The tools and methods of science have cast light on a wide variety of natural phenomena, and most of the knowledge gained about the natural world has been in the last hundred years. That knowledge sprang from the foundations set in place by such men as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Bruno, Darwin, and other early pioneers in the use of the scientific method. But even before those thinkers, there were ancient Greek philosophers that began to realize that the natural world could be understood without invoking demons and spirits.
Greek thinkers understood that there are two “problems” to understanding “reality,” the observed and the observer. They are just as relevant today as they were over 2,000 years ago. The first has come to be called the “easy” problem. We might call it the “nuts and bolts” of how the Universe works. This includes matter and energy, gravity, and so on. Though it is far from “easy” for many of us, science provides a process for determining how things work without evoking mysticism. Each piece of information gained provides an avenue for determining the next piece of information.
This very “logical” approach reached its peak in the 1800s. In its extreme, it paints a picture of “reality” and the Universe as a machine-like construction sometimes referred to as a “clockwork.” According to this view, reality is represented by the concept of determinism, where every action has a distinct cause. In the case of humans, this implies the non-existence of free will. If everything is cause-effect, then our decisions are not really decisions but merely our predetermined reaction to preceding and therefore current events. Given our heredity and environment, we have no choice but to make the decisions we do. Everything about the Universe, including our own existence, is pre-determined, set in stone from the moment of creation.
According to the determinist view, everything about reality is knowable given enough time and study. Astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, economics, and so on are based on the scientific method. Human interaction can be dissected by sociology, psychology, archeology, and other human-related disciplines. All of these continue to this day and have compiled tremendous amounts of data and are largely responsible for our culture and technology of the present time. In this view, the Universe is a cold machine with interlocking and predictable forces, hence its “clockwork” name. Because the Universe is at least potentially “knowable,” this aspect of reality has been referred to as the “easy” problem.
Recognition of the “hard” problem is traceable to ancient Greek philosophers and probably was debated even before that time. For much of what we might call the “scientific revolution,” the hard problem has been ignored, even ridiculed, and cast aside as spiritualism or irrelevant. This is because it is more of a philosophical question that at present does not lend itself well to scientific scrutiny. In short, there are no instruments or scientific procedures available to measure and quantify it.
The hard problem can be stated in various ways, but perhaps the simplest is: How does life, the observer, come from non-life? Or more to the point: How can a Universe made of “dead” atoms with apparently no consciousness lead to living creatures that are conscious of their surroundings? Scientists who reluctantly venture an opinion will say that the interaction of brain cells somehow leads to consciousness. In other words, something dead (the atoms and molecules that comprise the brain) somehow come alive and achieves consciousness. But from the point of view of a “clockwork” Universe, there is no reason that life, let alone consciousness, should even exist. Consider the absurd nature of existence: A “dead” universe created a living consciousness made from the dead universe that could study the “dead” Universe from which it came!
The idea that the Universe is a predictable machine at all levels has been discarded largely because of the work of one man: Albert Einstein. His groundbreaking concepts point to the chaotic and counterintuitive nature of reality, though he at times had a hard time dealing with where his discoveries led. At the smallest atomic scales, reality is based on tiny bits of energy and probability and does not act like predictable cogs in a vast machine. Though the study of the hard question was long considered scientific heresy and a sure way to end your scientific career, it has now gained followers from philosophy, neuroscience, and astrophysics. They dare to ask: Is consciousness a result of the interactions of inanimate matter and energy or is matter and energy a consequence of consciousness? Or are they fundamental parts of each other? How living consciousness arises from non-life continues to be the “hard” problem.
Email Terry Mejdrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.