Welcome to the outskirts of reality. Welcome to the place where theoretical physics and philosophy meet, and where religion and science loose their meaning. Better fasten your mental seatbelts. What we’re about to tell you is just too weird. Too mind-boggling. And quite disturbing, really.
Here we go: the place we call reality may not be real at all. It may look real, and feel real, and smell real. But if you know where to look, and you look real close, you can see the cracks. Just like a Hollywood actor that suddenly realizes he's not surrounded by real buildings -- but by props made of cardboard paper.If that sounds like lame science fiction; I agree. Indeed, we’ve all seen The Matrix. But could such a thing be conceivable? Could it be true? Are we really here? Or are we, as one reader of Exit Mundi suggested, only a computer simulation, run by an alien race?
Perhaps the simulation is getting boring, and the guy running the program is about to switch it off. We’d see some kind of huge ‘game over’-sign, and that would be it. One moment, we’re here. And the next – we aren’t. If you’re easily disturbed, or prone to paranoia, better stop reading now. You may not like the answers to questions like these. What you are about to read may change the way you see things -- forever.
Why is the Universe Fine-Tuned?
First, there’s a very, VERY peculiar thing about the place we live in – something so weird and profound it sends shivers down your spine. For in fact, the Universe seems to be ‘fine-tuned’ to make life possible!
It has to do with the stuff most people find boring in school: the laws of physics. Ultimately, all of these laws are founded upon the ‘physical constants’. Such as the force of gravity, the ‘strong force’ that glues atomic nuclei together and the electromagnetic force, the driving hand behind stuff like lightning and computers. But why do these fundamental ‘presets’ have the values they have? Why aren’t they a little bigger, or smaller?
The British cosmologist Fred Hoyle was the first to realise this is no coincidence. A very peculiar thing about the fundamental constants is that they appear to have exactly the right values. If they were slightly smaller or bigger, atoms, stars, planets and people simply wouldn’t exist!
Take the strong force inside atomic nuclei. If the force were just slightly stronger, it would boost up the burning of stars so much, that they would explode only seconds after they were formed. We wouldn’t have a sun – or even a planet. If on the other hand the force were a tad weaker, it would be too weak to hold together elements like the heavy hydrogen isotope deuterium. Stars wouldn’t light up. And we wouldn’t be here either.Astonishingly, the same goes for all other constants.
As the famous British astronomer Martin Rees put it: “Wherever we look, we see examples of fine-tuning. Most of the physical constants and the initial conditions of the Universe examined so far appear to be fine-tuned to some extent.”That leaves us with a gnawing, unsettling question: Why? Why are all physical contants exactly the way they are? Every cosmologist agrees that this can hardly be a coincidence. So what, or who, set the rules?
Matter: Chunks Of Music?
Next, you should know the stuff our Universe is made of isn’t very real at all. Sure, you can feel the chair underneath you, and see the monitor in front of you. But what we feel and touch and see in everyday life is actually a manifestation of some deeper, completely different kind of underlying reality.
One way to explore what matter is, is to take it apart. First, you’ll find tiny chunks of matter that are called molecules. Then, if you take the molecules apart, you’ll find the atoms the molecules are made of. And then, if you take apart the atoms, you’ll see it’s made of a nucleus, surrounded by a cloud of electrons.
And what if you take apart that nucleus? You’ll be in for a big surprise. For inside an atom’s nucleus, reality as we know it actually ceases to exist.An atom’s nucleus is made of tiny entities we call ‘particles’. But that’s just for lack of a better word. When you say ‘particles’, you think of little balls. But in quantum physics, there’s no such thing as solid `balls’ you can touch or see.In fact, ‘particles’ like quarks, electrons and photons are so incredibly and utterly different from everything we know of, our language lacks the words to describe them.
Particles can be in two places at the same time, and behave both like a wave and a tiny chunk of matter, depending on what you do with them. Particles can pop in and out of existence from nowhere. And ‘grabbing’ them is impossible: it is simply not possible to both know where a particle is and how fast it moves about.
But still, a particle has to be something, right?
That’s why more and more physicists turn to `string theory’. In string theory, matter is ultimately made of extremely small elastic circles, called strings. These strings vibrate. But not like anything we know: the strings vibrate in at least ten dimensions! Our particles are the vibrations of the strings. They are the music the strings make.
The Universe: Bubbles Of What?
Okay, hold that thought: matter is ultimately the manifestation of something else.Gladly, there are also things that are normal. Take the Universe. Again, it is something we think we know. The Universe is that big black thing with all the lights in it over your head. Perhaps you’ve even heard it’s expanding: first, there was a kind of blast (called the ‘Big Bang’), and from that moment on, the Universe grew bigger and bigger.
But hold it right there. Once more, the real story is far stranger than that. For starters, the Universe has no ‘outside’. To ask what is ‘outside’ the Universe is a meaningless question – it would be like asking what continent lies ‘outside’ our planet. ‘Outside’ the Universe there are no dimensions, and there is no time. The Universe is best seen as an expanding bubble of dimensions in a sea of nothingness – although ‘nothing’ isn’t really a word you can use to describe what is ‘outside’ the Universe.
