Interview with Menas C. Kafatos
This philosophizing physicist talks about why reality might not be so real after all, how red is a scientific embarrassment and why we all might just be part of a failed experiment.
So it turns out that the color red is a huge problem for scientists. So are blue and green and hot pink for that matter. But let’s stick to red. The fact is, no scientist has ever been able to find the color red in the human brain. (We’re not talking blood, here. Please keep up.) Think about it: They can probe the brain and find electrical impulses firing when you look at red, but it is you who create that experience, or qualia, to get all scientific about it. So where exactly, precisely, scientifically, is red? Contemplating that will quickly get you to the question of “And where do our thoughts reside?” And, “Exactly what is consciousness?”
If you said, “That’s not a scientific question, that’s a philosophical one,” you’re not alone. That’s what most scientists say, arguing that the wall between science, philosophy and most definitely religion should be as tall and strong as possible.
“But maybe it’s time that changed,” says Dr. Menas Kafatos, astrophysicist, environmentalist, futurist, and Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics at Chapman University. Kafatos, who has a Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T. and has done groundbreaking work in astrophysics as well as coauthored articles with Deepak Chopra, says that perhaps it is time that science included the observer in the equation of determining the world, the universe and reality itself. And before you throw the philosophy card again, consider that he is basing his observer-based science, which he sees as the next and natural evolution in the way science is practiced, on quantum theory, or quantum physics. Quantum physics is a branch of physics that deals with physical phenomena at microscopic scales.
“Quantum theory, which, unlike classical physics, assigns a fundamental role to the act of observation and opens the door to the role of consciousness,” says Kafatos.
And that opens up a lot of new questions and possibilities for science. Big questions, like, is consciousness boundless? Is there a hard reality “out there?” Does an out there even exist? Oh, and where is that darn color red?
Kafatos believes expanding science in this way will not only give us a better understanding of our planet and the universe, but may just help us save ourselves from extinction. Because right now, he says, humans are facing a multitude of challenges unlike any in our history – which, by the way, is not very long by species standards.
Recently, we probed Kafatos’ brain for a better understanding of it all.
You grew up in Crete, Greece, and originally wanted to be an artist, not a scientist.
Yes. I was born with a certain ability and my father was very encouraging in anything I wanted to do. He encouraged me to go into art and architecture, because that was the closest thing to art in which you could make a living. So he and my mother encouraged me to go to Paris and study fine arts and eventually become an architect.
But you decided at 15 that you wanted something more challenging: science. Why did you choose astronomy?
It was an area that was very obvious for someone living on Crete at the time because of the great dark sky. There were few lights, so you could see the Milky Way. I’m not sure people who live in big cities ever get to see the Milky Way. So my brother got me a scientific reflecting telescope and the rest is history.
Flash-forward a few decades and you branch out into philosophy. Why?
In some ways, I was always interested in philosophy. I would say I got a little more into quantum theory and in the early ‘90s I wrote a couple of books with coauthors looking into the… let’s say metaphysical aspects of quantum theory. I got to study the perennial philosophies, or as some people call them, contemplative philosophies, particularly of India. I discovered that the Indian philosophies were at least as intricate as any of the Greek philosophies. In fact they have some commonalities. So I decided to pursue that, but I never gave up science, of course.
What is the difference between your observer-based science and the current object-based science?
Today, we assume that everything is external, that reality is external and that objects are external to us. But actually, this is an assumption on our part. It’s actually a mythological statement, a philosophical cliff. You may say it’s obvious. I mean, if you look, everything is outside of us. But neuroscience shows that those perceptions might not be right, and in some ways the way we perceive the world is not from the out in, but perhaps the other way, that we project out from what I may call the inner world. Whether one or the other is correct, there’s no such thing as a self-evident truth.
Why is there no self-evident truth to our physical world?
Because, it depends on the specific point of view of the observer. Particularly in terms of the belief system that the world is ‘out there’ and it has fixed properties. Quantum theory, through the measurement problem, has shown that. [The measurement problem exists in quantum physics, and shows that the observer affects the observed and only probabilities can be assigned for states outside of the observation.] So you can’t even assign values of properties of quanta or particles in the absence of observation. So you can’t even say, ‘That wall is green and if I’m not watching it, it’s still green.’ And if that doesn’t work in the quantum world, then at what point does it work? When you get into millimeters, inches, yards? I say some of the principles of quantum theory spill over into the macrocosm. As such you can’t really ignore them.
