Night Thoughts III

One of the things I most admire about Sean Carroll was the obvious pleasure he took in simply thinking. He seemed far more interested in being creative than in being right. Unafraid to make a mistake, with nothing to prove, he was always up for a challenging problem. He was especially exercised by the “arrow of time: — the mysterious fact that time moves always relentlessly forward, but never backwards (except in our most fundamental equations).

Carroll acknowledges the difficulty of imagining a time when there no time. He suggests — asking if time had a start up? — may be the wrong question. Better to start with how time might end. He mentions the new cyclic, bounce universes that are in fashion with a growing number of cosmologists. He asks us to imagine a universe petering out, approaching a heat-death equilibrium. But there is an unpredictable quantum fluctuation and — instead of a heat death equilibrium — there is a sudden bounce back, a mini big bang that becomes our time, our universe.

In such a speculative scenario, Carroll points out time would have ended and there would indeed have been a time “when there was no time” — but it would not seem so strange.

Yes, but I wondered if that was caused by the insertion of the preceding (bounce back) phase before our Big Bang that makes the birth of a new universe suddenly seem less of a miracle (less of a universe from nothing). In that case, it feels better not because the conundrum has been solved, but because it has been pushed back. The question looms as large as ever — what was it that started the first bounce or bang?

Well, here is a modest thought experiment of my own. Imagine a parallel universe — a second earth just like ours, but billions of years older. Imagine this second earth, with technology exponentially more advanced than ours, to be tracking our progress. With it’s vastly greater perspective it would know the exact time when (we think) our time came to an end, when the bounce back occurred, when the new big bang occurred and what happened next. In such a scenario, informing us when time in our universe came to an end, would be like one person, who was awake telling another how long they had been asleep. It would be like one clock stops, but another clock somewhere else keeps ticking. Which, of course, made me ask (if only myself) — how many clocks in one universe need to stop working before time is considered officially dead? If only one Boltzman clock, or cesium atom is floating somewhere in space (like Hubble) is that enough to keep time from ending? Are two clocks the minimum — or a thousand? Can there be just time without space, without matter — or is that meaningless?

One of the greatest obstacles for the ordinary person (or folk cosmologist such as myself) who aspires to greater understanding is knowing when to be appropriately intimidated by lurking technical difficulties — and to throw in the towel — and when to, nevertheless, persevere. I loved science writer Amada Geftner’s pluckiness when in her colorful memoir, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn she boasted (despite admitting she had never at that time taken a single physics course) that she thought she could “see though” the equations of great physicists to the ideas behind them. Although part of me wished that were true, I greatly doubted her claim. Nevertheless, Amanda Geftner, was inadvertently illustrating the perennial dilemma facing the outsider who wishes to be more of an insider. Let me give you an example. Right now I am rereading a tantalizing Preposterous Universe blog (posted on 6/20/13by Sean Carroll) entitled “How Quantum Field Theory Becomes Effective”. It is a homage to Ken Wilson, Nobel Laureate (whom I had barely heard of), a true giant of theoretical physics who had died the week previously. As a tribute, Sean Carroll decides to discuss in a general way Wilson’s seminal idea of an “effective field theory”. As far as I could tell, Wilson is saying that a physicist does not need to know the laws for all scales (of energy levels) he just needs to know the laws for the scale (e.g. quantum or macrocosmic) he is working on.

When I first read that a lightbulb went on and I immediately wondered: then why is it so important to understand what happened to the laws of quantum mechanics when the scale suddenly jumps from quantum to macrocosmic? Why is it so important to unify quantum mechanics with general relativity? Why is it necessary to find a successful theory of quantum gravity?

But, Sean Carroll decided to ratchet up his explanation. He spoke about particle interaction; Feynman diagrams; the superposition of different interactions; amplitudes; “loop diagrams”, quantum electrodynamics; “fock space” and so on. Carrol, however was just getting warmed up — he still has (ala “Frost”) “miles to go.” At the end he congratulates the persevering reader: “For those few of you who have made it this far, please appreciate how wonderful this is!” He does not seem to realize that to truly appreciate what he has so painstakingly constructed you have to be either: (1) Sean Carroll or (2) a very serious graduate student in the rarefied field of quantum astrophysics which automatically excludes 99.999999 percent of the human race.

So this is the dilemma: for the non-expert which version of the truth do you trust? Do you trust the beautiful simple explanations, usually accompanied by a simple picture, occasional music, (and a charming viewer-friendly guide such as Brian Green or Neil de Grass Tyson) or do you trust the hard cold objective stuff, festooned with as many equations as are necessary and a take-no-prisoners attitude? If you are like me and do not have x-ray vision — meaning you can not see though equations which you do not first understand — you have to choose.

The reader will not be surprised that I chose to stick to psychology and philosophy; to go with and to trust what I know, to accept what I do not know, and to hopefully know the difference (that cosmological version of the serenity prayer). So here is the other side of Sean Carroll, the popular educator, the amateur philosopher, the T.V. performer and some of my intuitive responses. My first glimpse of Sean Carroll is on the Discovery science channel (Dec. 25 2013), a man is standing on a road, or superimposed on a road. The road, we are told, is to be understood as a visual aid, a metaphor for the arrow of time. Carroll is expostulating on a favorite cosmological topic: the block universe. The road is our future, the driver in the car coming up the road is the present meeting the future. The point is the future is already there, waiting for us, like the road, we just have to catch up.

Which the moment I think about it, makes no sense. What if the road had yet to be built, if the driver (present) had yet to be born, if the automobile had yet to be invented? In what way would our future be waiting for us? How is it possible that right after the big bang every detail of our future lives (13.7 billion years later) in some ghostly fashion, has been laid out? How could anyone, even a world class cosmologist know that?

Once again I return to the question of living with uncertainty, the theme of this book. I began with philosophy, then turned to psychology, to neuroscience; to cosmology, then back to psychology and philosophy. A unifying constant has been a realization of the price we have paid for the expulsion of subjectivity from the theatre of consciousness and its replacement by an information-obsessed, digitalized technology.

So what draws me to cosmology is the opportunity it affords for speculative free-ranging thinking, as beautifully initiated in the person of Sean Carroll. That, plus the fact it dares in its own fashion to tackle the big question: Is there a meaning to the existence of the universe? … Are we more than just a cosmic accident, an incidental byproduct?

Although I do not expect to find answers, I do hope to find meaning. When a leading cosmologist says that time is reversible (because all the fundamental equations of physics are reversible) and I think: but all my life, I have never seen or experienced, what statisticians might call pure uncontaminated probability. I have only experienced (as to be expected in the macroscopic world we live in) weighted probability. I have never seen: trains run backwards, water run uphill; rain fall upwards; and clocks run backwards. No one to my knowledge has ever seen the laws of nature reverse themselves: — I do not think in terms of being right or wrong. I just hope I am being creative. Because I know when I feel creative. I feel engaged and when I feel engaged I feel alive.

Part of the appeal of cosmology is that it serves as a meeting place for philosophy and science. Listening first to Roger Penrose and then Sean Carroll — one ridiculing quantum mechanics, string theory and inflation as a mixture of “fashion, faith and fantasy in the new physics” and the other boldly pronouncing general relativity to be “wrong” — it is hard not to choose sides. I am drawn back to my philosophy classes with Paul Edwards and William Barrett, two charismatic teachers who could not have been more different. Although the increase in knowledge has been exponential, not much has changed when it comes to the big questions. They ignite passion just as readily: when someone says that only string theory can explain what caused the big bang, I counter — how can general relativity, which predicted its own demise at the singularity be expected to provide an explanation when it was not even around? How can quantum mechanics be considered a better candidate when it was created decades before the big bang model was discovered? This was a time when the universe was considered to have always existed, well before the creation of the steady state model of Hoyle and Bondi in which a universe was postulated that would never die. Quantum mechanics, by contrast, has a humbler origin: a desire to solve the perplexing black body problem. The fact quantum cosmologists need so many radically new, unsupported concepts to make their case — inflation, colliding branes, the string landscape — shows that, as things currently stand, quantum mechanics may be no more fit to explain the big bang than general relativity.

Then there is the claim — that since we can not see past the visible universe — it would be wrong to extrapolate the isomorphism of our local patch of universe to what may lie beyond. In other words, for all we know there may be a different physics. But why? Doesn’t statistics prove you can extrapolate form a sufficiently large, properly analyzed sample set (eg. Poll numbers from a presidential election) and then (with great accuracy) apply it to the immensely larger (and unknown) general population? So why can’t you do the same regarding results from our known universe ( an incredibly large and diverse sample set) to the universe that lies beyond? How is that any different from what we do in our local world? No one says you can’t extrapolate to an unknown (and not yet tested sample) because everyone knows you can do that. Is there any reason or evidence which suggests otherwise?

