Ooh, ooh! It came, it came! I felt like a kid who'd just gotten a long-awaited toy in the mail when I opened our mailbox and saw the New Scientist cover:
What is Reality? A User's Guide to the Ultimate Question of Existence.
Finally. I'd know. What reality is all about.
I stretched out the suspense by waiting until evening to read the cover story. In the bathtub, immersed in relaxingly hot water, a glass of red wine and highlighter in hand (not at the same time).
I wasn't disappointed. Right away I liked the concise focus of the "Defining Reality" section. What do we mean by reality? Jan Westerhoff makes some reasonable suggestions, after discussing less plausible options.
There are two definitions of reality that are much more successful. The first equates reality with a world without us, a world untouched by human desires and intentions. By this definition, a lot of things we usually regard as real - languages, wars, the financial crisis - are nothing of the sort. Still, it is the most solid one so far because it removes human subjectivity from the picture.
The second equates reality with the most fundamental things that everything else depends on. In the material world, molecules depend on their constituent atoms, atoms on electrons and a nucleus, which in turn depends on protons and neutrons, and so on. In this hierarchy, every level depends on the one below it, so we might define reality as made up of whatever entities stand at the bottom of the chain of dependence, and thus depend on nothing else.
This definition is even more restrictive than "the world without us" since things like Mount Everest would not count as part of reality; reality is confined to the unknown foundation on which the entire world depends. Even so, when we investigate whether something is real or not, these final two definitions are what we should have in mind.
Delving deeper into the implications of these definitions, the New Scientist cover story asks such questions as:
Is matter real?
Is everything made of numbers?
How do we know reality isn't an illusion?
Are we in a simulation, not "base" reality?
Quantum theory seems to show that probability waves don't turn into real objects until an observation occurs. This introduces consciousness into the what is reality? equation. However, Westerhoff points out that some aspects of particles are dependent on measurement, and some aren't.
Yet if we accept that the wave function must collapse as soon as consciousness enters the measurement, the consequences are even more curious. If we decide to break off the chain at this point, it follows that, according to one of our definitions of reality, matter cannot be regarded as real. If consciousness is required to turn ghostly probability waves into things that are more or less like the objects we meet in everyday life, how can we say that matter is what would be there anyway, whether or not human minds were around?
But perhaps this is a bit too hasty. Even if we agree with the idea that consciousness is required to break the chain, all that follows is that the dynamic attributes of matter such as position, momentum and spin orientation are mind-dependent. It does not follow that its static attributes, including mass and charge, are dependent on in this. The static attributes are there whether we look or not.
Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves whether redefining matter as "a set of static attributes" preserves enough of its content to allow us to regard matter as real. In a world without minds, there would still be attributes such as mass and charge, but things would not be at any particular location or travel in any particular direction. Such a world has virtually nothing in common with the world as it appears to us.
...It seems that the best we are going to get at this point is the claim that some things are there independent of whether we, as human observers, are there, even though they might have very little to do with our ordinary understanding of matter.
So what about the other strong definition of reality, the foundation for everything else? Consciousness apparently isn't that foundation, since some things (such as the mass and charge of particles) would exist whether or not a conscious observer is aware of them.
This was the most interesting part of the article for me.
When I was researching my first book about mysticism and the new physics (I'm slowly working on finishing up a rewrite and getting it back in print), I read a lot about how various scientists and philosophers interpret quantum theory.
There's no agreement about what quantum theory tells us about the foundation of reality, even though it is able to make marvelously precise predictions of goings-on in the atomic and subatomic world. Thus the meaning of quantum theory is open to question, while the mechanics are pretty well settled.
Offering an example of the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, says Westerhoff, particles pop into a definite existence "when the system to be measured (the electron) interacts with the measuring device (the phosphor screen. For this reason, it has to be assumed that the phosphor screen will not itself exhibit the particular quantum behaviour shown by the electron."
This is where weirdness starts to creep in. Well, actually weirdness is all-encompassing in quantum theory, because it so far removed from how the everyday world appears to us. So let's say increasing weirdness starts to creep in.
Measuring devices, whether a machine or the human mind, are medium-sized material things. These things are made out of the tiny subatomic particles which, says the traditional interpretation, come into being when measured by a medium-sized material thing.
Weird! This is how Westerhoff's article ends.
And this is where the circularity comes in. We analyse the everyday world of medium-sized material things in terms of smaller and smaller constituents until we deal with parts that are so small that quantum effects become relevant for describing them. But when it comes to spelling out what is really going on when a wave function collapses into an electron hitting a phosphor screen, we don't ground our explanation in some yet more minute micro-level structures; we ground it in terms of readings made by non-quantum material things.
What this means is that instead of going further down, we instead jump right back up to the level of concrete phenomena of sensory perception, namely measuring devices such as phosphor screens and cameras. Once more, we are in a situation where we cannot say that the world of quantum objects is fundamental. Nor can we say that the world of measuring devices is fundamental since these devices are themselves nothing but large conglomerations of quantum objects.
