There are unresolved tensions around the question of reality. If I hit my thumb with a hammer I feel pain and see a bruise appear. It is from shared experience that we build a collective view of reality, but by ignoring or dismissing the unpredictable and unusual do we miss out on a more accurate picture of reality? Could such an approach be limiting us? If so, what does reality actually look like?
When only a few people claim a new window onto reality through experience, believing in it as real often gets them labelled as foolish or delusional. Perhaps rightly so, in circumstances where a minority belief is detrimental to survival, but what of those small clusters of claims that come from otherwise well-adjusted, wealthy, well-respected, often highly educated individuals who use their kind of reality to bolster survival success? Are their views also rightly labelled as delusional? Is there any way to tell?
The process of describing what is real, or true, falls to prediction of cause and effect. Neuroscience and neuropsychology focus on the brain as arbitrator, assessing activity patterns, and looking for just such predictability. But, by viewing brain and mind this way are we observing rather than grasping the underlying reality at play? Could this be likened to watching the swirls of milk or cream on the surface of coffee rather than considering the spoon that just stirred the fluid?
The conundrum is similar to a thought experiment about a two-dimensional world, a planar dimension similar to a flat sheet, commonly referred to as Flatland within a novella written years ago by Edwin Abbott. What happens when inhabitants of this world encounter a drop of fluid, falling? Well, being flat, the inhabitants see this one slice at a time, and only at its edge.
Despite their limited view, they discern meaning in this strange, dynamic pattern created as the drop progresses downwards. Seen only a slice at a time, there is a continuous line, growing, shrinking and disappearing that paints a picture of normal reality. It triggers a sigh of relief. No one really cares why such unending lines appear and disappear, as long as they are predictable. The idea of volume, a mathematical construct, since it cannot be touched in a 'real' way, is left to wacky thinkers.
Most of us who pay attention in a three-dimensional world respond similarly. Consider this: Have you played with magnets? Can you explain the invisible push or pull that is felt; the so-called magnetic force? As long as prediction enables a set of rules that incorporate these phenomena into our lives there is no need to dig deeper.
Let's return to Flatland again to explore thought processes. What happens if the drop (a 3D object) presses up against the sheet without cutting through it? The sheet will stretch. The inhabitants might name this a force and devise a new rule that describes such behaviour, without actually understanding the cause. Little progress can be made to break out of Flatland thinking and into a more exciting reality with this mindset.
Similarly, a dog can live its life in a kennel quite successfully, ignoring the occasional smell from an opened door. Even though its food and water come from a great unseen, this bothers it not at all. As long as the provisions keep coming there is no need to think about source; just the pattern of appearance.
In our world, most physicists (and chemists) are pragmatists, happy to accept explanations that work most of the time even if they don’t quite stitch everything about our theory of reality together. Consider this: we are told nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in our reality, but some particles, said to be entangled, communicate their states to one another instantaneously, at any distance. How can this be?
There are many such observations. Quantum tunnelling for one. And have you heard about the strange Aharonov-Bohm effect. Similarly, consciousness is not yet well understood. Could it be that we too, in our everyday lives, are ignoring the challenge of unusual pictures of reality; ones that explain more fully the way the word around us and our mind within us works?
There is certainly evidence for mind building up through multiple dimensions, as well as reports of effects occurring beyond the local environment of the body. This aspect of consciousness is termed nonlocal mind, a label devised by Larry Dossey and a topic that is explored in the final section of my book.
Perhaps it is time to look beyond the consensus view of our kind of 'Flatland', take seriously the alternatives proposed by deep thinkers and explorers of our times, and in so doing reach a more helpful answer for the question, what does reality actually look like? We might even find that a new horizon of social and technological advancement follows.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb