Thursday, June 29, 2006

In the quantum world, to be is to be measured

What is quantum mechanics?
The fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics.
Why should I be interested?
Because quantum mechanics is trying to tell us something important about the world and ourselves.
I won’t be able to follow the math.
It takes very little math to get the message of the quantum. Besides, you don’t come to understand the physical meaning of a mathematical formula by writing down another formula.
Then why is quantum mechanics said to be shocking, confusing, incomprehensible, and what have you?
Because we make it so. If we ask questions that Nature doesn’t understand, we shouldn’t be surprised if Nature gives answer that we don’t understand. Wrong assumptions lead to meaningless questions. Here as elsewhere, the challenge is to learn to think in ways that do not lead to meaningless questions.
What are the wrong assumptions, in a nutshell?
As the incomparable Sidney Harris said, any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there. (We are talking philosophy: clarifying the relationship between the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics and the real world is a philosopher’s job.) But if you held a gun to my head, I’d say that it is wrong to assume that What Ultimately Exists is a multitude (of particles, spacetime points, whatever). What is wrong is the bottom-up approach, which has been paradigmatic for something like 25 centuries.
And what is the message of the quantum, in a nutshell?
Since you keep holding that gun to my head, the nub of it is that What Ultimately Exists is one. Quantum mechanics explains the world from the top down. If you ask it about ultimate constituents and how they interact and combine, it does indeed make little sense. But if you ask it how the One Ultimate Existent—or whatever else you want to call it—takes on the aspect of a multitude, and thereby manifests the world, quantum mechanics makes perfect sense.
How does this solve the measurement problem, which by universal consent is the ultimate stumbling block to beating sense into quantum mechanics?
In a nutshell? The first thing you need to know about the so-called measurement problem is that it is largely spurious. There is a genuine problem, but as a rule this gets swept under the rug and spurious problems are tackled instead.
What is the genuine problem?
The quantum formalism is a probability algorithm. You feed it measurement outcomes, and it returns the probabilities of the possible outcomes of other measurements—measurements that may be made in the future, measurements that are made at the same time in a far corner of the universe, or measurements that could have been made in the past. As far as the math is concerned, that’s all there is to quantum mechanics. The problem is that a probability algorithm presupposes events—things to which probabilities can be assigned. How can such an algorithm be complete? How can it encompass the events which it presupposes?
How come the fundamental theoretical framework of contemporary physics is a probability algorithm?
Have you ever wondered why a stable composite object has spatial extent (it “occupies” space) even though it is “made of” a finite number of objects without spatial extent (they do not “occupy” space)? What “fluffs out” matter is the fuzziness—Heisenberg’s Unschärfe, generally mistranslated as “uncertainty”—of all relative positions and momenta. And what is the proper way of quantifying a fuzzy observable? It is to assign probabilities to the possible outcomes of a measurement of this observable.
And how does your interpretation solve the genuine problem?
Quantum mechanics does not tell us which substructure of its complete theoretical structure (comprising whatever is definable with the help of the mathematical formalism) corresponds to What Exists. The solution consists in making the right choice.
And which is that?
The macroworld. The tricky part is to find a genuine substructure of the theory that agrees with our experience of the macroscopic. This is where the top-down paradigm comes in. The spatial differentiation of the world is incomplete. It doesn’t go all the way down. If in our minds we partition the world into smaller and smaller regions, there comes a point when there isn’t any material object left for which these regions, or the corresponding distinctions, exist. They then exist solely in our heads. This makes it possible to show that macroscopic objects (properly defined) behave in a deterministic manner (properly defined), and this in turn makes it possible to attribute reality to the macroworld.
Can you give an example of the spurious problems that are tackled instead?
The mother of all pseudo-problems—quite literally, since it gives rise to several other spurious problems—is this: why do quantum states have (or appear to have) two modes of evolution, one deterministic and one probabilistic?
Why is this a pseudo-problem?
Because a quantum state is not the kind of thing that evolves. The time dependence of a quantum state is not the time dependence of an evolving instantaneous state but the time dependence of a probability algorithm on the time of the measurement to the possible outcomes of which it serves to assign probabilities. This was clearly seen by Heisenberg, the first to discover quantum mechanics: “There is no description of what happens to the system between the initial observation and the next measurement.”
There is no description of a quantum system between measurements???
Are you surprised? What a physical system does between measurements is by definition speculative. To know what it does, you have to make a measurement. Any story purporting to describe a system between measurements is just that—a story.
Come on, the generally acknowledged fact that a measurement disturbs a quantum system implies that there is something to be disturbed. What can be disturbed can be described in both its disturbed and undisturbed states.
This “generally acknowledged fact” is a myth. A measurement does not disturb the value of an observable—it creates it. There is ample evidence—and I go to some trouble to furnish it—that a property or value is possessed (by a system or an observable) only if, only when, and only to the extent that it is measured. In the quantum world, to be is to be measured.
Do you really believe that the moon exists only when you look at it? (Note: Pascual Jordan recalls Einstein asking him this very question.)
Your question contains two misconceptions. For one, any event or state of affairs from which the truth or falsity of a proposition of the form “system S has property P” can be inferred, counts as a measurement. Contrary to a popular misconception, quantum physics does not involve conscious observers any more than classical physics did. For another, the moon is a part of the macroworld, and this is real per se.
You want me to believe that the properties of the microscopic constituents of the macroworld exist only because they can be inferred from what happens or is the case in the macroworld???
The 25-century old bottom-up paradigm has passed its expiry date. The right questions to ask no longer are, what are the ultimate constituents and how do they interact and combine? The right question to ask is, how does the One Ultimate Existent differentiate itself and thereby manifest the world? Particles and atoms are instrumental in the manifestation of the world rather than its constituent parts or structures. Imagine that you just experienced something the like of which you never experienced before. How are you going to describe it? You are obliged to use words that refer to such experiences as you have had. It is the same with what “happens between” the One Ultimate Existent and its manifestation. Only this time what is missing is not the words but the facts. Even though facts belong to the finished product, the macroworld, we cannot describe its manifestation except in terms of facts, by drawing inferences from property-indicating events and their quantum-mechanical correlations.
This is crazy!
The question (once asked by Niels Bohr) is, is it crazy enough to be true? Quantum mechanics calls for radically new ways of thinking about matter, space, and time. For instance, if you want to think of space as something that exists by itself (in philosophese, a substantial expanse) then it forces you to conceive of it as undifferentiated—it lacks parts. So from where do you get attributable positions? They have to be realized (made real) as properties of macroscopic objects before you can attribute them to what is instrumental in their manifestation. Quantum mechanics helps us understand how attributable positions are realized. If instead you think of space as a storehouse of pre-existent positions, you won’t be able to makes sense of quantum mechanics because you won’t be able to understand what it is trying to explain. Posted in Recommendations, Quantum semantics 4 Comments »

