As the predominant scientific view of reality, physicalism has been rarely questioned and, in fact, has been a precept separating science from religious and mystical interpretations of the world. Physicalism postulates that everything is physical at its most fundamental level and that even things that don’t appear physical (e.g., thoughts, consciousness) are actually the result of physical processes in space-time. An interesting trend in science is the questioning of physicalism by a handful of scientists representing multiple disciplines (e.g., quantum mechanics, astrophysics, neuroscience).
These questions have been reviewed in books and science magazines, so what I’d like to explore here are similarities among ideas that challenge physicalism. A common theme seems to be that information is the fundamental basis of reality and that matter and forces observed in the physical world arise from possible, but unmanifested, states or processes that are recognized only when observed. In this context, information does not refer to facts or knowledge, but rather to probabilities that are often expressed as symbols (e.g., integers, bits) or patterns (e.g., geometries).
One of the questions prompted by physicists positing information realism is whether the information is actually something (ontological) or only represents something (epistemic). If it’s the former, a question arises as to where the information exists—as it cannot be a component of the space-time reality that emerges from it. Is information an aspect of the physical world or vice-versa? Might we access this fundamental information in some manner? And are matter and space-time illusory insofar as they are not as fundamental as they appear?
Neuroscientist Donald Hoffman challenged the prevalent theory that consciousness arises from brain processes and, instead, proposed a conscious realism whereby consciousness is fundamental and space-time physicality (including the brain) is emergent. His theory is based on observations that evolution has selected the most useful, rather than the most accurate, portrayals of reality. Hence, we observe a virtual reality or user interface that permits us to successfully survive and navigate the world. Whereas reality is unknown to us, the theory posits that it may consist of a vast network of so-called conscious agents making choices (among myriad possibilities) that determine what we ultimately observe.
That our assumed reality is actually derived from something more fundamental is a notion that is gaining favor within several scientific disciplines. What that “something” is—or is not—remains unknown, but its information or connectivity may give rise to known objects, events and even space-time itself. While scientists struggle with logical guesses, perhaps artists can provide intuitive or creative inferences about this mysterious reality. As a scientist who has worked with artists, I can attest to their value in perceiving phenomena that appear to be strictly scientific. After all, science and logic may not be the appropriate portals for our accessing this reality.
D.L. Marrin (nickname West) is an applied scientist specializing in biogeochemistry, water resources and aquatic ecology. He is a consultant, R&D strategist, and former adjunct professor at San Diego State University. He lectures on water quality, resource footprints, hydromimicry and the water-energy-food nexus. He also works with artists in utilizing spatial/temporal patterns to communicate science and develop functional art. West has a Ph.D. in water resources from the University of Arizona, and B.S and M.S. degrees in the biological and environmental sciences from the University of California.
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