Supernatural laws: can science go beyond physical reality?
The International Academy of Consciousness claims, on its website, that it “studies and practices consciousness science”. It describes this science as based in a “consciousness-centred paradigm”, which differs from that of mainstream science in that it acknowledges a “non-physical reality” composed of matter, energy and consciousness. Through the study of consciousness science (for which the Academy offers courses, lectures and personal training), we can access the hidden dimensions of this reality and even leave our bodies to travel between them.
What interests me here is not whether these claims are true or possibly true. It’s that despite the insistence that consciousness science (like other alternative sciences that claim to study spiritual, supernatural or parapsychological phenomena) is in fact a science, and that its studies are conducted “according to scientific principles, including rationality, replicability, coherence, and consensus”, a look at this description alone is enough to tell that it is not what most of us would recognize as science.
But does this mean we have a dogmatic and closed-minded definition of science, and are failing to consider that there may be truths that mainstream science hasn’t yet discovered? Or are the practitioners of these alternative sciences mistaken in some sense about what science is?
In this article, I’ll try and sketch out an answer to these questions. I will first provide an overview of historical attempts to define science and its methods, and then discuss the philosophical commitments it requires and whether the paradigm described above makes those commitments or not.
The scientific method and the problem of induction
The meaning of the word ‘science’ has changed a lot over the centuries. Initially, it simply meant ‘knowledge’ – the “science of” something was knowledge or expertise relating to that thing. There was no clear distinction between science and philosophy and most of what we understand as science today was known as natural philosophy. This meant that it employed much the same sort of method as the rest of philosophy: observing the natural world and then coming up with speculative ideas about how it worked.
From the sixteenth century onward, in what historians would later call the Scientific Revolution, ideas about the natural world that had long been taken for granted began to be dislodged from their status as unquestionable truths. This process was driven by technological advances that enabled scientists to conduct experiments and make observations that had not been possible before. For example, better telescopes allowed them to track the movement of the planets and sun relative to each other, and these measurements led to a shift from a geocentric model of the solar system to a heliocentric one. But this destabilization of hitherto accepted ideas also raised the question of how science was to be carried out such that it would yield valid knowledge.
Even when a belief is founded on observation, that alone doesn’t necessarily make it valid. The geocentric model of the cosmos was also founded on the observation that the sun “moved” around the Earth every day in the sky. In a contemporary version of this sort of inference, modern flat-earthers insist that our ability to observe with our own eyes that the Earth is flat is evidence that it is indeed flat. What exactly is the error in this reasoning, and how do we know that we are not making similar errors in cases where the correct inferences are not obvious to us?
This was known as the problem of induction: how was it possible to reason from a set of particular observations or facts to arrive at universal laws, patterns or regularities that would enable us to predict phenomena that we had not directly observed? That was the central question associated with the concept of the “scientific method” up until the mid-twentieth century. The scientific method was a method of inductive inference (though the details of this method had not yet been worked out), and science was any activity that applied this method to observed facts to obtain knowledge of universal laws. Science was thus distinguished from mere speculation, which jumped to conclusions in an unmethodical manner and failed to ground itself in empirical data.
This idea of science, if rather vague, is certainly more recognizable to us. We generally agree that whether something is scientific or unscientific is determined not by what particular conclusions it reaches, but by the method by which it reaches those conclusions. Whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa, whether we evolved from other animals or were created to have dominion over them, whether a miracle cure for a disease works or not – none of these ideas can be dismissed as “unscientific” without actually having the scientific method applied to them.
But what was that method? Giving an account of this proved more difficult than philosophers had expected. David Hume famously argued that the problem of induction was insoluble – there was simply no logical way to generalize from the particular to the universal. We’re used to seeing the sun rise every day and so we believe that it will rise tomorrow as well, even though we have no way to prove this. The logical positivists of the twentieth century, who tried to come up with a purely logical way to confirm the truth of a hypothesis, also kept running into the same problem: no matter how many observations you made that supported your theory, the very next observation still might disconfirm it.
The falsifiability criterion
There was also another problem: what if your theory was constructed in such a way that every possible observation confirmed it? Take, for instance, the theory of karma: that everything that happens to us is either a reward or a punishment for something we’ve done. Since all of us have done both good and bad things in our lives, whatever happens, good or bad, can be viewed as confirming our hypothesis. In this way we end up with a mountain of evidence in favour of the hypothesis, but the hypothesis in fact tells us nothing at all. A world where it was true would look exactly the same as a world where it was not true. It does not identify any patterns in the world, or enable us to predict any unobserved data.
Karl Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, which is the idea we associate most closely with science today, was a response to these problems. Popper argued that since it wasn’t possible to solve the problem of induction and prove a theory true, scientific theories should instead be provisionally accepted until they were shown to be false. The test of whether a theory was scientific or not was whether it was falsifiable – that is, whether there were any observations that you would not expect to make if it were true. The expected observations were the predictions made by the theory. If the theory predicted an improbable or narrow range of outcomes, that was a good thing, because it was more easily falsifiable. In the karma example, if you could calculate that you had done more good things than bad, and your hypothesis predicted that the next thing that happened to you would be a good one, it would then be a scientific hypothesis that could be falsified through observation.
Science, therefore, worked something like this: theories were constructed by a process that was not necessarily rational, perhaps akin to creativity or intuitive insight. The unfalsifiable ones that made vague or no predictions were discarded, and the remaining ones that made concrete, testable predictions were then rigorously tested. The ones that were falsified by experiments were discarded as well, and the remaining ones became the benchmark for any new theories, which would have to perform better than them in order to be accepted. This was repeated till the most accurate theories with the greatest predictive power won out. It was analogous to the way natural selection gave rise to adaptive traits in living organisms – the “selection pressures” on scientific theories were that they should make both specific predictions and correct ones.
But if the falsifiability criterion was only proposed in the mid-twentieth century, then what had scientists been doing for the last four centuries? Are their activities not to be considered science at all?
Arguably, much of what was then considered science was not scientific by this definition (two of Popper’s own examples of unfalsifiable theories that claimed scientific status were psychoanalysis and Marxism). However, the structure of this reasoning was evident in the work of scientists long before Popper came up with the idea. In the third edition of Newton's Principia, there are four “rules of reasoning” of which the last two closely resemble Popper’s ideas. And something like the process of “natural selection” of scientific theories may have taken place simply because the development of science was closely linked to its technological utility. The “selection pressures” may have come about not because scientists designed rigorous tests trying to prove their theories wrong, but because only those theories that provided the most useful explanations and enabled accurate prediction of a wide range of phenomena would become widely accepted, and the less useful ones would be consigned to oblivion.
Although, of course, that’s just a theory.
Subjectivity, objectivity and the naturalist paradigm
The criterion of falsifiability implies that scepticism is a value that is fundamental to the scientific process. No belief, however sacred, can be placed beyond questioning. Why, in that case, should we not be sceptical of the belief that the reality that science investigates is a merely physical one? Why can’t we apply the scientific method to study worlds beyond the natural world?
There’s no inherent reason why we couldn’t do so. However, there are certain conditions that any “world” or “reality” would have to meet in order for us to study it scientifically. First, it would need to be ordered and predictable to some degree – we have to be able to identify stable patterns in it. The entire point of science is to discover laws that make good predictions; if the world we’re dealing with is fundamentally unpredictable, a rather basic condition for doing science in it will not be met.
This condition is met by what we call the “external world”, or the world we perceive through our senses. But it’s not clear how far it’s met by what we think of as our “inner reality” – our thoughts, feelings, dreams and visions. Compared to the world of sense, this world appears to be random and chaotic and far less structured in any way that we can intuitively grasp. There are parts of it that are ordered, but there are also parts that seem entirely arbitrary, like hallucinations induced by drugs or mental illness.
