2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

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professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton
What is Reality?

It has become unfashionable to ask about the structure of reality without already having chosen a framework in which to ponder the answer, be it scientific, religious or sceptical. A sense of wonder at the sheer appearance of the world, moment by moment, has been lost.

To look at the world in wonder, and to stay with that sense of wonder without jumping straight past it, has become almost impossible for someone taking science seriously. The three dominant reactions are: to see science as the only way to get at the truth, at what is really real; to accept science but to postulate a more encompassing reality around or next to it, based on an existing religion; or to accept science as one useful approach in a plurality of many approaches, neither of which has anything to say about reality in any ultimate way.

The first reaction leads to a sense of wonder scaled down to the question of wonder about the underlying mathematical equations of physics, their interpretation, and the complexity of the phenomena found on the level of chemistry and biology. The second reaction tends to allow wonder to occur only within the particular religous framework that is accepted on faith. The third reaction allows no room for wonder about reality, since there is no ultimate reality to wonder about.

Having lost our ability to ask what reality is like means having lost our innocence. The challenge is to regain a new form of innocence, by accepting all that we can learn from science, while simultaneously daring to ask 'what else is true?' In each period of history, the greatest philosophers struggled with the question of how to confront skepticism and cynicism, from Socrates and Descartes to Kant and Husserl in Europe, and Nagarjuna and many others in Asia and elsewhere. I hope that the question "What is Reality?" will reappear soon, as a viable intellectual question and at the same time as an invitation to try to put all our beliefs and frameworks on hold. Looking at reality without any filter may or may not be possible, but without at least trying to do so we will have given up too soon.

PIET HUT is professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. He is involved in the project of building GRAPEs, the world's fastest special-purpose computers, at Tokyo University, and he is also a founding member of the Kira Institute.