Sunday, September 30, 2012


Particle collisions: CERN
I love it when New Scientist tackles the big questions. This week it is "What is Reality?" There is a new humility in science, it seems. Many scientists will now admit that we just don't know the answer to the question. Reductionism is no longer convincing. You can examine ever smaller components of the material world (so far we have boiled it down to quarks, leptons, and bosons), only to discover that there may be no bottom level, or that if there is, it is well beyond the reach of observation (minute vibrating strings in several extra dimensions).

More importantly, since everything from the most elementary particles to the objects we see around us with the naked eye can be described in terms of "wave functions" or waves of probability, existing in a "superposition" of contradictory states until the function is "collapsed" by the act of observation, it seems that the consciousness of an observer has re-emerged as a determining factor in reality itself. Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, said in 1931, "I regard matter as derivative from consciousness." The
only way to avoid this is to think in terms not of conscious observation but of "measurement", or the interaction of the subatomic processes with a measuring instrument of some kind – which means that the subatomic realm is no longer "more fundamental" than the world we see with our naked eyes.

The most interesting form of reductionism reduces subatomic particles to collections of space-time points, these in turn to sets of numbers, and the numbers themselves to pure logical sets. But what are sets? Like numbers themselves they exist either as shared mental constructions, or as entities outside both materiality and subjectivity in a Platonic "third realm". Either way, materialism is refuted. At least this would help to explain why the world conforms to the rules of mathematics, which as the physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out in 1960 would otherwise look very like a miracle.

Concurrently I am reading a series of SF novels by Stephen Baxter (the Xeelee sequence) that build on these discoveries and speculations of modern physics. For Baxter, life can emerge and thrive wherever there is the right combination of complexity and stability – even in the heart of a star, or in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang, when the universe was no bigger than an orange. Whole civilizations rise and fall before the formation of stars, or even atoms. Baxter's wildly imaginative stories feature creatures composed of dark matter, quarks, flaws in spacetime, and even convection currents in planetary oceans.

The idea that consciousness emerges wherever there is ordered complexity reminds me of Christopher Alexander's intuition in The Luminous Ground that degrees of beauty, of ordered complexity, are degrees of life, of connectedness with the ground of reality which he calls the Self, but which might as well be called Being. But this does not lead to a merging of all things into a supreme Oneness. “This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become more individual and most precious.” (p. 309)

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