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What Are Some Scientific Theories of Reality?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.


I cannot emphasize enough how important this topic is to me. Reality is a tricky topic with philosophical implications to it, depending on what you subscribe to. Therefore, it’s been a passion of mine to explore this topic and see what the bread crumbs are leading us to. I don’t know the answer yet but the signs do point to some fascinating possibilities. As you go over these, consider that it’s very likely that none of these are the full possibility. More is out there for us to explore, so let’s use these as stepping stones on that journey.

Computer Simulation

I want to cover this right away because it’s a rather popular concept: We are inside a virtual reality where nothing is actually there but is instead data inside a computer. Just like we play with computers and have simulated reality games, we are being played. Sounds nuts, right? But how would you prove that this isn’t true? Well, if the theory is true then anything we experience should be able to reduce down to code. Zohar Ringel and Dmitry Kovrizhi were able to demonstrate that the quantum Hall effect (a fascinating concept for another article involving electric currents with low temperatures and high magnetic fields) as studied with a many-bodies simulation yields impossible calculations. It’s impossible to simulate the real conditions of the effect no matter how I approach it, yet it exists. Sorry folks, but computer simulations cannot map all the things we experience so that theory is out the window (Masterson).

Quantum Pieces

Several principles of quantum mechanics seem to imply different world-views. One of these properties is decoherence which implies that we don't cause the entire state of a system to collapse but just a piece of it, meaning that it’s like starting a crack in the ice. It propagates outward, bringing the whole system down via entanglement. We are not seeing the whole quantum state then, for the wave functions interact with the others to obscure our signal. But who do we see a particular piece? Why can't we chose what collapses? How does it make the macroscopic so linear? Another is the wave function which gives a probability distribution for events happening. Some feel these must be realized one way or another and those that don’t happen here branch off from our reality and create a new one. This is known as the Many Worlds Interpretation. But most quantum discussion rely on the turing point from quantum to classical physics, a still mysterious region. But we can test the divide in several ways. One of them involves a silicon-nitride membrane 1 mm in length that a laser is shined on. It is held by silicon nitride tethers onto a silicon substrate throughout this. The laser causes vibrations, which relates to waves, which relates to quantum mechanics. The goal would be to superposition the membrane, then watch it collapse and see its properties (Folger 32-3).

String Theory

A brief explanation of string theory here wouldn’t do it justice. Seriously, go look it up and then come back here. It has many fascinating aspects. Interestingly, string theory may provide closure to what is known as the free-parameter dilemma. We know that electrons, free space, and such all have fixed values, but why do they have it? If it’s a random assignment then maybe all the different possible values created Universes where these exist but that creates a whole host of issue, namely is that even science? Well, string theory eliminates this debate because free-parameters don’t exist under it. Instead, those numbers are physics based rather than Universe based and so we have just this grand space of higher dimensionality we exist in. The physics of those dimensions is what lends the values we measure for our parameters. In fact, all physics could be tied together with these dimensions, making it a coveted possibility for the Theory of Everything. IT would change everything, for particles and forces and all our old concepts that are discrete would become generalized under a common math umbrella. How that would play out is anyone’s guess, but I am sure they would be glorious (Dijkgraaf).

Causal Emergence

Frequently in physics we have a debate about emergence behavior vs. reductionist behavior. This is especially prevalent when it comes to the conscious mind. Clearly, comes from multiple pieces within us but if I reduce those pieces, are they conscious? No one has spotted a sentient atom so clearly reductionism isn’t quite it yet at the same time the emergence of consciousness from these parts is equally troubling. Are we just a collection of atomic processes on a macroscale, or does our sense of self emerge from something else? Physicists would say yes, because the most basic elements must be the causes for all they interact with while philosophers know this is ridiculous to conceptualize for all things. Enter Erik Hoel, a theoretical neurologist from Columbia University. His causal emergence theory doesn’t buy into our collective selves alone being responsible for us. Rather, using principles from integrated information theory (one of the best mathematical models for consciousness) he and his team were able to show that “new causes – things that produce effects – can emerge at macroscopic scales.” The collective can demonstrate an ability that the parts don’t, in this cause our brain versus the individual neurons firing inside it. This is because the groupings of neurons create causal structures that together can do what the group cannot. The math shows that the macroscale causation arises from similar process involving error correcting codes augmenting our ability to communicate more information at any given moment. This causal emergence can explain the connections between consciousness and our reality, building up macro-level events from our microland. It extends beyond the brain, with groupings of different objects performing similar tasks. So our world is a steady buildup of further and further casual relations…if the error reducing portion is true. That is currently the biggest source of contention with the theory (Wolchover “A Theory”).

