DANCING IN THE DARK ...
... is the title of a song written for a Broadway show in the 1930s. It has remained, if not exactly popular, certainly a classic to this day. The reason, I suspect, has as much to do with the lyrics as with the music. The lyrics reflect some of our deepest thoughts and fears; that life is a dance in the dark, and that it soon ends; in the meantime, we waltz in the wonder of why we are here, while life hurries by.
If we think about it, and most of us think about it from time to time, it is obvious that we are dancing in the dark, while some of us waltz in wonder. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? What is real? What is true? Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and of course artists and writers of all stripes, have been speculating about these sorts of questions forever.
The question for this writer is who is doing the most interesting, and most relevant, speculation currently about such issues. Perhaps because I have discovered them and their peculiar speculations comparatively recently, my vote goes to the scientists, specifically to the theoretical physicists and cosmologists who are immersed in the truly extraordinary and "spooky" theories about the fundamental nature of reality and truth being proposed by quantum mechanics. The questions being raised by quantum theory are so utterly fascinating, and so utterly profound, that, in my opinion, quantum physics may best be described as quantum metaphysics.
These theories, which are at the leading edge of contemporary science, propose that at the most elementary, subatomic level—that which underlies and is the foundation of our world, our universe, all that is—reality is radically uncertain. This means that we do not, and probably cannot, know what reality or truth is; that we are, indeed, dancing in the dark.
This has profound metaphysical, philosophical, even theological, not to say scientific, implications. The certainties or truths of science, which, for most practical purposes at least, replaced those of religion over two hundred years ago in the West, have been undermined and shown to be, at best inadequate, at worst erroneous—as have those of common sense.
The commonsense view of the world, the one that most of us share, is that reality is revealed to us through our senses; that there is a real world out there, independent of our seeing it, but that our senses reveal to us; what we see and hear and feel and taste and smell is real. Some of the most prominent scientists today say that one of the most important lessons emerging from today's scientific inquiry is that human sensual experience is not an adequate guide to the true nature of reality; in fact that the reality we experience may by an illusion.
For much of our history, traditional religions provided truths and thus certainty. Great theologians and philosophers have always maintained that these truths were based essentially on faith and were not accessible to reason or to the senses alone. But people being people and organizations being organizations, the need for certainty prevailed. When the old religious truths were undermined by the rise of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the need many people had for certainty coalesced around scientific truths. The reality of the universe was elucidated by Isaac Newton. His mathematical laws about how the universe worked were thought of, originally, as "accessing the mind of God." The universe operated like a giant clock, wound up by God but operating on its own. But, even this quaint nod to religious orthodoxy was soon found to be unnecessary. The clock just operated and the laws just existed, period. From that time to the present, materialistic and deterministic truths of classical physics have provided secular certainty.
However, quantum theory changed all that. The quantum world is truly weird. It is inaccessible to direct observation and experimentation, and it can't even be described in terms of classical physical concepts like space and time. It is a world of uncertainty. One cannot know the exact position and the exact velocity of any subatomic particle. When you know one you cannot know the other. Any kind of measurement in this world encounters great difficulty. The best one can do is to predict the probability that this or that may happen. The reality of the universe appears now to be neither materialistic nor deterministic. At its subatomic base, it appears to be a surging world of energy, out of which emerge the elementary particles that make up the constituents of the world we see around us.
At the heart of scientific theory is the question of whether an atom, or an electron, quark, or any elementary particle is, indeed, a particle at all; whether it is a "little thing," as it was always supposed to be and is still believed by many to be, or just an abstract construct, an "event" that flashes in and out of existence. Quantum theory supports the latter. These basic events are more like energy than matter. And this fuzzy and uncertain world only sharpens into concrete reality when an observation is made. In the absence of an observation, the atom is a ghost.
Experimental science has been the cornerstone of scientific truths in the West. These truths were believed to be objective and open to unlimited verification and falsification. Measurement accuracy was the only believable means of determining truth. Quantum theory has gone far beyond any hope of this sort of simple verification. But most importantly, its demonstration that the experimenter can never be objectively separated from the experiment has undermined this most sacred belief.
This is one of the central paradoxes of quantum theory; the unique role played by consciousness in determining reality. The act of observation appears to cause the ghostlike features of the quantum world to change into real "little things." The question of whether or not the moon is actually there if nobody were around to see it, or indeed whether or not there is anything — any thing — if no human beings were there to perceive, is most certainly a debatable question, but it is now at least debatable. Quantum theory has mounted a serious critique of Western science in its neglect of human consciousness.
While this most current manifestation of scientific inquiry is being pursued rationally within the traditional Western scientific faith in the reasonableness of the universe and in our ability to penetrate and understand it, the reality being pursued may not be rational at all. Mystical connections have been suggested. Where this may lead is uncertain, but one direction may be toward an understanding of the limits of human reason.
Faith in and the search for reality and truth, in other words for God, have been and remain the common waltz in wonder of philosophy, theology, mysticism and science. The metaphors for the ultimate goal vary, as do the methods of the waltz, but the goal is the same. It is to "know," verily know. Scientists have a very distinct and powerful faith perspective. It is both metaphysical and theological. They believe in an inherent order of things, that there is a reality, a truth, that underlies and provides the basis for our world of experience, and that there are natural laws that arise from this and that govern the world. They believe that these are worth discovering and they believe in the ability of reason, and reason alone, to apprehend and understand them. This faith in reason, over the centuries since Newton, has been accepted generally in the West. A substantial and sustained undermining of this faith, especially if it is communicated generally, could precipitate a reformation in our secular society.
Perhaps for the first time in centuries the most profound metaphysical and theological speculations of science and religion in the West have, to some extent at least, coincided. What each pursues reasonably, in their own way, appears ultimately to be mysterious and beyond human reason and human knowledge.
Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary defines reality as "the dream of a mad philosopher." In this sense philosophers, theologians and scientists must be mad. However, the pursuit—of truth or reality or God—in the faith that such pursuit is worthwhile is a divine madness, a madness that is a basis for intellectual and spiritual knowledge and progress. Such faith supports science, as it does philosophy, religion and mysticism. While we may be dancing in the dark when we are pursuing our understanding of these ideas, it is a waltz in wonder.