Can human beings create or choose their own reality?
An excerpt from America: The Sorcerer's New Apprentice , published in 1988.
ENCOURAGED by New Age apostles such as Fritjof Capra ( The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point ) and Gary Zukav ( The Dancing Wu Li Masters ), the belief is growing that modern physics and ancient mystical traditions have striking parallels that lead to similar views of reality and thus justify a merger between the two. The facts are quite the opposite. Rather than supporting Eastern mysticism because it is so similar, modern physics actually has little in common with it.
In addition to his claim that he has a direct experience of the essence of the universe (which science denies is possible, as we have just seen), the mystic also claims to "experience" the unity of all things, including his own "oneness" with the cosmos, as though the universe were his own body and the expression of his mind. In contrast again, the physicist declares that the universe is a separate reality and therefore this experience of "oneness" with the All is a deception. Mysticism denies any reality external to the mind, while the physicist declares that the external world is in fact real and that we have no way of comparing our mental impressions of the universe with its true character and essence. For these reasons Ken Wilber declares: "What an absolute, radical, irredeemable difference [separates science] from mysticism!" Most physicists disagree with the thesis of Capra and Zukav, which would not be the case if it followed from the evidence. In fact, Capra admits that his theory (which is so popular among New Agers) did not result from insight gained through scientific observation, but actually came about through a powerful mystical experience he had in 1969 "on a beach in Santa Cruz [California]." In The Tao of Physics he writes:
Five years ago, I had a beautiful experience which set me on a road that has led to the writing of this book. I was sitting by the ocean one late summer afternoon... when I suddenly became aware of my whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance.... I "saw" the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy, I felt its rhythm and "heard" its sound, and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dancers worshipped by the Hindus.
Presumably this religious experience of "cosmic consciousness," or the "oneness of all," that is attained in an altered state provides an insight into the actual reality underlying the universe--a reality that we do not ordinarily recognize because our perception is flawed. Before accepting such a thesis, however, one cannot help wondering how and why, if all is perfect, our perception could be imperfect. From what source did this imperfection arise to mar the perfection of the All? If all is indeed one, then how could we even have the illusion of separation from the universal consciousness and unified whole, of which we are allegedly an intimate part? And why is there so much conflict within the individual human heart and so much jealousy, hatred, greed, and antagonism exhibited toward fellow members of the race?
Whether the altered state of consciousness that brought "enlightenment" came about through drugs or Eastern meditation, the fact remains that Capra's present obsession is not the result of scientific investigation or evidence but of a classic Hindu mystical experience. In The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point , Capra argues for an integration of Eastern and Western thought in order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary "revolution in all the sciences and a transformation of our world view and values." It would not seem advisable, however, to base such a "revolution" in scientific thinking upon a religious insight such as Capra experienced in an altered state of consciousness.
Sir James Jeans demolished the view of Capra, Zukav, et al., long before it became popular. Jeans demonstrated that there is in fact an objective world and that this would not be the case if reality were the creation of individual minds. He did this very simply by presenting three criteria that are essential for objective reality: surprise , continuity , and change . What he meant is easily illustrated.
Twenty million people are suddenly awakened from a sound sleep by an earthquake in Mexico City, an earthquake that kills many of them by collapsing the homes and apartments they occupy. The fact that so many people were surprised by this event, indeed, awakened by the shaking and roaring of an earthquake that they certainly were not even dreaming of, is evidence enough that an objective reality imposed itself upon its victims. It would be madness to suggest that a hurricane or a fire that guts a hotel was created in the minds of those who experienced it. Yet new-consciousness gurus continue to promote and sell various techniques for creating one's own reality, and the customers are still eagerly paying for seminars that will supposedly teach them to develop this amazing human potential.
Such ideas are being taken seriously even by our top government officials. Consider, for example, the statements of ex-astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell in a  address to members of Congress and Congressional staff on behalf of the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future:
Within ten years, psychokinetic functioning will be reasonably well accepted. It knocks down the previous model of the human; there is something more fundamental than the material we are made of. We can control, external to our bodies, the matter that is around us, and control internally the functioning of our bodies, by the way we think.
Mitchell's projected ten years for this new paradigm to be in operation [have come and gone] and we are no closer than we were, 3000 years ago when the same ideas were being taught by Yogis in India. Consider Jeans's second reason why this dream must forever remain a delusion: the continuity of objective reality. After a 20-year absence, you return to your high school for a reunion. The same rooms in which you once attended class are there, complete with desks, blackboards, and cracks in the ceiling--everything that you had never given a thought to during the 20-year interval. Everything has remained in place without your mind supporting its existence.