Until there is, shouldn’t we proceed in the same way — that we do in the local patch — to what lies beyond? Every time we run a well known experiment we don’t assume we are making a mistake by applying an extrapolation of all the known results of past experiments to the new experiment. In fact, isn’t the basis of determinsion that isomorphic configurations of cause lead (at least roughly) to isomorphic effects?

And now a last word from Sean Carroll and a last (I hope not too embarrassing) attempt at an imaginary dialogue: here it is “not everything has a cause,… some things just are…” Sounds profound doesn’t it? I thought so at first, but after wracking my brains, I find no evidence for this statement. I do not know of a single authenticated cause of a causeless phenomenon. How could anyone say that without worrying that tomorrow someone may come up with a cause? Carroll seems to be saying that if earth is sui generis — which it may be — we have nothing with which to compare it. If there is only one earth, we have no local conditions, no other earths to serve as comparison. You can not then ask why questions, you can only ask how? Carroll emphasizes this point by asserting. “brute facts just are”. But to explain the cause of someone’s ignorance is not the same thing as explaining what it is they are ignorant of. To say, I can’t understand a word someone is saying because I don’t speak their language explains why I can’t understand it, it doesn’t explain what the person is saying. To say of a brute fact — “why questions are inappropriate because if a brute fact of existence (such as time) is always there, there are no antecedent local condition to explain” — is not the same thing as understanding a brute fact. Does Carroll think he thereby understands something/anything about the brute fact phenomenon? How is saying that any less spooky or magical sounding than saying that a recently discovered star or galaxy — with no discernable local conditions is a brute fact and was always there?

Let us say though you are satisfied something is a brute fact. How do you determine at what point the inert causeless brute fact of existence came to life and began to suddenly initiate the chain of causality? That resulted in the universe we know? But if something like time is a brute fact is not a explanation, is it a form of understanding? Doesn’t experiencing, interacting with, and be able to describe a brute fact (such as we do with time) provide at least a partial understanding? Doesn’t the fact that we can predict the behavior of time count for something?

Finally, there is emergent understanding. Time and space and gravity may be constants. But our knowledge of them — far from being constant never stops growing. It is vastly greater now than it was 100 years ago — that means we are continually pushing back the hypothetical origin of whatever particular brute fact we are investigating. Once the world was considered to be six thousand years old. Now it is known to be no less than 13.7 billion years old. In other words, saying something is a brute fact is at best a contingent designation — subject to constant revision.

The questions of the child are the questions of the cosmologist but the answers are different. The ordinary person feels intimidated by the size of the universe and defeated by their inability to understand to it. Unlike the professional cosmologist, he or she derives scant comfort from being a witness to the majestic immensity of what lies beyond. Unlike the astrophysicists they are not looking for the simplest possible explanation compatible with the laws of physics. They are looking for the simplest explanation that addresses their most immediate concerns. The fate of the universe is hardly a priory, but nothing takes precedence over the fate of their own consciousness. They are not looking for answers to the great existential question of what is it like not to be? They want to know what happens to me when I die?

It is a question to which contemporary cosmology has no answer. It is a question science can not answer because it does not address itself to nature. It is, instead, a search for meaning. This is where folk cosmology comes in. Deficient though it may be in scientific reasoning it is rich in meaning. As mentioned, its concepts resonate in the psyche. Because of that folk cosmology can illustrate — what science is at pains to expugn — the subjectivity of cosmology.

Although it appears nowhere in the textbooks the subjectivity of the cosmologist is a crucial ingredient in the creative development of dynamic new theories.

Forty years ago, Feynman wondered if we would ever get qualia, “the wetness of water in our equations.” Such an achievement would be no less than a physics of everyday experience. While no one can predict the future, forty years later the answer to Feynman’s question is a resounding “no.”

One reason is that experience, as an emergent phenomena is incomparably more complicated than anything that has been discovered in the physical world. By contrast, equations involving mathematical relationships of quantized units, seemed removed by many layers from the immediacy of experience. With experience, there is at least the illusions of not having to think. Equations make us think, but with experience, we can simply be immersed in our own being.

This may be why the geometric figures of Eudid, — the triangles and squares, the perfect platonic circles — after two thousand years remained fundamental. They do not need to be mediated or constructed by the brain (although they are). By contrast they seem embedded in their physical substrate. Compared with equations, they even suggest a possible first link to a mathematics of experience.

Only the future will tell. For now there is our experiences, something that has yet to be represented in our prevailing scientific theories. That was our starting point and to that we return in a concluding section.








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