On Reality (Part 2: What is all this?)
[continued from PART 1]
What is all this? This is the pesky question that lurks behind every exclamation of how strange it is to be here. Here, in this life. Here, in this “experience” — a vague label that says only “things are happening.” Things are indeed happening. In here, out there.
Let’s set aside, just for now, the in here, the subjective experience, our private inner lives, or what it feels like from the inside to be here. For now, let’s not take on the baffling question of what consciousness is, why it feels like something to be me, peering from the inside out.
What can we say about what is out there?
Science has lots to say about what all that is. Molecules are made of elements, holding hands, and sometimes, if the combination is just right, suddenly, mysteriously, they spring into what we call “life.” A tiny cell is alive, full of even tinier bits that have tiny but important jobs, functions that they carry out on their own, instructions whispered to them from an unknown source. This is the magic of living things.
From single cells, bigger and bigger entities of life emerge. Cells gather to make organs, animals, living systems and the entire living and breathing planet, a super-organism of sorts.
We could go in the other direction, and smaller still. Cells are made of molecules that break down into atoms, then subatomic particles, electrons, quarks, and on and on it seems to go. The deeper we investigate, the closer we look, we find seemingly endlessly smaller and smaller parts. Are we at the final building blocks yet, or is this just how far we’ve gotten for now?
The deeper we probe, things start to get fuzzy and uncertain. There are multiple answers for the same question.
At the smallest scales, the quantum world of electrons and photons, instead of precise positions and locations, there are probabilities. At great speeds, instead of a set time and duration, we have relativity. As we approach the speed of light, time slows down. The fabric stretches. Even the lengths of objects and distances are not fixed. The answer to these measurements is “it depends.”
So much uncertainty. Everything solid turns out to be mostly empty space, void of real properties. We are left with a relativity that edges frightfully close to relativism, where there is no objective truth. Could these findings, these non-answers, be pointing to the fact that what we observe is not objective reality — not the full story?
There is compelling science and serious theories that suggest that what we perceive through our senses, and even through our scientific instruments, is something more like an interface. It might have little or nothing to do with objective reality and could just be what our puny minds can make sense of. Is this interface really just a matrix that we use to interact with reality, but ultimately a veil that hides what is really there?
These theories go further than suggesting that we see a limited slice of reality. This is more than saying we only see a fraction of the colours that exist, or that colours are mind-made and not truly there. This is questioning whether what we perceive, whether it’s this colour or that, or this distance away or that, has anything to do with what is really out there.
There is growing doubt that space and time, once held as the fabric of reality, are really all that fundamental or absolute. These are not fringe ideas or conspiracy theories. This is the life’s work of some of the brightest (human) minds.*
There is a flimsy, fickle nature to reality. What appears out there to us is really more like a (very convincing) virtual reality.
Maybe all that science has been studying all along is the intricate veneer of reality — the mere appearance of things out there that we perceive from in here. Maybe what we observe with our senses, and even with our fancy instruments, is simply the relative, subjective experience of carbon-based life forms and their human-made tools. Maybe until we learn to crawl out of this body and mind, we are doomed to be limited by them, never able to see what lies beneath and beyond.
It seems we are back to the question of consciousness that we tried to avoid at the start. Maybe we cannot draw a neat line between the in here and the out there after all. Maybe it is from in here that we choicelessly create our virtual reality.
And so, the question persists.
What is all this, really? I have no idea and I don’t think anyone really knows.
It’s okay. I have spent some time asking and wondering. So have you. Maybe that is enough. Maybe the question is more important than the answer.
Maybe without spending too much time dwelling and digging for answers I can let the question echo until it rests as a great mystery. A mystery that is not dark and dreadful, but in its obscurity, creates space for possibility. In this wide open space of the unknown, there is nothing to hold on to. At first, this may seem disorienting and scary. But we can build trust and soon discover that even without anything to hold on to, we can still float, maybe even fly free.
[To be continued in Part 3: What does it matter?]
* I could have gone into specific physics experiments and theories, but that would have taken pages and might be better reserved for a separate post (or a more qualified writer). Any readers wanting to go down those rabbit holes are invited to read more on these ideas, which are referenced above: