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There was a big fight over Quantum Physics, in which Einstein defended Realism and Bohr defended Instrumentalism. That is a massive simplification, it seems, but it is an accepted-enough® simplification, so much so that this pseudo-quote is assigned to Bohr by PBS Space Time:

“It is meaningless to assign reality to the universe in the absence of observation”

That is a dumb simplification, but the dumbness might not be so clear. So.

In this simplified tale, Einstein believes “that the universe still exists even if I am not observing it”. Einstein is claiming that human existence is not a peek-a-boo game. That is to say, he feels that, taken to their logical conclusion, Instrumentalism feels like disregarding object permanence. Babies seem to be unable to understand that things exist when said things are outside their direct experience, when they are not looking or feeling such things, and we believe that is why they get surprised when you hide behind something and then show yourself.

As usual, if you accuse someone of saying something really stupid, there is a fat chance you did not understand. I believe this is the case here, both with Einstein, with PBS Space Time and Realism in general.

The quote above certainly is not saying that the universe does not exist without observation.

You might think it says this, if you believe that either the universe MUST exist without observation or it MUST NOT exist. If you believe that there is no other way to think about the subject, then you could make an argument that the quote certainly is not saying the universe MUST exist without observation and thus it would have to be saying the opposite. That is very convoluted, because the assumption (EITHER/OR) is very confusing. This assumption has archeological meaning, that was what ancient Greeks wrote, and it is also (very bad) literature, but it is confusing nonetheless. Also, the whole thing is an Argument by lack of imagination – many, many other options might exist even if Einstein is unable to imagine a third option.

What the quote is saying is actually that this opposition (MUST EXIST vs MUST NOT EXIST) is dumb. I could say inaccurate, or ambiguous, but more than anything it is just dumb. Face it.

To put it another way: Saying the universe “has reality” means we observe the property “reality” in the universe when we interact with it. If we did not interact with it, we would not observe anything. To say that the universe would still have reality even if we did not interact with it is absurd because the “reality” is a consequence of our interaction, not some transcendental property.

For example, the experience of color is a subjective thing. It is meaningless to say that a ray of light is red even if no one sees it, because to “be red” is the same as “being perceived as red”. In effect, the ray of light cannot be perceived as red without being perceived. It certainly does have a wavelength without being seen, but this is not the same thing.


to ascribe reality to the universe in the absence of observation

amounts to

ascribing observability to the universe in the absence of observation

which amounts to

observing the universe without observing it.

Realism then boils down to a system like “This sentence is false”. It is a logical inconsistency. It is neither true nor false, it is meaningless. Which is exactly what the quote says: It is meaningless to ascribe reality to the universe in absence of observation. Turns out it is much simpler than what is understood instead by proponents of Realism.

The whole point, of course, is that a proponent of Realism cannot accept that Reality be written without a capital R. In other words, a proponent of Realism can’t accept that we analyse the idea of reality. So for example he can’t accept that we compare “Reality” to a property of the system which we observe. Inadvertently, Realism turns reality into a kind of transcendental property, which is immeasurable.

This in turn boils down to the Realist insisting in a qualitative view of the world, while the Instrumentalist makes measurable what wasn’t and gets done with it.

In the sake of completeness, here is the video where the quote comes from:

It is quite amazing, and i am very addicted to the channel, so.


One Comment

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