On a certain “reality problem” in Quantum Physics
Aeon.co/magazine/ recently published a very thought provoking article by Adrian Kent that delved into a current conundrum now faced by physicists. A problem that revolves around a logical and empirical short coming concerning quantum mechanics. This problem can be summarized thus:
Although quantum theory has very elegant mathematical models that clearly indicate what the result will be when certain particles are interacted at given energies (via accelerators), they offer only very perplexing abstractions as to what is actually occurring when these interactions take place; abstractions that don't give any kind of satisfying notion of the underlying reality.
The example he gives is quite intriguing:
“...To calculate what outcomes we might expect when we fire protons at one another in the Large Hadron Collider, we need to analyze what – at first sight – look like many different stories. The same final set of particles detected after a collision might have been generated by lots of different possible sequences of energy exchanges involving lots of different possible collections of particles. We can’t tell which particles were involved from the final set of detected particles...”
And the problem is more than simply having a known list of events that you can't deduce the relative occurrence probabilities out of your test results.
“...Quantum theory isn’t like this, as far as we presently understand it. We don’t get a list of possible explanations for what happened, of which one (although we don’t know which) must be the correct one. We get a mathematical recipe that tells us to combine, in an elegant but conceptually mysterious way, numbers attached to each possible explanation. Then we use the result of this calculation to work out the likelihood of any given final result. But here’s the twist. Unlike the mathematical theory of probability, this quantum recipe requires us to make different possible stories cancel each other out, or fully or partially reinforce each other. This means that the net chance of an outcome arising from several possible stories can be more or less than the sum of the chances associated with each.
I love thinking about this kind of stuff, and I am so thankful that people like Mr. Kent take the time to frame the issues, as much as they can, in terms other than straight mathematics. Which is, of course, my cue to segue into the fact that not only am I not a physicist, I am also someone who was only able to get past Algebra II in school. That being said, I want to be clear that my response to this conundrum comes from the perspective of a systems analyst and part time philosopher.
I believe that there are two main points that must be considered for anyone to come to a better understanding of what is actually happening in between the start and end of these types of particle experiments. The first is that there will be limits to what can be tested; if for no other reason than the fact that any physical instrumentality we might devise to use as a measurement mediator will always be a less than perfect translator; which is no more to say than that the precision will always have an upper limit. Because of this, at some point, everybody is going to have to take a description on faith. Let us be clear, though. This faith does not necessarily have to have anything to do with a deity. It will be a faith, rather, based completely on a process description that resonates. In other words, it will be something that simply feels right.
The other thing that seems to me to be missing from the cosmological view of science is that there isn't enough consideration of what a singularity is in relation to the entirety. Obviously the assumption in the standard view is that the entirety, and the singularity which formed what we now do our experiments in, are the same thing. And I have to say that this has always seemed quite wrong headed to me; especially if one considers that parallel realities are feasible.
It seems to me that the entirety is a thing of infinite potential and complexity. In a sense it is its own, unbounded, singularity that, like any complex system, allows for infinite boundaries within, but therein (all puns intended) lies the rub. Just as important as the how and why of a particular singularity is this: What is the basis of boundary resolution in the first place? After all, how can there be a single anything without the means to make distinctions? And if you can have one distinct thing, why can't you have many; with none of them representing any kind of primary starting point?
I'm getting ahead of myself here so I'm going to take a step back for a bit. I want to provide you with some perspective on why I see things the way I do. And to do that I need to delve into the intellectual that probably had the greatest impact on me: Marshall McLuhan. In particular, my study of Mr. McLuhan has left me we a deep fascination with the idea of “gap.” You can't read him and not get caught up in it, at least a little.
In one instance he described the news paper, after the widespread use of the telegraph was in place, and up until the television, as something you climbed into as a total immersion. It was this way because of all of the stories collected from far and wide, and laid out in a mosaic of juxtaposition. It demanded immersion precisely because of this juxtaposition because elements in proximity, even if only subconsciously, demanded some kind of completion; as in a linkage that would give them meaning.
In another instance he would describe the derivation of the word symbol. That it came ultimately from the word symballein, which denoted the bringing together of two halves. The idea was that a stick or clay object was broken to stand for an agreement of some sort. The bringing together completed this agreement.
