Is reality an ILLUSION? 🌊 How Science and Philosophy answer to this question
Since humankind could take a break from wild beasts or laborious activities, we have started to wonder what this crude reality is made of. The first philosophers have focused first on scaling down reality to the bare minimum. They seeked the ultimate foundation of things, falling into an argument whether it is fire, water, air or other primal physical phenomenons which might look like they have originated all the other things on Earth.
Amongst all these intellectual efforts, two intuitions are worth to be mentioned if we want to understand what a long way we have gone since we first got curious about reality ‘as it really is’.
Democritus is thought to be the father of modern science because he introduced the concept of ‘atom’, which was meant to be the smallest particle of which the world is made of.
Heraclitus moved farther down the line and took an extremely contemporary, steep and dangerous ontological path: all these entities, these elementary particles that we are after, and that we want to believe as independent, they don’t exist, if not in a relation, or opposition, with other objects. We cannot think of an entity without its opposite. Light can only be conceived in relation to darkness, and today we could say a planet can only be conceived in relation to a star around which it orbits. “Panta rhei” he writes, everything flows, and it’s impossible to “cross the same river twice”. We don’t have many findings of Heraclitus’ thought because, as it happened to many thinkers who were rebelling to the idea of an immutable, independent first ‘creator’, in other words, God, was not quoted, left to oblivion, or simply burnt by Christian Roman emperors.
What was accepted by the first Christians instead was another philosophical position of Eraclitus, who first proposed the idea of atomic "swerve", which holds that atoms may deviate from their expected course, thus permitting humans to possess free will in an otherwise deterministic universe. Bear this in mind for later.
In the courtyards of philosophical schools in Athens, Plato first and Aristotele later gave way to two different gnosiological approaches to reality, in other words, how can we possibly know. Now, to put it very short, stupid short, I would summarize it this way.
Plato’s take is: ‘we have an innate knowledge of things, we have an idea of what everything is’. Everything we experience in our lives is merely a copy of the perfect model that exists above us, and in our heads, well…he mentions a sort of heaven of ideas called Hyperuranium. We can only recognize a tree because we all have an idea of what an ‘ideal tree’ looks like. We call this philosophical current Idealism.
Aristoteles’ reboot is: ‘not exactly Plato, our knowledge comes only from experience, through our senses, and it’s only later organized and categorized by the mind’. We call this Empirism. Aristotle is the first person to set about giving a systematic explanation of nature in terms of simple principles based upon observation, and experiments. He paved the way for the scientific method.
Now, as we all know, everything that has to be told had been told already in Ancient Greek. All that was said after was just extra. The idealistic view was taken to the extreme by Hegel, and the empiristic view by Hume. With incredible impact to all our lives. After that, philosophers have sort of lost the appeal of the early days, and their impact on society and the way we perceive reality, has plummed.
We can argue now that science has taken over and has a stronger say when it comes to understanding the physical world. And in general is more trustworthy because it gives us technology, computers, Iphones. There is actually a general belief that in 10-20 years' time we will have access to technology that will solve all our problems. And the collective mindset is such that all we need is more scientific progress and humanity will be saved. However, the reality is such that you cannot order scientific breakthroughs, which may be true in terms of optimizing existing technology, but not true of anything revolutionary.
Lately, science has taken on the status of priestcraft and the most common portrayal of a theoretical physicist is that he knows things that the so-called ‘layman’ could never fathom, and do super fantastic stuff that is beyond the layman’s grasp, and that can't be really explained but can only be believed.
I am afraid this is not the case. The reality of research is much more mundane, scientists are hopelessly confused themselves in the first place, progress is very slow and building consensus is painstaking. Science is about limitations, looking at natural laws is about restrictions. And in fact the more you know about science the less you believe in science omnipotence.
As the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli puts it nicely: ‘Science is sometimes criticized for pretending to explain everything, for thinking that it has an answer to every question. It is a curious accusation. As every researcher working in every laboratory throughout the world knows, doing science means coming up hard against the limits of your ignorance.. on a daily basis. A scientist is someone who lives immersed in the awareness of our deep ignorance, in direct contact with our own innumerable limits.. with the limits of our understanding..Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It is reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present’’.
What is the best answer to what reality is? Quantum physicists are formulating the strongest, most incredible attempt to answer that, since the 23-year-old Heisenberg spent two months alone in the island of Helgoland, north of Germany - in 1925. At that point, we knew a bit more than Democritus, for example, that atoms are constituted of electrons, protons and neutrons. But we thought of them as particles, localized, minuscular objects. Heisenberg has changed the game. Particles are rather waves, like sea waves! They are fluctuating randomly. We cannot ‘localize’ them exactly, but only predict where they are, at the moment when we are observing them.
The world of physics was shocked by the mere realization that we cannot know things as they are, and where they are. And we will never know. Because the theory is not telling us where any particles of matter is located when we don’t observe it, but only the probability of where it is if we are observing it. At the moment we are observing it..puff! it does not behave like a wave anymore. It becomes an identifiable particle. There’s more: if I don’t look at the trajectory of a quantum, like a photon (which is basically a grain of light), it always ends up one way. But if I look at it, it can go another way. Therefore, the photon is in two different places - at the same time!
The life of an electron is not a line in space. It is a fragmented manifestation of events, here and there, and only when it comes in a relationship with another object, or with us who are observing it. Now, how does a particle know that we are observing it, to then behave differently? After hundred years of quantum physics, this theory is still a mystery.
Even Einstein, certainly not afraid of revolutionizing the world's view, welcomed this new theory with the famous statement: "God does not play dice with the universe." However, recent experiments have suggested that despite Einstein's protestations, the behavior of particles at the quantum level is likely influenced by randomness after all. If you want to read more about these experiments click here: https://www.livescience.com/62523-physicists-crowdsource-a-reality-check.html
Back to Heraclitus, we can affirm that everything is entangled, in a relationship with something else, every object exists only if it shares qualities with another object, and if it is seen by a third object or person for that matter. Even us, of course, as natural phenomenons, are existing only as a relationship. With anybody else, with everything else. And indeed we are free, from determining laws, from fixed identities, from God. We are freer than ever.
Let’s embrace the randomness, my friends.
Yours, Elena & Alessandro
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