulness, and we are faced with the need to revise them, to set them in a wider context.

A more subtle attack comes from parts of science, which now suggest to some that the scientist is not simply discovering a reality that already exists, but is rather creating some particular theoretical picture of the world as a result of her/his activities. These ideas amount to a revolution in scientific thought as momentous as the seventeenth century revolution that established the modern view.

As a result, there is a growing need to replace the `modern' set of assumptions, a need to alter the foundations of our thinking. Every sphere of life is affected by this: it alters not only the way we do science, but the way we educate our children, the way we treat each other, the way we treat the world. If our accepted assumptions about reality collapse, what will replace them as a basis for life?

In the chapters that follow, I will describe these attacks on the old notions of reality and the way in which a new view of the world can emerge. In Chapter 2, I relate the modern sense of reality to science, and describe the post-modern argument, that science depends on society, so that when society changes, so does science, and so does the sense of reality. This way of thinking forms the foundation for everything that follows.

I also touch in this chapter on a way of thinking that many writers have linked with post-modernism, namely feminism. The feminist critique will play a key role in understanding the evolution of modern science (as has been stressed by E Fox Keller [26]). At this stage I only note some of its features, including its introduction of a moral dimension into the discussion, in which morality is understood in terms of responsibility and relationship, not in terms of rules and prohibitions.

Chapter 3 starts to examine, from this post-modern foundation, the legacy of scientific realism that we have inherited from the past. In keeping with the principle that science is moulded by society, I look for the roots of our scientific world-view in the changes in society that have taken place over the centuries. The central historical event that I need to explain is the decision, taken in the seventeenth century, to base science, and the scientific conception of reality, on the theory of atoms. Remarkably, this only becomes comprehensible from a very broad perspective, which sees this event as the culmination of the progressive consolidation of patriarchal power, which overcame the previous matricentral society of Europe in the middle bronze age. Even more surprisingly, this enlarged perspective reveals the moral dimension that I have noted is central to the feminist critique. What might have been a philosophical discussion suddenly starts to assume human significance. From this perspective, I describe the way in which thinkers in the seventeenth century set up the scientific view of reality that we have today, and how they made a complete separation between the ordinary world of our senses and the theoretical world of scientific reality.

The next chapters take up the criticism of the seventeenth century world-view that has emerged from within science itself, based not on considerations of the nature of society, but on the internal consistency of the theory of atomism. Chapter 4 begins this process by examining the debate about the nature of space and time that surrounded the adoption of atomism, and which has continued ever since. The whole of modern science rests on ideas of space and time, and yet they have been surrounded from the start by great uncertainty.

Then in chapter 5 we reach modern physics, where further problems are raised about the conventional atomistic world view by the phenomena of quantum theory. The significance of this chapter is twofold. First, it further undermines the certainty of atomism. Second, it starts to develop an alternative way of looking at reality based on quantum theory, a way that focuses on relationship rather than on separateness, and so starts to alter that moulding of science which took place as a result of the dominance of patriarchy.

The central point of our investigation is reached in chapter 6, on consciousness. This is a theme that modern science has tried to ignore, but which is now pressing back irresistibly. It raises the most fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the nature of the person.

Consciousness is a many faceted, and much misunderstood, concept. The very idea is derived to a large extent from a traditional scientific world view, which makes a separation between the external world and the ``me'' that experiences it. Connecting the world with me is this thing called consciousness, the postulated faculty within a human being for registering both the external world and the internal world of thoughts and feelings into a single composite awareness. The scientist approaches the question by asking for the mechanism whereby the brain carries out this conversion from signals, coming from the world and the body, into our awareness.

The philosopher or psychologist, on the other hand, may turn the problem round: starting with my awareness, which is the world, the reality, for me, we ask how this single awareness comes to be split up into a separate ``me'' and ``the world''. In such an analysis there may not be a place for consciousness as a distinct human faculty.

