Reality is down the hall

by Charlie Huenemann

Matrix-Hallway-1“It is therefore worth noting,” Schopenhauer writes, “and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract.” I suppose you might say that some of us (especially college professors) tend to live more in the abstract than not. But in fact we all have dual citizenship in the concrete and abstract worlds. One world is at our fingertips, at the tips of our tongues, and folded into our fields of vision. The concrete world is just the world; and the more we try to describe it, the more we fail, as the here and now is immeasurably more vivid than the words “here” and “now” could ever suggest – even in italics.

The second world is the one we encounter just as soon as we begin thinking and talking about the here and now. It is such stuff as dreams are made on; its substance is concept, theory, relation. We make models of the concrete world, and think about those models and imagine what the consequences would be if we tried this or that. Sometimes our models are wrong and we make mistakes. Other times our models work pretty well and we manage to figure out some portion of the concrete world and manipulate it to our advantage. But in any case, we all shuttle between the two worlds as we live and think.

Right now, of course, you and I are deep into an abstract world, forming a model of how we move back and forth between our two worlds. We are modeling our own modeling. But I'll drop that line of thought now, since it leaves me dizzy and confused. My fundamental point is that the abstract world isn't reserved only for college professors. We all engage with it all the time, except perhaps when we sleep or are lost blessedly in the vivacity of sensual experience, and it is in some ways just as close to us as whatever is here and now. To be a human, as Schopenhauer suggests, is to live in two worlds.

The more we think, the more intricate our second worlds become. That complication of second worlds is what we call “science.” Listen to Sir Arthur Eddington's marvelous description of his “two” tables (which really are supposed to be, somehow, one and the same). The first table is here and now, and known pre-scientifically:

It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial. By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of “substance” and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is – Heaven knows what! But that will not help you to my meaning because it is the distinctive characteristic of a “thing” to have this substantiality, and I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table.

It is rare to find anyone so eloquently describing the brute thingliness of things without once resorting to slapping and pounding. But it is the point at the end that is most revealing: no words, concepts or theories are going to be more obvious to us than the thing we are trying to explain in this case.

The second table Eddington describes is the one he knows through science:

It is part of a world which in more devious ways has forced itself on my attention. My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life.

Those of us who are not physicists – and maybe even some of us who are – end up believing in Eddington's second table in more or less the same way that our children believe the stories we teach them: namely, as an article of faith, since we do not really have the wherewithal (the “devious ways”) to either prove or disprove what we are being told. The story of tiny electrical charges buzzing about an empty space makes some sense to us – well, it does at some level, anyway – and we trust that no one would put forward such a whopper as “science” without some good reason for doing so, and that others would not let them tell such a story if there weren't some good reason for thinking that it is true. But no familiar experience in the concrete world tells us that this second table exists; it is for us just a dreamy object that occupies our minds when we are in fanciful moods, or when we wish to impress others with how learned we are in the ways of science.

Our official position on the matter, as educated beings, is that Eddington's second table – the scientific one – is ultimately the real one. (If that is not our official position, we should seriously reconsider our policy for awarding research grants.) That second table somehow gives rise to the first table, but – and here is an odd inversion – the first table, the one in the concrete world, is not quite as fully real as the abstract and dreamy second table, the one we never actually see, the one that is supposed to be a swarm of charged gnats, or packets of probabilities. The concrete table turns out to be an illusion. It arises somehow from the abstract world as does a mirage from heat and the bending of light.

Isn't that remarkable? Our official policy is to take the abstract to be more real than the concrete. As I type these words on a computer, I treat their appearance on the screen as the reality with which I have to contend. But at the same time I recognize that there is someone down the hall who could tell me some devilishly complex story about programs and data and binary codes and the illumination of pixels that would be the real story of what is going on. And, of course, someone down the hall from that person could tell me an even more complicated story about the passage of electrons and conducting materials and so on. Even further down the hall is a fellow – heavens, it is Eddington himself! – who can explain to me how one buzzing cloud (known otherwise as “my finger”) can cause locomotion in another buzzing cloud (known as “the key”). As we travel farther and farther down the hall, we gain ever more distance from my experience here and now – but we also draw ever closer to what we say is “really going on” in the world. Illusion is close at hand; the real world is down the hall.