Reality Is Not What It Seems

And it’s a clear world, windswept and full of beauty as the crests of mountains; as beautiful as the cracked lips of adolescents.

“Beautiful as…” But these aren’t the words of a Surrealist poet, or at least not of a conscious one; they are from The Order Of Time, the most recent little popular-science book by Carlo Rovelli. The “clear world” he is describing is quantum mechanics – a world of arid beauty. In this post I attempt some loose sketches of some of Rovelli’s ideas, and I ponder what they might have to say to Surrealists and occultists in particular.


Rovelli is not just a pop-science writer, but also a jobbing theoretical physicist. Well, “jobbing” is perhaps not the word: he’s the director of the quantum gravity research group at Aix-Marseille University. The Order Of Time is the follow-up to Reality Is Not What It Seems, in which he explains quantum theory for a lay audience, including some general outlines of his own cutting-edge research. Both books have been international bestsellers.

Three (It’s A Magick Number)

In Reality Is Not What It Seems, Rovelli paints a portrait of quantum reality that boils down to three essential concepts: granularity, indeterminacy and relationality. He lucidly and elegantly explains the discoveries and theories behind each, but for the purposes of this post I’ll fast-forward to the conclusions:

  • Granularity: Nothing in nature is continuous. There is no infinity and no eternity. Everything is granular, and there is always a minimum “grain” size beneath which things cannot shrink. This state of affairs includes gravity, which in turn means that spacetime is not the stretchy, rubbery sheet of continuous stuff familiar from pop science imagery. Instead, spacetime is a network of grains of gravity, all looped together like a kind of mesh or chainmail.
  • Indeterminacy: Everything is fluctuating. Electrons disappear, and then reappear in unpredictable places. In the periods between each appearance, they are in a kind of nowhere, dispersed across a “cloud of probabilities”. This applies not just to electrons but to all physical entities, including spacetime itself.
  • Relationality: Things become concrete only when they interact with other things. Electrons materialise out of the cloud of probabilities when they come into interaction with something else. This too applies to spacetimes, which can be spoken of in the plural when they are dispersed in the cloud of probabilities.

One of the upshots of all this is that reality is a network of events. What looks to us like an object – an atom, a mountain, a planet, a galaxy – is just a relatively long and monotonous event. Quantum reality is nothing but change.

Another upshot is that our everyday understanding of time goes out of the window. Spacetime is a network of grains of gravity; it’s not an arrow, but a mesh.

So why is it that we experience time as a “flow”, from past to present to future?

Rovelli’s answer to this question – briefly sketched out in Reality Is Not What It Seems, and then elaborated at length in The Order Of Time – is that… well, humans can’t see for shit. As a life form, we are rubbish at perceiving what reality is really like. Our experience of time’s flow is the result of our fuzzy perceptual system.

The Gold Of Time

Here’s Rovelli’s argument about time. Ordinarily we talk about the world using words, but words are too messy and imprecise for physics. Physics uses not words but maths to investigate and portray the universe. And despite what verbal language might say about the passage of time, in fact none of the equations in physics gives any indication that time moves forwards like an arrow.


None, that is, with one exception. There is just one equation that is unidirectional – i.e. that distinguishes between past and future, and cannot be run backwards as well as forwards. It is the equation for entropy. Entropy is about heat: it is unidrectional because heat passes from a hot body to a cold one, but never vice versa.

Now, “entropy” is increasing disorder. If time’s arrow can only be found in entropy, this means that time’s arrow is a progression from less disorder (low entropy) to more disorder (high entropy). Think of the moving molecules in a cup of hot water. They become increasingly disordered as they move around, like a pack of cards being shuffled.

Time = increasing disorder. “Things fall apart,” as a famous magician once put it.

This is where the problem of human perception comes in. What counts as “more” or “less” disordered? It all depends on the order you were expecting to see in the first place.

Arrange your little stack of Major Arcana into numerical order from 0 to 21, and then shuffle them. When you’ve finished shuffling, the cards will seem disordered to you, because you’re looking at the numbers. But the process of shuffling them will have put them into another kind of order – arranged by the colours in the images, or the positions of the human or animal figures on the cards, or the shapes formed by your invisible thumbprints on the paper, or any other thing. They’re not really disordered; they’re just in a new order that you can’t see, because you don’t know what you’re looking for.

The same applies to the molecules fizzing around in that cup of hot water. We go looking for a particular or special order among the molecules, and that order seems to fall apart as the molecules cool down. But in principle, any configuration of the molecules can constitute a “particular” or “special” order. It’s just that we can’t see the details that reveal the order in the new configuration.

If we could see the details clearly, then no one configuration of the molecules would seem any more special or particular than any other, and entropy would not appear. We perceive increasing disorder – entropy – because our blurred, fuzzy perception makes us unable to distinguish between different forms of order.

So entropy is a product of humans’ blurred perception of reality. Which means that time itself is a product of our blurred perception of reality. We experience time’s arrow because we’re too short-sighted to see properly.

Surrealism: The Great (And Small) Transparent Ones

The fuzziness and plasticity of human perception is the stock in trade of Surrealist methodology: paranoiac-critical method, pareidolia, objective chance, pattern recognition, in (and through) every sense.

To outline all of this in depth would be to outline the whole of Surrealism, so I won’t attempt to do it in a small paragraph in a small blog post. Suffice it to say that Surrealism’s quest for more reality has always involved attempts to expand human perception beyond its limits – to break through perception to the imagination, to the unknown that lies beyond empirical experience.

Consider Breton’s invocation of the Great Transparent Ones in the final pages of his Prologomena To A Third Surrealist Manifesto Or Not:

Man is perhaps not the centre, the cynosure of the universe. One can go so far as to believe that there exist above him, on the animal scale, beings whose behaviour is as strange to him as his may be to the mayfly or the whale. Nothing necessarily stands in the way of these creatures’ being able to completely escape man’s sensory system of references. … Such hypothetical beings … mysteriously reveal themselves to us when we are afraid and when we are conscious of the workings of chance.

This “new myth” that Breton posits, with its potential to “explain” events such as wars and cyclones that unfold on a larger-than-human scale, underlines the inadequacy of human perception, and offers the imagination as a more effective path forwards.

This is why there’s also an impressive tradition of Surrealist fascination with physics, from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic. Gavin Parkinson’s Surrealism, Art and Modern Science, which sets out to chart that tradition, is a big glossy slice of Surr/sci fun. Although Parkinson has the usual art historian’s weak grasp of what constitutes Surrealism (there’s a whole chapter on Bataille FFS, sigh), the book is full of great clues and suggestions as to how Surrealists have been inspired by, and even tried to represent, the thrillingly strange worlds imagined by contemporary science.

Obviously, the fascination with theoretical physics is part and parcel of the drive to push beyond the limits of perception. It follows that new theories in physics – including Rovelli’s theories – present new worlds to explore, new limits to push through, new realities to imagine. The point where these two strands meet – the interest in science, the concern with perception: what could be more resonant of the vanishing point between subject and object, the famous quest of the first Surrealist manifesto?

In my novel The Golden Cut, I play with Rovelli’s vision of the quantum world, using Surrealist methods to imagine a reality that can’t be perceived through everyday perception (or conventional fiction). The world of the novel is one where reality is granular, indeterminate and relational, where apparently solid beings flicker in and out of existence, where truth has to be discovered through pattern recognition, and where reality is not what it seems. How far I’ve succeeded, I’m not sure; probably not very. But I have to admit, I had a blast making the attempt.

Occultism: To Infinity And Beyond

It’s often assumed that occultism and science must be sworn enemies, but of course that is not necessarily the case. To cite a not very random example, magick is widely regarded by its practitioners as “the art and science of causing change …”. Many occultists are interested in, respectful of and excited by contemporary science. So what does Rovelli’s scientific model imply for occultism?

For the strand of hermeticism that runs through Neoplatonism, it’s a biggie. Rovelli’s model means that Plato is wrong, on two counts. First, Plato thinks in terms of stable Forms, and there is no such thing as stability. Second, Plato thinks the Forms are eternal, and there is no such thing as eternity.

Does this mean that occultism is incompatible with quantum theory? It’s certainly not been incompatible with previous developments in physics: for a conceptually breathtaking historical account of the intimate relationship between occult philosophy and modern science, check out Leon Marvell’s The Physics of Transfigured Light. But Marvell only briefly mentions quantum physics, and his book came out long before Rovelli’s.


It’s granularity that’s the problem. For Rovelli, there is no eternity, no infinity – in short, no transcendence. Reality may not be what it seems, but that doesn’t mean that it resides in some far-away transcendental realm. There’s no Ein Sof or Atman or Higher Being in Rovelli’s model. Reality, including quantum reality, is immanent. Fucking weird, sure. But immanent all the same.

So the challenge is to imagine an occult philosophy that dispenses with the notion of the transcendent and is able to find what it seeks in the immanent world.

