I’d like to continue the discussion of the practical benefits of the mutually facing mirrors of science and spirituality. I was thinking recently about Maldacena’s vision of the holographic universe — that all our reality is a projection from another, background universe. An updated variant of an old bromide occurred to me: no more can we speak of an “analog man in a digital world.” My personal motto now is: “I’m a holographic man in a physical world.”
Obviously, there is more metaphor than measure to my motto, so let me explain. There is obviously no real physical world, not in the way we’ve been trained to think about it, anyway. This is one of the most eminently practical lessons of the last century’s science. But we still have to play that game of the physical, because we all have a Samuel Johnson within us. I will allow his biographer, Boswell, the explanation:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus.’
That 18th century silliness is the key to dealing with our own “inner Johnson” in successfully reaching a broader experience and understanding in the 21st: after all, he’s “only a hologram,” too. So we don’t really have to kill (or kick) our Johnson. All we really require of him is some perspective: we have to play with that voice of pompous, trained certainty. Remember, as Watts used to say, that to become enlightened does not mean you forget your address and stop minding your bank balance. In fact, these things become easier to manage when they are clearly seen as hallucinations. I know from experience that it is far easier to manage an illusion than an expectation.
In that context, it can’t hurt, and might help us, to meditate on what it means to be a hologram, because my motto now comes down to something like this: I’m a computer-generated mathematical projection in a hallucinated faux-physical reality. Now I’m sure many people might perceive that as rather a stiff or even a depressing cosmology. I would ask, “compared to what?” To the myths of creation, alienation, and self-destruction that our religions have programmed into us for more than two millennia?
You may consider this as a personal prejudice of mine: I really have no taste for religion or clergy of any stripe. It’s not that they are evil or illogical or immoral; it’s that they are insufficient to their avowed purpose. Even the Buddhist priests I’ve met tend to hide behind sutras and moralistic creeds. I don’t need to be taught how to behave, how to act, how to be good. I know all that already, and that’s the problem — it isn’t enough for me. In terms of understanding my place within this universe, that nonsense is utterly useless to me. Good behavior and right belief — the obsession of clergy everywhere — are ineffectual in the search for a personal truth.
Therefore, the same applies to an ideology of scientism, or science in the sense that the logical positivists aggrandize it. They believe that if we experiment, analyze, statisticize, reason, and empiricize long and hard enough, then all the mysteries will dissolve before our minds. Even the most fundamental and inscrutable of them will be explained, like why you are who you are, in this moment; and not the fellow over there or the lady down the block or the famous author who died last week. For now, however, all that is thrown under a shroud called Randomness, which we are told not to touch or peek under, until the guys with the degrees and the training and the theories are ready to reveal it all to us.
Well, I don’t want to wait to look under the shroud of Randomness or the Holy Mysteries or the Unanswered Question. Therefore, even this beautiful notion of the hologram self amid the holographic universe wavers within me, as in fact it should. For it is a model, a representation as illusory as my idea of myself as a physical and separate object among all the other objects of Reality — the other people and animals and plants and specks of dust that muddle randomly about like balls on the billiard table of Infinity. And the same goes for the other scientific model I seem to have championed as a principle of life and spirit — what the physicists call quantum entanglement and I call quantum resonance. It is merely another way of conceiving an inconceivable thing, the phenomenon that we ordinarily call Love. When I am physically apart from the beloved, we still touch and influence each other in the field of consciousness and caring; I suppose in that sense we are indeed “entangled.”
So my point here is not to advance or to preach a certain theory or model of reality and experience over another. I would prefer that we merely recognize the continuing merger of science and spirituality; empiricism and intuition; thought and feeling — and experience this deeply as a celebration of the scope and agility of the human mind. Why would I want to spend my entire life under the sway of a specific system or ideology, in contempt or ignorance of all other possibilities; when this electromagnetic dance going on inside my skull is capable of so much more? (If you’re a geek or an engineer, check out some of the numbers in that link, they’re amazing). On this day or in this situation I can live guided by the holographic principle; tomorrow or amid shifting circumstances the feeling of quantum resonance and entanglement leads me forward; and the day after that perhaps the dying words of an old Zen master will do: “Truly all that appears to the eye is only a flower that blooms in a day.”*
That, of course, is another way of saying: I’m a hologram-man in a physical world. We need fresh models of transience, what the Buddhists have always called impermanence. I tend to choose scientific models like Maldacena’s holographic universe, because I feel an intuitive connection with the languages of science and mathematics. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems as if our religions would be far more interesting if sermons and church services featured discussions of science and math rather than the usual droning about good behavior, empty moralizing, and the repetition of these dull commandments having to do with the necessity of one’s subjection to a benign cosmic Tyrant.
Now let me address one final question here: “Why?” What’s the point of realizing a fresh vision of transience, of perspective on our place in the universe? The final answer to such a question must of course come from you. If the possibility of a fresh perspective means little or nothing to you, then the question is already answered and you are free to click the little X and move on (and thanks for staying with me this far).
But if you’re still uncertain, then let me suggest the following: understanding the transience of life and identity is not about buying a line about how small and insignificant we are; it is about revealing a deep and enduring truth of yourself. It is also about awakening to the continuance that is essential to the character of the cosmos. The appreciation of impermanence opens wide the way to eternity. For no matter what happens amid the arrivals, changes, and passages of these holograms in this realm, that background universe — that source, that pervading presence of the eternal — it remains true; it supports and nourishes us all, in our beginnings and in our passings-away. All we need do is become aware of it, and of our unique and necessary place within it. As Lao Tzu says:
It is the body of transformation,
And we do not even know its name!
It loves and nourishes
The infinite family of forms,
But seeks not allegiance or submission.
To complete this picture, I’d like to quote the astrophysicist David Bohm, who presaged the work of Maldacena about a half century ago, in his concept of the “implicate order” of the cosmos:
What is being suggested here is that the consideration of the difference between lens and hologram can play a significant part in the perception of a new order that is relevant for physical law…
There is a germ of a new notion of order here. This order is not to be understood solely in terms of a regular arrangement of objects (e.g., in rows) or as a regular arrangement of events (e.g., in a series). Rather, a total order is contained, in some implicit sense, in each region of space and time.
Now, the word “implicit” is based on the verb “to implicate.” This means “to fold inward” (as multiplication means “folding many times”). So we may be led to explore the notion that in some sense each region contains a total structure “enfolded” within it.
There is a poetic vision in this kind of science that nourishes me in the same way as Lao Tzu’s poetry. For it is a vision of cosmic unity that far surpasses any religious monument of uniformity. The science of Bohm and Maldacena fills me with a sense of belonging and of identity with that vastness around me that I once allowed myself to believe was alien to me. The photon — better known as light — is the substance of every holographic creation. Its velocity (as Einstein demonstrated) is constant and eternal; its order is ineluctable and sublime. Therefore, this particular hologram turns to its source and throws open his arms in gratitude.
So finally, a brief word from Alan Watts will capture, in a minute and a half, what I have spilled so much ink over to this point. The animation in this video, by the way, is from one of the artists of The Simpsons:
*Daigu Sochiku, in a remarkable collection called Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffmann.