Clifford A. Pickover
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The nature of reality is this: It is hidden, and it is hidden, and it is hidden.
Rumi, 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic
What is reality? What is transcendence? How can we open our minds so that we can reason beyond the limits of our intuition? When Albert Einstein was asked about reality, he replied, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." In an effort to stretch readers' minds, I have considered both Einstein and Rumi while publishing thirty books on topics on the borderlands of science and religion. Most recently, and perhaps most importantly, I published four science-fiction novels in a "Neoreality" series in which both the reader and protagonists cope with realities separated from ours by thin veils. These distortions and parallel universes are a backdrop for human emotion, scientific logic, grand adventure, and a variety of religious discussions. For example, in Liquid Earth, religious robots help humans cope with a reality that melts along a rustic Main Street in Shrub Oak, New York. In The Lobotomy Club, a group of people perform brain surgery on themselves to allow them to see religious visions and a "truer" reality. In Sushi Never Sleeps, readers ponder a fractal society with inhabitants living at different size scales. Would different population groups, because of size, develop their own separate societies, religion, and laws? Would some of the tiny Fractalians believe that individuals a million time their size even existed, or would they be relegated to the realm of mythological creatures, like the superhuman gods of yore? And, finally, in Egg Drop Soup, an alien object allows people to explore countless realities populated by a host of mysterious beings.
Sometimes readers of the Neoreality series ask me why I write on God, strange realities, and religious subjects. I tend to be skeptical about the paranormal. However, I do feel that there are facets of the universe we can never understand, just as a monkey can never understand calculus, black holes, symbolic logic, and poetry. There are thoughts we can never think, visions we can only glimpse. It is at this filmy, veiled interface between human reality and a reality beyond that we may find the numinous, which some may liken to God.
But what exactly is neoreality? In my Neoreality book series, I use the word "neoreality" to imply a new or altered reality that is so close to ours that the differences are usually imperceptible. These realities are often futuristic, fresh, and alive with detail. Readers find themselves in touch with a hyper-reality, a religious reality beyond space and time. Odd portals help characters transcend ordinary existence. The word "neorealism" has traditionally described a movement in Italian filmmaking, characterized by the depictions of poor people and their daily challenges. In neorealistic movies, directors often featured ordinary characters in plots that meandered like wisps and eddies of wind. The directors did a minimum of editing and fancy camerawork. My new use of the word neoreality is not synonymous with neorealism, although I can resonate with the old neorealistic characters, buffeted by the seemingly random circumstances around them. Navigating the chaotic churn, and speculating about God, is the very essence of adventure.
Belief in an omniscient God and the promise of heaven are important ideas to adherents of great monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These beliefs pervade much of Western culture and are clearly evident in the US. Recent surveys indicate:
Indeed, science and religion are both thriving in America.
Not only do many lay people believe in God, but various scientists have used evidence from physics and astronomy to conclude that God exists. Note, however, that the scientists' "God" may not be the God of the Israelites, who smites the wicked, but rather a God that established various mathematical and physical parameters that permitted life to evolve in the universe. Some scientists feel we exist because of cosmic coincidences, or more accurately, we exist because of seemingly "finely tuned" numerical constants that permit life. Those individuals who believe this anthropic principle suggest these numbers to be near miracles that might suggest an intelligent design to the universe. Here are just a few examples of where religion and science become close.
We owe our very lives to the element carbon, which was first manufactured in stars before the Earth formed. The challenge in creating carbon is getting two helium nuclei in stars to stick together until they are struck by a third. It turns out that this is accomplished only because of internal resonances, or energy levels, of carbon and oxygen nuclei. If the carbon resonance level were only four percent lower, carbon atoms wouldn't form. Were the oxygen resonance level only half a percent higher, almost all the carbon would disappear as it combined with helium to form oxygen. This means that human existence depends on the fine-tuning of these two nuclear resonances. The famous astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle said that his atheism was shaken by facts such as these:
"If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are just the two levels you have to fix. Your fixing would have to be just about where these levels are actually found to be... A common sense interpretation of the facts suggest that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question... Rather than accept that fantastically small probability of life having arisen through the blind forces of nature, it seemed better to suppose that the origin of life was a deliberate intellectual act."
Robert Jastrow, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, called this the most powerful evidence for the existence of God ever to come out of science. Other amazing parameters abound. If all of the stars in the universe were heavier than three solar masses, they would live for only about 500 million years, and life would not have time to evolve beyond primitive bacteria. Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the rate of the universe's expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have re-collapsed. The universe must live for billions of years to permit time for intelligent life to evolve. On the other hand, the universe might have expanded so rapidly that protons and electrons never united to make hydrogen atoms.
Paul Davies has calculated that the odds against the initial conditions being suitable for later star formation as one followed by a thousand billion billion zeroes. Paul Davies, John Barrow, and Frank Tipler estimated that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by only one part in 10100 would have prevented advanced life forms to evolve. There is no a priori physical reason why these constants and quantities should possess the values they do. This has led the one-time agnostic physicist Paul Davies to write, "Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact." Of course, these conclusions are controversial, and an infinite number of random (non-designed) universes could exist, ours being just one that permits carbon-based life. Some researchers have even speculated that child universes are constantly budding off from parent universes and that the child universe inherits a set of physical laws similar to the parent, a process reminiscent of evolution of biological characteristics of life on Earth.
