David Albert
Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University

The Scientific View: Humanity as Billiard Balls

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Though modern science may present us with the unflattering image of human life as a “bottomless terror,” New Age attempts to disguise the truth and embellish this portrait are what we should really fear.

David Albert

David Z Albert the is Frederick E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy and Director of the M.A. Program in The Philosophical Foundations of Physics at Columbia University. He is the author of "Time and Chance," "Quantum Mechanics and Experience," among others. He received his B.S. in physics from Columbia College (1976) and his doctorate in theoretical physics from The Rockefeller University. He lives in New York City.


Question: What are some of the most prevalent misinterpretations of science today?

David Albert: Well, I mean, very broadly speaking, look, there are -- you know, one can contrast two very different ways of coming at the world. One can come at the world determined in advance that what one is going to find at the bottom of it is some reassuring, flattering, more or less comfortable image of oneself. Or one can come at the world in a genuinely more open way, to see what the world has to teach you, and to determine as much as one can to keep one's eyes open whether one finds what one expected to find in advance or not. There are human limitations, no doubt, to the capacity to do that, but there are some people who are more resolute about doing that than others.

And it seems to me what unifies all the New Age approaches to various kinds of scientific discoveries is that the curiosity turns out very quickly not to be authentic, okay? What one was after, it quickly emerges from the beginning, was reassurance that all sorts of things one already thought about the world and about oneself before the investigation even began are going to be confirmed. And if they're not confirmed, you're going to lie about what the science says in order to make it appear that they were confirmed. This is very much the opposite of the scientific spirit that one admires and hope to emulate as much as one can, which involves a profoundly more authentic and profoundly more courageous kind of curiosity than that.

The picture that science presents us with of ourselves, it seems to me, for all that anybody might want to say about it -- I don't know how to put this. It seems to me that the picture that we're presented with of ourselves by science is a picture -- if you really stay in it, if you really take it in -- connected with some kind of bottomless terror, okay, where the -- science presents us with a picture of ourselves as machines, okay, as billiard balls knocking into one another, at the very bottom of things, and that's why we do what we do, and that's why the world is the way it is. It seems to me that if one really opens oneself to what science has to tell you about yourself that the category of sort of esthetic reaction that it falls into is something like the uncanny, okay, especially in the way that terms is used in psychoanalysis, where it's associated with apparently animate objects that turn out to be inanimate, or the other way around. There's something really indescribably strange about the picture that we're presented with of ourselves by -- especially by fundamental physics. And it's a picture that we just don't know how to fully take in. And I think it's very, very, very disturbing. And I think that's as exactly the opposite as it could be of what typically is said to come out of science from New Age understandings of it.