The Nature of Reality
Each January, as the year turns, we move into something new. We cross a threshold. We transition from memory to hope. The future spreads out before us, and possibilities abound. Many of us eagerly plan our resolutions, hoping they will transform turn us into the person we always wanted to be.
Unfortunately, our plans rarely play out the way we expect them to. According to my elder son, this is because we have less control over our life than we like to think. For him, existence is an intricate interplay of events, occasions, thoughts, and experiences that weave and develop in ways beyond our comprehension. As each activity or thought moves forward in time, it shatters into an infinity of possibilities that themselves lead to new universes in which alternate stories of us play out.
This is not something we can plan. It’s not something we can control. It just happens.
A few times in my life, while in public places that churned with sound and sight and smell, I momentarily lost my capacity to separate sensation. It seemed as if all boundary had sloughed off me, leaving me with no separate existence. Sensory input rushed into my being, each as brilliant and loud as the other. Awash in the flow of life, I stood as if outside of time. Everything moved and nothing moved. I could neither respond nor react. I could only breathe and feel.
Finding the experience awesome, but also uncomfortable, I sought a place inside me that remembered how to separate images and odors. Gradually, the world coalesced into something I could hold onto and create meaning out of. I wonder, though, if that flash of chaos I experienced is not the true state of reality.
Transformation and Electrons
My son thinks there’s something to that idea, that our tendency to see objects and forms where in truth, only energy exists, is indeed an illusion. His worldview, however, comes not from an experience like mine, but from the multiverse theory that has grown out of the wave and particle problem in quantum physics.
On a quantum level, substances behave in confounding ways. Electrons exist not as entities that can be confidently measured, but as superpositions. They exist as possibilities. Somehow, all in the same instant, these electrons spin with opposite orientations, hang out in a multitude of places, and move at different speeds.
When someone or something observes the electron, however, the particle chooses to exist as one of these locations or qualities. The other possibilities disappear.
The Copenhagen Interpretation and the Macro World
At least, that’s the assumption that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg made when they developed the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. When an electron becomes a particle and the other possibilities disappear, the scientists assume the unchosen aspects are gone forever. If this is true, then our Newtonian world makes sense and is predictable. For instance, when we throw a ball into the air, it comes down again.
Yet life is not so simple. If we are skilled, we can coerce the ball to sink into a basket, yet not even the best player gets it through the hoop every time. Life is filled with unintended events and consequences.
Could this be because we are not as separate from the observed phenomena – the electron – as we assume?
The Merging of Micro and Macro
That’s what Hugh Everett thought. He concluded that the observer is an integral part of the quantum reality. Together with the electron, she inhabits a shared space of existence in a shared universe. When the electron appears to to be choosing a particularity, it’s actually bifurcating. Every possibility inherent in that particle continues to exist, but all but one of them does so by forging a new universe. As the electron splits into many parts, so does the observer. Her new selves go with the electron.
Left behind in this universe, we don’t realize what happened. We think the electron made a choice. 
If Everett is right, then in every instant an unimaginable number of alternate beings are created in each of our bodies and brains. New universes are popping up in forests and oceans and outer space. It’s incomprehensible. When those electrons and other particles split off into trillions and trillions of alternate states, so do we. As Philip Ball put it in his article about multiple universes, we separate into “distinct beings an absurd number of times every second.” We, as individuals, “vanish into the crowd.” 
If we have no individual self, and if there is no options left unchosen, then does the choice we make in this universe have any meaning? Everything and anything that can happen probably has, so what’s the point? Besides, we have no real substance. We don’t even have free will. The electron has chosen for us, and we just go along for the ride.
Choosing Because We Must
It’s a grim view of the world.
Yet if it seems grim, maybe that’s because we’re interpreting it wrong. My son tells me that, for him, this lack of control is “uplifting, freeing, and beautiful.” Because of it, we can understand that we’re all just doing our best. If we fail, it’s because life happened in a way we didn’t expect, but that’s normal. When we understand reality in this way, we can release our judgments of ourselves and others. We don’t need to feel ashamed. Anger, violence, punishment, and resentment make no sense anymore. We might as well just love one another.
