Investigation: What is the (true) nature of reality?

I have previously had a discussion with someone who was convinced that we all can attain an understanding of the true nature of reality by following the teachings of an ancient eastern guru whose name unfortunately escapes me, and that by means of a diligent practice of meditation, we would permit our consciousness to help us realize that all reality is a kind of all-encompassing oneness which is otherwise hidden from us.

I was fine with their description of the nature of reality as a kind of philosophy (in fact, their version of reality seemed eerily similar to that of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea), but then they went on to claim that this was “science”.

What I want to focus on here is not so much answering the question directly but on discussing some of the parameters that establish the boundaries between a scientific and a philosophical response to the question about the nature of reality. The reason it is important to distinguish between the two is that conflating them can cause one to accept potentially false beliefs as fact, and moreover, fall prey to charlatans who attempt to use our fascination with these kinds of questions to take advantage of us.

As a matter of philosophy, one has great freedom in positing what the nature of reality is; the laws of science pose a constraint, but in the wider metaphysical sense that I am considering, science is really not much of a constraint.

For example, one might hypothesize that our reality is actually a simulation, that we live in a “matrix”, or maybe that we live in one of a series of nested matrices, perhaps an infinite sequence of them. Or one might hypothesize that our reality is actually a dream of a higher being, a conceit that can itself be nested in an infinite sequence. We might hypothesize the true nature of reality to be that it consists of an all-pervasive substance, an ether, or a single universal quantum field. We might hypothesize that in reality, all is one, or we might hypothesize that there are different levels of “one-ness”. Any of these conceptions of the nature reality could be consistent with the laws of science as we understand them.

My point is, the only real constraint on a philosophical answer to this question is our imagination. Such answers can be debated, their merits and weaknesses pointed out and examined, but if we accept such posits as fact, we have entered the realm of dogma. In general, adhering to a dogma is not a good thing because sooner or later it will clash with some truth, and the adherent will then have to chose against truth. I believe it diminishes our character when we go against truth, not to mention that self-deception is the stepping stone to deception by others, e.g. charlatans.

Alternatively, one can attempt to answer this question as a matter of science. If one chooses this route, then it is not enough that one’s conception of the nature of reality does not contradict known science, it also has to be supported by it. The practice of science is based on a collection of methods which were developed to help prevent us from fooling ourselves. Usually, one calls this the “scientific method” and summarizes it in something like the following steps:

  • Observation

  • Making a hypothesis

  • Devising and performing an experiment (or another observation) to test the hypothesis, and

  • Making a new hypothesis

  • Back to step 3.

In truth, the methods used by scientists are much more variegated, and the steps are not always so simple or neatly separated from each other, but these are all side issues. The main point here is that science, unlike philosophy, has a method by which reality itself tells us what it is like.

The branch of science most relevant here is physics, so that is what I will focus on. It turns out that physics has quite a bit to say about the nature of reality. More on that in another article.

Now, if one wants to claim that one’s conception of the nature of reality is based in science, then that conception must satisfy certain minimum criteria that qualify it as scientific. It turns out that there is an even more basic criterion for science than the scientific method.

This criterion is especially important in discussions about the nature of reality:

There must be a non-arbitrary means of calibrating that what we (different parties to the discussion) are talking about is the same thing.

Unfortunately, the philosophy presented to me by the person mention at the beginning failed even this criterion. I asked them if someone meditates and attains a certain understanding of the true nature of reality, then teaches his meditation techniques to someone else, who upon the application of these techniques also attains what is claimed to be the same understanding of the true nature of reality, then how could we be sure that their understandings were the same?

They dismissed the importance of this, but that means they could not legitimately claim that what they proposed was science. I think part of the reason they did not seem to see its importance is that this point is not emphasized enough to non-scientists, so I will break down what universal agreement on even a simple concept entails by means of a specific example.

Our model of reality according to the theory of special relativity is that space time is, in some sense, the arena of our existence. There are many experiments which constitute part of the scientific method that support this, but I want to focus on the more basic aspect, that different physicists have a way of ascertaining that they are all talking about the same concept of reality.

This entails (at least) universal agreement on the following;

  • There is a universally accepted specific way to characterize space time, and that is by means of the space time interval.

  • The space time interval has a universally accepted mathematical definition as a pseudo metric (there are four parts to the definition).

  • It is universally accepted that the pseudo metric has dimensional units of distance.

  • There exists a universally accepted common definition of a unit of distance.

  • There exists a universally accepted common procedure of ascertaining a unit distance in a given situation.

  • There are universally accepted procedures for measuring distances as multiples of the unit distance.

My point is, just to make sure that the special relativistic space time physicist A talks about is the same as the special relativistic space time physicist B talks about, they have to agree on a number of concepts, definitions and procedures, and because this cluster of agreements is hardly ever broken down for lay people, it is often taken for granted.

Many “spiritual” claims about the true nature of reality already fail at this stage, which is only a pre-requisite to the scientific method. The scientific method can only be implemented across different people once such clusters of agreement are in place.

So, to summarize:

What is the true nature of reality? One can answer this question as a matter of philosophy or as a matter of science. In the former case, there is great freedom to posit various possibilities, so long as they do not contradict scientific findings, but this is not a strong constraint. The posits are, however, really to be taken as possibilities rather than as facts, otherwise they become dogma. In the latter case, the freedom is greatly curtailed because the hypothesis must also have support in science, but one can have greater confidence that these are more than possibilities because the scientific method helps prevent us from fooling ourselves.

While the scientific method is the means by which we let reality tell us what it is like, before it can even be implemented across multiple individuals there must be a cluster of agreements which ensure that there is a common, mutually shared understanding of the subject matter. Many proposed explanations of the true nature of reality unfortunately fail even this pre-requisite step.

A science-based hypothesis on the true nature of reality is provided in the next article. Stay Tuned.

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