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In Context #14 (Fall, 2005, p. 24); copyright 2005 by The Nature Institute

The Paradox of Physics Envy: The Mental Universe

Stephen L. Talbott

In its July 7 issue the leading scientific journal, Nature, published a remarkable essay by Richard Conn Henry, professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. The essay ran under this rubric:

The only reality is mind and observations, but observations are not of things. To see the Universe as it really is, we must abandon our tendency to conceptualize observations as things.

Leave aside Henry's silly statement that "the 1925 discovery of quantum mechanics solved the problem of the Universe's nature" — a remark that sounds surreal when set beside his further statement that physics can't help us to decide whether to "descend into solipsism, expand to deism," or take up some other position about the nature of the universe. What strikes one is his final conclusion: "The Universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual. Live, and enjoy."

As unusual as such an essay may be for a major scientific journal, what really interests us is that prominent physicists have been making statements not far removed from this for several decades, arguing, for example, that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the physical world. And yet, right into our own day biologists, for example, have continued speaking as if the rock-bottom reality of the world consisted of little mechanistic devices of one sort or another. This is clearly the picture that philosopher Daniel Dennett has in mind when he tells us that evolution occurs by means of "mindless and mechanical" processes.

One wonders how long this great disconnect can be sustained, and what has made such irrationality possible among researchers who pride themselves on their hardheadedness and the sophistication of their intellectual work, as well as the compatibility of their discipline with the truth of physics. You'd think you would at least occasionally hear caveats from biologists: "What we've been saying assumes those physicists are wrong who speak of consciousness as fundamental to the universe." That we don't hear such caution and openness — traits normally taken as basic to science — suggests that something quite other than the scientific spirit has a grip on biology.

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