Appearances and Absolute Reality
(adapted from The Life of the Cosmos, by Prof. Lee Smolin, London 1997)
In the history of philosophy, many have argued against the idea that science can
lead to knowledge of the absolute reality behind appearances. I do not want to
begin this argument again. There is no way to climb the ladder of empirical knowledge,
or fly on the wings of logic, to ascend to the absolute world of what really is.
But I think that the situation I've just described makes it possible to confront
a different and more difficult question. This is whether there might not be something
wrong with the whole conception of an absolute and timeless reality lying behind
the appearances. If possible knowledge is knowledge of the world of appearances
that we live in and interact with, why is it necessary - or even desirable - to
believe that the reality of the world is somehow behind the appearances, in a
permanent and transcendently absolute realm?
Is there any reason we might not conceive of the world as made up as a network of relationships, of which our appearances are true examples, rather than as made up of some imagined absolute existing things, of which our appearances are mere shadows? Why should there be any 'things in themselves', besides the effects that all things have on each other? This is related to another question: If the laws of nature are only the working out of principles of logic and probability by processes of self-organization, must there still not be some fundamental particles, on which those processes act? And must they not obey some universal laws? Perhaps a principle such as natural selection, self-organization, or random dynamics might explain why the parameters of the standard model come to be what they are, but just as biology requires molecules on whose combinations the principles of self-organization and natural selection can act, does not physics still require some fundamental substance for the laws to act on? Must not the world consist of something beyond organization and relations?
I do not know the answer to these questions. They are in the class of really hard questions, such as the problem of consciousness or the problem of why there is in the world anything at all, rather than nothing. What in the end is the reason the world is called into being? I do not see, really, how science, however much it progresses, could lead us to an understanding of these questions. In the end, perhaps there must remain a place for mysticism. But mysticism is not metaphysics, and it is only that I seek to eliminate. Wittgenstein said, in his Tractatus, "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is". Perhaps in science, as in philosophy, by eschewing the metaphysical fantasy, the dream of an absolute being forever unknowable behind the veil of appearances, we bring ourselves in closer proximity to the genuinely mysterious.