How important is our perspective when it comes to how we experience the world and all its happenings? How much control over our environment do we have? Do we create our own reality? In order to answer these questions, lets have a look at some of the overarching ideas in science, and how they seem to support the suggestion that we have more say in our everyday reality than we choose to believe.

According to Gary Zukav, “… it is impossible to be without an opinion. An opinion is a point of view. The point of view that we can be without a point of view is a point of view. The decision itself to study one segment of reality instead of another is a subjective expression of the researcher who makes it.” In other words, we cannot study reality independent from our perspective. Indeed, according to Alan Watts, “The doctrine of maya is therefore a doctrine of relativity. It is saying that things, facts and events are delineated, not by nature, but by human description and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view.” This is an important understanding to come to terms with.

Reality or Illusion ?

In writing of the differing perspectives of looking at the gas tank of a motorcycle from the left and from the right, Pirsig wrote, “If there is no logical basis for substance then there’s no logical basis for concluding that what’s produced in these two views is the same motorcycle.” He went on to write, “Now we’ve a real intellectual impasse. Our reason, which is supposed to make things more intelligible, seems to be making them less intelligible, and when reason thus defeats its own purpose something has to be changed in the structure of our reason itself.”

With what I have read from Pirsig’s line of reasoning, ironically against the validity of reasoning itself, it becomes clear to me why the ancient masters taught “no thought,” absolute present moment awareness, and no-self, when explaining reality. Furthermore, it seems absolute reality is what is in the absence of the mind, whereas, historical reality is what is recorded by mind. This is why the former is often considered “real,” and the latter is considered “illusory.”

The Illusion of Objective Reality

I like the analogy of a rapidly moving propeller to describe the nature of the appearance of a solid. Indeed, the electrons of an atom are moving at such a great velocity (600 miles per second), and in such a tiny space, that they merely appear solid. In actuality, the electrons, which are not particles but potentiality, dash in and out of existence at different locations around the atomic “shell,” which is an “empty” field of electrical force that keeps the electron from leaving the region. In addition, the nucleus, which provides the “mass” of the atom, would be comparable to a grain of sand placed at mid-field in the largest stadium in the world. Everything else is empty space. In short, our bodies themselves, contrary to our sense perception, is made up of 99.99999% space. In fact, the nucleus is 100,000 times smaller than the atom, yet contains most of its mass! Finally, even the nucleons (protons and neutrons of the nucleus) race around at speeds of about 40,000 miles per second! In short, it is our perception that creates the illusion of objective reality.

As was suggested previously, maya is often misunderstood to mean that the world is an illusion. It is more accurately described as the illusion of the mind due to the establishment of a point of view. Fritjof Capra, who wrote The Tao of Physics, described this misinterpretation as “confusing the map with the territory.” Seemingly in response to this suggestion Zukav wrote, “Space and time coordinates (measurements) vary from one frame of reference to another, depending upon the state of motion of the frame of reference. The general theory of relativity allows us to universalize the laws of physics and to apply them to all frames of reference.”

The Relativity of Perspective

With this in mind, let’s consider how Einstein’s theory of relativity proves that everything we consider to be real is based on our point of view. A car traveling down the road is shorter than it is at rest, weighs more, and its clock runs slower than it does at rest. This is based on Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which speaks to the speed of objects moving relative to the observer, such as a person appearing to walk forward on a plane at 2 mph to observers on that plane, but at 572 mph relative to observers on the ground (2 mph walking + 570 mph flying). The special theory of relativity proved mathematically that appearances are dependent upon the state of motion of the observers. And we are in constant motion!

Imagine standing on the ground observing a plane. To us, both the steward and the passenger are moving. However, to the passenger sitting on the plane, only the steward is moving. It all depends upon your point of view. Zukav wrote, “Motion, and the lack of it, is always relative to something else.” Considering that everything we can perceive through the physical senses is in some state of motion (even subatomic particles are in motion), this means that all understanding in the objective world is in relation to something else. In other words, perception is everything!

According to Zukav, “Whenever we bump into the limits of our self-imposed cognitive reality, the result is always paradox.” In order to make sense of his special theory of relativity, Einstein introduced two terms, proper and relative. To an observer remaining stationary, his measuring apparatus would maintain a “proper” length and time, that is to say, remain unchanged. However, to an observer in motion, the length and time of the ruler and clock would change depending on whether one is moving toward or away from the object being measured. In other words, it is relative to our motion. Importantly, the relative time is always slower and the relative length shorter than proper time and length.

Einstein’s idea of time dilation has been verified in many experiments. In one such experiment, muons, which are created from cosmic radiation of protons colliding with molecules of air at the top of our atmosphere, are found to move much faster in the natural environment than in the laboratory. Muons are said to be traveling at 99% the speed of light, and time dilation is much more noticeable at that speed. Moreover, from their point of view, they are not moving faster. Rather, their speed and distance are measured in proper time and length while ours is relative.

According to Zukav, “The special theory of relativity tells us that the intrinsic lifetime of these high-speed particles does not increase, but that their relative rate of time flow slows down.” To me, this helps to explain why the inner self feels no older than when I was a young boy but the physical self, the one traveling with the planet through space, does feel older.

General Theory of Relativity

In a clear and concise sum to the special theory of relativity Zukav concluded, “The only motion in the physical universe is motion relative to something else. There is no separate space and time. Mass and energy are different names for the same thing.” However, after all the theory has brought us in regards to understanding the space-time continuum it has a major shortcoming. It only applies to uniform motion, which in the physical world is rarely observed. This is why Einstein was motivated to come up with the general theory of relativity.

The general theory of relativity suggests that the space-time continuum is curved due to the presence of matter with the curvature increasing as mass increases. Therefore, the curvature is greatest near the largest objects such as stars. In other words, the curvature is relative to the mass of an object. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity completely abolished the idea of an absolute space and an absolute time because they are said to be one continuum, relative to the mass of celestial bodies in the vicinity. In addition, the greater the mass the more the space-time continuum is “curved,” creating a different experience with observable effects in relation to the observer’s point of view or reference point.

Zukav suggested the right triangle and Pythagorean theorem is analogous to the space-time continuum. If we substitute “space” for one leg, “time” for the other, and “space-time interval” for the hypotenuse, we can see the similarities. Like the hypotenuse, the space-time interval is an absolute. It moves in relation to the “legs” of the space and time dimensions. As time lengthens, space shortens in relation to it and vice versa. Hence, the special theory of relativity, wrote Zukav, “…shows how observers in different frames of reference can observe the same two events and calculate the space-time interval between them.” For example, observers from different points of view will both record light as moving at a constant speed.

To help add clarity to the information provided above, let’s look further into Einstein’s theory of relativity. The analogy of a rubber sheet with many squares is often used to represent the space-time continuum. If we stretch the rubber, the number of squares remains the same. However, the distance can no longer be accurately measured (although we could use the same coordinates, up 2 boxes over three). Therefore, as long as we take into consideration the effects of the gravitational force, the theory of relativity still applies. In sum, the special theory of relativity applies to the space-time continuum of an inertial coordinate system, whereas the general theory of relativity applies to the one we live in, where gravity is in effect.

Importantly, acceleration and gravity are said to be equivalent. Therefore, change in the gravitational field will produce equal changes in measurement as the same change in velocity. According to Einstein, the orbit of the earth is the simplest path for it to take given its place in the space-time continuum and the warping effects produced by the mass of the sun. It is the place of the best balance between the forces of the two bodies. Does this not sound like the middle way?

According to classical physics, when we know both the momentum and position of an object we can predict, with absolute precision, where it will be in the future. It is what makes the space program possible. However, quantum mechanics do not allow us to know both momentum and position of an object. Experiments have repeatedly shown that we must choose one or the other in order to know, with precision, anything about it. Furthermore, the more we can know precisely about one, the less we can know about the other. Moreover, with classic physics we can make predictions with precision but with quantum physics we can only know probabilities.

What Came First Reality or Thought?

Zukav suggested the above information is why quantum physicists ponder questions like, “Did a particle with momentum [or position] exist before we conducted an experiment to measure its momentum [or position]? And “Did any particle exist at all before we thought about them and measured them?” Finally, it leads them to amazing questions like, “Did we create the particles that we are experimenting with?” Consider all of the technological advances that were first created in the fictitious world of motion pictures (such as Star Trek) and then later invented in reality. Did these inventions not get created with thought first?

The most famous mathematical formula of all time, E=MC2, works because mass and energy are merely different forms of the same thing and, like the space-time continuum, cannot be separated. This discovery allowed the combination of the two conservation laws into one. The law of the conservation of mass-energy states that the total amount of mass-energy in the universe never varies. We can transform one to the other, but it can be neither created nor destroyed.

No “Thing”

Zukav suggested that Einstein’s ultimate vision was to demonstrate that there is no such thing as gravitation (which is equivalent to acceleration, which is motion) and matter; rather, they are mental abstractions. Further, there is no such thing as “energy” because energy is matter, which equals mass, and mass is the curvature of the space-time continuum. In other words, there is nothing but space-time and motion, which are basically the same thing. This seems to be the Western stamp on the Eastern ideology of no “thing.”

It is important to realize that no one has ever seen an atom, let alone an electron. It is difficult to imagine that we talk about these subatomic particles as if they were things yet they are mental abstractions only. For example, the electron cloud, said to be made of “standing waves” which surround the nucleus of the atom, are merely “patterns of potential.” Think about that! What does that mean?

The information above suggests that, at the subatomic level, matter does not exist in a specific place and time; rather, it exists as tendencies. This concept is described as the “uncertainty principle.” These probabilities are not of “things,” but of connections, pointing to the oneness of everything.

Become Comfortable with the Unknown

According to Zukav, the basis of the uncertainty principle is that in order to “see” electrons we would have to use gamma waves rather than light waves because the waves are small enough to bounce off the electrons rather than to bend around them, as light waves would do. It is the reason we could hold up a hair to a wall with a light in the background and it would fail to cast a shadow. The hair is so thin the light waves bend around it. However, as soon as the waves bounce off the electron the energy causes the electron to bounce, unpredictably, into another level of the electron cloud. In other words, in order to “see” an electron we have to change it! Zukav wrote, “This means, in reference to ‘moving particles’ anyway, that we can never see them the way they really are; but only the way we choose to see them!” This is the quantum theory explanation as to why we must become comfortable with uncertainty or the “unknown,” as recommended in the Buddhist literature!

Importantly, classic physics falls in line with left-brain thinking, whereas, quantum physics is in line with right brain thinking. The former can be pictured, is based on ordinary sense perceptions, describes things, predicts events, and assumes objective reality is “out there” and that we can observe something without changing it. In contrast, the latter cannot be pictured, describes statistical behavior of systems, predicts probabilities, does not assume an objective reality apart from our experience, and theorizes we cannot observe something without changing it. This is an important realization to come to because it suggests that we create our own reality.