Have you ever pondered over the concept of reality? It seems most of us intuitively have an idea about what reality is but never really thought about it deeply. And why should we? For me discovering what reality is has been somewhat of a higher goal in life. I started valuing research into cosmology and the nature of reality higher than the personal things in life. In 2011 I was particularly obsessive with quantum mechanics and the nature of reality and I eventually lost myself in my quest. I haven't quite been the same since, and I suppose for this reason I want to share some of my findings and my theories about reality.
A description of reality
According to the English dictionary reality is the state or quality of being real. So essentially everything we know to be real is part of reality. In that sense there is not such a great distinction between the universe and reality. The universe denotes everything there is which hypothetically would include the nonexistent as well, but in practice the nonexistent… well, simply doesn't exist (i.e. it doesn't adhere to reality). I call these "flavor words" because they essentially refer to the same but both words have very different associations. So let me make a distinction between these two words which may not be justified but which will make this article a tiny bit less vague. When I think of the universe, I think of everything there is on a cosmological scale. When I think of reality, I think of the fundamental structure of the universe and space, which would be closer to the self and relate more to your (subjective) perception of existence… and quantum mechanics.
Now that we have established a subtly less vague description of what reality is (or rather, the aspect of reality I want to talk about), let's first consider our place in reality. Most of the stars you see in the sky (including our Sun) are main-sequence stars. These stars are in the main phase of their life cycle, in which they undergo nuclear fusion to create heavier elements. These stars will primarily fuse hydrogen atoms together in a few stages into helium and stars above 1.3 times the mass of the Sun will use carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms to fuse hydrogen into helium. The more massive star will continue fusing atoms into heavier elements until finally a core of iron and nickel is produced. The fusion of these elements produce no net energy and so the nuclear fusion in the core will stagnate. When the mass of the inert core exceeds the Chandrasekhar limit of about 1.4 solar masses, electron degeneracy alone is no longer sufficient to counter gravity. As a result the star implodes while neutron degeneracy will halt the collapse of the core, causing the implosion to bounce outwards. As this happens, the expanding shock wave will take the material from the outer layers and blast it into space while the core briefly fuses iron into even heavier elements. This massive explosion is called a supernova.
Abundance of chemical elements
So what does the cycle of life and death of stars have to do with us? Well, when a supernova occurs, all the elements fused in the core of the star will be blasted far into space and this material will form new stars and planets, and indeed life. We have the atoms we consist of, our planet and our Sun thanks to a supernova explosion of a massive star from the generation of stars before our Sun. The content of the universe consists of about 72% dark energy, 24% dark matter and 4.6% normal matter. From this 4.6% of matter, roughly 74% is hydrogen, 24% is helium, 1% is oxygen, and 0.5% is carbon. I could name the other elements and the percentages but that's not relevant to this article. If you're interested about the percentages though, click here. So hydrogen, helium, oxygen and carbon are the most abundant elements in the universe. The interesting part is that the ratios of these elements correspond to the ratios of the elements we are made of, with the exception of helium as this element serves no purpose to our body—unless you want to talk at a high frequency.
If you haven't drawn any conclusions or dropped your jaw by now, let me do it for you. I'm sure you've heard of the phrase "we are made of star dust." It's obviously simplified but as I explained so far, it's literally true. We are made of the same stuff as the universe and in the same ratios. We have a fundamental connection with the universe. The majestic words of Carl Sagan come to mind here:
"And we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos we've begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars organized collections of 10 billion-billion-billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps, throughout the cosmos."
This finally brings me to what I really wanted to talk about, which is the nature of reality. It seems most people think of being inside reality. I've learned that reality is relative and subjective. We don't only reside inside reality, but reality is part of us. Reality is the state of being real and we certainly are real (well, I am, anyway) but when I say that reality is part of us I'm referring to the fundamental connection we have with the universe. Essentially reality has a connection with your consciousness and so your perception of reality is distinct from someone else's. Not completely different, but you do have an influence on reality.
