Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hawking: Reality is Dead

As I've continued to dig my way through The Grand Design, I'm finding it quite readable.  It's thoughtful, witty, and written in a breezy style.  Heck, they even have pictures.  And we love the pretty pictures.  Much of the science presented is familiar territory, as Hawking/Mlodinow talk about the history of scientific thought and cosmology.  It's good meaty stuff, laying out the evolution of physics from Aristotelian to Newtonian to Relativistic to...well...whatever M-Theory is about.

When the book gets to quantum physics, though, it surfaces several interestingly...cough...postmodern reality of the nature of the universe.  Pity that philosophy is dead, though.  Bummer about that.

One interesting observation of quantum physics is that there is no objectively observable reality to the foundational building blocks of the universe.  It's not that quarks and Z particles and the strange schtuff that forms our atoms aren't somehow there.  They simply can't be observed, not in the same way that we observe the larger structures of the universe.  Making a meaningful statement about the position and energy of a subatomic particle is impossible.  This has nothing to do with subjectivism or observer bias.  It's woven into the nature of existence.  To observe something requires that we interact with it, and if we interact with it, then we change it.   Our relationship with the universe by necessity changes the universe.

Where Hawking and Mlodinow take this is interesting.  The Grand Design explicitly rejects both the objectivism and realism of classical science as the most effective ways to describe the nature of our universe.   Yeah, you can make some predictions about the actions of the larger structures through simple observation.  But when push comes to shove, existence is considerably more intricate and complex than can be accounted for by observational or experimental science.  More arcane and esoteric arts are required to understand its true nature.

The faithful, who've know this for pretty much ever, might at this point raise our hands and say, well, yeah.  Welcome to the party.  What kept you?