for most of us consists of the table and chair; of people and pets; of
the sun and the moon. It could also include such insubstantial items as pleasure
and plain, freedom and bondage, justice and oppression.
In short, ordinarily, the word Reality
refers to what we see and hear, touch, smell and feel.
As a first approximation, this is also what
one means in Physics by the term Reality.
But more importantly, for the physicist Reality
refers to aspects of the world that exist independently of whether and
how human beings recognize or perceive them. This
hard-core view of Reality
guided and served physics well
during the past four centuries. It is not intrinsically different from the
common-sense notion of Reality.
However, this view has undergone significant
modifications as a result of the emergence of Relativity
Theory and Quantum
Physics during the first third
of our century. Other developments in fundamental physics during more recent
decades have brought about even further changes in our usual ideas about Reality.
In this paper I
will discuss the some of the concepts
that emerges from a study of Physics, both classical and modern.
Definition of Reality
in its multiple variety. As the poet Shelley wrote,
Day and night,
aloof, from the high towers
terraces, The Earth and Ocean seem
sleep in one another’s arms, and dream
Waves, flowers, clouds, woods, rocks, and all that we
Read in their smiles, and call reality.
But one may wonder whether
such an aspect exists independently of the human mind. This is not a
trivial metaphysical question,
because one cannot be absolutely certain that one’s current experience is
any more substantial than a dream. After all, while dreaming one
entertains the feeling that the
associated experiences are as real as in the waking state.
Then again, our channels of perception are not always totally reliable.
The two horizontal lines below which
are intercepted by slanting lines, are in fact straight and parallel to each
other. Yet they strike us as being curved.
We are all familiar with other
optical illusions like the rising
and setting of the sun, and mirages. There are also other types of illusions
involving hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting.
One goal of physics is to seek the truth
behind the appearances. What makes the sky blue and the stars twinkle, why do
diamonds sparkle and magnets attract? Exploring such questions is the equivalent
of de-robing Nature, for the physical world is quite different when we view it
in its stark nudity. The exploration into the
nature of things has also
proved to be extremely fruitful, for the more we know about Nature's
inner workings and behavior patterns, the more we are able to predict her
future course and cajole her to our advantage. This is one of the primary
reasons why physics is studied in our universities.
we call Reality
is of interest in the context of discourse
only in so far as such an item has been recognized, directly or indirectly, by a
human Mind, and can be communicated. Therefore, one valid definition could be
that Reality is some aspect of the world
which has been recognized by the human Mind. But, as
with optical illusions, not
everything that is formulated in or by the human Mind may have existence
independently of it. We therefore put the further stipulation that an element of
must have an existence independently of the human Mind.
This assumption is at the basis of the
classical Cartesian-Newtonian Physics which reigned supreme for three hundred
experience and its modes
No matter what Reality
is, its recognition is an essentially a cerebral-sensory
process. In other words, the recognition of Reality
in whatever aspect is an intensely human
experience. Now, human
experiences involve interactions with the external world of things and living
entities. Interactions occur in different (though intermingling) modes. The
principal modes through which we interact with the world around are
Thus, love and compassion, as also anger and hatred, are of the emotional kind.*
The sensory mode includes those resulting directly from our channels of
perceptions, causing pleasure and
pain. The spiritual mode involves religious communion, cultural participation,
and the like. The intellectual mode calls for the use of the logical
and analytical faculties of the human mind.
These different modes of experience cannot
be separated out in water tight
compartments. Thus, for example, aesthetic (spiritual)
experience may be combined with the
sensory (seeing); laughter
(emotional) with the humor (intellectual),
and so on. An important consequence of this impossibility of separation of the
different experiential modes is that
conflicts can and do arise
between various modes. Such conflicts have generated numerous heated debates,
mounds of writing, scholarly and otherwise, as well as downright violence.
Mode: Goal of Science/Physics
Physics, like most sciences,
is a primarily an intellectual mode
of interaction with the world. Therefore, for Physics
is what emerges from an
intellectual analysis of human sense perceptions. This implies the following:
(a) The logical
process is essential in
determining if something is part of Reality
or not. In other words, there
can be no scientific
acceptance of Reality
if reason and logic are relegated to the background.
