On the Chaotic Unreality of the Real and How We Redefine It: Reimagining Reality in a Probable Universe

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Grand Odalisque. Ingres was a Neo-Classicist, who attempted to create images that mimicked ‘reality’ even as it distorted it for effect, lengthening her spine and her impossible twist of pelvis. Ingres began painting at the beginning of the 1800’s in a world coming to be dominated by Newton’s mechanical view of the universe. Realism would become a dominant style by the end of Ingres’ career. The solidity of reality. What is, is!

Because the pace of change in our scientific understanding of our world, and the technology which follows it, is increasing at greater rates in recent decades than at any other time in our history, it has become ever so more important that we have at least some basic understanding of that science and technology, that we as a society wield in this world…without this, we are literally blundering in the dark, blindly upsetting systems and cycles, upon which our lives depend, with little understanding of our responsibility for the decline or grasp of our own agency in setting the world back to rights.  The advancement of science is an outgrowth of our curiosity as a society.  It is a look behind the ‘curtain’ that too many of us take for granted.  The technologies that spring from these scientific advances carry with them consequences which amplify our individual impacts while providing us with promised advantages through a marketplace that too often only wants to sell and profit from its latest innovation, with little concern for its overall impacts.  As long as our basic world view, our grasp of science, remains stuck in the past, in the more ‘simple’ classical world of its roots, we are more easily swayed by advertisers and pitchmen who’s business demands that we not look too deeply.  We are not, and can never be, ‘experts’ in every field.  The demands and rigors of scientific advancement have a very high bar, but it is essential, especially in these days, that we understand basic concepts, that we have some grasp of how science has redefined the world making possible those technologies which we either wield clumsily, like a weapon of destruction, or more tactfully and respectfully like a surgeon and healer.  As long as science remains esoteric and remote, ourselves ignorant of its ‘message’ and, by extension, ignorant of our own impact on the world, we place all things at risk.

The world is not as simple as we have been lead to believe.  The Earth is not flat around which the Sun revolves as some incredibly still insist.  The very stuff of which we, are ‘made’, is common and shared, across the universe, the relatively few elements and the even fewer bits that compose them, gaining ‘solidity’ only in their relationships and interactions with one another, in states of constant motion, within a matrix of ‘space’ which we are learning is far more substantial than we once believed (Space is not an empty vacuum, it is the very shape and time of existence in which all things manifest and can do so in probable, knowable, patterns).  All of this under the influence of energies.  Quantum physics has now informed us that, at its most fundamental level, the stuff of matter lacks substance, that we and all things are an ‘agreement’, a dynamic relationship, a blurring of trillions of billions of unimaginably tiny particles, quanta, racing about the stage of space/time unfolding, becoming, before vanishing ‘appearing’ again elsewhere, here and gone, continuously in a dynamic universe far more fantastic than most of us are willing to imagine….

The consequences of our individual and collective actions, without some kind of basic understanding of nature and this world today, threatens to undo what supports our very existence.  Action, without understanding, without imagination, potentially weaponizes technology against ourselves and that which supports us.  We have out lived our old paradigm, our way of living in this world.  We have changed the world far too much to continue, static and unchanged.  The ideas and ways which once served us no longer do.  We need a new paradigm, one that recognizes this changed world.  We as a society now lag far behind both our science and technology.  Blind insistence upon the ideas of the past, without recognizing the impacts of the technologies we have eagerly adopted, will end badly for us.  Just as freedom must come with responsibility or injustices will result for those excluded, wielding technology without the understanding of what created it, what its use brings with it, without an understanding of its impacts, devalues and threatens to sacrifice much of what came before.  If we do not ‘know’ what this world is, how can we protect it? The world has changed and we are driving the process, yet so many of us remain insistent that this is the same old world and that what we do, will ultimately have little consequence.  We see ourselves as small insignificant actors and even though we now number in the several billions and wield technologies that have vastly multiplied our impacts, our demands upon it increased with these, we insist that this world will continue, that its resilience will remain unthreatened…or in our ignorance and hubris we simply insist that these same technologies that are the source of the problem, will magically save us!  That, is an unfounded faith.

