By Michael Collins
In The World Itself Ulf Danielsson presents an engaging and varied array of material ranging from historical narratives of the development of mathematics and the hard sciences to entertaining anecdotes and intriguing thought experiments. These quite readable elements are employed to present a compelling worldview of scientific nonduality that grounds mathematical and experimental productions and results in human consciousness – and that consciousness itself in matter:
“It is clear that our biological nature is central to our view of the universe. Our consciousness is in our bodies, and the world we experience through our senses is created by our using organic systems that have evolved over millions of years. We are part of a living continuum that stretches back to the very simplest organisms. All of this is crucial to our understanding of the physical world – the only world that exists” (152-3).
The organic ground of consciousness is intertwined for Danielsson with the centrality of physics to human understanding of the universe, self-knowledge, and future prospects:
“It is not just that physics is the basis of everything; it is everything. I define physics as the study of the world itself in all of its aspects. It is a world of which we as organic beings form a part, and through evolution we have slowly become aware of ourselves as matter awakened from its eternal slumber. Physics is not about how a free and independent observer floats outside the world and observes it from a proper distance. Our organic bodies, all our thoughts, including the scientific models we create, are parts of the same world that we so desperately want to grasp. The physics I imagine must handle everything; nothing must be left aside. It is literally a matter of life and death” (23-4).
His description of human consciousness as contextualized both by its material ground and temporal emergence presents the basis for qualifying its scientific and mathematical discoveries. However, these conditions have the counterintuitive effect of illuminating the profundity of the breakthroughs humans have made, such as they are, improbable and fascinating evolutions of understanding all the more remarkable for being extracted from the vastness of all that remains opaque. All of this is possible only through the definitional openness of true scientific pursuit: “[E]verything is physics and…there is no reality outside of matter. But there is no reason to believe that we are even close to understanding what this world of matter is capable of” (20).
The structure of the book, accordingly, forms a sort of scientific parallel of negative theology, systematically arguing against views and suppositions that impinge upon these central claims – and centering openness to all that we cannot yet know. One such gap lies between scientific knowledge, itself a product in each instance of its own experimental or theoretical intentions and specifications, and the world it seeks to describe. Danielsson cautions against forgetting that our means of exploring such questions are qualified by the influence of their very practices upon their subjects:
“To be able to talk about measurements, we must separate the object from the rest of the world and put it in focus. The connection to the surrounding universe causes information about the system to leak and be lost. In this way, chance and probability creep in. If we were to abstain from measuring anything at all, our quantum mechanical description of the universe would be completely deterministic. The price we would have to pay is that nothing would actually happen within the framework of our model” (50-1).
This grounding in practical realities opens to moral implications for scientific pursuits that are not too difficult, with reflection, to adapt to other kinds and uses of models and world building:
“The way we translate between a scientific model and the real world is not trivial at all, but something that is rarely discussed and often actively ignored. Instead, we tend to take for granted that our mathematical theories can be identified with the world itself. Not only is it seen to be practically irrelevant to maintain the distinction; the claim is that the identification of the model with what actually exists says something profound about the world” (149). Danielsson holds that such collapsing of object and description must make way for a more interactive mode of engagement with the physical world, one that does not foreclose ongoing disclosure from the unknown.
In a parallel argument, he calls for clear differentiation between mechanistic modes of reproduction and understanding and the biological functioning of human genetics and consciousness. This integral point underscores both the biological basis of consciousness and the centrality of physics to our understanding of it and the world: “The necessary code key is housed by the complete cellular system that reads and interprets the code and realizes it as a physically living organism. Without cells that can read the code, the DNA molecule remains meaningless” (36). Here, as well, Danielsson seamlessly connects microcosmic biological mysteries with a larger context that locates us – all of us, even those of us who are just here to learn as readers – within vast expanses of time as the quite temporary investigators of such nuances of the physical world: “There is no clear boundary between the code and that which interprets the code. The genome does not consist of intangible information. It consists of matter and is part of a cellular system that has evolved over billions of years without a need to fit into simplified models” (39). The objects of our inquiries contain the beings undertaking them. Our understanding is quite small, and yet therefore we are await more intricate development: In precisely the fact that we have so much yet to learn lies Danielsson’s source of inspiration.
The provisional nature of the situation in which we find ourselves as a result, evokes openness to future learning just as much as the ephemerality of today’s supposed certainties: “The universe is not governed by what we call the laws of nature, rather it is the laws of nature that are constructed by us to follow the universe” (62). Danielsson calls for an important balance, requiring our conscious understanding to remain cognizant that it arises temporarily from the universe it partially describes.
Interesting developments from – and support for – these insights are presented in Danielsson’s explorations of other forms of consciousness. Excursions through chimpanzee, octopus, and bat body-consciousness conclude that “One can never understand consciousness as isolated from the body or the environment” (161). However, such evolutionary understandings are also applied in thought experiments about teaching math to aliens:
“The mathematics we use to model the world in the form of natural laws does not exist in the world itself. The laws of nature manifest themselves and are identical with physical patterns in our brains that reflect phenomena that we observe in the world around us. When the patterns are in tune with the world and we find consistency, we see the models as successful” (74).
This conclusion, which echoes the descriptive role of the “laws of nature” above, opens to another way of perceiving the interconnections between consciousness, its practices of cultivating understanding, and the material world itself: “Mathematics exists only in the form of transient processes that help biological beings to better understand their enigmatic existence. The beautiful truths we find in mathematics, which make some people feel the presence of something almost supernatural, are only a consequence of our own limitations” (74). Another comparison with machines approaches the same idea of “transient processes” in the nature of organisms themselves: “Living organisms are constantly renewing themselves. Most of the matter we are made of is replaced. While the identity of a machine is carried by the material parts, ultimately the individual atoms, nothing like that can be said about a living organism. An organism is an open system with a constant flow in and out, while a machine is essentially closed” (135). It’s interesting, in the course of the reading, to consider these insights, not in terms of correlation or causality, but as inter-contextualizing uncertainties.
The book, among many other things, can serve as a restarting point for reflection on the nature our inter-determinism with the world, how consciously — or how deeply — accepting we are of our unavoidable openness to what we often define as outside of us, its unrecognized bounties, its implications: “We are in the middle of a world, which we can never escape, and we can only try to learn and understand as much as possible with our biologically limited abilities. I may be a physicist, but I do not think we know the physics required for us to fully understand the universe. And I’m not sure we ever will” (150).
I am not a physicist, but I am a reader who finds it invigorating and ennobling of all knowledge deepening endeavors to listen to the perspective of someone, who has considered his field more assiduously than I ever could, respond with deep openness and humility to all that even he still cannot know. Books like this invite us to direct our curiosities – both as groups and individuals – in useful ways often only as consequential as they are subtle. Books like this invite us to welcome our smallness before actual mysteries, to do so more together in the collective acknowledgment what we cannot yet know. Perhaps you’ll join me in this reading.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/World-Itself-Consciousness-Everything-Physics/dp/1954276117
Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.