(b) There must be consistency
in the framework. Consistency means
that logically incompatible elements will not be simultaneously accepted as
(c) The mathematical
dimension of the world is
brought into play in the physicist’s recognition of Reality.
This is because mathematics is the most sophisticated expression of the
Reality and Sense perceptions
As Immanual Kant pointed out long ago, even
at the ordinary level, when we recognize and analyze the world,
we cannot avoid the intermediate filters of
human sensory perceptions and cerebral modes.
As a result, what we perceive as part of the real world
is only a mapping on the human sensory system of whatever the thing-in-itself
may be. Thus, if our optical apparatus had evolved without an ability to
generate colors, the world would appear to us as on the screen of a black and
Indeed, our world
of experience would be drastically different if the scope and sensitivity
of our perceptive faculties underwent significant changes. For example:
If our ears were sensitive to very low
frequency pressure-waves, we could hear the breathing of our neighbors.
If our eyes were sensitive to infra-red
waves, we would recognize people and things as radiating sources.
If our eyes could detect the gases we inhale
and exhale, we could feel quite uncomfortable seeing how the the same airs
freely enter in and out of the mouths and nostrils and the people in a room.
If our skins were sensitive to the impact of
individual microcosmic entities, we would experience perpetual pin-pricks from
the zillions of oxygen and nitrogen molecules that keep bouncing off our bodies
all the time.
Physics has brought to our awareness these
and other aspects of the world from which we have been shielded perhaps because,
as T. S. Eliot said,
But physics has also revealed the subtle aspects of Reality
underlying the blue of the sky and the fury of the volcano, and explained
why lightning precedes thunder, why foot balls follow parabolic paths, and a
thousand other matters.
goal of physics (and of science more generally) is to acquire objective
knowledge about the physical world: by which is meant, an understanding of Reality
that is independent of the human factor. One of the fundamental insights
of the classical scientific world-view is
that the physical universe has existed for eons before the emergence of the
human mind, and will continue for
another stretch of time even after the whiff of human presence fades away
without a trace from the grand expanse of space. Understandably, the cosmos
displays cold and utter indifference to our presence and activities in
Now, since a knowledge of the cosmos is
possible only in the context of human awareness, a universe devoid of the human
Mind would be supremely inconsequential and irrelevant to us, as it is to the
myriad other creatures inhabiting the planet. In other words, a not-always
recognized fact about scientific knowledge is that, for all its objectivity, it
is intensely anthropocentric.
of quantum physics
In the framework of pre-twentieth century physics,
Physical Reality has an
external, objective existence. Space, time, matter and energy are the four
corner-stones of that physics. Their existence is completely independent of the
telescope, the microscope and the inquiring Mind. Phenomena
function in accordance with well-defined laws whether human beings have
detected them or not. In other words, there is an external objective Reality
which the completely detached
observer studies, interprets, understands, manipulates,
etc. This basic credo of
classical physics is still
operationally accepted by most practicing physicists.
But the physics of the twentieth century seems to suggest that this
version of Reality
may not be entirely correct. In fact, the classical view is based on the
rarely articulated assumption, and evolutionarily generated conviction,
that there is a little ego inside each of us which does all the
observing, thinking and calculating;
for it is based on a clear-cut dichotomy between an observing and analyzing
principle on the one hand and the totally unaffected observed entity on the
other. Unfortunately, physics has not probed into what the observing ego is with
as much care and attention as it has devoted to the exploration of the external
world. That neglect is not unlike looking through a telescope without checking
if the lenses are clean and
transparent. What appears as a magnificent line in the sky could be a mere crack
on the eye-piece.
Indeed, a major revelation of twentieth
century physics is that the distinction between
the observer and the observed, between the knower and the known, which is
implicit in all scientific investigations, dissolves at the microcosmic level.
When we penetrate into the ultimate core of matter and energy, the boundaries
between subject and
object become fuzzy, just as when we move farther and farther away from a
cluster of dots, the whole thing looks like one big hazy smear. It is as if
at the fundamental level there seems to be an
intermingling of mind and matter.
