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The Illusion of Reality

The reality is considered to be the state of a thing or situation, not a notional idea or perception, that is unambiguous or obvious at a specific space and time. The state of reality is vivid, transparent and beyond dispute. A ‘real’ thing is there, right in front of the eyes of the viewer to observe with full consciousness. But, is reality as ‘real’ as it is claimed to be? Is there no illusion in viewing or observing something that is ‘real’?

Nearly a century ago (1930 to be precise), Tagore, ‘the poet with the head of a scientist’, and Einstein, ‘the scientist with the head of a poet’, debated (and some would say, clashed) on the nature of reality at Einstein’s home outside Berlin. Einstein held the notion of reality that was vivid, transparent, visible, sort of ‘moon was there, whether one looked at it or not’, ‘a beauty was there, whether one observed it or not’. Reality arises from physical presence that cannot be denied or disputed.

On the other hand, Tagore held the view that reality of all physical objects, truth, beauty and so forth was dependent on human consciousness. Without human consciousness, the reality of anything was incoherent and irrelevant. He maintained that this world was a human world – the scientific view of it was also that of a scientific man. Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist, it is a subjective world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness.

Reality is not always ‘real’ as we view it; it can deceive our perception, our senses and consciousness or sense of reality may be partial or incomplete. Let us look at the Figure given below. The light from a distant star can be bent by the gravitational field of the Sun before it reaches us and then we view the position of the star at its ‘apparent position’. Of course, with scientific investigation, taking other parameters into consideration, the ‘real’ position of the star can be accurately determined. But to a common man, the ‘apparent position’ is the ‘real’ position of the star, he can point it out in the sky with his own fingers and that is the reality for him!

The moon is the nearest celestial body from earth. Even then, what we see or do not see of the moon may not be the real thing. For example, we may not see the moon due to cloud cover, but that does not mean the moon is not there in the sky. In Islam, religious events are fixed by the sight of the moon and the lack of sight of moon does not mean that the moon is not there in reality. That illusion of absence is taken as a substitute for reality. The light we get from our nearest star, beyond sun, comes to us four years after it had been emitted. In other words, our reality is four years behind the present time. We can get light or radiation from a star or a galaxy some 100 million or 200 million or 1000 million light years from us and during that time that star or galaxy may have died or disappeared. So, our reality of the existence of that star could be totally out of place.

The nearer an object is from us, the more accurate is our perception of the reality of that object. However, on the miniscule scale of atomic and sub-atomic realm, i.e. quantum field, our reality takes another knock. In there, particles like electrons, quarks etc take on dual role of particles and waves – which one at which point no one knows. An electron whizzes around the nucleus of an atom as waves, but when an energy is given to it or taken away from it, it behaves like a particle. Only the act of observation can determine the true nature or the reality of the electron. In quantum mechanics, it is axiomatic that only in the act of measurement does an electron become real. An unobserved electron is unreal (Copenhagen interpretation).  

However, an observed electron does not behave exactly the same way in various circumstances. A concrete example is the double slit experiment when electrons are fired one at a time and interference pattern is observed on the screen due to wave nature of electrons. Now, if a detector is placed to detect which slit the electron is going through, the interference pattern disappears. If the detector is then switched off, leaving all other arrangements intact, the interference pattern reappears. It is, as if, the electron does not like to be detected which way it is going. In other words, the act of observation modifies the outcome. Thus, the act of observation in this instance does not give the reality; rather the very act of observation changes the outcome of the reality.

The view of reality in the cosmological scale may be somewhat misplaced, as objects may not be exactly where they apparently appear to be. Also, in the ultra-small sub-atomic fields, objects cannot be assigned any particular positions based on physical principles. Only an act of observation may offer the object a specific position and that may be construed as the reality. But strangely that act of observation may change the otherwise reality!

Over the centuries and millennia, people had been narrating different ‘real’ stories. Moses, the prophet of Judaism, saw a bush-fire in the corn field right in front of his eyes and when he went nearer, that bush-fire disappeared, he saw nothing was burnt and received the God’s command not to approach it any further. To him, the event was vivid and real (although we now know that he witnessed a mirage). To George W Bush, the command from God to invade Iraq was real (unless he made it up). To millions of fanatic religious people, the existence of God or Allah or Yahweh is absolute and real; heaven and hell are real! It is the state of their mind that dictates reality.

Thus, there does not seem to be a universal notion or narrative of a reality that is true to everyone at every occasion. Reality seems to be subjective, depending on individual’s state of mind or consciousness, as Tagore had asserted. What is real, vivid and utterly true to someone may be totally unrealistic, utterly non-sensical to another person with a different state. Reality can thus be an illusory notion.      

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Reality”

  1. A very beautifully written piece for common people. If Einstein had that fixed notion about reality, how he developed Theory of Relativity?

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    1. Einstein’s theory of relativity (special and then general) deals with space-time continuum in the vast expanse of cosmology. A celestial body is real, physically present. Although Einstein was the pioneer of quantum mechanics, but he did not like the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, where an elementary particle is said to exist only when it is observed; if it is not observed, it does not exist. That led Einstein to quip, the moon in the sky exists whether one observes it or not. There is the fundamental conceptual difference between modern physics (including theory of relativity) and quantum mechanics.

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