Category Archives: Science

What is the nature of reality?

Quarks-and-Leptons-ChartReference to basic building blocks in nature date back to the 5th, and possibly 6th centuries BC, from Ancient Greece and India. Such thoughts propelled a historic evolution of science and philosophy, to the point where today we are able to divide the atom into protons, neutrons and electrons, and then divide them into quarks, leptons, gauge bosons, photons, gluons and the higgs boson. We can delve even further into these elements with quantum field theory, which treats all particles as excited states of an underlying physical field. But it’s around about at this point when our understanding breaks down.

Our scientific understanding seems constantly to change, as we doggedly root down further and deeper into what we can analyse. Yet in everything we have found, or even thought of, we have always discovered two things: mathematics, and potential.

Galileo: “The book of nature is written in mathematical characters.”

Cartesian doubts come mostly on two levels: horizontal scepticism, whereby we doubt people’s expectations that just because something has happened a hundred or a thousand times, it will necessarily happen again; and vertical scepticism, whereby we doubt inferences and implications. Both doubts are rational, and we could perhaps imagine a reality in which these forms of horizontal and vertical logic don’t serve us very well. Yet in this reality, they do. Indeed Einstein found the numbers to suggest that the universe is expanding in 1916, and yet despite the fact that he thought it to be illogical and dismissed the maths, Edwin Hubble later found clear evidence of the universe’s expansion. Indeed if you look at the history of discovery in science, particularly related to those particles discussed above, you’ll often find that people knew about the particles before they found evidence of their existence. The reason why we can do this is that all of reality seems to obey mathematical rules. 1 + 1 always equals 2, no matter where or when you are. And this also explains why potential seems to lie at the heart of reality, for as I argued in ‘Does Nothing Come from Nothing?’ the existence of zero in addition to, and separate from, nothing, supposes that positives and negatives can spring into existence where before we would have been able to perceive nothing.

Plato argued that numbers are not simply human constructs, but are actually real, whether or not we can actually see them. Max Tegmark went so far as to theorize that the universe itself is made of maths. UniverseMath_m_0131Yet what are numbers? Why do we ‘sentient beings’ come pre-equipped with ‘number sense’, such that even if we don’t know the words for numbers we can instinctively understand what the difference is between encountering two dogs, three dogs and more? Why do we find beauty in mathematics? Take sounds for instance; those we perceive as a threat or warning follow different mathematical rules (if you draw patterns based on the notes) to those in which we find beauty.

Defined linguistically numbers are values used to express quantities, or more fundamentally they are information. But it seems hard to think of information being at the heart of all things, since insofar as everything has an information content or position, even if that position is set at zero, information can easily be thought of as a dimension (in fact even your shadow is an example of your informational content). And current scientific understanding says that dimensions sprang into existence with the Big Bang, which suggests that it is possible for dimensions not to exist (honestly, I’m not sure I can buy that).

What do you think numbers are? Are they the most fundamental aspect of reality? Are they the only reality? Could there be something other than maths? Are numbers simply a construct within our Universe?

What do you think?

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” Is it true?

FaithThese words were Jesus’ words, taken from the Bible in Matthew, passage 17:20. But no this is not a religious post. If you remove all the dogmas and biases of our time, Jesus was a philosopher, and one with many interesting points of note. One of these points was that we have power over nature.

Today we know that we have power over nature. We collectively employ industrial level technologies to reshape our environment. Indeed where once upon a time humans looked upon nature with fear and awe, today we look upon it as much with a sense of caution, reservation and a fear not that it might hurt us, but that we might hurt it too much. However this wasn’t Jesus’ point. This power referred to above is indirect; for it involves usage of tools. Jesus argued that we have direct, mental power over nature. My question to you is whether or not this is true.

The scientific method of experimentation and empirical support is still relatively modern in human history. Despite early examples of the experimental method in works such as those of Alhazen (an Arab scientist of the 10th and 11th centuries AD), it was not until Francis Bacon, and later others such as Galileo and John Locke, that the experimental method of modern science came to the fore. It was a huge change in human thought, shifting our thought from hypothesis, meditation and deduction towards empirical evidence evaluated with sensory experience. But more recent shifts have taken place.

