Essay 6: Reality
As we have explored in previous essays, many things we think we understand, that we take for granted, are not what they appear to be. Reality is on that list. Reality is the summation of the daily events that confront all of us and in which we all participate. We might have different opinions on reality, but at least we all agree on what it encompasses. Not so fast. Here we go again.
Einstein confirmed that if two people are moving relative to each other, they will experience time differently. Events that appear simultaneous to one will not appear so to the other. What this means is that just as each of us has our own clock, we also each have our own legitimate observation of what is happening at any moment. Reality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s not just that each of us experiences a different reality. Through our choices and decisions, we each create reality. Each action we take initiates a cascade of subsequent events. To illustrate this point, I am going to recount an abbreviated version of a story from my book, The Currency of Life: Uncovering the Clues to Why We’re Here:
As a gentleman leaves his office at day’s end in Philadelphia, he decides to turn left towards the pharmacy to pick up a few items instead of right towards his car to head home. In his haste to reach the pharmacy, he trips at the corner of his street and accidentally knocks over an elderly woman who was waiting for the light to change. Sadly, she breaks her hip.
As a consequence of the injury, her only daughter must leave her family in California to come to Philadelphia to assist her mother. The daughter’s husband is left with their two teenage children, one of whom decides to prepare dinner for the family one evening before his father returns from work. A small fire ensues. The firefighters arrive and extinguish the minor flames just as the father returns home. He recognizes one of the firefighters as an old schoolmate and the two decide to meet for dinner a few weeks later.
On the evening of the planned dinner, the firefighter parks his car and begins to walk the two blocks to the restaurant. He notices smoke coming from a rowhouse front door. He rushes to the house, forces open the door and saves a young child from the flames. That child grows up to become a scientist and discovers the cure for malaria. As a result of her discovery, millions of children’s lives are saved.
A simple decision by a single individual, to turn left as he exited his office building instead of right, years later led to the saving of millions of lives. That is how reality is created. Each decision we make–and those made by the billions of others on our planet–initiates a cascade of events, the results of which are impossible to predict or even imagine.
A woman is offered two jobs, one from Company A, another from Company B. Company A sounds like more fun, has more upside, but is riskier since the company is small and young. Company B has been in business for decades, has a secure and established customer base, and is well-managed. The woman chooses Company A. Another candidate is then offered and accepts the job from Company B. Six months later, Company A goes out of business.
It appears that the woman’s choice of Company A turned out to be the wrong one. That fact holds only if we stop the movie at that particular moment in time. If instead we fast forward, we get a different outcome. The week following her termination, she begins to spend her mornings sitting in Starbucks completing online applications. On one of those mornings, she overhears a conversation among a small group of people who have just started a company and are looking for someone with her skillset. She introduces herself, gets hired, and five years later the company is sold and her options are worth several million dollars.
Let’s also look at how her decision affected someone else, specifically the woman who got hired at Company B. That woman had been laid off from her previous job at the worst possible time. Her daughter needed medical care and suddenly there was no money to pay the bills for her treatment. Once she was hired by Company B, she immediately received excellent health insurance. Her worries for her daughter’s well-being were over. For this woman, our protagonist’s decision to choose Company A and pass on Company B was a godsend.
Once we “release” our choices into the world, they run smack into those of other people. It is the intersection of those billions of other choices with ours that creates reality. Because of the random interaction of everyone’s choices, there is no way to know with any certainty the outcome of any decision. The concept of a best or right decision is revealed for what it is–meaningless.
There is something else about reality that is peculiar. Despite the repetition of events from generation to generation, there is always the chance that the same actions taken previously will yield a different result the next time. That doesn’t sound too profound. That is our expectation. That is our experience. Why, though, is this the case?
The probabilistic nature of our world, one in which a different outcome can result from the same actions, is responsible for this phenomenon. If our world were not probabilistic, we could anticipate that the same actions would always yield the same result. We have the quantum nature of our universe to thank for creativity, excitement, anticipation, and surprise.
Next time you find yourself lamenting reality, recall that you have an equal part in its creation. It’s also helpful to appreciate that you are somewhere in the middle of the play, just like the woman who chose Company A instead of Company B. She lost her job but eventually reaped a great reward. Note that we arbitrarily chose to stop the story at that point. If we were to follow her life into the future, who knows what further repercussions might become evident, all based on that single decision to choose Company A.
Our choices and decisions lead to events down the road of space and time that we cannot possibly predict. Understand that the inability to foresee the result of any decision is not because we don’t have enough information to do so. It is because, in our quantum world, certainty is impossible no matter how much information we have.
We will expand on the concept of choice later on in this series, but next, we are going to wrangle with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. You are about to discover that we humans possess a superpower we never knew we had.
Next: Essay 7: Why is Everything Such a Mess?
When: April 27, 2022