A Physics of the Unconscious
I’m coming to my story somewhat from the viewpoint of a cultural anthropologist. The book How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser of MIT is a good starting point.
The discipline known as Physics was somewhat in free fall after the Manhattan Project and fears about “the bomb”. The Atomic Age wasn’t proving as attractive as had been hoped, lets put it that way.
What proved a game changer was Bell’s Theorem and non-locality and quarks and all of that. Physics gained a new set of interested adherents, through institutions such as Esalen.
Again, I’m not here to spread any New Physics. I have no zero point energy scheme up my sleeve. My background is in philosophy and in Wittgenstein’s in particular, where he sounds a humble note, in Philosophical Investigations, regarding these especially deep-seeming words, such as “consciousness”.
If these have any meaning (and they do) it’s in the way “table” and “lamp” have a meaning (I’m paraphrasing). He doesn’t mean “consciousness is a noun” but that words come off meaning the same way: not by pointing, but through usage patterns.
Lets shift gears and do a thought experiment befitting both cultural anthropology, and Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy as well.
Lets invent a tribe wherein “lucid dream” refers to “waking reality” i.e. this is the dream we call most lucid.
We have daydreams, imagine stuff, and otherwise admit to adding overlays to said state of awareness. We may drift in and out of sleep itself, thereby encountering dream states considered less lucid. What we call “consciousness” is “living the dream” so to speak.
The attitude in physics could be one of investigating the unconscious states of our awake-seeming personae.
We may still ask: what makes us so like robots, like machines, versus what makes us so much different? It’s a matter or contrasts either way, and one of emphasis.
We’re not as lucid as we could be, is the implication, and physics, like psychology, keeps pointing that out.
We study physics to face reality more directly, whatever that means.
I think all of what I just said is in fact an old skin, one seen before. Physics does attract those with a strong resolve to stay awake, and in so staying, they become aware of the relative obliviousness of those not attending to science’s findings.
Science is finding out this and that about global climate change. Are we responding?
Many in science, and in physics in particular, might claim we have our heads in the sand.
That’s another way of talking about our relative unconsciousness. Lets study that, in terms of momentum, reflexes, habit formation, conditioning.
Perhaps I sound like I’m proposing that physics forsake its newfound interest in the mystery of consciousness and go back to being a boring old materials science that got radioactive on us, opening a Pandora’s Box of inimical isotopes.
“Let’s leave the high flying metaphysics to the philosophers and cooperate more with the rat psychologists” might sound like my message. Very atavistic.
But I’m not really suggesting that. I’m suggesting the mystery of our unconsciousness, somewhat in a Freudian sense, might just as well be a focus. Lets get back to where we’re borne along by physical processes over which we have no conscious control. Lets at least remind ourselves what “epiphenomenalism” was all about. You could call it a psychological condition, a type of paranoia perhaps, but we usually classify it as a philosophical viewpoint, and a respectable one at that.
Does consciousness begin with “control” in that case? When we take “control” of our own breathing, we may say we’re “making it conscious” in the sense of voluntary. We may then breath, in some unnatural artificial way, to make the point that we have commandeered and otherwise mostly unconscious process.
We call this a “grammatical investigation” into our meanings, while knowing the language is likewise ours to design, within limits. Physics is likewise about moving targets, and even advertising. Disciplines come with their own PR, their strategies for self preservation. Some try to keep it low key to avoid the appearance of proselytizing.
Help us find ways to snap us out of it, whatever “it” is.
Help us sense and react to our environment in ways that help us, going forward.
That might sound like an entreaty to a priest caste (of a friendly religion). I’m saying I respect physics the discipline to keep making a difference, if it chooses its targets of study wisely. Let’s not assume we’re yet lucid enough. How might we more deeply awaken?
To finalize this story, let me briefly recount my own intersection with the official physics community, or at least one of its teaching arms.
My focus on some listserv had been “energy slaves” which sounds like a very un-PC meme (not politically correct), and indeed I got in some trouble for continuing to bring it up.
I’m referring to the idea that automation, the industrial age, has done a lot to replace our need for brute force strength from any form of animal, humans included. We use machinery instead, the upshot being that the average human is served by many “human equivalents” but in the form of power lines, buses lines, infrastructure, kitchen appliances.
Speaking of kitchen appliances, a typical energy slave demo, relating human energy output to that of a toaster, puts a guy on a bicycle set up to make power.
The amount of power it takes to make one piece of toast is more than most humans could muster, remembering what power means, on demand, versus building up batteries. Power = Energy / Time or Energy * Frequency.
Dr. Bob Fuller took note of my First Person Physics and its connection to (a) “energy slaves” and (b) the idea of experiencing forces directly as a way of developing one’s internal calibration system. Go to a theme park and ride some roller coasters to get “acceleration” in a nutshell. I wouldn’t claim to be the originator of the idea and Dr. Fuller could have just taken it, but his training was to assist others by contributing positively to their careers, as he subsequently did to mine.
First Person Physics became an NSF grant title, with me as webmaster. I wasn’t being asked to pose as a physicist. Dr. Fuller already had a wide following and lots of respect. He had been an earlier follower of Piaget, and by the time I joined the scene, that was getting some backlash. However Physics had again been saved on another level, by converging the health care more successfully, with biology and biometrics. Nuclear medicine, MRIs, various kinds of sensor… bioengineering is physics for sure, and electronics, and computer science, and statistics…
In other words, regardless of whether Physics gets more Freudian and/or Jungian, with many saying its far too much that way already, I think the medical sciences form the basis for a kind of polymathy that draws positive elements from the Atomic Age, while moving away from destructive alchemy, i.e. the murderous devices that gave Physics a bad name.