Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is Realism a Dirty Word?

Martin Gardner before a domino portrait by Ken Knowlton

One of the most intelligent and delightful thinkers of our times is Martin Gardner, formerly the long-time editor of Scientific American's popular Mathematical Recreations column and author of an amazing number of books. For anyone studying the concept of mind-created reality, I consider this essential reading: Gardner's guest essay published in the American Journal of Physics: Is Realism a Dirty Word?

Is Realism a Dirty Word?
Every now and then a philosopher is smitten with incredible hubris. "Man is the measure of all things" was how Protagoras vaguely put it. For some metaphysicians, mostly in Germany, hubris mounted to such heights that they imagined the very existence of the universe depended on human minds. Only our shifting perceptions are real. If we cease to exist, presumably the universe would dissolve into structureless fog, perhaps cease to exist altogether, perhaps never to have existed. Laws of science and mathematics, the structure of fields and their particles are not "out there." They are free creations of the human spirit.

Instead of seeing our brains as feeble, short-lived ensembles of atoms dancing to universal rules, this curious view sees our brains as actually inventing physical law--in a sense, constructing the universe. J. J. Thomson did not discover the electron. He invented it. Einstein did not discover the laws of relativity, he fabricated them. The fact that such fabrications are successful in explaining past observations and predicting future ones strikes a cultural solipsist as uncanny, inscrutable magic. "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics" was the title of Eugene Wigner's best-known essay.

Now there is nothing unusual about philosophers holding such opinions because no view is so bizarre that some metaphysician hasn't defended it. The amazing thing is that in recent years a few working physicists have abandoned the realism of Newton and Einstein. "The purpose of this article is to refute the fallacy that reality exists outside of us," writes English physicist Paul Davies in his contribution to The Encyclopedia of Delusions. The theme of astrophysicist Bruce Gregory's Inventing Reality: Physics as a Language is accurately described on the book's flap: "Physicists do not discover the physical world, they invent a physical the poet Muriel Rukeyser puts it, 'The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.'"

For decades John Wheeler has been telling us that sentient life exists nowhere in the universe except on little old Earth, that if the universe had not been so structured so as to allow itself to be observed by us, it would have only the palest sort of reality. "Quantum mechanics," he asserts...demolishes the view that the universe exists out there." Frank Wilczek, reviewing a recent book honoring Wheeler (Science, 28 October 1988) diplomatically comments on this remark: "The importance of Wheeler's technical contributions to physics gives his statements a weight that, coming from another source, they would not have."

It is a short step from Wheeler's social solipsism to the notion that science is not a progressively better understanding of eternal laws, but a cultural creation like music and art.

Read the rest of Gardner's essay here.

No comments: