05 October 2008

Who is the Dreamer who Dreams the Dream?

Everywhere I turn, I seem to hear or read about how science has caused the "disenchantment" of the world, an opinion usually held by those who think this is a good thing. Yet underneath their confidence, they seem a little angry and disappointed, as if someone had stolen the magic of their childhood - and if they can't have the magic, then by golly, neither can anyone else.

They think the real world, the ordinary world, is simply a web of causes and effects that, if we ever learn enough, we will be able to untangle. The universe (or multiverse) is self-existent, and everything that happens in it is inevitable, at least in a statistical sense.

Western (and increasingly world) culture has come to this conclusion based two ideas. The first is an understanding of physics that has its origin in the mechanics of Isaac Newton (1643-1727), in which time and space were regarded as a fixed background in which the motion of anything was perfectly predictable (and retrodictable) provided one knew its position and velocity at some instant.

Physicists and laymen alike, now hear this: We've known for a century now that this idea of the world is only a gross approximation to how it actually works. Basing your epistemology (way of knowing) on it is like building a house of sand just as the hurricane arrives.

The other idea is that anything that cannot be measured (subjected to repeated, precise observation at our will) is not real. As I have discussed elsewhere, this is pure hubris and almost certainly false. And yet, it took hold of academic culture deeply and pervasively. At the height of our cultural infatuation with this idea, experimental psychologists declared that personality did not exist, which everyone now knows is false on its face. Personality is a non-quantifiable, immeasurable phenomenon that we encounter constantly.

The actual relationship between measurability and reality is this: If I can measure it, it is real. If I can't measure it, all I can say is that either I don't know how to measure it (yet), or it may be immeasurable in principle. I can't legitimately claim it doesn't exist, unless I can prove that it doesn't exist, and immeasurability alone is not proof. But since I can't offer a scientific explanation of anything I can't measure, my own hubris tempts me to sweep it out of my mental image of the universe.

So if the popular idea of the scientific world view is outdated and wrong, then what is the modern scientific world view as of today? For that we turn to theories of Quantum Information. What emerges from them is a consensus that every physical interaction is an exchange of so many bits of information. Indeed the emerging connection between fundamental physics and information theory makes the universe resemble not a machine, but an enormous, detailed, and mathematically self-consistent web of thought.

A dream.

"From desire start the skandhas, which resemble a dream," goes an old Hindu/Buddhist saying. Which leads us to ask, abusing the title of Grotstein's tome on psychology, who is the dreamer who dreams the dream? Hindus believe the dream dreams itself. Buddhists believe that you are the dreamer. Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe the dreamer is God.

In the great dream of things, these ideas are not necessarily incompatible.

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