Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Solidity Is an Illusion

          I would like to approach the experience of 'seeing' the universe around me from two points of view. The first is from the viewpoint of physics, the second from that of the psycho-spiritual. Both of these viewpoints lie within the domain of the ego, some aspects being conscious whilst others are unconscious. (I include in this latter category the subconscious.) It will be seen that both viewpoints are flawed and therefore fall short of true or real 'seeing'.
          It is not my intent to go into the physics of seeing in any great detail. Any standard textbook, or internet equivalent, on the subject will perform that task quite adequately. There are, however, certain points I would like to emphasise. Light from an outside object (the word 'outside' yet to be defined) enters the eye but goes no further than the retina. At that point the light energy is converted into signals that are recognised and processed by the brain. Even though the brain is in darkness, it is able to recognise or 'see' light. However, it is the mind that is the final arbiter of what lies outside, whether or not the brain agrees. Therefore, from the mind's perspective, everything which is not part of itself, lies outside itself. Thus everything that is part of the material universe can be considered to be 'outside', including the brain mass.
          Being the creatures that we are, our vision is limited to a very narrow range of electromagnetic wavelengths. (400-700 nm, or 0.4-0.7 millionths of a metre, compared with up to hundreds of metres for radio waves, and 10 billionths of a metre for gamma rays.) The point here is that we see only a tiny fraction of what is available out there. And not only is our vision very limited, but most of what we do see is ignored (or can be considered to be blind to) anyway, depending on our prioritising processes.
          Consider now the structure of the matter we see around us. It is composed of a very tiny fraction of what might be considered to be 'solid', using the Niels Bohr model of the atom. The details of that model are not important here except that it indicates that the overwhelmingly larger part of the atom is nothing but energy and its associated field. In short, the universe, including the most dense of solids is largely empty space. Yet we experience the world around us as largely solid. (Within the model we are using here, liquids can be considered as fluid solids.) The solidity of the universe is an illusion, brought about by interactions of energies and their associated force fields. The really interesting question in physics is about why the universe has any solids at all! Yet regardless of all this we presume to be able to really see, and ignore the fact that what we see is illusory. That is not to say that there is nothing out there, but rather that we cannot know for certain what does lie out there.
          Now if all that wasn't enough, our judgements or assessments of the world around us (let's forget the rest of the universe for a moment) is heavily coloured by emotive issues, past experiences, moods and so on. The police and justice systems are aware of these false assessment problems, even if some juries are not. All too often we spend our lives sleep-walking, quite unaware that reality is passing us by. This must be the ultimate in lotus-eating experience, spending our days feeding on illusions.
          Ah yes! And I haven't even touched on 'time'!


  1. Hm. I would propose that logically it is not possible to describe anything as illusion without having a firm grasp of reality and being able to point to it.

    On the basis of an allegation that "reality is passing us by", you condemn everything else as illusion.

    From which I conclude that you are an illusionist in words, tricking your audience with false logic. So who am I, or anyone else in the same position? The little boy who pipes up, "The Emperor has no clothes!"

    Unless this unreal Tom can point us to reality and say what it tastes like.

    I hope you can, and will come back to tell the tale.

  2. Vincent: What an enjoyable response to my post. I do wonder who the real illusionist in words is in this context.

    I must say that the logic of your opening sentence seems to be flawed. Consider, for example, the behaviour of someone who is acting insanely. Such a person would see life as a logical reality when in fact they were suffering from illusions. Such a condition could be verified by a third person of trust. The firm grasp on reality would come only later. During the intervening period, reality would be passing that illusion-struck person by.

    But this is an extreme case. In reality lives are led within a spectrum of conditions ranging from one extreme to the other. In short, states of illusion and reality are relative.

    In my previous post I spoke of a desire to see the universe from the point of view of the Higher Self, a more divine standpoint if you will. That is the only state that I could envisage one seeing the universe as an holistic reality.

    Yes, of course there is much of me that is unreal, because I am unable to see the universe through divine eyes, even though on occasion one has experienced what Maslow called peak experiences.

