The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is, continued

Last November I wrote this post, which suggested (to me anyhow) that what we perceive as reality was anything but this. Since that post, I have been delving more into the subject, which is getting clearer and weirder every day. What’s weirdest about all this learning and research is that the exact sorts of people you would think would be most skeptical about this stuff, like prominent physicists like Brian Greene, are promoting stuff that really sounds outlandish.

Greene is one of a number of physicists who are coming to believe that our reality is basically a hologram. If true, then in some sense we do live in a virtual reality, because a hologram is merely the projected illusion of something that is real and three dimensional, but isn’t.

More specifically, what these physicists are suggesting is that there are many more than the four dimensions (time being a dimension too) that we perceive. This has been accepted wisdom among physicists for decades: that there are 10 or 11 dimensions with the ones we can’t experience being “curled up”. If you think about it though, three of our four dimensions describe space, because space has height, width and depth. Einstein discovered about a hundred years ago that time is relative. The closer you travel to the speed of light, the more time elapses on places not trying to move toward the speed of light. So in some sense, Einstein is suggesting that time is virtual. In fact, Einstein called time an illusion.

The latest thinking among these physicists seems to be that not only is time an illusion, but that space is an illusion too. It turns out this is the simplest explanation for the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, that if a cat could be shrunk to quantum size, then it’s possible for the same cat to be both alive and dead at the same instant. This is because of the non-deterministic nature of the quantum world, where photons can be both particle and wave, depending on whether they are observed or not. If I understand what they are saying correctly, then this only makes sense if space is virtual too.

How to think about this? I imagine a transparent cube through which sunlight streams. It projects a three-dimensional real thing on a surface, but it is a two dimensional entity that we are looking at. If time and space are illusions, as a growing number of physicists are suggesting, then our lives are virtual and space is as virtual as time.

There also seems to be consensus that consciousness is external to all of this. So essentially we are all manipulating a model using consciousness that we call our lives. I imagine me (my consciousness) spending all its time looking at the projection of a cube on a two-dimensional surface. That is my reality, what I call my life, mainly because it’s something I can make some sense of life through interacting with it. I’m so focused on it that I cannot step outside of it. None of us living can, except perhaps some mediums among us. For those of us trapped inside this hologram, it’s as real as it can possibly be. But increasingly we understand that our reality is actually virtual. Perhaps it is better expressed that reality is much more than we can sense.

Many mystics believe in the notion of astral planes, i.e. other realities that the soul (consciousness?) can ascend or descend into outside of the one plane we call life. Many believe that we go into another astral plane after death. Most people believe they only have one life. Those who believe in God generally believe there is only one unique kind of afterlife, in which one size fits all. So most of us can conceive of only two astral planes: this life and the heaven or hell that awaits us in an afterlife. Conceptually there could be many more. Since there are 10 or 11 dimensions and we can only experience four (all of which may be virtual) there could be six or more other planes of existence that our souls/consciousness could inhabit or perhaps already inhabit.

It sounds so bizarre and unreal, particularly given that our reality seems to completely real to us. But this is basically what our best scientists now seem to be telling us. This is not to say they mean that a grand afterlife awaits us in some sort of heavenly cosmos. This is not to say that our traditional notion of God is real either. It does suggest though that real reality, whatever that is, is much grander, interesting and puzzling than we can perceive. If consciousness is apart from what we call reality and it persists after death (we can call it a soul), it does suggest our greater universe is some sort of collective consciousness slowly moving into increasing understanding and complexity as we discover and probe our universe through virtual realities, one of which we call our lives. We may be creating this reality simply by probing and testing its many layers and permutations.

I am reminded of the late author/philosopher Ayn Rand, whose theory of Objectivism I poo-pooed a few times over the years. I still think her theory is bullshit, since it was all about the individual and cared nothing for relationships. But one aspect of her theory was something to the effect that our lives are virtual; so we should feel free to manipulate it to get what we want out of it and don’t worry about the consequences. When we do this, we get the effects we are experiencing today, including the crisis of global climate change. It’s real enough in what we call reality and must be stopped.

Yet on some sort of grander, more cosmic level, she may be right. If these inferences are right, then we are all manipulating models of some sort of virtual world we cannot fully understand or escape, much like a baby puzzles through stacking blocks. Increasingly though, as real as it seems to us stuck in it, our reality is actually virtual. At the very least, it is an imperfect projection of a much grander and more complex reality whose true nature we are slowly uncovering.

The nature of reality isn’t what you think it is

The answer to the universe may not be 42 (hat tip to the late Douglas Adams), but its unreality.

That is, it is unreal in the way that most of us think of reality. For example, we perceive that the universe unfolds in a linear fashion, that we exist in corporal form, and that the future cannot influence the past. But that’s not my impression anymore. It’s based on reading a lot about physics and quantum mechanics and more recently from watching a lot of YouTube videos on these topics.

In many ways I believe that we actually are living in the matrix, but not The Matrix presented in three movies of the same name. These movies fancifully depict our lives as hallucinations controlled by machines. If I sound like a raving lunatic, then there are a lot of physicists who agree with me. Physics is revealing certain things about our universe that cannot be explained by the way we think we perceive reality.

It was Albert Einstein who first coined the term space-time. Basically, he discovered that space and time do not exist separately, but they are one thing, whose shape can be perturbed by gravity (which turns out to be a much more mysterious force than space-time.)

On the other end of the spectrum is string theory, the study of the extremely small, which tries to explain just what matter and energy are. We are enmeshed in the fabric of the universe, the physicist Brian Greene wrote in a book of the same name. It was largely his book, which I read back in 2004, which has kept me engaged in this topic since then.

Just as a TV screen consists of pixels, the fabric of space-time appears to have a fundamental unit much, much smaller than an atom. It’s Planck’s constant, which is not a measure of a distance as it is a constant used to express the energy carried by a photon in relation to its frequency. Its value, by the way, is 6.626070150 × 10-34 Joules per second, exactly. The International Standards Organization formally refined its value just five days ago. As best we can tell, it defines the reality we experience, or more specifically an “atom” of space-time itself, something that cannot be further subdivided. This is the stuff that we, but really everything, are made of.

