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Journal of Philosophy and Culture

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How to Talk about Physical Reality? Other Models, Other Questions

Benjamin B. Olshin

Abstract


Investigating the nature of our apparent physical reality is a profound challenge. Our models from physics, while powerful, do not treat reality per se. The famous painter Paul Gaugin articulated the relevant existential questions famously in a grand painting - questions that also give the painting its title: D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? People of religious faith, of course, assume that one can know the ultimate truth of reality, and, then, know the answers to these questions. But even in such a case, there is the issue of how a believer has obtained their faith, through a revelatory or other epistemological process. Joseph Campbell grasped the difficulty of framing the key questions, noting that, “the transcendent is unknowable and unknown. God is transcendent, finally, of anything like the name ‘God.’ God is beyond names and forms.” This metaphysical puzzle concern, in part, models. Physics uses models, and such models are powerful tools: they allow us to navigate through the physical reality we live in, and manipulate aspects of it. However, the models do not lead humanity closer to any ultimate truth, or even give us a clue that there might be an ultimate truth. The problem of using models and talking about reality can be viewed in a new way however, using certain structures in Chinese philosophy. The ancient Dao De Jing states: “The heavens and the earth are not partial to institutionalized morality”. We can extend that to say, “The universe is not partial to institutionalized models”.

 




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