I noted awhile back I was reading Columbia physicist Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality and trying to get my mind around just where theoretical physics is taking us these days. It’s mostly conjecture, though often buttressed by pretty sophisticated math. All this begs the question why do we even have a reality?
Our minds have trouble with that question because it’s hard to imagine something without a clear beginning or causal explanation. To get a universe you have to get something from nothing. To get a God there has to be something from nothing. If time stretched back an infinity, how could we reach the present?
Of course, part of this is simply that we’re limited in perspective by inhabiting a space-time universe where we move from past to future able to explain what happens by looking at how nature operates. We live in a world where you don’t get something from nothing, where things happen for a reason, and everything we imagine had to come from somewhere else. Clearly, the universe must reach out beyond space and time.
Modern physics suggests that as well. String theory posits ten dimensions; we only experience three (or four, if we include time). Holographic theories even see the reality we experience as a kind of projection from elsewhere. To answer the question “why is there a reality” or “why is there something and not nothing,” we have to change our perspective.
It’s like the old joke “A cowboy rode into town on Friday, stayed three days, and left on Friday, how is that possible?” If you get fixated on Friday as a day, then you’ve got an impossible dilemma. You might try creative answers (he rode in on Friday but didn’t stay there and rode around for the next four days before actually staying), but that gets silly. The only way to answer that question clearly is to recognize that the frame of reference is wrong. Friday is not a day, but the name of the Cowboy’s horse. Suddenly it makes perfect sense – and is far more parsimonious than some contorted explanation. We need to think outside our three dimensional box.
We try to understand the world as having to fit into reality as we experience it. Either we throw up our hands and say “it’s meaningless, we just live, die and that’s it” or we find some belief to hold on to, or choose to have faith in teachings proclaiming themselves to be the answer.
In religion the God concept emerges as the point of mystery, the source of a reality we cannot grasp. The Tawhid in Islam is a concept that God is one — perfect, incomprehensible and indivisible. Hindus have the Brahman, the supreme and universal spirit from which the universe emerged. It is the source of the material world, but its essence can only be known from inner meditation. Both would be consistent with the idea of a holographic multiverse. Even the Christian God is often put in impersonal terms — the Word, the Alpha and Omega, the Spirit. Yet while Christians do personalize God, Muslims see God’s nature as so incomprehensible to the human mind that it is forbidden to try to make an image of it, or give it human traits (God cannot be angry, jealous or sad — such petty human emotions would be beneath God and in fact to attribute them to God is extremely disrespectful.) For Hindus, despite starting from a similar point, anything goes in describing God. Brahman encompasses all so God can take a multitude of forms. Hindus appear extremely polytheistic, but ultimately there is only one Brahman.
If the source of reality is outside not only of space time, but of our capacity to even reflect on the nature of its existence, a God or Spirit concept is a shorthand for an unknowable (and least through material inquiry) source of reality. In this view there is one key difference between science and religion. In science the source of our world is likely impersonal, a force of nature that can be explained and studied (or perhaps not, if we don’t have access to it in our three dimensional space-time world). In religion there is a sense of will or consciousness that not only constructs our world but gives our spirit life. In such a view the nature of reality is consciousness, not just material cause and effect. Consciousness would have some immaterial connection to that larger reality that cannot be measured or understood through science or investigating the nature of material/three dimensional reality. This “spirit” thus is key to both self-discovery and understanding the nature of our world.
In that sense scientists are looking to math as the abstract key to transcend the limits of our capacity to make sense of explaining the origin of material reality. The hope is that we can find a way to test it or see into a “larger reality.” Religion and spirituality represent a similar effort, but one done through internal reflection and meditation, hoping that access to a ‘hidden reality’ or other dimensions can be achieved through exploration of the mind and consciousness.
If the consciousness/spirit theory is correct, the good news is that life is probably unending and expansive. This existence is only a part of what we are, and we will likely never cease to exist. In fact, if consciousness projects reality, we are probably all part of some greater unity. As in Plato’s allegory of the cave we are living in a world of illusions, shadows on the wall, and mistaking it for reality. But if reality is just impersonal forces of nature, then we may be condemned to never truly understand it; our capacities are too limited. Just as a cat will never understand general relativity, we cannot perceive beyond our horizons.
So I for one will continue to explore thoughts, consciousness, dreams and intuition on the possibility that perhaps that’s a key to understanding a world larger than this one. If I’m right, a journey inward may yield rewards and lessons. If I’m wrong, well, as long as I have some fun and treat this effort playfully, no harm done.