What is reality really?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

We all know that a word refers to and signifies many things. The multiplicity of things associated with a word is the source of rich expressions for poets and writers. But it can also be the source of confusion and uncertainty for the rest of us, especially when the word in question refers not to a concrete entity but to an abstract entity. Such is the case with the word “reality”. While we know what the word “reality” means—“the true situation that exists”, as the Merriam-Webster defines it—we tend to become lost when it comes to knowing what reality is.

The gap between our knowledge of what a word means and that of what it signifies is perhaps the reason why the word “reality” is employed with many adjectives attached to it. Consider, for example, the adjective “objective”. If “the true situation that exists” is indeed true, the use of the adjective “objective” may seem redundant. However, by attaching the adjective “objective”, we are admitting that there can be disagreements among people as to what that true situation is. What about the adjective “virtual” attached to “reality”, which is widely used today to refer to all kinds of images artificially created by computers? Is the reason why the word “virtual reality” has such wide coinage today the reflection of our lack of knowledge about what “real reality” is? Indeed, what is reality really?

Since the emergence of modern science, we have increasingly entrusted to scientists the job of discovering what reality is, depending on their discoveries as the source of our knowledge of the world around us. But how confident are scientists about their discoveries of what reality is? Are they discovering “the true situation that exists” that can be characterized as “objective” or “absolute”? Here is Paul Davies, a British physicist and a writer of many popular books on physics, talking about the reality exposed by modern physics: “I believe that the reality exposed by modern physics is fundamentally alien to the human mind, and defies all power of direct visualization.”1

Davies is talking about here the alien nature of reality in reference to such cosmological phenomena as “curved space” and “singularity”. But the alien nature of reality also applies to subatomic phenomena investigated by quantum physicists where adjectives such as “hidden” and “veiled” have been used to describe the reality exposed. With the use of these adjectives, physicists are suggesting that “the true situation that exists” at the subatomic level is not readily available to our normal perceptive faculties. But more than that, they are suggesting that “the true situation that exists” may not actually exist until we engage in the act of observation. This is how Heisenberg (1901-1976), one of the pioneering quantum physicists, talks about the paradoxical aspect of what reality is at the subatomic level: “In the experiments about atomic events we have to do with things and facts, with phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life. But the atoms or the elementary particles themselves are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”2

The quantum mechanical view of “the true situation that exists” as forming the world of potentialities or possibilities until observation is made is in conformity with the Buddhist view of reality, where distinction is made between “conventional” and “ultimate” reality. In the conventional realm, reality is a series of momentary events and phenomena we observe in the world around us. However, none of these events and phenomena is “the true situation that exists”. In order to get to “the true situation that exists”, we need to go beyond the appearances, as the Dalai Lama explains: “You may not be content with the mere appearances, with the conventional status of a phenomenon. What about its actual nature? What is it really? When you start probing beyond the appearances, trying to understand the real nature of the existence of the imputed or the designated entity, this is called ultimate analysis, seeking the nature of ultimate reality. When you start seeking that, you don’t find anything at all. In fact, you find that there is nothing to be found. The very ‘not finding’ of a phenomenon, when you seek it through ultimate analysis, is what is meant by emptiness.”3 Thus, “the true situation that exists”, or reality in the ultimate realm, in the Buddhist view, is “emptiness”, or “non-existence”. This means that every event or phenomenon exists only as a potentiality until causes and conditions are right to make its appearance in the world around us.

The Buddhist view of seeing everything—every event and every phenomenon taking place in the world around us—as existing as a potentiality in the ultimate realm until it is observed in the conventional realm is shared by Taoists in the tradition of Eastern thought. For Lao Tsu, the ultimate realm, which is the world of potentialities, is the Tao: “The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled. Oh, the unfathomable source of ten thousand things!”4 The Tao, which is “the true situation that exists”, is empty as in the Buddhist view and is, therefore, beyond the realm of discursive knowledge, for “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Discursive knowledge comes about as a result of our conscious act of making observation, meaning that our consciousness is intimately involved in the act of knowing what reality is. With the exception of “materialists” who assert the existence of the material world independent of our act of observation, most scientists today acknowledge that consciousness is involved in the acquisition of knowledge of the world around us. This is so even in the case of classical science, for the scientist in studying a natural phenomenon must make a conscious decision as to what phenomenon is to be observed, what instrument is to be used for observing it, and what language is to be used in describing it. To the extent that a conscious decision is involved, the act of knowing is an act involving both matter and mind. Conscious participation on the part of the scientist becomes of crucial importance in quantum mechanics as the physicist must make a choice as to which aspect of reality he/she is trying to find out, in view of Heisenberg’s uncertain principle.

If the world we inhabit is ruled by uncertainty, obtaining knowledge, in the most general sense, becomes obtaining the sense of congeniality with reality, which results from finding a meaningful pattern of connections among events and phenomena. And in this most general sense, knowledge is about consciousness, not in the sense of a “substance” but rather in the sense of a “principle”, which triggers that sense of congeniality.

It is because consciousness is not a substance but a principle that it is possible for us to gain insight into what is in the ultimate realm of potentialities. To put it another way, potentialities that exist in the ultimate world are “materialized” as realities in the conventional world mediated by consciousness. Thus, quantum particles “collapse” when the physicist makes a conscious choice as to which aspect of quantum reality he/she wants to observe.

The idea of identifying consciousness as a mediating principle in the unfolding of events and phenomena in the world around us is not a novel one. In the Samkhya school of Hinduism founded by Kapila, the universe is seen as following shrishti, or the process of interplay, between praktriti, or potentiality of nature, and purusha, or spirit which animates potentiality.5 In the Upanishad version of Hinduism, consciousness is the ground of all realities in the universe as it is at the same time Atman and Brahman. In the case of the Buddha, there is a familiar discussion about Name and Form as the basic realities in the conventional world around us, including our own existence. But the Buddha refuses to acknowledge the presence of some entity, like purusha, behind Name and Form. What is behind Name and Form for him, needless to say, is “emptiness”.

  1. Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.110.
  2. Heisenberg, as quoted in The Matter Myth, by Paul Davies and John Gribbin, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992, p.27.
  3. As quoted in Zajonc, Arthur, The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, Chapter 8.
  4. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
  5. Sen, K.M., Hinduism, London: Penguin Books, 1991.