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What is Reality?

In The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra sets out to establish a parallelism between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. His task is regrettably made easy by philosophical statements uttered by some well-known physicists. As these physicists came in contact with the Far Eastern culture during their lecture tours to India, China, and Japan, their pre-existing sympathetic philosophical stance found a friendly partner in that region’s theosophy. Thus, we find Capra ecstatically quoting Werner Heisenberg as saying “The great scientific contributions in theoretical physics that has come from Japan since the last war may be an indication of a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the Far East and the philosophical substance of quantum theory;” or J. Robert Oppenheimer as saying “Even in our own culture [discoveries in atomic physics] have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom;” and Niels Bohr as saying “For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory … [we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tsu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.” As great physicists as the authors of these quotes were, their philosophical statements have nothing in common with the groundbreaking contributions they made to science.

How could there be any connection between the highly abstract, counter-intuitive, and immensely mathematical modern physics and Eastern philosophy, which, by its very nature, is subjective?  The most powerful – and arguably the only – weapons available to the New Age gurus are quotes similar to the ones above.  Mystagogues put a statement by a famous physicist next to one made by an Eastern monk and point to the difficulty in telling them apart. This similitude has been so trivialized that even the use of the same metaphor by physicists and Eastern monks is sufficient proof for the parallel between modern physics and Eastern theosophy! If a Zen master describes his mystical experience as “the bottom of a pail breaking through,”  and Heisenberg describes quantum theory as ” … the foundation of physics has started moving; and this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science,” then, Capra argues, there must be a parallel between Eastern mysticism and modern physics.

Another ploy of the mystics, as well as the purveyors of any kind of philosophical, political, or  religious belief system, is to camouflage certain familiar key words with a fabricated meaning, and throw them at their naive audience over and over again. (Consider the dictionary definitions of the word “liberal”: open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values; favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms; favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform; and compare it with the meaning that religious conservatives have attached to it.) The two key words that Capra uses in this manner are “knowledge” and “reality.” He talks about intuitive and rational knowledge without delving into the meaning and characteristic of knowledge. What if real knowledge does not even allow such division? (N.B. If your listeners do not know exactly what an atom is, you can talk about green atoms and blue atoms, and the listeners would not question such nonsensical categorization, especially if they have already accepted your authority.)

What are Knowledge and Reality?

Since Capra does not provide us with the meaning of knowledge, I am going to give it a try. If knowledge is the collection of what we know, then it can take on a variety of meanings. It could be applied to the language in which we speak, or the history of our family, tribe, nation, and the world. It could mean our knowledge of the route we take to our job every day, or the way we work with our computer. It could mean the belief system with which we grow up, including religion or its absence. These are only a small sample of what we may call knowledge. But Capra has a different kind of knowledge in mind. He associates knowledge with reality, without clarifying either. In order to make sense out of the “knowledge of reality,” we have to understand reality itself.

A good understanding of reality examines it from a historical perspective. What was reality for our ancestors when they started to make tools a couple of million years ago? In an era when humans were struggling for physical survival, when men witnessed their mates and children mauled by the overpowering wild beasts, and women grappled with lions and hyenas to save their newborns, reality was a hostile savannah; a family that needed utmost physical protection; learning the most advanced technology of carving a stone flake that could cut the hide of their prey; or finding a natural shelter when a torrential rain hit their habitat.

Reality became more sophisticated when stone tools evolved into bows and arrows, fire was tamed, animal hides found their use in clothing, and seeds of civilization started to sprout. The old bonds between a couple and their children branched out into new, albeit weaker, bonds between members of a clan. The requirement of communication among clan members culminated into some abstract guttural signals. Now reality included fire, clothing, cooking, the extended family, and learning a few primitive words. In short, reality was the physical world around the humans and knowledge was the collective factual information gained by them.

The intricate web of social and political life in Egypt four millennia ago precipitated a reality that was much more complex than anything that had existed before. For an Egyptian, there was the partner, children, tribe, house for shelter, food to eat, and fire for cooking and warmth. But there were other aspects of reality that had not existed in earlier times. There was a sophisticated oral language, a collection of signs and symbols that a few citizens learned and carved on stones to record the oral language permanently. There were slaves, farmers, agriculture, a pharaoh, a multitude of gods residing in the sky, a caste of priests who communicated with gods in temples, where scientific knowledge about the Sun, Moon, planets and stars were recorded and taught. To an Egyptian, reality was a life controlled by the pharaoh and his magistrates. It was also a life controlled by gods on whom he had no influence and with whom only the powerful temple monks could communicate. And if one was to learn about the reality in Egypt, one would have to go to these monks, because they were the only people who were sufficiently knowledgeable to convey that reality.

