In the last couple of decades it has become more and more commonplace to encounter — in science and popular culture — various expressions of the idea that the universe we inhabit is, in one way or another, not real. The idea being that it, of course, exists but not at all in the way we perceive it. That it's a masquerade.
You likely know the ones I mean: The film The Matrix and its sequels or the scientific postulation that human experience of the universe is a simulation. There's also the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics which theorizes that we experience only one world out of many possible ones. In that scenario our world would be real but would provide only a very limited view of what actually exists, so the general idea of illusion still applies.
And this basic premise of unreality, that the world is a fiction, is very old indeed. You may be familiar with the concept of maya from the Vedic philosophy of India, which is usually translated as magic or illusion. Although maya has multiple meanings, the Encyclopedia Britannica notes it "originally denoted the magic power with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion."
But perhaps the best known expression, in the West anyway, would be the Allegory of the Cave from Plato's The Republic. In it he describes a world where prisoners are chained in a cave. They face a wall and can only see the shadows of various people and objects behind them projected from a firelight — also behind them — onto the wall. These shadows they take for reality, completely unaware of any greater one.
But is this general idea of physical reality as illusion useful to us in any practical way? After all, simply pointing out that we're in a matrix or artificial reality doesn't do much good on its own. Is there any way this discovery could help us to either A) wake up out of the illusion or B) learn to operate more skillfully within it?
Happily it looks like help might be on the way. Recent work in physics is giving us fresh eyes capable of seeing the puppet strings or the nuts and bolts with which our subjective realities are created. Interestingly, this research centers on the nature of time.
In his book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank reports on the work of physicist Julian Barbour who takes the radical stance that there is no such thing as time. Franks relates that, as Barbour sees it, "It is change that provides the illusion of time." Specifically, "Barbour sees each individual moment as a whole, complete and existing in its own right." He calls these moments Nows.Frank continues:
"Nows can be imagined as pages of a novel ripped from the book's spine and tossed randomly onto the floor. Each page is a separate entity existing...outside of time. Arranging the pages in some special order and moving through them in a step-by-step fashion makes a story unfold. Still, no matter how we arrange the sheets, each page is complete and independent. In our reality, Barbour says, 'The cat that jumps is not the same cat that lands.'"
Frank explains that Barbour's nows, "all exist at once in a vast Platonic realm that stands completely and absolutely without time." Barbour calls this realm Platonia. With this terminology, Barbour is invoking Plato's theory of forms which proposes that the objects of the physical world are replicas of forms — perfect templates, you might say — for those objects. These forms exist in another world which is transcendent to time and space.
Frank goes on to detail how, given the nature of the nows, we can still experience a linear flow of time:
"Some Nows are linked to others in Platonia's landscape even though they all exist simultaneously. Those links give the appearance of records lining up in sequence from past to future."
Barbour's theory has surprising implications for the essential questions of physics. For instance, Frank states, "The question of 'before' the Big Bang never arises for Barbour because his cosmology has no time. All that exists is a landscape of configurations, the landscape of Nows." I'll come back to that point later.
If the physical world is illusory, Barbour's work gives a picture of the real world that might underlie it. But our human experience is still one where time and space prevail. We walk from place to place and witness the passing of seconds, minutes and hours. Barbour says the nows can be "linked" to produce the flow of time. But what does that mean? Do we have any insight into the mechanism that allows the simultaneous nows to be ordered into the space-time world we know?
Again, contemporary research in physics is providing just that. In her story "Physicists Investigate the Structure of Time, with Implications for Quantum Mechanics and Philosophy" on science news site phys.org, Lisa Zyga quotes physicist Mir Faizal:
"The physical universe is really like a movie/motion picture, in which a series of still images shown on a screen creates the illusion of moving images."
And she cites Faizal (of Canada's University of Waterloo and University of Lethbridge) again with this:
"Thus, if this view is taken seriously, then our conscious precipitation of physical reality based on continuous motion becomes an illusion produced by a discrete underlying mathematical structure."
The phys.org story reports that Faizal's work — along with that of Mohammed M. Khalil at Alexandria University in Egypt and Saurya Das at the University of Lethbridge — advances,
"that the structure of time can be thought of as a crystal structure, consisting of discrete, regularly repeating segments."
