Sunday, October 9, 2011

Einstein and Buddha: What is Reality?

Warped water swirl red leaves in the riffling current
 of my storm-swollen stream
Jean Stimmell ©2011
The Following is my essay about Einstein as published 10/8/11 in the Concord Monitor:

Sitting here this morning, looking out the window, pondering my washed-out driveway and sodden firewood that I forgot to cover, my mind rebelled, seeking some stupendous, out-of-this-world event to think about instead.

The controversy that is currently shaking the whole scientific community came to mind.  

It all started a few weeks ago when European physicists announced that they had detected subatomic particles moving faster than the speed of light.  Alvaro De Rujula, a leading nuclear researcher, called the claim “flabbergasting,” going on to say, “If this is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything.”⁠1 

Multiple plans are already underway to conduct new experiments to determine the validity of this claim. The stakes are high. Indeed, if this discovery is confirmed, the implications are staggering, stretching the human mind to ponder unimagined new frontiers – far beyond my sodden woodpile.

Einstein, whose theory of relativity established the speed of light as the ultimate limit, predicted that if objects could move faster than the speed of light, then it would be possible for faster-than-light travelers to take a trip from Concord to California today and come back yesterday.  Some physics theorists postulate that if, indeed, neutrinos move faster than light, the subatomic particles may have found a shortcut through a warped 5th dimension, opening up a whole, new alternative universe.

But then I caught myself. As a stoic Yankee I didn’t want to get too carried away.

 Even if it is true that Einstein’s speed limit has been broken, it won’t be as earth shattering as it first appears. Although we are, by nature, creatures of habit, wedded to the status quo, Buddhists have it right: life is change. 

 Sudden paradigm shifts happen all the time in our own personal lives as well as in science. After a period of adjustment, we find ourselves adapting, coming to terms with the new information whether it is that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, removing us from the center of the universe, or that gravity really exists, something that Newton did not discover until three centuries ago.

If we look at ourselves honestly, we’re forced to admit that our grasp of reality is tenuous and fleeting. We pursue knowledge like children chasing a shiny soap bubble, only to have it burst once it’s in our grasp. 

At some point we have to ask ourselves: What is really real?

When working with my clients, I often tell them the old story of the three blind men and the elephant: Three blind men encounter an obstacle (an elephant) in their path. The first blind man reaches out and feels the trunk of the elephant and declares it is a hose; the second blind man feels the elephant’s tusk and thinks it is a sword; the third touches the elephant’s leg and insists the elephant is a tree. They end up in a hopeless argument, not being able to agree on what is real.

I use this story to point up a major tenet of postmodernism: Our sense of what is real depends upon our perspective. Indeed, we all have our human truths that are vital to us from our unique vantage points of socially conditioned reality—that’s fine and the way it should be. 

The point is, we should be extremely leery of declaring these human truths to be absolute Truth – even if they come from Einstein himself!

I remembered a quote I’d recently read from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that wonderfully illustrates this point, our human predisposition to confuse a partial sampling with the whole: “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”⁠2 

Thinking about speeding neutrinos worked: my thoughts are no longer on my washed out driveway and bedraggled woodpile: they are in the cosmos.  Not only that, the sun is starting to come out.
Ultimately, imagining neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light is more important as a spiritual and existential exercise than a scientific one if – for even just an instant – it pierces our cognitive facade and cracks us open in shock and awe to the sheer mystery of the world around us.

XXX (708 words)

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