There are many theories of reality out there ranging from the religious to the mathematical to elephants on top of turtles. What I’m going to do here is demonstrate that you can break this down into two paths which are incompatible with each other. To chose one is to completely reject the other. It all seems very complicated on the surface, but understanding the basics of reality is actually quite straightforward once you take step back and look at the problem as a whole.
Those two points of view are materialism and idealism. Materialism means that you believe that everything is ultimately made out of material and idealism means that you believe that everything is ultimately made out of ideas.
These two ways of looking at reality are incompatible because a universe that is strictly material cannot create ideas and a universe that is strictly ideas cannot create something material. Yet we seem to be in a universe where both exist. However, one of these two things must be right and the other must be wrong.
Physical vs. Mind
If you’ve never explored this topic, then it can be difficult to follow; particularly in understanding the difference between thought and physical reality since we blend the two together seamlessly.
The short version is This:
- If it is physical, it can be measured and it has no inherent meaning.
- If it is an idea, it has inherent meaning, but cannot be measured.
To take a rather mundane example, an actual wooden chair has measurable height, weight, and volume. If you throw it, it has the velocity as well. But if you asked the question: What does this chair mean? That is nonsensical. The wooden chair doesn’t mean anything, (and neither do any other physical objects.)
But suppose I say: “It’s a chair.” “Chair” doesn’t refer to a particular object, so there is no height, weight or volume to measure. And if I ask what does “chair” mean, you could easily reply with “something to sit on.” It’s an idea and therefore contains meaning, (all ideas contain meaning) and is not measurable.
Something can either be measurable or it can have meaning, but it cannot be both.
Is the Universe Material?
If the universe is strictly material, then everything in the universe can be broken down into reducible physical processes, nothing has any meaning at all, and consciousness doesn’t really exist; it is considered an epiphenomenon: A secondary process that occurs as the result of brain activity that can’t affect physical reality. In this scenario, only physical things that happen through purely physical processes are real. Our thoughts and memories are just stored electro-chemical reactions managed by an organic supercomputer.
Life is created out of an enormous multitude of random reactions that eventually get complicated enough to create a self-perpetuating thinking machine.
Everything to do with consciousness, therefore, also doesn’t exist. A physical universe exists without meaning because physical objects have no meaning.
So why would we believe that this is correct?
The Argument for Materialism
We need only look around to be aware of this physical, material world that we live in all our lives. To say that we have to pay attention to it is a massive understatement. We have bodies that must be managed, physical lives that are lived and we interact with the physical even while we’re sleeping. There is never a moment during our lives when we’re not attached to physical reality.
The world we live in behaves in a very physical, mostly predictable way. Most of what happens in our lives can be explained by material processes, whether through biology, chemistry or physics. We use physical processes to think and our thinking is affected by changes in our brains. No brain = no thinking. Our emotions correlate somewhat to physical processes in our bodies.
Different people all see the same thing and interact with it in the same way, and this seems to prove that an objective, physical reality exists.
If reality were based on ideas, you’d think that reality would be a lot more . . . bendy and dreamlike, people would see different things based on their inner worlds and that we wouldn’t ever grow old and die. You’d think that an idea based universe would allow you to change reality just by thinking about it.
But that doesn’t seem to happen. If you want to change physical things, you almost always have to engage in some task in the physical world to make it happen. If your car is making a weird noise, you can’t just wish it away, (although we’ve all tried at some point), you’re going to have to repair it.
There are, in other words, very good reasons to think that physical reality is primary and that consciousness is secondary.
The Problem With Materialism
While this all seems very obvious, there are serious problems with this approach, and it all starts with the fact that our entire experience of our physical reality happens in our minds.
All we will ever know of our physical world, we will know because of our conscious minds. There is absolutely no way around this. We cannot “get behind” consciousness and examine it from the perspective of being outside it. For example, if we are studying a car, we can handle it, take it apart and look at the various pieces. But consciousness doesn’t work that way. There is no way to stand apart from it, take it apart and see how it works. We have to be it, to look at it.
Our minds are what translates our body’s interactions with reality into something comprehensible. You cannot experience our physical reality without it.
Patterns and Meaning Are Not Physical
Here is where things get difficult. Patterns, codes and information are ideas. They have meaning and are not measurable. They are not physical objects. We assign patterns, codes and information to our physical universe, but these are not inherent properties of a physical reality. They are created by consciousness.
And now the hammer comes down: We experience our reality as patterns, codes, meaning and information. (These are all different names for the same thing.) We cannot experience reality any other way. This makes a truly physical universe impossible to prove.
Do you see where I’m going with this? The physical reality that we know is made up of patterns, which are creations of consciousness, and therefore our physical reality, as we know it, is utterly and completely dependent on consciousness to exist.
Another way to say this is that forming patterns is an act of consciousness. Because we can only see our reality in terms of meaning and patterns, we are experiencing a reality that our consciousness has created. If you are talking about a reality that exists without consciousness, you are talking about a reality that is without meaning and is patternless. We have no means of demonstrating such a thing to be real.
We Have to Reject Materialism
And if we can’t demonstrate it to be real, it can’t be our reality. The reality THAT WE HAVE requires consciousness to perceive it. That’s what we have to work with. In the case of materialism, there is no point in pursuing an avenue of investigation where it is impossible to gather any evidence.
Here we are then: A physical world which is impossible to disentangle from the consciousness that recognizes its existence. And with this, the philosophical approach of materialism comes to a dead end.
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” - Sherlock Homes
We know that if materialism is false, then that leaves idealism. The material cannot create the immaterial and the immaterial cannot create the material. So if the universe isn’t material, then it is immaterial. The physical reality that we know must be a creation of consciousness.
Reality is Made of Ideas
This is completely counterintuitive. Our thoughts certainly do not feel as real as the physical world around us, so it’s going to take some effort to explain this. Let’s start with the obvious: our minds can function without input from our bodies, but take away the mind and there’s nothing there. The body can live for a little while, but it can’t even eat.
This leaves a very significant questions about a physical world made of thought, such as “why do we share this reality?” and “How does it hold together?” and “Why does physics work so well?” For the answer, we look to a feature of quantum physics known as entanglement and take the data to its logical conclusion based on the assumption that our physical reality is made of ideas.
The 2022 Nobel prize in physics is relevant here:
Three physicists won the Nobel Prize together for their work on entanglement. We already knew that entanglement was real; what they discovered was that no one has been able to prove the existence of hidden variables, (which would support materialism) and that reality is in an indeterminate state until it’s observed:
This is somewhat simplified, but if you split an electron, sending the two halves in different directions, you can know the spin of one by looking at the other no matter how far apart they are. If the wave function of one collapses, so does the other, apparently instantaneously. You can’t set up any situation where they act independently of one another.
Reality is Actually Timeless and Spaceless
No information can travel between them, so the only other conclusion that fits the data is that they were never separated in the first place. Although the subatomic particles move through time and space, their entanglement behaves as though time and space don’t exist. If you can demonstrate that anything at all ignores time and space, then time and space cannot be fundamental attributes of our reality, which means that our physical 3D reality isn’t fundamental. It is a kind of scaffolding over the top of a fundamental timeless, spaceless reality.
There is stuff there; reality is not an illusion; but because it is fundamentally timeless and spaceless, it’s not physical in any way that we would understand. Our connected consciousness is creating a template to translate it into a scaffolding, which is the physical reality that we understand and experience.
This doesn’t mean that we’re living in an illusion or the matrix, just that we’re dealing with a layered reality. That’s why I use the term “scaffolding.” The scaffolding is real, but the reality that we experience is not strictly physical, but probably better described as representative.
Separateness is Not Fundamental to Reality
The deeper reality, which is timeless and spaceless means that we are fundamentally not separated from each other or the rest of reality. People, and in fact all of life are not really separate. The separateness is just scaffolding. This is a concept that we need to grasp in order to understand what holds it all together. Our connectedness; oneness or whatever you want to call it, is what gives the physical world: (the scaffolding), its “stickiness.” We are not individuals, individually responsible for the creation of our own realities. We’re more like cells in a larger organism and our reality is massively shared.
This physical reality is made “real” by the connectedness of every living thing that shares in the experience. We’re not living in our own little worlds creating our own private physical realities, we’re following a ready made template.
Now, in that light, let’s look at that Nobel prize again:
Here’s a quote from Scientific American:
One of the more unsettling discoveries in the past half century is that the universe is not locally real. “Real,” meaning that objects have definite properties independent of observation—an apple can be red even when no one is looking; “local” means objects can only be influenced by their surroundings, and that any influence cannot travel faster than light. Investigations at the frontiers of quantum physics have found that these things cannot both be true. Instead, the evidence shows objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement.
In an idea based universe, this describes a quantum level process of creating a local, physical reality scaffolding over the non-local timeless, spaceless, reality of consciousness. A collective, connected consciousness is giving physical form to what is fundamentally timeless and spaceless at the quantum level.
Conscious Universe - Quantum Weirdness Explained?
This might explain the general weirdness of quantum mechanics. It may occupy the liminal space between our physical reality and the underlying timeless, spaceless reality.
Living things physically live within their physical worlds, but our minds are timeless and spaceless. It may help to visualize collective thoughts vs individual thoughts. A collective thought would be what creates the template for our shared physical reality. It is almost entirely subconscious and virtually unchangeable. If I have a spoon in my hand for example, that would be a collective thought; it is unaffected by my conscious thoughts and it reliably and very predictably interacts causally with the rest of the physical world.
Individual thoughts are how we normally use our minds. These are transitory. They don’t have physical form and change rather frequently. We can make them stronger or weaker depending on our level of focus, but it’s extremely rare for them to overcome collective thought. Our individual thoughts don’t normally affect the template. Someone could possibly bend a spoon with their mind under very specific conditions, but it’s not the norm.
Our Minds are Timeless and Spaceless
I know that for many readers, all of this probably seems quite bizarre, but let me ask this question: How do you perceive time and space in your mind? Do you feel the passage of time? What about events, do events long in the past seem long ago? Do places that you know well seem far away in your mind? Chances are, the answer is no to these questions. We tend to perceive things not on their physical or temporal distance, but rather on our familiarity. Our personal experience can be described as a continuous “now”. We can remember the past and imagine the future, but only from a position of experiencing “now.”
My point here is that our mind is experiencing the deeper timeless, spaceless reality all the time. It’s so completely normal that we don’t even think about it. We have to stop and think about how much time has passed and how far away things are. These things are not wired into our thinking.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. What I want to leave you with here is that getting away from a strictly physicalist model of reality doesn’t change much about how we live our lives or even how science is conducted. While our reality might be based in ideas, it’s still very much a robust, measurable physical reality to us and it doesn’t detract from scientific accomplishments.
Reality Is The Conscious Universe
But we need to be aware of the underpinnings of our reality. We’re not working with the details of a physical world, but rather an idea based scaffolding. Learning about the scaffolding is extremely valuable to our well being, but we need to remember that we’re dealing in information when we do that and we are creators of information. It’s not all as separate as it appears to be.