Thursday, March 13, 2014

Science and Objective Reality: "Is It Solipsistic in Here, or Is It Just Me?"

Scientific American     The book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, is the story of my 17-year journey with my father to figure out the nature of ultimate reality and what we discovered, quite frankly, is not what any marketing team wants to hear. Quantum mechanics, relativity, black hole physics, cosmology and string theory all point to the same radical, paradigm-shifting conclusion: every observer’s reference frame defines its own universe, singular and complete, and even though any reference frame is as good as any other, we can only speak about one at a time. [...]

My belief in this cosmic solipsism is a sad lesson in irony, really, because this whole thing – my career, my universe, my book—began with a conversation. I was fifteen years old, having dinner in a Chinese restaurant, when my father leaned over and asked, “How would you define nothing?” He told me that he was trying to understand how you can get something from nothing, how a universe could be born. [...]

Our first major breakthrough came when we realized that physics can pin down what’s real and what isn’t. It’s one of those things that’s somehow stupidly obvious and yet deeply profound: something is real if it’s invariant. That is, something is real if it remains unchanged from one reference frame to the next. Just look at a rainbow. You’ll see one in the sky if you’re in just the right reference frame with the Sun shining in from behind you, and droplets of water in the atmosphere refracting the light. It’s pretty, but good luck trying to grab it. A rainbow is not a physical object stapled to the sky. It’s a product of your reference frame. Which is to say, it’s not real.

Ok, so what is real? Space? Time? Particles? Forces? Well Einstein showed that space and time aren’t real– they change from one reference frame to another. However, something remains invariant in the process: a unified, four-dimensional spacetime. “Space by itself and time by itself are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality,” the mathematician Hermann Minkowski declared.

And the thing my father and I learned is that ever since Einstein, theoretical physics has been one long death march for invariants. With his infamous discovery that black holes radiate, Stephen Hawking declared particles observer-dependent (along with fields and the quantum vacuum to boot). String theory did away with the invariance of dimensions and M-theory did away with the invariance of strings. By studying what happens when stuff falls into a black hole, Leonard Susskind discovered that the unified spacetime Einstein had left unscathed is itself observer-dependent. As for nature’s four fundamental forces, Einstein did away with gravity (“We are able to ‘produce’ a gravitational field merely by changing the system of coordinates,” he wrote) while the development of gauge theory took care of the other three. Every last one of the so-called fundamental ingredients of nature has turned out to be a shadow. Unreal.[...]

The death of the last remaining invariants is a new development in physics, but the specter of solipsism has been looming for decades, ever since the first generation of quantum physicists struggled to understand what the theory meant. “It is conceivable we must give up on any ‘one-world’ view of physics,” the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler scrawled in his journal as he wrestled with the mystery of the quantum. Quantum theory seems to go haywire when you assume that multiple observers occupy the same universe. I might open Schrodinger’s box to find a dead cat, but what if the cat, the box, and I are sitting inside an even bigger box, one that some other observer—my father, perhaps— hasn’t opened yet? To me, that cat is dead, but to my father it’s simultaneously dead and alive, and so am I. If there’s only one reality, which one is it? Quantum mechanics is just boxes within boxes – unless you stipulate that there’s only one box, in which case the whole issue of writing books becomes a little thorny.[...]


  1. Except that Schrodinger's box is no more than a moshol. Quantum physics is only relevant at the quantum level of matter, i.e. things that are subatomic.
    Halacha is determined by that which is visible in the eyes of the person paskening. Since Halacha is what defines reality, there is not much question as to what is objective reality.
    Perhaps the machlokesin between poskim sets up some sort of quantum state to reality, but I wouldn't bet on it!

    1. Does Halacha define reality ?

      If witnesses declare before Beis Din that Reuven murdered Yosef, and Reuven is therefore taken out and killed by Beis Din, does that mean that Reuven really killed Yosef ?

      We can see from within Halacha that this is not so, as if after Reuven is killed by Beis Din, other witnesses then come to Beis Din and prove that Reuven was innocent and really Shimon killed Yosef, then Beis Din do not hesistate to kill Shimon.
      But when Shimon is killed, Reuven does not come back to life.

      So Halacha does not determine Halacha.

    2. Reality - good point, especially since I was going to say a similar thing.

      I think in your last line you intended to type "So Halacha does not determine reality".