In the reality of the enlightened Greeks of 2400 years ago, gods started to lose control over the daily lives of the citizens partly because of the rational philosophy of scholars like Plato and Epicurus. Atoms and reason occupied part of the Greek psyche which was previously filled entirely with gods, goddesses, monsters, and giants. To the extreme atomist, reality was the atoms and the void; all other things were just opinions. And if one was to learn about the reality in Greece, one would have to go to philosophers, because they had learned and thought about reality more than an average citizen. One would then encounter multiple realities, as there were multiple schools of philosophy.

The reality of the European Dark Ages consisted of one god who controlled not only life on earth, but the entire cosmos. He could easily destroy an entire disobedient community by sending natural disasters to that community. Fearful of this revengeful god, Dark Agers set fire on women suspected of witchcraft, tortured citizens suspected of blasphemy and heresy, made sacrifices when a comet showed up in the sky to quell the wrath of god who sent that strange new fire into the sky, and were convinced that the papal representative in the region was a messenger of god himself.

Until very recently, reality was not only time dependent, but also space dependent. The reality of the people of Middle East during the European Dark Ages was completely different from the reality of the latter. And the reality of the Colonial America, where pioneers were fighting the Native Americans over land, was different from the post-Renaissance Europe where science was beginning to influence philosophy and politics. Therefore, until recently we did not have a unique reality, a reality that transcends regional beliefs and traditions.

Science has given us a reality which is global, even universal. It is a reality that has rid itself of philosophies, opinions, traditions, and folklore which, by their very nature, are local. It is a reality, which every individual of our race, regardless of his/her origin and background, can grasp and concretely verify. This universal reality consists of three types of fundamental particles: the up quark, the down quark, and the electron, which make up the entire visible universe, which was created in a big bang 13.69 billion years ago. This reality informs us that the two types of quarks are glued together by some other fundamental particles and confined in protons and neutrons, the constituents of nuclei, which, together with electrons, form atoms; that the two lightest atoms, hydrogen and helium, make up over 99% of the visible universe. It is a reality created by the irrefutable force of observation, and that force tells us that 96% of the universe is invisible and, as a whole, it is expanding faster and faster.

That reality combines atoms to form molecules, a form of matter most abundant on Earth. Many of these molecules are simple and consist of a few atoms. Some are very complex and composed of thousands of less complex molecules, each of the latter carrying hundreds of atoms. Some were formed a few billion years ago and had a property which we now call life.

This reality is unique and verifiable, and is the only one that can truly be called “reality.” It is a dynamic reality which evolves as the scientific wisdom of our race evolves. It is discovered through the laborious undertakings of generations of scientists who communicate their discoveries not only to their peers, but more importantly, to the next generation of scientists, who build on the knowledge of all the previous generations. And this communication is crucial for the development of science and the recognition of reality. Without this communication, without the language in which the communication takes place, this unique and universal reality cannot exist! And this reality is available to every human being once he/she learns this language.

Not only can every member of our race access this reality and verify our understanding of it, but all intelligent beings of planets whirling around stars in distant galaxies will (or have) come to the same understanding. As they fathom the stars and galaxies in their skies, they discover the same hydrogen and helium atoms that we have discovered; they see that these atoms have very small and very massive nuclei. And if they have reached the stage of our 1980 physics, they know that these nuclei are composed of quarks, which, in a colossal explosion, came into existence, free for a fleeting moment, but eternally trapped inside protons and neutrons which make up the nuclei.

If the universal reality is the product of scientific research, then the knowledge of that reality is nothing but scientific knowledge. A child “knows” that there are monsters under his bed; a member of a tribe “knows” that the world was created by a giant frog; a Christian fundamentalist “knows” that blowing up an abortion clinic is the right thing to do; and the president of a powerful country “knows” that his conflict with a weaker country can be solved by bombing the latter.

Once you step outside the domain of science, the boundary between ignorance and knowledge disappears.

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