The KEY Questions: How do we know what is real?

He was working in a low-paid job, just bumbling along collecting his wages at the end of each week. He had never shone at school, never achieved much academically. No prizes had come his way, nor had anyone expressed any particular interest in anything he had to say. No one expected him to succeed or make his mark in the world, and yet this man changed the way we think about the very nature of reality. His name?

Sydney Banks.

Great visionary thinkers, leaders in their field, often come from humble backgrounds. Perhaps, in retrospect, that’s what made them leaders in the first place. After all, if you’ve never had to strive to make ends meet, it’s quite possible you might lack that vital incentive, that insatiable curiosity to push past the boundaries of accepted ‘truth’ and take the next step towards a different way of seeing things. Sometimes the race can be won by that man or woman who doesn’t even understand the ‘rules’, let alone how to play by them.

Albert Einstein was a humble clerk in a patent office in Switzerland when he made his famous breakthrough, early in the twentieth century. It came to him when he tried to imagine how things would look to you if you travelled through space on a beam of light. From this simple thought experiment he evolved his theory of relativity, which became the most important new model of physical reality since Isaac Newton defined the laws of motion hundreds of years earlier. Though Newton’s background could hardly be described as humble in the context of the time in which he lived he also developed his theories as a result of a single blinding revelation when, so legend has it, he observed an apple falling from a tree and wondered at the nature of the invisible force that makes all matter cling to the earth.

Banks was a welder from Scotland, living in Canada. His ‘Eureka’ moment came when he had the idea, (though to call it an ‘idea’ is actually to miss the point because it is an experiential rather than an intellectual thing), that we create our own reality from moment to moment using the power of Universal Thought. The fact that his name is not as well known as those two other great luminaries is merely evidence of how new paradigms, especially revolutionary ones, can take a long time to become widely accepted as ‘true’. The bigger the shift in consciousness, it seems, the longer it takes for the rest of the world to catch up.

Sydney was faced with another disadvantage in that his revelation could not easily be categorized as ‘scientific’. His new paradigm was initially taken up by psychologists to be used as a therapeutic tool, but it could just as easily have been promoted from a religious viewpoint. In fact it went beyond science or religion. It went deeper than either. The more we learn about physical reality, the stranger it seems. Since the development of quantum mechanics it has been understood – if that’s the right word – that in fact we influence reality by observing it, (at least at the level of the very small). It seems that a tiny object on the atomic scale can act as a wave or a particle depending on how we measure it. Now the search is on for a model of what is real that unites quantum mechanics and relativity into a unified grand ‘Theory of Everything’. But there’s no escaping the fact: as bizarre as it seems, it might just be that the entire universe is something we are, in effect, making up as we go along.

Sound familiar?

Many eminent people over the years have thought this idea absurd, insisting that there is a physical reality beyond our experience of it. Chief among the skeptics was Albert Einstein himself. He famously declared that ‘God does not play dice’. But all the experimental evidence continues to point to the same extraordinary hypothesis. And it seems to support what Sydney Banks and those who have come after him have been saying all along. Is it possible that a Scottish welder was possessed of more powerful insights into the nature of reality than the greatest scientific thinker who ever lived?

What do you consider is ‘real’?