Hiding Reality

There’s a conspiracy out there. No, it isn’t based on the da Vinci Code. It isn’t the Neocons. It isn’t the Trilateral Commission.

It’s the cosmological mathematicians!

And their agent provocateur is Brian Greene!

Here he is, at his best.


Actually, he’s at his best in his new book, The Hidden Reality. In my own book, the picnic at the edge of the universe, I devote a chapter in Book 1, The Concept of a Cosmos, to the mathematical cosmologists, who have held us in their sway for a hundred years now. Later, in Appendix A, The Languages of Physics, I talk about how physicists, like many other disciplines, have used words with otherwise common meanings, in ways that are not at all the same or sometimes even similar to those common meanings, and how we must be careful in our interpretations.

For me the most important thing to know in this regard is that our western mathematics is not reality, but rather, a man-made language, created first, probably, by Arab tradesmen to assist in keeping their accounts. Then it became a very useful tool in tracking and measuring and describing natural phenomena, and finally, in our time, a useful way of building metaphorical models and predictive algorithms by scientists.

Remember that the equation for  Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is a metaphor, not reality itself. Mathematicians have difficulty in remembering that. At least that is the kindest interpretation.

For many of them math is a seductive mistress. She lures you in, speaking with sly nuances, and when you least expect it, an answer to some mysterious, previously unknown and confounding question drops, like a chocolate covered strawberry, into your mind. This looks right! you exclaim. And a flood of chemicals fills the pleasure centers of your brain. How elegant! you say to yourself, This has got to be the answer! This must be reality! Einstein has had this experience himself, quoted by Brian Greene in an EDGE Symposium, (in EDGE Symposium 9/17/07 “What would you like to ask Einstein?”)

In The Hidden Reality Greene asserts, as he did to Stephen Colbert, that “math is the gateway to reality.” And he uses it in chapter after chapter, to spin new and more fantastic conjectures about all of the possible alternate models there may be of the structure of the universe, parallel universes, branes, and multiple dimensions. There are, I think, nine  possible “multiverses” described here. And except for one chapter about  Einstein’s (and others’) cosmological constant, all are based on pure mathematics. None are based on observable or measurable evidence. None are based on less than 8, 11, 16, 32 dimensions. The numbers and symbols have taken charge. To see how far the mathematical cosmologists have gone in replacing reality with math, one states unequivocally, on page 299, that “A body of mathematics, be it Newton’s equations, those of Einstein, or any others, doesn’t become real when physical entities arise that instantiate it. Mathematics–all mathematics– already is real; it doesn’t require instantiation. Different collections of mathematical equations are different universes.”

To be fair to the author, he precedes this assertion with the statement that “…once you have taken on board the idea that mathematics itself can, though its inherent structure, embody any and all aspects of reality……you’re led to envision that our reality is nothing but math. To be fair this perspective requires a conceptual leap not everyone will be persuaded to take; personally, its a leap I’ve not taken.” It would have been nice to have heard this earlier in the book, before the reader has been given all the persuasive evidence otherwise. So, it is clear that the book is not a contribution to the sciences of astrophysics or cosmology. It is, purely and simply, an entertainment, a treasure trove for the next generation of writers of speculative fiction; time travel, alternative or parallel universes. Take your pick, there’s not a testable hypothesis in the book.

In philosophy, in logic, and in communication theory, we have long established standards that to understand each other, we need to communicate in a language with a common vocabulary and a common syntax, understood by all the parties. In scientific communication scientists abjure mystical assertions. They try not to assert unsupportable theses. They avoid, if at all possible, untestable hypotheses. This, unfortunately, has not been the case with string theorists, of whom Brian Greene has long been a flagbearer.

His books, nevertheless, have been fun to read. His TV appearances are enjoyable, and his work on Nova, explaining what astrophysicists think they know, have been great successes. My own thoughts, I know, are colored by a well-loved quote from Mark Twain (or Will Rogers, who knows?) that, “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you. it’s what you know that ain’t so.” So take my criticisms in that light.

About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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2 Responses to Hiding Reality

  1. Neil Bates says:

    This article well expresses many of my own thoughts. Brian Greene stops short of saying, this world really *is* math, but others say so explicitly! I am quite opposed to the modal realist idea that all possible worlds exist (in the MUH formulation, as “all mathematical structures”) because there is no way to logical express, explain, or validate the idea of substantive realness being “more real” than the Platonic mindscape (as one way of putting the issue.) However, the modal realist types have a point: there is, AFAICT, no logical way to express the distinction. Think, how would you put it? Indeed, that’s the whole point: there’s nothing in math to go beyond math and represent a certain ellipse as “just an equation” and another one as “not just an equation, but also made of ‘stuff’ too.” My response and probably yours: well then, the distinction, the “realness of our universe,” is something *more* than what logic and math can express!

    I extend this point to say also, that if our minds were just AI/computational intelligences, they would not be able to represent this “realness” either (i.e., even in a substantive universe, a computational “intelligence” could not *represent* that substantiality because it can only express the sort of pure logical/mathematical couching of the sort outlined above.) Much of this insight I owe to some points made by Jaron Lanier. See my name linked blog “Paradoxer” for more.

    However, I do think that mathematical truths themselves are “objectively real” in the Platonist sense, mostly at least (there can’t be any other possible outcome for the quadratic equation, we discovered; not decided; that the square root of two was not a fraction, etc.) That doesn’t make all that the same kind of “universe” as this one. Thanks for inviting me to check out your blog, Charles. I Shared it on FB.

    • Thank you, Neil, for your comment and for help in generating a wider audience. This blog is a new venture for me but finding thinking company is a great satisfaction.I look forward to many more conversations.

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