Jean Piaget defined “object permanence” as the awareness that objects still exist even when they are no longer visible. It seems to be mere common sense; it’s what makes peek-a-boo so boring to anyone who can tie a shoe. Infants’ lack of object permanence explains why they sometimes believe that you can't see them when they closes their eyes: out of sight, out of mind.
Or is it “out of mind, out of sight?” Common sense gets scientists only so far, Joshua Roebke points out in a recent article for Seed. The age-old, almost clichéd question of whether or not we create the world just by looking at it is receiving renewed attention from a group of scientists in Vienna. Passé? Maybe. But they’re actually getting somewhere.
Basically the scientists, including Anthony Leggett and Anton Zeilinger, are testing to see if the polarization of light exists before it’s measured. If it does, then reality is real. If not, then the way that humans view the world is called into question. Of course, there are no simple answers yet. To really understand what's going on in the lab, you’ll need to read the article. And even doing so will probably still leave you baffled. Words like “quantum,” “realism,” and “nonlocal hidden variables” are tossed around, seemingly assuming that we all took advanced physics within the last year.
Scientific theories that rub rough elbows with doctrine or dogma will always come full circle back to interpretation and ideology. But unlike controversial theories including the big bang or Darwinian evolution, the "Reality Tests" described in the Seed article aren’t a matter of history. The reality they test is here and now: the color of our couch and the physicality of our sons and daughters that are, well, threatened.
Take that, Piaget.