Sunday, October 01, 2006

Physics and Beckett's Brownstone.

Jim Holt, "Unstrung," The New Yorker, October 2, 2006, at p. 86.

Paragraph spacing may have been altered in this essay, obstructions make it difficult to write. Harassment and obstructions continue to be a daily aspect of my writing experience, which is inspirational. Any time people are pissed off about what you are saying, it means that you are on to something true and important. After years of such experiences, one learns to "go with the flow," as the saying goes.

Theorists are at impasse in the struggle to reconcile the physics of what is really small with big things. (Don't say it.) They are struggling to get Newton and Einstein as well as quantum mechanics to "fit" together into a "unified field theory" that accounts for phenomena at all levels of reality. "Fitting together" with a few special persons is something that is also important to me.

If you think of the universe as a gigantic version of Manhattan, scientists seem to understand the rules that apply above ground (the big mechanical and relativistic Newtonian-Einsteinian stuff) and also, for the most part, the more mysterious and less predictable rules that apply below ground, at the tiniest levels of reality (quantum mechanics). The trick now is to figure out how they all fit together into an elegant or beautiful scheme. Since the universe evidently does "hang together" somehow, it should be possible to explain how we can both, as it were, ride the subway trains and take an elevator to the observation deck at the Empire State building.

In the same way, many of us wish to know how the laws anounced publicly in New Jersey are reconciled with a secret reality of theft and torture for which politicians and judges are responsible. Happily, it appears that -- as far as the feds are concerned anyway -- they cannot be reconciled, which explains all of the recent indictments in the vicinity of Trenton. More bad news is on the way for crooks hiding out in Weehawken and holding their noses.

"Distance is the soul of beauty," Simone Weil reminds us. Czeslaw Milosz, whose Nobel speech I discussed yesterday, cautioned thinkers to remain faithful to the "quest for reality."

I give to this word [reality] its ... solemn meaning, a meaning having nothing to do with philosophical debates of the last few centuries. It is the Earth as seen by Nils from the back of the gander [here below] and by the author of the Latin ode from the back of Pegasus [above or beyond all human perspectives].

For a long time "string" and "superstring" theories -- there are lots of them at this point -- seemed to provide a plausible avenue of investigation in the search for a unified field theory, now scientists are not so sure. As my friend at the local Deli likes to say, "What's up with that?"

I wish to comment on this controversy and on Mr. Holt's interesting article, which is only slightly marred by some questionable assumptions made by the author. I will get around to explaining string theory in a second. Time for some disclaimers: 1) By now, some of the people directing viruses at this blog are screaming about how I have no right to express an opinion about string theory since I am not a physicist. They may be right. I will do so anyway. 2) A number of obstacles to writing today may preclude posting this essay or make it difficult to do so. I will have to stop regularly to try to save what I have written. I will also be running scans all day. 3) Finally, I am going to "play" with the ideas of scientific theorists, making use of comparable ideas being developed in philosophy, law, and theology. Let us see where this "playing" takes us.

Scientists, unwisely, tend to ignore thinkers in other disciplines since (strangely enough) such thinkers are not scientists. This unscientific attitude on the part of many scientists may be hindering progress in physics. Why not take a walk down the hall and see what the humanists and social scientists, lawyers and theologians are up to -- other than adultery -- at your local university? Mingle, shmooze, comb your hair for once. You might get lucky. Who knows? I've got this great new "Antonio" cologne that really works on women, or so they say. Try it. What could it hurt? It's also good to say something nice about whatever a woman is wearing.

Mr. Holt is dismayed that little in the way of empirical verification -- as opposed to explanatory power -- has been provided by string theory so far. He even suggests that such theories are not really scientific since they seem to flunk Karl Popper's test of "falsification" or even the earlier logical positivist measure of "verification." Nonetheless, the physics establishment seems to cling tenaciously to string theory:

... the physics establishment promotes string theory with irrational fervor, ruthlessly weeding dissenting physicists from the profession. Meanwhile, physics is stuck in a paradigm doomed to barrenness.

I think it is too soon to tell about string theory's "barrenness." This is an interesting metaphor in a male-dominated discipline. I agree that the academic establishment in any discipline or the ethos of any professional group is insular and self-protective, so that the bankruptcy of behaviorist approaches in psychology (together with their morally despicable features), to mention only one example, will be deliberately obscured by a farrago of jargon and double-talk meant to hide the emptiness of the theory in the interest of professional advancement or "ass covering." The destruction of human lives by behaviorist methods is deemed "incidental" in all of this seeking of tenure or achievement of professional success.

Much the same is true in law, where judges take much longer than they should to acknowledge the stupidity of a colleague or a mistaken decision. Thus, it took the New Jersey Supreme Court 25 years to admit that they were wrong about use of hypnosis in interrogation. As a result, dozens of lives have been destroyed and many persons have been harmed for life. Maybe it is time for that court to admit that they were also wrong about some other matters.

The U.S. Supreme Court took less than 10 years to admit that Bowers was a dismally flawed decision. Confusion by courts on the death penalty issue will also continue for years, resulting in many more deaths (some innocent persons will no doubt be executed) until enough justices on that Court understand that civilization has moved beyond the death penalty in its understanding of humane punishment options even for the worst criminals. Lee Smolin, a critic of string theory,

... adds a moral dimension to his plaint, linking string theory to the physics profession's 'blatant prejudice' against women and blacks.

Much the same is true -- and this is very sad -- in American philosophy. I will begin by saying something about what string theory is, then I will question (indirectly) the adoption of Popper's criteria defining the nature of scientific effort; next I will examine "M-Theory" and Mr. Holt's muddle in this article concerning "truth." I will then shift gears and make use of some literary works and a hypothetical or "thought experiment" that I have developed to dramatize what I find highly suggestive in all of this "theorizing" that many scientific thinkers seem to be missing.

In all of the talk concerning "beauty" in scientific theory, the most beautiful possibilities that are staring scientists in the face are not being seen because recognition of such possibilities requires some knowledge of art, literature, philosophy, legal theory, politics, history and all of that other unscientific "nonsense" being taught elsewhere in the university. Who has time to bother with that stuff when there is a new calculator or computer to play with? No one.

Yet it may not be atomistic analysis and precision that are needed, but synthezising intelligence applied to multiple perspectives, together with thematic or narrative vision, if we are to create a new picture and not only more exact mathematical descriptions of the old picture. Theologian and mathematician Bernard Lonergan, S.J., is eloquent on the focusing perspective provided by scientific insights that lead to calculations of future probabilities. The challenge now is to calculate the probability of various scenarios, each of them giving rise to multiple and different sets of probable futures. Mr. Holt offers this definition of "string theory":

The key insight is that the smallest constituents of the world are not particles, as had been supposed since ancient times, but "strings" -- tiny strands of energy. By vibrating in different ways, these strings produce the essential phenomena of nature, the way violin strings produce musical notes. String theory isn't just powerful; it is also mathematically beautiful.

If it is a single reality that we see at the tiniest levels of the universe -- in examining the subatomic realm -- or as large material objects interacting causally, when we look at the world of trucks and trees, then the vibrations of these strings may explain the links between what is revealed through these dual perspectives. The way they do this is by suggesting the existence of a number of other dimensions, maybe as many as eleven dimensions, not visible to the naked eye.

Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who has been fascinated by these issues since his graduate student success at Harvard, has come up with something called "M-Theory" to account for the various versions of string theory that were already common in the late nineties:

In addition to vibrating strings, M-Theory allowed for vibrating mebranes and blobs. As for the name of the new theory, Witten was non-committal; he said that "M stands for magic, mystery, or mebrane, according to taste." ... Other physicists have suggested [my favorite!] "matrix" ...

Imagine a brownstone in the West Village, in Manhattan. There are three floors in this building. In the penthouse lives a conductor, "Beckett"; in the floor below him, resides a violinist named "Murphy"; on the second floor is a bloke who plays the cello, "Molloy"; finally, on the ground floor is guy named "Malone," who is an excellent violinist. They play all the time, not always together yet somehow linked, creating lovely music, a kind of never-ending Beethoven symphony or chamber piece -- not understood in terms of an "anthropic principle," necessarily -- but unified by what we may call a "Deus" principle.

