Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quantum Faith and the Physical Limits of Reason

Here's a question: how do you know what's true? I mean, right down to the very fundamentals of your world-view, whatever that happens to be, how do you determine the truth? There are multiple ways of doing this, a whole arsenal of epistemologies, each with their unique way of separating the wheat from the chaff, their own apparent strengths and weaknesses, and their own unique blind spots.

Really, though, you can boil all the variations down to two opposed ways of looking at the world. On the one hand their is reason, logic, rationality: cutting the conceptual world into separate pieces, subdivided one into another, chunks of the logos that can then be moved about in the mind like legos. It is no accident that science finds its etymological origin in the Paleo-Indoeuropean root *skei, "to split, to cleave". Science is the ultimate modern expression of reason but really, the ability to do this - to separate one thing from another inside one's mind, and move them about in a deliberate fashion by means of the imagination - has been a faculty of mind since before it was human.

Reason has it's limits, however. This is partly because the rate of information transfer in the observable universe is itself limited (by the velocity of light); and partly too because information must be stored somehow, and the universe's favorite method seems to be fundamentally holographic in nature ... and the problem with holograms is that, while a fragment will in a sense possess an image of the whole, the resolution will naturally suffer. Put another way, nothing within the universe can ever be as complex as the universe: the universe includes it, and so that would entail one of the universe's components being more complex than itself and there we have a contradiction in terms.1 Thus nothing within the universe can ever have perfect information about the state of the whole universe, and reason - which is only effective so long as it possesses good information - is left, unavoidably, in a certain sense wanting.

And yet ... at the same time ... somehow, every single particle in the universe knows just where and when and how to be, and they do so together, simultaneously and instantaneously agreeing upon what reality is and then being it. It is entirely impossible for this coordination to to arise from shared information: the light speed barrier, as well as the vanishingly small amount of information a single particle can hold (on the order of a single bit), prohibit it. And yet, it happens, so what gives? Ask a theologian and he might say this is the Hand of God orchestrating existence. You might also see it as every single electron singing its part in a universal choir, all of them maintaining perfect harmony as they vibrate in and out of existence and collectively happen; it is by keeping that harmony - that synchronicity - that each knows precisely what to do in order that the whole might continue to exist in perfect balance.

Balance is a really key concept here. The universe would not exist without balance. Action must be juxtaposed with reaction, matter with antimatter, positive with negative charge and energy. At all points and at all times what is taken must be paid for. On a global scale, everything is always in perfect balance or it simply would not be ... more locally, imbalances - departures from equilibrium - can arise, but these will always tend back towards balance and sooner rather than later, for the farther from balance something is removed, the greater the force that pulls it back.

And what is that force that pulls things back into balance? It is at once everywhere - for it has behind it the force of the entire cosmos, and effects every point within the cosmos - and at the same time is focused to a point, informing the motion, behaviour and very existence of everything within it. You might try and visualize it as a sphere with an infinite radius and its center everywhere. It inheres in every particle, the whole of it contained entirely within the smallest point. Paradoxically this renders any effort to understand it by subdivision of those particles and finer description of those points utterly quixotic: after any given division, the whole remains, untouched, regardless of what might have been learned about its 'parts'.2 One is no closer to understanding than one was before. Logically, there is only one way a whole can be comprehended: on its own terms. Yet we've already seen that reason itself is fundamentally incapable of obtaining this sort of knowledge of the whole. Thus science remains at an impasse on this question, that of the ultimate nature of the Force that pervades the cosmos, and so consideration of it can be complete if one limits oneself to rational or logical modes alone.

Yet this Force exists, and must be dealt with. It is everywhere and so nowhere; it affects all particles and is affected by every particle, at once determining the changes in state of every particle and point, and being itself the sum determinant of all those changes of state, at once the conductor of the cosmic choir and the song the choir sings.

You won't find it stated this way in any physics textbooks of course, not quite so baldly at any rate but ... something like this is starting to poke through the math. It's certainly not a new idea: Gottfried Leibniz, the great contemporary of Newton (and were there any intellectual justice it would be customary to introduce them the other way around), published a theory very like this in his Monadologie, a forgotten work of philosophy in which he interprets the universe as a collection of autonomous, conscious atoms (monads, in his terminology), each of which is at once the whole of the universe and the smallest division of the universe. The work seemed the sheerest stark raving madness to his contemporaries and so is remembered today as barely a footnote in the history of thought, but it may well be that in this subject as in so much else Leibniz was simply far ahead of his time (we're talking here of a man who, in the 17th century, discovered the calculus, binary math, and the concept of both the computer and the internet.)

At any rate, through this digression into metaphysical physics we have found our way to the second of the two fundamental ways of knowing: this harmony, this great mutual action undertaken in perfect confidence due to an ineffable knowledge of what is the right thing to do, in a word: faith. It arises at the level of particles and continues on all the way up, through the various elaborations and refinements of vibrational existence that comprise the stages of matter, life, and consciousness. Nothing would exist unless it had faith it existed.

In truth, in the end we inevitably find that reason is a sham, an elaborate disguise for a simple faith at the core: that what was, is, and will continue to be. A reasonable man might expect that if he jumps off a bridge into a ravine he will die; thus a thrill-seeker with his reason in service to his adrenal glands will tie a bungee cord to his foot before taking the leap. But this is just more faith, faith of a particular, deep and unquestioning kind: the faith that what is, is. The Sanskrit had a word for it that survives in modern Buddhism: sraddha, the faith that a dropped rock will fall. Faith enabled by the existence of the universe; faith that enables the universe to exist. Which it is depends on your perspective, in looking out or out looking in, and if you look both ways you'll see pretty quickly there's no real contradiction there because in the end, 'in' and 'out' are illusory divisions of a united whole.

