Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 24 September 2015

What is now?

Notice I ask what and not when, because ‘now’, as we experience it, is the most ephemeral of all experiences. As I’ve explained in another post: to record anything at all requires a duration – there is no instantaneous moment in time – except in mathematical calculus where a sleight-of-hand makes an infinitesimal disappear completely. It’s one of the most deceptive tricks in mathematics, but in mathematics you can have points with zero dimensions in space, so time with zero dimensions is just another idealism that allows one to perform calculations that would otherwise be impossible.

But another consequence of ‘now’ is that without memory we would not even know we have consciousness. Think about it: ‘now’ has no duration and consciousness exists in a continuous present so no memory would mean no experience of consciousness, or ‘now’ for that matter, because once it occurs it’s already in the past. Therefore memory is required to experience it at all.

But this post is not about calculus or consciousness per se; it arose from a quote I came across attributed to William Lawrence Bragg:

Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves. The advancing sieve of time coagulates waves into particles at the moment ‘now’.

For those who don’t know, Sir William Lawrence Bragg was son of Sir William Henry Bragg, whom, as far as I know, were the only father and son to be jointly awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, for their work on X-ray diffraction in crystals. Henry was born in England and Lawrence was born in Australia. I heard about them at school, naturally, but I only came across this quote earlier in the week. They were among the first to exploit short wave photons (X-rays) to find the atomic-scale dimensions of crystal lattices, thus pioneering the discipline of crystallography.

In the same week, I came across this quote from Freeman Dyson recalling a conversation he had with Richard Feynman:

Thirty-one years ago Dick Feynman told me about his ‘sum over histories’ version of quantum mechanics. ‘The electron does anything it likes’, he said. ‘It goes in any direction at any speed, forward and backward in time, however it likes, and then you add up the amplitudes and it gives you the wave-function.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But he wasn’t.

I’ve discussed in some detail the mathematical formulation of the ‘wave-function’ known as Schrodinger’s equation, in another post, but what’s significant, in regard to the 2 quotes I’ve cited, is that the wave function effectively disappears or becomes irrelevant once an ‘observation’ or experimental ‘measurement’ occurs. In other words, the wave function ‘permeates all space’ (according to Richard Elwes in MATHS 1001) before it becomes part of the ‘classical physics’ real world. So Bragg’s quote makes perfect sense that the wave function represents the future and the particle ‘observation’, be it a photon or electron or whatever, represents the past with the interface being ‘now’.

As I’ve explicated in my last post, the default interpretation of Feyman’s ‘sum over histories’ or ‘path integrals’ mathematical description of quantum mechanics, is that all ‘histories’ occur in parallel universes, but I would argue that it’s a consequence of the irreversibility of time once the particle is ‘observed’. Now ‘observed’, in this context, means that the particle becomes part of the real world, or at least, that’s my prosaic interpretation. There is an extreme interpretation that it does require a ‘conscious observation’ in order to become real, but the fact that the Universe existed many billions of years prior to consciousness evolving, makes this interpretation logically implausible to say the least.

Brian Cox, in one of his BBC TV programmes (on ‘Time’) points out that one of the problems that Einstein had with quantum mechanics is that, according to its ‘rules’, the future was indeterminate. Einstein’s mathematical formulation of space-time, which became fundamental to his General Theory of Relativity (albeit was a consequence of his Special Theory) was that time could literally be treated like a dimension of space. This meant that the future was just as ‘real’ as the past. In other words, Einstein firmly believed that the universe, and therefore our lives, are completely deterministic – there was no place for free will in Einstein’s universe. Interestingly, this was a topic in a not-so-recent issue of Philosophy Now, though the author of the article didn’t explain that Einstein’s strict position on this was a logical consequence of his interpretation of space-time: the future was just as fixed as the past.

But, even without quantum mechanics, we know that chaos theory also contributes to the irreversibility of time, although Einstein was unaware of chaos theory in his lifetime. Paul Davies explains this better than most in his book on chaos theory, The Cosmic Blueprint.

The point is that, both in chaos theory and Feynman’s multiple histories, there are many possibilities that can happen in the ‘future’, but the ‘past’ is only one path and it can’t be remade. According to David Deutsch and Max Tegmark, all the future possibilities occur both in quantum mechanics and at a macro level. In fact, Deutsch has argued that chaotic phenomena are a consequence of the quantum mechanics' many worlds interpretation. In effect, they disassemble the asymmetry between the future and the past. According to their world-view, the future is just as inevitable as the past, because no matter which path is chosen, they all become reality somewhere in some universe; all of which bar one, we can’t see. From my perspective, this is not an argument in support of the many worlds interpretation, but an argument against it.

