Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How the Universe Got Its Spots--Final Installment

Has quantum mechanics abandoned us to a terrifying abyss where observers create reality? If so, why are we so limited in the reality we can create? I might be able to make an electron appear in a given location, but I can't easily produce an elephant on my city block. Why are experiments still reproducible? Why are there still rules, like the Schroedinger equation? To a person who believes that nature is purely a human construction (as opposed to the more moderate view that the scientific practice is intrinsically tainted by culture and the human context), the role of the observer in quantum mechanics may come as a source of vindication. I don't think it is. I think the distinction between observer and observed is a profound and poorly understood issue. I don't know the answers, but it does give us some divine questions to ask. p. 57
I love the mix of confidence and humility that Janna Levin reveals through sharing her diary of letters that are the core of How the Universe Got Its Spots. I like her list of rhetorical questions. I sometimes ask my own, like when my brother recently asked me why I believe in God. (He wasn't asserting atheism, he just wanted to know why believe.) I think the fundamental answer for me is because my emotions and interpretation of personal experience tell me there is a God, but I hope I have some substantial reasons supporting my beliefs. I'm likely slaughtering the intent of Ms. Levin, but I do find myself wondering:
Have psychology and anthropology abandoned us to a terrifying abyss where observers create God? If so, why are we so limited in the Gods we can create? I might be able to induce religious experiences of various types, but I can't easily produce a Book of Mormon. Why is it hard to make someone believe that the God they worship is a hateful God? To a person who believes that God is a purely human construction (as opposed to the more moderate view that religion is intrinsically tainted by culture and the human context), the role of society and biology in religion may come as a source of vindication. I don't think it is. I think the distinction between God and our perceptions of God is a profound and poorly understood issue. I don't know the answers, but it does give us some divine questions to ask. [This was me, not Janna.]
I don't have a coherent theme for this post, so I'll just jump from quote to quote and share my thoughts.
We never perceive quantum peculiarities in our ordinary life because the blurriness of the quantum world is so tiny that we cannot resolve these effects easily. We don't spontaneously pass through our chairs to find ourselves on the floor. Refrigerators don't spontaneously come into existence and then disappear. The world appears solid, knowable, deterministic. p. 60
There seems to be something fundamentally random about reality, yet the world appears deterministic. I can think of a couple of possible interpretations of this. Maybe there are laws deeper than quantum mechanics that would explain all of the uncertainties in predictable, understandable, knowable ways. Maybe everything is fundamentally random. Maybe the laws of nature have ways of constraining the random to make it predictable. In biology, random mutation is essential all our wondrous diversity, but environmental factors constrain which random effects survive. Could similar constraints be acting on universes? Could universes and their laws be random underneath and still result in nearly deterministic universes? I think this is a distinct possibility. Universes randomly come into existence with random laws. Universes with laws that lead to the creation of more universes rapidly outnumber other kinds of universes. If laws that generate universe creators within a universe speed up the process of universe creation even more, then suddenly we have rudimentary gods making universes of their own. So randomness generates its own constraints just by chance, but the constraints are self reproducing. I hope physicists keep looking and discovering things I've never imagined, but I don't think it will bother me to find out it is all "random chance" at the foundation.
If the universe had a beginning, it will have an end. If the universe had a birth, it will have a death. Our origins and our terminus can both be predicted from Einstein's theory. p. 82
I think I believe this. I believe there is something more to us, although I don't know what form it takes or how it is propagated, that lived before this universe had its birth and that will continue long after it has its death.

What if this isn't just fantasy fuelled by math? It is possible that Cambridge, London, the earth, the observable universe are just three-dimensional projections in a higher-dimensional space. Access to a fourth dimension would be as mystifying and unimaginable to us as a third dimension would be to a denizen of two dimensions. If there is a fourth dimension, the fourth dimension is everywhere. A citizen of the fourth dimension would have seemingly supernatural powers and could poke into our insides without invasive surgery. They could access our brains and hearts and leave our skin unscarred. They could see into our three-dimensional houses, our sealed bottles, our bodies. p. 110
I find it a little amusing when people refuse to even imagine that there might be Gods doing unnatural miracles by completely natural means. I don't think it's as trivial or arbitrary as some things we might imagine a fourth dimensional being might do, but to believe there is something so beyond our observation as to be currently inconceivable seems as obviously true to me as it is to some other people that this is not the case. I'm inclined to think there will continue to be inconceivable frontiers to explore even when we become Gods. That's the trend of this life, and it just makes sense to me. Even if I am infinite and eternal, what's stopping anything else from being more infinite?

