The Enigma of the Universe and the Quantum Reality

Quantum Reality

by Jayaram V

This essay points out some of the latest discoveries in modern physics and quantum mechanics regarding the nature of reality and how they influence our understanding of the causality, unpredictability and uncertainty of the universe.

I do not think, "I know (Him) perfectly well," nor (do I think), "I do not know Him at all." He who amongst us understands this, "Not that I do not know at all. I know but I do not know perfectly well," he alone knows (that Brahman). Kena Upanishad


I believe at some point of time in future we may have to rewrite our knowledge and understanding of reality and existence. We may require new philosophies and approaches to explain the enormous contradictions that exist in the universe at the subatomic level and in the dimensions of space and time. There are still many gaps in our understanding of modern physics, quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, gravitational laws and the laws of thermodynamics. Until we resolve them, the universe will remain a huge puzzle and enigma.

One of the striking features of the universe is the role of probability and uncertainty in causation, in the existence of things and in the interaction of things. We see that even in our own case there is nothing certain about our lives. What may happen to us depends upon a number of probability factors and how we act and interact with the things and forces of Nature. We exist until the energy in our bodies moves and acts, and we disappear when that dance of matter and energy ends. Were we there before we were born? Will we be there after we die?

No one can tell what survives the body, other than a cluster of atomic and subatomic particles. Whether they hold the memory of life or consciousness we do not know. There is no certainty where a living being may appear and how long it will survive. Almost all the happenings upon earth are random or influenced by random factors and events. The same is true at the subatomic level with regard to the life of electrons, protons, and quarks or the elementary particles that make up the atoms. They appear in the cosmic ocean of the universe for a brief moment and then disappear. Physicists cannot tell you where they were before or after that brief moment of their appearance. Thus, modern researches in quantum physics turn our notion of reality upside down.

I was recently reading a book, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” by Carlo Rovelli. It is a small book of 86 pages, including the index, in which the author has provided a gist of the latest developments in modern physics. It is written in laymen’s language with extraordinary clarity. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to open their minds to the mind-boggling discoveries of the last two centuries, including Einstein's theory of relativity and Werner Heisenberg's equation of quantum mechanics. For the reader’s benefit, I will briefly present below a few facts that emerge from the study of the book and my understanding of them.

1. The subatomic particles in an atom do not always exist in space and time. They exist as probabilities and appear only when they collide with another particle or jump into another orbit. Thus, the existence of an elementary particle, such as an electron, at the quantum level arises only by chance during interactions of other particles. No one can predict where the individual particles exist or how they will collide with others. It may be that even the particles in their restful mode may have no specific location. They may exist simultaneously at different locations or do not exist at all.

2. What Newton believed as the gravitational field is indeed space itself. This was the startling discovery made by Einstein by sheer chance. Einstein proved that space is not empty but a substance or fine matter. He suggested that space is not flat but curved which is responsible for gravity. It curves more around heavier objects, especially black holes, and less around lighter objects where by things remain in their place or orbit around other heavier objects. Because of the gravitational waves, space is more like the surface of an ocean rather than that of a glass pan. It also expands and contracts due to a number of factors. Another startling discovery is that space is not continuous, but made of little units called quanta or “atoms of space.” No one can say with certainty where they exist. They certainly do not exist in space because they are the space.

3. The flow of time is an illusion. It arises only when things become heated up. In a cold universe time does not flow from past to present or present to future, but remains bound to the units of space. In a heated universe we may experience the illusion of time moving from past to present and to future in a localized object because of thermodynamics and the rapid movement of the atoms. However, at the universe level, there is no universal present. The division of past, present and future is just an illusion.

4. The black holes are not only objects of compressed matter but also compressed space. In and around the black holes space compresses to such an extent that it does not let anything escape from its hold. Black holes also expand and explode when they reach a certain threshold. Thus, black holes are localized powerhouses of energy where space and time cease to be what they are and where the known laws of physics may not operate with the same degree of probability or predictability.

5. There is no universal "Now" in time and space, but only "Here" or the localized point of space. The Now or the Present moment is relative to your location in space and time. Even that may depend upon a number of probabilities at the quantum level and the relative speed at which things move. There is no flow of time as such. The flow of time is an illusion.

5. Uncertainty and unpredictability seems to be the essential nature of existence. The known or the manifested universe has some predictability but what makes it possible, visible or active is not always predictable. At the quantum level, the universe is foggy, uncertain and unpredictable. Thus, the causality and knowability of the universe is a mystery and huge challenge to both the scientists and the philosophers alike.

Conclusion

It seems we do not know much about the universe and what we know may need further refinement. We are fortunate that we are alive and we can consciously see and experience the vastness of the universe and understand its complex processes despite that we are so tiny in comparison. We are not separate from it, but in it. We are also neither the center nor the purpose of the universe, and we may not even matter at all. It is possible that we may just be the random outcome of mathematical probabilities, upon which the whole fabric of the universe rests.

We do not know whether there is any organized and continuous intelligence which is responsible for all these phenomena. If there is one, it must be God or the Creator. Someday we may perhaps find that force or we may not at all. Like the universe, God may remain forever an enigma, the silent and mysterious force who exists in between the play of particles and in the silence of the interval between appearance and disappearance of things. Even if you see him, you may not know that it is the One.

Religions and mythologies may ascribe self-importance to our existence, but we do not know how much does the universe care about us. Our survival is also a matter of probability. We possess only a fraction of the knowledge of the universe. We have yet to know the quantum mechanics of our own brains and bodies and how they manifest consciousness, thoughts and interactions. May be sometime in future all the pieces of the puzzle fall into their place and give us an extraordinary ability to interact with the universe on our terms.


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Suggestions for Further Reading

Reference: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli, Translated by Simon Carnell And Erica Segre, Riverhead Books, New York, 2016. You may purchase this book from Amazon.