new age spirituality

This article may be freely downloaded and reproduced in electronic and/or print format. Where reproduced it must be reproduced in its entirety and include an acknowledgement and a link to

The Nature of Reality

one man's view

Let me start by saying that not only is the true nature of reality unknown but it is also unknowable, hence the second part of the title. What follows are some ideas on the subject intended more to stimulate thought than to provide absolute truths. When Rene Descartes (1596-1650) declared "I think, therefore I am", he stated the limit of our knowledge. All that we think we know is dependent on the reliability of our mind, and that can easily deceive us; how often have you woken remembering a dream and thought how real it seemed at the time! We're therefore faced with two alternatives, we can either give up all attempts to understand the universe and our place within it, or we can attempt to build a philosophy based on what's most likely to be correct. Throughout the ages, countless scientists, philosophers, priests and others have chosen the latter path.

During the seventeenth century Isaac Newton (1642-1727) developed his laws of mechanics which were to overshadow scientific and philosophical thinking for over two hundred years. Newton saw the universe as a large machine working deterministically i.e. with cause preceding effect. The universe consisted of an enormous number of elementary particles interacting with each other by means of collisions and unseen forces such as gravity. The whole thing could be compared to billiard balls in motion, given accurate enough information about their condition at any one time it would be theoretically possible to predict precisely where they would be at any point in the future. This was an extremely depressing view, for not only did it deny man's capacity for choice (i.e. freedom of the will) it also did away with the need for God, apart perhaps from setting the whole thing in motion.

So, is the universe nothing but a load of balls? No, not according to the twentieth century ideas of relativity and quantum physics. According to these rather complex theories the underlying nature of reality is very different to that which we perceive through our senses. For example space and time are not the separate entities we may imagine, but are inextricably linked in a four-dimensional space-time continuum. The universe is composed of particles that can sometimes behave like waves, or waves that sometimes act like particles, depending on how we observe it. The idea of completely predicting the future from a perfect knowledge of the present is no longer even theoretically possible, since it is impossible to determine both the position and the velocity of an object simultaneously; the more accurately we know the position, the less accurately we can know the velocity, and vice versa. More than this, however, the elementary building blocks of the universe seem to have an inherent unpredictability (or randomness?). The predictability we observe in our world is the statistical sum of the chaotic behaviour of billions of contributing parts.

Where does man fit into these theories? According to the Newtonian view, life is no more than an accidental side effect of a mechanistic universe, it developed from a certain combination of the elements coming together and exhibiting certain properties, just as how a poker player will eventually get dealt a perfect hand out of the millions of possible alternatives. Consciousness and free will are mere illusions and our slightest actions are completely defined by the deterministic behaviour of the elementary particles that form our brains. We would be no more than (sophisticated) robots. The ideas of this century give a slightly more optimistic outlook. While they don't confirm the existence of a distinct soul, they do provide a framework in which such an entity could operate. Instead of being completely random, the behaviour of elementary particles could be influenced by something outside the realm of physical time-space, that something could be our spirits or the will of God. The effects would still appear random, because our measurements can only take place in the four dimensions our bodies inhabit.

There is a third view, known as idealism, which considers the universe to be the creation of the mind, i.e. an illusion. According to this view nothing exists outside the mind of its creator. Whilst we can't eliminate this possibility, I would consider it unlikely due to the complexity and consistency of the reality that I appear to experience. In addition, if I created my universe, why would it contain unpleasantness?

Throughout history man has felt the need to search for a meaning or purpose to his existence through science, religion or mysticism. The materialist argument is that this search is a desperate attempt by man to avoid facing the reality of his insignificance and mortality, however if man were a mere automaton he would neither be aware of such things, nor able to care about them. Who amongst us can deny that we appear to possess the gift of free-will? If this is the case then we have something (the mind) acting as a cause without itself being caused. While not invalidating the collective works of science, this would certainly restrict their application to the physical realm; or to put it another way, would imply the existence of some reality beyond that of matter and energy. This is the classic philosophical position of Dualism and was the theme of the 1875 book "The Unseen Universe or Physical Speculations on a Future State" by Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait. This work attempted to reconcile the seeming incompatibility between the materialistic science of the day and the ideas of religion and spirituality.

A few, more open-minded, contemporary scientists are prepared to admit the possibility of there being a reality beyond that which is accessible to their methods and instruments - eg:

  • E & E Vasilescu claim to have found a link between telepathy and a particular radio wave (UK Society for Psychical Research journal Oct 1996). The duo claim to have produced remarkably high results (88% using zener cards) when using a radio wave amplifier set to 46.20m. Results did not diminish with distance, nor with shielding.

  • The BBC carried a report, "Life after death?", in June 2002 in which scientists Ronald Pearson and Michael Roll claim to have found "firm proof that life after death really does exist". Pearson's work reintroduces the concept of the 'ether' and contradicts parts of Einstein's theory of relativity. Roll said "We are putting forward the secular case that we all possess a soul and are immediately reunited with our loved ones who have gone before us".

  • The UK Daily Mail carried a report, "The Afterlife Experiment", on Dec 20 2003 which describes how a team of researchers led by Dr Sam Parnia at London's Hammersmith Hospital are conducting a scientific investigation into near death experiences. The team are hoping to address the question of whether there is life after death.

Given the impossibility of absolute certainty about the universe, which theory is most likely to be correct? Obviously this must be a matter of personal opinion, but I believe the evidence overwhelmingly supports a dualistic universe, i.e. one that consists of more than physical matter and energy. Indeed the very process of being able to consider the question and form an opinion confirms this view, which we all appear to assume anyway. In any case the dualistic approach is potentially the least damaging in the case of error. If the universe turns out to be purely materialistic our destiny would be fixed regardless; however the logical conclusion of assuming an unalterable fate would be to cease making an effort, if wrong we would have lost unlimited opportunity.

new age spirituality © abracad