The Worlds of Reality
In this section we have examined the processes and rules which brought forth and govern the world we know and inhabit. Starting with the unknowable quintessence of reality, That Which Is, we proceeded to self-organization and emergence, which seem to be fundamental features of physical reality itself, the methods by which all structure and order arise. We then plunged into the rules that, in the human frame of reference, account for the nature of the physical reality of which we are an intrinsic part. After briefly examining the scope of our ancestors’ knowledge, we saw that some humans, over the centuries, discovered first the principles of heliocentrism, the orbital paths of the planets, the laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, the fundamental chemical laws, and the laws that govern electricity. The knowledge and power these discoveries conferred on humans were so great that educated people in the latter half of the 19th century believed every significant fact about the physical world had been elucidated. Then, beginning in the 1890s, the whole scope of human knowledge broadened. Radioactivity and x-rays were discovered. The existence of the atom was demonstrated beyond doubt. The principles of symmetry and asymmetry came into view. Mathematical tools discovered in the 19th and early 20th centuries allowed some humans to discover the nature of the four fundamental forces. Relativity, incorporating into its theories new mathematical and physical discoveries, such as the nature of electromagnetism, became the crown of classical physics. The quantum world’s bizarre, counter-intuitive rules came under examination. The menagerie of subatomic particles grew and grew as our methods of prying open the past grew. The very nature of the rapidly expanding, inconceivably enormous physical Universe became an area of our study, and the possibility that there were parallel, multiple Universes, alternate histories existing in their own frames of reference, came to the fore. The hypothesis that reality was composed of vibrating strings emerged. All of this profoundly altered the human conception of possibility. (And as we recall from the chapter entitled A Species Lost in Both Space and Time, the discovery of immense numbers of other galaxies and the true dimensions of space-time radically redefined the human conception of our place in the Universe.)
We then asked if the essence of reality was mathematics, and briefly examined the debate between those who believe mathematical objects to be objectively real and those who put mathematical ideas squarely in the realm of human consciousness, holding open the possibility that some elements of mathematics were discovered while others were created. We concluded that mathematical truths are the most fundamental, unalterable truths that exist, the way things simply are. But we also concluded that while the mathematical level of reality was absolutely necessary and fundamental, it was not sufficient, by itself, to account for the nature of all reality. It was the foundation of emergent phenomena—not the whole of them.
Then, in succession, we examined how the world we know is governed and expressed by randomness, probability, coincidence, chains of unintended consequences, synergy, feedback loops, patterns, shapes, and cycles. We concluded that the world built and governed by all the physical rules and processes we described was both a vast system of systems and a non-equilibrium system, the latter made more so by the unpredictable nature of human consciousness.
Various kinds and levels of physical reality have been created by all of the phenomena we examined. In a sense, the physical realities that have arisen from these processes and rules constitute separate worlds, worlds that exist at different scales of size and which operate in different contexts. If we start at the most basic of physical levels and work our way up, so to speak, we might find that our perspective changes with every new world that we examine. Our understanding of reality would therefore be the product of our ability to combine all of these perspectives into a single holistic view, an ability which would vary greatly from person to person.
There is the subatomic world, the world of fundamental particles that follow their own delirious quantum rules, the rules they have been following since the earliest times of the Universe itself. Their reality is in one sense an ever-changing one, and yet upon it rests the predictable and consistent nature of the macroscopic world. They are in ceaseless motion, and they behave in such utterly basic ways that it is impossible for us to conceive of the term “behavior” in any simpler of a manner. Many of them are so fundamental that they have no internal structure at all and are so small that they are nothing more than geometric points. The subatomic world is among the oldest of all realities in spacetime’s history, having come into being within moments of the break-up of the unified force. It is a reality that reveals itself to us only when competing probabilities are resolved, in a manner only a relative handful of humans truly understand. Subatomic particles form the Universe as Gigantic Electrical Field, the Universe as Gigantic Gravitational Field, the Universe as an unbounded, self-contained entity. Every single bit of matter, energy, dark matter, and dark energy is composed (presumably in the case of the latter two) of the most basic particles, and it is these particles that form the common nature of physical reality throughout the Universe. As viewed from their standpoint (as best we can imagine it, which is to say not very well), reality is restless, chaotic (and yet mathematically explicable), and almost infinitely malleable. To the neutrinos, it wouldn't necessarily be evident that anything other than they existed at all. It is impossible to reduce the simplest members of the subatomic world to smaller or less structured forms. This world is the most recent one that humans have discovered. The human species was utterly unaware of its very existence until late in the story of human life. Its rules are the least widely understood phenomena among the members of the human community.
Emerging from the subatomic world there is the atomic world. Atoms integrate into themselves subatomic particles, and governed by the actions of the fundamental forces, decay, aggregate, disaggregate, reconstruct, fall apart, fly together, bind, and unbind. Their rules are very ancient; the oldest members of their group can trace their lineage right back to the first three one-thousandths of a per cent of the Universe’s existence. The others were created billions of years ago in stars undergoing massive upheavals, in bursts of cosmic rays, or in the inconceivable explosions known as supernovae. There are only about 92 naturally occurring types of the members of this world. From their perspective, reality consists of constant—and yet structured and rule-bound—change, change which takes place through the relative ability of the different members to combine with each other. It is possible to reduce any of the members of the atomic world to smaller or less structured forms. They are all one step away from being reduced to such forms, and in the process losing their identity as members of the atomic world. The atomic world was not definitively proved to exist until very late in the story of human life, and it was discovered before the full array of its component parts had been ascertained.
