I woke up this morning with a quantum physics itch to scratch. Something I just read in an otherwise very good book called “The Quantum Universe” (Cox and Forshaw, 2011) just doesn’t sit right with me. I mean, if it were somebody like you or me making this claim, I’d be okay with it, but these are some of what my friend Chris calls “the smartest people on earth”, so really they should know better.
Here it is (you don’t need to fully get this to read the rest of the post): ” Imagine a ball flying through the air. Euler found that the ball travels on a path such that the action (*1) computed between any two points on the path is always the smallest it can be (*2) . This seems like a rather odd principle, because in order to fly in a way that minimize the action, the ball would have to know where it is going before it gets there. How else could it fly through the air such that, when everything is done, the quantity called action is minimized? Phrased this way, the principle of least action sounds teleological – that is to say things appear to happen in order to achieve a pre-specified outcome.” It then goes on to talk about Darwin vs. Intelligent Design, and I’ll get to that part.
*1 – the ‘action’ is mx/t2, with m the mass of the ball, x the distance between two points and t the time at which the ball will be at that later point, 2 is meant to be ‘squared’.
*2 – this relates to the transfer of energy between kinetic and potential, and is a very useful Physics 101 trick.
So, these scientists have a ‘problem’ with the idea that a ball would know where it is going before it gets there. Let’s suspend the problem of balls being able to think for a moment. It seems to me that this is only a problem if we limit ourselves to a linear view of time. If, as I am pretty sure it is, the universe is actually a timeless realm, then there is no problem. The ball is both at its origin and destination and everywhere in between in the Now. Our human brain’s limited perception of time forces us to see this as a sequence. But it could be a sequence in space, not in time. One way I envision this is as a movie of the ball flying through the air. Each frame, from start to finish, is already on the movie strip. The whole sequence already exists, but WE decide to play each frame one by one in order to get the visual of a ball flying through the air.
So, what does it mean that our perception of time is limited because it is linear? That’s actually the thought that was in my head when I woke up.
Let’s imagine that instead of having the brain to perceive a 3-Dimensional world, we only had the ability to perceive a 2-Dimensional world [I would have gone 1D, but didn’t want to endure my ex-husband’s rolling of the eyes. We had quite some disagreements about 1D universes when we were married :-)]. As a 2D being, we would be able to move any way we want as long as it is on a plane surface. As long as we are rolling balls on that plane, the physics that our 2D brain established based on what we could observe, and that is taught in our 2D schools, would work perfectly. What if the world was actually 3D though? We would be living in a 3D world, yet would only be able to perceive it in 2D.
Let’s look at these worlds from the side.
A) 2D motion in a 2 D world:
_________________0 – The ball rolls and I can see its entire path. All is well.
B) 2D motion in a 3D world (height, the new dimension is up):
_________________0 – No problem still, the ball stayed where I was able to perceive it.
C) 3D motion in a 3D world:
—— ——-0 – The ball gets bumped up and flies at height h for a little while (the lines are connected, my keyboard isn’t really designed for drawing physics concepts).
D) 3D motion in a 3D world as perceived by a 2D brain:
—— ——-0 – There you go, now we have magic, or spirituality, or a physics quandary. There is nothing in our well-established and tested 2D physics rules, or in our ability to perceive the world around us that can explain what just went down.
The issue is exactly the same if instead of a 2D brain in a 3D world, we have a 3D brain in a 4D, 5D, 6D, however-many-D world, or if we have a 3D-linear-time brain in a 3D-timeless world. There is nothing in what we can OBSERVE to inform us of what’s really going on with the ball flying through the air. I hope you see that this is really only a pre-determinist teleological “problem” if one lacks imagination.
So, am I saying these super-smart physicists lack imagination?
Yes indeed, but not all of them. A quote a few pages later gives me hope: “The debate is neutralized once we grasp Richard Feynman’s approach to Quantum Physics. The ball flying through the air ‘knows’ which path to chose because it actually, secretly, explores every possible paths.”
Kuddos to Feynman! Really, not bad for a 3D being. I would add that the ball explores every possible paths AND is everywhere on each of these every possible paths right NOW. It’s then up to us, humans, to block out the infinity of possibilities and narrow it down to an easily-digestable linear single path sequence. How or why we do this is a different question, and one I won’t discuss here (partly because I still have to shower and do some laundry before the day is over and also because I have only vague ideas on the topic).
All this just to figure out how balls fly through the air?
Well, no. This actually applies to everything. There is a second part to this chapter. After being puzzled at balls in the air, Cox and Forshaw make the leap to biology [Hi Chris … if you are reading this, I think our fish dinner just took on a whole new dimension (Ha! That wasn’t even an intended pun)] :
“In biology, a teleological explanation for the emergence of complex creatures would be tantamount to the argument for the existence of a designer, whereas Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection provides a simpler explanation that fits the available data beautifully.”
That’s like looking at D) above and having a war over whether God made the ball skip or not. If you remove time from the equation it becomes obvious that the argument is irrelevant. Both Darwin and the intelligent designers are coming up with explanations for an observed phenomena based on limited perception. It’s a valiant effort, and I’m not saying we should not thrive to understand our world with what we can observe first (but let’s not have wars over these explanations based on limited perception, please). What I am saying is that maybe the answer to this and other problems lie in a dimension to which we do not have access perceptually. I think it was Einstein who said that you cannot solve a problem at the level in which it was created. It was also Einstein who said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”.
Maybe these physicists should listen to their own and not make problems of balls flying through the air or of the existence of complex biological creatures.
One final word on the creation of complex creatures. My opinion – and it is only an opinion, because I am not “one of the smartest people on earth”, by a long shot – is that the answer probably lies somewhere closer to the Budhists’ idea that the experience of a tree exists, with the acorn asking the tree to Be as much as the tree asks the acorn to Be … or the single-cell organism pulling the human, dolphin, bobcat, etc into existence as much as all this complex biodiversity pulls the single-cell organism into existence in a timeless Now.
Right … I guess I’ll go start my day now … 🙂
Have a great one!
XOX – The Thinking Bobcat.