In my last post but one, I discussed at length Paul Davies’ book, The Mind of God. One of his more significant insights was that the Universe allows evolvement without dictating its end. In other words, it’s because of both chaos and quantum phenomena that there are many possible outcomes yet they all arise from a fixed past and this is a continuing process - it’s deterministic yet unpredictable.

One could make the same argument for free will. At many points in our lives we make choices based on a past that is fixed whilst conscious of a future that has many possibilities. I agree with Carlo Rovelli that free will is not a consequence of quantum mechanics, but the irreversibility of time applies to us as individual conscious agents in exactly the same way it applies to the dynamics of the Universe at both quantum and macro levels.

There is just one problem with this interpretation of the world, and that is, according to Einstein’s theories, there is no universal ‘now’. If there is no simultaneity, which is a fundamental outcome of the Special Theory of Relativity, then it’s difficult to imagine that people separated in space-time could agree on a ‘now’. And yet, the fact that we give the Universe an age and a timeline, effectively insists that there must be a ‘now’ for the Universe at large. I confess I don’t know enough physics to answer this, but quantum entanglement reintroduces simultaneity by stealth, even if we can’t use it to send messages. One of the features of the Universe is causality. Despite the implications of both quantum mechanics and relativity theory on the physics of time, neither of them interfere with causality, despite what some may argue (and that includes entanglement). But causality requires the speed of light to separate causal events, which is why the ‘now’ we experience sees stars in the firmament up to billions of years old. So space-time makes ‘now’ a subjective experience, even to the extent that at the event horizon of a black hole ‘now’ can become frozen to an outside observer.


Bill MD said...

Excellent post as usual, Paul. Tegemarks MUH is intriguing and provides insight into how the mathematical Universe can be both deteministic (2+2=4) and stochastic at the same time (a roll of the dice is all math if you break it down to angular momentums, pull of gravity, surface areas,..)

Now here is my first question for you: why am I fearful when going into a dark alley at night then? Why has evolution built fear into the survival instinct of living beings if everything is pre-determined anyway? Surely, Nature wouldn't have wasted time developing the instinct of fear if the outcome was pre-determined to be life or death no matter what the organism did (escape, fight,..)

Here is my second question: isn't it a bit curious to you that, in History, things have always (eventually) turned out "right"? In other words, why was Nazism defeated? And totalitarian regimes during the Cold War, why didn't they prevail? Why did the Renaissance bring back the Classical knowledge, why didn't the Dark Ages go on forever? Why did Jesus' moral set of values (don't hurt your fellow humans) spread, and not the values of, say Guy Fawkes or the Unabomber? If we live in a chaotic/ stochastic universe, the odds of "good stuff" always prevailing should be equal to bad things prevailing. Are we just fortunate enough to live in a slice of the multiverse where Nero, Attila, Ghengis Khan, Marat, Hitler and Stalin "happen" to be on the losing side of History? Also, going forward, I am willing to bet you that the popularity of the Kim-Jong Uns or Ayatollahs of the world won't be catching on any time soon. Why is that? Why does, in your opinion History (so far) turn out right?
Thanks Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Bill,

Have you read Tegmark’s book, The Mathematical Universe? I agree with his Platonist philosophy, and, whilst numbers seem to underpin the Universe in a Pythagorean fashion, the equations themselves do not create energy or stuff – there is no fire in the equations. If you’ve read my previous post to this, you will also know that I’m rather sceptical of the multiverse theories (there’s more than one).

2+2=4 doesn’t of itself make the Universe deterministic – you probably know that – it’s just an example of a mathematical truth that is universal, like Pythagoras’s equation in Euclidean geometry (Pythagoras’s equation doesn’t work on curved surfaces, which makes it a good litmus test for curved surfaces).

The roll of the dice is an example of a chaotic phenomenon where the smallest change in initial conditions can create a different outcome. One can mathematically prove that, in chaos, the initial conditions are impossible to determine because one would have to calculate them to infinite decimal places.

So chaos and quantum mechanics both ensure that the Universe is not deterministic.

Your question is really about God. You believe that God intervenes to keep us ‘on track’ in a good way. Actually, I turn this on its head: I believe that God is more likely dependent on us than the other way round – we get the God we deserve.

I expect there are a number of reasons that things have generally improved – many years ago I wrote a post on human nature, but I won’t revisit that. Empathy is the key to our success, I would argue, past present and future. In fact, a social psychologist (I can’t remember who) suggested that evil should be called lack of empathy, because evil happens when empathy goes awol (away without leave). This is an evolutionary trait, without which, I believe, we would have gone extinct a long time ago through self-destruction. Another evolutionary trait, narcissism, has probably been the greatest generator of out-of-control megalomania that has brought out the worse in humanity.

Another reason things have improved, I would argue, is scientific knowledge in all its forms, including mathematics. Science has created a perspective of our place in the Universe that truly humbles us. Plus, science, more than any other endeavour, has displaced superstition and ignorance and provided the most successful platform for the execution of reason. And reason is what separates us from all other species.

It’s our success that’s going to get us into trouble, combined with the economic paradigm of infinite growth based on rampant consumerism, but that’s another topic.

Bill MD said...

Excellent answers, thank you Paul. So in your opinion, scientific knowledge and evolutionary traits of empathy (survival through helping others) has steered humanity away from evil, to avoid the persistance of evil. For example, Hitler didn't win because the Allies "empathized" with the plight of occupied Europe? Or, when people have to chose between following an evil leader or a "good" leader, empathy for the suffering of those hurt by the evil leader makes us chose the good instead? Interesting, I see your point. I agree; for example, who nowadays would be attracted to the evil of ISIL other than an aberrant few after witnessing the pain they inflict on our fellow human beings? I also with you agree that Science is a beacon for chosing good over evil, generally.

I did read Tegmark's book, yes. I am still shocked at how it ends: "we are the only intelligent, self-aware beings in this universe". Wow! that is so bold! I do believe we probably are the only advanced civilization in the Milky Way, but..the whole Universe? All those galaxies and trillions of stars? Just for us to give them meaning? What do you think, Paul?

By the way, your last paragraph may well be refering to the "Great Filter", you know?

Thank you.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I don't know what the 'Great Filter' is, I have to admit.

Curiously, I just finished reading an excellent book that addresses your question in the second last paragraph, which I'd highly recommend.

John Gribbin's The Reason Why discusses this issue comprehensively and in great detail. He concludes that we are most likely, uniquely, the only technically advanced civilization within the entire Milky Way Galaxy. His arguments are compelling on a number of fronts.

Every book I read only reinforces the point that our existence is extraordinary in the extreme; you've read my post on the fine-tuned universe.

Did you read my post on 'Reason' last month? Effectively, a discussion of Paul Davies' book The Mind of God (written in the 90s).

The point is that even if there is a multiverse, as Tegmark claims, our universe is still special. John Barrow in his excellent book, The Book of Universes (which I also previewed, makes the point '...that if we were to produce a bell curve of probable universes that our particular universe exists in the "tail" and not at the peak as one might expect.'

In my last comment I referenced a post I wrote many years ago (originally in 2000) called Human Nature. Despite having written it so long ago, it still sums up my philosophy on 'human nature' pretty well.

Regards, Paul.

Bill MD said...

thanks Paul, I was looking for a new book to read, I will give Gribbin's a try, just bought it on Amazon.

The Great Filter is a proposed explanation as to why there are no other signs of intelligent life in the Universe. I am sure you are familiar with the concept, just not the name great filter. Basically, it means there is some unkonw factor that filters intelligent civilizations out at some point in their history; examples would be nuclear armaggedon, over-pollution of the environment, runaway population growth, creation of destructive black holes in labs,... Some believe (I think you may be one of them from what I have read in your blogs) that we are approaching that Great Filter time here on Earth ourselves.

take care.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Okay, I think I know what you're talking about. Collapse of civilizations like the Mayans or Easter Island. Yes, we are in danger of doing that on a global scale. If you're an optimist you would say that we have the technology to forbear it. But if you're a pessimist you'll say that our consumerist society will run us out of resources by simply chasing the modern Western dream, which we export world-wide.

I've written on this a number of times but this is probably the most relevant discussion.

Also this article from New Scientist (quite a few years ago), if you can access it, is worth looking at.

I really think that giving more power to women all over the world is the key to our future. Because women invest in their children. In Brasil, a trial of a minimum salary has been implemented by a woman mayor, but it's only given to women, not men, and, apparently, it works, because they prioritise their children's needs, specifically food and education.

Regards, Paul.

Bill MD said...

Wow, reading Gribbin's book now, you were right, amazingly to the point, packed with data and facts and .. he makes a ton of sense. May be each galaxy in the Universe is an "incubator" for one intelligent civilization so that it can develop in protected isolation from one-another until advanced enough to make contact (the distances between galaxies been the natural barrier to avoid early contact).

I have also re-read your "Human Nature" post from 2000..excellent summary, brilliant.

The minimum wage for females thought is very provocative and interesting. We do need different ideas like that to try improve this world.

thanks Paul.