Though the public at large and a good
section of practicing scientists are untouched by its implications, this
dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy has momentous impacts on our
appraisal of the world. It
undermines our long accepted notions of an external world independent of the
human Mind. The erasing of the observer-observed distinction intrudes on the
independence of the state of the system that is being studied, throwing all
objectivity to the winds.
major revelation of quantum physics is even more intriguing: A small
group of physicists have been trying
in recent years to draw consciousness into the realm of physics. A rather
abstract result of quantum physics (the so-called
implies that what happens in one region of space could be affected by
something in a totally (spatio-temporally) unconnected region. If this were so,
such outrageous things as events happening without a cause, or effects preceding
a causes, would be possible. Such
possibilities can be avoided only if it is assumed that it is possible to
transmit information instantaneously. But this is anathema to
the current foundations of physics. Thus quantum physics has led us to a
rather serious philosophical quagmire.
means that in some inscrutable way, every entity in the universe is
intrinsically intertwined with every other entity, a sort of cosmic network made
up of inseparable parts. Interconnectedness is a
radically new idea, altogether alien to the Cartesian-Newtonian scheme of things
in which entities have separate and
independent existence; and between which connections may be established only
through specific interactions.
This means that ultimately the building
blocks of the physical world do not conform to the model of classical physics
according to which they can be specified as occupying well-defined points of
space at well-defined instants of time, and as mutually interacting through
processes that can never travel faster than light. This reductionist framework
will have to give way to a holistic view if we are to grasp the intricacies of
the world through the intellectual mode.
Physicists who are
cultured in and committed to the classical tradition of
science have difficulty erasing the subject-object demarcations and the
associated definitions of Reality from
their world-view on the basis of the
newly emerging paradigm which tends to give
more than conventional credence to meditative
insights and mystical claims. Yet,
when the carefully performed experiments pertaining to the so-called
and Meaning out of Chaos
What is created in our consciousness as
may have just about as much objectivity as episodes on a TV screen:
entertaining and emotionally jolting perhaps, hilarious or tear-jerking as the
case may be, but in truth only very rapidly
varying photonic dots of uneven intensities. The deeper we probe into the
ultimate nature of the world, the more we are forced to revise our familiar view
Classical physics already revealed that at
the molecular level there is more randomness than order. It is not impossible to
derive mathematically the observed precise
mathematical laws from basic disorder. This was in fact one of the impressive
achievements of classical statistical mechanics. But consciousness recognizes
more than symmetry and pattern; it also discerns meaning and
experience. To explain these from
atomic and molecular configurations is a very different matter. Meaningful
totality arising from meaningless microcosmic processes
leave us puzzled at the intellectual level. Somehow, analysis is unable
to solve the mystery of holistic coherence. There is more to sentences than
combinations of letters with occasional spaces strewn in between.
Our sensory system is essentially a function
of the properties of a neural network which arises from the (electro-chemical)
properties of the molecules in normal
human brains. If alien molecules are
injected into the brain, or if the
usual chemicals are modified in some
way (as through meditation, chanting, etc.), deviations of
result from the normal modes. Depending on one's point of view, these
deviations are described either euphemistically as higher visions, or
disparagingly as hallucinations,
when in fact they merely reflect unusual activations of the cerebral-neural
Experimenters like Aldous Huxley and
Timothy Leary have vouched
that small doses of certain chemicals provide
the equivalent of cosmic revelations such as have been reported only by mystics.
They have concluded from
their experiences that there are loftier
dimensions of Reality which are
accessible to those who would allow potent substances to help open the closed
doors of perception.
These claims show that what we perceive as
is to a large extent a function of the biochemical molecules that come
into play in our brains. We all share a Reality
only in so far as, and only for so long as, we have similar chemicals powering
our cerebral circuitry. If the world view of other creatures is very different
from our own, this has little to do
with higher dimensions of Reality. The simple fact is that they are sporting with a different
bunch of chemical substances.
Since the intellect plays a major role at the discursive level, it tends
to accept as Reality
only those elements that conform to its criteria. However, the other
interaction moes generate other levels of Reality
as well which the intellect is unable to accept as such. This causes of
conflicts between science and other modes.
