After you’ve been blogging as long as I have, you inevitably wind up on a lot of mailing lists. Publicity companies, for instance, long ago discovered that getting a buzz going in the blogosphere is every bit as important as trying to get coverage from the “traditional” media. If you’re as fortunate as I’ve been and your blog achieves a modest degree of fame or notoriety, you can expect to find yourself on a fair number of such mailing lists. At first, I used to read every press release, but now there are just too many. I skim the subject headers, and, if they don’t catch my interest immediately, delete the e-mail. If they do catch my interest, sometimes I’ll file them away to come back to later. Of course, over time, as I’ve found myself on more and more e-mail lists, even the e-mails that I file away sometimes become too numerous, and I completely forget about them and never get back to them. Such are the perils of blogging; it’s only a problem when I find out that I completely forgot about blogging about something that had really piqued my interest and that I had really wanted to write about, something that happens far more often than I’d like to admit. Fortunately, there’s usually so much quackery, pseudoscience, and woo out there that it’s rare that my forgetting about this link or that causes me any trouble whatsoever in finding something to blog about, but I do sometimes kick myself for not having blogged about a topic that really interested me. Usually, this self-kicking occurs more than a week later, which might as well be a month in blog time, which means that the kicking rarely motivates me to write about old news.
So it was when I saw this intriguing subject header “New theoretical physics result suggests the universe isn’t objectively ‘real.’” Hmmm, I thought. I bet this is a bit of tasty Deepak Chopra-style quantum woo, or maybe it’s a Chopra knockoff, in which case it’s probably just plain boring. So I filed it away. Then, after I got home from work, I actually read the damned thing. All I can say is: Oh. My. God. This guy seems to think he’s a mashup of Robert Lanza and Deepak Chopra, with a dash of Lionel Milgrom thrown in. You remember Robert Lanza, don’t you? He’s the guy who apparently threw away a promising career to devote his life to “biocentrism,” a bit of woo that, boiled down to its essence, is nothing more than the anthropic principle on steroids coupled with Cartesian dualism, all gussied up with quantum woo. I’ll show you what I mean by providing you a link I found to the original press release. No need to thank me. I’m just that benevolent a blogger to my readers:
December 21, 2010 (MMD Newswire) – “I think, therefore…” Senior research scientist Daegene Song of Handong Global University in South Korea has come up with a model of the universe – and reality – that may be at least as paradigm-shattering as Copernicus’ (and later Galileo’s) pronouncement that the Earth revolves around the Sun instead of vice-versa. Actually, in Dr. Song’s view, that heliocentric (sun-centered) model is passe, being a product of the millennia-old “objective universe” model. Dr. Song posits instead a “subjective universe,” arguing that the planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies are not a collection of physical objects that would be there even if we didn’t exist to observe them. The universe, he asserts, can only be a subjective phenomenon of our experience. And he says he has done the math – literally – to support his assertions.
“Not only does my research offer a mathematical resolution for a subjective universe,” he explains, “it also suggests that humans are not mere machines but a unique creation. Furthermore – and I know this will make my work controversial if nothing else does – I believe my findings rebuke the theory of evolution.”
Ah, I like the twist that Song has put on some hoary old ideas, exhumed from obscurity and tarted up with…mathematics! Unfortunately, this press release then goes on for nearly 1,800 more words to say, in essence, that life is but a dream. I wonder how hard Song had to row, row, row his boat to reach that conclusion. But, how, how, how, I wonder, do song’s findings “rebuke” the theory of evolution? I’ll try to get to that in a minute. I’m not sure, even after reading the press release, that even I understand how Song’s findings might “rebuke” the theory of evolution, but, then, I am one of those nasty, reductionistic, “Western” scientists who think that there is an objective reality about which we can construct scientific theories to predict and understand its behavior. Not Song. Song tells us that the universe is simply a subjective phenomenon, in essence, created by our mind. Obviously, Song must be a woo-meister supreme, a Deepak wannabe, right?
Oh, no, my friends. Song’s press release assures us that he’s no Chopra Woo-meister Supreme wannabe. Far from it! Acccording to, well, Song, Song is a serious scientist, maaaaan! Check it out:
Those are pretty big claims, sure to raise eyebrows in the scientific community. Dr. Song is prepared to deal with the controversy, being a serious researcher who obtained his Ph.D. in physics at Oxford and did post-doctoral work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland and the Korea Institute for Advanced Study in Seoul. He also admits to being a believer in the Bible, and is forthright about the fact that he was driven in his research by a desire to see if science could actually explain where we come from, why we are here, and where we go after we die.
Dr. Song has published technical papers about the subjective universe, most notably, in the International Journal of Theoretical Physics in July 2008 (see resource list, below), and he has also delivered seminars at conferences of his peers for the last three years. He gave talks about quantum theory and consciousness at three major conferences in Austria, Hungary, and Italy in 2007, and in 2008 he spoke about the subjective universe at the Fourth International Workshop DICE 2008 in Italy.
