Authorities and reality:
There was a riddle when I was a youth.  It went: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  My internal response was, “Of course it does.  Why ask such a silly question?”  Even if nobody had heard the Tunguska event, there would still be all those trees that had been knocked over by the shockwave.  I finally asked a science teacher who said that there were scientists who taught that it did not make a sound. 

The point of the riddle has to do with quantum mechanics.  Certain objects, such as photons, are not totally real in the ordinary sense until they are observed.  Trees, fortunately, are not such objects.  They exist. They are classical objects, not subject to quantum uncertainty.  But the non-existence or partial existence of an enormous part of the universe was and remains a puzzle.  The tree, you see, is made up of atoms, which are made up of particles which are made up of even more subtle particles called quarks that are not observable at the present although there seems to be evidence for most or all of them.  And now they are telling us that most of the universe is made of dark energy, which cannot yet be observed.  The tree is a something, but it is made up only of an enormous number of nothings.  There is enough there to keep one amused, particularly if one puts in the effort to learn the actual calculations that can be made. 

But I suspect that there was a more subtle message in the riddle.  Saying that nothing exists until it is measured, which really means when it interacts with a classical object, is very close to saying that nothing is true until people believe it is true.  It does not follow logically, but it is close.  And there is the rub.  If what is true is what we believe is true, and if our authorities speak for what we believe, then authorities are by necessity always right. 

I have mentioned this before, but recently there has been a profound although rarely mentioned change.  Somebody caught a particle in a tiny chamber.  The particle was in a state of uncertainty; its spin was undetermined.  Measuring the spin would have collapsed the probability state.  What they did was remember that the collapse would take a finite time if a very gentle measurement was taken.  They took the measurement, flipped the spin with a radio wave under a magnetic field so that it was exactly the opposite of what it had been and repeated the identical measurement.  They did the flip and the repeat measurement before the probability function collapsed.  The particle continued unperturbed even though its state was known.  Thus its state could be known without changing that state.  Thus the state, in this case the direction of spin, was real.  It had been real all along.

So after being told for a hundred years that things in quantum states have undetermined properties we are now told that those properties exist, even though they are difficult to measure.  So the universe is real after all.  So if authorities were depending on the notion that consensus determines reality, then that is no longer believable.  Things are true whether we chose to believe them or not.

We have just had a spectacular collapse of the economy.  The economy was being directed in large part by authorities in the field.  There was no great disagreement among them with the idea that maximum globalization, minimum restrictions on trade and almost total lack of regulation of the market would always make for growing prosperity.  Reality has struck.  Even now, what they are trying to do is, “restore confidence” in the system.  It is as if the proper application of a lot of taxpayer debt is going to persuade everyone that things are all right again and kick start the system back to where it was.  There is talk of making jobs and training people perhaps, but the bottom line is that the only thing that will make us prosper is giving people the opportunity to do productive work.

Of course the economy is trivial compared with the failure to have babies.  There again the message is that the more we stir up the gene pool, the more diverse we make things, the better.  That is wrong.  And reality is there.  Reality has struck.  It just has not yet been acknowledged.

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