Albert Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life in a fruitless quest to formulate a unified field theory that would tie together his own theory of general relativity (gravity) with electromagnetism. Physicists today are still trying to construct what is now commonly called the Theory of Everything that would integrate all four fundamental forces of nature (two were unknown in Einstein’s day) into a single set of equations. But even if they are successful in coming up with a Theory of Everything, it would not explain how I fit into the picture – or you either, for that matter. Science presents an objective view of the world, as if seen from the outside. But, of course, that is not how any of us actually experiences the world. We see everything subjectively, from the inside out, including all those things we can regard as scientific only by leaving ourselves out of the equation.
The difference between looking at things from the inside or from the outside is not just a matter of one’s point of view. The world as seen from the outside, assuming it were even possible to step out of one’s own skin, is mysteriously shorn of many of the qualities that are characteristic of our subjective experience. When Shakespeare says “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” we all know what that smells like. But how do we account for the subjective experience in scientific terms, much less the redness of the rose, the sound of its leaves rustling in the wind, the taste of rosebud tea or the pain we feel when we prick our finger on the rose’s thorns. Science can tell us everything about the physical processes that give rise to these sensations but not what it feels like to have them.
Ever since Rene Descartes concluded that the mind occupied its own realm apart from the material world, science has essentially dealt with consciousness by ignoring it. This was of small consequence when the subject of scientific inquiry was time or space or gravity. But once researchers began delving into the subatomic realm, they discovered that the laws of classical physics no longer applied; and, more to the point, that certain elementary particles exist in an indeterminate state until they are measured, which requires an observer. For the subatomic realm at least, Bishop Berkley’s dictum holds true: to be is to be perceived. In other words, consciousness is no longer incidental to the workings of the natural world but is woven into its basic fabric. As the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger expressed it, "Mind has erected the objective world of the natural philosopher out of its own stuff."
For philosopher David Chalmers, consciousness is “the hard problem.” It can no longer be ignored in trying to construct a coherent model of the physical world, but neither can it be explained in conventional scientific terms. Critics counter that consciousness is undoubtedly a byproduct of physical processes that are not yet understood but eventually will be. Others, like philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, insist that consciousness is an illusion. If so, it would call into question our most basic perceptions of the world, including those we now categorize as scientific, since all are filtered through our consciousness, illusory or not.
As a matter of fact, there may indeed be something illusory about the way we see the world, although consciousness as such is not the issue. How do you separate subject from object when an act of observation is necessary to force elementary particles to reveal themselves? For Einstein, the implications of quantum theory were profoundly unsettling, because they appeared to deny the existence of a material reality independent of an observer. Yet that is exactly what proved to be the case. “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived,” Schrodinger said. “Subject and object are only one.” So if subject and object are one, does that mean we are in the world, or is the world in us? Strangely enough, it looks like it may be both.