Top Down or Bottom Up?

How the most fundamental science controversy may change our thoughts, beliefs and culture

Most people will be surprised to hear there is any controversy about the top down or bottom up picture of reality. It’s understood by most everyone, it seems, that it is bottom up. But, the science, as they say, is far from settled. As the science supporting top down view becomes more common, it may cause many to rethink some of our most important societal foundations.

What is top down versus bottom up? Bottom up is the belief that there is nothing more to the universe than physical properties and laws. Scientists call this belief physicalism, sometimes naturalism and even materialism. Bottom up says that as far as we know now the beginning of everything knowable was the Big Bang which occurred 13.8 billion years ago. Our universe emerged from a singularity, with all matter, forces and the laws that control them expanding out to create the universe as we have it today. Everything that is complex such as life and thought emerged from that singularity through mindless, purposeless physical processes. Because the laws are fixed, we live in a deterministic world with only the illusion of free will. Everything is set in stone by the interactions of particles according to unchangeable laws.

Top down is the idea that there is more than the physical universe as described by physicalism. The physical universe emerged from it — rather than it, whatever it is, emerging from the physical universe. Consciousness is the focal point of this perspective. Thoughts and experience are the most fundamental aspect of reality and thought or mind or consciousness preceded the emergence of physical reality. Top down thinking comes in a wide variety of forms but is usually found in some form of Descartian dualism — the idea from Rene Descartes that “I think, therefore I am,” and the idea that there is a fundamental difference between thought or mind and the physical stuff we think about.

Before jumping to the conclusion that the top down model is just some recycled old ideas that have long been discarded with the advances of science, the fact is a rapidly growing number of scientists and philosophers are coming to the top down position. To them, this is no step backwards but a major step forward in scientific understanding. There are two main drivers for this: 1) quantum mechanics with its many implications including the unique relationship between conscious minds and physical reality described with certainty by current physical science, and 2) the recognition that the physicalist understanding of the mind/brain relationship does not and can never account for the vast body of scientific data around consciousness separate from the brain.

Readers who have gone this far will likely have one of two reactions. If you have a gut level response that says anything other than physicalism is anti-science and opens the door to all kinds of religious and unprovable speculation, you are likely wedded to a physicalist presupposition. However, a gut level response that says––well, of course, this supports my religious or spiritual beliefs––equally demonstrates a commitment to a different kind of dogma or presupposition. A deeper dive will show that both presuppositions need to be challenged which only a mind open to the data can achieve.

It is my intention to document the top down versus bottom up controversy in a series of articles published here that reveal its basis in current physics, biology and psychology. I am not a scientist or philosopher, just another interested observer of current thinking and how it is evolving. But before jumping to the evidence of this very fundamental difference in scientific beliefs and opinions, it’s useful to think a bit about the implications.

We don’t really know when homo sapiens or pre-humans began “thinking” as we understand human thoughts. Perhaps 100,000 years ago or even before. 100,000 years sounds like a long, long time. Neanderthal cave paintings dating back perhaps 64,000 years give some evidence. In the history of the universe, 100,000 years is an impossibly small blip. Convert it to money and you’ll get an idea how short that time actually is. But, whenever humans did start thinking they thought about who they were in the greater cosmos, where they came from, how they got here and what it may all mean. We do know that for virtually all of the history of human thought, the basic view was top down. Bottom up thinking really only began with the emergence of the modern scientific age. We could date it to Copernicus or Galileo, but it was Newton and the French scientist Simon-Pierre Laplace that really got us going in the direction of bottom up thinking. Compare then, the difference of two hundred years of bottom up thinking compared to the 100,000 plus years of top down thinking. The scientist-authors of Beyond Physicalism state:

We believe it takes astonishing hubris to dismiss en masse the collective experience and wisdom of a large proportion of our forebears, including persons widely recognized as pillars of all human civilization…”

Hubris or not, bottom up thinking dominates our cultural drivers. There is very little sign of this controversy or of anything resembling top down thinking in our education system, media, entertainment, laws or our politics. The reason is the massive shift in the source of authority. We always look to those with the highest level of credibility as our source of authority. In prehistoric and early historic times it was shamans, prophets, myth-makers and storytellers. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was the philosophers representing various schools of thought but who agreed on a world of gods, divine beings and mortals. The East also had its philosophers and prophets including Confucious, Buddha, Ved Vyas and a long line of gurus or teachers. Christianity began with a prophet-healer named Jesus whose authority, in the Christian era, was transferred to authorized and trusted teachers.

Bottom up thinking emerged because the explanations for physical phenomenon provided by scientists proved to be more right than those provided by the authorities of the time, namely the Church. Galileo was right, the Church wrong. Newton, a devout believer, saw in the orderly movement of the planets God-ordained laws that were fixed and unchanging. Laplace took the next step declaring to Napoleon that he had no need for the God hypothesis. It was all ordered, fixed, determined. Stephen Hawking in an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer stated:

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

But, science works in society because it has the authority of the Church. No one can possibly dispute the effectiveness of science in discovering facts about the physical universe. Science indeed works, and the technologically driven world we live in is a direct result of that effectiveness. But scientists including Hawking went beyond the discovery and explanation of facts to comment on the meaning behind the facts. This is no longer science, but philosophy and even theology. As Hawking suggests, the remarkable and indisputable effectiveness of science in revealing facts has established scientists as the new final authorities. Science has replaced the Church as the arbiter of all things true and false, and scientists are the new shamans, prophets, myth-makers, philosophers, gurus, teachers, preachers and bishops. Science has won in our culture, if not completely, at least among the cultural drivers of education, media, entertainment, law and politics.

Brian Greene is one of those who has climbed the pedestal of scientific authority to philosophize. His 2020 book Until the End of Time is probably the most elegant and eloquent defense of bottom up physicalism that has been written. Greene begins by quoting Jean-Paul Sartre who said life is drained of meaning when the illusion of eternity is lost. Bertrand Russell’s summation is the theme Greene explores: “So far as scientific evidence goes the universe has crawled by slow stages to a somewhat pitiful result on this earth and is going to crawl by still more pitiful stages to a condition of universal death.” If there is a purpose in this, Russell concludes that “I see no reason, therefore, to believe in any sort of God.” [You can read my review of Until the End of Time on Medium here.]

Greene’s thrust is to suggest that there is a way out of the nihilism that physicalism naturally entails. In elegant and almost religious language he thinks we can find meaning in a meaningless universe by contemplating the “fortuitous” chance which “miraculously” has allowed us to have a brief moment to live and think on the earth. Even though our thinking minds, in Greene’s and other physicalists’ understanding, are either an illusion or a mystery.

There are many ways our current Western and global culture reflects the philosophy that emerges from the bottom up understanding of reality. One of those can be observed in the growing number of “deaths of despair.” Does the loss of eternity and the nihilism that comes from understanding the world has no purpose or meaning and we must generate any purpose or meaning for our own lives by sheer will power contribute to these? Intuition would say yes. But, it bears more data and analysis.

One of the most important and fundamental consequences of physicalism is the loss of free will. Classical understanding of the “clockwork universe” does not and cannot allow for free will. All is determined. If we feel we have choices in life, such as whether to write this article or scratch my nose or call a friend for a cup of coffee, these are mere illusions. Those activities of the random particles in our brains and surrounding environment have been determined by the interaction of matter and forces as dictated by the unchangeable laws of nature.

Where this leads when interpreted in society is rather obvious. If there is no free will, what does justice mean? How can society hold anyone responsible when what they did was set in stone the instant the Big Bang occurred? We can see the implications emerging in our understanding of personal responsibility and how that is translated into laws, policies and public perceptions.

Answers to other great questions of culture and society also are greatly impacted by physicalism and the philosophy and pseudo-religion that is derived from it often called “scientism.” What does love mean in this world of meaninglessness? What about beauty? Where did these things come from and why are they important to us? What about thinking itself? Can rational thinking even be possible when we are just random accumulations of particles dictated by the forces of nature and the process of random genetic changes and natural selection?

Still, our society continues to believe in justice, personal responsibility and rational thinking. We tend to believes that there is some reality to the ideas of love and beauty that go beyond evolution’s drive for fitness to survive. We agree we can arrive at truth through our thoughts and experiences. How can those old ideas hang on in the face of the undisputed authority of scientists who declare that such things are artifacts of evolution or mere illusions and essentially meaningless? Perhaps it is only a matter of time. Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day and grand changes in the philosophical or religious underpinnings of society take place over centuries more than decades. We’ve only had 250 years since the start of the Enlightenment project which delivered scientific authority to the forefront. British historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion provides compelling evidence for why, despite the emergence of the authority of science over all challengers, in many ways we remain a culture deeply committed to Christian understandings, teachings and values. He speaks as a historian making clear that he himself is not committed to the core doctrines but only that he too, like the rest of society, adheres to Christian values.

The persistence of religious or spiritual beliefs in Western societies suggests that the bottom up philosophy or presupposition has not yet achieved societal dominance as it has over the cultural drivers. Perhaps this is why vestiges of top down thinking still play prominent roles in society and culture as well as individual lives despite the two centuries of scientific and physicalist authority. Even in highly secular Europe a strong majority ascribe to some belief in God or a higher power. In the US that number is much higher. A Rasmussen 2017 poll showed only 17% of Americans did not believe in an afterlife, about 20% were unsure and 62% definitely believed.

Why have the scientists who have been granted the robes of authority that used to belong to preachers, bishops and popes been so limited in their success? At least since the 1920s, the education system of the US has been monopolized by their physicalist presupposition. All efforts to raise even the possibility of alternatives have been branded pseudo-science or anti-science. But, what if this changed? What if those behind the cultural drivers of education, media, entertainment, law and politics were to come to the conclusion that the bottom up model of physicalism is not supported by the facts available through all scientific methods? This series of articles will explore the questions surrounding this issue and provide at least some of the evidence for a fundamental shift among top scientists and philosophers toward a top down understanding. If nothing else, readers will likely agree with renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, referring to the equation that describes material reality in current quantum physics, who mused:

“Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And we can all hold strong opinions either way.”



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Gerald R. Baron

Husband, father, grandfather, mostly-retired, farm advocate, author, communicator. Deeply curious about science, nature, spirit and history.