Second, it would have to be objective in some way – the observations made about it should, at least in principle, be independent of who does the observing. Of course, this need not necessarily be the case: even if the reality I’m trying to investigate is entirely subjective and accessible only to me, I can still apply the scientific method to it – just that I’d be the only “scientist” studying it. But this would present significant problems for any reality other than the simplest one. Scientists would be unable to collaborate or build on a body of collective knowledge, or to correct for each other’s possible biases or mistakes in conducting experiments. This was why Popper also argued that scientific hypotheses had to be “intersubjectively testable” – scientists should be able to verify each other’s observations directly by replicating experiments.
Once again, this is a condition that’s met by external reality, but not necessarily by inner reality. The only “subjective” reality that does appear to meet this condition is mathematics: the answer to a mathematical problem does not depend on who solves it. Mathematical entities may not exist outside our minds, but they appear to be the same in everyone’s mind so that mathematical reality is “objective” in the sense of intersubjective. It doesn’t work quite the same way as material reality, and there are different methods of studying it and discovering its laws, but the process of making conjectures and trying to disprove them allows us to explore and understand this world too.
Most aspects of subjective reality, however, vary tremendously between different people – and even for the same person at different times. To claim that something is “subjective” is effectively to say that what is experienced depends on who is experiencing it. This means that any hypothesis made about a subjective reality is, by definition, not intersubjectively testable.
A third condition is that if we make the assumption that our reality affects or encompasses some other world or reality whose governing laws we have already discovered in detail, then our description of this new reality should be consistent with what we already know about that existing reality. For example, even though the meaning of historical events may be a matter of subjective interpretation and depend on how the story is told, the events still take place in the natural world, and do not break its laws.
The philosophical position that underlies all scientific inquiry, that posits a reality that meets these conditions, is known as naturalism. According to this position, there exists an objective external world governed by discoverable laws, not affected in any way by supernatural forces or entities (if it were, the effects would show up as unexplained phenomena or deviations from natural laws). All other worlds that we consider are either, like fictional or imaginary worlds, entirely separate from this external world, or exist as part of it and obey its laws. The reality described by biology is the same as the reality described by physics, only at different levels of description. Mental phenomena are viewed in this paradigm as generated by the brain, which is part of the physical world.
This is the paradigm that “consciousness science” questions and attempts to replace. However, the alternative paradigm it proposes – one that accepts consciousness as a constituent of reality, and collapses the distinction between the physical and the mental – does not meet any of these three conditions. A science of subjective or non-physical realities is not necessarily impossible, but science itself would be impossible within a paradigm that treated such realities as continuous with the natural world, neither walled off from it, nor subject to its laws. We would have to abandon the naturalist paradigm and include
subjectivity in our hypotheses about the natural world, which would make it impossible to test any of them. In the absence of objective epistemological methods, we would have to rely almost completely on individual reports of subjective experiences, with no way to judge the validity of those experiences.
Not only is this unlikely to yield knowledge about any new reality, it would also make it impossible to study the physical reality that we can study with the naturalist paradigm. The reason why scientists do not question certain assumptions about the nature of reality is not that they insist on clinging to dogma. It’s that science has spent many centuries trying to find the best methods for acquiring valid knowledge, and even these methods are not perfect or guaranteed to yield truths. They only work well within certain domains, given certain conditions – but within those domains, they have enabled the discovery of vast amounts of knowledge. Discarding those assumptions would destroy those methods, and there is no evidence that any proposed alternative method can even come close to the scientific method in what it can tell us about this world, or any other.
At a philosophical level, it’s not impossible that consciousness might turn out to have something fundamental to do with physical reality. But if we ever do discover that it does, it won’t be through the confused and self-contradictory methods of “sciences” that throw away the assumptions of science without trying to understand why they were made in the first place.
I’d like to thank Rohil Jain and Charu Mehta for their thoughtful comments on the various drafts and revisions of this article, and for not being impatient with me for my chronic procrastination. Having people not yell at you for missing deadlines is a good way to get things done and I recommend it.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature
Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Routledge 2002.
Russell, Bertrand. Our Knowledge of the External World: as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy