Existentialism, at least in part, is the notion that our lived experience, the concrete world in which we find ourselves, and the “predicament” of which it is a part, is our foundational reality. What we really believe (as opposed to what we may pretend to believe in a state of “bad faith”), is determined by our experience, not by reason in the abstract. Much of what we really believe, we believe reflexively. Everyone flinches when a fist is thrown their way. We do not try to solve the problem by imagining that it is unreal. In lived experience, there is little time for speculation, just decisiveness. Life is short. On the other hand, when suffering becomes regular and long-lived people have very often attempted to convince themselves that it is just an illusion. But how can it be an illusion when one is still experiencing it? It obviously remains real in some sense. It is subjectively real. The subjective reality of our experience, our incapacity to transcend it, and its seemingly natural structure, is the arena of the existentialist. He is not claiming that experience is unstructured, just unavoidable in its human effects — moral, religious, philosophical, and “scientific.”
For human beings, there is no other reality to live in but the one that we are, in fact, thrown into. Other realities are only to be imagined, which is the job of philosophers and scientists. They may speculate all day long about the cause of all of our experience, and the meaning of it, if any, but like the rest of us they take their experience seriously in all of its practical regards. They do not wake up each morning, declare it all an illusion, and go back to bed, unless they are seriously depressed about something which they could only be depressed about because they consider it all too real. Even the ‘unreality of life’ is responded to as a reality from which we cannot escape.
Scientists and philosophers find our whole predicament real and challenging just like the rest of us. They believe in their radical contingency and that of their loved ones as a frightening threat to everyone’s personal value. They have no clear, relevant scientific explanation for their appearance in the universe as human beings although they do claim to be working on it. The Universe seems more than occasionally unfriendly to their reflexive human values. They find themselves surrounded by moral and natural evil. Scientists are often more threatened, made even more insecure than we are, by the reality of evil, which drives them to their messiah complex. Their embodiment, like ours, separates them from other people and threatens them with isolation and alienation. Like us, they cannot live without the other but feel beset by the other. They feel guilty and do not always understand why. Many of their unsatisfying behaviors and attitudes are absurdly difficult to control. Scientists are completely human like the rest of us and their fundamental motivations, like ours, are existential — instinctive, practical, value-laden, belief-laden. They do not live by hyperbolic doubt. They are existentially motivated in ways which they cannot justify scientifically. They embrace evidence which could not otherwise be embraced without a whole system of faith underlying it. In other words, they live their lives knowing implicitly, as we do, that science is just a competing existential expression, a competing account of reason and virtue and not the only rational or moral way to live. Their friendship with Reality is no more charming, nor more real, than that of theologians. Williams James talked about our “right” to believe. Scientists who deny this right are inauthentic. They, too, are invoking their right to believe every time they get out of bed in the morning.
Science takes place within this existential setting where the human experience is inescapably moral, inescapably emotional. Science has no inspiration, no motivation, without a system of values, virtues, and emotions which the scientist cannot justify scientifically. They just come with existence. Science is a non-scientific choice. Science inexorably develops into a competing tradition in the existential, practical environment, because unless its virtues (objectivity, truth-seeking, knowledge, just being a ‘scientist’) are widely recognized there would be no practical reason for engaging in it. The scientist fights for his tradition which promotes his influence, power, and wealth by claiming that he has more knowledge of reality and, therefore, more wisdom and know-how. But he does not actually know how to save us. His science is just as threatening and distracting as it is salvific.
Science depends upon the assumption that relevant evidence can be accumulated in the very same world that laymen live in, and take for real, and in the very same way that such laymen accumulate it. The scientist can only observe in principle what the non-expert can also observe. He does not have some special consciousness in this regard though he may pretend to.
‘Evidence’ suggests that quotidian experience must be an objective aspect of Reality even if it is not the whole of it. A scientist cannot coherently assert with his theories that human experience is unreal — totally subjective, some kind of illusion — and also claim that it is capable of verifying or even falsifying his theories, making them objective and factual. If readings on scientific instruments, and all of the other macro-phenomena of experimentation, is some kind of causally induced illusion, where the cause and the effect are as different as the LSD pill was taken and the dreams and distortions it induces in the mind (where the mechanism set off by the pill is an impenetrable black box), then there is no clear sense in which scientific ideas about these illusions can be said to agree with Reality. Or (to use an actual scientific theory) if entropy, like time, can work in both directions, then the whole world as the scientist knows it may have been constituted just a moment ago, and all of his evidence has nothing to do with a real natural history. The only reason scientists do not believe that entropy can work in both directions is because of this problem for science.
