The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Monday, September 11, 2006
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I’ve been reading some interesting articles lately by Ed Fredkin and Lee Smolin which imply that reality — matter, energy, and even empty space — is ultimately made up of little boxes. According to these theories, even time is not continuous; it proceeds in spurts. The boxes and spurts are extremely tiny, so we never notice them. Everything seems smooth to us. But at some point of extreme magnification, reality may well become “granular”. We could never directly “see” this granularity. It’s so tiny that even the smallest blips of energy (photons, electrons, gravitons, whatever) are relatively huge. And the only way we see anything is by bouncing these blips of energy off the thing. The little grains of reality are too small to make any difference in the way that photons (light particles) bounce.

Don’t ask what lies within the boxes in space and spurts of time. That is where reality, as far as we are concerned, ends. We can never know if there’s a creamy cupcake filling deep inside all of those little thing-a-ma-jiggies that make up space and time. All we would know is that Picasso and the other Cubist painters ultimately had the right idea.

Smolin is a main-line physicist, extremely bona fide. His work is a rigorous (though yet still unproven) extension of both Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum theory. Fredkins’ work is deeply rooted in science, but veers off into metaphysics (via the fascinating field of “complexity” and “emergence”, where high-powered mathematics and modern computer science interact). Fredkin has said (more or less) that a digital universe actually looks and acts something like a computer. Some people take him to say that as a computer, the universe is actually computing something. If that were to be true, then perhaps the answer to what life means IS truly blowing in the wind. But Fredkin cuts you off before you can accuse him of believing in God. He won’t go so far as the 18th century theologians who argued that just as a watch requires a watchmaker, an orderly universe requires an intelligent and godly creator.

If you want to continue along the digital reality spectrum into the realm of New Age speculation, the next guy to see after Fredkin would be Australian philosopher David Chalmers. Chalmers hasn’t said too much yet about digital reality, but he has put out a theory of generic consciousness that takes up from Fredkin. Fredkin talks a lot about the fundamental nature of information, and so does Chalmers. Fredkin sets up the picture of a digital universe mediating information on many different levels, from tiny, super-fast micro-events within the atom to huge, billion-year macro events between galaxies. Chalmers equates information with consciousness, and posits that different flavors of consciousness may exist on both tiny and huge scales; the human brain might not have a monopoly on consciousness according to Chalmers.

These other forms of consciousness, if they do exist, would seem very strange to us. But then again, during the last 500 years when cultures from different corners of the globe first laid eyes on each other, the feelings were quite similar (e.g., when European explorers first saw African pigmies, they had a hard time thinking they were really human; it took a lot of reflection to accept that in spite of the many differences, Englishmen and pigmies share all of the salient features of the human race).

Well, in a previous essay I said that I couldn’t dig the Chalmers view. It seemed to me that consciousness is a human brain thing. I’m still not ready to accept Chalmers’ speculation about thermostats having a form of consciousness just because they process information about their environment. But the grand arc that sweeps from the digital nature of Smolins’ “loop quantum gravity” theories (which stand a decent chance of being proved right), through Fredkins’ computerized universe ideas, proceeding across Chalmers’ bridge between information and consciousness, does inspire some huge thoughts. Perhaps the Universe is somehow conscious? And that consciousness is somehow related to our individual human consciousness? And once the techno-theologians jump in to this, does God make a comeback (in spite of Fredkin and Chalmers’ atheism)? Or maybe — are those little unbreakable, unknowable granules of space and time — are they God?

Folks, this could get very, very interesting.

PS, after I wrote this essay, I went out running. In the dark eastern sky I could see beams of light shooting up from lower Manhattan. Yea, it’s been five years since nine-eleven. Definitely a reality check.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:28 pm      

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