So he got a PhD in physics at Oxford. That doesn’t mean he’s immune from going down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience. Still, his thesis looks legit to me. True, I’m not a physicist and haven’t taken advanced physics since I too a course in quantum theory in college and, of course, since I took advanced physical chemistry as part of my requirements to get a chemistry degree. Unfortunately, that was over 25 years ago. So what happened to him? The Sensuous Curmudgeon thinks he knows. He looked up Handong Global University and found this Statement of Faith. Among the sections of the Statement of Faith, we find assertions that the Bible is the ” inspired word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice”; that “we believe in the Genesis account in which God created the universe by His word”; and that “Jesus Christ is the Lord of all areas of academia and that the Word of God is the foundation underlying all disciplines.”
Well, then, that certainly explains a lot. Or maybe not. After all, nowhere in the Bible do I recall finding passages stating that the universe doesn’t exist outside of our personal experiences or that it is subjective. Remember, I went to Catholic school 9 out of my 12 years of school; so I know a bit about this Bible thing, too. Think about it. If the Bible is the sacred, literal Word of God, then how could it support a “subjective” universe? After all, according to Genesis, God created the universe before he created humans, meaning that the universe existed before humans did, no subjectivity needed, no perception of the world needed. Besides, classical scientists from hundreds of years ago thought that there was indeed an “objective” universe (created by God, of course) and that science was a means of understanding God’s creation and thereby becoming closer to God or better understanding his purpose.
Before addressing evolution, though, Song, of course, wants you to know that he’s a real scientist, not one of those New Age purveyors of woo, but, for a physicist, he sure does abuse the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:
The fact that he is actually trained in physics and actively engaged in research sets Dr. Song apart from countless New-Age entrepreneurs and pseudo-scientists who, especially in the wake of popular documentaries such as What The Bleep Do We Know?!? and The Secret, have co-opted quantum theory in order to promote their respective magical-thinking schemes. Some of these folks might even be tempted to claim that Dr. Song’s work lends credence to the long-popular New-Age maxim, “We create our own reality.” Dr. Song is no magical thinker, though he wouldn’t object if his work helped to finally end the age-old battle between science and spirituality. As for the concept of each of us “creating our own reality,” however, he wants to make it clear that this is not exactly what he is claiming. “I’m not saying that everything which exists is just consciousness or hallucination,” he explains. “Rather than ‘observation creates the universe,’ I’m saying ‘the experience of observing the universe = my existence.’ The universe is subjective and real. What I am suggesting is that the object – which includes the universe – and the observer are not separable.”
I have to say, I’m rather disappointed here. After the huge buildup, the awesomely arrogant title of the press release, this is it? Stating the mind-numbingly obvious, namely that the universe and the observer are not separable because, well, the observer is part of the universe. And, of course, the experience of observing the universe is what makes up our existence. How can it be otherwise. After reading this passage, I wanted to ask: What’s the point? On the other hand, Song is going rather beyond the bleedingly obvious in that he is implying that the universe does not exist outside of our observing it. Whenever I’ve heard someone make this sort of argument, I always ask: If the universe can’t exist outside of our subjective experience, then what, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean that, for instance, your universe is different than my universe? Is the gravitational constant different in your universe than it is in my universe? I don’t think so. It’s not as though the problem that the observer is part of the universe that he is observing is a new problem in science or that no one has ever considered it before. Let’s just put it this way. It doesn’t interfere with scientists doing science in the vast majority of cases.
So why does Song, as I put it before, exhume the rotting corpse of this idea, cobbled together from other hoary old ideas, and then try to revivify it, as Frankenstein revivified is monster, but with even more annoying results? When looking at a scientist who comes up with wacky ideas, it’s not a bad idea to look for the religious explanation. And, when there is religious wackiness, don’t be surprised if that wackiness manifests itself as hostility to the theory of evolution, which Song’s wackiness does:
Then what about that scientific sacred cow, evolution? Explains Dr. Song, “In the subjective universe model, unlike the objective model, the universe has not existed for billions of years apart from my own existence. This is the complete opposite of Darwin’s evolution theory in which my existence is assumed to result from the process of evolution over a very long period of time. In the subjective universe model, the evolution theory does not even have a remote chance of being true.” So does this end the scientific debate about the origin of our species? Not necessarily, says Dr. Song. Instead of the choices being between evolution and creationism, as in the objective model, the subjective model presents two new choices, as Dr. Song explains: “Either (1) I am created by a Creator; or (2) I exist by myself and am the Creator of my own being.” That will still make for some intriguing debates.
I don’ t know about “intriguing” or “debates.” It’s also a false dichotomy. In any case, hilariously, Song appears to be claiming that whatever happened before his own existence is doesn’t have an objective existence. If that were the case, then for me nothing existed before the early 1960s. Hmmm. Maybe the subjective universe isn’t such a bad thing.
In any case, I get the distinct impression that Song’s entire concept of the “subjective” universe is nothing more than an excuse to deny evolution based on his fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Maybe I’m wrong, though. That is, after all, my subjective impression of the universe, and it might not be valid for Song or any of my readers. I’m sure enough trying to persuade you that it is, though.