Ordinary reality, the world perceived by humans, is sometimes referred to as 3-D reality. The number 3 here refers to the familiar three dimensions of space. Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity formulated a four-dimensional entity called spacetime, wherein time is included along with those original three dimensions. According to physicists, spacetime, this 4-D conceptualization, is the container in which the events in our lives take place.
Now however, this idea has been extended by many with the inclusion of an additional dimension. The reference to this fifth dimension represents the acknowledgment that the physical world is not the end-all of reality, but that a subtler reality can be experienced by human beings who have stilled their minds so as to allow themselves to focus on the domain of Being. Some writers and speakers have referred to this extra dimension as “within,” as when we’re told to “go within” to experience a deeper sense of being. It is from this perspective, the domain of Being, that the following is offered.
The world as a machine
In western culture, the traditional understanding of what we call “reality” is that the physical world is what is real. All of us “westerners” have been conditioned to that understanding, and it’s pretty much universally accepted. It’s also pretty much invisible to us, in the sense that we never think about it, and we never question whether it is actually true. It’s an element of the “water we swim in,” the belief system we don’t notice because it’s all we know.
Most scientists, just like virtually all the rest of us, have been conditioned to think of the world of our experience, and the larger physical universe, as a machine. You know, once a machine gets running, it tends to run according to its design, as formalized in the laws of physics, without further input from its original “designer.”
However, try looking at it this way: What we think of as the physical world is actually an interpretation of the information sent to our brain by our senses. For example, light that enters our eyes is converted to electrical impulses by rods and cones. These impulses are transmitted to our brains by the optic nerve. And our brains then make pictures out of these impulses, much like televisions create pictures out of the signals in the cable. These pictures, and sounds and so on, constitute an interpretation of sensory input. They become our view of the world.
But then we assume that this interpretation, this view, is a more-or-less accurate picture of what’s actually “out there.” We rely on the picture we have in our minds for all the strategies we use for getting along in life. The problem is, our interpretation of physical sensory data is conditioned by our past experience, by our habits of thought, and by what we were told when we were young. All we have, then, is our interpretation of what we see, and we all mistake that interpretation for what is actually there. I’ll come back to this idea in a moment.
Interpreting the information from our five senses
I’m typing these words on a laptop that is resting on a kitchen counter. What is the essential nature of that surface? What is it really? Most people would say that it consists of some physical material, granite in this case. And what is the granite made of? The answer would be molecules or crystals of one or more substances, which are made of atoms, which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. That’s just material from first year high school physics.
Now, what do I really see and feel when I look at or touch the kitchen counter? As I said before, I see light bouncing off the counter and entering my eyes. I feel the effect of electrostatic forces in my fingertips. The scope of the information with which I make sense of the physical world is limited to what comes to me through my physical senses.
So, my interaction with the surface on which my laptop sits is limited to sensations, information about specific phenomena delivered to my brain by my senses. But what is it that “makes” those sensations into a kitchen counter? I believe you have to finally say that it is an interpretation of those sensations that makes it into a counter. Without that interpretation, we would presumably still see and feel those sensations, but the counter would just appear to me as volume of marbled, brownish stuff that hurts if I bang into it and that keeps other stuff from falling on the floor. There’s a layer of interpretation that lies between me and the object I am observing, and when I want to use that object (for example, to hold up my laptop), it is the interpretation with which I am interacting.
I am reminded of a story of the young child whose father is a television personality. The child sees his father on the television screen, and that image on the screen prompts the child to go around to the back of the set to find Daddy!
The TV is interpreting, or decoding, an electrical signal carried by a cable and rendering the resulting image on the screen. The signal being decoded consists of a vibration of what is called the electromagnetic field. The child, however, does not yet realize that the image on the screen is merely a rendering of electrical data, not the “real” thing. I suggest that we do the same thing with the electrical input to our senses. My brain creates a picture of the world by interpreting the sensory data delivered to it, and I take that picture, or description, as “reality.”
Again, all we have is our interpretation of what we see, and we all mistake that interpretation for what is actually there. Well, what is actually there?
It turns out that what’s actually “there” is a limitless field of weighted possibilities, otherwise known as the quantum field. “Weighted” means that some of those possibilities are more likely to be observed than others. Quantum theory makes this idea more formal. It describes those possibilities in terms of the probability that any one of them will be observed in any given experiment.
