Building Blocks of Reality / by Lauren Rayner Davis /

Building Blocks of Reality / by Lauren Rayner Davis /

Building Blocks of Reality

by Lauren Rayner Davis

“To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.”

―Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Does our reality create the law? Conversely, does the law construct our reality? Or, is our reality best described as a constantly ebbing and flowing tide of brackish water, where the salt water represents reality and the fresh water embodies the law? In law school, a professor of mine once said that the law provided the building blocks of our reality. The bricks in the building in which we sat were dictated by law. The steel beams supporting the structure were in place because of laws. We were able to walk across the street to class because of laws our society has accepted. In short, the law is all around us––all day, every day.  

United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated that, “The first requirement of a sound body of law is that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community.” To illustrate Justice Holmes’ larger point, in human societies that rely on foraging, hunting, or subsistence farming, laws protecting property are often rare. Because population densities in such societies are generally low and environmental resources are readily available, land, water, and other vital resources are shared among community members. In other words, the community engages in joint “ownership” of common elements. The law in this instance grows out of reality.

On the other side of the coin, the law can be seen to shape reality. Consider criminal laws that classify the act of assisted suicide as an act as murder. While the person assisting the suicide may argue he or she is engaging in a moral and just act, especially in cases of terminal illness or old age, it is the law (and not their lived reality or morality) that dictates whether society deems that person to be a murderer.

The sovereign states and localities of the United States operate not only under legislated statutes and ordinances, but also under a patch-work of judicial rulings called the common law. The origins of common law are not unlike the origins of storytelling in our culture; the most apt jurists are able to weave together the facts and the law to reach a logical and cogent opinion that achieves an equitable and just result, and the outputs of these arguments then become the legal rules and standards that constitute common law. One case leads to another ruling, which leads to another, and to another. Occasionally, a court may disagree and overturn precedent, but doing so is often rare and flies in the face of American jurisprudence. And, once again, we witness the interdependent relationship between the emergence of reality (history) and the rules that dictate it (law).

Legal scholars and philosophers appear to have mused over the question of whether the law shapes our reality or vice versa for millennia. For it was Socrates that expounded,

If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality

Socrates poignantly identifies the true predicament of such a complex question: our minds create our reality, yet the law is typically slow to change. The slow rate of change in the law can quickly become an issue when we live at the quick whims of our mental state. In a rapidly globalizing landscape, where the technological advances of our society demand quick responses, the law may increasingly need to become more adaptable, more responsive, and more translatable across borders. We have entered an era of so-called “fake news” and of unprecedented social interaction across screens over millions of miles. The law has struggled to keep up with the latest version of reality that our society faces, and perhaps it could be said that societal change has outpaced the law at this point in time.

Regardless of whether the law shapes reality, or reality shapes the law, it may turn out to be an insurmountable task for the law to keep pace with the evolution of human society because, in a way, the law is always trying to catch up to some version of reality––a reality which, according to Socrates, is continually shifting in our minds.

Lauren Rayner Davis earned her Juris Doctor degree from Brooklyn Law School where she served on the executive editorial board of the Brooklyn Law Review. Her law review note critiquing federal trade secrets legislation was published here in 2017. Currently, Lauren is a judicial law clerk to the Honorable James Den Uyl in the Superior Court of New Jersey and she previously served as a judicial intern to the Honorable Victor Marrero in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Theories of Everything / by Mariel Pettee /

Theories of Everything / by Mariel Pettee /

Theories of Everything

by Mariel Pettee

A physics discovery requires immense patience and resilience, but every so often, the payoff is dazzling. Scientific results can incite irreversible shifts in our understandings of our universe and even our own personal realities. Through the lens of physics, for example, we now understand that time doesn’t tick by at the same pace for everyone, that the relics of black hole collisions from billions of years ago rippled through spacetime itself to reach us today, and that as far as we know, everything around us (including our own bodies) is composed of a handful of fundamental building blocks we call particles. Such mind-boggling results inevitably call for a human perspective, aside from all the plots and numbers, to help us process the discovery as part of our personal origin story. 

But many physicists, myself included, are reluctant to talk about what our results should mean to the world beyond a purely pragmatic level, or to tout physical results as a description of an experienced or objective “reality.” We’re focused on the process, and we need to keep the conversation tightly within the confines of what we can measure in order to keep that process churning efficiently. 

To venture outside of scientific shop-talk can be dangerous, too, since the vocabulary of a physicist is peppered with words that we’ve all seen before: energy, space, time, dark, information, measurement, decay, symmetry. It is hugely tempting for a non-scientist to take a physics result, with words they think they understand, and extrapolate it onto their ‘real’ human experience — in which case the physics is usually rendered nonsensical. 

Physics thrives in crisply-defined regions of possibility. Every major physics theory necessarily carves out its own ranges in size, energy, temperature, speed, etc. for which it is a valid description of the universe, such as “for lengths much longer than the diameter of an atom” or “for speeds far smaller than the speed of light”. For example: while physicists observe both particle-like and wave-like behaviors from matter at tiny length scales, the wave-particle duality concept just isn’t very useful when describing humans made up of those same particles. In fact, humans are demonstrably not quantum mechanical because we’re both way too big and way too hot to fall within the range at which quantum mechanical effects become important.

Many popular depictions of physics emphasize a search for a “Theory of Everything” that can one day describe the entire universe flawlessly, regardless of what range you're looking at. In my opinion, this misses the point. I don’t think we’ll ever approach a Theory of Everything. Instead, we can strive for a relatively seamless patchwork quilt of descriptions of “reality” at various scales. As a particle physics researcher at the Large Hadron Collider, I admit that this idea has been difficult to confront. I wish that understanding fundamental particles like the Higgs boson could unlock all the answers for us.

I’ve now come to terms with the fact that while it would be interesting if every behavior in the universe could be perfectly traced back to its origins at the smallest scales, our universe doesn’t appear to work that way. All too frequently, scientists find examples of so-called “emergent” behaviors that can’t be predicted or described by the physics that defines their constituent parts. A comprehensive knowledge of particle physics can’t tell us much about friction, biology, or whether it’ll rain today. It’s impossible to measure the temperature of a single particle, because

we commonly define temperature as an average property of a collection of particles. Given that the concept of temperature loses its meaning at a certain scale, some theorists have even proposed that the same could happen for spacetime itself.

The concept of emergence isn’t just a physical phenomenon — it pops up in math as well. In my study of quantum field theory (roughly speaking, a treatment of quantum mechanics combined with special relativity), I’ve learned that admitting the limits of our theories can actually enable us to do powerful calculations. The everyday work of quantum field theory can yield some nasty integrals whose answers end up being infinity. Usually, when physicists encounter an infinity in a calculation, that’s our cue to crumple up that sheet of paper and toss it in the trash. One creative tactic in quantum field theory, however, involves imposing an upper limit to our theory’s predictive power, and as a result, our answers actually become finite.

In doing so, we essentially demote the theory we’re working with from a theory of all of particle physics to a theory of a specific energy range of particle physics. This idea of defining a theory that’s only valid up to a certain point — an “effective” field theory — turns out to not just be a cute mathematical trick, but a cornerstone of modern particle physics. Quantum field theory has now unified our understandings of every fundamental force in the universe apart from gravity. Armed with the ability to understand where and why our theories can break down, physicists don’t have to try to understand everything about the universe all at once. Instead, we can (and must!) break this monolithic problem into bite-sized pieces.

Reality is right here, all around us, described by equations that can predict the trajectories of baseballs and children on swingsets. But zoom in or out enough in scale and you’ll find a realm that’s utterly foreign, with sometimes a completely new set of laws required to understand it. That’s reality, too, though it’s no more “real” than the one right in front of you, because the universe is best described thus far by a collage of many equally valid physical theories, not one overall Theory of Everything.

This is good news, and in my eyes, the heartbeat of science. Rather than discovering one fundamental reality, we can instead spend our days unlocking a series of doors, always knowing there will be something unexplainable on the other side.

Mariel Pettee is a PhD candidate in Physics at Yale University who researches a particle called the Higgs boson using data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. As a choreographer, writer, and performer, she also uses art to research audience activation, duration, authenticity, fear, and playfulness.

Constructions, Deconstructions, and Reconstructions / by Lynda Paul /

Constructions, Deconstructions, and Reconstructions / by Lynda Paul /

Constructions, Deconstructions, and Reconstructions

by Lynda Paul

What makes a work of art feel “real”? The answer might seem intuitive at first: near- photographic detail in a painting; unexaggerated vocal inflections, gestures, and looks from actors in a film; the words and patterns of everyday conversation in a play’s dialogue. In realistic art, as in reality, things do not feel “artificial” or “fake”—nothing is too “stylized,” nothing too “over-the-top,” to prevent us from believing in the truthfulness of the representation. No inflated melodrama or hallucinatory surrealism here: realism, like the real world, looks straightforward, clear.

