Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Human Nature

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a cornerstone, capstone, keystone of understanding the universe as it is. The position and the velocity of an electron, say, cannot both be known. To measure one is to change the other. Observation is active, not passive. It is not only a participant, but a key player. Einstein loathed this idea, and made numerous attempts to disprove it. Eventually he devised a thought experiment whereby it could be shown that even though the two attributes, of position and velocity, could not both be known, they did both exist. The import being that the wave aspect of an electron was an artifact of an incomplete theory, quantum mechanics, rather than a manifestation of actual reality.

The pragmatic response to this was, per Wolfgang Pauli, “One should no more rack one’s brain about the problem of whether something one cannot know anything about exists all the same, than about the ancient question of how many angels are able to sit on the point of a needle.” Very pragmatic. Einstein’s response was that reality is what it is, regardless of what observation can determine at any given moment. Reality is innate. A falling tree makes a noise, whether or not anyone hears it. As opposed to the idea that, not only is there no noise, if unobserved, but there is no tree, or forest, or sustaining continent. Observation manifests the universe.

So, two intellectually antagonistic worldviews. My response is that nothing can ever be unobserved. The universe is just a set of dimensions in which sundry behaviors occur, like a movie on a screen -- playing out not for the attention of the players, but for an audience not on the screen. Call it what you will -- I would call it God.

If so, then quantum mechanics is certainly incomplete. It fails to factor in the idea that it is not observation, but second-level observation, that limits certainty. That first-level observation, divine, is what calls into being, and sustains, the universe. Truly, what is unobserved would not exist. It’s just that there is no such thing as something that is unobserved.

Not helpful, though, my quibble, unless it answers the dilemma in the controversy under discussion. We cannot after all argue the mind of God. Falling trees and dancing angels take us only so far. But to exclude the question, to suppose that because we cannot measure something, therefore we should not trouble our minds about it, is, if nothing else, deeply unscientific. To suppose we can never find the answer is to say we should not look. Sounds like church doctors, refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope because they already know the answer. Thus, Einstein is the more noble in his approach.

It seems, though, that to transcend the uncertainty of this universe, we have to view it from outside. Rather a supernatural requirement. Needing physics to become metaphysics is too great a demand to put on a physicist, though. Physics, requiring measurement, observation, reproducibility -- scientific method -- cannot evolve into something else and yet remain what it is.

So. The universe plays out its drama upon the stage, the screen, of a stretchable, relativistic space. The ultimate … Ultimate Watcher sees it all, position and velocity -- proscenium arch and painted sets and scene changes and the artifice of the entertainment. The players see none of this -- perceiving only the action and emotion of the drama of which they are a part. They may focus, as a character, upon the action, and remove themselves from the emotion -- cold and analytical, that fellow. They may focus on the emotion rather than the objective -- we all know people like that. Thus, position or velocity, but not both completely. You cannot fully participate and observe.

Both views are correct, relativity and quantum. It’s not just that they have a different focus, macro and micro. For all that the maths of one become irrational when applied to the other, the contradiction is one of misapplied tools -- a radio telescope for an electron microscope. Yes, of course there’s more to it than this. But everything is metaphors.

A few weeks ago some friends held a sort of intervention for me. I say it jokingly, and it’s quite witty, but truth be told. I spent a good while in discussion with my son, who is one of the few people to whom I will listen, and one of the few who dares challenge me. Long story short, after some probing and self-examination I came to the question of how is it possible for someone to change. And of course the application to myself. The answer I got was … well I can’t find a brief way to say it. Disturbing, and sad. Posit a question about the nature of life itself, abundant and joyful. I have two responding questions: does it matter, and am I worth it. Apathy and self-loathing. That’s what made me sad -- to see how defeated I am, in my soul.

The quandary of every drug addict. Wanting to change. In love with the poison. Well, first, it’s hard to do these things alone. But actions come from ideas, but ideas change through actions. Whether you want to or not, and regardless of belief, do what is right. If we are players on a stage, we will act out the drama. We don’t know the script. We only know our character. In this dialectal universe, uncertain, velocity or position, emotion or action, loathing or love, free will or predestination, the free choices we make must count as destiny.

It’s odd how the idealists are pragmatic, and the realists are idealists. The quantum mechanics school supposed that there is no electron, it’s just a Platonic potentiality, until it is measured, so let’s not worry about it -- dancing angels. Einstein maintained that there is a concrete reality regardless of observation, and this matters regardless of our being able to know it. The universe seems to be more quantum than relativistic, deep down, deepest down. So it seems, to us. But unobserved electrons exist, regardless. There is always an observer. What shall we trouble our heads with? I’ve offered many paired-opposites here. What is the opposite of apathy and self-loathing?

I had hoped to come to a practical answer, a distinction and application of the limited observer, a quantum observer, that would rationalize the paradox. We see electrons as waves until we actually see them, but by turning an electron into a point we get position, a snapshot, and not a movie. The blur of motion is lost in the fast-shutter of a clear still image. But this is just more metaphor, certainly not original; the thesis and antithesis resolve in a synthesis, surely, here, of God. In other words, the answer is metaphysical. That is, unanswerable. As with all things, uncertainty is answered only, always, and ultimately by faith.

 Most unsatisfying.



Anonymous said...

It's a hard trail to follow but there's no doubting there's a lot of good stuff here.

Thanks, because I needed that right about now.

bob k. mando said...

I have two responding questions: does it matter, and am I worth it. Apathy and self-loathing.

i had a friend, raised Jehovah's Witness, for whom the 2nd issue was also a problem.

he knew he was flawed but could not, would not, did not want to accept the sacrifice on the cross as being 'for him'.

he wanted the grave to be black nothingness of sleep and nothing more.

i wish i had done more for him ... but if he refuses multiple times ... he cannot be forced.

he's gone now, and he knows his answer now.

i know this is not your specific issue. i hope you spend more time with your son and grandchildren.