If there is anything apart from the universe, it may be consciousness itself. As best physicists can tell us, time is an illusion, perhaps a mechanism created by consciousness itself to make sense of the universe it is either placed in or observes. Given that space-time exists, but neither space nor time exists as a separate entity, then past and present are permanently linked, and what we perceive as the future influences our past as much as our past influences our future. Who we are is really some subset of space-time. At least in theory it can be played like a recorder, or even played backward.

The more I study quantum physics, the more what appears to be wacky stuff seems to be merging with our “reality”, such as it is. Atheists believe there is no afterlife and there is no soul. It’s a reasonably inference given that most of us don’t see ghosts. If we witness a car running into a brick wall at 100mph, we feel certain its driver is dead. And I won’t argue that that driver is indeed dead, at least as we are bound to perceive him or her in a linear time frame. I think it’s more accurate to say that because we experience the illusion of time, they are dead to us. Yet there they remain, like in indelible ink, caught forever in the matrix of space-time. Our inability to not experience the universe as it actually is, but only linearly, is a deficiency. It’s also an illusion; our shared illusion. Or perhaps more accurately it’s our shared delusion. If souls exist then almost by any definition they travel independent of linear time.

Birth, death and likely living itself are illusions. While ultimately illusions, they are also indelibly real, which makes them hard to figure out. If you are a prisoner traveling in a linear time frame, then they cannot seem to be anything but real. But now physicists are telling us that because space-time is a thing, that our experience of time is indeed an illusion.

I prefer to think of a life as a path, or perhaps a journey, one of an infinite number of paths that can be chosen through space-time. Consciousness itself appears to choose the path we are on. We experience what is before us and react to it as best we can within the limits of our ability to perceive, understand and choose. It may be that we can experience many “lives” through space-time through this thing called consciousness. Hopefully with each reincarnation we do a better job of it.

So everything we experience is both real in a linear sense, yet surreal based on our understanding of the nature of the universe. This is why for me understanding physics is the ultimate head-trip. It describes the nature of reality and what we perceive as reality. It’s clear to me that we are part of a vast and seemingly infinitely complex virtual reality where the perceived and very real (to us) linear parts are very slowly being revealed, thanks to the physicists studying our universe.

Still confused? You have every right to be. But for me this understanding makes more sense the more I study it, and makes me realize certain things. For example, there is no more reason to fear death than birth. We should not fear the escape death might bring us from this experience of linear time that we are trapped in. Death may be the ultimate liberation. Soul may be nothing more than our eternal consciousness as we experience it in a space-time universe.

You may find this video by Quantum Gravity Research to be helpful in getting your mind around this:

Our Wild, Wild Universe – Part Two

I don’t often write about the universe. It’s been ten years since I wrote about the physicist Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Universe. It seems that I cannot get enough of the story, at least when it can be brought down to the terms a layman like me can understand. Some months back Cosmos returned to television, a sort of sequel to the series of the same name hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan broadcast on public TV in 1980. This series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and showed up, curiously enough, on the Fox Network, a network known more for its lowbrow entertainment than this nerdy stuff.

I’m catching up on the series now on Netflix. I find it compelling in a strange way, so compelling that I am putting aside other really compelling shows like House of Cards and Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts to give it precedence. It tickles my curiosity and sense of wonder. The more you explore what we know about the universe, the more wondrous it becomes. deGrasse Tyson does a great job of conveying the immensity and the wonder of our universe. The series is aided by wondrous CGI as well, the sort that was simply unavailable when Carl Sagan hosted the series (although for the time his CGI was quite sophisticated). The combination of CGI, storytelling and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s infectious way of story telling makes it a very compelling series.

It brings out the natural pantheist in me. Natural pantheism is sort of a religion that simply expresses reverence for our universe the way it is. As you finish episodes of this version of Cosmos, you should feel the pull of natural pantheism too. Most of us who are religious tend to appreciate the faiths that we have been brought up in, in part perhaps because its message is much simpler to grasp than the amazing immensity and complexity of the cosmos, to the extent that we can understand it. Traditional religions also tend to concentrate on people and our needs, aspirations and questions. They are human centric. Studying the cosmos as it is, is not human centric at all except of course that we are self-aware creatures. We also have developed a scientific method that allows us to continually gain in understanding of the cosmos and our part in it.

deGrasse Tyson does a great job of explaining how we came to understand how the universe actually works. This too is a compelling story. In it certain scientists like Newton, Faraday and Einstein become something like secular saints, because they each solve great mysteries. In the process they reveal not just what is, but how the master clock works and sometimes how we can work it to our advantage. It’s a story of great detective work spanning thousands of years.

The series is spawning new thoughts within me, particularly in the area of evolution. It is clear to me that evolution does not exist merely here on Earth, but across the universe as well. The universe evolves too, creating more and more complex elements that make life possible. Is there life in the universe, aside from our planet, of course? Now the answer seems simple: yes. Life doubtless exists elsewhere, in many forms. In fact it probably permeates our galaxy and much of the evolved universe. This is because all the building blocks are there, particularly carbon and heat, which is hardly unique to the Earth. In addition, as deGrasse Tyson points out in Episode 11, it is probable that microbial life travels between planets and between solar systems, seeding life itself across the galaxy and the universe. It just happens so slowly and over so many millions of years it is hard for us to see.

To me it gets much simpler. The universe itself is a living creature. The universe does not necessarily think or breathe, attributes that we associate with life but at least to our understanding is something done very quickly. But it is clearly evolving and becoming more complex with time. It is unfolding and through nuclear processes and gravity it is creating the complex, like carbon molecules, from the simple: the collapse of hydrogen gases by gravity into stars and their subsequent explosion. And like all living things, the universe seems destined to die. Like our body though it does not all die at once. It will take billions of years to die as the forces of the big bang move objects further and further from each other. The universe will catch a bad case of pneumonia and then pass on. With the big bang so powerful that no contraction of the universe seems possible, its energy will dwindle out, much like a firework. Whatever happens after that takes us to realms beyond the known laws of physics.

