What Is Reality?

posted in: science | 0

My vision is all foggy right now, from having my pupils dilated by the eye doc.* That makes it hard to do any real work, so I decided to use the first hour of my enforced leisure to… well, leiszh, as Julia put it. I checked the DVR and saw that it had recorded the first episode of a new science show called Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design. This episode was about the meaning of life. (Which we all know is 42, but never mind that.)
*That’s no longer true, but it was true when I started writing this.

Now, my admiration for Stephen Hawking as a physicist and science communicator knows few bounds, and I was as geek-happy as anyone when he made his appearance in Star Trek: the Next Generation. But I wonder if he oversteps his area of wisdom when he speaks as a philosopher. In fact, in the opening to the show, he makes the statement, “Philosophy is dead.” Because physics killed it. Because everything in the universe is defined by physics, so (he implies) the soft disciplines need not apply. Strong statement. Does he support it? He tries. His approach is unabashedly reductionist. 

The show went on with a moderately interesting overview of all of the ways physics rules. Lots of pretty graphics, and nothing you don’t already know. I started to feel that I was listening to Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory discourse on the supremacy of theoretical physics. Having established that physics rules over everything from quarks to the cosmos, Hawking proceeds to ask whether free will really exists. How can it? he asks, when our impulses and actions are governed by physics, when our actions and even our feelings can be influenced by electrodes in our brains, giving only the illusion of our own control. Ah, but what about chaos and unpredictability? Does that allow free will, or at least explain our perception of it? I don’t think he gave us a yes or no—or if he did, it was while I was in the kitchen getting a slice of pizza.

I kept waiting for him to bring quantum uncertainty into the question, but that never came up. That surprised me, because from a mechanistic, physical point of view, quantum uncertainty seems to be an elephant in the room in any discussion of free will. If we’re all just a collection of particles behaving according to physics, what does it mean if we fundamentally cannot predict or even measure completely the behavior of an individual particle? Perhaps a topic for another time, but it felt like an odd omission to me. Still, that wasn’t my problem so much as his assertion that particles and firing neurons are the sole explanation of consciousness and mind. Do I object to it as a hypothesis? No. But is it fact, scientifically provable fact? Of course not. We’re far from being able to prove such a thing. I doubt we ever will. In fact, I don’t even think it’s true. (That’s a personal opinion, not a scientific assertion.) 

Hawking avoids any discussion of God or spiritual dimension, though it’s easy to infer that he simply regards these matters as outside the bounds of reality. He does talk, though, about differing subjective views of reality. He offers the charming example of a fish peering out through a distorting fishbowl (or a guy peering through foggy vision?). He goes on to say that it’s entirely possible that we’re all just code running inside a gigantic, cosmic computer. How would we know? (But wait—wouldn’t that, if true, render moot all of the previous discussion of physics controlling everything?)

It comes down in the end, he says, to finding the “best fit” among models of reality. What model “best fits” the evidence? Fair enough. But it seems to me that that’s where his physics and his philosophy get tangled up. His best fit seems to include “scientific” assertions that really haven’t been proven by science, and probably can’t be. I’m thinking, maybe Hawking should stick to the physics he does so well, but not claim for it powers beyond its reach.

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.” —Albert Einstein

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