Such continuity proves the objectivity of the world independent of human minds, a continuity without which life would be impossible. Imagine the chaos if reality were in fact the product of billions of individual minds of independent and forgetful (or even insane) nature. Whose "reality" would be dominant, and how often would one person's self-created "reality" suddenly be overturned by another's imposing itself? There have also been many changes at your high school during your absence. The old gymnasium has been torn down, and a new and much larger one stands in its place. Change such as this, coming without our knowledge in places we have forgotten, clearly has occurred without our minds creating it. This, too, demonstrates the objectivity of the physical universe about us. So Jeans argues that these three elements--surprise, continuity, and change--prove that the world about us is not created by our minds but has in fact an objective reality of its own, independent of anything we may think or do.
Nevertheless, the universe seems more like a great thought than a great machine. Consequently, Jeans concluded that it must subsist "in the mind of some Eternal Spirit," who is in fact its Creator. Far from mentally creating reality, mankind has been struggling to discover the incredible secrets of a universe that is at once so awesome in size and yet so intricate in minutest detail that it reflects the genius of a Designer whose mind is infinitely beyond human capabilities. The theory that we can create our own reality would seem to represent the envy and rebellion of little minds with delusions of grandeur who have an insatiable desire to play God.
Nevertheless, the belief that we have already conspired to create the delusion we now call reality, and from which our imaginings can deliver us, grows ever more popular. In Shifting Worlds, Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet , Jeremy W. Hayward argues that everything we see and experience in the world about us is mere illusion. The mere fact that the universe obviously existed before homo sapiens came along to "create" reality with his imagination ought to be sufficient to end such theories, yet they persist....
In spite of its obvious folly and impossibility, the delusionary dream of playing God is so appealing that few people can resist the temptation when this carrot is dangled in front of them.... As we have already indicated, highly educated Westerners are embracing, as science, a Hindu gospel that must take much of the responsibility for making India one of the poorest, most superstition-bound countries in the world. This gospel offers to Calcutta's one million beggars who have been born and live and will die in its streets the good news that their running sores, gnawing hunger, and poverty do not really exist, but have been created by their own "negative" thinking. There is no suffering, disease, or death; one merely misperceives what is actually there. All one needs to do to change one's experience of life is to change the way one perceives it. In that same address to Congressional leaders, Edgar Mitchell declared:
Our physical and emotional well-being is totally under our control and we can train ourselves to control ourselves. It puts responsibility for health and well-being on the individual. I am not a victim. I choose on some level, whatever happens to me. Within ten years, the AMA will endorse this viewpoint.
As [Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz], and many other motivational speakers would persuade us if they could, anyone can change his entire world by changing his thoughts. Now this is either the most wonderful truth or else it is the cruelest hoax imaginable.
Who could reasonably doubt that it is the latter? Yet this delusion, surprisingly, continues to grow in popularity in spite of the obvious fact that no one (not even a patient in a mental hospital) lives in his own mentally created reality separate from the rest of the world.
Who walks in sunshine while others all around him are in the rain? Or who continues to fly safely through the air on a plane that the other passengers and crew, because of their negative thinking, "imagine" has sustained a powerful explosion and is falling from the sky? Or who can (by positive thinking) cause a stock that he or she owns to maintain its value, when, to everyone else's perception and according to the figures coming out of the New York Stock Exchange, that particular stock has drastically fallen in value? Nevertheless, millions are persuaded by gurus of the new consciousness that they have such "potential" and are purchasing and practicing various techniques for cultivating altered states in pursuit of this pot of gold at the end of the New Age rainbow.
Mystical fantasies in altered states aside, the daily experience of all mankind has always demonstrated that there is a common reality shared by all human beings upon planet Earth regardless of whether they are positive or negative thinkers. Ecological disaster or nuclear war, for example, do not threaten only those negative people who are pessimistic enough to believe in such horrors. The possibility of World War III is just as much a threat to those who display "Visualize Peace" stickers on their car bumpers, practice Transcendental Meditation faithfully, and think nothing but positive thoughts day and night as it is to anyone else.
Nor can it be argued that the majority belief is imposed upon the minority. This idea forms the basis for the attempt to mobilize hundreds of millions of people to meditate for peace in the hope that a "critical mass" of peaceful thinking will be reached and will thus tip the scales in the Universal Mind itself and bring about peace upon earth. If it requires millions or even billions of persons thinking the same thought together to effect such changes, then obviously one person could not possibly create his or her own individual reality in competition with billions or even thousands of other minds.