But to love is a choice. If choosing is useless, why bother?
My son says this is the wrong question. He says that “we never know if trying to try will let us try in a way that gets us what we want, but we can know that if we fail to try, we will never get what we want.” 
Though our Newtonian world may be an illusion, unless we want to remain lost in the mystical magic of a reality beneath the reality our human senses experience, we must engage with the macro world we inhabit. All of us who have bodies and consciousness are given a life to spend one way or another. We cannot help but make choices, for to refuse to choose is its own choice.
God Before Time Began
According to the Hebrew scriptures, there’s a reason I am I and you are you. God gave us the particular bodies we inhabit, caused us to be born in a particular time and place. In the world of the Bible, this is not random. Long before anything but God existed, He wrote us into a book. Seeing each of us as we would be, He understood “the days that were formed for [us], when as yet there was none of them” (Ps 139:16). Nothing we do surprises this God, for it was all planned from before the beginning of time.
All those infinite universes? God sees every one of them.
Unlike my son or me, who stand awed by the infinite webs of action and time, overwhelmed by unintelligible sensation, God comprehends it all. Perhaps that’s the point of having a god. For many people, a deity who can make sense out of all those neutrinos streaming through our bodies every second, and of their myriad splittings, is a huge comfort.
In her poem “Bakerwoman God,” the poet Alla Renee-Bozrth likens us to dough being kneaded by that god, formed, then baked in the fire.  God knows us intimately and shapes us according to Her design. At least God isn’t powerless. Though we cannot create ourselves, there is someone who can.
Transformation and Free Will
So free will makes no sense in a quantum universe, nor in a biblical one. Nonetheless, scripture holds us responsible for our actions and encourages us to choose rightly. One path will bring us joy and serenity; the other, misery and devastation.
Which path God wants for us is not a secret: “Choose life,” we are told in Deuteronomy (Deut 30:19). In the book of Ezekiel it is written, “Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezekiel 18:31).
Transform yourself, we are told. Become as one new.
But how do we do this when we have no capacity to do anything but what we are born to do? If we were formed by God before anything ever existed, and if God knows our every thought and movement, then how does transformation make sense? How can anyone, God included, condemn us for choosing what we have no choice but to choose? Maybe we can’t commit to a new life. Maybe we must simply wait for a new life claim us.
Avoiding, or Accepting, Responsibility
Basically, that’s the argument that convicted serial killer, Samuel Little, made. Apparently, he believes in a divine power. When Sergeant Crystal LeBlanc asked him if he feared God, he didn’t deny the deity. He just wasn’t afraid.
“He said God made me this way, so why should he ask for forgiveness?” LeBlanc said. Apparently, Little believes God understands that choice is an illusion, so He does not hold us accountable for choosing death. 
During my chaplain training, I interned at the Oregon State Hospital, serving for six months on a men’s forensic unit. Among the residents housed there were some who, beset by schizophrenic delusions, murdered people. A few killed family members; some killed strangers. One man murdered the women to whom he was attracted. Could these men have done anything different? At least, in this particular universe?
If Little or the men on the forensic unit lived in a vacuum, never interacting with others, then there would be no hope for them. Without outside influences and interventions, how can we change?
But we all are influenced by others. For the men at the State Hospital, medication seemed to ease their symptoms. Most of them experienced remorse and worked out their feelings in therapy. We hope that people who cause harm because of paranoia or hallucinations will be helped by treatment. In this way, we encourage them to become as new.
For the 97% of the population who don’t have sociopathic personality disorders, this seems to work pretty well. Someone like Little, however, may be impervious to all our support, our challenge, our encouragement. To change, we must experience at least a modicum of remorse. We must desire something different for ourselves. Little, apparently, does not.
Illusion and Transcendence
Yet even those of us we do long for something different in our lives do not always find it. In every life, there are opportunities to listen and pay attention, yet for one reason or another, some of us can’t take advantage of those opportunities. Others of us might seek treatment, yet find no relief.
What brings effective treatment or the right advice to some people, but not others? Is it God’s will? The splintering of electrons?
