Respectful Insolence

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jon H
    December 22, 2010

    Everybody knows stars are just our wishes.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tndrFeKRsFI

  2. #2 Yoo
    December 22, 2010

    I’m not sure he doesn’t have a point: after all, everything is a figment of my imagination …

  3. #3 harey
    December 22, 2010

    I would really like to see the ‘math’ ‘proofing’ this absurd theory. It was promised in the article, but I cant seem to find it on Mr. Song’s page, I wonder where he is hiding it.

  4. #4 David N. Brown
    December 22, 2010

    I would emphatically agree that this doesn’t have anything to do with Judeo-Christian Biblical beliefs. The closest counterpart to this in nominally Christian tradition would be “Christian Science”. Indeed, it readily calls to mind the punchline to a joke about Christian Scientists: “He thinks he’s dead.”

    Also a sollipsist joke: “You have convinced me of your views. Since I no longer believe in your existence I see no reason to continue our correspondence.”

  5. #5 EoR
    December 22, 2010

    Of course, I only subjectively believe that Dr Song has released this media statement. Or that he even exists.

  6. #6 René F. Najera
    December 22, 2010

    Computer, end program.

    Ehem! Computer, end program!

    Nothing?

    Chucks!

    Uh… Computer, I want my cheeseburger.

  7. #7 BillyJoe
    December 22, 2010

    This is just the philosophy called Idealism.
    The philosophy with the least possible assumptions. I know I exist but I cannot know with certainly that any one else, or any thing else, exists and therefore to reduce assumptions to a minimum, the world is just a figment of my imagination.

    Of course, for you, I am a figment of your imagination. (Though, again, for me, the idea that I am a figment of your imagination is just a figment of my imagination.)

    Maybe Song could prove his point by jumping off the Empire state building. After all, the concrete at the bottom is just a figment of his imagination.

  8. #8 attack_laurel
    December 22, 2010

    If the universe is subjective, why have I not won the lottery yet? And jokes about “I am the center of my universe” aside, the fact that Song manages to bend mathematics to confirm his “theory” means nothing, since, by his own admission, his mathematics are – by his description – subjective, and therefore cannot prove anything (except that he’s gone down the rabbit hole).

    …And I have a Triceratops on the ‘phone who would like to *ahem* refudiate *cough* his “rebuke” on evolution.

  9. #9 LW
    December 22, 2010

    Isn’t he saying the Bible cannot be true? I mean, if it were true then the universe must have existed for thousands of years apart from my own existence, and there’s no more reason to believe that than to believe that it has existed for billions of years apart from my own existence.

  10. #10 Childermass
    December 22, 2010

    Row, Row, Row your boat gently down the stream….

  11. #11 BA
    December 22, 2010

    Sounds like his phenomenal world is in Uranus. Or maybe his?

  12. #12 Scott
    December 22, 2010

    I took a look at the arXiv cites at the bottom of the press release. Two are real papers in journals, but based on the abstracts have nothing to do with the subject of the press release. They appear to have been included simply to say, “Look at me! I’m a real scientist!”

    The “Subjective Universe” one is the subject of the press release. It’s an essay, not a paper, and was not published in a journal. It apparently has not even been submitted. The “math” it covers is completely standard first-year-of-grad-school quantum mechanics.

    Only slightly summarized, his point is “Oh my! The observer affects the system being observed by the act of observation!” Which is certainly a profoundly interesting aspect of quantum mechanics, and the source of no end of philosophical discussion. But there simply is nothing new here.

  13. #13 Todd W.
    December 22, 2010

    Seriously? This “the world is my own creation” nonsense is crap I came up with in my teens as a silly way of viewing the world. The difference between Song and me? I grew out of it.

    On a more serious note, if the universe does not exist outside of our own observations of it, then history does not matter. Now that is a dangerous and sobering thing to consider. If history does not matter, since it never existed, then there is no validity in studying it. In not studying it, there are no lessons to be learned. No lessons to be learned, then we are, as the saying goes, doomed to make the same mistakes again (except that I guess in Song’s case, it would be making the mistake for the very first time).

  14. #14 Eric Lund
    December 22, 2010

    Often, the people who insist a little too vehemently that they belong to category X are not in category X. This is most famously true where X is “honest people”, but it also applies here, where X is “serious scientists”.

    It could be worse. I didn’t see any publications in Physics Essays (having multiple publications in that journal is a reliable kook signifier). But it looks pretty bad.

  15. #15 Militant Agnostic
    December 22, 2010

    Rene – your cheeseburger manifested a long time ago at a nearby fast food outlet. Unfortunately, before the universe could reveal this to you your cheeseburger was eaten by someone who was willing to pay for it.

  16. #16 Daniel J. Andrews
    December 22, 2010

    Sounds like redressed post-modernism too. How he mashed-up that and traditional Christianity is puzzling in the extreme. If the universe is subjective, then why isn’t God also subjective? He/she/it/fsm should only exist (or not exist) from a subjective perspective.

  17. #17 MikeMa
    December 22, 2010

    We are certainly in for a spate of “you are not sensitive enough to grasp…” or “future papers will prove beyond doubt…” types of rebuttals. I can hardly wait. (Rubs hands in anticipation.)

  18. #18 The Curmudgeon
    December 22, 2010

    The universe must be subjective. How else could my humble blog have achieved what I most desired — a link from the esteemed Orac?

  19. #19 Denice Walter
    December 22, 2010

    “He gave talks on quantum theory and consciousness at three major conferences” – Be very careful whenever a pseudo-scientist starts talking about “consciousness”- it usually signals a lot of malarkey to follow. Especially when they simultaneously disavow evolution.

  20. #20 Anthro
    December 22, 2010

    The comments are hilarious today!

    What worries me, though, is that things like this will pop up in “serious” articles about science as “dissenting viewpoints”. They will be given equal weight by the “science writer”, who is committed to the telling of “both sides”.

    There is a good article about global warming in the NY Times today, but judging from the comments, it’s all just this guy’s “opinion” and science has “many conflicting opinions” and so on. The editors tend to highlight comments that endeavor to give some credence to “opposing” viewpoints.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/science/earth/22carbon.html?hp

  21. #21 René Najera
    December 22, 2010

    @Militant Agnostic – Dammit! You mean there is actual work involved in making these things happen?

  22. #22 Bronze Dog
    December 22, 2010

    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.

    At least he’s relatively up front about it. Other Creationists made a stand of protesting a little too much.

  23. #23 Everbleed
    December 22, 2010

    Damn. And here I thought that I had just laughed and cried and emoted through 18 of the best responses to one of the best Orac gems ever… and it all turns out to be me making it all up.

  24. #24 Calli Arcale
    December 22, 2010

    I have to admit, when I read the name “Dr Song” I got distracted by one of the big mysteries on Doctor Who right now — who (or what) is Dr River Song and what is her relationship to the Doctor? If I weren’t at work, I’d probably be watching “Silence In the Library” right now. Or “The Time of Angels.”

    Don’t blink. If you do, the subjective universe completely disappears until you open your eyes again.

    And this also makes me think of another Doctor Who: “Time Flight.” In that one, the Doctor discusses a variant of this notion and then dismisses it as “a naive 18th Century philosophy.” Cutting-edge physics, my sweet patootie.

    So Douglas Adams was right all along, then, and any people you may happen to meet are merely the product of a deranged imagination?

  25. #25 rob
    December 22, 2010

    this is the truth about the universe and existence:

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2073

  26. #26 Narad, the Man of Iron
    December 22, 2010

    This is just the philosophy called Idealism.
    The philosophy with the least possible assumptions.

    Nah, monist idealism really wants to preserve ontology. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a bit of syncretism with Seon epistemology going on here, though.

  27. #27 Vicki
    December 22, 2010

    I think what Dr. Song needs is “God’s always about on the quad.”

    If someone believes in an omniscient deity, the “problem” of the universe needing an observer is solved.

  28. #28 TomZ
    December 22, 2010

    This is just an absurdly stupid way of saying what is obvious, that god did not exist until humans came along (I just add the part at the end that says “and invented it”).

    And why does only evolution get the stupid phrase “sacred cow” when being discussed by nitwits? What about the “sacred cow” of quantum theory?? I know why of course, because the Buy-Bull mentions human origins, and if it also stated that “god holds things and peoples to the ground by his invisible pinky” we’d have 50% of the US population known as Pinkyists and we’d have to fight the “Gravity is only a theory!1!1″ nonsense.

  29. #29 MikeMa
    December 22, 2010

    @TomZ
    But gravity IS only a theory, just a very good one. Like evolution.

  30. #30 Brian M
    December 22, 2010

    There is a new book out with Stephen Hawking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grand_Design_(book)

    that among many other things posits the observor-created universe idea in a sorta kinda way (from a brief perusal in the book store). Anyone familar with the book? Is it worth buying and reading?

  31. #31 Bob O'H
    December 22, 2010

    Eh? Isn’t he just plagiarising Sokal (1996)?

  32. #32 Terrie
    December 22, 2010

    So, it’s a philosophy paper with math added. A fun intellectual exercise, but that’s it.

  33. #33 Captain Mike
    December 22, 2010

    This one showed up in my inbox too, and I don’t even write about science. Apparently his PR people think the story will be of great interest to Canadians in the equipment rental, window manufacturing, or well drilling businesses.

  34. #34 Scott
    December 22, 2010

    @ Captain Mike:

    I am reminded of this schmuck who used to spam “papers” by email to anybody he could find in physics department websites. They were all titled something like “Quantum mechanics is untenable”, and contained these supposedly mind-boggling insights where he demonstrated that the predictions of classical and quantum mechanics differ (perish the thought!). And therefore, quantum mechanics must be wrong. He apparently neglected to notice that the experiments to test which prediction was correct had been done, and quantum won.

    He was ALWAYS good for a laugh.

  35. #35 raven
    December 22, 2010

    Song didn’t exist until I dreamed him up.

    What happens when you drink too much wine and then have nightmares.

    Sorry about that. Just hope I don’t dream about UFO aliens or Godzilla next time.

  36. #36 Dave
    December 22, 2010

    Sorry to threadjack, but I just had to vent: Went to visit my uncle in the hospital, and it turns out his roomate’s daughter is a Robert O. Young devotee. I had a very nice conversation with my uncle, but at the end she walked in and he introduced us and I endured a 15 minute lecture on the benefits of oregano oil. (Fortunately my uncle seemed to be mildly amused by her craziness and good naturedly accepted the flyers she had and immediately tossed them in the corner.) Just throught this was the appropriate forum to whinge to.

  37. #37 LW
    December 22, 2010

    To quote Bennie Noakes, “Christ what an imagination I’ve got!”

  38. #38 Alan
    December 22, 2010

    I love how religious cranks try and use the objectivity of science to show that knowledge is subjective. But let’s suppose someone did manage to somehow show the universe is subjective through objective thinking then why would their subjective universe matter to me when they have clearly demonstrated that it’s my subjective perception that creates my universe?

    Truth be told, it’s just an elobrate rationalisation that allows them to believe what they want to believe. It’s just a miraculous coincidence they all happen to belive it’s better to exit a building through the front door than it is to exit via a 10th storey window.

  39. #39 Michael Suttkus, II
    December 22, 2010

    If the universe is subjective and my perceptions color it, then since I perceive an objective universe where Song’s “theory” is abject nonsense, then the universe IS objective and Song is objectively stupid. So, his theory demands that his theory is crazy and stupid. Ergo, his theory is correct, as he is crazy and stupid. Wait…

  40. #40 kraut
    December 22, 2010

    “In the subjective universe model, the evolution theory does not even have a remote chance of being true.”

    The theory of evolution has so far not being falsified by anatomy, physiology, genetics, paleontology etc.
    Therefore the simple conclusion is the above subjective model is bunk. Easy enough when a “physicist” tries to talk about a theory he doesn’t even half understand.

    The word “hoisted and petards” come to mind.

  41. #41 Mary
    December 23, 2010

    You know, this is another great piece for my “Crank Evolution” essay that’s forming in my head. I am seeing more and more pseudo-science from people with degree credentials. And they use (well, misuse) the science in ways that the average reader would have no chance of realizing. Here’s another one that crossed my desk recently–he turns evolution around somehow:

    http://www.prweb.com/releases/theory/genome/prweb4896744.htm

    They have figured out how to write press releases, and that stuff subsequently turns up in searches on the web. It’s awful.

  42. #42 Chris
    December 23, 2010

    Kind of like a really bad version of Schelling.

    Note: this implies that there is a good version. Look it up, whiny doctor :-)

  43. #43 chris kanaris
    December 25, 2010

    Hi Orac,
    Yeah, well, here’s my own bit of blending of quantum theory and religion…
    http://rationalbrain.wordpress.com/2010/12/18/quantum-religion-and-r-theory/
    ;)
    Chris

  44. #44 RondaWatkins20
    December 9, 2011

    Some time before, I needed to buy a good house for my firm but I did not earn enough money and could not buy something. Thank God my friend suggested to try to take the home loans from banks. Thence, I acted that and used to be happy with my college loan.

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