My work is rooted in the conviction that reality can change.
And I don’t just mean that aspects of reality can change. We all already know that. I mean that reality itself can change.
This is a big claim and I believe it with all of my heart. In the space of this short essay I will offer the reasoning behind my conviction and state why this realization is so important for us.
Let’s start by considering the question, What does it mean for reality to change?
It means that everything is different. It doesn’t mean that everything in existence disappears and is replaced by something else – maybe nothing would disappear and nothing new would be added – but somehow everything would be different anyway.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau,
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
Historically, shifts in perspective of the magnitude that many of us feel our world needs have reconfigured how we see everything.
For instance, when we realized that the world was round and not flat, everything changed. If you had been around at the time, the world outside your window would still look the same – but now you would know that you were sitting on the outside of a round ball hurtling through space. Everything would be different.
And when we realized that the universe was governed by natural laws rather than the will of God we suddenly knew that we could predict and control the future in ways we had never imagined. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.
And when Einstein showed us that space and time are not elements of the universe that we live in but are actually properties of matter….well, we haven’t actually caught up with that one yet.
We don’t commonly interpret paradigm shifts like this as changes in reality, we tend to see them as examples of how we learn about reality. Like the example above, we used to think that the world was flat, but then we realized it was round.
It is most natural for us to assume that the world was always round even when we thought it was flat because to assume otherwise would disrupt our entire notion of reality. Reality in the current paradigm is defined as that which cannot change, and the reality is that the world is round and therefore it must always have been round.
But the assumption that there is an unchanging reality that lies beneath all of our ideas about it, is exactly the assumption I want to challenge. What if we were to find out that the world was flat when we thought it was flat and then it became round when we changed our minds about it?
Of course this sounds preposterous. Reality doesn’t change like that. Our ideas about it change, but reality is what it is and always has been.
Now I want to be clear, I am not arguing that the world was flat at one time and then became round – that would be ridiculous, although it would be defensible as long as we were willing to change our definition of reality.
What I am arguing is that in the current paradigm we define reality in a way that makes us assume that it isn’t possible that the world could have changed from flat to round, while at the very same time allows us to feel completely comfortable with other notions that are equally preposterous.
For instance, we all feel quite willing to accept an idea of infinite three-dimensional space without feeling any need to worry about it. Even medieval thinkers like Saint Thomas Aquinas knew that the idea of space being infinite made no rational sense. And yet we live in that assumption every day and hardly feel bothered by it at all.
Let’s think about this again for a minute.
We live in a paradigm that defines reality as ‘that which cannot change and is unaffected by our human experience of it.’ In the ancient world that meant God, in the modern world that means the physical universe and the natural laws that govern it.
So of course in the modern world, if you propose that the physical world could have changed in some way it sounds impossible, but that is only because we have defined the physical world as that which cannot change. So as in all paradigmatic arguments the logic is circular and the initial conviction dictates the final result of the investigation.
But let’s look at the implications of our current definition of reality – that which cannot change and is unaffected by our experience of it.
By this definition we live in a reality that is separate from us. We are outside of reality observing it and learning about it. But our observation and understanding don’t change anything real about it.
I believe this is a very dangerous way to understand reality for two reasons. First, it removes us from an existential level of responsibility. After all, if reality can’t change we can’t do anything to improve it (and we couldn’t have done anything to hurt it either.)
Secondly, it severely limits our ability to imagine change, and the first step in any transformative process is being open to a new possibility. If we can’t imagine anything changing then transformation becomes very unlikely.
I believe we are part of reality, and our experience of reality is part of reality too. The universe does not exist independent of us. It co-arises as we experience it.
In our scientific world this may seem like a radical philosophical position to take, but there is some solid scientific proof that should make us at least take pause to wonder.
The famous double-slit experiment of quantum mechanics has already shown that light is not either a wave or a particle, but becomes one or the other when we look at it.
So if we want scientific evidence that supports our inextricable involvement with reality, Quantum physics has already shown us that our experience of reality changes reality.
Now, none of us knows how the results of the double-slit experiment translate at larger scales – it certainly doesn’t prove that the Earth was once flat – but fundamentally it does prove that our observations of the world affect how the world actually is.
If we truly embrace a notion of reality which allows it to be affected by our experience of it our imagination will open tremendously. Suddenly we are no longer on a fixed playing field limited merely to rearranging a few moveable parts. Now, the whole game can change.
Isn’t that what we want – a new game to play? When we use the term paradigm shift this is the level of change we are hoping for.
Nothing could be more thrilling and more challenging than paradigm shifting at this depth of being. We are literally playing with the reality we stand on. (BTW: Did you ever wonder why our word for ‘knowing how things are’ is understanding?)
Look around you now. What if none of what you are currently experiencing as real and permanent is actually unquestionably stable and certain? What if at any moment you might fall down a rabbit hole or step through a looking glass like Alice did and find yourself in a strange new world?
In the current paradigm our ability to function rests on the security of knowing that reality never changes. In the new paradigm we will have to let go of that security.
What will it take to embrace a life where nothing is ultimately stable and anything can change?
If we want to shift into a new paradigm, we need to learn how to live without solid ground under our feet and find our joy floating through a universe that is unpredictable and mysterious.