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  • Writer's pictureRob Hamilton

Scientific Realism's New Clothes

Updated: Jun 16



Does God exist?  What is consciousness?  How can we know what is real?  

 

Questions such as these have always perplexed humanity and despite the great advances made over recent centuries in understanding the behaviour of the world around us, we seem to be no closer to answering these core questions about the nature of existence. 

 

In Anything Goes – A Philosophical Approach to Answering the God Question, I argue that, paradoxically, answers to these questions can only be obtained once we recognise that no knowledge of the true structure of reality is possible.  This implies that claims about the structure of reality can only be credible when viewed as models that describe the way our experience of the world behaves – these models then become our reality in a de facto sense. 


 

All the World is Models

 

Perhaps the popular notion of how science progresses is that we are gradually getting closer to the truth about the nature of the world around us.  As time has gone on, scientific advances have been made and we have reached the stage where Einstein’s General Relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics give us a nearly complete description of the universe.  We just need some clever physicists to iron out a few wrinkles like dark matter and dark energy in a Theory of Everything, and then we will have arrived at the Truth of how reality is structured. 

 

The naivety in this belief was highlighted by 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper, when he pointed out that scientific theories can never be proven to be true.  Rather, they are working assumptions about the way the world is, that are supported by the evidence.  Until they aren’t.  Newton’s theory of gravity was thought to be true until anomalies like the precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury were discovered.  Instead, it we need to turn to Einstein’s theory.  This raises the possibility that if we manage to come up with a Theory of Everything, who is to say that one day we will not conduct an experiment or make an observation that contradicts this theory?  For this reason, even if physicists were to discover the true structure of reality, they could never know it!  “Okay”, one might say.  “Although we would never know that we had reached the truth, at least we can say that our current theories are ‘more true’ than the previous ones”.  This view is known as Convergent Realism and was attacked in a 1981 paper by the philosopher Larry Laudan.  Einstein’s theory provides only very slightly different results to Newton’s at the everyday level, but the way it characterises the universe is completely different.  Newton’s theory is set in the common-sense world of three-dimensional space and a separate conception of time.  Einstein’s theory is based on the notion of curved four-dimensional spacetime.  Who can say what the universe will look like according to the next theory?  Quantum mechanics tells us that cats can be alive and dead at the same time and that the building blocks of our universe can be both waves and particles.  Might it be that the true nature of the universe is just as weird and perhaps even beyond our ability to comprehend? 

 

Ultimately, scientific theories are models of the way the universe works.  They allow us to understand the universe in terms of its behaviour – we can use them to predict how the macroscopic objects of our experience, such as tables, stars and light bulbs behave, and they do this by characterising the universe in a certain way that helps us get to grips with it.  But, as humans, we just do not have the tools to find out what the universe is ‘really like’. 

 

The Map is the territory

 

Now comes the plot twist.  The surprising but unavoidable consequence of this, is that the structure or make-up of this reality that we are modelling is irrelevant!  It is only reality’s behaviour that matters.  It is reality’s behaviour that we are modelling and a good model will predict its behaviour well.  But if reality’s structure is unknowable and elusive, then it will forever remain a shadowy mysterious thing lying behind the veil.  It is only the structure and objects of our models that can be known to us.  These are the things that we live by and that give our lives meaning.  And so these are the only objects that can be considered ‘real’ in any meaningful sense – if the objects of our models are not real, then nothing is real. 

 

What we have here, I would argue, is a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Many scientists and physicists are aware that all of our understanding is in terms of our models, but perhaps avoid engaging with the implications of this, because it is unnecessary for day to day work and raises difficult questions.  We cling to the idea that there must be a meaningful ‘right answer’ out there, because if there isn’t, then well doesn’t everything fall apart?  Where are the standards of correctness?  What is to stop us from just claiming that whatever we like is true?  I argue in Part III of the book, that these worries are unfounded.  Although its structure is unknowable, reality does behave in a certain way.  And so not all models are created equal. A model that says it is not raining, when there is water falling from the sky, is not a sensible model.

 

Anything Goes

 

I like to call this way of thinking the ‘Anything Goes’ method, because with no knowable reality to assess our models against, the only standard of correctness is a consideration of whether your model produces sensible results. Now some may object that this gives us a licence to assert any old nonsense, such as the universe being run by giant undetectable pink ghost unicorns that stride majestically through the cosmos. Equally, it may antagonise hardliners, who struggle to accept that different ways of seeing things could all be reasonable. I live in hope that at least some parts of society can discuss the relative merits of various models with a productive maturity and avoid the conversation descending into farce! But ultimately, I would argue that these potential difficulties point to sociological issues rather than being indicative of any conceptual problems with the fundamental idea.


And finally it might be noted that there is more to modelling reality than just the laws of physics.  Even the idea that there is some kind of external reality, is part of the model that provides structure to our experiences and informs the explanation as to how they behave.  Ultimately, each of us needs to find a way of making sense of our experiences in a way that works for us.  In that sense, Anything Goes. 

 

Applications

 

This way of thinking can be revolutionary!  Once we recognise that it’s all a matter of perspective – that there are no disembodied facts about the universe in any useful sense, we can make progress in all sorts of areas that have previously proved intractable.  Does God exist?  It depends on your model.  Is Schrödinger’s Cat alive or dead?  Well, from whose perspective?  How would we tell if an AI attained consciousness?  To answer this question, we need to consider what it means to say that an entity whose existence is as part of your model of reality might have a mind of its own in a stronger sense.  The famous Gettier problem of epistemology can be seen in a new light. We go on to consider whether Solipsism could be true, what it’s like to be a bat and whether you could be a brain in a vat.  All these questions and more are addressed in Anything Goes – A Philosophical Approach to Answering the God Question, due to be released on Amazon on 3 June 2024. 

 

Visit www.anythinggoesmetaphysics.com to find out how to get a free advance copy. 

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