It’s important to notice that quantum laws are formulated to refer not to how things actually behave, nor what they actually are, but rather to what the results of observations of those things are likely to be. That’s a very subtle distinction. Let me repeat it: quantum theory is formulated to refer not to how things actually behave, but rather to what the results of observations of their behavior are likely to be. You would think that any successful theory of the universe would explain what’s actually there. But here we have a theory that only explains what you’re likely to see!
Let’s explore this idea for a few moments. Prior to the discovery of the quantum laws, classical (pre-quantum) physics did describe almost perfectly how things appear to behave. I say almost, because there were some “troubling” exceptions. However, the so-called classical laws describe the behavior of inanimate objects, forces, and fields, and they do so without reference to anybody actually observing that behavior. Thus, these laws have nothing to say about the consciousness (us) that’s actually doing the observing.
Quantum laws, however, are all about the results of observations. Quantum laws predict the results of observations of physical systems, and as far as we know they do so with complete accuracy. And right there, consciousness is inseparable from the field of physics. Isn’t it rather meaningless to talk about the results of experiments or observations without implicitly referring to the conscious being that’s doing the experimenting?
Now, it’s true that ideas from physics and chemistry have been used to try to explain the origin of thoughts and feelings in the nervous system and the brain. Most scientists seem to believe that experience, and in fact life itself, must ultimately be a product of things that aren’t in themselves alive. In other words, take physics and chemistry, add enough complexity and just the right combination of environmental factors, and if you’re “lucky,” you get life, and ultimately, experience.
When we transitioned to quantum laws, however, it seems to me that this problem should have gone away. The science shows that observation is the basis for the appearance of the physical world. And yet most scientists still insist that the physical world must somehow create the consciousness that is required for the observations to be conducted.
Quantum laws specify only the probability that we will make any conceivable observation of the world. The laws themselves are completely silent on the question of how any one of these probable outcomes is actually observed, how it actually comes into our experience. So I ask, how can the physical world be what’s real when it requires perception in order to come into being?
Due to the fact that we live in a world that’s essentially created by observation, in studying the way the world behaves we are actually studying perception and, therefore, ourselves. When scientists confront the combination of the complexity as well as the beauty of the world, the emotional reaction on the part of many is confusion and frustration that some of the world’s “secrets” (dark matter, dark energy, quantum entanglement, and so on) appear to defy explanation. Yet it seems to me, the more appropriate reaction is awe. I think it’s deserving of awe and deep reverence that we are capable of perceiving that beauty and complexity when all we seem to have is our interpretation of the electrical signals that reach our brains.
People use the word “miracle” to refer to situations where we sometimes emerge intact and even enhanced from seemingly impossible circumstances. But maybe the real miracle is that we not only perceive a beautiful world but that we perceive a world at all, and that we can actually agree on what we’re observing.
Let’s turn to human experience. It’s pretty difficult to define experience, especially in terms of the physical world. But you know it when you have it! I suggest that experience, and thoughts, and feelings, are what’s real. When you awaken from a dream, the scene you were dreaming vanishes… but the experience of the dream remains. Sometimes you can feel the feelings you had in the dream for the rest of the day.
After more than a hundred years of debate, quantum scientists still believe that the physical world is a law-based, inanimate machine. They have yet to agree on how to get from a field of probabilities to what we actually experience, to what we think of as reality. Perhaps the time will come when these women and men of science finally discover for themselves that we cannot fully explain reality without talking about consciousness. Maybe then, more of them will begin to consider the implications of realizing that there is no world apart from its observation, that the world “out there” isn’t what it seems to be, and that we are so much more than we imagine ourselves to be.
If you take into consideration the information in this article, you may see that we are discussing a new and completely different paradigm with which we can look at the world. We have fields that sustain vibrations (light, gravity, electrical, magnetic, and so on) and we use our five senses to interpret and convert those vibrations into our picture of reality. And that picture of reality is not the same as whatever might actually be “out there.” In fact, it’s as different from what the Universe might actually be as is the glossy picture of a stack of pancakes on the menu at the pancake house from that stack of pancakes!