Is There An Objective Reality?

Is There An Objective Reality?


So this is the ontological question: is supposed apparently “objective” reality really real?

I come at this as someone who in the past questioned this.  I had my period of post-modernist questioning of objective reality. This culminated in a paper, which  I presented as a major address to receive a major recognition at my university, “Belief: Its role in economic theory and action,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 1993.

I shall stand by the vast majority of things I said in that paper, now under criticism on various fronts, but not all. I shall note, without bothering to reply specifically to any of those comments here, that indeed  there are things in this paper I now disagree with.  This was the height of my agreement with the pomo view of the universe.  But I had moved on from the less defensible parts of that  paper well before the general pomo exercise was to be revealed to be a pile of the Sokal expose in 1996.

I have just finished reading main portions of the latest book by my friend, Lee Smolin, “Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum,” which is to be a Christmas present to a family member, “pretesting” of gifts we call it.

Lee is a friend of mine, and the big cheese at the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, ON, CA. This is the place where the critics of string theory hang out, and Lee is their leader. I have spoken there, and I have lots of respect for this place and specifically many people there beyond Lee Smolin, their general protector and supporter.

So, Lee is the leader of those who question the String theory explanation of ultimate reality. This now puts Lee and his associates at the PMI as “heterodox,” as economists would say, given that there is no longer a clear disproof of the hypothesis.

Anyway, Smolin recognizes that this debate over the  nature reality is important for current policy discussions.  While he recognizes varieties of “anti-realists,” the most important view going back through Wheeler and Bohr and Schrodinger is his cat problem: until somebody looks at it we do not know if it is alive or dead.  But whether or not we view it; in the end it is one or the other.  There really is an objective reality that has been proceeding long before we showed up to have ideas about it.  At the bottom line, I agree with him, even as I continue to support most of what is in my 93 paper.

I shall note, now especially as I have identified for economists, especially fans of this blog, the Perimeter Institute is the hangout of what supposedly does not exist, “heterodox physics theorists.” Now I, as an old epistemologist, recognize that supposedly physics is “more real” than economics, with all its humans behaving weirdly and more.  But, as Smolin notes, quantum mechanics is itself from Neils Bohr on down through Heisenberg and many others associated with an “anti-realist” view: reality is ultimately an interaction between humans and what they perceive: the cat is dead or alive only when some observer sees the cat.  For Smolin, and according to him and the ultimate realist Eintein, the cat in the end is alive or dead.  More fundamentally, on a point I take seriously. reality was  around for billions of years before we showed up.  Does somehow its reality depend  on us on observing it?

Bottom line is that I agree with Lee that despite all the oddities of quantum mechanics in the end there really is an objective reality.

So now let us bring this to the current ongoing debates in political economy an admittedly less well-founded “science.” So Smolin does make some observations on current discussions, where I completely agree with him. So, on climate change, yes, science is pretty clear: global warming is happening. What we do about  is another matter. But global warming is a real reality actually happening.

Also, human beings got here through evolution.  That is also an objective fact supported by virtually all of the available evidence, despite  some odd details in evolutionary history.  We really need to defend science against its attackers in the public arena.

Barkley Rosser