A meditation on the potentially positive benefits of the loss of certainty in the postmodern era.

S. David Stoney

November 24, 1999

  1. What or who is "the observer?"
  2. An idea that seems not to have crossed anyone's mind is that, for classical physicalism, exclusion of 'the observer' is a perspectival error due to the conscious or unconscious adoption of the metaphysic of mind-body dualism. A god-like perspective, from which a complete accounting of all that is, is presumed possible. This is a logical fallacy: The Fallacy of Impossible Perspective. This criticism is a distinctly postmodern one, reflecting the realization that no knowledge is theory independent and no theory is metaphysic independent. So be it.
  3. To add a disembodied 'observer' back in will simply not do. Adding the observer back in maintains the dualistic paradigm, but now with an imaginary, quite ghostly, "third person" doing whatever it is that 'the observer' is supposed to do and, in the process, rescuing the physicist's right to claim objective certainty.
  4. A claim of objective certainty, usually implicit, can only be maintained if 'the observer' is objectified. Claiming objective certainty is tantamount to a claim of being God.
  5. If 'the observer' is fleshed out into a living, feeling, self-aware person, then it is much harder to avoid the implications of Godel's theorem with regard to the claim of "objectivity."
  6. In fact, 'the observer' as used in some formulations of quantum mechanics can as easily be a measuring instrument as a person.
  7. In fact, is 'the observer' more than just a 'wild card' in the contemporary quantum mechanical schemes? At the least 'the observer' represents one additional variable. However, being a full-fledged wild card it can be much more.
  8. This leads to great confusion and intellectual milling about.
  9. This situation is a logical result of trying to tack an 'observer' onto a scheme whose very existence was, in the beginning, based on its exclusion.
  10. In this context, it becomes practically impossible to avoid the erroneous conclusion that 'the observer' is imaginary whereas the stuff of the universe is 'real.'
  11. Polanyi's criticism (see below) still applies: Worship of the ideal of objectivity presents us with a world devoid of living human beings and, due to a failure to accredit those human characteristics that have led to the successful pursuit of knowledge, must, paradoxically, lead to the demise of science (Polyani, Personal Knowledge). I fear that civilization, and, with it, individuated self-awareness, will also disappear.

"The ideal of strictly objective knowledge, paradigmatically formulated by Laplace, continues to sustain a universal tendency to enhance the observational accuracy and systematic precision of science, at the expense of its bearing on its subject matter... [Science may be characterized as harboring] a misguided intellectual passion - a passion for achieving absolutely impersonal knowledge which, being unable to recognize any persons, presents us with a picture of the universe in which we ourselves are absent. In such a universe there is no one capable of creating and upholding scientific values; hence there is no science. The story of the Laplacean fallacy suggests a criterion of consistency. It shows that our conceptions of man and human society must be such as to account for man's faculty in forming these conceptions and to authorize the cultivation of this faculty within society. Only by accrediting the exercise of our intellectual passions in the act of observing man, can we form conceptions of man and society which both endorse this accrediting and uphold the freedom of culture in society. Such self-accrediting, or self-confirmatory, progression will prove an effective guide to all knowledge of living beings." (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, 1958.)

12. So, what to do?

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In closing, I am well aware that a great many people are, to some extent, doing or trying to do this already. Many others are doing it better than I could ever dream of. As a friend recently said to me, "David, everybody is trying as hard as they can." However, the process of science, which we all cherish, sometimes reveals things to us that we might just as soon have not known, things that threaten to force us out of our dogmatic slumber, if we are willing to engage them, if we are willing to participate. At such times, being conscious gets harder.

In such a fashion is the business of doing science dangerous to beliefs, including our beliefs about the business of doing science, about the world, about ourselves, and about the nature of embodied human consciousness. This is entirely appropriate because science is not and never can be about beliefs, it is about our best guesses as to the nature of things, including ourselves, in the context of our aims and goals. Science was begun by God-fearing men who fully expected the world to end, perhaps soon, in a sudden, unknowable cataclysm. For them, science revealed the mind of God. Paradoxically, science has discounted the idea of an omnipotent God directing the affairs of the planet and has now shown us exactly what the expected cataclysm is: abrupt global climate change.

Science remains, nevertheless, one of the most powerful tools we can use to help find our way toward the future we desire. Science itself is mute about that future, although it reveals limits imposed by the fundamental nature of things, including the very slight access that, via our wills, we have to the implicate order. Science is not and never can be a pathway to a strictly predetermined end.  Unless, that is, we are unable or unwilling to try to select the future we want.  Then the two most successful products of the modern era, the cooperative businesses of being conscious, i.e., becoming and being self-aware human persons, and doing science, may end in failure as the future becomes entirely predicable.