Physics, Philosophy and mumbo jumbo…

Perhaps the biggest single difference between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to think long term. Whereas most life forms on Earth rarely think past the last meal or the next winter, we can think all the way back to our childhood years and forward to our deaths. Thanks to recorded history we are also aware of events, good and bad, that preceded our births. And of course there are an abundance of predictions for the future…

The ability to integrate knowledge of the past with projections of the future is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it gives us the ability to plan for our future—to anticipate earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, or just to take an umbrella to work. On the other hand it gives us a never ending supply of reasons to wonder and worry. After my inevitable death what will happen to my loved ones, my children and their children and their children…? Will our species travel to the stars? Or will we, sooner or later, join the legions of extinct species that have failed Nature’s survival tests?

Most people will join a discussion on such subjects, and all who do will have their particular view of the future—their philosophy. And there are so many philosophies out there competing with one another.

If you picked two individuals at random it’s extremely unlikely that they would agree on a philosophical position—which is why most cautious people will avoid such discussions until they have some clues as to where the other person stands. And it is also why like-minded people, who perhaps have read the same book or attended the same lecture and bought into the views of the author, will tend to gather together to agree that “their” view is the right one… So you end up with tribal groups who subscribe to the same view and, of course, tend to label all others as rubbish. The similarity to religious views is obvious.

In this article I am going to generalize—to philosophize on philosophies… Dangerous territory, but I have always found a challenge irresistible.

It seems to me that the biggest mistake that is made by would-be philosophers is that they try to build a factual foundation for their views. An example would be Dr. Tom Campbell of “My Big Toe” fame. Tom Campbell is a trained physicist turned author and lecturer. His “Toe” refers to the so-called “Theory of Everything” that has been the Holy Grail of physicists including such greats as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawkings. Where Tom Campbell parts company with his more illustrious colleagues however is that he makes his Toe into a philosophical position which he would have us believe is valid because of the distinguished company it has kept and because he has found the missing link i.e. “consciousness”. He uses some of the most difficult to understand aspects of modern physics (e.g. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle) to create confusion and then explains away the confusion by elevating consciousness to a physical world-altering force. The core of his position, when you get down to it, is a meld of physics, metaphysics and mystical—with lots of references to “scientific method” to make his audience into believers.

Leaving aside the merits and motivations of Dr. Campbell’s particular efforts in this area, the general problem is that, at this stage in our species’ development, we are far too ignorant and just plain stupid to aspire to a Theory of Everything. We would laugh if we were to look back in time and see a prehistoric thinker jump off a cliff flapping his arms—or a daring neolithic adventurer setting off in his loin cloth to climb Mount Everest… But that is what we are doing when we ponder the vast (I laugh) knowledge that we have accumulated in our cosmically brief existence to extrapolate a view of the future and its meaning.

So am I saying that it is foolish to attempt to formulate a philosophy? Not at all… in fact just the opposite. I believe it is an urgent necessity for us to come to a world view of the future that will be our magna carta to guide our species as we leave our primitive beginnings to set out on a journey to the future. A future that will give future generations full, rich lives filled with motivation to achieve a potential that is beyond our imagination today…

But the foundation for our philosophy cannot be a bedrock of fact. We are just too callow. How can we have the arrogance to believe that a panoramic view of the future can be based on the pinhead sized “mountain” of our current wisdom and knowledge?

I am reminded of my management consultant beginnings. When attempting to help a business improve its profitability and survival quotient, a consultant does not attempt to understand everything about the problems and opportunities involved to come up with a “grand plan”. Instead he tries to bring about incremental improvement where he can identify that there is room for improvement—and where he sees opportunity to compete successfully with businesses in the same sector. In other words use the knowledge you can be confident about to make incremental changes that are in the right direction, don’t invest your time budget in a gargantuan research task in an effort to find “the ultimate solution”.

Direction is what a philosophy is all about. If it guides its believers profitably, i.e. for the greater benefit of future generations, then it has merit. Now what Tom Campbell preaches may well lead some individuals to self-improvement. By this token it has value. It has motivated some individuals to improve. But you could say the same for many religions that have been exposed as self-serving and founded on superstition and half truths. In the long run they do a disservice to humanity.

So those who lecture and sell books should be silent? Not at all. We need to think. And authors with opinions inspire thought. Thinking is what (I hope) will get us out of the big mess that is our current man-made world. But as we choose among the philosophies that are offered to us lets be realistic. At this stage in our existence it is ridiculous to think that a theory of everything will be our guide. And adding Tom Campbell’s views that “consciousness” (meaning our perception of our physical universe) has to be added to the theory of everything (to make a BIG Toe…) stretches this to the absurd. In fact, it goes beyond absurd to dangerous—because it attempts to seduce our primitive desire for self importance.

Since the beginning of human thought, philosophers (and more recently psychologists) have argued that our perception of the world is more real than the world itself. This is not new thinking. And it belongs in our past, along with voodoo, horoscopes, Scientology and other primitive beliefs that we would best forget.

At our current stage of development as an intelligent species we must base our philosophy on sound principles not wannabe facts. And we should accept that the philosophy we adopt WILL change as we learn and mature. A part of this evolutionary process will be competition among philosophies. That is what evolution is about after all—survival of the fittest. Time will decide the winner—or will be the epitaph on humanity’s tombstone. Of one thing we can be sure. The winner will not be Tom Campbell’s Big Toe.

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