Trailblazing Physicist David Bohm and Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard on How We Shape What We Call Reality
By Maria Popova
We never see the world exactly as it is — our entire experience of it is filtered through the screen of our longings and our fears, onto which project the interpretation we call reality. The nature of that flickering projection has captivated the human imagination at least since Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. Philip K. Dick was both right and wrong when, in contemplating how to build a universe, he wrote that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Reality, after all, is constructed through our very beliefs — not because we have a magical-thinking way of willing events and phenomena into manifesting, but because cognitive science has shown us that the way we direct our attention shapes our perception of what we call “reality.”
That’s what molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist-raised astrophysicist Trinh Thuan explore in The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (public library) — an infinitely mind-bending conversation at the intersection of science and philosophy. The contemporary counterpart to Einstein’s conversation with Tagore, it takes apart our most elemental assumptions about time, space, the origin of the universe and, above all, the nature of reality.
In considering the constructed nature of reality, Ricard quotes from a 1977 Berkeley lecture by David Bohm (December 20, 1917–October 27, 1992), in which the trailblazing theoretical physicist offered an exquisite formulation of the interplay between our beliefs and what we experience as reality:
Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.
No matter how complex our instruments may be, no matter how sophisticated and subtle our theories and calculations, it’s still our consciousness that finally interprets our observations. And it does so according to its knowledge and conception of the event under consideration. It’s impossible to separate the way consciousness works from the conclusions it makes about an observation. The various aspects that we make out in a phenomenon are determined not only by how we observe, but also by the concepts that we project onto the phenomenon in question.
Complement this fragment of the wholly fantastic The Quantum and the Lotus with Alan Watts on what reality really means and Simone Weil on science and our spiritual values, then revisit Ricard’s conversation with his father, the great French philosopher Jean-François Revel, about the nature of the self.
Published September 22, 2015