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Monotheism and Polytheism

What if Rome's Pagan Religion Had Prevailed? An persuasive book explores the repercussions of Christianity's ascendency in ancient times By Tara Katir, Kapaa, Hawaii Return to Hinduism Today Home Page
God against the gods: the history of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism is the latest from the pen of Jonathan Kirsch, author, journalist and attorney. In this book, Kirsch details the earliest historical conflicts of monotheism and polytheism as they occurred in ancient Europe, North Africa and the Middle East up to the death of Emperor Julian on June 26, 362 ce. His contention is that from its first historical appearance in ancient Egypt, monotheism has been an intolerant belief system. Monotheism's intolerance created conflicts then, and it continues to create conflicts that plague us today. Westerners who take pride in their monotheistic belief's bringing "civilization " to those of polytheistic customs may find Kirsch's analysis sobering and disconcerting.
Over thousands of years, recounts Kirsch, human cultures have worshiped a host of diverse Gods and Goddesses. This polytheistic worship of the Divine, while not totally benign, historically did not create conflict between neighboring peoples. As Symmachus, a pagan governor of the fourth century ce declared, "What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at truth?" (See his entire speech in defense of paganism at With this flexible posture toward worship of the Divine, little conflict would arise between worshipers of different Gods and Goddesses. Kirsch asserts, "The core value of paganism was religious tolerance--a man or woman was at liberty to offer worship to whatever God or Goddess seemed most likely to grant a prayerful request, with or without the assistance of priests and priestesses." However, in a small geographical area of the Western world an event occurred which presaged a change in humans' personal relationship to the Divine. This development would set in motion what was to become a devastating polarization of enormous proportions--all in the name of divine worship.
In the fourteenth century bce, a young Egyptian pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, through the power of his absolute rule, commanded the Egyptians to worship but one God. This revolutionary move to restrict worship of the Divine to one God would set the stage for what was to become a 3,000 year bloody and acrimonious conflict over how human beings worshiped. "Like Moses [who lived a century later], who is shown in the Christian Bible to condemn the worship of a golden bull and other graven images, Amenhotep rejected all the traditional icons of paganism and chose a simple geometric shape to symbolize the God Aton." Amenhotep repudiated all the Gods and Goddesses in favor of a single God. No idols were fashioned in Aton's image because his was a form that could not be imagined; rather Aton was symbolized by a circle of gold. Amenhotep closed all temples to other deities and had their ritual worship suppressed. Statues were shattered and their names and images literally chiseled off existing monuments. While his radical religious practices were short-lived, the ultraist paradigm shift he initiated would be practiced in the extreme by a legion of believers in this new monotheistic worship.
Monotheism, in its exclusive devotion to the worship of one God, has inspired a ferocity and fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism, says Kirsch. He explains, "At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many Gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single God exists, a tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true God. The conflict between these two fundamental values is what I call the war of God against the Gods. It is a war that has been fought with heart-shaking cruelty over the last thirty centuries, and is a war that is still being fought today."
In our world today, Islamic tradition is easily targeted as the origin of religious terrorism or religious fanaticism. Kirsch points out, that, to the contrary, "It begins in the pages of the Bible, and the very first examples of holy war and martyrdom are found in Jewish and Christian history. The opening skirmishes in the war of God against the Gods took place in distant biblical antiquity, when Yahweh is shown to decree a holy war against anyone who refuses to acknowledge Him as the one and only God worthy of worship." Biblical myth turned to recorded history with the Maccabeean warfare waged against the pagan Syrian king and later, when the Zealots fought against the pagan emperor of Rome.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Truth Decay and Mental Highgiene

