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Saturday, March 17, 2012
Philosophy ... Science ...

Today I have a few thoughts to share about science and reality. First, is there a difference between science and reality? Isn’t science the study of reality, i.e. the seeking of the real in reality, the standard by which reality is judged real? Yes, up to a point. But science requires repeatability in order for some phenomenon to be counted, and a lot of things and events in the world don’t repeat themselves. A lot of stuff is one-of-a-kind, one time only, or continuously changing at the most fundamental levels. Science has a hard time getting its arms around stuff like that. (E.g., science still hasn’t definitely answered Freud’s question “what does a women want” . . .)

But science is still a very useful, powerful and beautiful way of looking at the world. I was recently perusing some articles on some modern science topics, including the standard particle model and dark energy, the force causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.

This stuff amazes me. It’s amazing just how much humankind knows about the universe at the tiniest and grandest levels. And yet – if the new theories (as yet unverified) that the universe and all its “mechanics” (actions, movements, change) are ultimately just a hologram formed from some interaction with a static surface or volume of information bits – then all of this wonderful stuff about forces and leptons and energy is just a big side-show. It’s all “epiphenomenal”, of secondary importance, not the main event.

If so, then 99.99% of science as we now know it is the study of secondary effects. The real story is in the information sheet or box, whatever it is and whatever it is all about. Where the heck did it come from, what is it related to? That’s where science is going to sputter out and stall. But let’s give science credit for leading our great minds (and not so great minds, including my own) up to the point where the “it from bit” reality can be seen or at least pointed to.

Another interesting thing about science, specifically quantum physics, is the way that it uses the word “coherence”. Generally we think of coherence as unity, consistency, something that makes sense to us. A person or thing is “incoherent” if it utters nonsense or acts in a random, unorganized manner. In a way, quantum physics uses “coherence” in an opposite fashion. In the quantum world, a fundamental quantum particle like a quark or a photon is said to have “coherence” if it is out on its own and exists in a superposition of all possible attributes. If an imaginary particle could be either hot or cold, it would be both at once when in its superpositioned state (i.e., when it is “coherent” — even if that seems to the common person to be a bit “incoherent”).

In quantum physics, a particle does not become “incoherent”, but goes through “decoherence” when it interacts with another particle. Instead of being a blur of all its possible positions and energies and other attributes, as when isolated, it suddenly takes on a precise identity; it exists at one point with a precise energy and with set specific attributes (although you cannot know all of those attributes at once, given the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle; if you know one thing precisely, e.g. velocity, then at least one other attribute goes fuzzy on you – i.e., its “coherence” is maintained for that attribute).

So, when a particle is in the contradictory state of possessing multiple exclusive attributes all at once, then it is “coherent”; when it seems simple and non-contradictory, it is “decoherent”. This somehow relates to the “many worlds” hypothesis i.e. that at every point when a particle “decoheres”, i.e. manifests one particular characteristic while interacting with another particle (or system of particles), every other possible outcome exists somewhere else in some bizarrely huge series of parallel universes. So, in the Schrodinger’s cat experiment, were it really to be done by some animal sadist, the cat might die because the atom decayed during the one-hour exposure period; but in some other universe the atom did NOT decay and the cat is alive and just fine.

Well, a physicist named Max Tegmark came up with a way to find out if all of these multiple parallel universes actually exist – but as with the Schroedinger’s Cat experiment, it is just too bizarre to really do. The big catch is that only one “version” of the person involved in the experiment will ever realize that multiple universes do exist, as the experiment involves a game much like Russian roulette. The person next to the gun has to spin the chamber so many times that it is virtually certain that he will be killed. But if there are multiple parallel universes, then in at least one of those universes, the guy survived despite all those spins. That guy then knows that there was no way this could happen (i.e., his being alive) unless there really were parallel universes. So, in maybe a million of those universes, the guy is dead; but in just one, the guy is still alive and all the wiser for it in regard to parallel universes.

For the other million universes, this experiment was not very helpful; the guy is on the floor with his brains blown out. Thus, it is unlikely to be conducted. As such, this article on Tegmark might be called a waste of paper or digital space, but it does make some interesting points. I particularly liked the following sentence: “for all possible states of a particle to remain in superposition — to be coherent [remember that word!], in other words — their system needs to be isolated.”

Hmmm . . . that reminds me of the way that we humans are with our “isolated consciousness”. When we are alone, we can hold many ideas and desires and positions at once, even if contradictory (i.e., we are in “super-position”). We have mixed emotions; part of our minds might love something, another part might hate it. One part of our mind might want to vote for Romney, another might desire another term for Obama, and some weird little cranny in our head might consider Ron Paul!

