perspective and reality

“Get real!” “You’re not living in the real world.” “That’s a pipe dream that’s completely out of touch with reality!” “Your delusional flights of fancy sound good but in actual fact…” “The reality of our situation is….” “Let me give you a dose of reality.”

Anyone trying to stay positive and lead in these turbulent times may hear such responses. But what is reality? Is there such a thing as objective reality? Our understanding of “the real world” is ever-shifting and perplexing.

The nature of reality is at the heart of philosophical, spiritual, and psychological debates that have raged for thousands of years. The early 20th-century Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello addresses this elusive concept:  “Whatever is a reality today, whatever you touch and believe in and that seems real for you today, is going to be — like the reality of yesterday — an illusion tomorrow.” One of his surrealistic American plays, 1927’s “Right You Are (If You Think You Are),” dealt with another age-old debate in the same realm as reality: the nature of truth.

There is a vast variety of today’s “facts of life” that were once considered illusory and became “reality” (for a while). French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s dismissal of American engineer Robert Fulton’s steamboat is a good example: “What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense.”

No doubt Bonaparte and other “experts” of his day told Fulton to get his head out of the clouds and “live in the real world.” A 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work tried to bring him “back to reality” with what were at the time known to be irrefutable scientific “facts”: “Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Imagine European time-travelers from around 1400 looking at our life today. How dramatically would their view of scientific reality shift when they saw this round (not flat) earth from the moon? Imagine the array of “facts” they’d have to radically and completely alter when they saw how we travel, communicate, grow our food, treat our illnesses, light, heat our homes, or entertain ourselves. How would they return to their time and try to define reality to their 13th-century contemporaries? They’d be burned at the stake for heresy or locked away as raving lunatics.

What about 600 years from now? Given how quickly the fields of science, technology, psychology, and spirituality alone are evolving, today’s “reality” will undoubtedly have altered even more dramatically in the next 600 years than in the last 600. We can’t imagine what radical new “reality” will be accepted facts of life in the 27th century. By today’s understanding of how our world works, they’d seem utterly impossible and unbelievable. Just like Fulton’s foolish steamboat.

Quantum Physics: Now, what’s the Real World?

“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”

Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962), Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 for his pioneering contributions to modern understandings of atomic structure and quantum mechanics

By the late 19th century, what’s now considered classical physics had established laws or “facts” of nature that explained quite neatly and seemingly completely how our physical world worked. The “real world” was fixed and known.

But as knowledge advanced and as abilities to observe and measure the physical world improved, bizarre new findings screwed up scientists’ views of how things really work. Reality shifted yet again.

Quantum physics deals with the behavior of matter and energy at the infinitesimally minute level of atoms and subatomic particles. Here’s a brief sample of the weird and wonderful discoveries that have emerged since the German physicist Max Planck published his paper in 1900. It ushered in the era of “new physics” or quantum mechanics:

  • “Quantum entanglement” shows that two particles can be separated by vast distances and somehow are connected; that manipulation of one particle causes a reaction in the other.
  • In the quantum world, particles behave so unpredictably that the best scientists can do is make probability guesses as to what might happen.
  • Light behaves like both waves of energy and particles of matter.
  • Solid matter doesn’t exist. We and everything around us are made up of interacting energy or force fields.
  • Based on calculations of physical mass in the universe, scientists can only find about five percent of the matter needed to hold it all together. A major scientific search is underway for this “dark matter” and “dark energy,” for instance, with the Large Hadron Collider built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
  • Some particles travel backward in time. Some appear out of nowhere and then disappear in completely random patterns.
  • “Empty spaces” within and between atoms are so full of energy that an area the size of a marble contains more energy than all the solid matter in the known universe.
  • There’s strong evidence to suggest that there are seven or more additional dimensions in the universe beyond the known dimensions of width, length, depth (3D), and time.
  • Particles can be in two places at once — sometimes even thousands of places at the same time.
  • It’s impossible to objectively measure quantum behavior. The observer’s very presence changes the experiment’s outcome.

The Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University provides this definition: “Reality: (noun) all of your experiences that determine how things appear to you; ‘his world was shattered’; ‘we live in different worlds’; ‘for them demons were as much a part of reality as trees were.'”

So, reality truly is in the eye of the beholder. We’re learning this isn’t an objective or definite “reality.” Perhaps the reality we see is the reality we’re looking for? My I and your I are seeing different realities.