Reductio ad Absurdum

“To understand the world, you take something that is whole and beautiful break it into pieces. You have been taught that the world makes more sense that way, but all you are really doing is fragmenting its deeper truths and making them incomprehensible.”
– Lismadalena, Book One of the Novus Veritas series

If we reduce physical nature to its theoretical limits, do we reach an absurdity? Or does the absurdity only occur when we try to put it back together again?

The compulsion to break things down to see what they’re made of is deeply ingrained our culture. The world to our Western eyes is an amalgam of systems and subsystems, large and small, each containing a finite number of parts and all subject to the laws and forces of nature. Our solar system, for instance, operates on the principles of mass, momentum, and gravity. And when we describe the workings of its parts—the movement of planets, moons, and asteroids—we hold in our minds a mechanistic concept similar to a wall clock’s system of weights and gears.

This notion of systems and parts, laws and forces, is one we extend to ourselves. We conveniently think of living organisms, particularly mobile ones like Homo sapiens, as biological machines. Like an automobile with its drive, fuel, braking, and electrical systems, the human body owes its integrity to the dynamic interrelationships between the circulatory, nervous, endocrine, muscular, and respiratory systems, to name just a few.

Each of these systems performs its assigned functions through the cooperation of specialized cells containing large complements of organelles—ribosomes, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticula, et cetera—that are each part of even smaller systems and subsystems, all operating at speeds and complexities that defy understanding to the point that the normal goings-on within a cell seem like a train wreck about to happen.

How this continual, supposedly mindless, flurry of microscopic activity coordinates itself to such a fine degree in a living organism remains a bottomless scientific mystery. If we were not ourselves biological entities immersed in a biological world, we would surely declare biology an impossibility.

But we are, and so we don’t. Unable to understand the whole, we instead turn our attention to the systems and the parts. Bodily tissues are largely comprised of proteins, which, like DNA, are among the most complex molecules in the universe. Yet each is composed of subunits of just a few atoms—amino acids in the case of proteins, nucleotides in the case of DNA.

This is something we can comprehend. It is basic chemistry, where all interactions are described in terms of repulsion and attraction and the making and breaking of atomic and molecular bonds in accordance with the principles of electromagnetism.

Chemistry, in turn, ultimately yields to physics, which describes everything from the universe at its largest scales to the subatomic world at its smallest scales. Owing to the broad applicability of its principles, physics has become the self-appointed arbiter of all things within the domain of time, space, and matter.

And yet when we reduce nature to its smallest scales—below that of quarks or quantum strings—it lapses into chaos. Matter, time, and space cease to exist in any objective sense, cause and effect no longer apply, and predictability becomes a nonsensical concept.

So the question is, once we stop taking nature apart—system by system, piece by piece—and start putting it back together again, how do we get from a state of absolute disorder back to highly organized biological beings capable of pondering their own existence? And if we are, as we should be, looking for an organizing principle, we really ought to look beyond the bounds of physics to something more fundamental; something we know as consciousness.

Never able to explain consciousness, science has lately tried to at least confine it by declaring it an epiphenomenon, a sort of side effect that arises unexpectedly (which is to say, accidentally) from another phenomenon, the evolutionary processes that led to our ascent. It’s a little like breeding a racehorse to run a blazing fast mile and discovering that it is also skilled at playing chess. In our case, it is presumed that consciousness is a serendipitous byproduct of the brain’s electrical activity.

The irony of this disingenuousness is inescapable. Because it cannot be scientifically qualified or quantified, the single most wondrous phenomenon in the universe is brushed aside as yet another fortuitous accident of Darwinian evolution.

As philosopher Thomas Nagel points out in Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, by attempting to treat consciousness as a physical phenomenon, the science of physics is laying bare its own inadequacies:

If we continue to assume that we are parts of the physical world and that the evolutionary process that brought us into existence is part of its history, then something must be added to the physical conception of the natural order that allows us to explain how it can give rise to organisms that are more than physical. The resources of physical science are not adequate for this purpose, because those resources were developed to account for data of a completely different kind.

Physical science is simply not equipped to deal with consciousness. This was long ago the conclusion of Descartes and Galileo, when they drew a clear distinction between the external world that can be treated with mathematical precision, and the internal world that cannot. It is only in recent years that science has attempted to pull consciousness into the physical fold, ostensibly by searching for a seat of consciousness inside the brain, an exercise not unlike searching inside a radio for the source of the music it plays.

The problem for science is not merely that it is looking in the wrong place for consciousness; it is also looking for the wrong phenomenon. Consciousness does not exist because of us; we (and everything else) exist because of consciousness. Once we accept this fact—that the universe is self-aware and purposefully motivated—everything else falls into place.