This post is in response to my recent exposure to the theories of the physicist Tom Campbell. Campbell is a scientist who has worked at NASA and elsewhere, and has put forward a “theory of everything” he calls the “Big TOE” (theory of everything). As I understand it, the core claim of this theory is that our world is a product of our consciousness, and is therefore a simulation – a “virtual reality” or VR.
Obviously this involves a critique of contemporary physics as well as various claims about “ultimate reality”, climaxing in the conclusion that “love” is ultimately what it is all about. I think this last bit about “love” tends to reveal the New Age directions Campbell is really going with this, but I don’t really know.
I admit I have not listened to more than an hour of so of a Campbell video, but I think that is enough to get the gist of his theory, and enough to form an opinion of what I do not like about it. Of course I could be wrong. Nnevertheless, here are some thoughts…
Putting the stuff about “love” aside for the moment, Tom Campbell’s fundamental claim, as I understand it, is that the “materialistic” point of view of mainstream physicists does not work because it cannot get “behind the curtain” to explain why things are the way they are. Typically, mainstream scientists analyze “reality” and come up with a few fundamentals like “space” and “time”, but they cannot explain what these are, where these come from, or why they are what they are. They just ARE according to his characterization of mainstream physicists. If we could get “behind the curtain” we could understand what is really happening, rather than just responding to appearances.
Campbell’s mission is to get behind the curtain. He claims the approach of mainstream science cannot get us there. He thinks we need a different perspective: one that can get at the reason things are the way they are. His theory – his different perspective – is that we are living in a virtual reality…because these things (these fundamentals) are simply programmed into the system.
He uses the example of the Elf in World of Warcraft calculating the force of gravity to explain this point. Yes, there is gravity in that world, and yes, the Elf can calculate it. But the calculation the Elf comes up with will be what the programmer has decided it will be, and that’s the end of the story.
As he says at 1:02:39 of “MBT LA 2016 Video 1” —
Space, time, mass, charge, gravitation, and spin represent the fundamentals of “physical” reality — but their causal source is entirely unknown…this is a signature characteristic of a VR.
Here are my initial comments…
First, there is the smell test
It seems to me that this characterization of mainstream physicists is a caricature. I doubt most mainstream physicists think “particles all the way down” (a phrase which he uses many times) is much of an explanation of anything. And to say they are unmoved by the mysteries of “reality” is not credible – probably even a disingenuous and intentionally misleading description of how most scientists view the world.
But then again, I don’t really know what actual scientists think about Campbell’s theory or his characterizations of theirs. According to Wikipedia, “Upon completion of My Big TOE, Campbell sent copies of the book to leading physicists, and fellow scientists, but received little response. This prompted Campbell to forgo enlisting support from “the top”, in favor of reaching out to lay audiences as a better way to share and spread his ideas about consciousness and the nature of reality.”
Right. Let’s put our complex “Theories of Everything” in front of lay people and ask them what they think! Here’s a typical response: “…although I do not understand fully at a intellectual level, this presentation resonates at the core of my being.”
Give me a break! Are lay people really in a position to understand the technical details of such theories, or to be able to evaluate their accuracy? Why does Campbell not address his talks to actual physicists and other scientists?
Of course the standard answer is that scientists have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They are, in other words, all on the take – participants in a giant conspiracy to squeeze out anybody who is even a little unorthodox.
But even if that is true, non-scientists like me, probably you, and most certainly the people in his audiences, have only a superficial understanding of these concepts. What he says may be correct, but it may also be wrong. And he may be (and likely is) making claims that other scientists would dispute on sheer technical grounds. How do I know this? I don’t. And you probably don’t either. That’s why difficult technical theories are put before experts who are capable of understanding them.
So… the very fact that a) he initially got little response from the scientific community and b) he intentionally chooses to put his ideas in front of sympathetic lay people (otherwise known as “preaching to the choir”), makes the enterprise smell a bit suspicious.
Second there is the little matter of “seeing behind the curtain”
As I understand Campbell, “seeing behind the curtain” is pretty crucial. He can see stuff other narrow minded, unwilling-to-entertain-new-ideas scientists cannot. As Campbell says, the Elf in World of Warcraft can’t see behind the curtain because he is a creature of the simulation. And we are all like that Elf. We all live in a simulation.
But if he is correct, Tom Campbell is also a creature of a simulation. So why can he see behind the curtain? In fact, the curtain itself is part of the simulation. So there really is no way to get behind it. Everything you think you see “behind” it is really just part of the same simulation…including all your theories about it.
Simulations are rabbit holes you can’t get out of.
You and I and Tom Campbell are either part of the VR or we are not. If we are, then we cannot see behind the curtain. If we can get behind the curtain then Campbell’s main thesis (that this is all a VR) cannot be correct.
I think this is why the only sensible approach to philosophical questions (like the “nature of reality”) is a pragmatic one. It is the reason that science is ultimately just a method of inquiry. We really ARE in a world defined by our perception of it. I agree with those who think our perception is not limited to “what we can see and touch”. But that does not give us licence to imagine we have super magical powers that allow us to see “behind the curtain”.
Even if you believe there are other dimensions of reality, or other methods of knowing or perceiving, you still cannot get outside of (or “behind”) your experience. What you see there would just be more of the same – just different experiences. The only way to get behind the curtain is to posit some special intuitive powers of perception that let you get outside of experience. But clearly that is nonsense – experience that is not experience. And it is question-begging – assuming or positing the very thing you are trying to prove.
Not making such unfounded, question-begging assumptions is precisely what the scientific method is about…examining our actual experience in a systematic way and not thinking there are magical ways to get “behind” it.