Friday, June 29, 2012

Consciousness and the Universe--Part 1.

Consciousness and the Universe--Part 1. I find it mind boggling to contemplate the question “would the universe (U) exist in the absence of conscious beings within it?” (WTUEITAOCBWI). Of course, we know going in that there is not going to be anything like a clear answer to it. There seems to be no way to explore it using methods of science (which I regard as the only definitive ways we can arrive at truth to our mutual satisfaction). Rather, the payoff is simply the “buzz”one can get from contemplating it. Some might find this a foolish waste of time. I for one do not. This question is perhaps the cousin of the metaphysical question “Why is there something and not nothing?” (WITSANN). I say metaphysical, because certain prominent fellow physicists are inclined to embarrass themselves by trying to answer that in terms of the quantum field theories of physics, and do not seem to understand what “nothing” means. For example, an all pervading “vacuum” which allows quantum fluctuations is most definitely not nothing in the true sense of the word. Whether they are being naive, dense---or, perhaps more likely have a anti-religious agenda--is open to dispute. I plan to have another post soon on this issue. Turning to WTUEITAOCBWI, this is of course in some ways a greatly enlarged version of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there is no one to hear it. Most people consider that one to be just a matter of deciding what we mean by making a sound. We could of course imaging a sound energy recorder of some kind being placed in the forest, allowing some conscious being to listen to it later. That really sidesteps the question though, as it simply puts a delay in the sound reaching the being. But I do not want to get bogged down on that version of the problem. Just a few relevant comments and questions: Considering human and other animal life on earth, these only observe a minuscule fraction of the U. This is true no matter how powerful the telescopes and other instruments, and no matter how much space exploration is done. There may of course be guzillions of other conscious life forms scattered throughout the U, but as far as we know now, these would be subject to the same limitations as is conscious life on the earth. Those of us who have studied quantum mechanics know that it suggests that somehow observations, or measurements, cause the quantum states to “collapse” into some definite state. This suggests that in some way conscious perception affects the dynamics of the subatomic realm. Of course, QM might not turn out to be fully correct. QM has its own version of WTUEITAOCBWI in the form of the Schrodinger Cat Paradox, but in my opinion this does not have shed much light on the present question. Conscious beings may not necessarily have the level of conceptual consciousness that humans or more advanced aliens posses. If consciousness is required to make the U exist, does it have to highly conceptual.? Can a snail, cockroach, or sea hose be sufficient to make it exist? I know there are many scientists and philosophers that have explored this idea in much more depth that I can do here. For example, I believe that the brilliant physicists John Wheeler and (separately) Eugene Wigner have suggested that consciousness is involved in making the U exist. One recent book by a scientist (physicist-biologist), coming at it from an “orthodox Jewish” perspective, says that consciousness is “the U being aware of itself” (though what exactly that means is not entirely clear to me). We might all wonder “in what sense does the U exist for me after I die (or before I was born)? I suspect that none of us seriously doubt that it did, and will, exist. But it is hard to get one’s brain around that--at least it is for me. Some people believe that this tends to suggest that in some way all of conscious life is connected, maybe even unified, at some deep level. It is of course a common idea in New Age thinking that “we are all one”. I have no definite belief about that being the case or not, but can appreciate the plausibility of that idea since it seems to preserve the idea of the U being conscious of itself. So to conclude, I repeat that this question, though unanswerable, is fun and mind expanding to think about. I have only skirted along the surface of it here. And whether Consciousness is necessary for the U to exist---that may be true or false, since after all there may be true things that cannot be answered by generally accepted methods. This is analogous perhaps to the mathematical idea of Godel, that there may be true facts in any math system that cannot be deduced from the axioms. “To be continued”.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Is Math in the Universe?

Is Math in the Universe? Or just in humankind’s minds?
Why is mathematics so effective in physics and engineering? Is math really “in the world”, in some sense, or is it just some peculiarly human way of interpreting things? It seems that physicists in particular are divided on this issue. Stephen Hawking has asked the celebrated question, “What is it that breathes the fire into the equations?”, which would seem to imply that he believes that “the universe knows about math”.
The great physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an oft cited essay, "The Unreasonable effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” , which, if not explicitly suggesting that the universe is built on our math, at least suggests that there may be some deep connection between the two.
A great many of my science colleagues, though, have maintained the opposite--namely, that the math models of the world are purely human inventions, and the equations really just represent the way our minds work, and that nature knows nothing about these equations.
I realize the very question I am asking may be naive, and it is difficult to even frame the issue in a rigorous manner. But I have to confess that I like the idea that the equations do have some real connection with the way the world is, and that they are more than just some human-centered version of reality. For one thing, such entities as electrons, quarks, and so forth are so deeply nested in the mathematical constructs of physics, and these constructs seem to be so highly consistent, and work so well in explaining and predicting events on the micro scale, that it just seems like nature must “know” something about them.