Is the universe real?

I’d like to use either one of two operative definitions for “real”:

  1. The common definition — “Being or occurring in fact or actuality” (American Heritage)


  1. The philosophical definition — “Existing objectively … regardless of subjectivity or conventions of thought or language” (Ibid)

(Note: I’ve modified AH’s definition by removing the phrase “in the world”, since it is not strictly necessary to the philosophical definition, and it would make avoiding circular arguments on the pro side problematic. I’m on the con side, so it isn’t to my own advantage.)

It’s no secret that I’ve always maintained that the atoms are not real, and that the universe is nothing more than a probability distribution. Most people know that I believe in God, and that I believe He is metaphysical, eternal, essential, and necessary. But enough about God. This is about what is not God. The universe.

I was pleased lately to find what I consider to be support for my position from scientific quarters, specifically two notable and accomplished physicists. Here are their pertinent statements:

“The atoms or the elementary particles are not real; they form a world of potentialities and possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” — Werner Heisenberg

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum mechanical description.” — Niels Bohr

I’m not appealing to authority per se, although it would be valid here given the credentials of those men. I’ve always provided what I believe to be pretty good arguments anyway. They just supply what I cannot — authoritative voices that understand all the premises and mathematics underlying their assertions.

What I’d really like to hear are arguments from people who do believe that the universe is real (in either sense above), and at what point and by what mechanism its alleged reality arises from what Heisenberg calls a potential, or what Bohr calls an abstraction. I also wouldn’t mind hearing from anyone on my side of the debate who has a different approach from my own.

Can you pass your hand through the desk that your computer’s currently sitting on? If not, I suggest that that passes for “real”. If it looks, feels, tastes, and sounds like a duck, odds are, it’s an atom.

Personally, I believe that everything in the universe is, indeed, a probability distribution (if I understand exactly what it is you’re saying). But that doesn’t make it any less real- it just means that that is how the universe is composed.

It’s nice to see some philosophizing in GD every once in a while.

I got two questions for ya, Lib:

  1. Is there any piece of evidence that, if confirmed, would convince you that the universe is, in fact, real?

  2. What difference does it make to you?

Are you sure Bohr’s quote means what you think it means? I read it as saying that QM is an abstraction, imposed on the world by humans in order to understand it. But the world exists independently of whether or not we understand it. IOW, don’t confuse the math with reality.

I guess I would approach the thread’s question by asking another question: Does it matter whether the universe is real or not if it behaves in a way as if it WERE real?

John Mace has a good point. Both of these quotes can be read to support the position that QM is only a mathematical model and shouldn’t be taken as a literal description of what’s happening down there.

I realize that’s not the crux of your argument, but it’s worth mentioning.

I’d like to use either one of two operative definitions for “real”:

  1. The common definition — “Being or occurring in fact or actuality” (American Heritage)


  1. The philosophical definition — “Existing objectively … regardless of subjectivity or conventions of thought or language” (Ibid)

But if it is composed of things that aren’t real, as Heisenberg suggests, then how is it real as a whole. The union of a billion empty sets is empty. If the universe is real, then there must be some gestalt mechanism whereby it is more than the sum of its parts. And that’s what the OP is asking for: “at what point and by what mechanism its alleged reality arises”.

Analytical proof that it is eternal, essential, and necessary would suffice.

I don’t know. :smiley: I guess I’m just sick of the political debates.

I don’t think you can so blithely separate your view about a god from your view of the universe. If there is no metaphysical reality behind this world of appearances then the view of the world as “not real” becomes incoherent. Not real compared to what?

I think it’s also important to remember that QM is just our current understanding of how the universe works (at the “small” level). It is unlikely that 200 years from now, physicists will consider QM to be the best explanation of physical phenomena.

Think of the wave/particle duality. People ask: Is a photon a wave or a particle? The correct answer is that it is neither-- we just use wave mechanics to describe it’s behavior in some circumstances and particle mechanics in others. We cannot intuit what a photon is because our brains did not evolve to be able to. That does not mean that photon isn’t real-- we just cannot conceive of exactly what it is. 200 Years from now, we’ll undoubtedly have a different mathematical description to use.