So yes, the universe is alive and it is also a vast system. Systems by nature are complex entities, and the universe is complex almost beyond our fathoming. Systems imply rules and order and some understanding, which if you believe in God suggests your belief is not unfounded. Systems also are comprised of many pieces that interrelate with one another. Our universe interrelates with itself. Forces like the nuclear forces and gravity are the means that enforce an interrelationship. It also means that everything is connected to everything else. We sometimes suffer the illusion that we are alone. We may feel lonely, but we are never alone. We are always intimately connected with everything else simply because we are all a part of everything else.

It is individuality that is an illusion, although as deGrasse Tyson points out not only are we part of a universe so immense that few of us can understand it, there is also a universe within ourselves. Within a breath of air that we inhale, there are more atoms inhaled than there are stars in the universe. If there is a miracle, it is that we have evolved to self-awareness. We have a pretty good idea how it all fits together now, and our part in it.

With life must come death. On the universal level, our life is like the lifespan of a bacterium on a bar of soap: very short indeed. By nature we cannot maintain such complexity for that long and even if we could the universe will shift in ways that would kill us. It’s no wonder then that universe seems cold, heartless and unfathomable. We are destined to die, and die very quickly on a universal time scale. However, we remain part of the fabric of something far more immense and alive: the universe itself.

We are a part of something immensely grand and complex indeed, with our part to play. We have the privilege, thanks to shows like Cosmos, to understand our what it is and our part in it. And that is awe-inspiring and for this agnostic a fitting and satisfying part to play.

Summoning the (minor) powers of The Force

One of the crazier theories out there is that reality isn’t all that real. We live in sort of a Matrix-like world, only, I hope, a happier version than the one Neo discovered when he took the red pill. The mind has power over reality, the theory goes, and we can shape reality simply by concentrating on what we want to happen. Then somehow it mysteriously happens.

It’s not necessary to smoke something or take the red pill to experience this world. In fact, it’s arguably quite mainstream. Most people call it praying. Somewhere in the world right now is at least one group of Buddhist monks, but probably dozens of them, meditating on world peace. Maybe that’s why we haven’t gone nuclear since Nagasaki. Lots of people believe in karma, both the good and bad kind, and spend much of their day practicing good karma. This includes smiling at strangers, taking time to smell the flowers and helping old ladies across busy streets. Then there is Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, which I learned about way back in 2004 when I saw the very strange movie What the Bleep Do We Know? (It turns out it was a movie financed by friends of Ramtha’s school.)

I’m the product of an engineer. If you know any engineers, you know what they are like: sensible, realistic, imperturbable types and certainly not prone to superstition or belief in the supernatural. In fact, we love to debunk these experiences. Engineers build bridges that never fail because they adhere to the known factual rules of physics. Consequently, I too am evidenced-based. I am spiritual but not religious, at least in any traditional sense. I take more faith in a large bank account balance than I do Jesus’s monition not to worry about the future, but to act like a bird. While I am intrigued by metaphysics in general, it’s been more a theoretical interest than something I’ve tried to put into practice.

Until recently. Lately I have been dabbling in, for a better word, The Force. No, I am not wielding any light sabers. But I have tried the power of positive thinking lately and I have been amazed by the results. Alas, I haven’t been able to use positive thinking to achieve world peace. But I have been able to use it to get better parking spaces.

No, I’m not kidding. It’s getting freaky. I have made a point for the last few weeks when I drive to some place of business to think, “I just know I am going to get there and a close in parking space will be waiting for me.” And when I get there I pull into the row and my close in space is waiting for me! Yesterday, I hit two stores. First, before I set out I decided there would be a close in parking space at the local BJs when I got there. When I pulled into my usual row, sure enough, the very front space of the row was open. I just drove right into it. When I walked in, the lines at the registers were pretty long. I told myself I would not have to wait in a line. When I pulled my full cart toward the checkout, a guy who wasn’t quite ready gave me his spot, next in line at the cash register. The lady ahead of me was just leaving as I started putting my items on the conveyor belt.

I then decided I didn’t want to walk far to get into my local Wegmans, so I decided there would be a close-in space waiting for me there as well, which seemed improbable as Saturday afternoons is their peak time. There are often cars circling the parking lot waiting for a space, kind of like planes circling Atlanta in a holding pattern. I usually park downstairs on their deck because it is too crowded on the main deck, so I went there without thinking about it. And I pulled into the first aisle and the second space was open.

This was just yesterday. But I have been using the power of positive thinking for about a week now. When I forget to tell myself that I will mysteriously find a close in parking space, I end up somewhere in the back with the masses. When I do remember, I drive down the aisle and my spot is waiting for me.

There appears to be limits to these powers, but it is happening with such freaky regularity that I would be scared if I was not grinning all the time. Could it have been this easy all along? I simply think what I want and somehow the universe will magically order itself to my satisfaction? Alas, I can’t seem to think my way to a fortune, but I haven’t seriously tried it yet, so maybe it would work. And I can’t part traffic like Moses parted the Red Sea. I get stuck with the rests of the crowd.

So my theory is that this phenomenon only works for small stuff, like convenient parking spaces. Why? Maybe it is because we all have this power, but we don’t believe it exists, and it only happens for small stuff no one really wishes for in an earnestness, like a close in parking space. It may be that too many of us expect the traffic to be bad, and that’s why it is, and that’s why I experience bad traffic too. I am just one mind of many projecting fears and concerns, and there are tens of thousands of drivers all around me also expecting traffic to be bad. So I can’t move those sorts of mountains. But the small things, like parking spaces, or front row center seats, or expecting bananas at half price, those sorts of things seem to happen simply by expressly wishing them to happen. Maybe it’s all serendipity or maybe because I am pushing the future with my unfettered and optimistic mind they just seem to happen.

It also doesn’t happen to people I know or care about. I guess this is the equivalent of praying, but there have been times in my life when people close to me have been in great mental or physical stress and have prayed/meditated/put out positive thoughts to relieve them of their pain. (“You will get well!” I will wish.) That never works. I can’t seem to change others through positive thinking.