Regardless of who or what is in charge, when we are exposed to alternatives, to guidance and tools and compassion, we can no longer claim ignorance. Killing another human being is no longer acceptable. Just because God knows who we are does not mean we have no responsibility. Choice may be an illusion, yet when neurons fire in our brains, it looks very much as if we’re thinking, learning, and making decisions.
Illusion or not, the fact that we have bodies with functioning neurons leaves us open to the possibility of transformation.
The educator, Parker Palmer, in his book To Know As We Are Known, talks about transcendence. He defines transcendence as a breaking open of our beings. It’s that moment when the Spirit of Love fills our hearts and opens our eyes to a truth we didn’t see before.
“To experience transcendence,” he writes, “means to be removed – not from self and world, but from that hall of mirrors in which the two endlessly reflect and determine one another.”  Somehow, in this transformation that occurs on the breath of transcendence, we can see life as it is without being overwhelmed by it. Unbound by the limitations of the self, by our tendency to make concrete and observable that which is not, we are freed of all from the “hall of mirrors.”
In this moment of transcendence, we are also freed of our need to scrabble for survival. If we are to transform our souls and our beings, we need that freedom. Unless we let go of our cravings and lusts, our resolutions to change will fail. To transcend and transform, we must shatter our everyday habit of organizing and labeling what we see. We must step outside or beyond our macro understanding of the world.
Once we understand that the world is not what we thought it was, it’s hard to go back to living the way we did before. Eventually, we must return to the work of sustaining our bodies and supporting our loved ones, but we cannot unlearn what has been learned. After transcendence, our lives will be a little bit different.
Acting As If
At least, we hope they will be.
Unfortunately, this difference can feel uncomfortable. Such magical experiences threaten our worldview, and we don’t usually like that. If the murderer Little lived through a moment of transcendence, if he came to understand that even though God knows him completely, he still is responsible for his actions, he would probably think that the integrity of his being was at risk. To sustain himself, he might reject the transformation offered him.
So how can the story in God’s book about us, that informs Her of who we are and what we will be, yield to free will and choice?
In the end, the question is meaningless.
As I write this essay, I do not behave in the world as if the laptop I’m using were a swirling mass of color, waves, particles, and energy. I act as if the keys are real and the screen makes sense. I move my fingers across the board and create words on a virtual page. Although I see what I have written as black letters on a white surface, that is an illusion. They are pixels only. If we take apart the computer, we will never find these words. They exist only because my mind collaborates with the technology to create a story of events that unfold and become. I act as if the illusion were real.
Even so, those illusory words have power. Some of them transform us. Some stifle us, burden us, shame us. Our task is to use our words, and our thoughts, carefully so they help create a universe of love rather than evil.
We can awaken. We can transcend the illusion of our egos and of the tangible world. Together, we can ask questions, seeking a truth that lies beneath the truth we imagine. If we open our hearts, if we recognize that although we have responsibility, we do not have free will, we can let go of judgment and embrace compassion. We don’t need to be right or find firm and concrete answers. We need to love.
If our compassion and love could somehow touch Mr. Little in some vulnerable place beneath the emptiness of his self-determination, perhaps even he could open himself to awe and be transformed.
We act because we can do no other. Yet it helps if we hold our actions lightly, recognizing that we don’t control the outcome. We simply do our best. Ask the right questions, let go of judgments, and learn to love. If we do this, we may find the freedom to make choices, to transform, and to become new.
In faith and fondness,
- Byrne, Peter, “The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett,” Scientific American, October 21, 2008, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/hugh-everett-biography/, accessed 01/02/19.
- Ball, Philip, “Why There Might Be Many More Universes Besides Our Own,” BBC Earth, March 21, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160318-why-there-might-be-many-more-universes-besides-our-own, accessed 01/02/19.
- Renee-Bozrth, “Bakerwoman God,” Earth Prayers From Around the World, eds. Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, 162-163.
- Stevens-Graybeal, Colin, private Facebook message, January 3, 2019.
- Williams, Timothy, “He Says He Got Away with 90 Murders. The Police Believe Him,” New York Times, November 26, 2018, A11, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/us/samuel-little-serial-killer-murderer.html.
- Palmer, Parker, To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved