On of the mild annoyances of my generally delightful childhood was the occasional approach by a friend with the words, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there, does it make a sound?”  Then he would look very profound.  How odd that this seems to have come full circle to haunt me again.  The answer is a flat no.  If the absence of an observer means no sound, then there would be no tree.  But the question presupposes a tree.  So there is a sound.  But friends, even teachers, insisted that there was no sound.

Of course they were onto something.  It was just a stupid attempt to get at something subtle.  In physics it was known, and is now commonplace that an event can be undefined until it is observed.  For instance if you shine a beam of light into a beam splitter such as a lightly silvered mirror and then reflect one beam so the two beams now land on the same point and you generally expand the spot with a strong lens, when the light falls on a screen there will be a set of blurred lines, an interference pattern.  This is because light is a wave, and colliding wave trains of the same wavelength will set up a pattern such that in some places they add and in others they cancel.  But if you have a very good light detector and expose it to light and then dim the light, there is no threshold where the detector becomes suddenly silent, as it should in response to a wave.  That is because light is a particle, and the detector is picking up individual photons.  So light is a particle and light is a wave and which it is is not defined until you set up an appropriate measurement.

This then got hyped into a concept called the Copenhagen Interpretation, which holds that nothing is real until it is observed.  Hence the putatively silent tree-fall.  

This still somewhat interests me.  If the universe began with a Big Bang, a burst of pure energy, then it could not have become real because there was no matter with which it could interact in any way.  Reality thus could not exist. 

But I took to heart that the universe contains two kinds of reality: there is the classical reality of things that have been observed and have fixed characteristics and another kind of reality that is waiting in the wings for an “observation” or some other kind of interaction with classical matter.  This may be out of date, but I once believed it. 

Cut to medical school.  I learned to my astonishment that it is possible to change a person’s memories.  In those days it required “indoctrination.”  You would confine a person, deprive the person of familiar things and of control over his or her environment, and wait a couple of months.  After that the person was ready to believe anything and remember anything that was suggested by those who had control.  If the person was quite tough and was consciously resisting, one might have to resort of giving him the trots or breaking an arm, anything to shake up the self image a bit.  But it always worked.

And the process was reversible.

That is not to say the process was benign.  At the moment when reality was slipping away, the person would lose self image and hence self esteem and suicide was a serous risk.  For a soldier in boot camp or combat, this was not a problem.  He was watched as by a hawk.  But for a soldier coming home from combat, he was simply released to readjust to civilian life; it was very dangerous.  I found numbers suggesting the readjustment was as dangerous as the combat had been.  I do think this problem has now been addressed.

When I heard they were torturing prisoners I was ballistic.  That is stupid.  Really stupid.  That’s worse than the tree in the forest thing.  All you need to do with a prisoner is establish that you are in control.  You communicate high status.  And you make sure the prisoner does no self harm.  Eventually you will get what you want, and it won’t take so very long. 

Current research shows that memories can be rewritten very easily, but even then the point was made.

So reality only exists if observations are made.  But observations are only significant if they can be remembered.  And memories change.  The whole of reality comes crashing down about our ears. 

I am sure a person could say comfortably, “Ah, but this is a mere theoretical construct.  Reality is right here.  We all are aware of it.  So there is no problem, in a practical sense.

Forgive me if I differ.  There is one salient truth that is well established.  Marry kin or die out – not today, maybe not tomorrow – but die, go extinct, take the long walk, be erased from history, be nothing but a myth with which mothers scare their children, and take with you everything you believed in, yearned for, dared for, strived for.  That is your choice.  One or the other.  This is no airy fantasy.  This is a practical matter. 

And yet when I present this to most of the brightest and best at conventions or by communication, it is the rare brave soul who can hold onto it for moments.  The community reaches into the person’s brain and simply rewrites the fantasy that random mating in enormous populations is “normal,” acceptable, wholesome, proper, much to be desired.  That becomes for them opinion.  It is, alas, in its own way a kind of reality. 

When someone has a handle on the truth and can keep it in mind, such in fact as Professor Robin Fox has done, admire that mind, honor it.  It is your only hope.

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