Author; correspondent for The Economist
Professor, Women's and Gender Studies Department, Rutgers
Former chair at Collège de
France, Paris, and professor at the University of Toronto
Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative
at Indiana University, Bloomington
“[The real] is what generates problems that science, philosophy, and the arts address,” writes Elizabeth Grosz, in what may serve as a definition on which we could at least partially agree and perhaps build.
Ian Hacking reckons that what is real depends on its context. What does that mean within science? Is it possible to extend the approach of looking in detail at each scenario into the quantum mechanical realm, for example? A traditional interpretation of quantum mechanics would have us believe that the neutrino is each of its three flavors—electron, muon, and tau—all simultaneously. If so, is it valid to ask whether this is a real electron neutrino as opposed to a muon neutrino? As Ian observed of electrons in a famous passage in his 1983 book Representing and Intervening, “If you can spray them, then they are real.” Neutrino laboratories send beams of neutrinos through the Earth. But how can such neutrinos be real if they are also three distinct things at the same time?
Douglas Hofstadter meanwhile would have us believe that concepts can be both real and unreal outside the bizarre world of quantum mechanics. He takes an example from literature: Holden Caulfield occupies a place in his mind that is similar to those of people he has actually met, and the character appears to have had a real effect on his life. Douglas suggests reality can be “an ephemeral, intangible pattern” existing in his brain and those of others, highlighting the roles of shared experience and of memory in determining what is real.
Elizabeth Grosz says that the concept of reality is what allows us to try to make sense of the world. If so, then to ask whether that is a real X is merely to inquire as to whether or not it corresponds to what we understand to be an X, and no more, which would reduce the concepts of truth in mathematics and physics to those of linguistics and sociology. If we agree that there are unicorns, dark matter, and electrons, then they really do exist. Is this all that we are left with?
One final question: does it make any sense to suggest that we could even conceive of something that is unreal?
There is a difference between the real and its representations. This is not to say, however, that representations are not real. They are of course real, real as representations. Holden Caulfield is not a real person, but is a real character in a real novel, one that affects us in various unpredictable ways. Reality is not defined or limited by what we think of it, or even how we represent it. Our representations of it are only possible because there is a real that precedes them. And that carries with it a dimension of ideality, of sense or meaning that enables representations of all kinds, whether literary, linguistic, painterly or scientific, to be produced. The reality of a novel, like the reality of a rock or tree, is its force, not only its force on us—this indeed is the limit of the novel: its reality only affects those who read, those who enter its order of representation. Otherwise a novel is nothing but a collection of paper, a different kind of reality.
Is a neutrino real? Is an atom real? The concepts “neutrino” and “atom” are, like the novel, representations of a real, conventionally defined terms whose definition, while fully transformable, function as a shorthand way of referring to certain effects we can thus far understand in no other ways. The objects to which these terms refer may or may not be real. This is an epistemological question, a question of what is true (or false). But the ontological question remains. What is real is real whether we know it or elaborate a truth about it or not. The real is that series of forces that act and have effects, whether we, its human observers, know it or not. Our beliefs about the real make a huge difference to how we act; but usually they make very little difference to the real itself, which persists independent of its representations, and independent of its effects on us.
I do not believe that the concept of reality allows us to make sense of the world! On the contrary, I believe that reality exists whether or not we make sense of it. Life, whether human or animal, is not simply about making sense of a world, of the real, or of representing it; it is primarily about living in it. Life is attuned to a real, and our knowledge, concepts, and psychology are our modes of living with and in the real, however adequate or inadequate they may be.
Alison asks whether we could conceive of something unreal. My answer to this question is that of course we can! We do this almost every day if not every minute! That we conceive of something does not make it real; at most, our conception has affects. But it may not generate effects. The real acts, it makes, it consists in forces that have effects. We can imagine a gold mountain, a noble cause, a unicorn. This makes our thought, or imagination, real (as thought, as imagination), but does not make our thoughts or imagination truthful, referential or capable of generating any effects except on us. The real persists in spite of us and beyond us. It generates rather than is generated by the very possibility of thought or imagination.
I can’t say for anyone else why the question “What is real?” is important, but for me it’s crucial because it’s about how deeply our intuitions clash with science. Here’s what I mean.
A glass of water on the table seems extremely simple. The water is quiet and still. There seems to be nothing complex there at all. Yet chemistry and physics tell us that the situation is, in William James’s words, a “buzzing, booming confusion.” The water isn’t a uniform, continuous substance but an enormous collection of infinitesimal, discrete “chunks” madly zooming about inside the container, constantly bashing into its walls and into one another in the craziest of patterns. Were we able to spy on them, we would see some wild coincidences.