The double-slit experiment
To explain just how relative and subjective reality is, we must dive into the world of quantum mechanics. This microscopic world is absolutely bizarre and often defies logic and intuition. Let's talk about the double-slit experiment in particular, which was initially performed by Thomas Young in the early 1800s. Actually, rather than clumsily paint an image of the experiment with words, let me refer you to a video on youTube called "The Observer in Physics Double Slit Experiment and Example in Nature." It's a wacky video but it explains the experiment well. For a more elaborate explanation watch "Explained! The Double Slit Experiment." In the latter video two quotes are presented which I want to state here because they're applicable in regard to the fundamental connection with our consciousness I talked about earlier.
"It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality." —Eugene Wigner
"Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve." —Max Planck
A determined future
So in the first video the particle/wave duality is explained and a conclusion is drawn that the very act of observing changes reality. This particularly frustrated Einstein. He couldn't accept quantum mechanics; he famously said "I like to think the moon is there, even if I am not looking at it". Erwin Schrödinger later devised the "Schrödinger's cat" thought experiment in 1935 which illustrated the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (which holds that quantum mechanics doesn't yield a description of an objective reality but deals only with probabilities, and that all these probabilities are equally true as part of a superposition, until it's observed in which case waveform collapse occurs and the particles assume their final position) applied to everyday objects, resulting in a contradiction with common sense.
What the video doesn't show however is that the experiment was later repeated (I believe Clauss Jönsson's experiment from 1961 but I'm not completely sure) but this time the detectors were placed behind the slits rather than in front of the slits, so now it could be observed which slit the photon or electron already went through before it arrives either as a particle or as a wave on the screen. What's really fascinating is that placing the detector behind the slits made absolutely no difference; the photon or electron will still arrive as a particle when observed and as a wave when not observed. What does this mean? It means that the particle already knows whether you're going to observe it before you do. It actually gets information from the future and uses that in the present. The inescapable conclusion is that at least on the scale of the quantum mechanical world the future is as relevant to the present as the past is to the present. There is a deep connection through time, which begs the question to which extent determinism is true. Is it just causal determinism which is based on cause-and-effect or is it a broader form of determinism like logical determinism, beyond causal determinism?
No such thing as coincidence
I often find myself saying something is coincidental, but I actually don't believe in coincidence. What word should I be using for two caused effects which come together under unlikely circumstances but which are actually predetermined? It's a contradiction, so for lack of a better word I will continue to use the word ‘coincidence'. But really, I believed in coincidence most of my life. I think it all changed in 2011 when I was mentally unstable and very obsessive about quantum mechanics and the nature of reality. In this period I saw patterns in phenomena I would otherwise have considered coincidences. I mean, I won't deny that this is possibly just apophenia, but from my experience these coincidences happen way too frequently and they're way too "perfect". I draw a clear distinction between two events coming together by chance and two events coming together because they fit so perfectly. But let's not rush to conclusions; I do believe in free will. I would consider myself to be a compatibilist, meaning I believe determinism and free will don't necessarily contradict each other. I am free to act according to my motives, but my motives are determined. I suppose in this context you could speak of restricted free will, but to me it’s free will all the same.
I believe the fundamental structure of reality is based on probabilities (chance) which sparks certain events. Many of these events may lead to nothing of relevance, but based on my experience I would argue (well, perhaps rather speculate) that these events are often guided. Essentially these events come together in the subjective consciousness. The reason I think this is because I often experience two events coming together in such a perfect way, which then sparks an other event and you get this sort of chain reaction of "perfect moments" and with each sequence the chance of each of these events coming together so perfectly becomes increasingly improbable. So, it's not a matter of simple coincidence, but a coincidence which sparks more coincidences in relatively rapid succession. I think these kind of things will become prominent when you really focus on it. However, I'm convinced that obsessions necessarily produce certain delusions because you think you know a lot about the subject, but the more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. When you don't properly acknowledge this or don't frequently compare your findings with verified data you will devise seemingly logical solutions which have no relevance in reality. So I must confess, my theory about guiding events is highly speculative and apart from some associations with quantum mechanical principles, I don't feel justified in saying guiding events are likely. What I still believe in though, is that there is a clear distinction between coincidence and chance. As an observer I can consider a certain event to be coincidental, probable or determined, but how can I conclude which one it is without knowing the probabilities of two events occurring, and the probability of the two coming together in a way the observer perceives to be meaningful? I don't think it's possible. I also have to wonder if these events are meaningful only on a subjective level, or objectively as well. But then, what does the universe care if I miss my train?
