version of:   August 29, 2004

Chapter 19: Reality

Ultimately, the nature of reality has to be simplicity itself. However, it must be a simplicity on its own terms, and it may not look simple when we attempt to project it down onto and into our limited frameworks. In fact, such projections won't even work, and most likely we're left with nothing at all, a sense of emptiness at best, or confusion. It would be surprising if it were otherwise!


My attempt above to express my intuition as to the nature of reality may strike one as mystical, but in fact a similar sentiment has been expressed by the physicist John Wheeler, whom I've mentioned earlier. He said that he did not know what a unified theory in physics will look like, but he was sure that when we find such a theory, it will be simpler than we could have possibly guessed.

The problem with simplicity is that you cannot always recognize it when you're entangled in complexity. When looking at clouds in the sky and puddles of water on the ground and the whole buzzing world of animals and plants around us, who could have expected that this whole material world is governed on the molecular level by a few simple differential equations, given by quantum electrodynamics, with Newtonian gravity thrown in to top it off?

The history of physics has shown a step-wise increase in simplicity. In the case of gravity: from the complexity of epicycles to elliptic planetary orbits, to the realization of the inverse square nature of every-day gravity to general relativity where gravity originates from the curvature of spacetime determined by the simplest possible action, connected directly with the spacetime curvature scalar.

Even though each stage was intrinsically simpler, each stage requires considerable preparation and training in the appropriate mathematical formalism before the intrinsic simplicity becomes apparent. A first look at general relativity may give one the impression of a dazzling dance of tensor indices, until one learns how to see the forest for the trees.


What John Wheeler said about our ultimate understanding of physical reality sounds true, and is in complete accord with all the trends we have seen in the history of natural science. And I think we can continue his line of thought beyond the terrain of what is currently covered by physics and the other more applied fields of science.

If science continues to grow, and if there is no fence that will limit the terrain that science will enter, given enough time, I expect ever more simplicity to appear, in ever more intrinsic ways. At the same time, each deeper level of understanding will be more difficult to communicate on an every-day level.

Already in physics, we have seen how Newtonian physics was pretty easy to communicate, as a clockwork picture of the world, even though already notions such as action-at-a-distance were not so easy to grasp, as was the fact that if you let something fly away from a circular motion, it will immediately start moving in a straight line without curving even a bit more or slowing down in any way.

Then in electromagnetism, we encountered a non-material ether; in relativity physical effects of curvature of space and time; and in quantum mechanics we encounter objects that are partially actual partially potential, in a way that nobody has been able to fit into everyday language.

X without X

John Wheeler has expressed this trend in colorful and paradoxical terms when he talked about gravity without gravity, mass without mass, and so on: each X without X showed how a phenomenon that we normally interpret as X, when looked at more carefully, has preciously little to do with what we thought X was, hence we find ourselves in a world of X without X.

When I first read Wheeler's explanations, while I was an undergraduate, I was struck by how his writing seemed similar to that of mystics and contemplatives of many different traditions. They, too, often talk about X without X: (the appearance of) a solid world without (the existence of) a solid world.

Yes, phenomena are what they are, but what underlies them is not what we thought them to be. Buddhism tells us that all is `nothing, yet there,' to quote Longchenpa, a fourteenth century Tibetan contemplative. Medieval Christian mystics, Sufis, and many others talk about the ineffability of reality. And indeed, science also tells us that things are far different from what they seem to be.

Our current understanding of the world in terms of quantum fluctuations and wave functions, with glimpses of a future physics in terms of spacetime as a form of quantum foam at incredibly small scales, is likely just to be the beginning. What will a future science show the world to be like, in a more and more accurate and true way?

An Asymptotic Understanding

This is the question I would like to address in this last part, which I have called Part Three, although I could also have called it Part Infinity. In Part One I have tried to describe my view of the terrain that science is likely to enter during the coming few hundred years: the study of the subject, in addition to the study of objects that has occupied science for the last few centuries.

In Part Two I have moved further away from the present, presenting a vision of what science might study in a more remote future, during the next thousand years perhaps -- predictions of time scales become more and more difficult, given the many uncertainties about where humanity is going to, but I'm pretty convinced of the qualitative direction: a move beyond the subject-object split, and a study of what reality is like on that more fundamental level.

I could have introduced further Parts, but with each Part I would have to grope further into the fog of the future, and I'm not sure how helpful that would have been. Instead, I have opted to jump directly to the asymptotic understanding that science, in my opinion, is moving toward.

So from here on I will leave the bottom-up approach behind, and switch to a top-down approach, starting from what an ultimate understanding could possibly be, and indicating how science might move toward such an ultimate goal. Along the way, we can see how far we can apply lessons from such a vision already to our own lives; whatever will be discovered in the future must, after all, be already operative right here and now, and ignoring it will be to our own peril.