The problem is that most of the time, I forget. I don’t mind walking from the back of the parking lot. In fact, I prefer it for exercise. So I don’t think to place a psychic reservation ahead of time. When I do, at least recently, I’ve had a better than eighty percent chance of having my wish delivered.

The hard part is turning off my engineer’s brain and simply letting the thought flow freely, with sincerity, conviction and absolute faith. When I can do this, it works. When I think, this is ridiculous, I am a skeptic it stops working. It’s like the left side of my brain seizes control and suppresses the right side.

So I am not sure how long this will last because intuition and faith are scarce commodities within me. But for now I am sailing a little more conveniently through life.

Try it and let me know if it works for you too.

God is a verb

Those of us who believe in God tend to think of God as a noun. As you may recall from elementary school, a noun is a person, place or thing. God is probably not a person, unless you count Jesus Christ. Nor is God a place, except heaven is assumed to be some physical or ethereal space where God’s presence is overwhelming, sort of God’s home, you might say. Calling God a thing sounds sort of churlish since by definition there can be nothing grandeur or more magnificent than God. Given our poor definition, if we have to define God as a noun, saying God is a thing will have to do.

A sentence is made up of many parts of speech. God cannot be an adjective because adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs or adjectives, and since God cannot be an adjective it cannot be an adverb. You can look through all the parts of a sentence and using God for anything other than a noun mostly doesn’t work. God can be part of a word and be something else. Goddamn, for instance, is an adjective and sometimes an adverb. There is only one other part of a sentence where God could work: God could be a verb.

For many of you, you are wondering what the heck I am talking about. A verb expresses action, state or a relationship between things. defines a verb as:

Any member of a class of words that are formally distinguished in many languages, as in English by taking the past ending in -ed, that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that (when inflected) may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.

When you think about it though, using God as a verb makes a lot of sense. Granted it is hard to use God as a verb in a sentence, but what is fundamental about our notion of God is the notion of being in a relationship with God. If there were nothing else sentient in the universe, would God exist? Who can say, since no one would be around to detect the presence of God, but for sure it would not matter. God though only has meaning in the context of a relationship. Many of us seek to find God, and those who believe they have found God then try to understand God. This leads to a lot of confusion, however, because so many people have different interpretations of what God wants from us.

Yet if God is understood as the relationship between people, places and things, i.e. God is a verb, then clarity can emerge. This notion of God though will trouble most of us because we tend to see God as something external, all powerful, all good and unique, i.e. a noun. Saying God is a verb simply suggests it is what holds us in relationship to everything else. In this sense, we are literally part of the mind of God. In this sense, God becomes neither good nor bad, but simply is the relationship between all things, physical and spiritual. God in some sense is energy, or whatever forces exist, whether simple or complex, that hold us together in communion. This notion of God answers the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? If God is a verb then the answer is yes. The tree falling in the forest impacts in some measure all of creation because God as a verb posits as an article of faith that everything really is interconnected with everything else. So yes, it made a sound, even if we did not hear it personally.

You will get no argument from scientists and not from quantum physicists in particular. Certainly no scientist will argue that every action is deterministic. Things are deterministic at the macro level. We know with confidence that our planet will be subsumed into the Red Giant that our sun will become someday, because we understand physics well enough. We also understand physics well enough to know that at the subatomic level outcomes can only be expressed in terms of probability, not certainty. Scientists have yet to find evidence of any phenomenon that can exist independently of anything else. A hurricane, for instance, requires heat and lots of water, so it is in relationship with its environment. Everything is in relation with something else, and the evidence is that every action affects everything else in the universe as well, not instantly, but over long periods of time.

Perhaps expressing a reverence for the relationship between all things is worship, and the relationship itself is God. Perhaps God is not a destination, but experiencing God is simply a matter of tuning into the relationship between all things, seen and unseen. God may feel most God-like when we feel a sense of awe from our interconnectedness. I feel it regularly. I felt it last year when I was traipsing around South Dakota’s Black Hills. I could feel it in the life of the soil at my feet and hear it in the brisk wind whistling through the pine trees. I felt it on Friday at a rest stop between Richmond, Virginia and my home in Northern Virginia when I stepped out of my car into stifling hundred plus degree heat. I feel it when the cat is on my lap, and is purring and looking at me with its adoring eyes. I felt it on Friday when I saw a broke, pregnant and homeless woman with a cardboard sign on the streets of Richmond and I felt a pang of remorse by driving by her without giving her a dollar or helping her to a homeless shelter. I feel it in the life cycle in particular, and my experiences of my encroaching mortality. I felt it when as an infant I was nuzzled up to my mother and drank milk from her breasts.

Perhaps God is simply what is. Perhaps our religious struggle is simply to come to terms with and accept what is, and to magnify and glorify the connections between all things. There are many ways to do it, but the principle method is to practice love as much as you can. This is because love certainly is a verb, and has god-like powers.

Perhaps we just need to accept the truth that God is love, and nothing more than that. Love is about enhancing the connection between all things so we are in greater harmony and understanding with each other. It works for me.

I believe consciousness is eternal

Over the years, I have sporadically tried to explain my theology or lack thereof. It has resulted in arguably weird posts like this one. Last night I tried again at the occasion of another monthly meeting of my covenant group. The topic of the month was big questions. We started with one that will usually draw a different answer from every one of my fellow Unitarian Universalists: Do you believe in God?

My bet is that most Americans can answer that easily. Ninety percent or so will say yes and the other 10% will say no. Many of the ninety percent though will put asterisks next to their answer. The whole question though is very hard to answer because you first have to ask: what kind of God are you asking about? Paternal? Maternal? Non-sex specific? Singular or polytheistic? One that listens and responds to your prayers or one that is absent? A God that cares about you in particular? Or a very removed God who has hosts of angels, archangels, sub-archangels and other intercessors that handle prayers from relatively meaningless people like me?

My forebrain may be too developed because I could not give a definitive answer. I remain sort of the agnostic I decided I was some thirty plus years ago. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the paternalistic God that I was introduced to by my Catholic parents. I can say that I never particularly felt the personal presence of God. For me, attempts at prayer are like radio waves; they bounce off the clouds and come back to me. When the Magic 8-Ball replies, to the extent it replies at all, it says “Reply hazy, try again.” I do feel spiritual at times, for example, when nature reveals itself in all its majesty. The experience is very mystical when it happens, but doesn’t feel like God is tapping me on the shoulder saying, “See, here’s all the proof you need that I exist.”