Isn’t that what the pursuit of what Einstein called the unified field theory is all about?
We’re not nearer the unified field theory – or what is called the theory of everything – than when Einstein tried. But even if we were in terms of the physics, we still have the qualia [a term used in philosophy to refer to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience] – we still have the experience of red. So the question then arises: Could it be that it’s not the methodology of science, but some of the fundamental assumptions we are making about the world, are not quite right? In other words, the universe is more like the quantum system in which the observer is intricately involved or entangled with what is being observed. That would provide the difference between observer-based and object-based.
You mentioned the experience of red. And you’ve said that something as simple as the color of a rose is one of science’s great embarrassments. What do you mean?
I mean [science can ask]: “Where is the experience of red when we look at a rose?” When we open up the brain, we can find what’s called neural correlates. We can find that as soon as certain parts of the brain light up, the person experiences color, but the actual experience of red is nowhere to be found. And this is actually one of the toughest problems of modern science. It’s a huge embarrassment. I mean, we can’t even account for the simple experience of color.
And how does that argue for an expanded science?
So traditional science, the way we practice it today, says that you can study objects as separate from you and make laboratory experiments, etc. And of course, science has yielded tremendous success in technology, medicine, astronomy… it has transformed the nature of society. But on the other hand, it has not answered the simple question of “What is the experience of a red rose?” So the observer-based science would be the next step in the evolution of science. This is what I’m predicting.
Can you give an example from everyday life about what you mean when you say quantum mechanics is always present?
You might say, “If I hit my hand on the table it hurts because there’s hard reality there.” But the table is really made up of interacting particles and the reason we feel it as hard reality is because of the interacting of electromagnetic particles and charge exchange with [the particles of] our hand. So hard reality is not so hard, because if you zero in on the table’s particles, you will see that it dissolves into a vacuum, space. So, we need to bring up the observer-based aspects of science.
Some might see bringing philosophy, even religion, into science as an attack on science.
I’m not suggesting throwing away the baby with the bathwater. I’m a scientist and science has done wonderful things. But I’m advocating enlarging it so that the first-person perspective is brought in rather than assume that it’s not there. For instance, understanding the ontological foundations. Scientist may say, “Oh, that’s philosophy, we don’t need to worry about that.” But, again, is this table really hard? Is there really an external reality? And how about that experience of red? All these are questions that are so near to us in everyday life that we don’t ask them, but they’re actually quite profound. So the monistic schools of the old days, which exist in all religions, are all more or less saying the same thing: There is another part of reality that is contemplative. You can contemplate it, you can experience it. So this dialog between science and religion would ultimately be useful. Whereas right now, there is no dialog. It is just shouting by some vocal minority on each side. And I find that ludicrous.
Another, and related, area that you are very vocal in is environmentalism and the future of the human race. In fact, you’ve questioned whether we humans will exist in the relatively near future.
First, I am generally an optimistic person and I don’t like to give pessimistic views. But on the other hand, I like to give realistic views. And the realistic view is that we are now at a stage where we can annihilate ourselves, and I don’t mean just nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. It could be a massive pandemic, or collapse of the economic system that could trigger a world war. And the rate at which we are deforesting the Earth and killing off species concerns me. Still, the Earth is very resilient; it will still be here. So I’m not sure I agree with some of the environmentalists’ slogans: “Save the Earth.” I would tell young people, “Save yourselves. Don’t worry about the Earth; it’s more resilient than us.”
And humans may be on the endangered species list?
We believe we are very resilient, and we are. But how resilient? Homo sapiens have been here a couple of hundred thousand years. That’s not very long compared to life on Earth – at 700 million. Even dinosaurs lasted 250 million years. So we are latecomers to the Earth and it’s considerable that this nature experiment of homo sapiens is a failed experiment. This branch that we admire so much – ourselves – may just be destined for extinction. I would hope not. I like human beings and I’d like us to survive. But if we’re not careful, the way we’re proceeding now, we could go extinct.