A disclaimer

So far, I have based what I wrote on personal experience, in my training and my work in science as well as in my explorations in contemplative traditions. I could have stopped after chapter 18, and I would have been completely comfortable to defend anything I have written so far, directly from my own experience.

However, at this point I have to add a disclaimer: I am now going to extrapolate beyond my own experience, not only beyond my own experience as a scientist but also beyond my contemplate explorations. What I write still strikes me as extremely plausible, to the point of being almost unavoidable, but I cannot vouch for it, the way I could vouch for what I wrote in Parts One and Two.

While composing those earlier parts, I knew with every line that I was writing that I was not telling the whole truth. Everything was a form of pointing, and a type of pointing that was incomplete. In the end I felt I had no choice but to go all out, leaving behind the more secure area of what I had at least partly covered myself.

So here I'll continue to draw the dotted lines from the previous Parts to see where they intersect the horizon, and where they might go beyond currently visible horizons. As a consequence, I will not add specific experiments to Part Three. Instead, I invite the reader to join me in viewing his or her whole life as experiment, in the ultimate way of viewing life as a lab.

Science and Contemplation

The aim of this book is to find ways to treat our ordinary daily life as a laboratory, in order to understand more about the structure of reality. This understanding in turn will allow us to lead our life more efficiently and more happily, without unnecessary friction and confusion, in what the Chinese summarize as wu-wei, not-doing. The challenge is to learn to do without doing, to act spontaneously and authentically without fabricating our actions.

The question is where to find hints and inspiration. Science has given us an enormous store of valid knowledge, but so far little of that has been directly applicable to the question of how to live a mature and balanced life. The various religions have given us plenty of wisdom, but couched in such ancient terms that it is hard to see how we can apply that in our own lives, here and now. What is worse, it seems that religious and scientific versions of the truth are totally incompatible.

The suggestion made in this book is to use both science and the experiential core of religions, but to use both of them in indirect ways. As for the latter, I will use the word contemplation to indicate a living involvement with spiritual practice, as opposed to the more social and political aspects of religions. In short: life as a lab can be fueled by inspiration from science and contemplation.

The Future

If we could just look into the distant future, and find out what humanity would have discovered about the structure of reality, we could use that knowledge to guide our own explorations. With the manuals of science and contemplation from, say, a million years into the future, we would have a much better compass than what we can currently find.

Right now, science is young and narrow in its terrain of expertise, but at least its methodology is promising, alive and vibrant, and shows all the signs of remaining so for centuries to come. In contrast, methods of contemplation have a long and venerable history and spans a vast terrain, but have never managed to gel into a single agreed-upon approach, the way science has done.

I fully expect that science will slowly and cautiously broaden its terrain, and I certainly hope that contemplation will learn to cross cultural boundaries and find ways to engage in peer-to-peer conversations, the way scientists have been practicing now for centuries. As a result, I expect that both enterprises will reach a far deeper understanding of the structure of reality than what is currently available.

Asymptotically, I expect that both approaches will lead to a similar, or at least compatible, understanding of what is. Perhaps this understanding will initially come from different angles, but ultimately those differences will no longer be important, and be merely seen as historical footnotes.

A Three-Step Program

Starting with this working hypothesis, that science and contemplation are on the way to an asymptotic meeting point, I envision a three-step program to implement the notion of `life as a lab'.

The first step is to look at the past, to see how science and contemplation have developed, noting the main threads and crucial steps that were taken. Skipping the many historically contingent details, the challenge here is to put our fingers on what is really essential in these past developments.

The second step is to extrapolate those trends into the future, in order to predict what type of further developments are likely to occur. Again, we will have to skip the details, which are completely unpredictable anyway, but we might be able to guess at least the nature of some of the future revolutions, given our knowledge of the nature of the past ones.

The third step is to `import' a manual from the future, based on our extrapolations, and use that in the present. Using what we have extrapolated as our current guide lines, we can combine all that we have available, concretely and virtually, in terms of inspiration from past and future, and use that in the here and now.


In a nutshell, our approach will be to use science without science, and contemplation without contemplation, in order to learn to act without acting.

Without grasping, without fabricating, without trying in any way, it is possible to enjoy a life of exploration, based on what is already here. The only thing needed is a different way of seeing.

All wisdom traditions have encouraged us to see. But since real seeing cannot be described within the terms of a limited framework, one can only point. And now that ancient pointers are rapidly losing their accuracy, we have no choice but to find new pointers. Let's see what we can come up with.

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