Does Science And Mysticism Agree That Reality Is An Illusion?
This week, a team of Japanese scientists announced they have found ‘clearest evidence yet’ that the universe is a hologram. While this may be the most recent effort to prove the holographic universe theory among numerous others, science has been perplexed by the insubstantial nature of reality since well before holographic theory existed – not to mention the mystics and philosophers who have been suggesting the same thing (in less reductionist terms) for thousands of years.
[The Japanese research team has] numerically confirmed, perhaps for the first time, something we were fairly sure had to be true, but was still a conjecture.– Leonard Susskind, theoretical physicist
From The Ancient East To Modern West
Eastern mysticism has long held the perspective that our physical reality is really the maya of illusion. First century buddhist philospoher-poet Aśvaghoṣa put it that ‘all phenomena in the world are nothing but the illusory manifestation of the mind and have no reality of their own, while 13th century sufi mystic Rumi suggested that ‘this place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real.’ In the 1960s a wave of eastern mysticism crashed on the shore of western culture thanks to public figures like Alan Watts . Perhaps out of everyone, his is the most captivatingly poetic rendering of the subject. For the full experience, take a look at this beautiful new short film from Aaron Paradox.
Since the emergence of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, science has struggled to reconcile the conundrum of reality no longer being able to be identified as something in any way permanent or fixed, and it was with impermanence that the first echoes of eastern philosophy began ringing uncomfortably within the walls of science. Neils Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum theory is famously quoted as saying:
Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it. – Neils Bhor
This sentiment was clearly understood by physicist Henry Stapp who said ‘There is no substantive physical world in the usual sense of this term. The conclusion here is not the weak conclusion that there may not be a substantive physical world, but rather that there definitely is not a substantive physical world.’ Einstein even described reality and an ‘optical delusion of consciousness’ and stated that ‘reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one’.
As eastern philosophy spread into the western world with the influence of figures like Alan Watts and Frijof Capra, author of The Tao Of Physics (1975), the question began to spread as to whether quantum physicists were in fact observing phenomena with electron microscopes that had already been observed thousands of years before via mediation. What has been even less known is that the founders of quantum physics were in fact students of the vedic texts, and were not just accidentally observing similarity. They were looking for it, and found it. Neils Bhor stated that he would ‘go into the Upanishads to ask questions’. Werner Heisenberg shared that ‘quantum theory will not look ridiculous to people who have read Vedanta; and Irwin Schrödinger thought that ‘the unity and continuity of Vedanta are reflected in the unity and continuity of wave mechanics. This is entirely consistent with the Vedanta concept of All in One.’
You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop. – Rumi
From Recent History To The Not-Too-Distant Future
In the 90s, ‘dark poet’ comedian Bill Hicks helped awaken a generation with statements like his positive news story: ‘Today a young man on acid realised that we are all one consciousness experiencing ourselves subjectively. There’s no such thing as a death, life is only a dream and we’re the imagination of ourselves… here’s Tom with the weather’, as well as his beautifully inspiring Just A Ride riff. Then, by the end of the 90s we had The Matrix. Like no piece of media before it, The Matrix was a pop culture breakthrough causing the very question of whether reality is actually real to be considered at least once by the tens of millions of people who have now seen it.
A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
– Max Planck, one of the other fathers of quantum physics
In the years since the turn of the new century, science has gained the courage to openly explore topics like the holographic universe theory, the relationship between consciousness and matter and even the once banned subject of psychedelics as medicines. We may well be witnessing a generational change on the kind of scale that Thomas S Kuhn was referring to when he coined the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ in his seminal 1972 book The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Will this paradigm shift bring a full re-unification of science and spirit? Speaking on behalf of those who seek truth as much from outside the boundaries of rational reductionism as within it, I hope really so. I know if I was a scientist, I’d have my mind on catching up with the the ideas of Nicola Tesla, (well known to have studied the Vedic texts); a man who like Copernicus, was born at least a hundred years before his time.