But once we interact with another human, once we get into a particular situation, once our isolation is over, we usually make a choice. And that choice is usually influenced by just who or what we are interacting with. If we say that we want Obama when talking with one person, and then Romney when in a different situation, we are then called “inconsistent” and thus incoherent (or if we want Ron Paul and Ron Paul alone, that is quite incoherent too!). But actually, we have gone from “coherence” to “decoherence” in both instances.

Some philosophers and thinkers who study human consciousness have said that consciousness really doesn’t exist because our minds are so “incoherent”, so “all over the place” (e.g., the infamous Daniel Dennett). We are much more like machines interacting with the situation at hand. But I think that the comparison with quantum coherence and decoherence shows that particular view to be wrong. Quantum physicists make it clear that an isolated photon or neutrino is REAL, despite its existing as all possibilities at once.

So why shouldn’t isolated consciousness likewise be real, despite it’s spooky “trans-time” characteristics (i.e., being able to live in the past and present and future at the same time, in our isolated imagination). When we bump into others, we usually have to make a choice and we do. We live in time, in only one state at a time (Obama supporter vs. Romney or Paul supporter). If we change our minds, that takes time. Time is needed to space out our movements and changes, when interacting with others (or with other parts of the world). But when alone, we can be all things at the same time! I.e., we can be “coherent”; everything can stick together, without our worrying about time. Hey, remember the refrain from that old hit song from Chicago, “does anyone really know what time it is, does anyone really care?” That’s what Zen meditation is all about; or should be, anyway!

One final mystery of the universe that I have yet to figure out – why do expensive men’s ties fall apart after a few years, and yet the ones you get from a street-corner vendor for a few bucks last for decades? To be honest, most of my favorite-looking ties were bought for under $10!! Now that is truly incoherent!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:08 pm      

  1. Jim, I think I understand all the “coherence/decoherence” language; but, then again, I’m not totally sure. You examples are excellent–how one can hold several positions at one time. I’m not sure I agree that as soon as one speaks with another, one makes a choice. I often find myself silent (a conundrum I realize as I am so seldom silent) and “inchoherent” when someone asks me something I see several “sides” to. Your examples, however, are excellent in explaining this aspect of quantum mechanics. (Is that what it is?)

    YET, I DID find myself thinking of something “incoherent”. (How’s this for inchoherence? I ask:) Some years ago, to be precise back in the 1980s sometime, I was reading some material written by a woman, Jane Roberts, precisely, who “channeled” a being she called Seth…hard to say from where this being came. Anyway, she channeled this being called Seth.

    Strangely enough, Seth said then basically the same thing science (and quantum physics?) is saying now–that all possibilities can exist at one time, yet at any giving time a being can “choose” a particular way of being (say as a person on earth) and thus will become that, in effect limiting the being’s possibilities for that “period of time”–altho there is no time actually. Time only exists here on this planet as this planet needs to have time to be what it is.

    As I read your explanation, I tho’t of Jane Roberts and Seth and all the books I read back 20/25/30 years ago, which are all out of print and outdated now but which at the time were “best” in “New Age” literature.

    Would one say science has “caught up” to Jane Roberts and Seth? OR…Would one say Jane Roberts channeling Seth was ahead of her/his time? Is there no connection at all? Or are all equally valid? I find I can think all these things at once, yet cannot/do not know the answer.

    It DOES seem strange to me that what was once “New Age” and “far out” (literally, I guess) is now (these years later) being expressed by science in the language of science. Who’d’ve thunk! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 18, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

  2. Jim, I’ve had another tho’t on science. It occurs to me that science over the centuries has always tho’t it was so right–when in reality (as my mother would have said:) it was “just full of hopps”.

    Specifically, at one time there were some very staunch views about women and how their physical bodies worked. Oh, how wrong the Greeks, Romans, and scientists of later centuries were. Then too, science once tho’t the earth was the center of the universe. Also, there is the science of medicine that even 40 years ago was so wrong about so many things. Today’s medicine makes 40-year-old medicine seem primitive. For just a few examples.

    I find myself wondering if today’s science will, centuries from now or perhaps even less than that, be found just as foolish or wrong in a lot of ways. Will humans who live 200 years from now have the same attitude toward what scientists today think about all the various theories of quantum mechanics/physics? Frankly, I tend to doubt it. I can hear it already: “Well, that was back in the 21st century when ‘they’ wondered about coherence and incoherence and Schroedinger’s cat. Of course, today we know better than that.” Just can’t help myself thinking these tho’ts. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 20, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

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