There’s No Such Thing as Reality

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Through the Looking GlassRecently I read an article published in the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic. It was written by Daniel D. Hoffman, who is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California (Irvine). He calls his article “The Case Against Reality,” and its main thrust is how different reality is from what our senses tell us. His ultimate conclusion is that there is no such thing as reality.

He starts with quantum physics which is the study of the particles that make up the nucleus of atoms. And, as you know, atoms make up everything. In experiment after experiment, physicists have seen that there is a connection between 1) an observer of particles and 2) the particles being observed. Physicists rely heavily on complex mathematics to prove or disprove theories, and Hoffman reports that if scientists assume particles have an objective independent existence, they get the wrong answers in their mathematics.

He writes, “The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space. As the physicist John Wheeler put it, ‘Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.’ ”

Thus, scientists seem to be coming down on the side of phenomenalism, the theory that things disappear when you are not looking at them. This idea was why Albert Einstein had a hard time dealing with quantum mechanics. One night he was walking and talking with a fellow physicist when he stopped and asked if his friend really believed that the moon exists only when he looks at it. Einstein knew that that was what quantum mechanics was suggesting, but he just couldn’t accept it. In the end Einstein labeled his own theory of reality as his “belief.” He wrote “The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” Yes, but . . .

Einstein died before the work of physicist John Stewart Bell showed quantum mechanics to be a workable theory. Bell’s theorem made it possible for quantum mechanics to be used in the production of things like highly accurate clocks, powerful super computers, and improved microscopes. So whether or not you accept the theory of reality coming from quantum physics, there is enough truth in the underlying work to be put to use in our illusory world.

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