Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


What is reality? Why is there something rather than nothing

Lead: Jeannie Allain


Summary by Heather Noyes:

"God for the 21st Century" Part 7, by Russell Stannard ed.

Reflecting on the past few weeks’ discussions, Professors Möbius, Davis, and Whittier brainstormed ways in which more students would be able to participate. There has been a noticeable amount of consistent contributors, while the remaining students tend to remain quiet. Being that the class is discussion oriented and ten percent of the grade is based on participation, it is important that everyone has a chance to speak.

Originally, the idea was that the suggested leaders would facilitate open discussion following the lead-in. However, this responsibility of control was not overly emphasized to the students. Telling others and elders when they can and cannot speak is an uncomfortable task for some. Therefore, a designated role was created, Chairperson. The Chairperson of the evening must be respected and obeyed, otherwise the situation regarding participation remains unregulated. A student volunteered after some reluctance, but from then on, the discussion was much more controlled. Anyone who raised her hand at some point was noticed by the Chairperson and called upon, even if the subject had passed. Resurfacing these inputs that would have otherwise been lost kept the conversations on target and sparked more in depth discussion, rather than jumping all over the place from one idea to the next. Overall, the newly created role of Chairperson was very effective. It was decided, however, that if there are two discussion leaders, they should be the ones to delegate who is to speak. A Chairperson volunteers only when there is one student leading discussion. It was also stressed that if a person has a new idea or a comment is going to lead into another subject, that person should say so and the Chairperson will call upon anyone who still remains with comments on the subject at hand.

What is reality? Jeannie starts by writing the Merriam Webster definition on the board. Reality is “1. the state of quality of being real; 2. an event, entity, or state of affairs; 3. the totality of real things and events; 4. something that is neither derivative nor dependent, but exists necessarily”. Professor Whittier, without mentioning to the entire class, placed a check mark on the fourth definition because all of the other definitions include the word “real”. A general rule of language is that when describing a word, that word or any derivatives of that word should not be in its definition. Therefore, the only considerable definition of “reality” is “ something that is neither derivative nor dependent, but exists necessarily”.

Jeannie also wrote the Merriam Webster definition of the word “nothing” on the board, which is, “1. something that does not exist; 2. the absence of all magnitude”. In other words, nothing means that it is the absence of any thing and cannot be measured. A black hole may be thought of as nothing, but since it can be detected and measured, it is something. The origins of the universe is unknown;, there is the thought that something was created out of nothing. Was it really nothing, though? How could things and non-things, that are and aren’t, exist at the same time? Whittier right away states that he does not think the word “nothing” exists, that it should be expunged. What does it mean? What does it do? Asking questions like, “What is X?” is much harder than asking questions specific questions like, “When does it arise?” These questions will lead to specific examples, which are easier to conceptualize and investigate. For example, if one asks, “Are my dreams of flying real?” Well, the dream is real, but the act of flying is not. Whittier stated that philosophy asks the big, broad questions like “Why we are here?” asking for a justification, while scientists ask “Why” for an explanation. Both of these strategies may yield a solution, but the road to that solution must be specific. It was also an interesting note by Whittier that the English language has the noun, “nothingness” to describe “nothing”, even though one can not describe nothing since nothing cannot take on qualities.

Davis interludes at this point to discuss the Correspondence Theory. Knowledge is a justified true belief and the way in which that belief is justifiable is through a correspondence or relational structure or system. A statement can be considered true if and only if that statement relates to a fact. For example, the proposition that dogs bark is true if it’s a fact that some dogs bark. The first part of the statement is the abstract, representing system, which tends to be an idea through language. The second part is the represented system, the objective, factual, concrete level. Davis describes this theory by stating that something is there if it corresponds to reality. He continues to relate this to the study of science in that the world is independent of humans and our way of studying the world is by separating the subjective from the objective. Since the human’s way of learning often involves direct interaction and mind-dependent observations through senses, science is subjective in a way.

Here Professor Whittier steps in to expand on the idea of science. He says the realities are what science attempts to study by making maps and establishing truth as a property of statements. The way to know something is through interactions with the thing known. He mentions John Archibald Wheeler, a physicists who worked with Einsteinon general relativity and quantum physics in since the mid-ninefifties. Wheeler believed that a measuring instrument has effect on the measurement, yet there is some objective reality gained through scientific experiments. Objective means based on observable phenomena, uninfluenced by personal emotions or subjectivity. All knowledge comes from interaction and we can’t know something in itself, instead we know something through relations. To add, Wheeler once said, “We are not only observers. We are participators. In some strange sense this is a participatory universe." By this quotation, Wheeler suggests that the universe is connected and the humans knowledge of realities is found through relations.

Davis begins to explain the gedanken-experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. A cat is in a box along with radioactive material. Once the material starts to decay, a counter detects the decay and releases gas to kill the cat. This experiment was contrived as a scientific joke, Whittier later reveals, and more as a philosophical question of reality. If reality is what a human observes, then is the death of the cat only real once the experimenter opens the lid to the box? The smell of the dead cat is dependent on human perception, yet using that indication is no way to reveal when the material started to decay. The decay was independent of human perception, yet still a reality since it caused the observable death of the cat.

Here Professor Möbius sparks embarks on a similar subject of with wave-particle duality. The characteristics of light are mysterious to scientists because sometimes light is detected through experiments as a wave, while at other times it acts like a photon or particle. The detection depends on the experiment and the way scientists study atoms, especially at the quantum level, is by bumping, heating, cooling, sending through slot detectors, etc. In effect, scientists are not observing the original or real state of the particles. As for light, scientists are still puzzled as to its different roles; light never seems to be doing the same roles simultaneously, it switches from wave to particle. Is this the reality or our observable reality?

Möbius also stresses how we use models to explain phenomena. The book, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott, discusses how models are used in a two dimensional world. Möbius suggests that when observing and measuring something in a two dimensional world, that something could have a completely different reality when brought to the three dimensional world. For example, studying the shadow of a water bottle is much different than studying the actual bottle.

Humans’ concept of reality is changing with every new interaction and connection found with the universe. Nothing is best thought of as no-thing, inexistent. Objects are not composed of human perception, they are real without observation.