Is there a reality out there?

Human beings love stories. We thrive on them, they evoke our emotions and give us reason to live (or die for that matter). Stories are what give us sense and meaning.

Stories are also almost absolutely subjective, at least in terms of their final impact on individuals. The final act of every creation—stories included—happens in the mind of the recipient, and it is the stage upon which the storyteller has no control at all. It is the sum of our experiences that does decide what our perception of the story will be. Therefore there are as many variants of a single story, as there are people on the planet. And from this perspective, who is to say which story is better?

This kind of reasoning brought us the idea of post-modernism, where even the concept of reality itself begun to be treated as subjective to one’s interpretation, and wholly dependent on one’s point of view. In its peak, this philosophy proposed that we in fact create the very reality by our mental processes, and that by changing the way in which we think and perceive the outside world we can totally remake it, because it is nothing more than a narrative. It also proposed the ultra-egalitarianism, postulating absolute equality of everybody’s view of the world.

I’ll spare you the paradoxes of post-modernistic philosophies, and listing the flaws of this kind of unfortunately quite prevalent magical thinking, but there is one thing that I personally can’t ignore. The uber-egalitarianism proposes that science is “just another piece of storytelling”, and that it has no special claim on saying what’s real, and what’s not. This point of view saddens me, especially when it is voiced by famous psychotherapists or people who really should know better.

This statement is very, very incorrect. While I absolutely agree that each of us creates their own inner picture of reality, and then by our actions we can influence the outside world, sometimes even make an important contribution towards some big changes, it is by no means equal to creating the outside reality, or to claiming that there is no objective reality at all.

There exist certain rules that every atom in the universe does seem to follow. These rules can be discovered by systematic observation, and they even can be described with the use of an abstract language of mathematics. Even such seemingly chaotic and stochastic systems like weather can be described with certain probability, and with certain “resolution”.  It is amazing that we were able to create the semantics which allows us to predict the events that do happen “randomly”, like radioactive decay for example. Of course, not the course of every single one of them can be described—they are truly random in such sense—but their general, statistical behavior is quite well established, enough for building reliant nuclear reactors or medical imaging devices.

Such is our advancement in this kind of observation that it allows us to build tools like GPS which take into account the space-time curvature, and relativistic lengthening of time, or tackle the idea of quantum computing. We are so certain of the laws that govern the universe, that in our arrogance we create amazing things that rely on these laws to function properly. And they do work. There are laws in the universe that we can all rely upon.

These laws do not care who you are, where you live, whether you are a human-being, an amoeba, or a piece of anti-matter. They do not care about your life story. They are identical for everyone and everything, the true example of uber-egalitarianism. As such, these laws are the reality: the objective reality, ever-present for everyone and everything in the same way. And science is the process that seeks to discover and describe these laws. Therefore to dismiss it as “yet another storytelling device” is a mark of ignorance or a sad lack of understanding of what this process entails.

To be fair, science is messy, and mathematics is an abstract language that—sadly—not very many people know or even want to learn. Science does involve at first noticing some observations (which are objective, repeatable facts), and then trying to come up with some kind of abstract description that will allow prediction of future behavior of the observed system. This part happens in an objective reality. The problems might start when one has to translate or interpret the findings.

All our “natural” languages are inherently imprecise, and are a product of our daily experience and the environment that we live in. We have problems translating ideas that fall out of such experience, because we lack proper frame of reference to convey the true meaning of elaborate equations—equations that are very precise, and leave little room for debate. We have to resort to metaphors to describe constructs like electron cloud, which are described without fault by mathematical equations, but can never be properly described with the use of common words. Such attempts of passing the knowledge to “uninitiated” are prone to misunderstandings, and superficiality, as we can witness for example with the idea of an “observer” in quantum mechanics. For some reason people started associating the act of localizing an electron (measurement) with the presence of some kind of consciousness observing the act, sparkling a lot of shallow, misguided philosophical speculations. This is the limit of metaphors, and there are things lost or added in translation. Such is the nature of telling stories—their authors have almost no influence on how they will be understood.

In the end science does indeed tell stories that are supposed to help us make sense of this world that we live in. The difference is that the stories being told are based on the most fundamental aspects of repetitive, and reliable objective reality, a translation from very precise language of mathematics into our limited, poetic language of everyday life. These stories are not made up. They might be better or worse translations, but what they describe is real.

Some people seem to be offended by the word “objective”, and prefer using “consensus” instead. I think it is a misnomer. The laws do not care about our consent. Even though there exists a substantial subjective element to how things are explained, interpreted and understood, the facts, and the laws themselves remain reliably unchanged. There is an objective reality out there, and we’re relying on it in all our activities every day, especially now, when you are reading these words. :)

Thanks to these laws, we are alive, and can go on telling our stories in a manner that is most convenient for us 😀

Synchronicity and confirmation bias – a difference

And now for something completely different.

The concept of synchronicity is quite simple – it is a subjective feeling that two events are meaningfully related. For example, I look for information on problem A, then in my spare time I listen to an overdue issue of a biotech podcast that happens to have guests from a virology podcast, which I then decide to check out, and I find out that a new episode of this second podcast has the answer to my problem A in it. Amazing synchronicity – I found a solution for a problem not looking for it, and in a place that I would have not expected it. It feels meaningful for me, and gives me a lot of joy. Another example – I talk about effects of sword cuts with friends, and then suddenly a person from another side of the globe who is not involved in this discussion sends me on Facebook his pictures of the test-cutting that he did this day, and that illustrate precisely the point I was trying to make in a discussion. Wow! What are the odds of that?

However, from an objective standpoint synchronicity is simply a coincidence. Regardless of how meaningful this event is for me, for other people there is no such connection. Unless they share my belief system, or I manage to convince them otherwise. But in general, people not involved in solving problem A will look at the virology podcast, they will not get butterflies in their belly, and will say that there is nothing unusual about it. And from their perspective they are right.

Synchronicities, when they happen, really do add meaning to our lives, and push us into the state of mind closer to “being in the zone”. That is if we allow them to do it. They might create an impression, that there is an invisible hand that guides our destiny, and lead us forward, making the life easier and lighter. Why not use this to our advantage? Life without synchronicities is tiresome, boring, and gray. Synchronicity provides me with a moment of awe and wonder, in which I can immerse myself, take a deep breath, and appreciate life more. Screw objectivism, this feels good! And it makes a great story as well! (Which is probably why it feels this way, but it’s another matter entirely).

But then, don’t overdo it. If you start actively looking for synchronicities, then you are actually employing a strategy to find meaning, where there is none. This strategy is called confirmation bias. You know there is a meaning, and you are simply looking for signs to confirm your preconceived idea. What you find can give you peace of mind (or sometimes a headache, if you happen to find something you weren’t looking for), but in the end you are only deluding yourself, and chasing dreams and shadows of meaning, not the real meaning itself. Stop. Cease and desist.

The trick is not to be too active but observant and open to new experiences, and surprises. Synchronicities do happen. But their only magic is in our heads. Embrace the magical moment of inner realization, and don’t make the mistake of trying to enter the same river twice. This is not going to happen. Move on, wait for another day and another miracle.

Life happens to be beautiful. From one synchronicity to the next.