Later on, as print ads became more sophisticated, and the means to make images matured, the arrangement of juxtaposed items became much more subtle. As such, the draw to make engineered completions were as effective as they were hardly perceivable to the conscious mind.
In “From Cliche to Archetype” he further elaborated on the ultimate elements of popular culture, and the means to take advantage of them. He described it as a constant process of the creation of new archetypes, their quick demise into cliches, being discarded on the “midden heap” of culture only to be resurrected by the clever message maker; banging old ones together in new was. Thus were created the advertising slogans such as “The wrath of grapes” to sell wine, or, as I tried to do with an updated take on Paul Goodman's “Growing up Absurd”, creating the essay with the title “The Absurdity of Growing Up.”
I mention all of this because it serves to frame what was for me an important context into which how meaning itself worked. Of how words could only be expressed as combinations of other words. Of how language in its own right was an important component to the development of consciousness, and a persons sense of self. After all, the very process of separating the immense welter of sensory input we are initially assaulted with as infants into objectified terms works to introduce, and then solidify, the distinction of outer and inner, of me and everything outside of me. The self as a singular point of reference was then easy to see.
Once I started going down this road in a big way a lot of other concepts started to click for me. All meaning, it seemed to me, was both personal and social, combining the immense process of experience association within the matrix of lower brain, higher brain; the chemicals, emotions, and the interactions of a young, vulnerable animal as it matures within a family group, and that group interacts with the larger society that contains it. Coming to understand the difference between subjective and objective interpretations of what is experienced in the process.
All of the above is just a more concrete way of indicating what systems theory is. It is also important in seeing why systems theory argues against reductionism. Families of organizational structure, working as a whole can create unexpected feedback channels between the different families. That is precisely what makes complex systems so complex, and why a butterfly flapping away somewhere can affect the weather some significant distance elsewhere.
Another significant aspect of systems theory has to do with initial conditions; especially as they concern chaotic systems, which are a subset of complexity. Initial conditions and singularities are wonderful things to put into juxtaposition; no less so when you throw in point of reference, and a deeper understanding of relativity. It all pushed me into a very specific way to think of the entirety; especially when I started to consider how the arrow of time might allow for such an organized uniformity of boundary resolution. That, and discovering the controversial Anthropic principle, had me off and running.
For me, there are two primary aspects to the entirety: The elemental embrace, and Mind.
The elemental embrace should be obvious. Whether you want to call it Love, or the Higgs Boson, or as the fundamental necessity to come together and exchange, it still pretty much refers to the same thing. It can't be by itself, though, if we don't have boundaries. If you don't have boundaries, certainly, you can't have quanta to begin with; inasmuch as any quanta is simply the bounded measurement of some interaction. More to the point, though, is the fact that, without boundaries there can be no information. In order for there to be information there also needs to be gap; which of course is only another way of saying the interval between two distinct objects.
That being said, there has to be mind of some form or another involved here. That is so because sentience is essential to the entirety precisely because there can be no point of reference unless there is a systematic meaning organizer from which to have the initial thing that everything else can be relative to (and thus our initial conditions). The arrow of time is simply a vector of experience association in which meaning can be created because the specifics of boundaries have been resolved in a particular way. That is how those few, very important, numbers referred to in the Anthropic principle get resolved.
Under this view there are always an infinite number of singularities starting new vectors of association because meaning begats mind and mind begats meaning. In the whole we can think of the entirety as an infinite Question/Answer engine. The question forms by the very nature of gap, and objects, as they always imply a possible meaning. The answer creates a new system state, and thus, a new gap, or gap set, and the process continues. Taken together, all of the infinite vectors of association are a kind of reality ray tracing to systemetize the geshtalt of state change.
As I said before, this is something I take on faith because it feels right. I find it very helpful in everyday life because it suggests to me that each and every one of us do matter. That by interacting with, and understanding as much of our Cosmic Vector as we can, we add meaning to the whole. And it only seems a small streatch to me to add the notion that doing this in a loving way, will add more loving structure. I will keep this faith until a better idea comes along, as it surely will.