No doubt to some I am being unforgivably ambivalent, but I have developed a certain comfort in my murkiness. I know many people feel the presence of God and I think that’s fine. I don’t mean to say they are deluding themselves, but at the same time I cannot take their testimony with whole cloth when it is not my experience nor the experience of millions of others, including Mother Teresa. I take some comfort in physics, which is slowly peeling away God’s mask.

I suspect God’s existence or non-existence is just one of these questions that is impossible to satisfactorily answer. I do not think there is any definitive answer because we can only perceive what we can experience through our very limited senses. Moreover, our lives are relatively short.

I have read enough about quantum physics to feel strongly about a few things. What I believe is eternal is consciousness: mine and yours. I think consciousness is eternal and like energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. So I very much believe in the soul. I see my soul much like a driver and my body like a car. My body’s brain is like a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. I use them to move my body through life. At some point in the future the car will refuse to start. At that point my body dies. However, my soul, the driver, is still around. Perhaps at that point I exit the car and look around the car lot. I pick out another car and use it (the new body) to continue to experience the universe.

This is really not as crazy as it sounds. String theory may be a theory, but it is a very well developed theory with lots of sound empirical evidence. What science does teach us is that energy is never destroyed. It is merely transformed. If string theory is correct then we also know that everything is irrevocably connected to everything else. Buddha understood this 2500 years ago. It also essentially means that individuality is an illusion.

So who or what are we then? I think what we are is a singularity: a point in space-time (or perhaps more accurately, a time-series in space-time) where an infinite matrix of superstrings intersect and it is different from some other point. So you might say we are both individuals and we are all part of the same thing. What is unique about living is that it provides the illusionary experience of individuality. We may prefer this illusion, similar to the way that some people prefer chocolate.

To the extent that I can formulate a belief in God, it is just the suspicion that I am not separate from God, but intrinsically a part of God and God is a part of me. It’s not a question about being separated from God. How can I be separate from something I am already a part of? I am irretrievably part of everything and plugged into the universe as are you.

I am consciousness. You might say I am a thought racing around the mind of God. Each of us is a thought of this larger collective being. A thought is both permanent and transient. We may only think a particular thought in one moment, but the thought is stored in collective memory. It is always retained. That thought is my consciousness and is what I call the eternal me.

Where we came from, I don’t know. I don’t see the point in speculating. As Bertrand Russell once pointed out, if everything is caused by something else, then something caused God, which begs the question and points to the fallacy in the argument. Consciousness exists because I experience it. I think it continues after death and I choose to call this eternal part of me my soul. I suspect I live multiple lives and inside this consciousness I call myself time simply does not matter. It does not matter how many lives I have experienced or will experience. However, I do think that it is this experience that feeds the consciousness. Perhaps over many lives we do grow in understanding and maturity.

I believe in consciousness because I feel it and ultimately I can only trust what I feel. I can look at science like string theory to support parts of my beliefs, but I also recognize that because the universe is immensely complex so our understanding of reality is going to be poor at best too. If “I think, therefore I am” then “I feel there is an immortal part of me, therefore it exists” is also valid. At this point in my life, it not only feels right, but it need be no more complex than this.

Consciousness as a two-way mirror

I haven’t written about metaphysics for quite a while, mainly because I did not have much to say. Principally, I was losing interest in the subject but also I have been busy engaging in life, which I suspect is its natural purpose. Yet, occasionally something comes up in the press on metaphysics that piques my curiosity. Yesterday this article on The Human Consciousness Project was published on Time Magazine’s website. The project, led by Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill-Cornell Medical Center involves an in-depth worldwide coordinated study into out of body experiences that some claim to have while they are technically dead, but who are later successfully revived.

I have occasional disagreements with my brother on the afterlife or lack thereof. My brother is a scientist and is trained to be skeptical, which is to his credit. Unsurprisingly, he categorizes himself as an atheist. Studies underway like this one though raise reasonable doubt. Says Dr. Parnia:

There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn’t told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.

I think it is great that what many would consider loony science is getting some clinical study again. It may be simply my natural fear of mortality, but I have come to believe that I have a soul or spirit that is external and transcends death. For the most part, it is just a feeling, but I am glad to know there have been and are continuing scientifically rigorous studies into out of body experiences.

One obvious question is whether a person who had such an experience was truly dead. Dr. Parnia points out that death is not instantaneous and that it takes a long time for our cells to actually die after being deprived of oxygen. Most of us assume though that if there are no brain waves, no reflexes and no heart is beating that you must be dead. If our brain is not working it should not be possible for those ten percent who experience out of body experiences while being clinically dead to later report in such detail actual experiences they observed while dead. Yet, unless there is a huge conspiracy taking place (something that flunks the Occam’s Razor test) that appears to be the case. Something, let us call it consciousness, can survive the clinical definition of death and is aware.

More to the point though is Dr. Parnia’s speculation on how this could be happening:

Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can’t separate the mind and brain, they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true. So a new science is needed in the same way that we had to have a new quantum physics.

My suspicion, as is also true with Dr. Parnia, is that as we get a better understanding of quantum physics we may begin to understand that consciousness and brain activity are actually two aspects of the same thing. Indeed, I speculated as much in this post. The better our understanding of quantum physics becomes, the more our fundamental assumptions of what is reality seem undermined.

We are all subject to our own biases, and I am no exception. The renowned physicist Dr. Albert Einstein came up with the groundbreaking theories of General and Special Relativity, which opened our eyes to a reality that we could not see. It is hard for us to believe in the reality he described: that we are bound in a finite warped matrix called space-time and that it is the relationship of objects inside this continuum that warps time and space. It’s all so abstract, like algebra, to seem real. Yet, Einstein utterly rejected the then emerging science of quantum physics because he was philosophically opposed to its nondeterministic pinnings. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he once famously said. Like relativity, quantum physics seems impossible for us to grasp. It is hard to grasp that at some small level that time does not have any meaning; that everything is probable but nothing is certain; that a wave consists of both particles and energy simultaneously and that Schrodinger’s Cat could be both dead and alive at the same instant. These are all paradoxical truths of our universe at a certain level and perspective. Our instinct is to reject notions at variance with our common experience.

