Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Theory of Everything and Quandry of Light Speed

A little known secret: since I was a child, I've been obsessed with science. I was equally obsessed with fantasy, and later, philosophy and art, but my interest in science came about through the fact that it was the only one of these with any hope of creating a demonstrable model of how things work. Would I have used those words at the age of 13? Probably not, but it was still I believe what drew me to it. I had a bad teacher in middle school, and she forced me onto a far "lower" track of math and science than I should have been on, and at that point I consciously parted with the idea of ever becoming a scientist with a background in philosophy, focusing instead on art and philosophy. Though in my spare time, and in studying philosophy, I've done plenty of "layman" reading on Einstein, Neils Bohr, relativity, string theory, quantum mechanics, and all the bullshit pseudo-science that other layman have written about the subject.

I've avoided talking about it mostly because I know I don't speak the language, I have to fall back on the facile metaphors that real scientists attempt to make to explain these things to us, and in the process we can make egregious errors. I promised myself I wouldn't write about it, and yet here I am. So please, pardon my ignorance.

I have never been interested in lab science, in a fixation on detail and structure. I like science because it allows us to take philosophical ideas a step further. Many scientists are uncomfortable with this relationship, saying that science has nothing at all to do with philosophy except in their far distance past. Not so. But this is a topic that I simply couldn't fit into a blog post. It is the worthwhile subject of an entire book. I touch on it in the essays I've written so far for the Immanence of Myth but even there the topic is restricted to how science relates to myth, rather than philosophy.

Instead I'll cut to the chase. I recently read an article in Scientific American called "The Elusive Theory of Everything," written by Stephan Hawking (yes, that Stephan Hawking), and Leonard Mlodinow. The headline: "Physicists have long sought to find one final theory that would unify all of physics. Instead they may have to settle for several."

This cuts to the chase of a long running history, from relativity to quantum mechanics, and the fact that they can't be reconciled, to string theory, which at first was thought to be a means of solving this incongruity. For instance:
"In classical physics, the past is assumed to exist as a definite series of events, but according to quantum physics, the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. Even the universe as a whole has no single past or history. So quantum physics implies a different reality than that of classical physics- even though the latter is consistent with our intuition and still serves us well when we design things such as buildings and bridges."
But then more variants of that theory were needed. And on, and on. And - finally! - it seems physicists are starting to realize something that philosophers have been saying for decades.

Let me quote again from the article:
"These examples bring us to a conclusion that proivdes an important framework with which to interpret modern science. In our view, there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we adopt a view that we call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If two models agree with observation, neither one can be considered more reality an the other. A person can use whicher model is more convenient in the situation under consideration."
This is precisely the point I've been reiterating in the context of mythology, within my work for the Immanence of Myth. I recognize that, in an interdisciplinary sense, it is a point that shouldn't need to be made. But it seems that some diciplines have come to this conclusion before others, and it is about time that all disciplines - psychiatry most of all! - accepts this idea. There is no way I know of to drive it home with more force, and yet it doesn't manage to sink in. All models, all explanations, all beliefs that we form are contextual in every sense. Contextually derived, contextually dependent, and contextually useful, irrelevant, or even dangerous.

There is one point that seems, to a certain extent, to defy this fact, and it is this defiance that had me in an almost manic state most of yesterday until I realized I simply am not equipped with the knowledge or tools to solve the quandry. That is this: the constancy of light in a vacuum appears to somehow have a "higher" priority than all other constants. Space itself will bend to accomodate the constancy of this speed. When light passes through objects, of course, it is forced to slow. But time slows, we may imagine, to 0 as an object approaches light speed, and mass increases exponentially (making it seem likely that any object with any mass at all could never truly attain it.) Why is any of this relevant to what I've already said? After all, the behavior of light is one of the first places where the power of models became evident - is it a particle or a wave? It is because it seems peculiar to me that in a universe so recursively and emergently produced from any center-point that perception chooses to originate from should insist on one particular constant over and above others.

So .Why this insistence, and what does that mean in terms of our lives, and the nature of consciousness and being?

But this is where I hit a wall. I don't have the training to work this out. If I talk to scientists about it, I have to take their word for it. I have to approach the issue from another vantage point, that of personal experience. There are comments in the previous post where I talk about the nature of time. This relates to this as well. It would seem that the experience we have of time is very much based on our relative velocity to the speed of light. In other words, its behavior and seeming constancy is a condition of our relationship to that constant. How does that relate to the real experiences of our lives? Or of how we are all in a sense trapped in time, trapped to live on moment that appears to have some n-dimensional movement from a beginning to an end.

Tricking death would seem to me to not so much be a means of extending our experience of linear time indefinitely so much as changing the very nature of the rules of the game.


  1. I was just writing about this too - from the semiotic question of how models affect observational data in anthropology and the issues outlined by C.S. Peirce about perception.

  2. I know that I don't have the patience or Will to do the math myself - but that doesn't mean we are unable to engage ourselves with the philosophical implications of the metaphors in the modelings and layperson explanations. It is nothing short of our current cosmology..

    How will people react and integrate the idea of the 3rd dimension being a holographic illusion if the implications of general relativity continue in these directions? Good time to start a new religion ;) Hyper-Hypno-HinBuddhism?

  3. " the semiotic question of how models affect observational data in anthropology..."

    Precisely what got me essentially booted out of the psychology department in college. They acknowledged it as a bias but refused to acknowledge that it made everything else we were learning in the class completely and utterly useless outside the context of a very narrow - and limiting - cultural view of mental illness and wellbeing.

    "I know that I don't have the patience or Will to do the math myself - but that doesn't mean we are unable to engage ourselves with the philosophical implications of the metaphors in the modelings and layperson explanations."

    Have you read the Holographic Universe? This is precisely the kind of danger that is presented by a lack of scientific background. The behavior of sub-atomic particles has little bearing on the behavior of most matter as we interact with it. Trucks can't drive through walls. And certainly the power of our minds can't allow us to transform piles of shit into gold. (Sorry, "The Secret.")



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