We therefore have a circle of things depending on each other, even though, unlike in the previous case, mental objects are no longer part of this circle. As a result, neither the phosphor screen nor the minute electron can be regarded as real in any fundamental sense, since neither constitutes a class of objects that everything depends on. What we thought we should take to be the most fundamental turns out to involve essentially what we regarded as the least fundamental.
In our search for foundations, we have gone round in a circle, from the mind, via various components of matter, back to the mind - or, in the case of the Copenhagen interpretation, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, and then back to the macroscopic. But this just means that nothing is fundamental, in the same way there is no first or last stop on London Underground's Circle Line. The moral to draw from the reductionist scenario seems to be that either what is fundamental is not material, or that nothing at all is fundamental.
So there you are, believers in something supernatural: some scientific hope. Either what is fundamental is not material...
Yes, that's a possibility. But it requires a belief in an unobserved reality for which there's no demonstrable evidence. This world, on the other hand, is clearly evident -- albeit mysterious.
Which leads to the other possibility: Nothing at all is fundamental.
Buddhists are smiling at that statement. Emptily.
Given what we know now, it would appear that nothing is fundamental. This cuts religion off at the knees, if by "religion" we mean belief in some immaterial, immeasurable, inscrutable "ground" from which all things arise and return to.
Posted by: cc | October 03, 2012 at 03:03 PM
The assumption that there is a reality (of whatever nature) that actually exists independent of consciousness is merely that - an assumption. Assumptions require consciousness.
You can assign primary relevance to either consciousness or matter - a consistent logic can be realized from either perspective - but it should be obvious that they can never be found apart. That is because they are not apart. Whatever "reality" is - both consciousness and matter are intrinsic aspects of it's nature.
Survival is always going to be a struggle, and it will always fail. That is also intrinsic to both consciousness and matter.
Figure out the "how" any way you like, but this is definitely the "what". The "who" is irrelevant.
Posted by: Willie R | October 03, 2012 at 06:54 PM
"both consciousness and matter are intrinsic aspects of it's nature."
Why separate them? Is consciousness not matter?
Posted by: cc | October 04, 2012 at 09:37 AM
Human consciousness finds it's foundation in the human brain. Isn't the brain a type of matter?
Posted by: Roger | October 04, 2012 at 10:03 AM
Consciousness finds its expression in the Human brain. Yes, the brain is the King of matter. Did not Buddha Turn His Head Around?
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 04, 2012 at 09:02 PM
I though that I was unequivocally succinct in my "interpretation" of what reality might be. Both consciousness AND matter are conceptual. That they could constitute an essential difference is also conceptual. The point is - however an individual human being might feel about the issue is irrelevant to whatever "reality" is.
But, it is entertaining to speculate. Did you ever see a cat toying with it's prey? That is the reason we have a cerebral cortex - to play with ideas.
Posted by: Willie R | October 05, 2012 at 09:48 AM
What was matter before it was conceptualized? What was a "thing-in-itself" before it was conceptualized? Or, what exactly is the non-conceptual, non-subjective, non-objective, non-thing-ness supposed reality?
Posted by: Roger | October 05, 2012 at 10:46 AM
What did "God" do before he "created" the world?
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | October 05, 2012 at 12:23 PM
"What did "God" do before he "created" the world?"
Before God created "the world", He created "you" to bear witness to what you weren't there to bear witness to.
Posted by: cc | October 05, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Looking at the vast,magnanimous, emotion invoking, shining, clear night sky, I understood how absurd it is for any individual or group to claim that they know what "Reality" is.
The defining traits of matter are that it is (mostly) three dimensional and takes up space. The real nature of matter can only be understood by conceptions from different sources/disciplines. Matter and Space appear to have come into being at the same time.
Big Bang excerpt:
"After its initial expansion from a singularity, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow energy to be converted into various subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons."
Another interesting perspective:
Albert Einstein and the Fabric of Time
Surprising as it may be to most non-scientists and even to some scientists, Albert Einstein concluded in his later years that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. In 1952, in his book Relativity, in discussing Minkowski's Space World interpretation of his theory of relativity, Einstein writes:
Since there exists in this four dimensional structure [space-time] no longer any sections which represent "now" objectively, the concepts of happening and becoming are indeed not completely suspended, but yet complicated. It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.
Einstein's belief in an undivided solid reality was clear to him, so much so that he completely rejected the separation we experience as the moment of now. He believed there is no true division between past and future, there is rather a single existence. His most descriptive testimony to this faith came when his lifelong friend Besso died. Einstein wrote a letter to Besso's family, saying that although Besso had preceded him in death it was of no consequence, "...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one."
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 05, 2012 at 09:19 PM
".......for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one."
Janya, what did those physicists use to engage in the belief of separational illusion? While I can resonate with the basic message, didn't those guys/gals use their brain/mind to formulate such a belief?
Therefore, with the brain/mind would there not be moments of separation?
Posted by: Roger | October 06, 2012 at 09:55 AM
This is an interesting area, which relates to the potentially different models, levels or ways that reality is perceived.
the budhist concept of emptiness or codependent origination or whatever doesn't really do it for me either, its almost like we have the ingrained tendency to want to force a quasi-spiritual explanation to fill in these gaps that science cannot answer. Its meant to be less religious, or irreligious, but it offers nothing more to know about nothing, and it still does not explain how something can come from nothing.