We do know, as Einstein articulated, that energy and mass are interchangeable. What I am beginning to understand is that everything we perceive as real is energy in some form or another, and what we perceive as mass or matter is merely a transitory property of energy made possible by the unique arrangement of certain physical conditions in the space-time continuum.

So what we experience as our life and perception appears to be a combination of both mass and energy. Yet, since mass and energy are essentially interchangeable, it is not wholly beyond possibility that at brain death consciousness survives. The difference is that since the energy that makes up our consciousness cannot be accessed through the matter that is our brain, that those of us trapped in the mass-energy concoction we call consciousness cannot perceive it.

Death may be and I think likely is nothing more than a door from one variant of experience to another. Einstein also taught us that energy could never be destroyed. It could only change in form. Perhaps death then is like a two-way mirror. When a person stands behind a two-way mirror and he is in a lighted room, another person outside the room looking at the mirror can see him because the mirror becomes semi-transparent. Turn off the light and you just see your reflection. In both cases, two people are present. In only one case can you perceive the other.

Our soul may be like that. Our soul though may be what we really are, and our body may simply be like its shadow, a part of us and inseparable from us. Well documented after death out of body experiences suggest that something like this is occurring, as crazy as it may seem in our current reality frame. Perhaps the skeptics among us simply need to widen their lens, much like Einstein did to more perfectly describe the Newtonian universe. Perhaps we need to acknowledge a universe that is far more real than our limited intellects can grasp.

Destiny’s Unseen Hands

Cosmic forces are pushing me. Yeah, I know it sounds nuts, but it is true. All I know is that something is out there. It is messing with me, hopefully for the good. I do not know how I know, but somehow I know that I was sent on this journey called life, and I know that I have a mission. While I do not know what my mission is, I can infer much of it. If I stray too far from my apparently programmed path, unseen forces will quickly align me back toward the same path.

And it is not just me. I think that it is all of us. I am starting to question just how much free will I really have. I believe that I was meant to come into this life and tackle certain issues. I do not know if I was meant to actually solve them in this life, but I think I am expected to keep earnestly plugging away at them. The means by which to solve them seem largely elusive, which makes the whole process feel very frustrating. Nor can I fully articulate what the issues are. What I perceive my “issues” to be are I think symptoms of some higher issues whose names I cannot identify. The meaning of my life is like a partially constructed jigsaw puzzle. If I can snap a piece or two into the puzzle then I have a better understanding of what the puzzle in time may reveal.

Here is what I have learned in my own situation. You can run, but you cannot hide from your mission. Whatever “it” is, you must work on it. For example, let us suppose that you are unhappy in your marriage. You subsequently divorce, thinking that your spouse’s behavior was the problem. As a divorcee, you are likely to find that there is some underlying issue related to the marriage that still gnaws at you, and it was not your ex-wife. Rather your ex-wife merely brought to the surface some issues inside yourself so you could grapple with them. Perhaps you will ache in loneliness in a degree commensurate with the misery you experienced in the marriage. Perhaps you will seek out someone who you think has different characteristics, only to find that when you remarry that you are facing the same issues all over again. You may even find yourself ping ponging from one relationship to the next looking for the perfect relationship minus the detritus of the last one. Ultimately, you are likely to find that you have issues, your partner has issues, and sanctuary simply does not exist.

Taking overt actions to address specific symptoms do not necessarily solve these hidden issues and agendas that lie within ourselves. At best, actions that address symptoms act like an aspirin and dull the pain. Sometimes they make things much worse. However, the underlying issue remains. The wound remains open.

The baffling parts are figuring out what the real issues are. If you can articulate the underlying issues then you have the challenge of creating a way to address them. Perhaps with a very good therapist you can in time figure out what your problems truly are. However, that does not necessarily mean that you can solve them. No therapist can inhabit your body. At best, they can view your internal life through a translucent pane of glass. They depend on you to faithfully articulate your feelings. If you are equally baffled then it is unlikely that they will be of much lasting help.

So you may feel like I do: that I am grasping at straws. While the status quo may at times feel very painful, it seems like outside forces want you to inhabit this zone. For it seems that we can only learn our most valuable lessons through pain. Progress, when it is made at all, seems to come from embracing the pain rather than avoiding it. This is difficult for most of us to do because it feels so counterintuitive.

One of my issues is control. I like things ordered and predictable. I do not like surprises. I do not like ambiguity. I like to think my life is in reasonable control. I take satisfaction at the end of the month paying all my bills and seeing my net worth slowly creeping up. I want to extend this control into all aspects of my life. Yet it is ultimately futile. For control is really an illusion. Moreover, I cannot really control anything other than myself. I cannot control my wife, daughter or cat. While I like the illusion of having control over myself, in reality even control over myself is an illusion. For I am not just me. I am many beings and aspects at once. Most of the time the logical side is dominant, but sometimes the emotional side takes control. My brain, like yours, is like a massive parallel processor where multiple threads compete for control over my mind and body. Therefore, I think one of my meta-issue is not control, but learning how to give up control. For me death is so disturbing not necessarily because it means the loss of my self. It is disturbing because it exists in a domain beyond my control yet through which I must pass. Perhaps it is this knowledge that is at the root of religion’s popularity.

On rare occasion a puzzle piece does fall into place. For much of my life I felt intellectually intimidated. While I was above average intellectually, I was no mental giant. I perceived myself as less smart than those around me, particularly many of my siblings. I wanted to have a job that was more intellectually challenging and where I got to work on larger issues that had a broader impact. I had a few brushes with failure that suggested this was my natural state. For example, I lost my job in 1988. A few years earlier, I had tried to take a computer course in college and failed. Working in the information systems field without a related degree made me feel vulnerable. Eventually I determined that I had to work up my courage and succeed by earning a graduate degree. I knew it would have to be done while keeping a full time job, caring for my elementary school daughter and keeping my marriage together. Yet I had to do it to achieve balance within myself.

