The Barriers are Coming Down!
(New Science Makes Us
Question Our Assumptions)
by Jonathan Dickau
©'95 - all rights reserved
In the process of our discovery of the nature of the world, from the earliest moments of childhood, there are distinctions we must perceive, and assumptions we must make, in order to understand it. As we learn and grow, we form models of our world which closely resemble reality, as it is, but it is important to realize that the words, gestures, or images we use to describe something are not that thing itself. The models we have of the universe are still just that, only models. The real thing, or reality is proving to be far more elusive and yet more wondrous than we could have imagined.
Scientific advancements during this century have overturned a number of cherished notions of the past, but many people are unaware of the implications of this, and in a way they are still living by the old rules. The view that reality is mechanical, linear, and totally reasonable is the product of an age long gone. Isaac Newton and René Descartes laid the groundwork for this philosophy over 300 years ago, but the average person, in our culture, hasn't progressed much beyond this. There are other dimensions to our reality, which are well known to the Sciences of today, but new ways of thinking need to be developed, if we are to incorporate these subtleties into our everyday awareness.
Humans seem preoccupied with straight lines and square corners, which are seldom seen in nature at all. In addition, we make many distinctions about things in our life on this basis. What exactly are left and right, up and down, or in and out? If I face away from you, my left and right sides are the same as yours, but if I face toward you they are opposite. This is perhaps the simplest example of relativity, now known to be a universal principle with far more profound implications. Everything in the universe can be seen only relative to the frame of reference of the observer. To another observer, things will look a little different, even with no prejudice whatsoever. In effect, the world actually is a little bit different for each of us.
If I were an observer floating in space, the concept of up and down might get in the way of my navigating through the void, but near the surface of a planet it is a very useful concept indeed. Of course, it's nice to have the perspective of knowing that up and down are just out and in from another viewpoint. What effect does our own viewpoint have on what we see? What effect do the actions we take to observe reality have on the course of events we observe? How about the actions of others? How much of what we know is burdened by the hidden assumptions in our language, or the biases of our culture? Such factors can obscure ones awareness of the real nature of things, or can limit ones world-view to a model only accurate within a narrow range of conditions. We must be vigilant indeed to avoid this problem.
There are, of course, those pieces of knowledge you wonder what to do with. You may know, for example, that a stone is comprised of almost entirely empty space, and that glass is actually a liquid, but these facts won't save you if you throw that stone at a glass window. The window is going to shatter anyway! It doesn't matter how strongly you believe otherwise, or how deeply you fail to understand why. There is a fundamental difference between what a few random facts can tell us, and what our experience has taught us. The problem is that the average person's experience is limited to a relatively small range of scale, or size, and duration, or time. We perceive the nature of things only for objects near our own scale, and we don't experience events on the sub-microscopic, the planetary, or the cosmic level, for the most part.
Consequently, those things which lie outside that range we can experience through the senses tend to be filed away as curiosities, rather than our breathing life into the concepts. However, there are ways in which events on a different level of scale can enter our awareness, and influence our daily life. Little things like electrons add up, and their movement within our body is key to the processes which support life. Electrons are carriers of energy, in the form of electric charge. There are numerous channels of energy flow in the body, and a multitude of processes involving electrons. Both Chiropractors and Practitioners of Chinese Medicine base their practice upon the assumption that proper energy flow is essential to health, and that energy blockages promote disease and should be eliminated.
Einstein's great equation E=mc2 describes the equivalence of matter and energy, which is to say that one can be converted to the other. It can also be said that energy must exhibit matter-like properties, at times, and that matter must exhibit energetic, or wave-like aspects, under the right conditions. Our bodies are literally comprised of energy, but most of it is tied up in holding the various component parts (our atoms, molecules, cells, and so forth) together. Certain oriental practices such as Tai Ji, Chi Gung, Kung Fu, and Aikido are said to derive their strength from the conscious movement of energy to create motion. When I go like this (lifting arm with muscles), it is a bit different from my doing this (arm-lift with ch'i).
What we can experience does depend upon our practices, as well as our beliefs, and upon the repertoire of techniques, or the ability of the teachers available to us. The only way we can really measure what we know is by applying known principles, and seeing how that works. If there is anything which modern Science teaches us, however, it is to keep an open mind. It's important to realize that though certain assumptions about reality have served us well, they are probably only approximations, and there are exceptions to virtually any rule. In addition, more than one model can be used to explain exactly the same data. The real question is, how do we choose what to believe in; where do we draw the line?
The only insight I can provide is that common-sense isn't always the right answer, or rather that some of today's common-sense ideas will look as silly to people in the future as some silly notions of the past look to us today. Reality doesn't always make sense, in a simple way, but perhaps it is actually supposed to stretch our minds a little, in the process of discovering the nature of our world and of ourselves. I do think there is a meaning and purpose to life, and that this secret can be found in nature, and in the evolution of the cosmos as well. I also believe that the creative process which gives rise to external reality is mirrored within each of us. This means that we can gain a better understanding of ourself, by knowing the behavior of nature, and may understand some of nature's secrets when we really know ourselves. I think it's good to put our minds to work looking for identifiable patterns in the events of life. Sometimes people attempt to over-simplify things, however, and attempt to make things fit into categories which don't quite work.