Even the claim that experience is illusory must somehow be rooted invalid, truly indicative experience. And so the scientist may be tempted to embrace the premise that our subjective experience (our human consciousness) is Reality; that there is no other Reality. But then science becomes a mere description of what we directly experience. It has no mystery to unveil after all. Experience need not inspire ideas which need not correspond to a reality beyond experience. There is no need to explain why something which is beyond experience would correspond to ideas based on, caused by, experience.
All of this subtlety should make us suspicious of the word “reality.” Sometimes scientists speak as if their ideas must correspond to experience. Sometimes they speak as if their ideas must correspond to something beyond experience in which case they could not possibly know it. Sometimes they suggest that experience corresponds to Reality and sometimes they explicitly state that experience is misleading us. We begin to see how many different ways the words “reality”, “real”, and “correspond” are used. We say that this and that are real, and other things are unreal. But what are we really talking about? Why is one even tempted to think of our experience as being either real or unreal; either part of Reality, the whole of Reality, or having little or nothing to do with Reality? Experience, after all, just is.
Science thinks it is offering some clarity about the proper use of the term “Reality” by defining it as that which is irreducible. This is called “reductionism.” It is a premise which science starts out with, not its conclusion. It is what reminds us that science, when it starts talking about Reality, ironically reduces itself to philosophy. The scientist invents categories of things to which he tries to reduce everything else. The vague claim is that all of these things in our world which we assume are real, are not real. They are appearances of something else altogether. Only these hidden ultimate constituents (atoms, strings) exist permanently. Everything else is a process, based on these constituents, which ends. But why would we say that a process is unreal even if it ends? Why would we say that it is reducible just because it moves with these ultimate constituents? The scientist is actually unable to explain in what clear sense the process is nothing but the constituents which, after all, exhibit ‘lawful behavior’, to use his phrase, just as he is unable to explain how a thought is literally identical with a chemical event in the brain. (Science still struggles with what it would mean to translate intelligibly macro-structural events like a thought, into microstructural events like atoms in motion as if they are commensurate.)
As we become suspicious of the word “reality” for its ambiguity — its many uses within and without the scientific community — we become suspicious of the word “science” insofar as it is supposed to be a description of Reality. For who is it but the western scientists themselves, ever since Descartes provided them with a view of Reality, who are utterly confused about what they are up to? Where have the scientists provided a stable, ideal, completely unambiguous language with which to describe Reality and science’s relationship to it? Is experience misleading us about Reality or not? If it is (see Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos) then how would we know it? If it is not, then why is it not, ipso facto, our one and only Reality?
We kidnap John, a physicist, drug him, put him on a bed, hook him up to a virtual reality machine and convince him that he is living his life as a physicist with continuity. He does physics exactly as he did before because we are streaming him the exact same experiences he used to have. He continues to entertain the exact same theories about Reality which he entertained before we radically altered the direct cause of his experience. Finally, we wake him up and reveal to him what we have done. A month later we find him in his laboratory staring at the wall, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When we ask him to explain his despair, he says: “When I was unknowingly subject to your virtual reality, I did physics in exactly the same way I do now — which is to say, I do physics here, in what I think is reality, in exactly the same way I did in a totally illusory world. I arrive at the exact same conclusions. I now understand that if my experience is caused by something else, anything else, then I have no foundation whatsoever for making claims about that cause. My experience cannot get me outside of the mechanism which translates the cause, whatever it is, into my experience. My experience takes place completely inside of that mechanism.”
And, of course, John is correct. If atoms out there, and atoms in our brains, are a mechanism for simply causing “subjective” human experience, we cannot possibly develop an “objective” perspective on this mechanism. Even our own brains, for us, in the laboratory, are nothing but subjective appearances. We refer to the “atoms,” but this is nothing but a cipher, a symbol for an unknown reality.
