The Scientific Spirit and The Death of Absolute Objectivity


A primary motivation for scientific inquiry has always been the notion that our scientific discoveries offer us transcendence from our subjectivity, that they give us access to absolute objective truths (or at least some approximation of it). Stephen Hawking’s famous line about knowing “the mind of god” captures both the essence and the intellectual history of this idea. Physicists, for example, frequently treat their discoveries as a secular analogue of divine wisdom, with the Einstein equation or Newton’s laws sacred to them just as scripture is to the pious. And this scientific spirit, as opposed as scientific culture currently stands to organized religion, grew out of western theology. It’s not an accident that Newton and Copernicus were devout Christians.

But the philosophers realized long ago that “God is dead.” The failures of centuries of metaphysics to rationalize Christianity failed and were abandoned. Nietzsche pointed out that without God, there was nothing standing in the way of a descent into nihilism. Much of philosophy became devoted either to resolving or confronting this new reality. Nietzche believed that this inconvenient truth was recognized at least subconsciously by all, but that Christians remained in a state of denial out of fear or angst.

The death of God presaged the death of the analogue scientific idol, absolute objectivity, which would come with the advent of Quantum Mechanics. The world can be understood, but, it turns out, according to the most straightforward interpretations of quantum theory this is a matter of being able to establish a consistent intersubjective reality more than one of accessing a single overarching objective one. As Niels Bohr said:

“Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience. In this respect our task must be to account for such experience in a manner independent of individual subjective judgement and therefore objective in the sense that it can be unambiguously communicated in ordinary human language.

“The Unity of Human Knowledge” (October 1960) (emphasis mine)

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…”

As quoted in “The philosophy of Niels Bohr” by Aage Petersen

The Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment makes a lot more sense once you’re willing to demote the wavefunction from a descriptor of some transcendent, objective reality, to an effective bookkeeping device for describing an (information theoretical) relationship that the observer has with the cat. Nowadays, physicists have taken many of these ideas even further, e.g. with Black Hole Complementarity.

This picture of science also resolves another paradox, presented in the first pages of Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality. It goes like this. The physical universe, according to the standard scientific picture, is a subset of all mathematical possibilities. In fact one could say the goal of science is to distinguish which subset is the correct one. Mathematics, on the other hand, is itself a subset of our mental activities. That is, our mind can in principle if not in practice access all of mathematical reality, but also is capable of non-mathematical things like emotions. Finally, our brains are proper subsets of the physical universe. This circular picture is paradoxical. Penrose did not claim to know the resolution.


But the paradox dissolves if we embrace the view of science advocated by Bohr and based on the lessons of quantum mechanics. The realm of mathematical possibility is not an independent world, but a collection of methods available for relating our minds to the world. Mathematics is what connects our minds to the world, it isn’t a separate platonic realm of its own, independent of our minds and the physical universe.

One might argue that a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason bolsters this framework for science as well. We cannot access things “in and of themselves.” So this philosophy of science far predates quantum theory and was born in the aftermath of the original scientific revolution of Newton and his contemporaries. The quantum nature of the atomic realm merely reinforces it.

Nevertheless many or even most scientists have not accepted this paradigmatic change and properly confronted its implications. Almost all are aware, but like Nietzsche’s Christians many avoid or deny it, lest they fall into a kind of nihilism of the scientific spirit. (for a recent example of this, see the recent awakening of the great Steven Weinberg to the problem)

It may be that this sort of cognitive dissonance is what drives much of the research on alternative interpretations of quantum theory. Many people are drawn to science in general and physics in particular because of the desire to reach for absolute objective truth. It’s a psychological impossibility for them to accept that the findings of their pursuit undermine its original purpose. Famously, even Einstein could not accept these lessons. And how could he? His belief in “Spinoza’s God” had led him to General Relativity, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history.

But if we’re honest, we’re faced with a problem. How can we accept some of the more sobering lessons of fundamental physics without losing our sense of purpose in the process? If the moon isn’t there unless we’re looking at it, should we really bother to wonder about it?

There are of course technological reasons to pursue scientific research. The practical value of science is not diminished, and of course that matters. But what of the scientific spirit? Are we left with some form of scientific nihilism? An existential despair of the scientific spirit?

This is worth working through and worth being discussed. But I can offer a personal solution based on my own journey coming to terms with quantum mechanics. I’ve found that, for myself, connection can replace transcendence as a motivation for a scientific life. When I reflect carefully about what’s driven me to study science, it was really a desire to feel connected to the universe, and to broaden and sharpen my experience of reality. None of the revolutions of quantum mechanics need diminish this. I think there was always an unnecessary arrogance in the idea of an absolute objectivity, the belief that we could access a “view from nowhere”, that our minds could be mirrors for the world, that we could reconstruct the universe in totality in our heads. To instead treat science as more about connecting ourselves to the world around us, and about our relationship to it, feels more honest. It doesn’t diminish my motivation while having the added benefit of embodying a humility commensurate with the reverence with the world around us that all scientists feel.