What is real?

Way back in 2011, a commenter on this blog asked “Where is this soul? If it can’t be measured, it is not real.”

Our lives are made up of a hundred things that are real but not measurable even in principle. The quality of sunlight that transforms your mood after a week of overcast days; the poignancy of Still Crazy After All These Years; the heart-swelling sense of honour and decency when Santos offers Vinick the post of Secretary of State; the piercing half-real clarity of Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte; love.


I strenuously resist the reductionistic impulse to claim either that such things are mere artifacts of an evolutionary process, that they are are “not real”, or — heaven help us — that they are “not relevant”. In truth, these things are what we are. They are the first things we know as children, they are the last things we will remember as old age claims us. They are what make us human. They separate us from automatons. You can argue that, for example, love within the family has the evolutionary explanation that children’s survival chances are enhanced if their parents “love” them. And that’s true so far as it goes; but it only explains what love is made of, not what it is. That is something else altogether, and science is not the right tool for understanding it. For that, you need art.

Don’t mistake me — I am a big fan of the scientific method (and I hope my publication record bears that out). But it’s an all-too-common tendency in scientists of my acquaintance to observe that the scientific method works well for many kinds of inquiry, and leap by faith to the conclusion that it’s always the best way of understanding anything. It’s a leap that’s quite unsupported by evidence. And from there, it’s only a short step to unconsciously assuming that “right” is the same as “scientific”. But it’s not. It never has been. Humans had understanding long before they had science. My fear is that in focussing too intently on the scientific method, we lose sight of other ways of knowing — and therefore, of other things to know.

[This post is recycled from a comment that I made on a much earlier post.]

8 responses to “What is real?

  1. This sounds like a variation on the old Science and Religion are two separate spheres argument – ie they don’t overlap everywhere. But at best it’s a well meaning sophistry. The things that guide or affect us are not abstractions – they’re chemical processes, and every single one is a culmination of genetic predisposition, neuronal misfire, analogue feedback loops and cumulative coding errors, amongst many other factors. But science doesn’t only look at this purely mechanical process – we have neuroscience and the soft sciences like psychology to try and make sense of these things from the human perspective. Moreover to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, just because you understand light propagation doesn’t mean you can’t be affected by a rainbow – although the experience can be enhanced with knowledge. Anyway, science doesn’t claim abstractions aren’t real or aren’t relevant. I think that may be a bit of a strawman.

    Science – a word so large it’s hard to be certain what you mean by it – isn’t the only way to understand everything. It is however the only way to understand everything *accurately*. I cannot think of a sphere of human endeavor where an accurate, informed view is less valuable than the alternative. Humans may have had some level of understanding before the scientific method (although testing things out, or observing results has been around as long as humans have) but that level of understanding was profoundly flawed in pretty much every sense. Our history is littered with the evidence, from religion, to war, to political misunderstandings causing war – has more science, more data and more analysis really reduced our overall understanding or overall capacity to act on that understanding?

    I think also you may be confusing understanding with feeling. You’re also subtly implying that every world-view gained via feelings, or appreciation or some other nebulous emotional abstraction has value, whilst ignoring the many times this is profoundly not the case. People can be motivated to do horrible things by high art, religious uplift or cultural touchstones as well as they can to do pleasing things – without some kind of objective basis for comparison how can you separate ‘good’ understanding from ‘bad’ understanding?

    Finally – you (perhaps unfairly) suggest some make a leap of faith that science is the best route to understanding (again, a tricky concept to pin down if you don’t mean literal objective comprehension). But in the environment you yourself inhabit, that of a church-goer (I think?), aren’t leaps of faith to be applauded, even encouraged, as the route to some version of understanding?

  2. rjubber, quite. They’re artifacts of an evolutionary process, and they’re chemistry, and they’re physics — but so is all of life, and nobody sane would say that life on Earth is not important or meaningful, at least to those of us who are alive. Bach is still Bach even though it’s just vibrations in air almost indistinguishable by a sufficiently dispassionate observer from those of, say, a pneumatic drill, or a storm in a gas giant atmosphere or the massive turbulent swirl of a stellar atmosphere.

  3. Well, rjubber and Nix, I am not going to get into an argument about it. Some people will see what I am saying, and I hope my post is helpful to them; others will not, and I doubt any amount of back-and-forth will shift either them or me. I’m sorry this didn’t do anything for you.

  4. It’s good to read this! It’s a subject that is very close to my heart. Coming from a similar scientific / technological background I’ve always found it difficult to find a valid common denominator under which I could understand everything that’s not rational and / or factual. For quite a long time I assumed all that simply wasn’t “real” as you describe; not because it appeared unreal to me – but I suppose that the mind simply blanks out if there’s no conceptual framework to understand something in.
    This lasted until I could ignore that part of me no longer, and I eventually had to accept that “factual = true” – or, as you quote above: “if it can’t be measured it isn’t real” simply doesn’t hold.

  5. futilelaneswapper

    What’s interesting to me about your examples is that they’re all about emotional stimuli rather than purely physical ones. Or more accurately: the physical stimulus of seeing a dead toddler on a beach evokes emotional responses in us which are powerful and meaningful to our lives. Other ways of knowing and other things to know – which for the sake of brevity I will call “truths”

    As I understand it, you’re claiming that the “truths” these emotional responses evoke in us are beyond the explanations of science, even though the brain is entirely a physical entity. One way I could see to maybe actually uphold such a claim is by analogy with Tarski. Science is a product of human brains and as such is a formal system, which must have strictly less total explanatory power than the thing that produced it. (Note that this will be disproven if one day we can build a human brain, but there are very strong reasons to suppose that this isn’t possible). It is therefore conceivable that the human brain has other ways of knowing things than are amenable to the scientific method.

  6. futilelaneswapper

    Regarding the actual title of this post: “what is real”

    Determining what is “real” is fundamentally a philosophical problem because it entirely depends on what you mean by real.

    Science is the pursuit of coherent explanations for observed physical phenomena, but those explanations should not be considered as statements about reality, except in a very parochial way. (Newton’s laws of motion were considered statements about reality once upon a time). What science does is reach agreement by consensus as to what something appears to be (or not to be).

    In fact there are some good reasons to believe that all our science – despite its enormous predictive power – is based on a grand fiction: that the physical universe it operates in itself “real”. If, as seems increasingly likely, our universe is actually some kind of projection of a yet-more complex and mysterious entity, then this other entity – whatever it is – must necessarily have more explanatory power than our universe about what is truly and fundamentally real. And If so, one could reasonably make the case that there is no practical difference in terms of what is _really true_ between saying that a flower is beautiful and saying that an electron has negative charge.

  7. I don’t like your examples: they are all examples of subjective experiences, and while Lewis was by no means averse to subjective experiences (he titled his autobiography after one), I don’t think he’d have equated the soul with them.

    I think — though I may be wrong, as Lewis was smarter than me — that he would have said that trying to ‘measure’ the soul was the same sort of category error as trying to ‘find’ God. Like that essay he wrote about people who noted that the cosmonauts who had gone into space and not found God, and thoguht this had proved that God doesn’t exist: they were committing the error of thinking of ‘God’ as a thing, and when you think of God as a thing you naturally think of God as having the attributes that a Thing has, like location in space, dimensions, etc etc. Stuff you could measure, in other words.

    They think of God standing in relation to us as, say, the experimenter to the rat in a maze.

    But God isn’t a thing, God is the source of things. God stands to us not as the experimenter to the rat in its maze, for after all the experimenter and the rat are in the same world, just at different scales, but rather as Shakespeare does to Hamlet in Elsinore.

    So I think Lewis would have said that asking, ‘why can’t you measure the soul?’ would be the same sort of error. The soul isn’t a thing — it exists outside the realm of things, but yet has some connection with it, in some way we do not understand.

    You can measure the effect of the soul, of course, as the soul is what gives us free will, stops us simply being robots driven by the interactions of our atoms with the environment, so every time we take an action out of our free will we are in a sense measuring the effect of the soul.

    But you can’t measure the soul itself. It’s not that kind of a thing.

    I think Decartes is to blame for this. He started the whole enlightenment idea which I think people have in their heads of ‘souls’ as kind of mysterious floating entities, connected to the body via some kind of tube which goes into the brain, and if that’s the picture they have then ‘why can’t we measure the soul? becomes a valid question.

    Whereas I think the older, pre-Descarts idea of the soul is more accurate.

    The way I like to think of it is that the soul is to the body as the blueprint is to the building. You can’t measure the blueprint, except indirectly by seeing what the building that was made from it is like (and even then, of course, you might not be seeing what the building was meant to be like: bits may have collapsed, or been damaged, just as our bodies may be damaged by being incarnated in a fallen world); but the blueprint definitely exists, or the building wouldn’t exist.

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