We can go even further and think about the wild implications for multiple universes -- such as those presented in my Neoreality series -- and what they say about our power in relation to God's. Stanford University physics Professor Andrei Linde has speculated that it might be possible to create a new baby universe in a laboratory by violently compressing matter at high temperatures -- in fact, one milligram of matter may initiate an eternal self-reproducing universe. What would be the economic or spiritual gain we would get from creating a universe, considering it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enter the new universe from ours? Would God care if we created such universes at will? Andre Linde and writer Rudy Rucker have discussed methods for encoding a message for the new universe's potential inhabitants by manipulating parameters of physics, such as the masses and charges of particles, although this would be a precarious experiment given the difficulty of manipulating these constants so that they code a message and permit life to evolve. In light of the possibility of multiple universes, perhaps the term "omniscient" takes on a new meaning, and the God of the Old Testament might be omniscient only in the sense that He knows all that can be known about a single universe and not all universes.
Is God a mathematician? Certainly, the world, the universe, and nature can be reliably understood using mathematics. Nature is mathematics. The arrangement of seeds in a sunflower can be understood using Fibonacci numbers. The shape assumed by a delicate spider web suspended from fixed points, or the cross-section of sails bellying in the wind, is a catenary -- a simple curve defined by a simple formula. Seashells, animal's horns, and the cochlea of the ear are logarithmic spirals, which can be generated using a mathematical constant known as the golden ratio. Mountains and the branching patterns of blood vessels and plants are fractals, a class of shapes that exhibit similar structures at different magnifications. Einstein's E = mc2 defines the fundamental relationship between energy and matter. And a few simple constants -- the gravitational constant, Planck's constant, and the speed of light -- control the destiny of the universe. I do not know if God is a mathematician, but mathematics is the loom upon which God weaves the fabric of the universe.
I think that our brains are wired with a desire for religion and belief in an omniscient God. If so, the reasons for our interest, and the rituals we use, are buried deep in the essence of our nature. Religion is at the edge of the known and the unknown, poised on the fractal boundaries of history, philosophy, psychology, biology, and many other scientific disciplines. Because of this, religion and religious paradoxes are an important topic for contemplation and study. Even with the great scientific strides we will make in this century, we will nevertheless continue to swim in a sea of mystery. Humans need to make sense of the world and will surely continue to use both logic and religion for that task. What patterns and connections will we see in the twenty-first century? Who and what will be our God?
And what about the Bible itself? Why do I use so much Biblical imagery in the Neoreality book series? For one thing, the Bible is as an alternate reality device. It gives its readers a glimpse of other ways of thinking and of other worlds. It is also the most mysterious book ever written. We don't know the ratio of myth to history. We don't know all the authors. We are not always sure of the intended message. We only know that that the Bible reflects and changes humankind's deepest feelings. The Bible, an ancient book, paradoxically describes the ultimate Neoreality -- and is the hammer that shatters the ice of our unconscious. Dan Platt, of the IBM Watson Research Center, once told me, "The Bible is at minimum an interesting model of human understanding -- of how we reach across cultures to understand each other and learn about what we hold as sacred. I have the notion that that kind of interface is the most visible place to look for God."
Perhaps Dr. Platt is right. Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer once compared events in our world to the tops of waves in an ocean. We notice the tops of the isolated waves, but beneath the surface there may be some kind of synchronistic mechanism that connects them. Whatever you believe about such far-out speculation, be humble. Our brains, which evolved to make us run from lions on the African savanna, may not be constructed to penetrate the infinite veil of reality. We may need science, computers, brain augmentation, and even literature and poetry to help us tear away the veils. For those of you who read the Neoreality series, look for the hidden mechanism, feel the connections, pierce the cosmic shroud, and sail on the shoreless sea of love.
* Essay © Cliff Pickover. Reprinted with permission of Templeton Foundation Press from the forthcoming Spiritual Information, edited by Charles L. Harper, Jr. © 2003. The web page for this article can be found linked from www.pickover.com/neoreality.html. Click here to learn more about the four science-fiction books in the Neoreality series.
Note: I am currently seeking to publish this essay for broad public consumption in a popular magazine. I welcome suggestions for possible magazine and contact names.
Clifford A. Pickover received his Ph.D. from Yale University's Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and is the author of over thirty highly acclaimed books -- translated in ten languages -- on such topics as computers and creativity, religion, art, mathematics, black holes, human behavior and intelligence, time travel, alien life and science fiction. Recent books include The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience, The Loom of God, Surfing through Hyperspace, Time: A Traveler's Guide, Dreaming the Future, Keys to Infinity, Wonders of Numbers, The Mathematics of Oz, and four science-fiction novels in a "Neoreality" series: Liquid Earth, The Lobotomy Club, Sushi Never Sleeps, and Egg Drop Soup. Pickover is a prolific inventor with dozens of patents, is the associate editor for several journals, the author of colorful puzzle calendars, and puzzle contributor to magazines geared to children and adults.
The Los Angeles Times recently wrote, "Pickover has published nearly a book a year in which he stretches the limits of computers, art and thought." Wired magazine wrote, "Bucky Fuller thought big, Arthur C. Clarke thinks big, but Cliff Pickover outdoes them both." Pickover's computer graphics have been featured on the cover of many popular magazines and on TV shows. His web site, www.pickover.com, has received over 500,000 visits.