Science is in a process of continuous investigation, asking and answering questions about the world, reimagining it, more recently investing it with a wonder and awe, which in earlier years, its mechanical view of the world, had stripped away.  Science today understands that there is much more to ‘see’, that there is much more to understand, that the classic, mechanical model of the universe, is incomplete.  Our knowledge will always be ‘limited’.  We are bound by the limitations of our own perceptions and of the instruments we have available to us with which we can probe.  Today the general public is far behind the leading edge of science, and this ‘gap’ is growing ever wider.  Our basic understanding of the world of science is mired in the past and out dated.  Today, ’authorities’, who are often themselves ignorant of science or have their own more self-serving motives, discredit it and accuse those who do it of being ‘experts’ and elites.  An ‘expert’ has become a heavily loaded ‘label’, a political pejorative, like a liberal or progressive, that works to discredit the work they do. These self-appointed ‘authorities’, claim that scientists and researchers look down on the common man/woman.  These same ‘authorities’ claim that scientists see themselves as superior to the rest of us and for that ‘sin’ should be ignored or discredited…when in fact, their only sin is the pursuit of knowledge. 

Ignorance is a natural state of anyone who fails to pursue education and understanding.  We are all ignorant of that which we don’t know.  Some of us are driven to understand others aren’t.  We can never be omniscient, all knowing, but we can choose to understand and recognize that there is more in this world than you or I can see at first glance.  For most scientists, it is the joy and challenge of the pursuit of knowledge which drives them, not the need for power and status, though those characteristics may be shared by some.  Scientists do not dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge, and thereby the betterment of mankind, simply to get ahead, to gain advantage.  There are far simpler ways to do that without first having to dedicate one’s life to the pursuit of difficult to reach and perhaps unattainable goals.  No, these are the challenges of others greedy for power or in their ignorance frightened of the world they see changing all around them.  It is not science that should scare us but the self-serving politics of an ambitious few that we should be wary of.

Art always plays with us and, educated in its ways, we understand how to respond to it.  We know that painting and print making are flat two dimensional works and we even understand that they are attempts to fool us….Knowing this we imagine them in 3-dimensions and will remark about how realistic they are.  We may marvel at their effectiveness, but we know that they are illusion.  In the real world at large, we expect hard edged reality and we see it and accept it and believe that there is no underlying ‘trick’ or illusion.

All of us are to greater and lesser degrees, creatures of habit and those habits serve as filters through which we view and come to understand the world.  Our senses provide us with assurance.  We are very dependent upon them and may even come to take pride in our abilities to use them, to act in this world.  We feel the heft of an object as we hold and shift it about, our brains making calculations about it, what and how we might do something with it.  Our other senses detect other qualities its color, sheen, its surface texture, warmth, its scent, whether it possesses animation and we evaluate them all, make determinations of use and value, and we do this almost automatically.  We can even do this to some extent, remotely, trusting our eyes, making assumptions based upon what we ‘know’.  We can see an object’s trajectory, whether a pigeon or a baseball, and rapidly make calculations as to where it will go to catch the ball or successfully shoot the pigeon.  We choose a path not to where the object of interest is, but to where we believe it will be.  We trust our senses our judgement…we’ve learned to as a matter of survival and efficiency.  We have demands on us.  Time moves on.  We make assumptions, observe personal shorthands of our own, so when others question our capabilities or our very view of the world we are put in a position to either consider them or reject them.  Sometimes the effort to consider them calls our basic view of our world and our place in it into question.  Physics can do this to us.

Physics is the ‘hardest’ of the physical sciences, technical, often abstruse, confounded by indecipherable jargon and a heavy reliance upon mathematics to ‘explain’ while using ‘equations’ that rely more on esoteric symbols than it does numbers. (It has even ‘invented’ numbers of its own, negative, imaginary.)  It relies upon a logic and language that is largely foreign to most of us. Physicists seem to delight in the obscure, spending their lives on topics light years away from anyone’s reality, confusing everyone around them, complicating everything they discuss…they seem to occupy a different planet.  But, if we are to understand, to consider things new and foreign to us, we must look differently, consider new ideas and ways of thinking or we will remain convinced of our old paradigm and reject new ways of ‘seeing’.  

Georges Seuret, was the last of the great French Impressionist painters, a movement that embraced the idea of an image built up utilizing various techniques.  The final image was a creation of light and played with the idea of what is really there when we observe something in nature.  Seuret ‘knew’ the world wasn’t composed of dots, but our minds would blend them together into an image.

