How Real is Reality?


What is reality? There may be just one reality in most cases. Some examples are: everybody must die someday; your expenses should be within your income in order to sustain; and you reap what you sow. On the other hand, most realities in this world are not that simple. So people view them subjectively based on their preconceptions and personal experiences. Consequently, their interpretations of reality become their own realities, which differ widely from one another.

One example of complex reality is this: Being a small player, can you win in the stock market? And if so, how? I am sure everyone has a different answer depending on how you see the market. If there exists only one reality, the closer our view is to that reality, the better it will work for us. Therefore, we cannot expect a black-or-white answer, because most things are gray in this world.

Mistaken interpretation of reality can cause big disasters or ruins. The financial meltdown of 2008 originated from a mistaken perception that housing prices can keep on rising indefinitely. The US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was largely a result of the mistaken view that US troops would be welcomed as liberators instead of being resisted as foreign occupiers. Finally, the US decision to go into Vietnam in the mid 1960s was dominated by the mistaken “domino theory” that communism would spread from one country to another if not stopped. The reality is that communist countries, like capitalist ones, are not a homogeneous bunch. They have their own culture, self-interests and national pride. They fight each other viciously as seen in the Sino-Soviet split and border conflicts between mid 1960s to mid 1970s, and the brief Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979.

Even in science that is supposed to be precise, reality seems to be a moving target full of contradictions. In quantum physics dealing with atomic and smaller particles, an electron behaves like a particle and a wave at the same time. An electron also seems like an illusion because you cannot determine with accuracy its position and velocity simultaneously according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Yet, we see the practical results of the electron in electricity, electric motors, and computers.

Another scientific fact that amazes me is the following. If we imagine the size of an atom to be as large as a football field, the nucleus would be so small like a grain of sand in the middle. The rest of the space would be empty with nothing except one or more electrons circling around the nucleus. In other words, atoms are very empty spheres indeed! Since all matters consist of atoms, it means that matters are also very empty with a large distance between any two nuclei. Then it follows that one substance can easily pass through another through the empty space within each atom. Does this sound like magic or illusion?

However, this cannot happen. Why? According to the Pauli exclusion principle, no two electrons can have the same energy state. This means each electron keeps its orbital space only to itself unless it wants to share the space with another when two or more atoms combine to form a molecule, or form an entirely new substance. Imagine this: when you sit on a chair, you are in fact separated from the chair by the exclusion forces of the electrons between you and the chair surface, because their orbital spaces cannot be penetrated according to the exclusion principle. In addition, the exclusion forces of the electrons at the surfaces in contact determine the feel, look, smell and taste of a substance. Does that sound like reality to you?

Let me take you even further. You must have heard about the Big Bang that gave rise to the universe some 14 billion years ago. Besides all the debris flying out that eventually formed the stars and planets, the Big Bang also gave birth to space and time simultaneously. This means space and time have the same origin as all the rest. Astronomers consider space as having three dimensions and time as the fourth dimension, forming a space-time continuum. I wish to stop here and let you marvel about the rest.

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how complex reality can be. Finding reality, like seeking truth, is usually a long process through trial and error, except for the simple cases. We may never find reality in most cases, but we know we are making tremendous progress by moving closer and closer to it. So how close are you to reality?

(June 2011)

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2 Responses to How Real is Reality?

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