Monday, 7 November 2016

Science and the spiritual realm

The spiritual realm is the most basic ingredient found in about all religion. It has often been forcefully renounced in scientific circles. Atheists take it for granted that it does not exist. In this essay, I show how that realm has been conceptualized in Immanuel Kant's philosophy. I also argue that its existence has been confirmed in science in the context of the quantum realm!

The idea that a spiritual realm exists alongside our material world is extremely old. All the peoples of the ancient world believed in it. They believed that although this realm is inaccessible to our senses, it nonetheless exists and we have access to it through our human soul/spirit. Apart from human spirits, there are also other kinds of spirits and gods who belong to that realm. The spiritual realm is also part and parcel of the Judaeo-Christian worldview. In their view, God's Spirit is operative in the spiritual realm. They also believe that this realm makes life after death possible and that heaven and hell exist in this realm.

With the onset of the scientific age, the validity of these ideas was increasingly questioned. Although science is clearly restricted in its reach and is only able to study those things which are empirically accessible, some took that to mean that only that which is in fact so accessible should be reasonably accepted into our metaphysical view of the world. Enlightenment atheists and agnostics believed that the ancient belief about a realm outside our sensible and experimental reach is just a pie in the sky. In their view, such religious views have no scientific grounding and should be discarded since they belong to the pre-scientific age when people held primitive ideas, many of which have been refuted by science. In their view, we cannot believe things that cannot be proven. And since this realm lies beyond the reach of our experiments, they rejected it.

Even today, when we consider the spiritual realm in the context of the scientific conversation, some would immediately take offence. They feel that it is totally unacceptable to even seriously consider something like that. Now, I agree that we cannot at this point in our scientific progress say anything about the existence of spiritual entities. On the other hand, the possible existence of such a supersensible realm that exists alongside our material realm is in fact nowadays within the reach of serious science! We can consider its possible existence in the light of contemporary science. I argue in this essay that its existence is confirmed in quantum physics.

When we want to discuss such a realm in the context of serious science, we must, first of all, say what such a realm would entail. We need a rational-theoretical model that we can subject to rigorous scientific testing. Luckily we have such a model: The philosopher Immanuel Kant developed such a metaphysical model in which he incorporated exactly such a supersensible realm!! Kant gave very particular specifics on what such a realm would be like if it exists. In this essay, I use this Kantian model when I engage with the question of whether that realm has been confirmed in science.

Philosophy and the spiritual realm

The intellectual consideration of the spiritual realm started with the well-known philosopher Plato (5th to 4th century BC). Plato reworked the idea of the spiritual realm as it was taught by the Orphics, an early group of mystics, into his own idea of an intelligible realm. As such he conceptualized this realm as an invisible realm which, although inaccessible to our senses, may be accessed through our intellectual intuition. In his Phaedo, Plato states quite openly that his idea is based on the spiritual realm of the Orphics and he even argues that the soul exists in that realm. As such two worlds may be distinguished: A visible world in which the human body exists and an invisible realm in which the soul exists.

In Plato's view, the invisible realm is "the realm of the absolute, constant and invariable" whereas the visible world is always changing. He got this idea from Parmenides of Elea (born ca. 515 BC) who also argued for two such worlds, namely one that is the "real" world which is eternal, indivisible, motionless and changeless and the other which is the world of our senses, which is a world of "appearances". In Plato's view, the invisible "forms" of material things belong to the first realm, whereas the visible things of the material world belong to the second realm. Insofar as the soul is concerned, he writes in the Phaedo: "Since the soul is invisible, it belongs to the eternal invisible world... When it [the soul] investigates by itself, it passes into the realm of the pure and everlasting and changeless; and being of a kindred nature, when it is once independent and free from interference, consorts with it".

Plato's opinion about the relation between these worlds changed through the course of his writing. At first (in the Phaedo) the "invisible world" is viewed as a separate domain where human souls go between lives (and where the gods live), but in the Republic, the "intelligible" world (as it is now called) is more closely connected to our own world. This (our) world is somehow dependent on the "real" world for its existence (where the forms for the phenomena in this world are situated). In the Timaeus, the real world (of unchanging being where the forms are situated) underlies this world (of becoming) in a very real sense in that it gives form to it.

Plato's idea of the intelligible and phenomenal realms was reworked by later philosophers like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In this essay, I am only concerned with Kant's so-called "critical period" when he wrote his great philosophical works. Kant accepted the Platonic distinction between the "noumenal" world, as he calls Plato's intelligible world (from the Greek word for understanding, "nous"), and the phenomenal world. In Kant's view, the noumenal realm is the substrate of the phenomenal world [1] and all phenomena have originally appeared from that substrate. Kant also accepts the human soul, which in his thinking is just the "noumenal" part of humans, i.e. that part which belongs to the noumenal realm.

In Kant's metaphysics as he presented it in his philosophy of science in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, the noumenal realm, which is also called the "supersensible realm", has five basic characteristics, namely 1) it is supersensible, that is, beyond human experiential and experimental reach, 2) it is outside proper space/time 3) it is outside "nature", which refers not to empirical nature but the concept of nature as a system which is ruled by mechanism, that is, deterministic causality 4) it is governed by absolute spontaneity and the entities in this realm, the non-extended wholes-and-parts (my terminology) has the spontaneous potentiality to produce material parts and aggregated wholes in nature 5) it produces phenomena in nature which simply "appear" in contrast with the appearances of everyday objects of the senses (for a detailed discussion, see [2]).

Since Kant's time, there had been general agreement in philosophical circles that such a realm does not exist and that Kant has merely brought it into his philosophy to accommodate the Judaeo-Christian worldview, especially the soul and life after death. The problem that they had with this realm is that it is forever beyond empirical reach. Science can therefore never engage with it.