If we are to ever understand what scientists ‘see’ in our world, we too will have to begin to question what we ‘know’, question our own assumptions and understand our limitations, including those we place on ourselves…to do this, it wouldn’t hurt to approach the topic with a touch of the absurd and a sense of whimsy, an appreciation for the abstract and fantasy, for surreal art, a sense of the poetic, perhaps develop an appreciation for ‘word play’ and puns, because this physics is about a world that isn’t there for us right now, or rather, isn’t where or how we often think it to be.  The universe we live in is definitely not what most of us assume it to be.  That matter which we are so sure of, the organisms we are familiar with, actually lack definite limits and boundaries, where one flows on into the next.  They shade over from one to the next, blur their edges and often share what we see to be separate. The world beneath the world we take for granted, physicists claim, lacks a firm foundation in ‘isness’.  Matter ‘exists’ in interaction, in the instant, but not the moments in between.  Energy flowing through this matter links the moments together, provides matter with a kind of integrity, continuity, ‘stitching’ the moments together like the frames of a movie playing back to us, apparently seamless.  Matter, the stuff of this world, exists in its  relationships, its interactions, while at other times it does not exist at all.  It is here and there, but really, in no single place, places, when it comes down to it, are very hard to define when we look closely enough…in one state and then another, skipping the in between…making ‘quantum leaps’, endlessly. Things are not what they first seem to be and what they are changes from moment to moment.  We, matter, are probable composites, like all things, never quite the same from moment to moment.  Does this mean the ‘solid’ every day world is false, without consequence, that we should be able to pass our hand through a brick wall intact and retrieve it whole and undamaged, that the oncoming train will not smash you…no. 

Quantum physics looks into the probability of being.  We, each thing, are the most probable outcome, because there are so many possible states which support it, ‘reality’ is the most likely, the one we see and must deal with, but it is not what ‘is’ there….Every particle is in constant flux, coming in and out of existence, it is the ongoing choreography of the ‘wholes’ that we see…the result of probabilities played out trillions upon trillions of times in every instant.  If we could look close enough at a rock, fast enough, lying in a stream bed,  we could see that it lacks fixity…stability comes from our blurring together of separate perceptions, themselves limited snapshots, sensory shorthands, marking our pathway with transitory bread crumbs, representative of the thing, not the thing itself, perceptions which themselves are subject to decay or being effected by others, our inability to see fast enough, to see the empty moments in between.  Part of this is an issue of scale, we are simply too large and slow, built of the same stuff that we would examine. This is not from any shortcomings of our own, any lacking, it is simply inherent to who and what we are.  We must be, as any organism is, limited in our capacity and are wired with a bias that presses us to get to the end of the ‘story’ and gloss over the bits…when without the bits there is no story…and, without understanding what the bits are we can never be entirely sure of the ‘story’.  We regularly delude ourselves into believing that there is fiction and fact, two separate things and we are often smug enough to say that we can tell the difference, that the ‘true facts’ are right in front of us, visible if you only look…ahh and there in lies the rub.  ‘Facts’ are very slippery things.  ‘Facts’ can become simply what ‘we’, my group, decides that they are.  This is why science is so careful in its experiments, in its language.  Science cannot afford delusions or unfounded assumptions.  Everything is suspect until evidence says otherwise. 

Here the cover of Mieville’s novella features an image of ‘the exquisite corpse’ which plays a character in the story in which a bomb is exploded in 1940’s Paris releasing surrealist characters and horrors into an unimaginable Paris. The ‘exquisite corpse’ was a ‘parlor game’ developed by a group of French surrealist artists who would each add an image or term to a collective piece having only seen the last one.

Perhaps this is why, science’s insistence on the precision of language, brings so many people outside of their world to believe that science is much ado about nothing, an attempt to complicate the story, to gain advantage by elites.  What, many of these same people may be asking, is wrong with scientists?  The world lays out plainly before us, what other reason is there to complicate it so other than to hoodwink and gain advantage?

I am trying to understand, in my current series, about the generative power of nature and its role in life and evolution, so I ask here, why is it so hard to imagine that life itself arose from natural processes in play across the universe…that nature and the Earth are generative?  Why do we look elsewhere? to alien beings and omnipotent gods? Life is a ‘product’ of nature, a natural result.  Every species, every individual, its internal structures and processes, are born from nature.  Life begets life.  Complex patterns form from simpler ones, combine into unique species, innovate forming new patterns and forms built on old with an astonishing ‘ability’, in spite of the odds against it, to produce ‘fit’ organisms.  Life does not pursue the countless trillions of possible patterns in hopes of finding one that is successful.  It pioneers successful patterns.  There has never been a ‘horse-bird’ or a ‘fish-tree’.  Such chimera are the province of the human imagination only.  Nature did not randomly stick together a duck and some random mammal to ‘create’ a Platypus, a kind of duck billed, egg laying concoction, with a fat storing tail…it is the last species of its genus and family, whose relatives are found only in the fossil record…a relict.  Nature does not waste its time and energies on what won’t work.  It is patient.  What we have to study are the living and fossil stories of success.  Our study of the evolution of life is incomplete.  Every living organism today is a success…though it may not be in a thousand or a million years.  

