What is the nature of reality?
René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” The non-dual philosophers of ancient Hinduism, on the other hand, will argue “I am; therefore, I think.” This is one of the oldest questions that the greatest minds in the world have debated and discussed. However, these debates and discussions have largely been limited to philosophers. These discussions were of little interest to science and scientists. The reason is simple: science mostly deals with hypothesis which are testable and quantifiable. The argument about the nature of reality was too abstract to test or verify at least till the 20th century.
The discovery of subatomic particles and their peculiar behavior has called into question our most fundamental beliefs about the universe and even the very nature of reality. Suddenly, topics that were deemed too philosophical for science became actual issues. In addition, it became so significant that two of the greatest scientific minds, Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr, fought over it.
The core of the issue is a phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. It is a strange phenomenon that connects two particles regardless of their distance in space. Einstein sarcastically remarked the phenomena as “spooky action at distance”. According to the theory of relativity, the universal speed limit is the speed of light, and no object in the universe can travel faster than light. However, the phenomenon known as quantum entanglement indicates that these quantum particles exchange information instantaneously and at a rate faster than the speed of light through a mysterious mechanism. According to Copenhagen Interpretation of this phenomena proposed by Bohr and Heisenberg, physical objects can exist in all possible states until they are measured. Similar to a coin tossed into the air. It is neither head nor tail until it lands. According to the theory, reality is a subjective construct, meaning that things do not exist until we attempt to quantify them. Einstein famously responded:
“If I stop looking at the moon will the moon disappear?”
The crux of the problem was the nature of reality itself. The objective approach of looking at reality indicates that the objects, this world and the universe exists therefore we are experiencing them though our sense organs. This is the most obvious explanation of the reality which we experience in a daily basis. However, the radical new explanation of quantum mechanics suggests that the things or objects does not really exist in a deterministic state until or unless we try to experience them.
Though radical but the nature of reality proposed by quantum mechanics was not entirely new. The Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy is preaching the same reality for thousand of years. The Upanishads talks about the same reality again and again through various metaphors and examples which can be summarized through the four Mahāvākyas or the great sayings of Upanishads. Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet from India also had a series of discussion with Albert Einstein where they both attempt to convince each other about the nature of reality.
So, what is the nature of reality? Is it subjective or objective? Einstein never lived to see any concluding evidence that will settle the debate. It took the genius of Dr. John Stewart Bell to settle the issue conclusively. In 1964, he devised a brilliant experimental program which proves Neil Bohr’s theory, despite its strangeness and inexplicability beyond any dispute.
Even a brilliant mind like Dr. Einstein had difficulty in understanding the explanation. However, science and reason have a way of surprising us and slowly but the surely science is progressing towards that end. The modern-day research in neuroscience is trying to understand the first-person subjective experience in the human body instead of looking at neurons firing in brain or chemical releasing from some gland. It is obvious from the recent studies that different branches of science is gradually moving towards a common point. Who knows maybe someday “Brahma satyam jagat-mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah” will become a scientific theory?
Dr. Ashes Banerjee,
Dept. of Civil Engineering,
ACED, Alliance University