For example, we speak of love being real, of
a feeling of elation being real, of friendship being real, etc. But these
are different from the table
being real in the following important
1. The Reality
of love, friendship, etc. is far more intensely personal than that of a
table, and may not be subject to universal agreement by a community of normal
human brains, whereas this will be the case with the table. So is the Reality
of the uniqueness or superiority of one's own religous tradition or
2. A precise formulation of Reality
of the first kind may or may not be of common interest in communal
interactions, whereas the contrary is the case with realities of the second
3. As a consequence, Realities
of the first kind are far more significant and relevant to the individual whereas
those of the second kind are of greater
interest to a group
4. It is not possible to subject Realities
of the first kind to quantitative analysis.
kind of Reality may therefore be
described as individually subjective.
The second kind of Reality
is sometimes called objective reality.
More appropriately, it should be called collectively
subjective. It is this collectively subjective Reality that constitutes
established scientific reality.
and Higher Dimensional Realities
One of the least expected, and most
remarkable impacts on the physicist’s notion of Reality
is from developments in computer science. It is well-known that with the
aid of computers we can simulate Reality.
The TV games which have invaded popular culture do precisely this.
More sophisticated versions of such games have led to such incredibly
close mimic of actual experiences that this prompts us to define a new kind of Reality,
the so-called Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality has
practically all the characteristics of Reality
in terms of sensory experiences, except that, like funny money, it is all fake,
and we don't have to report it in our tax returns. This raises the question from
which we started: How do we know that what our own taxed Reality
is no more than some other type of Virtual
Than again, TV Reality is a two dimensional
projection whereas our more familiar Reality
is in three dimensional space. It could well be that there are still
higher dimensional Realities
which are beyond the perception or conception of our cerebral systems
which are condemned to a three-dimensional mode. Could it be that higher
dimensional intelligences, endowed with loftier levels of perception are
populating multidimensional worlds whence they are watching our doings, even as
we study and comment upon termites and E-coli?
There is no way we can prove or disprove
such a possibility, but it is as good a thought as any to make some concluding
Thoughts: Orders of Reality
The ironic conclusion to which scientific
inquiries have led us is that our hope of discovering
the ultimate nature of Reality
is as exciting and reachable as trying to stand right under the rainbow,
for anything that strikes us as Reality
is but a sophisticated mapping of something outside of the brain. And
this should be true of the brain also. The curious phenomenon of the brain
examining and talking about itself is not without some inherent awkwardness,
like attempts at writing an
One way of not getting lost in this maze of Realities is by introducing the notion of Orders of Reality. Thus, we may define First Order Reality as what we directly observe and experience. Second order Reality consists of the fundamental entities and causes of First Order Reality. Physics informs us of this Second Order Reality. But these entities and causes such as they are recognized are functions of our own sensors and analyzers. Therefore, we may imagine a Third Order Reality of which Second Order Reality is only a reflection. It may well be that there are Fourth and still Higher Order Realities which are for ever beyond even our conceptual perception. At the other end, we may consider a Zeroth Order Reality consisting of the pure creations of the human Mind which are powerful factors in human culture and interaction. All our mythology and poetry, fiction and even some history, and other creations of the human imagination, as well such abstract elements as justice and equality, freedom and honor, belong to Zeroth Order Reality.
Suggestions for further reading
E. A. Abbot, Flatland (Dover, N.Y., 1952).
D. Bohm, Causality and chance in modern physics (Temple U Press, Philadelphia, 1957).
D. Bohm, Wholeness and the implicate order (Routledge Kegan, London, 1980).
R. Harris, The nature of reality (McGraw Hill , N.Y., 1987).
W. Heisenberg, The physicist's conception of nature (Greenwood Press Westport 1970).
A. I. Miller, Imagery in scientific thought (Birkhäuser Boston,1984).
P. Watzlawick, How real is real? , (Vintage N.Y., 1977).
A. Comfort, Reality and empathy, (SUNY, Albany, 1984).
P. Davies, God and the new physics, (Simon and Schuster, 1984).
I. Prigogine and I. Strengers, Order out of chaos (Heinemann, London, 1984).