Another aspect of reality to consider is the afterlife. No, I'm not referring to heaven or hell, or a world in a higher dimension you wake up to after your death or anything alike. When a part of your brain is damaged, that which makes you ‘you' is affected. So it's more than improbable that there is a life after death you get to with your personality and memories intact—it's downright illogical. Still, the concept of an afterlife doesn't seem completely lost. I have to wonder, where did consciousness come from in the first place? Let's assume your consciousness comes from what I would call "the abstract", which is basically pre-life. Is it then not logical to say that this consciousness must return to the abstract (post-death)? It seems a sort of borrowed energy. Also consider again our fundamental connection with the universe. To me it begs the question if there is a property of space which can spark consciousness. Life had to come from somewhere, and the universe itself seemingly came from nothing as well. Does consciousness come from nothing? It sounds illogical, but then to validate this requires knowledge external to our universe; knowledge which can never be reached.
To conclude this article I do want to briefly get back to the universe, as this is reality on a cosmological scale. A few years ago an interesting thought occurred to me. Imagine you keep zooming out of the universe until it's but a single dot. You don't just zoom out from one direction, but from all directions. Perhaps for the sake of visualization rather imagine shrinking the universe. Keep shrinking it until the distances between galaxies equate to the distances inside an atom, or possibly smaller. This single dot could then be the spark of the Big Bang of the next universe and you get this infinite cycle; a fractal universe. It's nice to have a thought like this. What's unfortunate about a thought like this is that it has no physical implications; it's entirely an imagined concept which couldn't be possible. It would create a nice animation but nothing more.
But recently I had another thought. I was thinking, no matter if you look at the micro or macro level, you will always find spheres and orbits. On the micro level you have electrons orbiting an atom in quantum leaps. On a cosmological scale moons, planets, stars and galaxies adhere to the law of gravitation and maintain orbits according to this law of gravitation. But consider that in the early 20th century our entire known universe consisted only of our Milky Way galaxy. In 1922–1923 Edwin Hubble found nebulae which seemed far too distant to be part of our galaxy. He later realized that these nebulae were in fact entire galaxies consisting of 100 billion stars, and there are over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe (in 1999 the Hubble Space Telescope estimated 125 billion galaxies, and those are only the galaxies visible in optical light). In such a vast and seemingly endless universe, why is it strange to think bigger than that? Who's to say the universe is not part of a bigger structure?
I'm sure you've heard of the multiverse theory, which is an idea derived from quantum mechanics. For those who don't know, the multiverse theory posits that the universe could be one of many universes. One of the reasons why this theory is relevant is to solve the improbability issue of the universe and to give a reason for the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants which makes the universe suitable for stars and planets to form and for life to emerge. A theist would obviously assert that God made the universe, but there is no evidence to suggest this is true. The scientist would probably invoke the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is the philosophical consideration that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. This either means that the universe and life emerged out of necessity or inevitability, or that the universe we live in just happens to be one habitable universe of many or possibly an infinite universes. When thinking about a multiverse I imagine a gigantic structure of "metaspace" in which new universes "bubble" into existence. Many of these universes are not suitable for life; some of them are. Ervin László's Akashic Field Theory posits that the quantum vacuum is the fundamental energy and information-carrying field (and recent research shows the quantum vacuum may actually be dark energy, as the amount of dark energy grows proportionally to the expansion of space) that informs not just the current universe, but all universes past and present. This would explain the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. However you want to envision this multiverse or metaverse, when I extrapolate from what we know to exist, it really doesn't seem that far-fetched to me that there is a bigger construction than the universe and even the multiverse, and perhaps this goes on endlessly as either an open or a closed fractal.