What do we really know?

13552939_sI meet with a speculative fiction writer’s group once a month. It’s a nice collection of Sonoma County writers, some writing science fiction, like me, others writing urban fantasy, straight-up fantasy, or even horror. There was a new member of the group, someone who knows a lot about quantum computing, physics, astronomy, etc, and we got into a very interesting conversation, some of it over my head, which is fine. I’m not a quantum physicist, although I certainly have used some quantum physics concepts in my writing.

But I realized that underneath the conversation was an assumption. An assumption that the reality that human beings can measure, is, in some way, a direct representation of what’s actually real – what’s actually true about the universe.

Now that is, actually, an assumption that most scientists operate under. After all, if you couldn’t assume that you were in some way measuring reality, why bother? And having been a scientist myself, I certainly operated under that assumption for many years. But it’s not an assumption I have any longer.

I think that we can observe and measure things, and we can create from those measurements practical, predictable effects. But I don’t know that we can assume that we are really directly measuring reality. It’s very much like the blind man and the elephant – we think we’re measuring something, but my bet is that it’s actually a very small piece (and, one dimension, in a sense) of true reality.

I wrote a short story once, called “Contact.” (I’m working on getting it published in a certified SFWA market, so maybe I can actually join SFWA at some point.) Anyway, one of the central characters of the story is an intelligent native of another planet, whose species is deaf, and can’t see very well. One of the interesting thought experiments that came out of this is to think about how a species constructs reality given the senses it has, and what do they miss if they don’t have them. This species is intelligent, and has science (albeit at an early stage,) but they can’t even conceptualize what sound might be like, since they don’t have that sense. Although we are certainly able to extend our five senses quite far, what limitations do we have in the way we perceive and understand reality because we have only these five senses?

One of the great things about being a speculative fiction writer is you get to ask questions like this. And the answers are legion.

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One Comment

  1. Well considered. I appreciate thinking outside the box like this. Too often, I see SFF writers complaining that xyz item couldn’t have been invented yet because abc item doesn’t exist in the world building of a given book. I think that assumes a lot. Maybe there is no copper available … so the iron age happens without copper. Maybe a society learns to harness electricity and light technologies faster because their civilization was forced underground. Or maybe, as you say, they are deaf …

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