randombio.com | commentary
Wednesday, December 4, 2019

More thoughts on whether the universe really exists

What happens when the sign on your door says Mister Know-It-All

O ne problem with being a scientist is that people expect you to know everything. People ask me whether cell phones really cause brain cancer, why we can't go faster than the speed of light, whether blue light really hurts your retina, whether the planet really is getting warmer, and whether Miley Cyrus is a real person or a time-traveling robot.

I don't know the answer to that last one, but from now on I'm going to answer the way Harry Potter should have done at the end of those eponymous movies. This is that scene where Harry has just gotten zapped and is coming back from his near-death experience.

Narcissa [bending over Harry]: Is he alive? Draco, is he alive?
Harry [in high-pitched Bugs Bunny accent]: What am I, the answer man?

The next time somebody asks me whether, if hormone replacement therapy prevents Alzheimer's disease in women, why not in men, that's how I'm going to answer.

The galaxy of Andromeda: too good to be true

Is the world real?

But how does this relate to the question of whether the world is really real? Well, yesterday I had to answer many more sciencey questions from the sales rep who came in to install our new centrifuge, and it got me thinking.

Yes, it's really true that because mass affects time, the center of the Earth is a few days younger than the surface and GPS satellite signals have to be corrected for the fact that time moves faster the further away you get from a large mass. That is why the closer you get to one particularly large movie producer, the slower time passes.

Okay, but why do photons have no mass but still have momentum? Because the equations say so. Why do the equations say so? Because they were written down to describe observations.

Q: How can photons be waves and particles at the same time?
A: Do I look like the ANSWER MAN to you?
Q: That's what it says on your door.
A: Oh, sure. Go straight to door-shaming.

So here's my question to everybody else: According to Einstein, if we can't tell the difference between two physical phenomena, like, say gravity and acceleration, they are the same. So when you imagine an event, is the space in which it happens real space?

Suppose the world is not real, but a movie that we thought was so interesting that we decided to live in this world instead of the real one. The movie never ends, so we get to experience every detail of our characters' lives.

Example: last Tuesday, a stray flake of Post™ Raisin Bran® bounced from my cereal dish into my coffee. The Chekhov's Gun Principle is that you should never include any detail in your story unless it's used somewhere in the plot. If a gun appears in a scene, it must discharge later in such a way that it affects the plot. Therefore, since no screenwriter worth his or her salt would have included such a useless detail, we are not in a movie. Also, God does not exist. QED.

Incidentally, this guy says you should just buy bran flakes and add your own goddamn raisins. So maybe that errant bran flake did affect the plot after all. (Update It tastes exactly the same as Raisin Bran but it's time-consuming to get the raisins out of the container.)

But how dull must our real lives be if we thought this world would be an improvement? It boggles the mind: we'd have to be flying through an eternity of space, our lives so devoid of purpose that living on primitive 21st century Earth sounds entertaining.

A world in which pre-existing data interacts with itself is necessary but not sufficient for a world to be real. There's even a name for it: Last Thursdayism. Taking its cue from the young-Earth creationists who tried to explain how 65 million year old fossilized dinosaurs could exist in a 6000-year-old world, it says that somebody created the world in its present form last Thursday and and just put everything there, including fake dinosaur bones and photons from distant stars.

Last Thursday is, of course, just a placeholder. It could just as well have been five minutes ago, or five microseconds ago. The point is that the existence of an omnipotent deity eliminates any certainty that the past is real. In a Last Thursday kind of world, all those terrible and wonderful things we think we did were just put there to make us feel guilty. Saying the world is an illusion is just a way of saying life has no meaning and we have no agency or free will, only the illusion of them.

But there's another problem with any such theory: it leads to an infinite regression. How do we know that our postulated endless journey through the vast emptiness of space is not itself an illusion? For that to be something we'd voluntarily consent to, the real world would have to be something even more horrible, an eternal hell that is so awful that a quadrillion-year journey through an empty starless void seems like an improvement.

To philosophers, the question of whether the past actually exists is a big issue because it raises the question: if you can neither experience, detect, or affect something, that is pretty much proof that it's not real. So, is the past real or not?

All we really know for sure is that the present moment appears to be real. But what we really want to know is whether it is necessary for the universe to exist, or whether it's turtles all the way up. On this turtle, there is a lot of stuff worth learning, but much of it is trapped inside all those funny-looking beige creatures, and it's painfully difficult to get it out. And so we spend our lives trying.

I mean come on, if that's not proof the universe is really just a gigantic sitcom and we are just the laugh track, what is?

dec 04 2019, 7:10 am. edited dec 06 2019, 6:31 am

Related Articles

Is the world real?
When we wonder whether the world is real, we're really asking something else.

On chasing hats and the reality of the world
We may be programmed to think there are limits to what can, in principle, be understood.

Post Truthiness
Not just a breakfast cereal any more, it's a real thing, I swear

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

book reviews