We have to understand consciousness if we are to understand the relation, or lack of it, between scientific reality and the ``common sense reality'' of our ordinarily experienced world. Some of the things in this ordinary world seem to fit well with the scientific approach: the way in which external objects are laid out in space; the laws that objects seem to obey, and so on. But some things seem to be in a completely different world from that of science. Not only are our deepest emotions in this category, but even certain aspects of the external world, such as the particular subjective experience of a certain colour. Science can explain what sort of vibrations of light correspond to this experience, but to explain the experience itself, and what it has to do with vibrations of light, science is powerless. These primitive experiences, called by philosophers qualia, are a key issue in understanding consciousness, the reality of the world, and the nature of human experience, which I explore in detail in section 2 of this chapter.

The main philosophical conundrum about qualia is the question of whether my qualia are the same as your qualia. If we are both looking at a red curtain, is the experience that I describe as `red' the same experience as the one that you describe as `red'? The problem is unanswerable on all conventional approaches to science and philosophy. On the approach being developed in this book, however, qualia fall naturally into place and the question can receive an answer.

With the consideration of consciousness, a new picture of reality emerges in the next chapter on ``A quantum world''. The essence of this approach is that we cannot start with the picture of reality that science has constructed and then try to recover consciousness, qualia and the rest of experience. Rather, we must start with experience, with the world as it is first given to us, and recognize that many different strands of analysis can then be drawn out of this experience. Indeed, the analysis is inseparable from the experience; there is no ``raw experience'' that we can start from. One analysis is that of science, in its conventional form, which provides a vital insight into certain sorts of experience, but leaves much of the world untouched. This provisional nature of science has been revealed through the preceding chapters. Other approaches will be considered later on. Central to all analyses is the distinction between ``me'' and ``not-me'', subjective and objective. The distinction is, however, not absolute. There are no static objects, called the Self and the World. Instead there is a web of shifting relationships in which, by a strange inversion of usual logic, the relationship comes before the things related.

In this new picture of the world qualia are not things that mysteriously emerge within individual private minds, but are to some extent real parts of the world. In such a picture it is now possible to make sense of saying that two qualia, such as my experience of red and your experience of red, are the same. More precisely, we will have reached a view in which there are not two qualia, one in me and one in you, but one quale that we both share. Then our sensations are the same because any thing is the same as itself. This view depends on the idea that (with significant qualifications) qualia are not secondary qualities, added in the brain to an object that is ``really'' colourless, but that an important component of the quale resides in external objects themselves, and so is primary. In a sense, it is a return to the naive view of reality that was overturned by Descartes; but this will only be possible through a picture that takes full account of all we have learned about the human brain, and what it contributes to our view of the world, in the intervening period since Descartes.

I describe this view of the world as a quantum view, not just because it is using ideas from quantum theory, but because there is a way of generalising quantum theory itself so that it provides a language that is equally capable of describing fundamental particles and the shifting patterns of human awareness. This ``broad quantum theory'' is described in section 3.

So far I have described two attacks on the conventional scientific view of reality: the attack of post modernism, from the side of sociology and history, and the attack of quantum theory, from within science itself, and I have indicated through considering consciousness how quantum theory opens up a new alternative to the Newtonian view in which the world is a much richer place than is the case in conventional science.

Here, however, I must face up to a central criticism that has been leveled at many writers who link quantum theory with consciousness and/or postmodernism. It is argued that these are quite different things, and that it is misleading and dishonest to confuse them. Quantum theory, it is argued, is a very specific physical theory, built within the modern scientific understanding of the universe, aimed at explaining the behaviour of atomic particles; consciousness belongs to a branch of psychology, and so is equally a part of modern science, but one having little to do with quantum theory; and postmodernism is a critique of the foundations of modern science, and so at a quite different level from either consciousness or quantum theory. On this view postmodernism cannot possibly draw support from quantum theory because postmodernism itself undermines the truth of quantum theory, as it does the truth of all modern science and, indeed, the very notion of truth itself.

My answer lies in the quite radical way in which I am viewing all these components in my argument. I have already noted how quantum theory, as will emerge in section 3, can be understood not as a particular physical theory but as a new sort of language for describing the world. It is a language that is capable of talking about the provisional, shifting, context-dependent world that is opened up by the post-modern analysis. From the point of view of broad quantum theory, the quantum language is the one that is natural for dealing with the world as it is, and classical physics results from imposing stringent metaphysical restrictions on this natural language.