Which brings me back to Surrealism.

Profane Illumination

Surrealism has always sought the unknown in the immanent. This is another of the core differences between Surrealism and occultism to which I alluded in a previous post, and which I intend to keep picking apart on this blog.

Surrealism embraces many aspects of the occult, but it rejects the supernatural. There’s no heaven or hell, no life after death, nothing “beyond the veil” – except the sun-eating, world-creating power of the minds we have and the world we live in.

That’s why Surrealism puts its every faith and hope not in divinity, but in poetry. To borrow Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase, Surrealism seeks illumination, but it’s a profane illumination, not a sacred one. It’s of, for and in the world, right here and now.

My insistence on this immanent view of the world (not to mention my constant profanity) does not always go down well in occultist circles. I’ve been labelled a materialist, in an accusatory tone that makes it clear that a “proper” occultist should be a philosophical idealist and embrace Plato’s Forms accordingly.

Actually, I’m neither: if Surrealism is the search for the vanishing point between contradictions, then that surely includes the contradiction between materialism and idealism.

Spacetime Origami

Rovelli shatters time’s arrow. Nevertheless, he is careful not to dismiss time as an illusion. He mourns friends he has lost, and he considers his own mortality. He is acutely sensitive to what it means for us humans to be creatures of time, even as he takes time out of the equation (so to speak) of reality.

So is reality subjective or objective? Like materialism and idealism, the dichotomy between subjective and objective is one that must be overcome. Overcoming such dichotomies is famously the task of Surrealism, but perhaps it’s also a task of maths. The maths on which Rovelli’s model, like all theoretical physics, is built.

We often think of maths as a particularly “pure” kind of truth, unsullied by either empirical messiness or individual whim. To quote the logician Bertrand Russell:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.

You don’t need to be a hardcore mathematician to get a sense of the beauty of maths (and god or Baphomet knows I’m no mathematician). If you’ve ever been enchanted by “sacred geometry”, the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio (sometimes also known as the golden cut, ahem) or just a really handsome crystal, you’ll have an inkling of what Russell was on about.


This aesthetics of mathematics, if I can use that phrase, is also embroiled in a debate in the philosophy of science about whether mathematical truths are discovered or invented. Some mathematicians reject that dichotomy too – and not so coincidentally, that’s one of the themes of my novella Origami.

Mathematical truths are simultaneously both discovered and invented. They’re not objectively “out there”, with an existence independently of human minds; but they’re not merely “in here”, conjured up inside our heads, either. They have a different kind of ontology than these dichotomies – discovered/invented, subjective/objective, materialist/idealist – can encompass.

Maybe this strange both-discovered-and-invented ontology of numbers is the same as the ontology of the imagination.

The imagination as the place where poetry is simultaneously discovered and invented when, say, a Surrealist practises automatic writing, fishing for images out of her own mind and being utterly surprised by the haul she brings up from those depths.

The imagination as the place where occult experiences are simultaneously discovered and invented when, say, a magician plunges into meditation, experiencing eternity for the space of a few moments.

The imagination as the place where the universe is a cloud of numbers, and numbers are merely clouds of dreams, and flux is all.

front cover

The Golden Cut book cover © Janice Hathaway 2019
All other images in the public domain

7 thoughts on “Reality Is Not What It Seems

  1. A British physicist once said, the deeper one studies the physical world, the more it seems like an idea. I for one believe consciousness is the fundamental reality, and the universe as well is a manifestation of the eternal golden braid of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Thanks for your stimulating piece.

  2. Unfortunately, there is a lot of sloppy terminological use here, starting with “truth” and ending with “imagination”. In any case, mathematics is a language, and ipso facto invented. And if it is not invented, then neither is anything that results from or is described by verbal language. I doubt many will be eager to travel down that rabbit hole. Mathematics is not more “pure” than verbal language. It is simply more limited.

    For the rest,

    “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: There is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress. When you realize that there are no goals or objectives, then you realize, too, that there is no chance: For only in a world of objectives does the word chance have any meaning”. –Friedrich Nietzsche

    (And that goes for “objective chance”, too, by the way)

    “The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.” –John von Neumann

    Rovelli and others of his ilk do not know any more about what is or isn’t “out there”, or whether infinity exists, etc., than anyone else.

    And, last but not least (very much the reverse),

    “The universe was a vast machine yesterday. It is a hologram* today. Who knows what intellectual rattle we’ll be shaking tomorrow?” –R.D. Laing.

    *or quantum foam, or granules, or whatever

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