It is extremely difficult to fully comprehend what that means. According to one theory, there are many dimensional bubbles like the one we live in. Our Universe could be the result of two of such bubbles – or ‘planes’ – colliding. And wait, now you’re doing it again: you’re picturing a place with bubbles floating around. But there’s no such thing as a ‘place’. Instead, the other Universes should be wrapped up within our own reality, remember?
An even more bizarre theory has it the place we call the Universe is actually best compared with a hologram. Our Universe could be some kind of optical illusion, the result of several dimensions resonating.And it goes even further. For in fact, it could actually be possible to create a Universe! Basically, the only thing you’d have to do is squeeze a huge amount of energy together into a very dense, small spot. This would lead to a Big Bang, the theories predict. We wouldn’t see it happening: the Big Bang would create a new dimensional bubble, far beyond reach of our own bubble.
OK, let’s pause for a second. Just think about it. Is it possible that our reality is actually made by some other civilisation, in some other Universe? It would explain why the fundamental constants are fine-tuned…And You? How Real Is Your Mind?
So, to wrap things up: we live in a place that’s not really a ‘place’, we’re made of stuff that’s not really ‘stuff’ and what we see is only a small part of what’s really there. Matter, time, dimensions, the Universe – it’s all lucid, unreal. And to make things even more bizarre, for some reason, our Universe is exactly preset to make our existence possible. Pretty confusing, don't you think?
Gladly, you can cling to this one security: that you are here. No matter how weird the stuff around you is, you are definitely for real. No need to explain: you just know you are.
But do you really?
Let’s do an experiment. Speak out your name over and over and over and over again. After a while, you’ll notice something weird. Your name will begin to sound strange. It’s no longer something that is you – your name is just a word, a random sequence of syllables and sounds that other people utter when they want to catch your attention. If your parents had given you another name, you would listen to another sequence of sounds.
The same happens when you look in the mirror. Stare at your own face long enough, and you’ll suddenly realize it’s just another face. The face in the mirror is, of course, yours. But after a while, it won’t feel like that anymore. The face you see could be anybody's.
Most neuroscientists agree the same applies for your consciousness. The thing you call your ‘self’ is most likely an illusion, created by your brain. Your brain gives you vision, sound, speech, feelings, and thoughts. When you add all these things up, you’ll have some overall feeling of awareness you call your consciousness. But still, your brain is the thing running it. Your feeling of ‘self’ is best compared to a software program running. It looks very real – but it isn’t.
Of course, most people believe there is something like a ‘soul’ or a ‘spirit’ living inside of you. But when it comes down to facts, there just isn’t any evidence for that. Every thought you have, every move you make, every emotion you feel - it’s just brain, brain, brain.
There are actually experiments that prove it. When you disturb your brain in a certain way, your feeling of ‘self’ can get detached from your brain. Suddenly, it will feel as if ‘you’ are not inside your body anymore. You experience what is known as an ‘out of body experience’, or a ‘near death experience’.But you don’t have to be nearly dead to feel it. The sensation can easily be created in a laboratory, by placing a helmet with rotating magnetic fields on your head. The magnetic field acts like a ‘jam signal’ on your brain. Suddenly, you'll feel like you're floating outside your body. But you aren’t. It’s just your brain going confused.And you don't really need a helmet to do the trick. Visiting a place where the movement of the Earth's crust generates magnetic fields can give you the experience. Being in a situation where your brain doesn't get enough oxygen sometimes does it. Certain brain operations bring out the experience. Meditation and intensive prayer can generate it.
In fact, exactly this is why some people see ghosts, or Maria, or feel like they are visited by aliens. It is an incredible weird experience to be ‘outside of your brain’. Your brain will try to make sense of it. Immediately, the rational part of your brain will come up with an ‘explanation’ for the experience. You will sense a ‘presence’ near you. If you’re religious, you might see Maria, or Jesus. If you believe in UFOs, your brain might tell you you’re visited by aliens. If you believe in ghosts, you’ll feel the presence of a ghost of a dead person. But in reality, it’s your own feeling of self you’re experiencing.
So... Are We A Game Of Sims?
So there you are. You’re just a walking piece of matter that’s pretending to be someone. But in reality, things like matter, or self, or the Universe, or time, or dimensions are all illusions. Everything we see and everything we feel are, in fact, the manifestations of some underlying reality.
That leaves you with an unsettling question: what exactly is that reality?
The truth is: we don’t know. Could be almost anything, really. A dream, even. Or a simulation. Or a kind of computer game, an advanced kind of Civilization or Sims. There’s no way of knowing if there’s someone or something pushing the buttons. There’s no way of knowing if there isn’t, either.
And then, there’s this other thing most theorists agree on: our reality could suddenly end. Our universe could fold up. The dimensions we live in could be wrapped up. The very fabric of our physical world could be disrupted by some unprecedented, weird physical event. From one second to the other, our reality would no longer be there. Sounds like fun, right?
But then again, why bother? For that’s the deeper consequence of these things. If there is no such thing as a place we call Earth, we needn’t really worry about its end. Would the characters of a Sims-game feel sad or disappointed when you turned off the computer? Or would the people you dream of at night mind if you wake up? You guessed it: they probably wouldn't. What isn’t really there, doesn’t really end.
That being said, there’s only one small problem. You see: you have to be a good philosopher to really feel it that way!