So I’m reading about the latest cosmological absurdity and feeling pretty smug. It turns out that, according to the equations, your existence is simply “some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space…Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.”
Aren’t those physicists funny? Once upon a time, we thought quantum mechanics was weird. Then came string theory and all those extra unfolded dimensions. And now comes the latest hypothesis, which is so surreal it’s almost nihilistic. Apparently, I’m just an elaborate illusion, a fictional figment of the universe. Only the equations are real.
But then I started thinking about neuroscience, my own specialty. According to the facts of neuroscience, your head contains 100 billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you, or knows you or cares about you. In fact, you don’t even exist. You are simply a fancy kind of cognitive fakery, an “epiphenomenon” of the cortex. The self is a fiction.
This idea is hardly newsworthy – the ghost was expelled from the machine a long time ago – and yet we often forget just how crazy the concept really is. Think about it: the facts of modern science contradict the most basic facts of our experience. If we know anything, it’s that we are real, that our first-person experience is lucid, vivid and tangible. We feel like more than just a loom of electrical synapses. And yet, what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland is also true of self-consciousness: “there is no there there.”
My worry is that the experiments of modern science, both in physics and neuroscience, are becoming increasingly detached from the empirical actuality of everyday life. Our sciences are turning themselves into immaculate abstractions, unable to reduce or solve or even investigate the only reality we will ever know. Instead, that reality is disregarded as an “illusion”. That hardly strikes me as a satisfying answer.
What do you think?