A computer program is kicked off by simply inputting the number 1. What it displays is a riot of colors, shapes, and sounds. The input has no intelligible correspondence to the output. We are able to describe some of what happens in the display mathematically. We “know” that green circles appear 1.25 seconds after red circles if blue squares came just before the latter. We “know” that when blue boxes appear on the left lower corner yellow triangles appear in the upper right corner 95% of the time. Is one the cause of the other? There are “anomalies.” When females are observing the display things happen in a somewhat different way. Sometimes a predicted appearance of a red or green box just does not happen. But we refuse to give up on the notion that our equations are knowledge of some kind. Little do we know that there is a time-based rule which will change all of this behavior a year from now. We do not know that the programmer hacks into our computer and is sometimes controlling the output by setting off various switches in his own program. Above all else, our direct experience of the display is never, ever, a direct experience of the mechanisms producing it — the internal operations of the computer and the source code of the program.
Descartes, a philosopher and scientist, led his scientific colleagues down the path of presupposing that reality is ultimate constituents which have only primary and not secondary qualities. Primary qualities are quantitatively measurable — like length, width, height, weight. The secondary qualities were and are considered totally subjective, caused by the primary qualities, but hardly corresponding to them. Secondary qualities are what most of our world, all of our subjective experience, is made up of. These are qualities like color, taste, smell, wetness, sound, texture, feelings of motion and so on. There is a very abstract concept of what these ultimate things, which have only primary qualities, are; a concept which we have been so saturated in as a cornerstone cultural dogma that we no longer recognize its abstruse and ambiguous nature. Its use has become religious, a matter of faith. This is the concept of the ultimate particle, the atom. These little things supposedly cause, in a totally subjective sense, most of our experience of a world which is essentially an illusion, for the secondary qualities have no correspondence to the primary qualities of matter. One simply causes the other like LSD causes psychic trips. There is no logical correspondence, as if the LSD is a map of the experiences it induces, just temporal conjunction.
Now it did not take long for philosophers and scientists, after Descartes, to figure out that all of our so-called measurements of the primary, supposedly objective qualities of matter, are actually just as subject to causation by those primary qualities as the admittedly subjective secondary qualities. The primary qualities are the comprehensive cause of all of subjective experience, including our supposedly objective measurements — our apprehensions of squareness, roundness, circularity, sphericality, length, width, height, weight and so on. We perceive primary qualities through the same causal mechanism which makes primary qualities the cause of subjective, secondary qualities. It is all subjective. There is no intelligible correspondence between subjective experience, as such, and objective Reality, if our experience in itself is not more primary, realer, than the “objective” constituents, objective causes, which we invent and now cannot either verify or falsify. In such a universe, divided between the subjective and the objective, the subject takes place as an effect of the object, and cannot get outside of the mechanism, the black box, which translates this input into the subjective output. We become trapped inside of our own minds with no way to find our way back to Reality.
The Cartesian view of Reality underlying modern Western science plunges us into skepticism. Science has been dead, in this sense, ever since Descartes. As a view of Reality modern western science has committed suicide. Its view of Reality implies the impossibility of knowing Reality. Science survives only as a pragmatic description of the regularities of experience, leading to technology.
Descartes destroyed science, making it unnecessarily skeptical and irreligious when he separated the subjective effect in the observer from its object, which, therefore, cannot actually be its object. If we reject this version of Reality, insisting that our experience is Reality (that the subject and object are not bifurcated), then science has no interesting reductionist work to do.
If you are a Christian, contemplating the death of modern science as a description of Reality, the reality of salvation history, and your own religious experience, you should keep in mind that the incarnation of God in Christ makes perfect sense in a universe in which it is our human experience which is irreducibly real. There are new, postmodern views of scientific Reality based on what quantum mechanics implies about the role of the observer in making the world determinate, definite. One of the options (see Wolfgang Smith, The Quantum Enigma, written from a Christian point of view) is to simply reject the old, and perhaps threadbare Cartesian notion, that our experience is not something absolutely real in itself. But this may simply mean that what is finally real, what constitutes the only thing in itself, is human and divine consciousness.