The world is mostly nothing. And it came from nothing. If you consider the amount of “empty” space between the stars and galaxies, well over 99.999999999% of the universe has nothing. But if you also consider the stuff of every day — like this table my computer is resting upon — about 99.999999999% of it is empty space. It feels solid to us, but the reality is that the distance between the subatomic particles is immense, and thus the reality we see as solid and real is actually mostly empty.
Of course, this could mean that our perceptions are illusions. Consider: computer programs can create the illusion of vast worlds, all located on a tiny hard drive in the computer, used by an even smaller memory unit. It still is only two (or perhaps three) dimensional on a screen, but the ‘feel’ of being in a vast world exists. It’s not too much of a stretch to expand the metaphor to think of our reality.
That’s absurd, right? Space and time exist. But space and time are the same thing – it’s space/time. And it seems to be a unified entity, meaning all space/time exists together “simultaneously.” In other words, just as you can travel about in space, theoretically one could travel about in time; indeed to travel through space one must travel through time, they are unified. Yet for some reason we don’t comprehend, we’re temporally uni-directional. And it appears that while we can “speed up” our passage through time (if we traveled at near the speed of light we’d age much, much less quickly than those left on earth), we can’t go in reverse.
This is all very odd – and I’m not even going to delve into quantum and particle physics, except to note that they indicate that matter, or “stuff,” isn’t really a particle but a ripple in a field that has no precise location until it is measured or perceived. That means that we’ll always see the world as having a real discernible form because we’re perceiving it. If we ceased to perceive it, it would lose that form.
That makes no sense, and with all due to respect to Erwin Schroedinger, cats and other animals – and perhaps any form of life, including plants – perceive in some way. Which ones magically solidify reality into one form? Well, that’s anybody’s guess.
British clergyman Bishop Berkeley – who has both a university and a Star Trek character (spelled Barclay, the actual phonetic pronunciation of the Bishop’s name) named after him – thought material reality was simply a persuasive illusion. All we have is perception and experience, but we can never truly judge the reality of those perceptions. Dim witted people responded to Berkeley with things like “if reality is an illusion, why don’t you just jump off a cliff.” Of course, the perception of and experience of pain or even death would still be real. Whatever reality is.
Berkeley thought it was in essence God’s dream – we were products of God’s mind. And if we keep the metaphor of a dream going, it’s apt. Consider our dreams, especially dreams in which one knows he or she is dreaming. Those dreams have space, color, sensation, but yet we’re silently (or perhaps not so silently) snoozing in bed, creating those worlds in our minds. Perhaps waking reality is more like the dream world, but with different rules and laws. Why would such a view make any less sense than the idea something exploded from nothing and we inhabit a world where we drift quietly with no discernible purpose? Given our utter lack of knowledge about why there is something and not nothing, both possibilities are equally plausible.
Of course, a universe coming from “nothing” can also be seen as non-sensical. Before the big bang time and space presumably did not exist. The term “nothing” is a space-time term. The beginning of the universe is a space-time concept. Before space-time existed, time did not exist. Neither did space. Can you imagine a reality that is not defined by space or time?
We cannot conceptualize the reasons for our existence because they are completely outside our frame of reference. We think in space-time terms, but space-time is a creation. I’m not saying it was created by a God — and if one believes that, it just pushes back the core question to “where did God come from.” Moreover by definition God becomes non-material, with attributes not defined by space-time. Such a God would be utterly incomprehensible to humans, suggesting that our God-myths are just that – myths. Perhaps they came about because people were trying to put into words some kind of deep intuitive spiritual knowledge but then again, perhaps not.
We cannot imagine what is not space-time, so we are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual capacities. We think everything has a beginning and an end because we are unable to conceive of reality absent time. We think everything has a location because we cannot imagine reality without space.
But that says less about reality than our ability to understand it. So it seems we inhabit a world that given our understanding of the laws of physics, should not exist – because it requires getting something from nothing. Clearly our laws of physics themselves are not universal, at least not outside our space-time universe. That means we can be reasonably sure of a few things:
1. The belief we are in a meaningless universe of mechanical practices that follow the laws of physics without regard to anything immaterial (spirit, a god-concept or something like that) is unlikely to be correct. It relies on an assumption that this is “all that is,” but that requires a contradiction: our world came from nothing, but you can’t get something from nothing.
2. The idea that life is an illusion, a “dream of God” or some other fundamentally different nature is as realistic a belief as a belief that we experience an external world “out there” that we as discrete, separate individuals come in contact with. In fact, the odds are greater that Berkeley was on to something, given how bizarre quantum physics operates.
3. Science is defined by measurable material phenomena, and generalizes laws about the physical world – our space-time world. Therefore science cannot answer questions about a deeper fundamental nature of reality, or where this world came from. Thus science is pragmatic in the sense it tries to explain how the world works – or how we experience the world working. While it can inform philosophical and spiritual speculations, it cannot give definitive answers.
4. Neither philosophy nor spiritual/religious experience yields definitive answers to these questions either; to me that means one has to be playful, non-dogmatic and open minded.