The study of physics today is divided between the observed and unobserved, and for this very reason more and more of quantum science cannot be judged by sensory experience. What makes this so is that the very act of observation changes what happens at the quantum level. This was evidenced by the Quantum Slit Experiment, which showed that individual electrons could follow multiple different avenues of potential at the same time. So for example if you fired a single electron at a board with two slits in it, it would actually go through both. Of course this baffled scientists, because it defies the rules of classical physics. double_slit_experimentSo they put a camera next to the board to see what happened. And lo and behold, the electron started behaving exactly as the scientists would have expected. It stopped behaving like a wave of potential, and started behaving like a single piece of matter, going through only one slit.

Quantum physics therefore seems to suggest that everything exists in potential, and it’s only when something is observed that one single thing can be perceived, which accords with our view of the world. Furthermore, many experiments performed with simple random selections of binary data (0s and 1s) from the 60s to today have found that our hopes seem to affect the probabilities in a real way i.e. if we hope for more 1s then there is a higher probability that more 1s will show up. Of course this seems like nonsense to us, because once again it defies the rules of classical physics. If it were true that we had such mental power over reality then why wouldn’t we see more signs of it? If a crazy person, or someone on drugs, believes they can fly, why can’t they actually fly?

The only explanation I can find or think of for the division between quantum and classical realities is that the very act of observation requires interaction with the experiment. To measure the position of an electron for instance, you must somehow change the electron. And if we heard of anyone doing anything that defied the rules of classical physics then we would have heard about the act i.e. observed it, and therefore influenced it with our own doubts.

How observation changes reality is unknown. It’s not as simple as saying that said observation requires us what-ifbouncing a photon off of the electron, since in theory this would have happened anyway. Indeed it seems as though there is an exchange of information at play, and that both we and the electron are somehow entangled and communicating information between one another instantaneously. In other words we are literally telling the electron how to behave. Since at the big bang all things, even space and time, were part of a singularity, we can suppose that all aspects of the universe are still entangled today. So therefore, if all observers believed a certain thing, would that thing happen? If everyone woke tomorrow believing that gravity didn’t exist, would we all float off into space?

Is Materialism the main intellectual opponent of religion?

Almost every religion has an anti-materialistic message.

imagesCAXOHYAEIn Christianity: When the rich man came to Jesus asking what he could do to improve his chances of getting into heaven, Jesus told him to give up all his wealth. The rich man walked away, and Jesus told the growing crowd that it was harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

In Sikhism: When Guru Nanak met Duni Chand, and was invited to his mansion, Duni Chand proudly displayed his wealth to the Guru. But later he told the Guru that he was unhappy, and wished to be the richest man in the city. The Guru replied by giving Duni Chand a needle, and asking him to return it to the Guru in the next life. At first Duni Chand took this seriously, but when he told his wife she laughed. “Are you mad?” she asked. “How can a needle go to the next world?” It was only then that Duni Chand realised the folly of his ways, and rejected materialism.

But if materialism really is the main intellectual opponent of religion, then why is agnosticism and atheism growing in popularity? The picture below shows the proportion of atheists and agnostics around the world today – an image that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

Stephen Barr, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, argues that quantum science makes believing in God easier, because it provides a strong argument against materialism. Incidentally, if you’re thinking about materialism only as money, this is the definition used by Barr: “an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions.” As I’ve argued in previous posts, quantum mechanics makes a strong counter-argument. In fact the quantum sciences accord much more strongly with the Aristotelian view of reality than modern materialism, since they recognise the importance of potential as opposed to the more materialistic view of things which are already determined. So where a materialist would say that if you had complete knowledge of the universe then you would know exactly what was going to happen and when, a quantum mechanic would say that such knowledge would only afford you foresight into what the probabilities were. Furthermore, the mathematics which describes all physical processes (the Schrodinger equation) does not accurately describe the fluctuations in probability that actually occur in reality. And on top of that, knowledge of events themselves can actually change what occurs (watch ‘What the Bleep do we know?’ if you doubt me:

Barr questions whether if the human mind can transcend matter and its laws, a more powerful mind might not exist, which transcends the physical universe altogether. In other words he pits materialism against God, as His main intellectual rival, and infers that God might be fighting back with quantum science. But after all, religion has grown during a very materialistic phase in our history. So is materialism really the main intellectual rival of religion? Will growing knowledge about quantum science see people returning to religion once more?