Post-modernism, in its turn, is more than just a way of studying the philosophy of science. It shows that the social and historical context determines, not just the formal theories of remote research laboratories, but the whole pattern of thinking of the society in question. The historico-social context influences our theories, our values, our concepts and, through these, our very perceptions. Consciousness is socially conditioned, and with it is conditioned our whole world and our concept of reality.

Consciousness, finally, is far more than a branch of psychology. It is our world; it is reality. Any account of the world that fails on consciousness fails totally. Yet we have seen that the most basic parts of consciousness, the qualia of our awareness, depend completely on quantum theory for their explanation. Far from residing in separate and incompatible areas of human discourse, the three subjects of consciousness, post-modernism and quantum theory are so intertwined that it is impossible to speak of one without the others.

So we reach a picture of the world in which the nature of reality is profoundly altered by the juxtaposition of these three angles of approach. Yet we still have not answered the most fundamental question of all; what is reality? The Newtonian picture attempted to answer this once and for all by postulating a purely abstract scientific world view based on the doctrine of atomism. Now that this has failed, are we left with no alternative but to abandon any mention of ``reality''; no alternative to a complete relativism in which each person and each society creates their own equally valid personal ``world''? Is it the case that, without qualification, anything goes?

For me, the answer to this must be, no. The scientific enterprise, while it is very far from a passive recording of a reality that is entirely independent of ourselves, is certainly not a free composition of our imagination. Our interaction with a world that is in some respect distinct from ourselves is absolutely essential for science and for our existence as mature human beings. We need, therefore, a way of operating in this situation where it is essential to recognize a dimension of existence that is distinct from ourselves, and yet where everything that we say about this dimension is conditioned through and through by our own creativity.

This dimension of existence that is distinct from ourselves is, however, not separate from us; it is beyond every description of the world and yet is the foundation and source of every description. Even to say ``it'' of this dimension is to beg the whole question, since our language is so structured that every ``it'' is a self-contained and objectively existent entity.

It is no accident that, in trying to answer the question, what is reality? I have been led into language reminiscent of religious mysticism. For I would contend that this is precisely where the answer is to be found. Not as a court of last resort or desperation, but as the natural framework within which human experience can shed light on the fluid situation presented by the breakdown of the old realities. The discipline of mysticism provides a way forward that recognizes the inherent limitations of every language -- even the artificial language of mathematics that can achieve so much by freeing itself from every-day reference points.

As a result, the final chapters are concerned with an extension of the discussion of reality into the territory of religion. In ``Alternative realities'' we first look at religions that are usually called ``primitive'', but which, in the light of the historical picture that I have been building up, can be seen as reaching back to a time before the patriarchal moulding of our world-view. These earlier conceptions of the world raise the possibility of viewing the world in quite different ways, and hence the possibility of alternative realities. I give a framework, due to the psychologist Mahrer, for viewing these realities, and from Castaneda I draw some key notions about the status of our provisional construction of reality in relation to whatever lies outside its compass.

The last chapter then tries to point towards this unknown realm that is beyond our construction of reality and yet is its precondition, by looking specifically at religious reality. The term might be misleading: a ``religion'' is a particular social structure, and we have already seen that each such structure constructs its own, purely relative, reality. In this sense, it might be better to speak of ``mystical reality'', pointing to that level of experience within the religious traditions at which direct experience goes beyond the particular formulations that characterize the religion. But I continue to speak of religious reality, in order to emphasize that there is no such thing as ``generic mysticism'', whatever some have said to the contrary. What I referred to above as the discipline of mysticism is its commitment to a path that is situated among the actualities of particular religious traditions and languages. It is through these languages, with their very specific cultural and historical roots, that mysticism points to what is beyond language.

Books, like societies, have historical origins. This book stemmed from a one-term adult education course entitled `Reality', where a group from all manner of backgrounds challenged and shaped my emerging ideas. It stems also from my own commitment to the Christian spiritual path (currently leading me through the dark vale of the Church of England). The influence of this path, particularly in the form of creation spirituality, can be seen at many points. Indeed, not only the final chapter, but the whole book could be seen as an expression of this religion, which I see not as a collection of stories about God, but as humanity's feeble response to a world in the process of becoming, a world that strips us of every certainty except for the presence at its heart of an unbounded compassion.


Last modified 9th April 2006