Each living organism springs from some parent organism or sexual pairing.  To ask which came first the chicken or the egg, is the wrong question…as long as we’re talking about a chicken, the answer will always be both.  What came before was a ‘not a chicken’ or an ‘almost chicken’, that still follows successful patterns close enough so that it too was successful.  Because failure is death and the dead cannot reproduce.  Each success is shaped by its genetics, the successful patterns that have preceded it…and the conditions within which it lives.  Those conditions are not static.  Those of today would not have supported the earliest life forms, just as the earliest conditions would prove toxic and/or nonsupportable to many, if not most of the more complex species alive today.  Organisms ‘work’, they are supported by the very same forces that created them.  Each individual is consistent with long established patterns which fit together and respond coherently with one another.  They resonate.  Recombined in unique ways, patterns can resonate differently, be responsive to a world with different conditions, different energies and rates of flow.  They are of the Earth, an Earth that itself changes over time, as an entirety and locally, sometimes in very long cycles, other times following a unique line of its own, organisms, all along relying on, using, the available energy to manifest and sustain themselves.  The birth and life of a human infant is not miraculous…it should be expected.  it is in fact a highly likely probability given the right conditions and the mating of human male and female…things follow, naturally.  Individuals follow the patterns of their species, while at the same time, the flow of energy through them drive them toward being something more.  Such a flow of energies has the capacity to organize, to create structure and add complexity.  This is an observable phenomenon…if one knows where and how to look.

Plants follow other lineages, established sequences and combinations of pattern and are no less alive than we are.  At their most basic level we, all organisms, share essential basic patterns and structures, structures which channel the generative energies of nature.  The forces in effect in all organisms are the same. The ongoing creative nature of the universe itself is driving this much larger and ongoing process of evolution, to where none of us can ultimately know…and that by failing to understand and accept this, we humans, on Earth, in this vanishingly small corner of the universe, are threatening to end our own little experiment of human life, ignorantly, by living outside of these long established relationships.  We do not see the responsibilities that come with this life, the obligatory roles that every organism shares in return for this gift of life.  If we ‘fail,’ what will follow, will take up and continue other previously successful patterns, maybe ‘borrowing’ some of the innovations unique to our species, in much the same way that Earth has been doing for several billion years now.  Death comes to every individual.  Entire species do follow the maxim, adapt or die, but even when doing so, at some point, conditions will likely change enough that they will no longer be supported and something(s)else will take their ‘place’ or create an entirely new species to occupy a different niche.  In such a complex system the best we can do is to attempt to improve our ‘fit’ in this world, to increase the likelihood that life will continue on for our children and grandchildren for generations to come.  How can we know that we are doing this, when the living world around us is not in decline, when species are not disappearing at an accelerating rate, when the overall health of the Earth system is robust and responsive. We aren’t doing this now.  Our goals are much more limited, selfish, momentary.  We even view ourselves today as ‘consumers’, not members of this remarkable living system.  Life has inherent capacities to increase order, to add complexity and increase diversity.  We know this to be true…we see it in our research into the fossil record, our study of genetics and the lineages still available to us for studying.  Mathematics, science, language, culture, philosophy, religion, our own perceptions, go to determining what we ‘see’ in this world.  Our own desire for ‘solidity’, for one truth, our fear of the unknown, sets the way for a self-imposed blindness and causes us to see what we would choose rather than what is….Life does not happen to us, it is a result of active engagement, a participatory act and an act of faith that sees beyond its own self and that of its limited circle.  It’s ‘circle’ is all inclusive and recognizes the value and contribution of each of its countless parts.  In religious terms it recognizes the world and all of its parts as sacred.

Pablo Picasso’s massive painting, ‘Guernica’, 25′ 6″ long, one of his most famous, he did in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country town in northern Spain, conducted by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.  It depicts the horrors of war.  Although it is not ‘realistic’, and does not even attempt to be, it elicits a very strong emotional response from many viewers, its subject immediately recognizable.

Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there]

Hughes Mearns

Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three

The man was waiting there for me

But when I looked around the hall

I couldn’t see him there at all!

Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!

Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away…


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