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What is Real? Discussions with Ranga.

This post is a long email discussion I had with my friend Ranga. The topic was the unreality of reality of things and how this notion can be applied in physics.

Going through the debate again, I feel that Ranga considers himself better-versed in the matters of philosophy than I am. I do too, I consider him better read than me. But I feel that his assumption (that I didn’t know so much that I should be talking about such things) may have biased his opinion and blinded him to some of the genuinely new things (in my opinion, of course) I had to say. Nonetheless, I think there are quite a few interesting points that came out during the debate that may be of general interest. I have edited and formatted the debate for readability.

It is true that many bright people have pondered over the things I talk about in this blog and in my book. And they have articulated their thoughts in their works, probably better than I have in mine. Although it is always a good idea to go through the existing writings to “clear my head” (as one of my reviewers suggested while recommending David Humes), such wide reading creates an inherent risk. It is not so much the time it will take to read and understand the writings and the associated opportunity cost in thinking; it is also the fact that everything you read gets assimilated in you and your opinions become influenced by these brilliant thinkers. While that may be a good thing, I look at it as though it may actually be detrimental to original thought. Taken to the extreme, such blind assimilation may result in your opinions becoming mere regurgitation of these classical schools of thought.

Besides, as Hermann Hesse implies in Siddhartha, wisdom cannot be taught. It has to be generated from within.

Ranga’s words are colored Green (or Blue when quoted for the second time).

Mine are in White (or Purple when quoted for the second time).

Mon, May 21, 2007 at 8:07 PM.

I’m, to different extents, familiar with the distinction philosophers and scientists make in terms of phenomenal and physical realities – from the works of Upanishads, to the Advaitas/Dvaitas, to the Noumenon/Phenomenon of Schopenhauer, and the block Universe of Special Relativity, and even the recent theories in physics (Kaluza and Klein). The insight that what we perceive is not necessarily what “is”, existed in a variety of ways from a long time. However, such insights were not readily embraced and incorporated in all sciences. There is a enormous literature on this in neuroscience and social sciences. So, it is indeed very good that you have attempted to bring this in to physics – by recollecting our previous discussion on this, by reading through your introduction to the book in the website and understanding the tilt of your paper (could not find it in the journal – has it been accepted?). To suggest that there could be superluminal motion and to explain known phenomena such as GRBs through a quirk (?) in our perception (even in the physical instruments) is bold and needs careful attention by others in the field. One should always ask questions to cross “perceived” boundaries – in this case of course the speed of light.

However, it is quite inaccurate and superficial (in my opinion) to think that there is some “absolute” reality beyond the “reality” we encounter. While it is important to know that there are multiple realities for different individuals in us, and even different organisms, depending on senses and intellect, it is equally important to ask what reality is after all when there is no perception. If it cannot be accessed by any means, what is it anyway? Is there such a thing at all? Is Absolute Reality in the movement of planets, stars and galaxies without organisms in them? Who perceives them as such when there is nobody to perceive? What form do they take? Is there form? In applying philosophy (which I read just as deeper and bolder questions) to science (which I read as a serious attempt to answer those questions), you cannot be half-way in your methods, drawing imaginary boundaries that some questions are too philosophical or too theological for now.

While your book (the summary at least) seems to bring home an important point (at least to those who have not thought in this direction) that the reality we perceive is dependent on the medium/mode (light in some cases) and the instrument (sense organ and brain) we use for perceiving, it seems to leave behind a superficial idea that there is Absolute Reality when you remove these perceptual errors. Are they perceptual errors – aren’t perceptual instruments and perceptions themselves part of reality itself? To suggest that there is some other reality beyond the sum of all our perceptions is philosophically equally erroneous as suggesting that what we perceive is the only reality.

All the same, the question about reality or the lack of it has not been well incorporated into the physical sciences and I wish you the best in this regard.

Cheers
Ranga