Is it possible for religion to pose anything more than a rearguard action against the inevitable transformation of man from homo religiosus to homo scientificus? In the West, science so dominates our way of looking at the world that perhaps we do not realize the magnitude of spiritual revolution (or devolution) this has entailed. While I endorse science (almost) without reservation, I do worry about its deleterious effect on the human soul when it is elevated to a metaphysic. There are, of course, people who wish to keep science and religion entirely separate, which has the practical effect of elevating the scientific worldview to a state religion. On the other side are people who wish to conflate science and religion, which ends up debasing both.
As I have said before, I am a believer in “intelligent design” for the same reason I am a believer in intelligence period. But this is metaphysics, not science, and should not be taught as such. It is true that there would be no atheists if all men were capable of understanding metaphysics. But they are not, and it doesn’t help matters to reframe metaphysical truth in a debased and watered-down form that appeals to the sensual or vital mind only. As pure truth, metaphysics is aimed at the nous, not the distorted and hypertrophied reasoning mind of the contemporary intellectual. The truth is true despite what may be proved or disproved with mere reason, which is a mechanical form of thought limited to drawing conclusions from premises. It has its place, but one of them is not the realm of primordial Truth per se. It is a banality to point out that the most important truths cannot be proved with reason. That doesn't make them any less true.
Tradition willfully attempts to maintain a purified faith in the teeth of the predations of science. There are certain particularly elevated and/or simple souls for which this will suffice. But that probably represents less than five percent of the population on the high end, and perhaps a quarter of the population on the low end. That leaves at least seventy percent of the population generally spiritually adrift and untouched by religious truth. How to reach them? For whatever reason, they have lost contact with the natural simplicity and nobility of their souls, so religion properly so-called no longer speaks to them. Thus they drift into hedonism or its twin sister, new-age spiritualism, with no grounding in the intrinsic meaning provided by authentic revelation and grace. There is absolutely no contradiction between science and this latter form of religion, for they simply address different levels of reality. Religion easily accommodates science, while the reverse can never be true. Religion accommodates science for the same reason that our minds do. For our minds are designed to know truth, pure and simple, whether it is empirical truth, rational truth, artistic truth, moral truth, or metaphysical truth. Intelligence itself is prior to what it knows, and what it knows is truth (otherwise “knowledge” is a meaningless, even absurd term).
Therefore, intelligence is truth itself implanted within our soul. As much as I respect tradition, I am very concerned about it reducing itself to a simple fideism, or faith, rather than appealing directly to the intellect. Again, there are gifted and simple people for whom this will suffice, but the great middling masses--leftist dominated academia, the creators and purveyors of popular culture, media elites in the MSMistry of Truth--entirely miss the boat in this regard. They are just intelligent enough to reject religion but not intelligent enough to understand it, and they obviously exercise a huge, dominant influence over the culture at large. How to win that battle?The fact of the matter is that modernity has brought with it certain positive and undeniably precious developments, such as the sanctity of the individual and all this implies--liberty, democracy, free markets, etc. But at the same time, a new kind of religion is required for this new kind of person. This religion must be more inward because we are more inward. In other words, cosmic evolution doesn’t just take place outwardly but inwardly.
As a matter of fact, it is this evolution of the interior horizon that has always been the concern of religion, even if and when religion did not realize it.I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it now, but when I began the task of writing my book, I thought that I was going to have to invent a new religion. In my hubris, I thought, well, times have changed, and we know so much more now than we did when the original revelations were handed down. What if we could design a new religion now, based upon everything we know about the universe?It is actually a measure of God’s grace that my attempt to do this ultimately led me in exactly the opposite direction and saved me from trying to be L. Bob Gagdad. In all humility, I do believe this is because I approached the endeavor in all humility. In other words, I was motivated solely by the humble pursuit of truth, wherever it led me. There were no commercial motivations whatsoever (although it is probably another measure of God's grace that my publisher only later discovered this bitter economic reality).
As a matter of fact--I shouldn’t say this, but here goes--I practiced meditation every day during the course of writing the book, and in so doing prayed for two things only: light, or understanding, and the ability to express it.Now, I’m not nearly grandiose enough to say I succeeded (I won't presume to speak for Petey). Since the process is ongoing, there are a lot of little things I would now change about the book. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. What I am saying is that if you really want to understand religion deeply, you can. That’s what it’s here for. It’s not meant to be opaque, or absurd, or primitive, or outdated. Rather, no matter how smart or sophisticated you think you are, it really does address itself to the deepest part of your being. It expresses truths that cannot be proved, for the simple reason that Truth is its own proof. Ultimately you do not comprehend it. It comprehends you. posted by Gagdad Bob at 7:08 AM 9 comments Saturday, June 10, 2006