The supersensible realm and science

There is, however, one important possibility regarding the supersensible realm that Kant did not foresee which may allow partial empirical access of that realm (allowing for the possibility of manipulating entities in such a realm). This concerns his conception of space and time. Kant took space and time as pure intuitions through which we as humans engage with the material world. He also allows for various possible conceptions of space which may (through reason) be ascribed to those things that are beyond perception, which includes "noumena" (the entities that belong to the noumenal realm). Kant calls this "ideal space". What Kant did not foresee is that time may be coupled, not with proper space (as we normally do in perceiving the material world), but with ideal space which describes noumena.

If this last possibility is allowed, then we might be able to bring the noumenal realm under scientific scrutiny. And this is exactly what happened. In quantum mechanics, space and time are decoupled and time is coupled with abstract Hilbert space which is associated with quantum entities. We know today that the quantum realm adheres to all the Kantian characteristics of the noumenal realm as I will now show.

1. Supersensible. Quantum entities in their pre-measurement state have irreducibly complex amplitudes (i.e. in terms of complex numbers) and as such, they can never be brought into the range of human perception which is restricted to material things governed by real numbers (these complex numbers do not even have a real component). It is only when we measure these entities that they become situated in proper space-time.

2. Outside proper space-time. The kind of space that is used to mathematically describe these quantum entities (called Hilbert space) is also described in complex numbers! Although there have been efforts to reformulate such equations in proper space, these have not been successful (their complex nature is merely made implicit). The entities that we study in quantum mechanics are therefore not in proper space until we measure them. In Quantum Field Theory, the quantum entities are even outside space-time before measurement [3]. This is exactly what Kant has postulated for the supersensible realm.

3. Outside "nature". The quantum mode of existence (as I call it) which involves superpositions of states is also outside "nature". The interactions between quantum entities go beyond the proper space-time framework as can be seen in the EPR (Einstein, Podolsky & Rosen) experiments (this name originated from their famous paper). Such connections are not restricted to the deterministic rules governing objects in space-time. In fact, Redhead [4] has shown that the so-called Bell proof (which led to the EPR experiments) implies that all kinds of determinism have broken down in these interactions between the quantum entities.

4. Spontaneity. We also know that the quantum mode of existence is governed by another rule than determinism, namely indeterminism (which may be taken as spontaneity). Niels Bohr used the empirical evidence of spontaneity to formulate his well-known quantum postulate. As such we can say that quantum outcomes are spontaneously produced. One of the clearest examples of such spontaneity is atomic decay which happens absolutely spontaneously without any external intervention. 

5. Phenomena that "appear". The phenomena that are so produced - which include those microscopic particles that are observed during impacts, in bubble chambers etc. - are different from the everyday phenomena in that they "appear" from the quantum substrate.

Image result for bubble chambers images
Bubble chamber: particles "appear"
It is clear that all five relevant characteristics of Kant's supersensible realm have been confirmed in quantum physics. This means that science has confirmed the existence of a supersensible realm exactly in the form that Kant postulated it in his metaphysics! The quantum realm is, in fact, Kant's supersensible realm. Although the existence of the soul has not yet come into the range of scientific research, there is no reason why that would not eventually happen [5]. The fact is, however, that this very realm that modernist philosophers and scientists rejected as a pie in the sky, has now been (indirectly) confirmed empirically.

This brings me to a remarkable observation: all the ancients believed in a supersensible realm which was forcefully rejected by modernist science and especially by atheists since it did not conform to their worldview. The ancients were right; the modernist scientists, philosophers and atheists were wrong! The very spiritual realm that Kant conceptualized as the noumenal realm in his philosophy - which in philosophical discussion originated with the view of the mystics in Plato's time - has now been confirmed by science. 


We live in remarkable times! The science of modernist times is dead - and the metaphysical views that were grounded on that science are dead too. Although those who reject the possibility of a spiritual realm do so mainly because they reject the idea of gods (spirits) and especially God, it seems that scientific discovery is not on their side. Scientific research and discovery about what our world is like are consistent with a supersensible - or spiritual - realm.

I freely admit that this essay is restricted in scope and that the issues require more detailed discussion. I have already done this elsewhere [2]. Although atheists could try to argue that the view presented here is merely one alternative to other possible readings of quantum physics, I can say in defence that the basic things that I argue for regarding the supersensible realm (the five characteristics) are indeed widely accepted in scientific and philosophical circles. I argue that science has in fact confirmed Kant's conceptual system which was originally based on the idea of the spiritual realm. I conclude: the spiritual realm (in its most basic formulation) has been confirmed by science.

[1] Interpreters usually think that Kant's idea of the noumenal realm in his first great work, the Critique of Pure Reason, is substantially different from that in the two other Critiques, namely the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of the Power of Judgment. I reject that. In my view, Kant held similar views (which did develop over time) throughout his critical period, i.e. in all three Critiques.
[2] McLoud, W. Kant, Noumena and Quantum Physics published in Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 3 (2018)
[3] Auyang, S. Y. 1995. How is Quantum Field Theory Possible? Oxford: Oxford University.
[4] Redhead, M. 1987. Incompleteness, Nonlocality, and Realism. A prolegomenon to the philosophy of quantum mechanics. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
[5] I plan to argue for the existence of the soul in one of the essays in this series.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.
The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy and science.

Science and God. Part 5. In defence of the soul
Science and God. Part 6: Science and Atheism 
Science and God. Part 7: Science and spiritual intuition
Science and God. Part 8: The Christian and Evolution