Is the Universe "Real?"
According to science, not exactly.
Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).
At some point or another, everyone has wondered if we see objective things the same way. “Who knows?” we may think, “if what is turquoise for you is red for me.” Everyone remembers the maddening debate over “The Dress” that dominated our national discourse for a few minutes in 2015.
Is a color even “real” to begin with? After all, the photons that bounce off objects and land on our rods and cones are themselves colorless and, in any event, are processed in the pitch-blackness of the back of our occipital lobes. What science is now showing is that not only is color not objectively real, but the Universe itself is not “locally real,”—meaning it may not exist in any specific and concrete way before it is measured.
This is how it was put in a recent article in Scientific American:
One of the more unsettling discoveries in the past half a century is that the universe is not locally real. In this context, “real” means that objects have definite properties independent of observation—an apple can be red even when no one is looking. “Local” means that objects can be influenced only 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 that objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings, and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement.
This is all very counterintuitive, to say the least. Our experience of reality is nothing but an abundance of solidity, chock full of form, structure, and objective qualities (like brittle, slippery, scalding or mauve). Nonetheless, the deeper we delve into the quantum world, the less these descriptors seem to hold. When we get deep enough, the quarks (which are said to have first appeared 10-12 (0.000000000001) seconds after the Big Bang) seem to pop in and out of existence. Are they actually doing that, or is it the result of our limited perception?
Shining a spiritual light on this idea would, I think, reveal a decent level of parallelism with these findings. In many traditions, “reality” is an ultimate (and ultimately unknowable) living and conscious Oneness. We have a hard time describing this Oneness, so we use terms like Ultimate Consciousness, Endless Light, Creator, God, The Infinite, or the Prime Cause. This Ultimate Being is, so to speak, the soul of all worlds and the source of all energy and motion. It is only as a result of the will of this Ultimate Consciousness that anything came to, or continues to, exist.
According to a spiritual perspective, when we look at anything (books, comets, Brillo Pads, etc), we are actually staring directly at Infinity. Were it not for our massively limited abilities to perceive, which itself is due to our emotionally, ethically, physically, and spiritually compromised states of being, we would experience the One in full force, and our fundamental connection to it would be obvious.
All of the seemingly concrete qualities that we experience on a day-to-day basis would be (figuratively) vaporized in the brilliance of this Infinite Light. If all things are derivations of the Oneness, then it follows logically that what we perceive as multiplicity is only a function of a dearth of awareness—a distorted perception.
Classically, this is how transcendence/enlightenment/prophecy was achieved. By studiously refining the negative qualities we possess in order to “open our third eye,” as the Hindus put it. The ego (the mistaken conception of our independence) is the enemy of enlightenment in all spiritual traditions. To see the One in all things requires that we relinquish what may be most precious to us—our sense of a fully independent self.
Science is playing its part by giving us permission to believe what the mystics always have—that the physical Universe is not the ultimate reality but rather a pale reflection of it—like the shadows on the walls of Socrates’ Cave. Perhaps our vision of the vanishing quarks is what we see when we try to peek behind the curtain and discover that there is nothing (yet everything) there.