In curved goldfish bowls. The measure’s sponsor explained the measure in part by saying that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl with curved sides because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, un-distorted picture of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?
The goldfish view is not the same as our own, but goldfish could still formulate scientific laws governing the motion of the objects they observe outside their bowl. For example, due to the distortion, a freely moving object that we would observe to move in a straight line would be observed by the goldfish to move along a curved path. Nevertheless, the goldfish could formulate scientific laws from their distorted frame of reference that would always hold true and that would enable them to make predictions about the future motion of objects outside the bowl. Their laws would be more complicated than the laws in our frame, but simplicity is a matter of taste. If a goldfish formulated such a theory, we would have to admit the goldfish’s view as a valid picture of reality.
According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation, like the goldfish’s picture and ours, then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration. For example, if one were inside the bowl, the goldfish’s picture would be useful, but for those outside, it would be very awkward to describe events from a distant galaxy in the frame of a bowl on earth, especially because the bowl would be moving as the earth orbits the sun and spins on its axis.
We make models in science, but we also make them in everyday life. Model-dependent realism applies not only to scientific models but also to the conscious and subconscious mental models we all create in order to interpret and understand the everyday world. There is no way to remove the observer—us—from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception—and hence the observations upon which our theories are based—is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains.
Model-dependent realism corresponds to the way we perceive objects. In vision, one’s brain receives a series of signals down the optic nerve. Those signals do not constitute the sort of image you would accept on your television. There is a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, and the only part of your field of vision with good resolution is a narrow area of about 1 degree of visual angle around the retina’s center, an area the width of your thumb when held at arm’s length. And so the raw data sent to the brain are like a badly pixelated picture with a hole in it. Fortunately, the human brain processes that data, combining the input from both eyes, filling in gaps on the assumption that the visual properties of neighboring locations are similar and interpolating. Moreover, it reads a two-dimensional array of data from the retina and creates from it the impression of three-dimensional space. The brain, in other words, builds a mental picture or model.
The brain is so good at model building that if people are fitted with glasses that turn the images in their eyes upside down, their brains, after a time, change the model so that they again see things the right way up. If the glasses are then removed, they see the world upside down for a while, then again adapt. This shows that what one means when one says “I see a chair” is merely that one has used the light scattered by the chair to build a mental image or model of the chair. If the model is upside down, with luck one’s brain will correct it before one tries to sit on the chair.
Though realism may be a tempting viewpoint, as we’ll see later, what we know about modern physics makes it a difficult one to defend. For example, according to the principles of quantum physics, which is an accurate description of nature, a particle has neither a definite position nor a definite velocity unless and until those quantities are measured by an observer. It is therefore not correct to say that a measurement gives a certain result because the quantity being measured had that value at the time of the measurement. In fact, in some cases individual objects don’t even have an independent existence but rather exist only as part of an ensemble of many. And if a theory called the holographic principle proves correct, we and our four-dimensional world may be shadows on the boundary of a larger, five-dimensional space-time. In that case, our status in the universe is analogous to that of the goldfish.
The Grand Design – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow