Is Reality Just a State of Mind?

In a recent article in the Guardian entitled ‘Quantum Weirdness: What we call ‘reality’ is just a state of mind’, quantum physicist and winner of the 2009 Templeton prize Bernard d’Espagnat argues against the commonsense view, championed by realist philosophers, that reality is objective and importantly independent of our thinking about it. ( See: Like many before him d’Espagnat appeals to some of the findings of quantum mechanics, which appear to defy commonsense, to support his case. In particular, he appeals to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, under which particles that have interacted with one another remain importantly connected to one another even when far apart. D’Espagnat points out that this phenomenon has important consequences for our conception of space and time. Somehow he seems to think that it is also important for debates about realism in general and not just to debates about the nature of space and time, although he does not explain why this is the case. According to him:


This reality is something that, while not a purely mind-made construct as radical idealism would have it, can be but the picture our mind forces us to form of … Of what ? The only answer I am able to provide is that underlying this empirical reality is a mysterious, non-conceptualisable "ultimate reality", not embedded in space and (presumably) not in time either.



Realists in philosophy do not usually dispute that there are minds in the world and nor do they dispute the claim that minds can make a difference to the nature of the world in certain ways. If I decide to write the word ‘Aardvark’ here and now then my mind has made a difference to the world. The antirealist claim that realists will want to take issue with is the claim that minds are somehow active in creating reality rather than merely reshaping it when we intervene in the world. On the realist view we can want pigs’ ears to be silk purses and we can run around claiming that pigs’ ears are silk purses and we can even run around believing that pigs’ ears are silk purses, but all of this activity will not stop them from being pigs’ ears and will not cause them to be made of silk. The important issue here is about control. On the realist view the nature of reality is not importantly subject to our control.


In the above quote d’Espagnat describes reality as ‘… the picture our mind forces us to form …’. This is very confused. Our minds are not separate from us and are not somehow capable of forcing us to do things. They are a core component of us. But in any case, if we are somehow forced to picture the world in a particular way then we lack control over the ways in which we conceive of the world, and therefore lack the ability to deliberately change the nature of reality. So, d’Espagnat’s views, while a challenge to those who want to hold on to conceptions of space and time that do not accommodate the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, are no threat to philosophical realists. The realist-antirealist debate has gone on for thousands of years and is not going to be resolved any time soon. D’espagnat has not introduced anything into the debate that the realist cannot handle, so the balance of the contest is unaffected by his recent contribution.

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