You’ve said that the next 50 to 60 years is the critical time for humans. Why?
Because there are so many things right now that are conspiring to bring us down, much of it our own doing. We can handle one or two at a time; we have been through massive changes in these last 2,000 years. But now we are seeing the challenges pile up. So if we make it past 2075, say, it would mean that we managed to survive massive economic collapses – there will probably be another one – have not killed ourselves off with weapons of mass destruction, did not fall to a pandemic, and that we have solved the problem of food distribution. So it’s this next generation that will have to face the music, so to speak, more than three generations down the road.
To survive, you believe science needs to evolve and include things that now are considered outside of – and sometimes at odds with – science. So why is it important to have a dialog between the contemplative practices and science?
Because if we are reaching certain limits in science, maybe the discussion will help us. Let’s say that the underlying stuff of the universe is consciousness. This is actually what major monistic schools of the East and even in the West – Greece, Plato, Pythagoras – accept, that the reality of the world is actually illusory, [as quantum theory suggests]. Plato used the metaphor of the cave, images and shadows in the cave walls.
How does that surface in science?
For example, where do thoughts form? People say, in the brain. Where in the brain? We have not found a single thought anywhere in the brain. We can certainly find neural correlates of thoughts with MRIs, and other machines. But that doesn’t mean the thoughts are generated in the brain. And now serious neuroscientists say it’s not in the neurons but in the gia, which are much more numerous than neurons in the brain. So we don’t even agree on the hardware. It’s like opening a TV and looking at the circuits and saying, ‘Where is my favorite show?’ It’s not in the TV.
So how would we start such a dialog between the disciplines?
First, I would say don’t laugh at them and don’t reject them. And of course, the closest scientists will come is they say, “I’m a scientist but I have certain religious or philosophical beliefs, but the two are separate.” OK, how separate are they? Because the fact that they take place in you, as a human being, means they’re not ever really that separate. It’s just that you think they’re separate. So a lot of these things are just mind games – and we don’t even know where the mind is!
Can you give an example of a monistic or non-scientific method being embraced or incorporated into modern-day science?
A good example is that today the medical profession is accepting meditation more than even 10 years ago. They might use the term contemplation or concentration, but that’s what it is. And it’s accepted that meditation can be very beneficial to the health. Papers have been published, work has been done. So the good news out of all of this is that although the challenges are coming very fast, the solutions are coming very fast.
Science Talk Made Easy
We’re not all philosophical rocket scientists. So here are a few definitions for those of us who don’t have a lot of letters after our names.
Object-based Science: Current science, based on the assumption that the universe has a “hard reality” that exists outside of the observer, with permanent, external entities to be studied and observed. Considers such things as perennial philosophies, the nature of the mind and experience as outside realm of science.
Observer-based Science: A complement to object-based science, not a replacement, observer-based science is based on the idea that the observer is crucial to understanding the universe. Growing from the theories of quantum physics (see below), this “new science” would embrace perennial philosophies, the nature of the mind and experience as vital components of the scientific paradigm.
Perennial Philosophies: Vedanta, Shaivism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Platonism, etc. Perennialism says that all religions have a single, universal truth on which all religious doctrine has grown. Currently rejected as irrelevant by object-based science, this insight would be accepted by observer-based science as valuable because they were derived from deep states of consciousness.
Consciousness: Defined as sentience, awareness or subjectivity. It is exactly this subjective nature that current science rejects as not helpful, while the “new” science would see it as crucial.
Qualia: Term used in philosophy referring to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The color of red or the smell of bread, for instance.
Quantum Physics: Also known as quantum mechanics or quantum theory, quantum physics studies physical phenomenon at the microscopic scale. The important thing to understand is that, unlike classical physics (which studies physical phenomenon above the microscopic level), quantum physics includes the act of observation as crucial to measuring phenomena. This, among other aspects, “opens the door” to consciousness as being relevant to science, says Kafatos.
Classical Physics: As opposed to quantum physics, classical physics describes the motion of macroscopic objects.