But, to wrap this up, we still need to return to Mr. Kent's original conumdrum. And to do that we need to consider the two main aspects of what physicists are doing in this type of experimentation; namely particle accelerators and the fact that they smash things together in order to understand what the underlying structures and relationships are.
First of all let me state that I am quite certain that, in and of themselves, accelerators can provide useful information. As Mr. Kent's piece clearly states, this is already well established. What I find disappointing, however, is that not enough circumspection has been applied to their utilization. The free wheeling nature of this utilization suggest a hubris towards what they are smashing away on that is unbecoming, to say the least, of people who are, ordinarily very thoughtful and caring.
I say this precisely because I come from a systems analyst point of view. Understanding and working with complex systems was how I earned my living IT. But even non-systems people know now the small inputs, large effects thing. And it may seem like the energies now being produced are still some pretty small potatoes as far as the Cosmos is concerned, but let's not forget an important fact. This is the mother of all complex systems we're talking about. How do we know just how small is before it's unintended affects become an issue? By the same token, how can you know that your smashing doesn't change, fundamentally, what you are trying to measure? As various light quanta experiments have indicated, how you test a thing can determine the results you are going to get. Where is the baseline of test results showing particle interactions where there was absolutely no (or at least as little as can be humanly achieved) human involvement in either the acceleration itself, or what was smashed into in the first place?
In any case, though, that outlines the first aspect of accelerators that I wanted to make note of. The second has to do with the energy levels involved with the interactions.
When I talk about Quantum Mechanics, and Cosmology as well, I like to refer to the notion of “scales of consideration.” In the macro sense, obviously, you'd be talking about solar systems, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and so on. On the micro scale, on the other hand, it would be the energies required to either resolve the electromagnetic returns, or the energies required to pick apart the constituent interactive entities. As we have seen in the relatively brief history of these devices, every time an object, then thought of as the final core, underwent the new, higher energy, a new layer of inner interaction was found.
Setting aside the already described, possible experimenter created uncertainties of such experiments, you have to wonder if there is some upper limit of interactive force for which, with the number of scales of consideration crossed, that the ability to extrapolate useful conclusions of structure become so entangled with uncertainty as to make them simply wishful conjecture?
Let's review Mr. Kent's analogy. They use a human induced explosion of one proton into another to produce a set pattern of particle ejecta. There are a lot of explanations of what might be going on inside those explosions to produce the indicated ejecta. Their elegant equations give them a recipe to work with numbers assigned to each possibility, to work a kind of differential summation, rather than ordinary statistical probability, to deduce the most probable explanation. And then, of course, he gives a further analogy to give a more intuitive sense of the conundrum.
What if the energy/mass translation at that unbelievably brief moment of impact created a fuzzy event horizon similar to that which Mr. Hawking just published on black holes (those pesky boundaries again). Something through which any interactions might be distorted by the mere fact of gap (or duration) inconsistencies due to that very distortion of space-time; distortions that would impact the output ejecta in ways that could only be conjectured. Light get's bent by gravity in nominal scales of consideration in predictable ways; that is until the gravity becomes so great it changes the relationship of boundary and gap from the norm of our arrow of association. The very nature of information channel may be effected in ways that will require some kind of imaginary entropy, and multidimensional recursion matrix, to encode with the proper noise reduction; much as imaginary numbers had to be invented, but with hybrid fractals. And even then it might not be enough, as there may well be no way to verify it with any truly objective form of experiment.
We are inside a system that we are trying to gather all of the information that we need to model it. In many ways this is similar to the idea floating around now that we are all in a simulation created by some future, uber programmer. The question I have is: how could that programmer get all of the information he needed for a sufficiently high fidelity reality recreation if he were not outside it, and thus able to apply truly objective measurement of the constituent families of component interaction. And in this context, it has always seemed to me that Godel's incompleteness theorem should apply here, at least in some fashion, but I'm an outsider looking in, so its quite likely that I have at least parts of these different ideas wrong, if not all wrong. At least for this lowly systems analyst, however, it does certainly seem plausible.
Be that as it may, even if I'm only close, and the answers to any of the questions posed are ever yes, then Mr. Kent and his fellow physicists may well be in need of considering putting faith into their toolkit. At which point they are then going to have to find an explanation that feels right. It probably won't be mine, but I do hope they are able find one.