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I’ve noticed a theme coming through recently in my inner musings, which is this: description is not the same as explanation.

First take the idea (commented on in my previous post) that the universe just popped into existence from nothing. This has been boosted of late by Stephen Hawking, although the earliest scientist to put forward such a view was Edward P Tryon in 1973. Initially, the idea is generally illustrated at a popular level which seems pretty odd – after all, no one has observed objects coming into existence from nothing on any permanent basis. Next, the concept is proven by maths – but this is no ordinary maths, such as the rules of arithmetic, or perhaps Pythagoras’ theorem, which are verifiable from the world we can observe. This level of mathematics is consistent within itself, but only understood by a few.

We are left with a question. The maths may be sound, and we may understand that if the universe just occurred then this complex of mathematical symbols describes in some way what happened. But why did it happen rather than not happen? Were there alternative things that could have happened but didn’t?
If not, what rule (inherent in ‘nothing’ don’t forget) made everything else impossible? If there were alternatives, where could we find evidence for them? We can barely be said to have an explanation until such questions are answered.

Next, consider the debate concerning evolution and religion. Certainly we may look at the evidence produced by evolutionary biology, genetics or palaeontology and recognise that the broad theory of evolution (with its various subdivisions) gives at least an approximation to what happened. But is this description actually an explanation?

Even the most committed evolutionists like Richard Dawkins are apt to skip over certain subjects; for example, the initial jump from inanimate matter to living cells, the genesis of the first DNA, the inception of the eukaryotic cell (i.e. with a nucleus), the fiendish complexity of the brain and the development of mind. These events surely call for an explanation, not merely a description.

Finally, there is the vexed question of human consciousness. Here we have a wide spectrum of opinion, usually focused around the subject of artificial intelligence. At one end of the scale it is asserted that within a few years, due to the growth of computing power, we will be able to construct thinking machines. At the other end of the scale is the claim that such machines are impossible.

Naturally, those most optimistic about making machines that can think are those who take the most materialistic view of consciousness – it is perceived only as a product of the activity of neurons in the brain. Even if that were true, would it be an explanation of consciousness? Or merely a description? I would tend myself towards the rather humble view expressed recently by Susan Greenfield in conversation with the Chief Rabbi. She pointed out that as regards consciousness we don’t even know what kind of phenomenon we are trying to understand.

In the course of researching for my book (which you may have noticed tastefully advertised on this site) I came across a quote which I thought truly staggering. It is from George Wald (1906-97), who was a Nobel prize winner in physiology and medicine, specialising in study of the eye. It’s long, but worth it!

“In my life as a scientist I have come upon two major problems which, though rooted in science, though they would occur in this form only to a scientist, project beyond science, and are I think ultimately insoluble as science. That is hardly to be wondered at, since one involves consciousness, the other cosmology.

The consciousness problem was hardly avoidable by one who has spent most of his life studying mechanisms of vision. We have learned a lot, we hope to learn much more; but none of it touches or even points, however tentatively, in the direction of what it means to see. Our observations in human eyes and nervous systems and in those of frogs are basically much alike. I know that I see; but does a frog see? It reacts to light; so do cameras, garage doors, any number of photoelectric devices. But does it see? Is it aware that it is reacting? There is nothing I can do as a scientist to answer that question—no way that I can identify either the presence or absence of consciousness. I believe that to be a permanent condition that involves all sensation and perception. Consciousness seems to me to be wholly impervious to science. It does not lie as an indigestible element within science, but just the opposite: Science is the highly digestible element within consciousness, which includes science as a limited but beautifully definable territory within the much wider reality of whose existence we are conscious.

The second problem involves the special properties of our Universe. Life seems increasingly to be part of the order of nature. We have good reason to believe that we find ourselves in a Universe permeated with life, in which life arises inevitably—given enough time—wherever the conditions exist that make it possible. Yet were any one of a number of the physical properties of our Universe otherwise—some of them basic, others seeming trivial, almost accidental—that life, which seems now to be so prevalent, would become impossible, here or anywhere. It takes no great imagination to conceive of other possible universes, each stable and workable in itself, yet lifeless. How is it that, with so many other apparent options, we are in a Universe that possesses just that peculiar nexus of properties that breeds life?

It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always, as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—that the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical Universe that breeds life, and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself. Also such creatures develop societies and cultures—institutions that present all the essential conditions for evolution by natural selection [variation, inheritance (mainly Lamarckian), competition for survival] so introducing an evolution of consciousness parallel with though independent of anatomical and physiological evolution.(International Journal of Quantum Chemistry 26,1984)

Wald’s shocking suggestion, of course, would have been commonplace until Hume became the patron saint of our Western scientific sub-culture. I think his suggestion is profound. It may, perhaps, offer less in the way of description than we have come to expect; but in terms of explanation it is pretty powerful.