    But who except one who has experienced such a phenomenon would be convinced? Fortunately, I do not see my task as one of convincing anyone of anything, save an honest attempt to report how life seems to me.

    I fear, therefore, that your final hope will be dashed. When the time comes that I will look on the face of absolute reality, it will be too late to turn back and describe the event.

  3. From what I can understand of your intent, Tom, in essence you're talking about the metaphysical and philosophical implications of quantum theory in our experience of reality. Every so often I'll find myself contemplating the simple yet astounding fact that I, myself as an individual being, am attached to absolutely everything I can see as well as all that I cannot see. It's an amazing state to consider and a deeply beautiful one to experience.

    It was Niels Bohr who said, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not understood it.”

    I wouldn't go so far as to say I understand it, but I do know enough to understand that we do not exist in the way we have been conditioned to believe we do.

    I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts about time.

  4. We receive no information about the universe smaller than a photon, so we're dealing in sub-atomics here. To irreducible quanta, time doesn't mean a lot, neither does size or distance, so we get virtual particles darting off to actuality elsewhere and elsewhen. Fun thing is, brain can articulate some of them --just as I've tickled electrons onto this screen.

  5. Yes, Tom, you are right. Something is wrong with my first sentence. "Firm grasp on reality" was a careless phrase, one which is properly used when discussing another person's sanity. It doesn't do anything to define reality.

    Let me try again with that first sentence.

    I would propose that "illusion" has no meaning as a descriptor except by reference to the meaning of "reality". People mean different things by reality according to context. Thus to the psychiatrist, reality is the world as agreed by a consensus of the sane. In the context of stage illusionism and conjuring tricks, reality is the state where the laws of physics cannot be defied.

    In your reply above, you say, if I am not mistaken, that your idea of reality is based on how the universe appears when seen through divine eyes. Which of course is a metaphor.

    You confess your own inability to see through divine eyes, despite experiences which you take as perhaps being a hint of that kind of seeing.

    Therefore your idea of reality, on which you base your idea of illusion, is itself the product of imagination.

    I retract my accusation of illogicality, with apologies. Your position is perfectly tenable. By tacit consent of many English-speakers, we have the right to define reality as we will, for our own use, so to speak. But I think that class of liberal-minded English-speakers would insert a caveat, to wit, we don't have the right to impose our definition of reality on everyone else, as being the "true" or "ultimate" reality, or Reality with a capital R.

    Thus, the idea that everything is illusion except what God sees, belongs properly in theology, and cannot be helpful to those who don't accept that theology. Which is pretty obvious to those who feel they live in a secular world.

    But, by the same token, and here I speak to the retired physicist as well as the layman, the idea that physics can define everyday reality, and deny solidity to this desk on which my elbows currently rest, is equally questionable.

    For here, instead of undermining the everyday usages of "reality" with theological concepts, you are undermining the everyday usages of "solidity" with concepts from physics which don't help in home improvement projects.

    I put it to you sir (taking the discussion before a jury, now) that in propounding "Solidity is an illusion" you are merely setting up a paradox for the fun of it. While I, for the same reason, am attempting to knock it down.

  6. Susan; I think I would summarise my thoughts on what you say by stating 'that nothing is quite what it appears to be.' For me that is a self-evident statement, particularly in the field of spiritual psychology. I would also add that what never ceases to astound me is that fact that, in terms of solid matter, each of us is almost non-existent. We appear to be solid because our brains, the tools we use to perceive the world around us, are made of similarly structured material.

  7. Geo; That seems to be about right with me.

  8. Vincent; Oh dear! I find myself in the position of pretty much agreeing with all that you say. I would add, on the question of God and theology, that it wasn't my deliberate intention of invoking the divine, and certainly not as a backing for my arguments. That would indeed be cheeky. The difficulty I constantly find in my work is that religion so often as the words which other disciplines do not have. After all, religion has been at it a lot longer than modern science and psychology. Still I struggle to find that path that lies between those two, a path which I believe eventually arrives at the point where physics at its most abstruse, psycho-spirituality and mysticism find common ground. What that common ground is called I leave to each one who experiences it to choose.