The universe sees to it, just by its very nature, that everything within it has some way of accessing this kind of knowledge, and in the case of humans you could say, from a metaphorical standpoint, that it's located in the heart. The heart chakra is located in the center of mass and this is no accident. Now you might look upon the emotions and the intuition that arises from them as mere epiphenomena of the brain chemistry, the changing flux of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals across synapses but ... at the same time ... that whole biochemical dance might also be in part a response to information coming through the heart, communicated not in a digital (separated, rational, comprehensible) sense, but rather in an analogue (continuous, inseparable) way. The intuition thus plays the roll of both the instrument on which the universe plays its song, and the instrument with which any being is able to read the universe with perfect certainty (albeit without being in any way able to explain this certainty.)

Now, you can choose to listen to this intuition or not. That gets more true the further up the scale you get from primal matter, which is why living systems are characterized by being far from thermodynamic equilibrium, and conscious systems most of all. The thing about complexity is, it enables an ever-greater resolution of the universe, an ever-sharpening (but never exactly true) picture of the cosmos to imprint itself into matter. Thus a methane molecule knows rather little, a fragment of RNA rather more, a functioning cell quite a bit in comparison and a human mind ... well ... you have one.

As the scale of complexity is increased, the tendency to act through 'reason' (assumptions about the world built into historically imprinted information) grows ever greater, at the necessary expense of the tendency to act upon 'faith' (that basic harmonic resonance with what is.) In the limit of subatomic particles, faith dominates completely: electrons carry no information within themselves save that acquired from whatever was the last particle to interact with it, and thus act as they do because they cannot act otherwise. In the limit of human complexity, it is often the other way around completely: for many, faith is ignored entirely in favor of a hypertrophied reason. By this I do not mean to describe a reader of the Skeptical Inquirer in comparison to a devout Mormon (neither science nor religion are of any fundamental consequence to the question) but rather to describe a particular sort of human so enamoured of their reason that they have lost touch completely with their intuition.

Faith and intuition are ultimately one and the same thing: arising simultaneously within and without, comprising one's instantaneous and inexplicable reaction to the universe as a whole. The funny thing about intuition is how rarely it's wrong: like the conscience (which is in truth itself deeply connected to this phenomenon), it will always prove to have been right in the end, whether that end comes in a fraction of a second or only after a significant fraction of your life. Sometimes it will seem wrong, even disastrously so but somehow ... with a little more time ... it turns out your intuition was leading you in the right direction all along.

Reason isn't supposed to dominate the intuition. How could it? The intuition is what connects the mind to the cosmos, and thus shares in the infinite and incomprehensible nature of the universe. Quite the contrary: reason is an outgrowth of faith, and always was. It exists that the universe (which expresses itself through every part of itself) might know itself; one might also say, its exists because the universe knows itself. The proper use of reason is to reflect within it the intuition, so that meaning can be found in what is intuited with an ever-finer precision, thus allowing a more subtle understanding of creation. The intuition guides towards the truth, but it isn't much on details and this is where reason comes in. The history of science itself bears this out: a series of discontinuous improvements in conceptual understanding brought about through intuitive leaps on the part of individual researchers that revealed heretofore undreamt of zones of intellectual inquiry, followed by slow, gradual improvements in the description of those regions thanks to the rigorous deployment of reason on their shores. There are also numerous examples of long marches down blind alleys into fruitless theoretical swamps, a condition brought about by ignoring the intuition entirely and trying to reason one's way out. That's particularly the case today in most any field you want to name: in science as in so much of modern civilization, the role of 'intuition' has contracted so far that for too many its influence is as invisible as it is crucial.

That's not a healthy state of affairs. Reason cut off from intuition can talk itself into anything; indeed, it can almost be guaranteed that it will. Rather than providing an ever-deeper categorization of truth, it almost inevitably ends up a shadow play of misunderstanding and deliberate deception. When you consider intuition's characteristic harmonics - conscience, creativity, compassion - well, if the intuition is ignored those capabilities are muted and reason can end up in the service of some nasty things indeed. Indeed, it is again almost inevitable that it will. Look around at the world you live in, and you'll see that it has.

Here's the punchline, though: all those people who've been trained to ignore their intuition? Whether they only shut off their conscience, their creativity, or their compassion when they punch a clock, or whether they've learned to live their whole lives blocking it out ... they still have it. It's still there. It always will be because their very existence necessitates its presence (and vice versa). And it isn't going to shut up, ever.

In fact, for people all over the world, that inner voice is getting louder every day....

1 You might point out that the universe is structured as a fractal, which is essentially true, and if you know something about fractal geometry you could argue that mathematically, any given part of the fractal contains the whole, and is thus as complex as the whole but really ... here in the 'real' world of matter, energy, space and time ... no mathematical abstraction is ever perfectly embodied. A tree, a road network, a river, or an African village all display fractal structure, but only to a limited resolution. The infinite recursion and perfect resolution of the mathematical ideal is a native only of the platonic plane, just as are the triangle and π.

2 The alert reader may have noticed a seeming contradiction here, between the notion that 'the part contains the whole' and the earlier qualification 'but only to a limited resolution'. In the former case, however, we were talking about how much information about the universe could be held within a given volume, be it a planet or a particle; now, we are (attempting, at least) to describe the influence of the universe upon that volume.