Reality: what a concept.
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If you follow this column, you know that Marcelo and I are deeply interested in what science – especially physics – tells us about the nature of reality. Does science give us perfect access to a perfectly objective reality that exists somewhere out there, independent of us? Or is there something in human nature that colors everything? This question particularly struck me two weeks ago when I was attending a fantastic three-day meeting at the University of California, Berkeley called “Buddhism, Physics, and Philosophy Redux.” I wrote a little about the meeting just before it happened. (You can read about it here.) Today I want to reflect on something that was reminded of me during the talks that always struck me as odd.
Throughout the meeting, the notion of realism kept coming up. Was this or that Buddhist philosopher realistic? Is this or that interpretation of quantum mechanics anti-realistic? These terms were casually thrown around, but I always felt like we were using them in the exact opposite sense of what they should mean. This requires an explanation.
A classic split
In philosophy, the term realism refers to the position that there is a world independent of us. The world is made up of things with their own inherent properties which can be known in themselves. Science offers the means to determine these properties. The term is often contrasted with idealism, which states that only a certain version of “mind” really exists – however you want to interpret that. True reality, according to idealism, corresponds to pure ideal abstractions. An example of this is Plato’s idea that only the mathematical form of circles really exists, not the shitty versions of circles that we apprehend through our shitty senses. This battle between realism and idealism has been going on for a long time. (Plato formalizes this in Western philosophy.) This creates a duality where if you are an idealist, you are also an anti-realist.
Now, I’m a scientist, and I’m not an idealist either, so I don’t like being called an anti-realist. (If I were a cowboy in a Wild West saloon, calling me an anti-realist would be a fight against words.) However, the way realism plays out in modern debates about the frontiers of science leaves me cold. I think he misses the mark. There are other ways of facing reality than the usual realist/idealist divide.
The abstractions of realism
The problem with realism right now is that it takes the abstractions used by science to describe experience and turns them into reality, even when there are major problems with that position. The wave function in quantum mechanics is the Ur example. The wave function is the mathematical object that physicists use to describe and predict the behavior of nanoscale phenomena like atoms. It is also the source of many quirks in quantum physics, such as particles being in two places at the same time. (Think of Schrödinger’s cat paradox.)
But that kind of weirdness only shows up when you’re realistic about the wave function. If you consider it something as real as tables or chairs, then yes, the electron can be in two places at once. In this case, you end up having to do some serious metaphysical yoga to warp yourself from the paradox of this position. Another example of this variant of a realist’s paradox comes with the universe of blocks, an aspect of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. According to this view, the four-dimensional nature of spacetime implies that all events – past and future – already exist and have always existed. This form of realistic narrative ends up eliminating the real nowwhich is the only thing that any of us actually experience.
The errors of realism
The great mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called this type of thinking “the fallacy of the misplaced concrete.” In this case, the so-called realists prefer the abstractions that we scientists use to describe our experiences rather than the concrete. This confuses the map with the terrain. The map is what we construct to help us make sense of scientific experience (experiments, observations, etc.), but it’s still based on the more fundamental, basic experience of just, you know, being alive. Understanding this opens up a perspective that can take us beyond the usual realist/idealist divide. Constructing such a view opens us up to philosophies that go by names like phenomenology or pragmatism, as well as the ideas of Buddhist philosophers like Nagarjuna.
I most certainly believe that there is a world without us. But the descriptions we create with science can never be independent of our point of view. They cannot be separated from our experience as embodied human beings, each of us using languages learned from human communities. From this point of view, science is not objective because it points to an ideal fairyland seen by the eyes of God. Instead, science is objective because it allows us to create maps that we can test together by comparing them to the results of experiments.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s real realism, OG realism. Anything less leaves you with perfect, hermetically sealed accounts of an independent reality that has no room for life and breath experience. He ends up tortured by unreal paradoxes.