Quantum Error Correction

In this somewhat-related idea, a principle of quantum computing that is perhaps not discussed enough is quantum error correction. This is crucial to developing a working quantum computer because it reduces the errors with our informational qubits to practically none, making problems like random radiation or accidental entanglement a non-issue. So imagine everyone’s surprise when they found a connection to this correcting math and general relativity. That’s big, because any link between gravity and quantum mechanics would help resolve so many issues with fundamental physics. Work by Ahmed Almheri, Xi Dong, and Daniel Harlow worked with an anti-de Sitter space (unlike our normal one) which has a holographic principle associated with it arising from quantum particles on its exterior giving rise to space-time in the center. And the math behind it strongly mirrored the quantum error correcting code! It would seem like the code reduces noise and allows the quantum gravity to assert itself onto larger scales. Once the ideas can be applied to our normal de Sitter space, then we can get excited (Wolchover “How”).

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Consciousness Realism

Personally, this is the theory that gets to me the most because of its allure. According to work done by Donald D. Hoffman (University of California), this reality that we all share is not the situation at all but an evolutionary benefit allowing us to survive. Our senses lie to us and it is our consciousness that drives our reality. This idea arose because of the hard problem of physics, or how can we explain consciousness using physics? This coupled with the troubling need of an observer to cause quantum systems to collapse via the aforementioned decoherence. If we try to find an “independent” means of causing the systems to settle into the state, quantum mechanics breaks down. It would seem that the two problems have a common response: we are the source of reality. But one may question this in light of certain problems. For one, if evolution is true then why did we evolve into this state or why didn’t we find a way to accurately reflect reality? Hoffman claims that evolution merely provides us with the means to survive and that if an organism can benefit from seeing its reality in a performance-based mode rather than a reality-based one, it will outperform the normal individual. He has simulations backing up this claim along with the mathematics of Chetan Prakash to aid his work. As Hoffman puts it, “the fitness function doesn’t match the (linear) structure in the real world.” That is, the world doesn’t operate on a linear fit with the most of something being the best for us but instead follows a bell curve. By being attuned to the appropriate level of something, even if our sense must be hijacked, we are best-fitted to survive. He even extends his metaphor to a computer desktop, which really is just an interface that doesn’t fully replicate the computer but is useful and purpose-driven in its design. Therefore, each person has a mental picture for each object and these may differ from person to person! This is where the idea of consciousness realism hits home, especially in a mathematical way (Gefter).

For Hoffman, he considers “a space X of experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D” that gives one the ability to act in a world probability space W which impacts my perception space P. From this stems all consciousness. Our world that exists is really just a result of other conscious entities making choices, so it’s literally from a stream of consciousness. But how is this scientific? Hoffman says it is – it’s just our classical dynamical desires that are in need of updating. Science is secure, it’s just the communicative abilities we are limited to (of which quantum mechanics points out starkly with its probabilities). This then hints at an underlying need for physics to be addressed not only in our minds but in our lives, especially since these are now just classes of objects that depend on one’s conscious perceptions. I know, this all sounds like the fancies of someone who has the time to come up with nutty ideas that have no real scientific worth. It’s not even clear how one could test this out (and that may even be the point: science isn’t the only benchmark for reality). But you have to admit, it does intrigue us with some amazing possibilities (Ibid).

Works Cited

Dijkgraaf, Robbert. “There Are No Laws of Physics. There’s Only the Landscape.” Quanta, 04 Jun. 2018. Web. 08 Mar. 2019.

Folger, Tim. “How Does the Quantum World Cross Over?” Scientific American. July 2018. Print. 32-4.

Gefter, Amanda. “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality.” Quanta, 21 Apr. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2019.

Masterson, Andrew. “Physicists find we’re not living in a computer simulation.” Cosmos. Web. 08 Mar. 2019.

Wolchvoer, Natalie. “A Theory of Reality as More Than The Sum of Its Parts.” Quanta, 01 Jun. 2017. Web. 11 Mar. 2019.

---. “How Space and Time Could Be a Quantum Error Correcting Code.” Quanta, 03 Jan. 2019. Web. 15 Mar. 2019.

© 2020 Leonard Kelley

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