In other words, the mechanism by which we experience time is like the frames in a film reel — which of course actually all exist simultaneously — being projected one after another in the desired order onto a screen at a certain rate. (Motion pictures traditionally use twenty-four frames per second.) That is, the nows of our experienced reality occur at regular intervals or time slots. It's sort of like the flow of boxcars on a passing train or the frequency at which a piece of music is digitally sampled.
And what is this rate? Zyga points out:
"...the smallest physically meaningful interval of time is widely considered to be the Planck time, which is approximately 10-43 seconds. This ultimate limit means that it is not possible for two events to be separated by a time smaller than this."
Although she goes on to say that Faizal, Khalil and Das' recent paper "Time Crystals from Minimum Time Uncertainty", published in The European Physical Journal C, has "proposed that the shortest physically meaningful length of time may actually be several orders of magnitude longer than the Planck time."
But regardless, the implications of the research cited above are remarkable. Taken together the work of Barbour, Faizal, Khalil and Das provide a framework whereby an ultimately trans-physical reality can be understood to manifest in the physical world. To say this is noteworthy is an understatement. But it may have tremendously significant practical applications as well.
Let's jump back to the idea above that the origin of the Big Bang universal creation phenomenon never comes into play in Julian Barbour's theory of nows. It couldn't, because the Big Bang exists side-by-side simultaneously with whatever moment we might conceive as having preceded it — in science's conventional linear way of thinking, that is. It isn't that useful work in physics, examining the precursors of the Big Bang, couldn't continue to be done. But it would be understood to operate within an illusory world derived from the Platonic world of nows. In short, the notion of trying to find an ultimate origin of the universe from within the physical universe would be abandoned. What preceded the Big Bang (from our sequential point of view) didn't cause it. Whatever it is, is simply another frame in the reel of film — existing simultaneously with the frame that contains the Big Bang.
And there are other large-scale implications as well. Consider the enduring mystery of the genesis of life on our planet. Scientific work in this area focuses on hypotheses like the gradual evolution of certain chemicals along with energy provided by the sun or lightening strikes, resulting in the first organic life. But nothing definitively causal has been discovered.
But from the perspective of the physics we've looked at above, biology really shouldn't expect to find the first instance of a living organism as having been brought about by any combination of causes (chemicals, sunlight, etc). Rather the first organism exists outside of time as its own frame on the film reel. From this understanding biologists would no longer pursue the origin of life from within the physical realm. They would instead comprehend it as a discreet now, a particular frame on the reel, containing the characteristics we call organic life. From our perspective — as we order the frames to make our experience of time — it would simply be the first of many frames with those characteristics. Life has come into being and on it goes.
Although this does beg the question, what is it that controls the ordering of nows such that the universe has the consistency that we experience? After all, life in any form comes into existence and tends to stick around, at least for a while. But hold that thought a moment....
The theory of evolution is another area that could benefit from the research presented. Though much work has been done in paleontology and evolutionary biology, there is still no conclusive evidence that one species becomes another — even though that is the prevailing scientific view. Here again, in light of the discoveries in physics we've looked at, science would not expect to see that parent-child relationship between species. Instead they would understand the appearance of any species as the first now which includes that species. It's the initial frame of the movie where a new character has joined the plot. The newcomer may resemble other characters but is not causally derived from them.
But we're once more talking about a first frame, one that will be "followed" (as we experience linear time) by many others comprising the lifespan of that new species. So we're back to the question from above: what is it that causes the arrangement of the frames in the film? How is it that we experience this new species as having a continuous existence? To use Julian Barbour's language, what orders the nows?
One exciting possibility comes from the work of Dr. Robert Lanza, specifically his theory of biocentrism. Lanza doesn't mince words, he directly espouses that consciousness brings the universe into being, rather than consciousness being something that arises from it. He suggests that physics and chemistry would profit from placing biology — specifically, consciousness, which is a property of living beings — at the center of their scientific considerations.
I think our inquiry here would benefit as well. Could consciousness be the agent that arranges the movie frames into the story of human experience? Is it the author that orders the nows so that we can perceive the flow of time, the origin (and continuance) of the universe, the genesis and progress of life and the distinct appearance and ongoing lifespan of the various living species?