What emerges is music punctuated by Beckett's "strategic silences." (See the film Dark City.) A mysterious and unseen composer provides the unwritten music and is alone able to listen to all of the notes played, so as to detect the ultimate pattern (David Bohm), the shape or meaning of the "music," which is also (at the same time) this same composer. The music, which composes itself, then, is found in the musicians and in all that is the case.

For it seems that the physical structure or reality of the premises, this brownstone called "the universe," alters radically depending on the kind of music that emerges from all of the musicians. Happy music causes the building to get taller; sad music produces just the opposite effect; exactly how the composer/music gets his or her musicians to achieve these effects is a mystery. Much depends on who is listening and where they are in this brownstone when they listen. Rather than a fixed door at the entrance, there is a revolving door. Sometimes, one steps into an entirely different brownstone, whose residents have shifted location; at other times, all of them are in the rooms that they inhabit regularly. There may be an infinite number of identical persons and brownstones performing this glorious music (which allows for plenty of improvisation) in any number of variations. The revolving door is made of mirrors and is always turning. Yes, this will also serve as a model of the human psyche in postmodernist culture.

The attempt to capture all of this activity in a single theory, making exact determinate predictions about the next notes to be played, may be based on flawed assumptions concerning the nature of reality, especially in postmodernist settings where we must speak of plural or multiple realities. The ideas of Henri Bergson on time as "duration" and memory come to mind, since I am reading Kolakowski's book on Bergson. James Gleick on "Chaos Theory" won't hurt.

A better approach will focus on an aesthetic or impressionistic understanding that is a kind of "tuning" or PARTICIPATING in the music that the universe "is" and that is instantiated in us, together, in relation. An obvious connection to process theology is available for religious persons. Thus, Mr. Holt errs in his understanding of truth:

Truth is a relationship between a theory and the world, whereas beauty is a relationship between a theory and the mind.

A relationship is only possible between separate things to be compared. For Holt, apparently, these separate things are the mind's descriptions and external reality. However, it is not so easy in science to be sure that we can step out of our descriptions or understandings to compare them with what they describe. If beauty exists only in the mind, then there is nothing against which to compare (or producing) mental impressions of beauty.

Science and reality are both map and territory. In a way, we live our scientific descriptions or understandings of the universe, since they "constitute" the empirical and conceptual realities that both contain us and in which we participate, even as we construct, in a Kantian sense, reality all the time. Take another look at my hypothetical. A better approach to truth questions -- in testing these theories about unobservable phenomena (like the "Big Bang") -- may be to focus not on correspondence between ideas and world, but on conceptual elegance and coherence, beauty. Anthony O'Hear says:

It is a misconception that physics can explain everything, in this case all physical movements, and that all energy is that which is subject to the laws of physics. But let us suppose that there are different levels of reality. Let us suppose that the powers and mode of existence of an animal or human being are different from those of a stone or even of the atoms which go to make up the living conscious being.

Suppose that, in the human world, it is shared "thinking" that "makes things so." Meanings. Actions. Events. These are distinct things. There may be no way for observer and observed to be kept apart, especially when discussing "superstrings." What the big stuff and little stuff have in common is "us"; but what we have in common with the universe that allows us to understand such vast and infinitesimal things and ourselves, at the same time, may be this "Deus" principle in which we participate. Languages? ("Is it rational to believe in God?") In light of the foregoing discussion, ponder this comment about quantum computation and particle physics by Oxford scientist and philosopher David Deutsch:

I think we have to conceive of the quantum theory of computation as a special case of a bigger theory: quantum-constructor theory, which is the theory of what physical objects can be constructed, using what resources. Here I don't mean abstract resources, like the number of computational steps or the amount of memory, but physical resources like atoms and energy and so on.

Bearing in mind the Simone Weil quote I provided earlier, see my essay: "What is magic?" Now consider this final observation by Professor Deustch:

The quantum theory of computation knows nothing of distance; one day perhaps distance will be defined in quantum constructor theory, as a certain category of constraints on communication, [Can you hear me?] just as atoms or elementary particles may be defined as certain constraints on the construction of smooth objects. So we have some hints of bits of a future theory that will, in a unified way, address real resources such as energy and volume and time, rather than formal resources such as memory and computational steps and a number of computational gates.

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