There are Darwinian reasons for why humans are the size they are relative to the curve of the earth. . .
Could there be Darwinian explanations for our size in the cosmos? Some reason why we evolved to be able to just barely see the curve of space? There could, and these explanations range from anthropic principles to ideas of Lee Smolin's on natural selection. I think Lee would argue against the former and on behalf of the latter.
The anthropic principle argues that we live in a universe with these conditions because they are the only conditions that could support life. . . . p. 159
Some models of inflation tie in with the anthropic principle. . . . It has been suggested that the values of the fundamental constants are different in different [universes]. The strength of gravity is different, the mass of the proton is different, the values of the charges, the things that organize the world as it is. In another patch, with different fundamental constants, the world would be organized utterly differently. If things weren't so tuned, there would be no primordial nuclear fusion to synthesize the common elements, no formation of galactic structures, no organic matter. There'd be no life, no us to even ask the questions. . . . We frankly aren't good enough at physical cosmology to truly predict what kind of universe would be generated by different values of the fundamental constants. There could be unforeseen structures, unforeseen life. But fair enough, not us. pp. 159-160

Lee Smolin suggests a cosmic natural selection in his book The Life of the Cosmos. He hypothesizes that in the centre of each black hole could be a new universe separated from our own by the black hole's horizon. In each universe the cosmic conditions may be slightly different from our own; different geometries, different particle masses, different interaction strengths. Slight differences in these elementary properties will change the world as we know it. Most importantly, he argues, the production of stars and their demise will be altered. The elementary properties are like cosmic genetic information that will get passed on to the next generation of black holes and the subsequent universes ballooning from their centers. Nature will statistically select the conditions most favorable to the production of black holes, since the more black holes there are, the more universes are born and so on until it becomes extremely likely that we live in a universe with precisely the optimal cosmic genetic information to produce black holes. If we were better at physical cosmology, we could test Smolin's hypothesis by determining if in fact the universe we live in has optimal conditions for the production of black holes. Too many factors are at play for us to be able to predict which conditions optimize black hole production, and Lee's idea is likely to remain untested for a long time. p. 160
Why does life have to be like us to matter? I prefer a different formulation--how much does life have to be like us to matter? I think it matters if life creates new life. I think it matters if life is conscious. I think it matters if life learns to create new universes. It matters because those things make themselves matter. So I think it matters if God is like us. I think it matters if God is a creator, if God is loving and compassionate, and if God is a scientist. I don't think it matters much what God looks like. I believe in Gods that look like humans--but it seems almost a certainty that that isn't the end of what God is or what God looks like. Is it plastic surgery that is going to place Christ's image in our countenances? Maybe everyone just needs my beard and hair and then we'll be ready for the Second Coming. Or maybe we need love, compassion, joy, and sorrow in their fulness. Maybe we need knowledge and patience to make kingdoms flow unto us without compulsory means. Maybe this is what God "looks" like. So while I think our bodies matter, and that LDS theology celebrates life in making these assertions, it's not going to bother me if I one day find out that God has six arms, or that my cousin gods look more like cockroaches than primates. I might have to overcome some more prejudices, but there should be time for that--even if it isn't our universe's time.

The reductionist believes that every event, no matter how complicated the experience, has as its conductor the one ultimate law of nature. String theory is one contender for the TOE [Theory Of Everything]. We are playing out the notes and vibrations, the symphony of that inevitable score. Complexity and chaos emerge not as new laws of nature but as merely the remarkable collection of harmonics of fundamental strings.
In many ways I agree that this must be true if there is an ultimate law of physics. But I can't help but wonder if there isn't a much more radical and deeper role for chaos in theoretical physics. Maybe there are no symmetries, no firm laws, no rigorous order. Maybe our experience of order and the laws of physics is the order that precipitates from complexity. Maybe there isn't an ultimate law, one fundamental symmetry, but instead many, a proliferation of possible laws, and the seeming symmetries that guide our perception of the forces emerge from the collusion of a democracy of quantum theories. Neil Cornish once remarked to me over cocktails at a bar on Haight Street in San Francisco that he thought symmetries might just be a manifestation of self-organized criticality. Maybe he also had something like this in mind.
One of the disturbing developments in string theory is that there is more than one string theory. String theory is not unique. . . . Maybe this is a hint as to why quantum mechanics seems so contradictory--why waves can be particles and probability reigns. There would be no one truth, not even layers of truth but a complex organization of competing truths. pp. 187-188
I'm happy with any ray of hope that I might find a notion of free will I could believe in without lying to myself. Despite the fear that it strikes in my heart, I still live my life with the persistent illusion of not only free will but also responsibility. I still hold myself accountable, and others. But I don't believe it intellectually. Nor to I not believe it. I'm agnostic on the issue of human will and freedom. p. 191
I suppose I'm agnostic, too, if you mean I don't think I can prove human will and freedom are not determined by outside (or even inside) forces and preexisting conditions. I wonder if agency might not be a law of nature. I don't imagine that human action is free of constraints. In fact, I think that much of what we view as choice is constrained immensely, and we don't even realize it. But I'm happy believing I can choose, and just maybe my choices can make universes.

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