Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

What is ‘Reality’?

Back in July I reviewed Jim Holt’s book, Why Does the World Exist? (2012), where he interviews various intellects, including David Deutsch, who wrote The Fabric of Reality (1997), a specific reference point in Holt’s interview. I’ve since read Deutsch’s book myself and reviewed it on Amazon UK. I gave it a favourable review, as it’s truly thought-provoking, which is not to say I agree with his ideas.

I followed up Deutsch’s book with John D. Barrow’s  New Theories of Everything (originally published 1990, 2nd edition published 2007) with ‘New’ being added to the title of the 2nd edition. The 2 books cover very similar territory, yet could hardly be more different. In particular, Deutsch’s book contains a radical vision of reality based on the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and becomes totally fantastical in its closing chapter, where he envisages a world of infinite subjective time in the closing moments of the universe that, to all intents and purposes, represents heaven.

He took this ‘vision’ from Frank J. Tipler, who, as it turns out, co-wrote a book with Barrow called, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986). Barrow also references Tipler in New Theories of Everything, not only in regard to the possibility of life forms, or ‘information processing systems’, existing in the final stages of the Universe, but in relation to everything in the Universe being possibly simulated in a computer. As Barrow points out there is a problem with this, however, as not everything is computable by a Turing machine.

Leaving aside the final chapter, Deutsch’s book is a stimulating read, and whilst he failed to convince me of his world-view, I wouldn’t ridicule him – he’s not a crank. Deutsch likes to challenge conventional wisdom, even turn it on its head. For example, he criticises the view that there is a hierarchy of ‘truth’ from mathematics to science to philosophy. To support his iconoclastic view, he provides a ‘proof’ that solipsism is false: it’s impossible for more than one person to be solipsistic in a given world. Bertrand Russell gave the anecdote of a woman philosopher writing to him and claiming she was a solipsist, then complaining she’d met no others. Deutsch uses a different example, but the contradictory outcome is the same – there can only be one solipsist in a solipsistic philosophy. He claims that the proof against solipsism is more definitive than any scientific theory. However, solipsism does occur in dreams, which we all experience, so there is one environment where solipsism is ‘true’.

In another part of the book, he points to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem as evidence that mathematical ‘truths’ are contingent, which undermines the conventional epistemological hierarchy. Interestingly, Barrow also discusses Godel’s famous Theorem in depth, albeit in a different context, whereby he muses on what impact it has on scientific theories. Barrow concludes, if I interpret him correctly, that the basis of mathematical truths and scientific truths, though related via mathematical ‘laws of nature’, are different. Scientific truths are ultimately dependent on evidence, whereas mathematical truths are ultimately dependent on logical proofs from axioms. Godel’s Theorem prescribes limits to the proofs from the axioms, but, contrary to Deutsch’s claim, mathematical ‘truths’ have a universality and dependability that scientific ‘truths’ have never attained thus far, and are unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

One suspects that Deutsch’s desire to overturn the epistemological hierarchy, even if only in certain cases, is to give greater authority to his many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, as he presents this view as if it’s unassailable to rational thought. For Deutsch, this is the ‘reality’ and Einstein’s space-time is merely an approximation to reality on a large scale. It has to be said that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is becoming more popular, but it’s not definitive and the ‘evidence’ of interference between these worlds, manifest in quantum experiments, is not evidence of the worlds themselves. At the end of the day, it’s evidence that determines scientific ‘truth’.

Deutsch begins his book with a discussion on Popper’s philosophy of epistemology and how it differs from induction. Induction, according to Deutsch, simply examines what has happened in the past and forecasts it into the future. In other words, past experimental results predict future experimental results. However, Deutsch argues, quite compellingly, that the explanatory power of a theory has more authority and more weight than just induction. Kepler’s mathematical formulation of planetary orbits gives us a mechanism of induction but Newton’s Theory of Gravity gives us an explanation. It’s obvious that Deutsch believes that Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is a better explanation than any other rival interpretation. My contention is that quantum rival ‘theories’ are more philosophically based than science-based, so they are not theories per se, as there are no experiments that can separate them.

It was towards the end of his book, before he took off in a flight of speculative fancy, that it occurred to me that Deutsch had managed to convey all aspects of the universe – space-time, knowledge, human free will, chaotic and quantum phenomena, human and machine computation – into an explanatory model with quantum multiple-worlds at its heart. He had encompassed this world-view so completely with his ‘4 strands of reality’ – quantum mechanics, epistemology, evolution, computation – that he’s convinced that there can be no other explanation, therefore the quantum multiple-worlds must be ‘reality’.

In fact, Deutsch believes that his thesis is so all-encompassing that even chaotic phenomena can be explained as classical manifestations of quantum mechanics, even though the mathematics of chaos theory doesn’t support this. In all my reading, I’ve never come across another physicist who claims that chaotic phenomena have quantum mechanical origins.

Despite his emphasis on explanatory power, Deutsch makes no reference to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or Planck’s constant, h. Considering how fundamental they are to quantum mechanics, a theory that fails to mention them, let alone incorporate them in its explanation, would appear to short-change us.