I guess one can look at what is reality, or what is real, in many different ways, not just in the 2 ways put forward by this chap vesterhoff.
Realism is what classical science is based on, the idea that there is a mind-independent universe of things/forces that exist independent of whether we can sense or measure them (with our minds or otherwise) or not. But science is not realism, science is based on empricism, so it is a type of knowledge limited to what can be sensed, measured or proved.
Idealism seems to be what mysticism and non-dual advaita and most spirituality is based on, which is that there is NO mind-independent reality, that at base there is only mind, that mind creates the world of things and the universe, in short a delusion.
Then between these two there is that old twatface Kant who reckoned that we cannot ever really truly understand reality, since even if there is a mind-independent reality, we can only ever observe it through the imperfect or subjective mind.
And then there's quantum theory, which throws everything out the bathtub with the baby, and no-one understands a gdam thing, with its all obersever effect, entaglement, qunatum indeterminacy and the uncertainly principle - which seems to again position itself between realism and idealism, or the objective and the subjective.
In reality, no-ones got the foggiest.
Posted by: George | October 06, 2012 at 12:38 PM
Roger, I too was wondering how Einstein arrived at the past-present-future all happening at the same time conclusion. Its got a special meaning for me because of my NDE (my babble post), and how I actually fully experienced this Einsteinian "single existence". Its apparently some construct where time either does not exist or is different. (Its also entirely possible that this construct /space/state/dimension is also accessible in meditation.) Einstein nested his "single existence" work on "Minkowski space" to an extent.
George brings up some really good points pertaining to the vastness of the subject. This is precisely why Science proper should be artistically and lovingly taught using the hand head and heart, right from grade 6 onwards by insightful teachers so that when my age is reached, one does not feel like a science ignoramus!
Here's some preliminary stuff on what Quantum Physics is telling us:
The double slit experiment
The Buddhist codependent origination, in a very important sense appears to be a euphemism for the chain of cause and effects;Dharma and Karma chains. These chains apply to mortal beings as well as to the creation and dissolution of worlds. (solar systems, galaxies, galactic clusters and more. At the mortal levels, reincarnation is implied and at the universe levels, Pralayas.
How does something come from nothing?
Some understandings may be gained by understanding Differential Calculus. It is the study of the rates at which quantities change. This has implications for the differentiation of the one substance into the many.
Then there is Projective Geometry,which has more points in any given dimension than in Euclidean space. "And that geometric transformations are permitted that move the extra points (called "points at infinity") to traditional points, and vice versa." (Wiki)
But as to the very nature of the primal substance itself, its possible that Science will someday know and understand it but until then a fair place to start looking would be into our very own nature and makeup, the study and wisdom of MAN himself/herself.
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 06, 2012 at 03:57 PM
I'm trying to read some of this wu-wu written by Wei wu Wei - tge bugger seems to have a hankering for Taoism and Non-dual thought generally.
far as I can gather, this sage old fart seems to reckons tge heart of the diamond sutra and all budhism and all wisdom traditions is based on a recognition that what is key is not tge nature of things but how they are perceived. I think this is what minfulnness hints at - that we mindful of rye aspect of mind (ego-centric) which apparently interferes with our perceptions of reality and in the process distorts it.
Wei pu more poopoo seems to call it split-mind, as opposed to whole mind. It seems that mindfullness and all wisdom traditions appear to still or confuse or distract this split mind with all it's evil powers of differentiation, conceptualization and intellectualisation (either through contemplating ones navel or bring confused by a nonsenical joan or battered over tge head by sone fkd up master).
In other words, the aim is to get in touch with our orginal nature, and the nature and source of all things and the universe itself, pure awareness.
Ommmmm - ting, someone hit a bell I just dissapeared up me own nought.
Posted by: George | October 07, 2012 at 07:43 AM
Wei Wu say if bear break wind in forest, does forest really exist?
Posted by: George | October 07, 2012 at 09:05 AM
Me thinks thou art on to sublime profundities, Phantom, I bid you what be your name,?
Split mind, what they be calling it,eh, duality, be naught but a coping strategy, just like no-self? 'cos who wish to be have U.G Krishnamurthy's Calamity, it be, methinks epitome of pure awarenes thing but by my troth!to aks be to split mind again but naught to, be certain way to loony bin yonder.
Perchance it be good to know moor.
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 07, 2012 at 11:50 AM
Wei Wu Wei's (Terence James Stannus Gray) chief mentor was Sri Ramana Maharshi at Sri Ramanashram in Tiruvannamalai, India.
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 07, 2012 at 12:51 PM
Perchance - who woulda guessed you got a sense of humour - I thought you were a fella but then brian said u a lady so I apologise for russling your uptight breeches.
Yip gray big fan of maharshi.
Posted by: George | October 07, 2012 at 02:10 PM
Ywis, kyendele acceptd.
Posted by: Janya Barrish | October 07, 2012 at 06:23 PM