But not really, of course. If you look closely at any of the aforementioned examples—the seemingly realistic painting, film, or play—the apparent resemblances to our world begin to disintegrate, revealing something much more complicated underneath. Up close, the painting is made up of strokes of color and nuances of shading whose textures and shapes look nothing like the image’s lines and objects the beholder sees at a distance. The film actors sound most “natural” when their conversation is accompanied by a subtle symphonic underscore—without it, their voices tend toward the laughable, the absurd. And the play’s dialogue, dissected for its structure, turns out to be a meticulously woven tapestry of words guiding the audience member through a finely wrought arc of tension and release; conflict and resolution; beginning, middle, and end. “Real” life is hardly so well planned. What, then, is “realistic” in these cases? And what does realism, or reality, in art really mean?

The answer, as one might expect, is “it depends.” Realism in art is tied to specific times, places, and values. Our current perceptions about “realistic” representation are relatively recent. They developed during the Enlightenment and the turbulent century that followed it, and were shaped by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ shifting cultural, political, and social ideologies. These shifts called for the cultivation of new modes of artistry and craft, as well as explicit theorizing: Denis Diderot famously advocated for what is now called the “fourth wall”; Émile Zola and André Antoine developed the concept of Naturalism; and Ibsen, Chekhov, and Stanislavski contributed crucial foundations to the contemporary notion of realism. Each movement developed out of emerging social realities, and each necessitated new paradigms for thinking about art; none of the features of these movements arose because they were inherently or objectively more “realistic” or compelling than others. Put another way, the conventions that, to us, lend a sense of “reality” or “realism” in any genre are as artfully and artificially constructed as the more obviously stylized techniques of abstract design, experimental film, or post-modern drama. Perhaps more so, since we must look even harder to see them. 

If we look back to periods before the advent of modern notions of realism, we see many different ways of conceptualizing the “real” in art. In ancient Greek tragedy, all speaking characters—male and female—were played by three men per play, each wearing a large mask that probably covered the entire head. It is hardly what we would call a “realistic” depiction today. Yet Aristotle’s writing suggests that these dramas were understood in his time to have a kind of mimetic truth, even a kind of “verisimilitude” (as the seventeenth-century neoclassicists called it, following Aristotle’s lead). This kind of verisimilitude reached beyond the everyday to a higher plane of reality. Or we might look at theater from Medieval Europe, when new dramatic tropes developed—for example, the depiction of intense, heightened battles between personified Virtues and Vices, fighting for the prize of a human soul. These characters lie well beyond the realm of any ordinary sense of “real” today. Yet although the drama was carried by allegorical figures, and the ordinary humans depicted were typically caught in metaphorical obstacles of biblical proportions, these plays nonetheless embodied sacred truths—more “real” than earthly experience—to a population who experienced life as a relentless battle for their own salvation. 

The histories of all forms and genres of art—from literature to music, film, opera, and beyond—show analogous trends. Even in our own world, the meaning of realism, or reality, in art is not static. And in the present day, its relationship to the artificial, the unreal, the virtual, is becoming increasingly blurred. Think of the Disney theme parks, or of the Las Vegas Strip, locations that blend traditional forms of tangible, material reality (buildings, sidewalks, etc.) with virtual, immaterial markers of space and time (sounds pumped through hidden speakers, ceilings painted to look like skies, trompe l’oeil painting on walls creating multifaceted spatial illusions). They simulate other places, other times, on top of enormous concrete edifices, creating new versions of blended realities that mimic, depend on, and also depart from, the “real world.”

The relationships between reality and artificiality, between imitation and simulation, and between myth and truth, are far more complex than they seem at a glance. And looking at them from a historical vantage point reveals a continual negotiation of tensions among competing notions about both art and the meaning of reality itself. No wonder, then, that questions of reality, and the art that confronts them, are so enduring.

Lynda Paul teaches at Yale in the departments of English, Music, and Theater Studies. She holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, University of Chicago, Yale School of Drama, and Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where she received distinction on her PhD in music.