Lawrence Krauss on the Nature of Reality

Lawrence Krauss on the nature of reality, and how it is nothing like our perceptions.

In many ways science is discovering the same insights as spiritual people do, that reality is much bigger than the subjective world that we ordinarily perceive and experience. In the Big Think video posted below, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author of the recent book The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here?, tells us about the strange phenomena that we are encountering as we peer deeper into our universe. We are finding that reality is quite different than we usually perceive it to be.

Interestingly, Krauss considers himself not only an atheist, but an anti-theist, one who not only doesn’t believe in God, but actively works to oppose belief in the existence of the divine. And yet, his thoughts in this video are quite aligned with what I said in my paper yesterday on “The Mystical Core of Mormonism.” And I’m a theist, probably a different kind of theist than those that Krauss usually encounters.

Krauss promotes the importance of science and reason, as do I, but he strongly denounces religion as superstition. I denounce religious superstition as well, and the supernatural, unless we define those terms as things “that are beyond our current scientific understanding.” Krauss agrees that science hasn’t discovered everything yet, and that we may never discover everything. And so there are most certainly forces at work in the universe that we don’t currently understand. Scientists would probably be more comfortable calling these things “the unknown.”

The kind of superstition and supernatural that I don’t believe in, and that which gets scientists like Krauss flared up, is believing in that which is “contrary to the laws of nature.” And I agree with Krauss and the others—nothing can exist in nature or the universe that is contrary to it. Mormon thinkers have taught this many times over the last couple hundred years. What I believe is powerful is a thoroughgoing empirical spirituality, one that does not rely on natural law-breaking claims, but seeks to know and understand from direct observation and experience, that searches out and continually questions, the same as science. If something happens, then it happens in accordance with the laws of nature, and we can investigate those laws. If we don’t understand it right now, that’s ok, it is “unknown,” and we can seek to understand it, and thereby gain a better understanding of the laws of nature and the universe, and what is the more fundamental nature of reality and the world underneath and beyond our ordinary subjective common sense experience.

If we want to do better in our search for a “theory of everything,” and understand the universe and reality better, I perceive that we will have to use science and spirituality, exploring not only the “objective” world, but also the “subjective” world. Of course, science can help us explore the spiritual too, the deeper recesses of the human mind, to a point (it can get quite difficult to do external observation and experiments in there). Spirituality can also help us explore the objective, I believe, since the subjective world, and those deeper recesses of the mind, must exist in our objective universe somehow, and it is only through our subjective experience, and the tools we make and subjectively control, that we can explore the objective world. By shifting our subjective perspective, we may be able to view objective reality in different and new ways, which may open up new understandings and insights. As the famed psychologist and philosopher William James so eloquently stated:

One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902))

Here is the video from Big Think of Lawrence Krauss, followed by a transcript of the video:

Here is the transcript. I have some further thoughts after this transcript:

Well, common sense is useful for certain things. And of course from an evolutionary perspective common sense arose to stop us from being eaten by lions on the Savannah, but not to understand quantum mechanics. There’s no sense in which our brains, the early evolution of our brains, needed to know anything about quantum mechanics or relativity. And what’s amazing is that nevertheless those brains that arose to solve human problems on everyday scales have allowed us to explore the universe on scales that are quite different. And scales where everything that we think is sensible goes away, on quantum mechanical scales where particles can be doing many things at the same time or when you’re moving very fast and your perception of time can change compared to mine. And what we’ve learned, of course, using those principles going beyond common sense is that the universe, our myopic views of the universe are just that, they’re myopic, that the universe at it’s fundamental scales look quite different.

And in fact I begin my new book with one of my favorite allegories: Plato’s allegory of the cave, where he likens our existence to people trapped in a cave, being forced to look at the shadows of reality from the light cast behind them on a wall. And he said the job of a scientist essentially is to interpret those shadows to understand the reality underneath. And when we look at the universe around us we’re seeing the shadows of reality. And what we’ve been able to do is peer underneath to discover the real world, which is really quite different.

And, just as for those individuals, their common sense would tell them that the world is two dimensional because all they see is the projection of reality, we, for us our common sense tells us that the world is three dimensional, but we’ve learned in fact that the universe isn’t; it’s at least four-dimensional; the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time that are tied together yielding a reality at its basis, which is really quite different from that which we experience.

That’s just one example of the many ways we’ve been able to dive down underneath this fabric that’s shielding the real world underneath. And the fabric is what perhaps our common sense is based to understand, and what’s underneath—it’s not too surprising that it doesn’t seem sensible, because it describes realms of the universe that we literally did not evolve to originally understand. And as I say it’s an amazingly fortuitous accident that our brains evolved so we could understand those regions as well.

The question arises, naturally, once we understand at a fundamental level that the universe looks quite different than we perceive it to be: Whether what we’re now discovering is truly fundamental or whether we dive down deeper and the universe will look different still? Richard Feynman argued that way, he basically said, “Will we have a theory of everything, or is the universe like an onion and you peel back one layer and there’s another layer, and it’s an infinite number of layers of onions (or turtles all the way down depending upon how you want to describe it)?” The answer is: we don’t to know. We don’t know if there is an ultimate theory of everything. But it really doesn’t matter in many ways. What we want to understand the universe better today than we did yesterday. We want to expand our understanding and that’s what we try and do.

And science often works by baby steps. One of the things I describe in my book is the long series of baby steps that took us to where we are now, from our understanding of the universe on the scales that we see in this room to the fundamental scales. There were many steps that took us there. And the process is exciting, and every new step of discovery is exciting, and every time we make a new discovery there are more questions than there are answers. And so there’s guaranteed job security, it seems to me, for scientists, and I don’t have any great expectations that there is a theory of everything or a need to know that theory. To me the questioning and the search is as exciting in some sense as the answer.

I wrote a lengthy paper some fifteen years ago while at BYU about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, entitled “A Modern Worldview from Plato’s Cave.” It was while researching and writing this paper that I originally became interested in transhumanist ideas, although I don’t think I knew it by that name at the time. My paper is posted online here.

In another place Krauss has said, “I don’t ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I’m concerned it’s turtles all the way down.”

Perhaps it is also gods and the divine all the way down. Perhaps there are an infinite number of infinite regresses. Perhaps this is what should strike us to our centers with awe at this wonderful world that we live in. The early Mormon thinker and poet W. W. Phelps penned these words, which are now lyrics to a hymn, “If You Could Hie to Kolob.”

If you could hie to Kolob
In the twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward
With that same speed to fly,
Do you think that you could ever,
Through all eternity,
Find out the generation
Where Gods began to be?

Or see the grand beginning,
Where space did not extend?
Or view the last creation,
Where Gods and matter end?
Methinks the Spirit whispers,
“No man has found ‘pure space,’
Nor seen the outside curtains,
Where nothing has a place.”

The works of God continue,
And worlds and lives abound;
Improvement and progression
Have one eternal round.

There is no end to matter;
There is no end to space;
There is no end to spirit;
There is no end to race.

There is no end to virtue;
There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom;
There is no end to light.

There is no end to union;
There is no end to youth;
There is no end to priesthood;
There is no end to truth.

There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is no end to being;
There is no death above.

There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is no end to being;
There is no death above.

(“If You Could Hie to Kolob,” lyrics to an LDS hymn, William W. Phelps, 1792-1872)


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