Are spells an illusion? Are people really a person? A whole mess of questions, to be sure. But can we really know if a phenomenon is real, let alone, if reality is “real” in the same way that books and movies are real or not real?
No. Because that’s the problem in today’s world: even if we can understand how any given phenomenon works — for example, by getting our hands on the brainwaves of people who experience it — then we cannot make any sense of it.
“In all but a narrow sense, anything that exists is real,” says neuroscientist William Gray, former curator of the Museum of Science in Philadelphia. “I can’t go on like this for very much longer.”
‘You can’t prove anything’
“If I know there is one thing that exists in the universe, of course I know there is something,” says Richard Feynman, the famed physicist who spent more than a decade of his life as a physicist working at Bell Labs in the 1960s.
That might sound like an obvious admission to some scholars, but it’s something Feynman would never have admitted. “I don’t think you can prove anything,” he says. “I mean, no one can prove any thing.”
Indeed, as a result of this skepticism, Feynman was dismissed by his graduate student and a professor of physics at Harvard, leading to intense tension inside of Harvard University at the time.
But these days, scientists can, and do, go searching for evidence to support what they claim to believe. And if you listen carefully to the voices of scientists, you can sometimes sense the tension boiling under Feynman’s feet, along with a dash of fear.
“It’s like if you’re getting ready to jump off a cliff and someone yells, ‘Jump off, you idiot! Don’t jump off!’ ” Feynman remembers thinking during their one-hour discussion. “Then you realize that it’s actually a pretty good thing that everybody in the world believes in this stuff, you know? You can’t fool anybody.”
“I’ve given the people a reason for believing that these things are,” says Feynman, “and I’ve given the people another reason why it might be impossible to prove them wrong.”
Yet, as scientists can often be pretty cynical, this skepticism isn’t shared by everyone. As an example, think in terms of the popular notion that we are living
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