Deutsch does however explain the probabilities that are part and parcel of quantum calculations and predictions. They are simply the result of the ratio of universes giving one result over another. This implies that we are discussing a finite number of universes for every quantum interaction, though Deutsch doesn’t explicitly state this. Mathematically, I believe this could be the Achilles heel of his thesis: the quantum multiverse cannot be infinite yet its finiteness appears open-ended, not to mention indeterminable.

Quantum computers is an area where I believe Deutsch has some expertise, and it’s here that he provides one compelling argument for multiple worlds. To quote:

When a quantum factorization engine is factorizing a  250-digit number, the number of interfering universes will be of the order of 10500

Deutsch issues the challenge: how can this be done without multiple universes working in parallel? He explains that these 10500 universes are effectively identical except that each one is doing a different part of the calculation. There are also 10500 identical persons each getting the correct answer. So quantum computers, when they become standard tools, will be creating multiple universes complete with multiple human populations along with the infrastructure, worlds, galaxies and independent futures, all simultaneously calculating the same algorithm. In response to Deutsch’s challenge, I admit I don’t know, but I find his resolution incredulous in the extreme.

Those who have read my post on Holt’s book, will remember that he interviewed Roger Penrose as well as Deutsch (along with many other intellectual luminaries). Interestingly, Holt seemed to find Penrose’s Platonic mathematical philosophy more bizarre than Deutsch’s but based on what I’ve read of them both, I’d have to disagree. Deutsch also mentions Penrose and delineates where he agrees and disagrees. To quote again:

[Penrose] envisages a comprehensible world, rejects the supernatural, recognizes creativity as being central to mathematics, ascribes objective reality both to the physical world and to abstract entities, and involves an integration of the foundations of mathematics and physics. In all these respects I am on his side.

Where Deutsch specifically disagrees with Penrose is in Penrose’s belief that the human brain cannot be reduced to algorithms. In other words, it disobeys Turing’s universal principle (as interpreted by Deutsch) that everything in the universe can be simulated by a universal quantum Turing machine. (Deutsch, by the way, believes the brain is effectively a classical computer, not a quantum computer.) Deutsch points out that Penrose’s position is at odds with most physicists, yet I agree with him on this salient point. I don’t believe the brain (human or otherwise) runs on algorithms. Deutsch sees this as a problem with Penrose’s world-view as he’s unable to explain human thinking. However, I see it as a problem with Deutsch’s world-view, because, if Penrose is right, then Deutsch is the one who can’t explain it.

Barrow is a cosmologist and logically his book reflects this perspective. Compared to Deutsch’s book, it’s more science, less philosophy. But there is another fundamental difference, in tone if not content. Right from his opening words, Deutsch stakes his position in the belief that we can encompass more and more knowledge in fewer and fewer theories, so it is possible for one person to ‘understand’ everything, at least in principle. He readily acknowledges, however, that we will probably never ‘know’ everything. On the other hand, Barrow brings the reader down-to-earth with a lengthy discussion on the initial conditions of the universe, and how they are completely up for grabs based on what we currently know.

Barrow ends his particular chapter on cosmological initial conditions with an in-depth discussion on the evolution of cosmology from Newton to Einstein to Wheeler-De Witt, which leads to the Hartle-Hawking ‘no-boundary condition’ model of the universe. He points out that this is a radical theory, ‘proposed by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking for aesthetic reasons’, but it overcomes the divide between initial conditions and the laws of nature. Compared to Deutsch’s radical theses, it’s almost prosaic. It has the added advantage of overcoming theological-based initial conditions, allowing ‘…a Universe which tunnels into existence out of nothing.’

Logically, a book on ‘theories of everything’ must include string theory or M theory, yet it’s not Barrow’s strong suit. Earlier this year, I read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics, which gives a detailed history and critique of string theory, but I won’t discuss it here. Of course, it’s another version of ‘reality’ where ‘theory’ is yet to be given credence by evidence.

As I alluded to above, what separates Barrow from Deutsch is his cosmologist’s perspective. Even if we can finally grasp all the laws of Nature in some ‘Theory of Everything’, the outcomes are based on chance, which was once considered the sole province of gods, and, as Barrow argues, is the reason that the mathematics of chance and probability were not investigated earlier in our scientific endeavours. To quote Barrow:

…it is possible for a Universe like ours to be governed by a very small number of simple laws and yet display an unlimited number of complex states and structures, including you and me.

Of all the improbabilities, the most fundamental and consequential to our existence is the asymmetry between matter and antimatter of one billion and one to one billion. We know this, because the ratio of photons to protons in the Universe is two billion to one (the annihilation of a proton with an anti-proton creates 2 photons). It is sobering to consider that a billion to one asymmetry in the birth pangs of the Universe is the basis of our very existence.