After Pragmatism and Agnosticism

The words pragmatism and agnosticism are very popular in today’s society. In fact they form a large part of modern society’s identity. But they are as ideological as any other mode of thought from human history. Indeed neither arose from simple ‘common sense’ as people often like to say. Pragmatism for instance, arose thanks to a large amount from the works of theorists such as John Dewey et al.

But given that we find it hard to even identify such things as ideologies it seems impossible that we might be able to guess what we will be thinking and saying 50 years from now, right?
In actual fact there have always been clues as to what the next leap in human thought would be through history. And they were almost always found in our beliefs about reality.

It is therefore quite profound to note that ideas such as the above are based on outdated beliefs in science. As Henry Staff (theoretical physicist from Berkeley) said “orthodox quantum mechanics insists […] that the physically described world is not a world of material substances, as normally conceived, but it is rather a world of potentialities for future experiences.” To this extent modern science completely rejects the very bedrock of pragmatic and agnostic beliefs, for both are built upon a materialist conception of reality. Or to put it another way both would have a hard time explaining Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

The important question that remains therefore, is what will replace such beliefs? What do you think?

How do you decide what’s possible, or how far you can be pushed?

Quantum science teaches us that at the Planck level i.e. the smallest level, there is only potential – pure abstractness. Whether this ‘universal field’ is consciousness or information or something else, this knowledge suggests that all things imaginable are possible, and some think actual. But is that helpful when we’re thinking about our own actions?

I’ve often talked about balance on this blog. And perhaps no one can determine their own optimal balance, in terms of how far they can be pushed, and what they’re capable of, other than themselves. I’m training to do a marathon at the moment, and that requires me to make many decisions about when to rest and when to push myself. But how should I make such decisions? Stop if I’m ever in pain? If we all did that nobody would do anything. But of course there does come a point when I must stop.

Have we got the potential to do anything, as information seems to in quantum physics? Are we in fact in thousands of different places at once, in some places giving up, and in others pushing ourselves on? Or is the quantum world so divorced from our ‘big’ reality, that we can only use our finite amount of knowledge, the opportunities we’re presented with and our finite ability to persevere through pain until we just have to give in? How do you make such decisions?

Is it really the end of the Space Age?

The Cold War has ended, and national spending on space exploration has begun to seem too expensive for the tax payer, with too few short to medium term benefits. But are the US cuts to space exploration in this recession really sufficient reason to call the “end of the space age” as many journalists are now doing?

>Is existence, in all its entirety, good and proper? Or would you change things?

>This is a very difficult subject to put into words, and could get either an infinite number of different responses, or just complete confusion. But let me explain.

People often cite many problems with reality e.g. the problem of evil, death, misery etc. It is my belief however, that the science of reality is the way it has to be. In other words given the chance to end death I would not do it. But do you agree? If you were a supernatural, all-powerful God, would you change anything? If so, what? And why?

>Is the human race doomed to die out?

>Look at every intelligent species in our planet’s history, from the dinosaurs to elephants and apes today. Most intelligent species grow in number, live a while, and then die off. Whereas less intelligent species like bacteria and viruses thrive, no matter what’s thrown at them.

The key reason is that intelligence requires complexity, and complexity means slower evolution. Single celled organisms evolve incredibly fast, because they reproduce very fast, and because they’re very simple so it’s easy for them to change. So in other words as we continue to evolve we’ll get more intelligent, but we’ll also become more complicated, or so the theory goes, and we’ll therefore evolve less quickly.

Two interesting questions arise out of this:

  1. Will we one day (or are we already) be so slow in adapting to changing environments that any radical change will wipe out our entire species?
  2. Just as Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity stops us travelling too fast and too far, does evolution imply that the laws of science prevent evolution beyond a certain point?
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