From the atomic world there emerges the molecular world. It would take two steps to completely reduce members of the molecular world (by themselves) to fundamental particles. The molecular world’s existence had been suspected for many centuries, but it was erroneously thought to be the atomic world until very recently. The molecular world is the world of chemical compounds, which have acted in conjunction with the members of the subatomic and atomic worlds to create, stars, galaxies, solar systems, planets—and life. It would take three steps to reduce these larger structures to their subatomic constituents. Within the world of molecules, we might suppose that reality consists of the formation of physical alliances of various sizes and shapes, in a manner more ordered (seemingly) than that of the atomic world and much more ordered than that of the subatomic world. For us, the most significant sub-section of the molecular world might be thought of as those molecules that contained carbon. Carbon-containing molecules became dispersed throughout and evolved upon the stage of the planet Earth, an iron-rich little world of the Inner Solar System. The processes of the carbon-containing molecules brought about…
the world of life. Life can be thought of as the unconscious effort of carbon-containing molecules to keep themselves going. From the earliest harnessing of energy for primitive metabolism, the chemical evolution of the most basic organic molecules, and the evolution of nucleic acids, there emerged the incredible array of forms that permeate the biosphere. The world of organisms, a sub-branch of the world of life, arose when single-celled entities established symbiotic relationships with other single celled entities and unconsciously drifted into colonies. These colonies of single-celled organisms gradually evolved, over many generations, systems and subsystems within themselves, the deep origins of specialized organs and systems. Therefore, from a particular branch of the molecular world there emerged a higher level of organization, one that contained within itself all the different worlds upon which it was founded. It would take three steps to reduce the members of the world of life to fundamental particles.
From the world of life there ultimately emerged a branch of it known as the human world. The human world carries within it and expresses, in various ways, all the other realities out of which it emerged. Human bodies are constructed according to all the physical laws and principles the emergence of which preceded them in time. Human bodies are the product of some four billion years of organic evolution, a process which brought them forward because beings like themselves were successful at the only game the world of life “cares” about—reproduction.
The human world was also characterized and defined by the humans’ possession of consciousness, the awareness of awareness, the integration of experience into a self, the awareness of the self, the ability to conceive of and act on a world outside of the self, a sense of presence, a sense of being an object, a sense that the world was not just a mass of undifferentiated sensations, and a sense that such things as cause and effect and purposefulness existed. Consciousness emerged when human nervous systems evolved sufficient structural and physiological complexity.
From the possession of consciousness has arisen…
the social world, the world of human society, the phenomenon of humans living together in groups under common rules, rules that facilitated the group’s survival through the maintenance of intragroup cohesion and the defense of the group against external threats through mutual and collective defense efforts. A social world can lose a certain number of lives and still survive. The ways of life which came to characterize the various manifestations of the social world across the surface of the Earth gave rise to…
the cultural world, the whole set of a society’s inherited ways of doing things, the whole set of its ideas about the nature of the world, the whole set of the kinds of material objects that it possesses and uses, and all of its traditions. Culture is conveyed across both time and space, and is chiefly dependent on language. Cultures can intermix with other cultures, be subsumed within a dominant culture, fade away, spread, change radically over time, and generate ideas that leap from mind to mind across cultures. The members of cultures die, but their influence can transcend their physical deaths. From the interaction of the various cultures that have developed on the surface of the Earth, there is gradually emerging a world culture.
And then we might try to imagine the world of the Earth itself as if the Earth were a conscious entity, the enormity of its distances and sizes compared to us, the gigantic physical processes that operate within it, and the vast stretches of time over which it has existed. Such a perspective is virtually impossible for humans to even partially imagine. Naturally, the Earth is contained within a solar system that is contained within a galaxy that is contained within a local galactic group that is in turn part of a larger Universe which may be one of many Universes. Each jump in size and duration is more difficult for a human to conceive of. In sum, each level of organization, each world, each perspective, each version of reality possesses its own definitions of duration and size, existing in vastly different temporal and spatial contexts. Each possesses its own pace of events, its own particular rules, its own “way of life” (to stretch a metaphor). We can try to imagine these perspectives but by definition, we cannot know them. We can only postulate their existence.
We see, therefore, that there are continuing levels of reality. All of these levels exist and are in operation this very moment. All but one of these levels—the one provided by our own perspective and frame of reference—are essentially either invisible to us, appearing to manifest themselves only as effects which we can sometimes detect, or are too large for us to comprehend, enormous contexts of which we are an infinitesimally small part. The reality on which humans gaze, typically with an unconscious assurance that what they see is reality, is merely an intermediate form of it. Humans themselves are particles about halfway up the scale of size from quarks to galaxies. They are part of realities either too small or too big to comprehend, realities that exist in their own frames of reference but which, nonetheless, are connected to ours.
All of the hidden realities we have examined are ultimately different ways of examining the same thing, ways of breaking down the Unity that is the essence of ultimate reality so that its inner workings might be seen. There is an element of arbitrariness, even artificiality in such an examination, but the Unity is too big to be comprehended (at least in part) any other way. The means by which we interact with these realities is human consciousness, our only tenuous link to the “real” reality, a reality which is the sum of all perspectives. It is time for us to trace the emergence of human consciousness through time, and in so doing place our species, and our lives, in their true context.