The final chapter in Barrow’s book is called Is pi really in the sky? This is an obvious allusion to mathematical Platonism and the entire chapter is a lengthy and in-depth discussion on the topic of mathematics and its relationship to reality. (Barrow has also authored a book called Pi in the Sky, which I haven’t read.) According to Barrow, Plato and Aristotle were the first to represent the dichotomy we still find today as to whether mathematics is discovered or invented. In other words, is it solely a product of the human mind or does it have an abstract existence independently of us and possibly the Universe? What we do know is that mathematics is the fundamental epistemological bridge between reality and us, especially when it comes to understanding Nature’s deepest secrets.

In regard to Platonism, Barrow has this to say:

It elevates mathematics close to the status of God... just alter the word ‘God’ to ‘mathematics’ wherever it appears and it makes pretty good sense. Mathematics is part of the world, and yet transcends it. It must exist before and after the Universe.

In the next paragraph he says:

Most scientists and mathematicians operate as if Platonism is true, regardless of whether they believe that it is. That is, they work as though there were an unknown realm of truth to be discovered.

Neither of these statements are definitive, and it should be pointed out that Barrow discusses all aspects of mathematical philosophies in depth.

I think that consciousness will never be reduced to mathematics, yet it is consciousness that makes mathematics manifest. Obviously, some argue that it is consciousness alone that makes mathematics at all, and Platonism is a remnant of numerology and mysticism. Whichever point of view one takes, it is mathematics that makes the Universe comprehensible. I’m a Platonist because of both the reasons given above. I don’t think the Universe is a giant computer, but I do think that mathematics determines, to a large extent, what realities we can have.

Despite my criticisms and disagreements, I concede that Deutsch is much cleverer than me. His book is certainly provocative, but I think it’s philosophically flawed in all the areas I discuss above. On the other hand, the more I read of Barrow, the more I find myself aligning to his cosmological world-view; in particular, his apparent attraction to the Anthropic Principle. He makes the point that the probability of the critical Nature’s constants’ values are less important than their necessity to provide conditions for observers to evolve. This does not invoke teleology - as he’s quick to point out – it’s just a necessary condition if intelligent life is to evolve.

You’ve no doubt noticed that I don’t really address the question in my heading. Deutsch’s multiverse and String Theory are two prevalent, if also extreme, versions of reality. String Theory claims that the Universe is actually 10 dimensions of space rather than 3 and predicts 10500 possible universes, not to be confused with the quantum multiverse. 20th Century physics has revealed, through quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories of relativity, that ‘reality’ is more ‘strange’ than we imagine. I often think that Kant was prescient, in ways he could not have anticipated, when he said that we may never know the ‘thing-in-itself’.

It is therefore apposite to leave you with Barrow’s last paragraph in his book:

There is no formula that can deliver all truth, all harmony, all simplicity. No Theory of Everything can ever provide total insight. For, to see through everything, would leave us seeing nothing.

Barrow loves to fill his books with quotable snippets, but I like this one in particular:

Mathematics is the part of science you could continue to do if you woke up tomorrow and discovered the universe was gone. Dave Rusin.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

This one is for the climate-change sceptics

Notice I use the English spelling and not the American (skeptic) for those who may think I can’t spell (although I’m not infallible).

Not so long ago, North Carolina passed a bill to ‘bar state agencies from considering accelerated sea level rise in decision-making until 1 July 2016’. Apparently, this is a watered-down version of the original bill, which I believe didn’t have the 4 year moratorium. I learnt about it because it was reported in the Letters section of New Scientist. What worries me is the mentality behind this: the belief that we can legislate against nature.  In other words, if scientists start making predictions about sea-level rise, it’s forbidden. The legislation doesn’t state that sea level rise can’t happen but that any science-based predictions must be ignored.

This mentality also exists in Australia where there seems to be an unspoken yet tacit belief that we can vote against climate-change politically. There is a serious disconnect here: nature doesn’t belong to any political party; it’s not a constituency. The current leader of the opposition in Australian Federal politics, Tony Abbott, won his position (within the Party or Cabinet room) over the incumbent, on this very issue. The incumbent leader, Malcolm Turnbull, felt so strongly over the moral issue of human-induced climate-change he put his leadership on the line and lost, by 1 vote (in 2009).

This interview with Climate Central's chief climatologist, Heidi Cullen, from Princeton University, helps to put this issue into perspective. We don’t live at the poles where evidence of climate change is most apparent. The signs are there and we need to trust the people who can read the signs, whom we call scientists. Malcolm Turnbull, who lost his job over this, made the point that there is something wrong with a society when we can't trust our scientists – they are our brains trust.

In Australia, the sceptics argue that this is a global conspiracy by climatologists to keep themselves in jobs and maintain an influx of funding. In other words, as long as they keep maintaining that there is a problem, governments will keep giving them money, whereas, if they tell the ‘truth’ the funding will stop. This is so ludicrous one can’t waste words on it. In Australia, scientists working on climate-change were sent death-threats, which demonstrates the mentality of the people who oppose it. Again, there is an irrational-held belief that if only scientists would write the right reports that tell us climate-change is a furphy, then it won’t happen – the problem will simply go away.

Addendum: I learnt today (8 Sep 2012) that the NSW government has done something similar: revoked local council laws indicating coastal properties which may be subject to sea-level rise based on IPCC predictions.