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:

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.

Our Wild, Wild Universe

Back in March I mentioned that I was going to read Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. Brian Greene is a physicist currently working in the area of string theory. Fortunately for the rest of us he is also a man who can demystify modern physics for the masses. In this book he takes the casual reader on an adventure into the nature of reality. I think you will find that this adventure is beyond the wildest ride you can imagine at any theme park. To call our universe amazing is to damn it with faint praise.

Today I actually finished the 569-page tome. Yes, it took over four months to read it. Greene is excellent at making analogies so that we laypeople can wrap our minds around something so abstract as physics. Even so this is not the casual sort of book you bring to the beach with you. I doubt you spend hours curled up in your hammock reading it, fascinating though it is. I got through it in snippets of 15 minutes or so at bedtime. I did this because I found that 15 minutes was about the maximum my brain could stretch in one day. I generally needed a day or so to process what I had learned. Sometimes I had to go back and read parts again: did he really say that?

So the book is still daunting but well worthy of the read. Physics is not a subject that interests most people. Still physicists try to describe the reality of the world that we live in, and what we observe is but a tiny fraction of the reality. Since we spend our existence in this reality you would think we would care more about understanding this box that frames our existence. Most of us think we understand reality but it takes a physicist to show us that we really don’t understand squat. The problem is that it is daunting to communicate to the layperson the nature of reality. When we think about concepts like Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity we reach for the Excedrin. We figure there is no way to understand it except to spend years learning calculus and sifting through the equations. Fortunately thanks to Greene and other writers you don’t have to. He does an excellent job explaining both the special and general theories of relativity, and this entity he calls space-time in which we live our lives. In clear analogies and illustrations you will find that you too can grasp ideas like why time slows as one moves toward the speed of light or how space itself can be curved.

If an appreciation for special and general relativity weren’t enough, the second half of the book takes us into the far more mysterious world of quantum physics. You don’t have to get too far into the quantum physics portion of the book before you say to yourself, “Gosh, this stuff is so amazing it should be in a science fiction book.” And that’s the point: what we understand about our reality really is amazing. You should be awed by the time you finish this book. Those crazy, nerdy physicists are onto amazing stuff. We have mystics and theologians who try to tell us what lies beyond: physicists are pulling back the gauzy curtains that frame our vision of reality to show us the beauty and mystery of what lies behind the curtains.

Although I am not sure Brian Greene would share my assessment I feel physicists are tantalizingly close to joining two universes that hitherto have been as separate as oil and water: science and religion. Actually I’d describe it more as physics and metaphysics. I’ll have more on this in a blog entry soon. Reading Greene’s book made me realize that we were knocking on God’s door. The mysticism that embraces much of our most profound needs and hungers is peeling away. The good news: the universe is an awesome place.

Here are capsule summaries of some of the main ideas I took away from the book. If Brian Greene were to read this review I suspect he would caveat it, footnote parts of it and say certain of my observations are in error. If so some translation errors are to be expected on a book of such depth.

The Universe is principally space pervaded by energy that we can see and cannot see. It is pervasive and it is everywhere. There is no part of the universe that is not alive with energy. The whole notion of a vacuum is a misnomer. There is no space in our universe that is untouched by some form of energy. A vacuum is an area of space with no matter in it. But as I learned about halfway through the book energy and matter truly are the same thing. We learn that E=mc2 but we don’t really understand what this means. It means that mass is a property of energy. In fact there is nothing that is truly solid. Mass and energy are bound up together. So a vacuum, even if it can be construed as empty of matter, is never empty of energy. Even an empty chamber at the center of the earth is coursing with cosmic rays. To me it is not unrealistic to say the universe itself is alive.

Moreover within this boundary of reality that we can perceive nothing ever really perishes. Form may change. I doubtless will die as a homo sapien some day but the matter that makes up this thing I call me is as external as space-time. Some of my matter will decompose into simpler elements. Some of my matter will become energy. I am never destroyed. I only change form. The big question to be discussed in another blog entry is whether I have a soul and whether that unique signature that is me survives death.

What is there to understand about quantum mechanics? Fundamentally it is about uncertainty. Uncertainty is hardwired into our universe. At the subatomic level there is no guarantee of any outcome. We can only speak about probabilities of outcomes. It seems counterintuitive that the more precisely we try to measure something the less certain we are of the outcome. But this is the undeniable truth.

And what exactly is the nature of reality? At the quantum level Greene makes the assertion that things that frame our notion of reality cease to exist. There is no time. Time can only be perceived at the macro level. Indeed toward the latter chapters we come to understand that space-time itself may be an illusion. Everything we perceive or think we perceive may well exist in a two dimensional universe. Our existence may well be on the edge of an enormous balloon.

String theory tries to tie quantum theory with the general theory of relativity. Here we enter a world of the theoretical since strings are too small to be seen: they can only be reasonably inferred. Like a dot on a picture tube of the monitor that you are reading this on there are areas too tiny to be observed. There are only mathematical models to work with. Linear accelerators may give credence to certain string theories over others but there appears to be no way to prove that strings exist. But as our models get better and as the math used in them gets more rigorous we can reasonably infer the rules by which quantum physics and that which we call particles operate.

I strongly recommend this book. Life is too short to spend ignorant of the nature of reality. What we teach in school covers a tiny percentage of the truth, and the truth of our reality is always becoming better understood. I think courses on relativity, quantum physics and string theory should be a requirement for any college diploma. It’s not necessary to be down in the weeds with the physicists on the mathematics to get an appreciation for our amazing universe. But it does take time and effort to truly have a decent understanding of who we are and our place in this thing we call reality. Books like Greene’s are invaluable. For a curious mind to get through life ignorant of such amazing discoveries means in some sense to live the unexamined life.