Lanza thinks so. In a lecture at the 2010 Science and Non-Duality Conference, he stated,
"Amazingly, if you add life and consciousness to the equation, you can explain some of the biggest puzzles in science. For instance, it it becomes clear why space and time, indeed the properties of matter themselves, depend on the observer."
But he goes further:
"The universe and all of its parameters simply reflect the spacial-temporal [space-time] logic of the animal observer."
In other words, the logic of our consciousness creates the experience of the objects (space) and events (time) of our lives. These are the nows Barbour describes. And they do not exist independently of us "out there" somewhere. Lanza says, "Reality is a process which involves your consciousness."
Lanza elaborates by pointing out, as many people know, that we don't literally see out of our eye sockets. What we call sight occurs when electromagnetic energy is absorbed by the eyes, processed by the brain and then displayed in the three-dimensional space we call our visual field. This is part of the mechanism consciousness uses to arrange the movie frames of reality for our experience. In fact, Lanza uses the film reel and frame metaphor to explain these ideas as well.
Now the idea that things and occurrences don't exist objectively outside of us prompts one to wonder how it is that individual people can have a common human experience of the world at all. In other words, how do we share the nows? Personally, the idea that I find most persuasive is that some experiences are local to a single person's awareness whereas certain experiential commonalities — the familiar effect of gravity, for instance, or agreement as to the recognition of basic geometric shapes or colors, or the parts of the human body — are due to a shared human perspective of consciousness. That is, certain nows are perceived by a collective awareness and others are experienced by us individually. As human consciousness participates in both collective and individual spheres, we engage in two types of focus: one which creates things in common and one which brings individual experiences into being.
Again in his lecture, Lanza references the famous double-slit experiment of physics. I mentions it here because, within the viewpoint of biocentrism, anyway, it may provide some specificity on the method consciousness uses to order the film frames we've been considering:
"If you watch a sub-atomic particle or a bit of light pass through two slits in a barrier it will behave like a particle. ...If you don't observe its trajectory, the particle then exhibits the behavior of a wave and can go through more than one hole at the same time."
From this point of view, the act of observation in the experiment is an exercise of agency. It is a choice of focus. In the same way, this focus of consciousness operates as the ordering entity by which the frames of our own personal movie of life experiences are arranged into a comprehensible story. And why wouldn't it be comprehensible? It's our story; we wrote it.
One final point: I asked, earlier, if the ability to understand the relationship between the deeper reality of existence (the nows) and our illusory space-time experience had any practical value. Would it help us to either A) wake up from the illusion or B) play the illusory game in a more satisfactory way?
As to A), I think the ideas above can provide a different model, a different lens through which we regard our personal lives. Some regular practice of quiet, of stillness, coupled with consideration of the ideas explored above can begin to loosen our habitual patterns of relating to the physical world in the traditional way. A simple meditation practice, for instance, in which we remind ourselves that our sense perceptions and our thoughts are simply quickly-passing frames of the mind's movie reel can provide a sense of freedom or release from the stressful life experiences we frequently have when we regard the movie as fundamentally real. This can allow us an experience of self, of our own consciousness, in which we're a sort of witness to the parade of film frames rather than a movie character constrained by them.
And as to B), let's look at the idea of agency — of human choice. If consciousness is ordering the movie, it's choosing to construct a story in a particular way. As mentioned above, per the double slit investigations, the focus of attention brings certain possibilities into being and leaves others dormant. In my experience, this principle of choice is creatively operative in our personal lives as well. Viewed in this way, our focus of awareness — at any given time — can be viewed with newfound respect. We may see it not just as a field of mind containing various objects, but as a chosen focus we, in a very real sense, are endorsing and calling into existence. In other words, directed attention is a creative force in our personal lives.
Various works of philosophy and metaphysics, both ancient and modern, advance this idea. The Christian gospels say "Ask and it will be given to you." While this notion is typically thought to mean that a deity will respond to our prayers, I think it holds a deeper meaning. Specifically, to "ask" is to focus conscious awareness upon something, to select a now to be "given" — that is, to take physical form. Certain modern teachings posit a principle or law of attraction where the directed focus of attention operates to bring a now, or a desired frame of the movie, into being. The idea is the same. Will it bring you millions or a movie star to marry? I make no such predictions. But isn't the general idea as a force for positive agency in our lives worthy of our consideration? I suggest we take it seriously.
Or — Hey, Hey We're Maybe Not the Monkees