Thursday, May 16, 2013

First Mystery: The Universe Eschews Observation.

Remember that romantic shtick we were all sold about the atomic world at school? That pretty picture of electrons skipping merrily around a nucleus of protons and neutrons, like children dancing round a maypole at a medieval village fête? Many of us are still under the subconscious grip of this idea that the world somehow reassuringly consists of “stuff,” despite the fact that talking this way has been problematic for the best part of a century now. Physicists know this well. Biologists know it less well, because they haven’t really had to deal with it yet. The first blow to the idea–and it really was a body blow–came in 1927 with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This posits that we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a subatomic entity with accuracy. Moreover, it’s not just that the information is there, somehow, and we don’t have access to it. If we take quantum mechanics as a statement about reality (which most physicists have long since done), in what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, we are coerced to the conclusion that naïve realism is mythic. We can’t know the position and momentum of any system of matter with accuracy, because there is no such determined state to be measured.
At one stroke, this circumcised the dream that we could ever have full knowledge of the world. Once, not so long ago, it was believed that if we could only acquire sufficiently detailed information about a physical system–the developing patterns of weather, for example–then we could in principle predict the evolution of such patterns with 100% accuracy. Heisenberg pulled that rug, in fact pulled it and substituted it with a kind of Arabian magic carpet. But it was just the first of many rugs that would be pulled. Since that time, the study of quantum physics has disclosed the world to be weirder and weirder, invoking Haldane’s “the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Influences travel backwards in time. Particles disappear from one side of a barrier and reappear on the other side without passing through. A single photon traverses two physically separated apertures at the same time.. Once-associated particles mysteriously “communicate” with each other regardless of the distance between them. We know these things, we have all heard them. But we don’t really digest them. The old stories are worn out in the telling. Atoms are an elf music dervishing in hyperspace, no more substantial than the mischief of a smile.
But this raises a fierce conundrum, because if the world we always assumed to be made of “stuff” is not really stuff, then what is it? And what does this mean?
The fact is that the world has vaporized from a solid object to a cobwebby abstraction. We all know that it is experienced as solid–when we stub our toes it hurts or when we vacuum the lounge and empty the bag it isn’t cooksmoke from fairyland we pour into the trash–but it only seems this way because we are not interrogating its reality base too intensely. These common perceptions and experiences are too wrapped up in the tape loops of our monkey survival programs to be an especially reliable measure of what goes on independent of our consciousness…if indeed anything does.
The problem began in earnest with Descartes and his division of reality into two substances, world stuff (res extensa) and mind stuff (res cogitans). The mind stuff, or spirit, was restricted to a tiny portion in the brain, the pineal gland. For Descartes, the soul rode the pineal gland like Paul Atreides straddled Shai Hulud in Frank Herbert’s Dune. We all of us suffer the long fallout from this way of thinking, whether we are aware of it or not. The very idea that there are somehow two categories to discuss, which we call “mind” and “matter” is in large portion traceable to Descartes’ questionable choice.
It really does begin to seem as if the “world” we perceive with our animal senses is a kind of thin-slice abstraction or narrowed beam of attention focused down on precisely those behaviors of reality that were at least useful enough for us to know in our canopy dwelling, fruit acquiring, survival-honed development. I am going to refer to this version of the world, the abstraction that we perceive with our senses and name reality,  as the “neural corridor.” Naïve realism would have it that the neural corridor is simply reality, that there is a one to one mapping from what we sense of the world to what is actually “out there.” But quantum physics is already sufficient to call our bluff on this. We do not see objects disappear from one side of a wall and reappear on the other side, nor do we as a matter of course experience ourselves flowing backwards in time, so clearly there are forms of relationship in existence that fail to show up inside the neural corridor, or are in some sense excluded by our monkey physiology. And I really do mean this. It’s not just a manner of speaking. The question of course becomes…just what is the world outside of our neural interpretation? The question also becomes, how much of reality is in fact captured by our human senses? And how much is left out?
We have seen the world transformed from a kind of Newtonian machine to an abstract dance of phantasms. The “solidity” of the world seems to dissolve away the deeper we probe into it, and again this is no mere manner of speaking. An atom is found to be a “probability field,” but what the bejeezus is that? No one prepared to be honest with themselves really knows. Quantum physics is the most precise description of nature ever rendered, but there’s a gotcha: it’s precise in the realm of the most abstruse mathematics humans have derived; in other words, the precision exists at the ultimate pole of abstraction. 
This evaporation of the world’s apparent solidity into a cloud of abstractions as we place any real epistemic pressure upon it is a very intriguing thing. It is doubly intriguing because the very things that materialism has held to be finally “unreal” or derivative for the past few hundred years…feelings, consciousness, love, intentionality, hopes, dreams, will, creative process, are scarcely any more abstract than the goblin wraiths of the quantum realm, leading of course to the suspicion that their marginalization was over zealous in the first place.
But I am going to float the idea that what we see with respect to the quantum realm is really just one face of a larger principle that I paraphrased with my opening remark: the universe eschews observation. Sufficiently burned by the example of quantum mechanics, you would think we’d have learned our lesson. Yet a biological example of this misplaced concreteness exists. Not too long ago, the sequencing of the genome and the promise of gene therapy was touted as the next great revolution. If we could only know all the base steps in our DNA (somewhat akin to knowing all the particle positions in a thundercloud) then we could predict all the ‘storms’ that our embryonic development is prone to and treat them. Well it is now twenty years later, the human genome has been sequenced, and you don’t hear much about gene therapy any more, for good reason. It was expected that this heroic sequencing effort would shed major light on the complex development of the human organism. In particular that it would shed light on one of the deepest mysteries of biology: how genetic structure relates to morphology, the formative shapes of organisms in dimensional space, and their development. It was commonly supposed that humans would be discovered to have in excess of 100,000 genes in order to support this complexity. In fact, it turns out we have a little more than 20,000, which is fewer than some varieties of grape and about the same number as a simple species of roundworm, C.elegans.
Human beings love the idea of closure, but there is something about the universe that seems to resist closure, as if we aren’t really viewing it in the right way. What I propose to suggest is that this is not just a one-off incidental observation, but a kind of pattern, and the pattern becomes visible if we push against it in a certain way. The universe is happy enough to be observed so long as the business of examination does not wander too far from the monkey program, does not draw too close to elucidating how the whole thing is sustained in existence. There’s a sort of trick with mirrors involved. At the point where such an approach is threatened, the universe begins to hide its face.
If we conduct this pursuit relentlessly, we find a threshold beyond which the 'object' of our attention begins to resist all–inclusion, in other words, knowledge concerning the world refuses to complete itself, as if to do so is somehow paradoxical. The closer we come to the illusion of totality, the faster a front of ever–escaping knowledge recedes from the observer. This claim may seem extraordinary on first exposure, but I would suggest that this is because we are not used to thinking of it this way, and that even certain quite ordinary features of our daily experience fit the pattern. Impenetrability of time, incomprehensible vastness of space and recession of galaxies, ever smaller orders of subatomic particles, ever more elaborate behaviour of such particles, elusiveness of consciousness to material observation, utter mystery of birth and death, unexplainable phenomena (or even just the rumor of them), Uncertainty Principle, influence of the observer, the existence of a dark body or “unconscious” in our own psyche, etc. It’s as if each of these disparate things are somehow symbols within the architecture of our perception for a greater and more astonishing thing…that the universe refuses ultimate closure, full transparent visibility, or final explanation. Perhaps even that it must enact such a refusal.

MARK SWEENEY, May 16th 2013

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