Monday, September 3, 2012

The Magic Show

I wrote this in response to a discussion on another list regarding the "Church of Reality". I was trying to make the point that it is not at all obvious what reality is.

Reality is like a magic show. If the magician is good, all the illusions look absolutely real. Everybody in the audience agrees on what they saw. In a modern audience, everyone knows it was a magic show, and that the magician is just an ordinary person who used illusions and technical tricks to create what you thought you saw. But imagine that we're in a different time and a different place, where part of the audience believes that their eyes don't deceive them, and what they saw is all real. For them, the simplest explanation is that the magician has special powers.

When they leave the theater, the magician goes on to another city and never returns. But there is no reason to to doubt that some of the things that happen in the world are controlled by secretive magicians that they never actually see. It is perfectly obvious to everyone that the earth is flat, the sun and stars go around the earth, and objects in motion invariably slow down and stop. They measure the behavior of the sun and use it to predict when to plant their crops. They don't know why it follows the path it does, but they can certainly predict where it will be in the sky at any given time.

But there are these stubborn people called scientists who refuse to believe in magic, and worse yet, they tell us that nothing we see is actually real. They are always making everything more complicated. When you show them something, they always want to take it apart into smaller and smaller pieces. They never really seem to understand it, but they claim that the tiniest pieces are what is real. They say stuff like “an object in motion stays in motion, and only slows down because of friction”. This doesn't even obey Occam's razor. Then they say that the perfectly hard walls and floor that we can see and feel are mostly empty space. And the little teeny pieces they said everything was made of? Apparently those aren't real either -- instead they are some kind of probability wave. Or maybe it's both. Nobody is really sure. And get this: ninety-five percent of the universe is made of stuff nobody can see. The scientists can't find it, even with their fancy equipment, but they insist it's there somewhere. Sheesh. This is just crazy stuff.

Scientists are never happy with what they've got. Whatever they told us was real last year turns out to be wrong this year. Now the tiny pieces might be even tinier wiggly 11-dimensional strings. But some of them aren't happy with this either. There are some who think that maybe the universe is some kind of cellular automaton with cells the size of the Planck length. Some philosophical types think the universe is some kind of mathematical model, in which everything that can exist does exist, subject only to mathematical consistency. And then there are the loonies who think that the universe could, in theory, but a computer simulation.

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