Sunday, September 4, 2016

Journey in spacetime 3

I’ve been thinking. And I’ve come up with one conclusion and one question. The conclusion is this: when it comes to taxation money works best when it is made to churn round in circles. It does not work quite as well when parked in any particular place. The question I have - which is of far greater import - is this: as sentient beings do we merely reflect on the goings-on around us or do we actively shape the course of our lives?

For many that’s just a silly question. It’s silly because we already know the answer. And if we already know the answer then what’s the point of asking the question? But what if we don’t know the answer? What if it were wrong?

Allow me to start with a proposition. Instead of dividing the world into living things and nonliving things let’s divide it into things that necessarily take a unidirectional passage through spacetime and things that don’t. Some living things (which have a birth event, a death event, and a collection of sequential events in the middle called life) fall into the first group. Most, but not all, non-living things fall in the second group. 

First a clarification. It is important to differentiate the experience of spacetime from it’s true nature. The concept of spacetime presupposes space and time as inseparable and that time does not “pass” as we (living, sentient beings) like to think of it. The fact that we live in the present with a past behind us and a future ahead of us is merely a perception of spacetime and does not fully encapsulate its true nature (indeed, we do not really know whether there are dimensions beyond spacetime that currently escapes our imagination/calculations). In spacetime past, present, and future events coexist just as your house exists even when you are not in it. So when I say a “unidirectional passage in spacetime” what I mean is an irreversible traverse of spacetime events as experienced by the observing life form. The “true”, observer-independent version of spacetime has all events coexisting. Each event can be linked (in any direction) so long as it does not violate the laws of physics (as constrained by the speed of light). 

Now that’s out of the way let’s make it more difficult and untidy. There are physicists - notably those of the quantum variety - that believe that space and time are so hard-wired to our understanding of reality that it blinds us just like any other anthropomorphic construct. That is to say that spacetime itself is a construct that could be fundamentally flawed. In this sense the peculiarities of quantum physics might not be so peculiar if we are able to abandon our notions of space/time and replace it with some other, um… for want of a better phrase… even deeper understanding of reality. The way forward will almost certainly be through the rarefied field of advanced mathematics. The problem is that for it to have any meaning* it still has to translate back to the human experience. That might not be easy.

Wielding Occam’s razor to the current state of physics suggests that there is a deeper understanding of reality that humans have not come to terms with. The question is whether we possess the hardware (at present or augmented sometime in the future) to be able to process it.

But let’s work with what we’ve got. Let’s suppose spacetime exists as we currently understand it. Let’s also take the Eternalist's interpretation of spacetime as outlined above. Let’s also suppose that the universe is a closed system and that it arose 13.8 billion years ago from a singularity of immense mass and energy. Like the other propositions presented here there is no evidence (to date) that suggests that any of these hypotheses are untrue.

Let’s say that living things take a unidirectional passage through spacetime. That’s a proposition, not tautology.  And it’s all because of me. Well ok: not just me but you also. It’s because of the existence of human consciousness. The four-dimensional manifold of spacetime does not prioritise any event within it. Consciousness does. Consciousness builds on itself. It has direction. It has a past, a present, and a future. It has history. It cannot exist without a unidirectional traverse of the spacetime manifold. And it exists because I am writing this. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore my experience of life is a unidirectional traverse of spacetime.

So is a unidirectional traverse of spacetime a feature of life forms in general or just those that possess consciousness? The life cycle (a confusing turn of phrase) of an organism is made up of what appears to be an irreversible sequence of events. It is born, it lives, then it dies. Consciousness is merely the ability to reflect on that process. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification: life and consciousness are not easy things to define. But definitions and formalisations (like the separation of space and time) got us into this mess in the first place. 

The more I think of it, the more I wonder whether it is something about complexity that really counts rather than whether something possesses a genetic code; or whether it can replicate outside of a host, has organelles or a Krebs cycle; or whether it is multicellular or not. It might not be whether something is “alive”, or not, that really counts but something about its complexity**. Yet complexity might not be the right word. It might also miss the bit that is relevant. It is the conscious state that fixes events in spacetime and not the vessel that harbours it.

The more I think about it, the further down the rabbit hole I go. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go about it. For all we know there may be some disconnect between the human ability to reason and the fundamentals of the universe. I think we can understand the concept spacetime. I think we can propose that human consciousness fixes events in spacetime. I think we can be (and should be) uncomfortable placing a threshold for consciousness which make humans and possibly some other “higher" lifeforms special but understand that there are problems extrapolating “down the line”. So I dodge the bullet. But consciousness as humans experience it is special. It is probably special for other life forms but we can’t really know without properly understanding the basis of the conscious state.

On that note let’s just stick with the human experience. Humans inhabit a tiny speck in a vast, expanding universe. We can only ever observe and interact with a small part of the whole. The interaction of the human conscious state fixes events in spacetime. If a child picks up a pebble at the beach or a physicist looks at a quark in a lab that event becomes part of the human conscious state and thereby fixed in spacetime. Anything that becomes part of the human experience takes a unidirectional traverse of spacetime. That is to say: the conscious state gives anything that interacts with it (whether its living or not) a past, a present and a future.

A pebble is an aggregate of minerals and various noncrystalline structures (and may be inhabited by bacteria, moss and other life forms) which in turn is made up of molecules and atoms and subatomic particles. So it’s important to distinguish the level at which the interaction takes place. When we pick up a pebble the interaction is between the human conscious state and the pebble. If we take the pebble and scrutinise it in greater detail we extend that conscious interaction to include any element of the pebble’s composite structure. But until we do so it is nothing more than a pebble. In the absence of closer inspection it is the pebble as one, singular entity and not its component parts that takes a unidirectional traverse of spacetime. 

So if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, that depends. This is a question of universality and scale: universality of the conscious state and scale of the interaction. If you see the tree at any point in its lifecycle (say we give it three possible positions: standing/falling/fallen) then it will make/is making/has made a noise. The noise of the tree falling exists in spacetime whether it be in your past, your present, or your future. The interaction with your conscious state has fixed the existence and lifecycle of the tree. The noise of the tree falling exists even if you are not there to hear it. If we propose some universality of the conscious state (ie the experience of the tree by any conscious being results in the tree existing for all conscious beings) this means that if anyone interacts with the tree (in any one of its three positions) then the noise of the tree falling exists for all conscious beings even if that event lies outside the causality light cones for those other beings. 

Mr Einstein once asked Mr Bohr whether the moon exists when he is not looking at it. Well, yes. Duh… So much for them being geniuses and all… With universality of the conscious state the moon exists for everyone so long as someone has seen it at some point in time. Even if you have not, and cannot see the moon and live a gabillion, billion, billion light years away the moon will still exist for you (even if it cannot have an effect on you).

Then there’s scale. Imagine that you are the only conscious being to discover a planet full of trees. You look at the planet on a computer screen and each pixel represents 100 trees. Each individual tree has one of three possible positions (ie standing/falling/fallen). Until you improve your resolution you cannot know exactly what position any particular tree is in. At that scale you might be able to make some inference from, say, how much light is reflected off the planet, to get an idea of how many trees are standing and how many have fallen but you can’t tell with certainty the position of any particular tree. In other words, the conscious state of the observer has not engaged with the existence any particular tree. So does the tree make a noise in this case? No. Such events in spacetime have not been fixed by a conscious state and all trees exist in any one of three possible positions. From your (observer’s) point of view the tree does not exist as an individual entity.

So let’s ramp up the resolution. What happens when humans enter the quantum realm? Well it’s the same thing. Nothing is fixed in spacetime until it interacts with a conscious state. The only difference is that it doesn’t get any smaller (the resolution does not get any finer). Well, actually, that’s not exactly true - it can take the form of a wave. Only when we look and measure it does it become a particle. Let’s put it out there: it’s not the act of measurement/ observation but an act of the consciousness state fixing events in spacetime that collapses probabilistic wave functions, is responsible for spooky action at a distance, and dispenses with Schrödinger's cat (heck, it may even explain other bits of quantum weirdness we don’t understand).

This is not a one way street. An event experienced by a conscious state also has an effect on the life form that transacts that interaction. Which takes me back to my original question: do we reflect on our lives or do we shape our lives? Well, if we consider a recorded observation that is yet to enter the conscious state (say we set an instrument to measure the position of a subatomic particle but only check on the result after lunch) then the conclusion is that we reflect. 


Goes to show that if you have enough holes in your arguments you can link them all together and end up with nothing that sounds a bit like something.

*You don’t need to understand the workings of a combustion engine (or an electric engine) for a car to mean something to you. You also don’t need to know about General Relativity to find value in global positioning systems. In short, we don’t have to understand how something works to find it useful as a tool. That is, until you ask the question: Why? Humans have an enormous capacity for abstract thought. Even novices can grasp the broader implications of Relativity ( or be taught the basics of Quantum Theory ( and - King Crocoduck has yet to release his final video in the series). But whilst we go about pondering questions that lie at the boundary of science and philosophy our bodies and senses are trapped by the laws of Newtonian physics. Just how far are we able to stray from the three-dimensional tick-tock of an everyday Newtonian reality? How far do we need to go?

**Physicists and biologists will happily chew your ear off about the meaning of complexity. Such a broad term draws in experts from all areas of the physical and life sciences as well as mathematicians, philosophers and linguists. It’s interesting because some people think complexity (and that other expansive area of research: information) underscores the existence of life and consciousness. If I could understand any of it I wouldn’t writing this post.


  1. intro on quantum nonlocality:

  2. The case for string theory: