“In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations.”
Einstein and Infeld, The Evolution Of Physics
When I first heard such ideas as an undergraduate, I could not make sense of them. A long time and a lot of work passed before I had a more or less clear understanding of what folks like Einstein and Infeld were talking about.
The basic idea is still a strange one: Reality is inaccessible to us. In the language of Einstein and Infeld, we cannot open the closed watch to peer inside. The best we can do is make models of what we think is inside the watch. All of these models will be wrong, but some of them might be more useful than the others. What we call “truth” is no more — and no less — than the most useful model we have of any particular reality. Yet, we cannot be certain that the reality even exists, let alone that we have correctly described it in our model.
It is here that many artists and scientists are in fundamental agreement. Neither the astute artist, not the astute scientist thinks even for a second that he or she has created the only possible interpretation of reality. Both recognize they have created only one of what might be many possible interpretations of the reality. Neither thinks of truth as an absolute. Both think of truth as conditional.
That irks a lot of people.
The astute artist and scientist are playing the game of “What Is Reality” on the pro-level, but a lot of people play that same game more or less on the level of a bright high school freshman. Until an artist, scientist, or someone else comes along to inform them that reality is inaccessible, they are not even dimly aware of the fact. Can you blame them for being uncomfortable with such a strange idea? I certainly don’t. I remember too well the hard work it took me to grasp somewhat clearly that strange idea.