New Scientist has a short video discussing the proper understanding of reality. It’s a 2:30 philosophical mess! It’s almost as bad as their video on how the universe came from nothing, but I won’t go there.
They present two definitions of reality. Their first definition is that “reality is everything that would still be here if there was no one around to experience it.” But they find this view problematic because “as far as we know, we humans actually do exist, and a lot of the things that we can all agree are real, like language, or war, or consciousness, wouldn’t exist without us.” What?
This objection is irrelevant. Yes, humans exist, but how does that count against this definition of reality? The definition doesn’t assume or require that people do not exist. It merely holds that some X is real if and only if X would still obtain in the absence of a mind to think about it. While it goes without saying that those things germane to humans would not exist if humans did not exist, what does that have to do with everything else non-human? The question is whether anything else would exist if we didn’t exist, not whether things unique to humans would exist if humans did not exist.
What’s the other definition of reality? It’s that reality is nothing. How do they arrive at this bizarre conclusion? By even more bizarre logic. Their approach to the question is reductionistic: The feature of reality that gives rise to all other features of reality is true reality. So what is this fundamental reality? It can’t be matter because matter is constituted by (>) molecules > atoms > electrons > quarks > fields, and who knows what else. No matter how many times we subdivide physical reality into constituent parts, the smallest part we arrive at still cannot constitute fundamental reality because what these things exist in is even more fundamental: space-time. Space-time is a four-dimensional set of coordinates (3 dimensions of space, 1 dimension of time). Since coordinates are just ways of talking about numbers, numbers must be the most fundamental feature of reality on which all else depends. And since mathematics can be constructed from the concept of an empty set, which is “nothing,” reality is nothing. The conclusion: “If math really is whatever is most fundamental in the universe, then reality is ultimately based on nothing. Which is to say that nothing is what is real.”
Here’s what’s wrong with this picture:
- They have reduced reality to the fundamental element of reality. Even if we grant that mathematics is really nothing, clearly the computer I am typing on is not nothing. It is something. It is real. Limiting one’s definition of reality only to the fundamental building blocks of reality is an overly reductionistic approach to the question, which leads, in this case, to an absurdity. A true definition of reality must fit all things we know to be real (computers, cars, molecules, quarks, etc.), not just the most fundamental feature of reality.
- Space-time is not a real entity, but a mathematical way of construing time and space. While space-time is a mathematical construct that does not correspond to anything in the real world, clearly space and time do! Space and time are very real…which leads to the next problem.
- They are confusing reality for a description of reality. While space and time can be described by and modeled by mathematics, space and time themselves are not mathematical objects. They are real features of the universe and cannot be considered nothing in any sense of the word.
As for the claim about empty sets, I’m not a math-buff, so I do not understand how all of mathematics can be derived from an empty set if an empty set contains nothing. What I can say is that even if this is true, and an empty set is mathematically equivalent to nothing, that does not mean physical realities that are described by mathematics are actually nothing. That’s like saying because I can describe the landscape using poetic language, the landscape is actually a poem.
- They concluded by saying “nothing is what is real.” Apart from the bizarre logic and sleight of hand they used to arrive at this conclusion, the statement itself is absurd. Nothing, defined its normal sense as “not anything,” cannot be real. That’s like speaking of married bachelors.
This is intellectual drivel, and yet because it’s called “science” and produced by a scientific organization, most will accept it as gospel truth without batting an eye. Don’t be fooled.
HT: Uncommon Descent