I eventually achieved my goal, much to my relief. The degree did help me achieve a more rewarding career. However, what it really did was give me some confidence in my own abilities to solve a very difficult personal issue. This particular feeling of angst that had permeated about twenty years of my life wholly disappeared. Nevertheless, clearly many other underlying issues remain to be tackled.

I need to figure out what these remaining issues really are. One thing I do know from much experience: I cannot walk away from them for they will continue to shadow me throughout life unless I somehow resolve them. So although I usually don’t know how to tackle them, I must keep making rather fumbling attempts to do so. If I choose to do nothing, I know that destiny will intervene.

What Spirituality Means to Me

This was the topic of my covenant group meeting last night. It seemed an odd topic to spend ninety minutes or so discussing in a church basement.

Being Unitarian Universalists we all had different ideas of what spirituality meant. Many UUs are spiritually vacant. This is after all a denomination that attracts the unchurched and the left-brain dominant types. A typical UU congregation might be a quarter to half full of atheists, agnostics or people with no particular belief in God. So asking a UU what is spirituality might be like asking someone blind from birth to describe colors.

Nonetheless many UUs are spiritual in their own way. Upon reflection I realized I probably was a spiritual creature, just not in the traditional sense of the world. For me spirituality has almost nothing to do with religion. But for most Americans I suspect it is impossible to not talk about spirituality without mentioning religion.

When I am spiritual I generally feel a sense of utter peace, an absence of worry and contentment. I am intimately plugged in to a larger reality that I can neither name nor describe but which is still absolutely real. The cares of the physical world seem to leave me. I feel not just at peace, but I often feel a subtle or even overt joy. I often feel a sense of wonder, and sometimes I sense the fantastic. I hesitate to call this God. To me it is simply that which is normally not perceived.

I have occasionally had spiritual feelings in churches. But it hasn’t happened in any service that I have ever attended. Yet I have felt moments of it inside cathedrals. Some years ago when I took a group of religious education students to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington DC I felt spiritual. Cathedrals are radically altered spaces designed to skew reality and suggest the supernatural. Their gothic arches, their spires, their stained glass, their darkness, their votive candles, their people whispering their prayers, their polished floors and their intricate statues had the effect of making me feel spiritual. I am sure they are designed that way. There is a certain majesty to a cathedral that is difficult to match elsewhere. It is hard for me to feel the real world when in every direction the effect is surreal, ornate and majestic.

As marvelous as cathedrals are they are not nearly as spiritual to me as nature in her finest. Once or twice a year I arrive home to see a spectacular sunset displayed in all its finery with my house as the foreground. It awes me that such exquisite beauty can be a result of such complete randomness. In my travels the beauty of Hawaii is so far unsurpassed. But I have felt similar feelings in other places I’ve visited. Some examples: the Canyon de Chelley in Arizona and watching a plethora of stars arranged against an obsidian background from the back of a cruise ship far out in the Atlantic. But I have also felt spiritual at certain moments during a long and sustained bike ride, with the wind whistling in my ears and coursing through my nostrils. I feel almost attached to the nature around me.

The most spiritual moment of my life so far came from witnessing my daughter’s birth. She was delivered Caesarian section in a cold operating room and pulled out feet first from my wife’s steaming womb. I was humbled. I was awed. I was scared. I was joyful. I was crying. And I loved her with an intensity I have never felt before or since and we didn’t even know each other.

But was this spiritual or just a wash of emotions? For me her birth brought home to me the miracle of life and reproduction. I hesitate to say I experienced God, but I can say it was brought home to me what an amazing place our universe it.

I find spirituality in strange places sometimes. I find it in my cat, who sits now contentedly on my lap and purrs. He too is a miracle. Through him I realize that other species see and react to the world in their own unique ways. When I pet him I realize that not only does it feel good, but also that we truly love each other. We have a mutually supportive relationship.

I often feel like we are seeing at most .001% of reality. We have senses but they are extremely limiting. We cannot see infrared or ultraviolet rays but they are real enough. Most of us are only dully aware of the other life around us, or how utterly pervasive life is on all levels. My backyard is in many ways a botanical wonder, not because I have a huge and diverse garden but because it is such a complex system of its own. On one level it is just a lawn. But on another level there a thousands of species, plants, insects and animals living back there, all mutually dependent on each other for survival. Occasionally I may roll in the grass. But what a different perspective the universe must be to a centipede crawling through my lawn. I wonder what the grub experiences pushing its way through my soil. I wonder what it must be like to be the blacktop on my driveway when the rain falls on it. To get through life we generally tune out such thoughts and think them nonsensical or pointless.

To some extent I think even the rocks in my soil are alive. I just see them living on vast cosmic timescales. Over millennium they too move. I wonder what it is to be a rock under the ground, and to feel the moisture of the soil and the rain permeate it or move around it. I wonder just what life is anyhow. I think it exists on so many different levels but it is only the prison of our own existence that makes it hard to see.

I feel this connectedness of all things. I think on some level we all do. I feel a universe that is alive and multidimensional across space and time. When this connectedness permeates me as a presence, when I feel in touch with its harmony and vibration that’s when I feel spiritual.

That’s what spirituality means to me.

Speculations on the Soul

Regular readers will know metaphysics has been on my brain the last few years. Between reading books on quantum mechanics, pondering mystics and gurus and even watching a funky metaphysical movie I can’t seem to escape it. But I haven’t gone off the deep end. Seeing What the Bleep Do We Know? for example hasn’t had me rushing off to learn more about the Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. I prefer to make sense of fantastic things in my own murky, mysterious way rather than grab one of those prepackaged solutions off the shelf.

Today you get to go on my little roller coaster ride on the nature of soul, and why I think souls exists. Buckle up.