  9. Hi Tom,
    An interesting post and comments. Indeed it is the “Consciousness” of the mind that allows as to ponder such things as reality. But I also think the philosopher Kant was on the right track (without the benefits of modern day research) to contend the mind by an intuitive process brought together the forms of time and space to give us our consciousness which seems to parallel modern day quantum mechanics? It is, of course, much more that.
    I also like the idea of Roger Penrose; our mind thought process begins by way of a number of superimposed quantum states which ultimately collapse through gravity to produce our conscious thoughts.
    Hence our thought process mirrors a mixture of quantum and classical physics similar to the structures of our evolving universe. Hence we only see what is real as is necessary for us to exist in the most probable of many possible universes.
    So the world is real to us as we can send spacecraft to the moon and back, even though the mass involved in such a spacecraft dissected down to its quantum level does not behave according to classical physics. If you’re willing to say knowledge is reality, than it could be we simply don’t have all that knowledge of reality. Some will say maybe it resides in another dimension, of which we are not privy.
    Best wishes

  10. Lindsay; You are most welcome here, and thank you for your comment. Perhaps it is mankind's apparent need to explore, whether it be in the mind as much as travelling through the physical universe, that fuels the drive to ask the questions we do - and hopefully arrive at answers. Yet are those answers 'truth', or conclusions drawn from what we perceive to be facts? Science seeks facts, not truth.

    So is the seeking of fact yet another illusion that deflects us from discerning truth? I certainly wonder, on occasion, whether my searchings are just another way for my ego to deflect my attention from something deeper, and more real. Although I spent more time on the apparent illusoriness of the physical universe in my essay, it is I think the illusions one harbours in one's psycho-spiritual perception of the universe that are the more important. And they strike closer to the self, and are the more feared because of that.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts.

  11. Hi Tom,
    I think Science is a very helpful tool but I agree it not the truth even though in faith, many concepts are taken for granted. But I do think quantum mechanics poses deep philosophical questions since at the most fundamental level, I believe it illustrates that we are not aware of reality, so life is a mystery. This is very unsettling or unnacceptable to many, who like certainty. As you would know Einstein invented a cosmolical constant to avoid confronting that truth, in relation to his own discoveries on the matter. So I certainly agree our mortality and feelings of vulnerability drive us to seek comfort in adopting any number of views that may shield us from the truth.
    But for me all life is sacred even though I acknowledge that could be an illusion. So that reverence for all life is the guiding principle of truth as I see it, not necessarily the truth as such but rather the truth for me.
    We all have a philosophy on life, whether acknowledged formally or not. Changing that philosophy is a big event in our life, but science can help us, as its servant, to undercover new discoveries and understanding that help us to discern the truth as we see it.
    Best wishes

  12. As you suggest Tom, the receptors available to us for these inputs that surround us are limited. The brain, evolved as it has, manages to give us an interpretation of what is going on. Interactions with others force us to accept certain standard beliefs about them.
    The human advantage, if we can call it that would seem to be that we do not all conform.

    Where do these contrary thoughts originate?

    Are we in fact also receiving and interpreting other stimulae? If there is a timeless aspect to existence has that always be part of us at some level? Where do ideas come from?

  13. Halle; I don't know! It all makes my head hurt. :)

    1. LOL. Me too Tom, but it feels good! What does that say about me?? :D

  14. Tom, I wish there had been more time to talk when you were here - I could have pointed to all the books on my shelves about those very subjects: time, physics, the quantum universe, matter, non-matter, solidity, reality, illusion....I am endlessly fascinated by all of it. And there is always something just out of reach, on the tip of one's tongue, like a half-remembered dream, which says: that's not all there is.

  15. Natalie; I find that I need to keep a close watch on my books acquisitions, lest my interests outrun my available time. I agree with your last sentence, most certainly. But who knows, maybe we can get together again?