In nature, the borders which separate things are often quite complex. We don't see straight lines, circles and regular polygons but jagged edges, weird ovals, and articulated shapes of all sorts. Natural forms are wonderfully varied, and often intricate in their beauty, but this also makes them hard to accurately describe. There are inherent difficulties in measuring the exact border of any physical object. Try measuring the perimiter of a lake sometime, if you don't know what I mean. For one thing, a smaller measuring rod will yield a larger result than longer one, and a string will yield a larger result than a thick rope, so long as care is taken to follow the border exactly. In addition there's the question of how one can define a border which is undulating with the waves on the water's surface.
Life forms are like that too. If you look at living cells under a microscope, they have fuzzy edges which undulate in a variety of ways, depending on their type. In the case of animal cells, they don't really have a solid border at all, but rather a semi-permeable membrane which provides for limited exchange with the outside environment. Do we perhaps take our own borders for granted overmuch? Does the body end at our skin? What about our nails and hair, are they part of us too? There are electrons which circulate both inside and outside the body, and they follow us wherever we go, at least until our next little shock. There are also other things which circulate around us, like dead skin cells, scent molecules, little bits of exhaled breath, and so on. In addition, we all radiate considerable amounts of energy; most of it in the form of heat.
How much of what we represent to the outer world is really us, or can be perceived as part of ourself, and how much do we as individuals take responsibility for? Is this accurately reflected in the way our society treats nature, and the environment, or do we portray something we do not mean to embody? We are connected to our world on several levels at once, whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or we don't. The overall effect we have on our world can reach far beyond the confines of our own experience. In one example, the average American uses products from all over the world, and our exported products are used world-wide. We are each also part of a vast planetary web of life which includes all living things.
Do we have a right to assume that we are superior to other life forms, and to nature itself, or should we be learning more from nature, cooperating more with the natural ecology, and emulating nature's grace? The way to do this is to whittle down the barriers in your mind, which maintain the illusion of separateness, and resist the temptation to see your actions as disconnected from the rest of your world. When you turn on a faucet, the water must come from somewhere, and go to somewhere as well. We are interconnected and inter-dependent with other life forms upon the good nature of the Earth. We need most of the same things which other animals require to live, and we leave behind similar waste products. What sets us apart is that we have this ability to choose our own course of action, but we must still learn to choose wisely.
Does this mean we need to abandon technology, and go back to the old ways? I don't think we have to give up what we've gained through man-made devices so much as we need to cultivate and maintain a respectful awareness of nature. Nature is wonderfully holistic, to the point where our attempts to classify its wonders can lead us astray. Even broad categories such as plant or animal, intelligent or instinctive, living or non-living, and others need to be called into question from time to time. Once again, the message of modern Science is that the borders are not so distinct as we thought. There are several known examples of entities which are ambiguous in each category. We have discovered various molds and algae which are both plant-like and animal in nature, organisms whose behavior is difficult to explain simply, and things like viruses and viroids which behave like living organisms without actually embodying life, as we know it.
How many other distinctions will be called into question, as Science discovers new sub-atomic particles, new chemical elements, new life forms, and so on? There seems to be no end to that which can be discovered, and is being uncovered. I wonder how long it will take before the awareness of certain things becomes a part of the common experience of average human beings? Will we cling to the notion that everything has a reason, or appreciate the great number of factors which play a part in things? Will we continue to insist that things have to be one way, or the other, now that there are so many examples of things which are both? Will we still regard ourselves as separate from the universe, or are we learning better?
I don't believe that Science excludes Religion, but rather it gives it more reasons to exist. Both questions and answers often involve issues which are more religious, or ethical, than scientific. It has been shown that even the ability to see a result can influence the outcome of some experiments. The role of an observer is something which has been examined quite critically, and has become the source of much philosophical speculation, for this reason. How much do we need to know, if we must change reality to find something out? The fact is that we are connected to our world and our universe! We touch all of reality, and it touches us.
Everything in the universe is connected to you at this moment. Lines of force from distant stars pass right through this room! Most of your atoms were forged in the heart of distant stars, which exploded long ago as supernovas rich in the elements which can form planets, or serve as the building blocks of life. Some of the hydrogen atoms are actually older, being remnants of the big bang. We have evolved from the stuff of stars, and we stand on the shoulders of those beings who went before us. Let us be aware of how much we share with them, and remember to tune in to our world with all of the senses we have.
©'97 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved
Single copies are permitted, for personal or reference use,
but reproduction for commercial purposes is not permitted.
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