By that I mean that unbelievably unlikely things necessarily happen when Avogadro’s number of blobs bash into each other. If you took 1000 coins and flipped each one ten times in a row, one of them would very likely come up either all heads or all tails. Though surprising, this is almost guaranteed by the “largeness” of 1000. But Avogadro’s number is about a hundred billion billion times larger than that, so if we could zoom in and watch various molecules bopping around, we’d see some astonishing trajectories—for example, a series of twenty collisions in a microsecond that made some “lucky” molecule follow essentially a perfectly circular pathway. Or some other “lucky” molecule would cross the glass in a straight line and then head back again, also in a straight line. Or another one would trace out a perfect five-pointed star. The details are irrelevant; the point is that all this kind of crazy stuff is going on all the time before our eyes, yet we cannot see it and don’t suspect any of it.
Every once in a while, though, we get tiny hints about this hidden reality inside our own bodies. I’m speaking of those strange feelings we get when, for instance, we’re sitting in an airplane and our leg falls asleep. The phrase is odd, for in fact our leg seems anything but asleep. Indeed, it’s almost the diametric opposite of asleep. It feels tinglingly alive. It’s as if we were being allowed a momentary glimpse of what really is going on inside our bodies. In your body and mine, for instance, every single second, a hundred trillion hemoglobin molecules are being destroyed, while another hundred trillion are being newly fabricated. All this is totally invisible to us, totally unsuspected. And it’s but the tip of the iceberg.
We can’t fathom the fabulous complexity of what we really are. Instead, we pretend that what the world “really” is is a series of births, deaths, love affairs, wars, joke-tellings, grade assignments, hirings, firings, and so forth. It’s a convenient myth, but it has nothing to do with what science tells us reality really is. The laws of physics, driving everything in the universe, totally ignore grades, jokes, jobs, and love. They deal only with such notions as energy and momentum and more elusive ones called “quantum numbers.”
Humans live in blissful ignorance of what reality really is, yet we manage to get along quite well—so well that we mistake our surface impression of the world for reality, and find it almost impossible to believe in what reality really is. That, for me, is the paradox of being alive.
Alas, we shall all be hung for our aphorisms. Yes I did say, speaking of an experiment using polarized electrons, “If you can spray them, then they are real”—as opposed to mere ideas used for calculation and prediction.
Alison Goddard asks about neutrinos, which she says are sent tunneling through the earth, “How can such neutrinos be real if they are also three distinct things at the same time?” Well, I am a real person (as opposed to a character created online for your delectation) who is many distinct things at the same time: a bore, a pedant, and a slovenly retired prof. As Elizabeth Grosz knows well, that troubled some ancient Greeks, but we take it for granted.
Goddard meant three incompatible things at the same time. I won’t do neutrinos, which no one understands well, but electrons. They also are several things at once, which, when measured, cannot all be true of the same thing. They are what are called superpositions of different incompatible states. How is that possible? How, as she asked in her first post, can Schrödinger’s cat be both dead and alive? There are many different responses to that type of question, one of which is that Quantum Mechanics is incomplete. But none of them, not a single one of the responses made by physicists, is well expressed using the word “real.” But you don’t want, here, a lecture on QM.
I loved Douglas Hofstadter’s romance with Holden Caulfield. (Yes, I had acne too.) I was just told by an expert smuggler that another Salinger book, Franny and Zooey, was the most-wanted illegal American literary export to the Soviet Union. (That’s true by the way, I was just told.) Guess they wanted some reality. But, says the pedant, it is just a delightful mix of metaphors to say that some bits of Holden Caulfield are “real” in various brains.
I am deeply moved by Elizabeth Grosz’s invocation of “the real.” But I do think it is making things up—“the real,” which forces us . . . (Poor old useful adjective, turned into a pretentious noun!) All sorts of things force me: I am forced by my arthritic arm to use a stepladder. But it was not some abstract “the real” that forced me then or ever.
Goddard asks, “Does it make sense to suggest that we could even conceive of something that is unreal?” Easy as pie. Unicorns, her first post example. But be careful. Unreal, beyond metaphor, means what? Language is wonderful, and we can use “unreal” in many ways. “This discussion is just unreal,” I can say, “why do we never talk to each other?”
This fussing with words will seem to many readers to have nothing to do with real philosophy. I plead Socrates. At each point in this three-stage discussion I have started with the first sentence said by another. It is, Socrates taught, often the first sentence that counts.