Sunday, June 13, 2010

Some Philosophical Musings

Consider the concept of the “multi-verse” . There are, of course many other equivalent, or at least closely related theories, such as “parallel universes theory”, “the many worlds interpretation”, etc. (the wikipedia site just referenced has some good descriptions of these related ideas). But all of them, as far as I can tell, do not admit of any kind of empirical verification, and hence it is dubious to consider them science. One almost wonders if this kind of speculation should be considered “religion”, since I suspect a strong motivation for it is to avoid the implications of this universe seeming to be the product or creation of some kind of mind (whether a deity, deities, or something not yet even imagined by humankind).
Now, I am not saying that the existence of parallel worlds is necessarily wrong, just that we will never know if it is right or not. It is beyond the methods of science. Perhaps this is a good example of how something like “Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem” has applicability applies to physics and metaphysics as well as to mathematics. That is, there may be truths that can not be broached by the scientific method.
Perhaps this seems a “duh”—but I don’t think it is, because I often find that people imply that ideas that can be shown to be unverifiable are thereby false. Now maybe it is rational to decide that we can’t know whether they are true of false, and therefore decide that they do not matter in our practical everyday lives.

I noted with interest the other day that the Templeton Foundation offers grants to study and make progress on the subject of “Free Will”.
How, I wonder, would one propose to investigate that? I am inclined to think that most people, and even many philosophers, do not fully realize the deep mysteries and paradoxes involved in this subject. Determinism in some form seems inescapable, but impractical, since it seems we cannot act upon it, and we all assume that we are not determined. Indeed, the assumption of absolute determinism seems to render absurd any of moral notions, and hence any kind of blame or punishment. Everyone learns in a college “Ethics 101” that “ought implies can” (a Google search on this phrase will bring up thousands of hits on the topic).
The odd thing is that we cannot coherently specify what the concept of “free will” would even mean. It seems that everything a system does is either the result of its physical makeup (i.e., for animals, genes), external forces, or previously stored information (this latter being the result of delayed external forces). And yet, we all assume in practice, even the “deterministic philosophers”, that we have free will. I am inclined to say that we “know” that we do. This is an odd thing, that there seem to be two all inclusive opposites, free will and determinism, and yet neither seems quite right. Is there some “third way” out of this that no one has yet thought of?

When we ask, “Why is there Something and not Nothing” are we committing a fallacy of sorts? (Again, one gets thousands of hits with a Google search on this phrase, so there are a lot of us that wonder about this question.)
Within our experience, that is, within the part of the universe that we inhabit, we have observed that when something is “there”---that is, in some region of space and time---then there is some reason for it to be there. Someone has put there, some inanimate object has knocked it there, and so on. But can such a cause and effect relationship be expected to hold for “Existence Itself”? No, from a purely rational perspective, it seems we must accept the fact of existence as axiomatic. But this will never satisfy most of us psychologically. And, along the lines of the “multi-verse” idea mentioned above, it may be that there is a reason for “Why is there something and not nothing”, it is just that we can never know, using any kind of exploration or verification methods we have, what that reason is.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Universe as an example of Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking? Nah!

Though I doubt if anyone could really believe what I am going to speculate about here, it is perhaps an interesting idea. Let me add that I may not have thought of this myself, but may well have read about it in some of the speculative cosmology and physics books.
In answer to the famous question “Why is there something and not nothing?” might we suppose that it is an example of what in modern physics is called “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking” (SSB)?
SSB is a simple but elegant idea, and is usually illustrated by the image of a pencil balanced on its tip over a flat surface. The pencil of course wants to fall to a position of lower potential energy, and when released it will “choose’ an angle to fall to on the flat surface. Note that the initial position on its tip is perfectly cylindrically symmetric about the axis of the pencil (make the idealization that the surface is infinite and perfectly flat and smooth, and the pencil is perfectly symmetric about its axis). But—here is the odd thing---the later, lower energy, state of the pencil is not cylindrically symmetric.
In physics terms, one says that “the ground state of the system does not have the symmetry of the dynamical expression that describes the initial state of the system (technically, this expression is called the Hamiltonian of the system).
Other more complex examples of SSB are ferromagnetic alignment when a sample of iron is cooled below the Curie temperature, and the Higgs Boson that will be sought after by experiments on the LHC. But these will not be considered in this short note.
The point is, imagine a “state of nothingness”. Well, ha ha, we probably really can’t, but maybe we can at least try. In any case, it would seem that a state of nothing possesses a high degree of symmetry: No direction in space could be defined (even if there were space), no angles or orientations can be imagined, etc. In fact, it seems that “nothing” represents perfect symmetry in every sense. Now the actual physical Universe does not seem to be as symmetric as “a state of nothing” is symmetric. Could it be that in some sense, “a state of nothing” involves a tension, an energy, that is just not stable, and it must “fall” (in some unimaginably complex hyperspace) to a lower energy consisting of a bunch of random stuff—i.e., a vast collection of matter and energy, a Universe? Well, as I said at the outset, I can’t buy this, but it is at least an amusing speculation.