Saturday, March 6, 2010

Is There a Reality Out There?

"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" - Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody.

This week, my (grown/moved out/married) son and I have been discussing a posting I ran across last week on Dr. Sanity's blog . It concerns a reporter who was fired for believing there is such a thing as reality. The paper who fired him, the Atlanta Progressive News, said,

"At a very fundamental, core level, Springston did not share our vision for a news publication with a progressive perspective. He held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News. It just wasn't the right fit."

Yo! Atlanta Progressive News! Here's a newsflash: there is a reality out there and you don't get to define it. If you don't believe there's actual reality, I invite you to muster up all the belief you'd like to summon that gravity doesn't exist and take a short walk off the top of a tall building. If we are to learn any lesson from Looney Tunes, just don't look down or stop believing and you'll be fine. Don't mind me if I let someone else clean up the mess.

The simple fact that objective reality exists is becoming politically incorrect to teach, and people are being condemned to misery because of it. Too many young people are growing up with the view that their beliefs define reality. Dr. Sanity says, "I see many patients every day who have this completely backwards because they believe that their wishes and whims are primary, and reality must conform to them. The consequences of this fundamental metaphysical error is that their lives are a living hell."

Maybe I'm simple-minded old engineer, but the belief that there is no such thing as objective reality is one of the horses the coming apocalypse is riding on. We don't need to balance a budget, we need to spend our way out of our trouble, despite reality screaming it doesn't work. We need to get guns off the street, despite reality screaming every time you take guns from law-abiding people, crimes and deaths go up. We need to raise the prices on fossil fuels to stop climate change, although reality screams we will be sentencing millions to death in the cold or of starvation. We need to remove the free market system from American life, despite reality screaming it has given us more prosperity, more freedom and made us the largest force for "good" in world history.

It doesn't matter how we feel or what we feel about reality, we don't get to define it, reality simply is what it is. Recognizing that can help our country - and each of us - be strong and great.


Anonymous said...

You might enjoy reading Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism."

There's a difference between "objective" and "knowable."

TheGraybeard said...

Thanks for the reference. I read the version online at

Again, I may be a simple-minded old engineer, but philosophy generally leaves me pretty unimpressed. I took a required philosophy class in my undergrad days (back during the Medieval Warm Period) and was similarly unmoved by it. The Quine paper goes back and forth between the painfully obvious and the painful. Without having fancy words for it, like Quine, I have always rejected the difference between the analytic and the synthetic.

I am unabashedly an empiricist. Of course there are unknowable things: quantum physics and the uncertainty principle come to mind (much, much overused and abused among the pseudo-scientific set - listen to "Coast to Coast AM" for a week and you'll hear it mentioned at least once). The facts that make up the news, as the original APN post was about, are observable in fact. They are objectively observable and objectively describable.

As an aside, the Quine paper concludes with a quaint description of complex numbers as being a handy abstraction that allows Algebraic theory to be more complete. In my world, complex numbers are as concrete and real as, well, my real concrete porch. If you're using a wireless modem to access this, all of the communications theory that is used to design the modulation schemes depend on complex numbers. Imaginary numbers are no more imaginary than the counting numbers we start with. I think it was in a Scientific American article that I saw the great insight that if instead of calling them the real and imaginary parts of a number, we had called them something else like the humpty and dumpty parts, we'd all feel better.

If your algebra is too literal; that is you think of the square root of negative numbers as something imaginary, you'll blow out brain cells. Yes, you encounter negative frequencies. Since frequency is 1/time, that implies negative times. What's negative time? Going into the past? But the math perfectly models the reality. When you look for these "negative frequencies" on your test equipment, they are there. Assume the test equipment has been designed to lie to you, and negative frequencies do not exist. Throw out the test equipment, and the transmitters and receivers designed to use these negative frequencies work just fine.

I find it a much more interesting question to ponder why mathematics models the universe so well. Math started out with counting numbers (one pebble, two pebbles) and assumed 1+1=2. If you allow that a single number - 1 - exists, and that 1+1=2, everything else can be derived and proven. So why is a human intellectual exercise such a good model of reality?