I suppose so, but I don’t know how you could be more unequivocal than they are not real and there is no such world. Keep in mind the definitions we are using. You can’t just say that, because you sense something, it is real. That’s subjective. Your own senses are themselves a part of the universe, and therefore aren’t objective. I see this as a discussion of analytics, rather than empiricals.

Not Bohr’s quote. He didn’t use the word “real”.

That’s very possibly true. I’ve also been reading Eddington lately:

“Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” — Arthur Eddington

Boy, it’s amazing how much of my reading we’re covering here:

“If the human mind was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.” — Emerson Pugh


Still, do you have an argument that it is real?

Gotta run. Wife home. Back later. Maybe weekend.

It’s a question of ontology, really – what does “real” mean and to what is it applicable?

Unicorns and the Tooth Fairy are quite “real” in one meaningful sense – they describe something that each of us can image and know what the referent of the term means. If I say, “Medieval legends said that it took a virgin to tame a unicorn,” any literate person reading that sentence knows that what the legends say that the virgin tamed was a horselike creature with a spiral horn protruding from its forehead, not a fire-breathing winged lizard. In that sense, “unicorn” is a “real” concept; the fact that no such creatures exist on this planet (nor, evidently, have existed) is no bar to the meaningfulness of the term.

Likewise, the material world can be described in terms that match other people’s experiences of it; though a colorblind man will not understand the visual impact of vermilion maples and yellow aspens against a deep-green pine background on a fall hillside, he will be familiar with the three types of tree and be able to grasp the beauty of the contrast to you through paralleling it with other beautiful contrasts that he can perceive. Ice, granite, rabbit fur, incandescent spark – they all have meanings that match shared concepts.

But what precedes what, causes it, and so on, is the philosophical game of ontology. Barring discussions of God, love exists only as the shared interior feelings of two human beings, and yet it is one of the most powerful forces in existence. Wars have been fought and men have died over love. The perennial arguments over gay rights here reduce to the question of what love properly means.

Paul Tillich’s idea of God is “the ultimate ground of all being,” an absolute from which all other things derive. It’s a pretty abstract concept, awe-inspiring but difficult to relate to on an emotional plane. But then the question arises of whether that concept describes something real and fundamental, or is the product of the entity Paul Tillich. Or maybe both.

Bill Clinton may actually have had the bottom-line insight here: It all depends on what you mean by “is.” Or, rather, by “real.”

Eh. I think the whole question suffers from a constant raising of the bar. Even if a proof were presented that satisfied most that the universe was, indeed, real, anybody can simply wave it away and declare, “Not real enough!” Since we are subjective creatures, ANY observation made, anywhere, no matter what controls are put in place, will have some level of subjectivity to it. You can’t demand a completely subjective-free response.

Just my opinion, which may or may not be real.

If we can’t use our senses to determine whether the universe is real or not by what method you want us to use? If you exclude our sensorary perception you have excluded any possible evidence to contradict your assertion. We might as well score it a TKO right now and save ourselves a good deal of time.

How do I know that you won’t claim my axioms are based on subjective experience?

“Someone somewhere went to sleep and dreamed us all alive.
Dreams get kicked around a lot and i doubt if we’ll survive.
We won’t get to wake up, dreams were made to dissapear,
and i’m pretty sure that none of us are here.”


I guess Hoodoo Ulove nailed my opinion when he asked, “Not real compared to what?”

I would challenge Lib to present some reason for us to believe that the universe is NOT real. An alternative, for example. F’rinstance, if you were one of the people that liked the “Brain In A Jar” philosophical idea, I’d ask for a proof of that.

I always just take it as a given that we have to assume the universe is real, because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to tell anyway. Since our definitions of words stem from our understanding of the universe, even if the universe weren’t real, “real” would still mean “apparently existing as far as we can tell”. Anybody with an external view of this illusion would interpret our word “real” as meaning “existing within the illusion”.

Ultimately, from where we sit in the grand scheme of things, there is no difference.

Still, do you have an argument that it is real?[/QUOTE

Only what I wrote in the 2nd paragraph of post #4, which is pretty the same as what **Spoofe **said, above.