      Rav Soloveitchik, however, lived in a kind of halachic reality, where the axioms of halacha were the "reality". That was, a very poor summary of his famous work, "Halachic Man".

      The Gaon, argues the other way, according to Baruch of Shklov, that as much as one lacks knowledge of Madda (science) one lacks 100 fold knowledge of Torah. Unfortunately the alleged followers of the Gra do not hold by his views anymore.

    3. Regarding the Gra - he was never cited elsewhere making such a statement. Even if he did say it- it is not clear what the significance of such a statement is. Thus to build up the similarity or differences with Rav Solveithick or the Gra's followers based on this one cryptic statement - is not possible.

    4. It is interesting that legends which are printed in nespapers and artscroll "scholarship" become DaasTorah and ikkarei emunah, whilst published books close the source of Gaonim are doubtful.

      Considering the fact that the Gra wrote books on Logic, geometry and maths, it is highly likely that R' Baruch's comments are accurate.

      Then it is also possible to look at the curriculum today, which forbids even elementary sciences to be taught, and you see that they have departed from the derech of their master.

      And should you suggest that maybe the Gra didn't say this, well he doesn't really need to, since sevara says it, and sevara is like d'orata. Perhaps his book on Euclid was just a way to make money, but nothing else. And other tall Purim stories.

    5. "Considering the fact that the Gra wrote books on Logic, geometry and maths, it is highly likely that R' Baruch's comments are accurate."

      Why is this a fact? Not aware of any programattic statement that the Gra made regarding science or math.

      Your logic of this being sevara and sevara is doreissa - is ridiculous and can not be taken literally. There are a few times when the gemora says since we have a sevora why do we need a verse. But in vast majority of halachos are not based on sevora. See the Netziv's haskoma to Ahavas Chesed where he says that the Torah overrules sevora.

      He didn't write the book on Euclid.

      Eddie you are again tossing out "facts" and leap frogging from the "facts" to the Theory of Everything and Anything that suits your agenda.

    6. Let us see which points we disagree on:

      1) "fact": here is Micha confirming that in Paat haShulchan the gra also speaks of secualr knowledge!topic/soc.culture.jewish.moderated/JblNEwnChz8

      2) Sevara. You accept that in the Gemora is says this. Then you say that according to the Netziv, Torah overules Sevora. But you are using a statement completely out of its context. You have to have a Torah to overrule a particular sevora. So, if someone claims that all mixed fibres are shatnez, we have a torah that overrules him. Come to think of it, how do u identify what linen is? That is a scientific test. You need a certain knowledge of madda to know what linen is, and identify in a mixture.

      3) Regarding Euclid, I am sorry, he instructed Baruch to translate Euclid into Hebrew.

      What i read here

      was that " He also wrote books on grammar, astronomy and geometry, and he was knowledgeable in medicine and other sciences.". So if this statement is to be relied upon, it may be that he wrote it on non-Euclidean geometry.

      Regarding agenda - i have not heard anyone before dispute the authenticity of R' Baruch's report.

  2. c is invariant in all frames of reference. So what are these guys talking about? People see things differently, but Enlightment (speed of light - c) is the same for everyone.

    Also, something that is counted, no brochah rests on it. Its wave form has collapsed.

  3. you are all far too clever for me. by about half

  4. Rav Avigdor Miller had the last word on the subject. If reality is unreal, go leap off a roof. This article adds another nuance - you may still be around in someone else's reality so why not. I am not certain that quantum physics makes any difference to the practical business of living and consequences.

  5. As were in adar sheni, halacha does define reality where a three year old girl lost besulim then sanhedrin made it a leap year she's considered less than 3 and she does have besulim.

    Reality check good point. I'd respond and this is based on din of kaasher zanam velo kasher asa that beis din killed who was chayav to die but their maaseh beis din doesn't maje the guy a murderer. See tosfos makos 5b chayvei with gilyon hashas and reb elchonon uses rosh I think bava kama to atgue on

    1. The_Talmid, you've completely missed the point.
      All you have done is prove (or assert) that someone who was worthy of death was killed by Beis Din. So what ?

      The claim is that Halacha defines reality.
      The proof that Halacha does NOT define reality (but instead Halacha depends on reality) stands.


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