Einstein’s Moon

Albert Einstein famously said that, “belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.”  This statement has become the governing principle of modern science and, in fact, the very definition of reality. It is echoed by leading modern scientists such as Lee Smolin, who writes in the The Trouble with Physics (p. 6-7), that “Physicists have traditionally expected that science should give an account of reality as it would be in our absence. . . . It cannot be that reality depends on our existence. . . . Philosophers call this view realism. It can be summarized by saying that the real world out there . . . must exist independently of us.”  Similarly, the late Stephen Hawking writes in The Grand Design (p. 43)(with Leonard Mlodinow) , that “[c]lassical science is based on the belief that there exists a real external world whose properties are definite and independent of the observer who perceives them.”

Imbedded in the physical notion of the “real world” is that this world is free-standing and exists on its own power. Einstein also captured this perspective in his famous quote that, “I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.”

In other words, scientists think it is the height of craziness to suppose that the world in some ways depends upon our perception of it.

Einstein’s – and science’s – position on this topic can be contrasted with the position of 18th century philosopher, George Berkeley, who came to the opposite conclusion that to be is to be perceived. As he expressed his position:

“Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important o be, viz. that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind; that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently as long as they are not actually perceived by me, or not exist in my mind, or that of any other created spirit, they must either have not existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit:  it being perfectly unintelligible, and involving all the absurdity of abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of spirit.“[1]

Berkeley’s position – that a mind is always present in any act of perception of the external world – is a hard one to escape from. In fact, the only way to escape from it is to abstract from an act of perception and imagine a world without a mind.  Oddly, it is the mind itself that is engaged in this act of abstraction, so even when one imagines a way to view the world without a mind, one is using a mind in the process.

But despite the logic of Berkeley’s position, when we look out the world, it is hard to imagine how the mind can be the source of such a powerfully present world.

We stand back in awe at the towering strength of an oak tree, the overwhelming hardness and grandeur of mountains, and the infinite-seeming firmness of the ground beneath our feet.

But here is where we come upon the critical flaw in the realist perception of the natural world.  The moon, the trees, mountains and the physical world are all clearly separate from “us” if by “us” we mean our physical bodies.

 

If we say that the tree outside our window is independent of our bodies, no one can rationally argue with this point. There is clearly space between our bodies and the tree.

But the more difficult question is whether the body and the tree are independent of the mind.

Because the realist viewpoint is so ingrained into our normal way of thinking, we commonly associate the brain, or the five senses, with our “mind.” But if we picture the mind as a force standing behind the body and the world, we reach a different conclusion.

To give an idea of what I mean by “mind” here simply think about the last real-like dream you had at night, or, if you have had one, an hallucination. The power (energy, force) that created this real-seeming world is what I call the “mind.”  Notice that the mind in a dream creates the image of both a body and the outside world.  Again, although some people may prefer to say that the “brain” creates the dream, this is begging the very question at issue, which is whether the mind creates the world or whether impersonal physical forces created the physical world, leading to the evolution of life, the rise of consciousness, and then the ability to dream.  To me, it is infinitely simpler to imagine that the mind took a straight line to create an appearance of a physical world, and then drilled order and solidity into this image, instead of accepting the incredibly roundabout story of creation told by the matter-first viewpoint.

And here is a thought experiment to illustrate the point:

Imagine 1000 people observing a giant redwood tree.  Each of them believe that the tree exists independently of themselves, is self-subsisting, and is still there when no one is looking. To them, this tree is real.

If these 1000 people, however, were all part of the same mind, or were participating in the same dream, their observation of the tree would not change.  The tree would be real for all of them.  Since all of the people can only observe the world with the united mind as source, this image of the tree would be true for all observations of the natural world.

In the realist perception, there is one independent world — a stage prop stetting — existing outside of separate people.  In the real-dream perspective, there is one mind viewing a projection of the same world.

Critically, we would not be able to tell these perspectives apart. 

Think about this.

If one mind existed behind our common perception of the external world, we would not be able to distinguish this perception from a “real” — specifically, Einstein’s — world.

In both viewpoints, the first where Einstein’s moon is still there when someone is not looking, and the second, where a united mind projects the same moon, reality is common to everyone.

In other words, in the mind-centered perspective, the world is in fact real, because it is common to everyone.

Modern, materialistic science, however, imagines that the external world exists on its own power, apart from any mind, and then conducts experiments as if this assumption were true.  These experiments have shown, with increasing force, that the independent-world assumption leads to intractable conundrums — the origins of matter, order, and life, to name three major ones — but not to a Theory of Everything.   Any such theory cannot be a theory of “everything” unless it solves these cosmic mysteries, among many others.  Coincidentaly, putting the Mind at the center of creation, instead of the singularity of the Big Bang, easily solves all of them: the external world is a three-dimensional projection of the Mind (or a “dream of God”); the mind drills order into its creation (which explains the “unreasonable effectivenness of mathematics” in the natural sciences) and life is the best vehicle imagined by the mind to experience its world.

Perhaps this vision of the world appears overly simple; “new age,” or “out there.”  But scientists take note: if the object of science is to explain the world we live in rather than justify unnecessary assumptions, this view of the world is the future of science.

 

 

[1] Berkley Selections, ed. Mary W. Calkins, (Scribners  1929), 127, from A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, 127 (1710)

[2]   This principle is known as Occam’s razor, “according to which the most plausible of a possible set of explanations is that which contains the simplest ideas and number of assumptions.”  P. Davies, God and the New Physics, 173 (Simon & Schuster 1983).

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