What is (or are) Real?

Since this is so counter-intuitive, and goes against ‘common-sense’, let’s have another go at asking the question, what is real at the most fundamental level? What can we say about the most basic building blocks of all that exists? This doesn’t seem like an unimportant question, because I’m part of whatever it is that’s real. Surely we all want to know what we’re made of? If we ask this question, however, we find ourselves in deeper waters than we might like. We may well find the answer initially bewildering and even troubling but, if we stick with it, things can begin to become very interesting, and even exciting.

We’ve known for certain, for over a hundred years, that absolutely everything is made of atoms, which are all basically the same, whether they take the form of a block of stone, a lick of ice cream, or our own bodies. We’ve discovered that they have a central nucleus, made of protons and neutrons, surrounded by one or more electrons. To scale, if the nucleus is the size of a peanut sitting at the centre of the Royal Albert Hall, the electrons are like midges flying around in the cavernous emptiness. As I’ve previously noted, atoms can be said to be 99.99% empty space!

There’s ‘worse’ to follow. We now know that protons and neutrons are made of even tinier components known as quarks, but neither an atom, electron, proton, neutron, or quark, is a solid object like a microscopic snooker ball. They’re all insubstantial ‘packets of energy’. What is energy? No one knows, but think of a magnet, surrounded by a magnetic field. If you bring another magnet close, you’ll feel a force, pushing the magnets away from each other, or snapping them together. That force is energy. You can feel it, but not see it. It’s invisible and immaterial, but it’s there.

You may be thinking, we know all this. Why’s he going on about it? I’m going on about it because, even if we know about this, we may not have taken it fully on board. This is telling us that the basic building blocks of everything that exists, are essentially invisible, immaterial ‘packets of energy’. It’s as if there’s ‘virtually’ nothing there! It’s as if the universe is an illusion, and you and I nothing more substantial than ghosts. That’s not what ‘appears’ to us to be the case, but let’s be careful. The Earth below our feet doesn’t appear to us to be moving at up to 1,000 mph around its axis nor simultaneously, in a different direction, at 67,000 mph around the Sun. This doesn’t seem to us be happening, but it is. We ought to be dizzy and sick, but we aren’t. Appearances and common sense can deceive us. 

So, if common sense rises in protest, and says all this is manifest rubbish, think again. Common sense insisted that the earth was obviously flat; that the sun, moon and stars moved around it; and that the earth was the fixed centre of the universe. Common sense was entirely wrong. The facts, the truth of the matter, however, had to fight for hundreds of years, to compel acceptance, and some of the first people to ‘get the point’ paid a heavy price at the hands of their opponents. I’m reminded of Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones, with his, “They don’t like it up ‘em”. Whether we ‘ like this up us’ or not, however, is beside the point. What is, is! We need to accept it, and move on in the light (not darkness) of it.  

I find the analogy of the above ‘pointillist’ Seurat painting helpful. Looked at from very close up, it’s an incomprehensible deluge of tiny smudges of colour. If, however, we move to a suitable distance, our eyes and brains process all that heap of incoming data, and our minds interpret it as ‘Bathers at Asnières’. It now makes perfect and glorious sense to us. When we go up close to the components of fundamental reality, they’re as confusing and incomprehensible as a close-up of that Meurat painting. Our human visual system, however, with its 130 million photoreceptors, and our brains with their billions of neurones, have evolved as a first-class system for interpreting that ultimate reality, and constructing an intimate reality that makes sense of the world, enables our functioning within it, and creates value, meaning, beauty, wonder, and the joy of being alive in it.

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