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:

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.

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.