Ironically these thoughts come from being a programmer. To me trying to understand what software really is is very hard. There is no tangible difference between a CD ROM that is formatted or unformatted. Certainly a formatted CD-ROM with software on it can do some amazing stuff when executed by certain classes of computers and certain operating systems. But a formatted CD-ROM weighs no more nor less than an unformatted CD-ROM. The only thing that can be said about it is that its state was subtly changed. Using laser light a small portion of a track on a CD-ROM changes its properties from translucent to opaque. If an opaque value is read then a value is inferred differently than when it is translucent. A floppy disk works in a similar way, except the magnetic voltage of a spot on the disk determines the associated binary value. Neither the floppy disk nor the CD-ROM is really materially changed after encoding. Only its properties are changed so that when a spot is observed (by a recording head) a value is inferred. It remains the same “stuff”. The amount of matter before and after encoding should be identical, except for a tiny loss of matter resulting from friction imposed by the drive.

Now let’s think about our own brains. Neurologists can tell by looking at the brain of a child compared to an adult that there are fewer neural networks in the brain of a child. No surprise there. A child does not have as much experience written to his brain. A child is like a partially written disk. One might even say that upon birth a child is like a formatted disk with just the operating system on it. Over time and through experience a child’s neural network grows. Experience gets encoded. Paths are created in the brain to facilitate more and better memory recall. It’s like a computer in that it gets more software placed on it.

But software by itself is not meaningful. It is only when it interacts with external data and renders results for humans that it becomes valuable. Similarly a brain that knows the complete works of Shakespeare is not useful in itself. But when this knowledge impacts other people, perhaps through the performance of an actor, it takes on meaning.

Brain size reaches its peak around age four. Brain weight peaks out around age 5 and stays stable until you reach age 20. After age 20 the brain’s mass decreases by about a gram or so a year. Like a floppy disk the brain is clearly not indestructible. Over time neurons die, brain cells are replaced and new pathways are created. We constantly program and reprogram ourselves so that we can work more effectively in our environment. The state of our brain constantly changes, just as your computer’s hard disk constantly changes as you process work with it. Eventually though we get a permanent hard sector error that renders the media unusable and we die.

Is there a difference between your brain and your mind? I would say yes. Your brain is an organ that appears to be the center of control for your body and is the repository of your knowledge base. A computer’s brain consists of its hard disk and memory chips. What is your mind exactly? The mind is essentially the direction of will informed through the senses and through the experience encoded in our brains. The computer’s brain is its central processing unit. This is the thing that takes those binary 1s and 0s and manipulates the external environment. It allows the human to experience the work of the computer. Without the CPU the computer is nothing. The hard disk (brain) has no value by itself. But what is our mind really? There is no real answer. My answer begs the question. The mind is a gestalt: “A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.”

Which brings me at last back to metaphysics and my ponderings from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? The mind, like software, is really virtual. And yet it seems to exists in some sort of medium. Our brain seems to be more than just a large hard disk because it seems the CPU is in there too. The brain’s CPU though is cranking away and providing a show … but where is it exactly? There is no spot in our brain that we can truly identify as our mind. We know if certain parts of the brain are removed or if it is injured enough that we will die. But there is no specific mind organ or gland unless it is the whole thing: the brain as a complete organ. And that doesn’t answer the question of where the mind is. But the evidence seems to be that the mind is not one spot in the brain. Which means it is either some larger thing, or it is not there at all.

We eat. Matter is broken down and energy is released. The energy from food is used to construct new things, like new blood and brain cells. But what is energy? It is not matter. At its root energy is the capacity to do work. And work is “physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Energy is the means to do that which matter itself cannot do. An apple sitting on a shelf cannot do anything. Something must be alive in order to do work. Matter must be transformed into energy for the accomplishment of something, for some act of work to occur and by inference for something to be alive.

We know from Einstein that E=mc2. Consequently matter is converted to energy all the time. The reverse is true too: energy is converted back to matter. I would argue that from the human perspective energy is virtual but matter is real. (It’s not that energy is really unreal, it’s just that we can’t perceive it as real because it is intangible to us. And it is intangible because it doesn’t carry a steady state.) You can measure energy but you can’t really contain it separated from matter. Energy in a battery is contained because of the properties of the battery’s matter. It’s a yin and a yang thing. To possess energy we have to see it in the context of its relationship with matter. Perhaps this is because to us only matter feels real and enduring.

Odd, this is the same as my analogy of the mind to the brain. The mind seems virtual because we can’t touch it but the brain seems real because we know it is there. So to me the mind – our minds – our consciousnesses — are in reality just energy. I think it must be a complex form of energy because we are complex compared to most life.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, they can only be changed from one form to the other. A log burned in our fireplace is not destroyed; its matter is transformed into heat. E=mc2 happens right in our fireplace. So if our mind is virtual and is nothing but pure energy, does it make sense to suggest that when we die our consciousness also dies? I don’t think so. It seems unreasonable and flunks my Occam’s Razor test. Yet that seems to be what a lot of us trained in the Western school of thought truly believe in our gut. If we didn’t then the anticipation of death would not be so universally traumatic. When our bodies die the energy wrapped up in keeping the body growing and maintained is released in the form of heat. And since the body can no longer sustain itself entropy asserts itself fully and our bodies decompose.

It may be that upon death that the energy that makes up our consciousness also changes form too. Or, since superstring theory suggests eleven dimensions, perhaps it just slips into one of these other higher vibrational dimensions that we can infer but not detect. It does this I suspect because it can no longer sustain the relationship with our host body that tethers it to our reality. If I am right we will all find out in time. If I am wrong no one will be able to argue with me about it after the experience of death. But there are enough psychics and mediums out there with decent track records not to be able to dismiss all of them as flakes.

That is why after so many years of pondering while I am still scientifically an agnostic I have a faith. While I do not necessarily believe in God in the classical sense I do believe in soul. I believe I have a soul. I believe that my consciousness is an aspect of my soul – my energy. It is intrinsically bound at present to the matter that contains my body. But upon my death it will be free to move elsewhere and perhaps inhabit some future body.

Time seems to be infinite. Space for all practical purposes is also infinite. I think this life is a breath in a much longer series of lives. And though it sounds corny to this agnostic I think we are all on a much larger spiritual journey. Its nature would take our breath away if we could but comprehend it.