By Jim Miller
Just when you think you can go about your daily routine unmolested, you come across an article while you are having your morning cup of coffee telling you that, “Scientists show that future events decide what happens in the past.” Then you wonder if that means that once you are done with your coffee, the article you are reading may not still exist, so for once in your life you click on the link and discover that:
An experiment by Australian scientists has proven that what happens to particles in the past is only decided when they are observed and measured in the future. Until such time, reality is just an abstraction.
Quantum physics is a weird world. It studies subatomic particles, which are the essential building blocks of reality. All matter, including ourselves are made up of them. But, the laws governing the tiny microscopic world seem to be different to those dictating how larger objects behave in our own macroscopic reality.
Quantum laws tend to contradict common sense. At that level, one thing can be two different things simultaneously and be at two different places at the same time. Two particles can be entangled and, when one changes its state, the other will also do so immediately, even if they are at opposite ends of the universe – seemingly acting faster than the speed of light.
Of course you already knew that “common sense” is just a pedestrian way of talking about hegemony or the “everybody knows” power of unexamined ideology that we confuse with nature. And in the world of “larger objects” we have a tendency to do really stupid things and, sadly, fuck things up badly all the time, so the idea that “reality” is not what we once thought it was in the world of larger objects is not an entirely unattractive idea.
Indeed, the notion that “all matter, including ourselves” is made up of “subatomic particles” that operate in ways that seem to defy our senses sounds a lot like the concept that everything is part of everything else and that we are all, at the subatomic level, interrelated in some way as the fluid events we confuse with solid objects move in and out of each other. Sounds like the interpenetration of all things. Or something like that, at least.
And, if that is the case, what is a little flexibility on the matter of time between friends? Most “time” as we know it in the world of larger objects is really little more than a frequently oppressive social construct that we confuse with reality.
One version of the story of time is that monks invented time-keeping as a way to regulate when to pray, but then capitalism got ahold of it and made the world too much with us all the time until we all became trapped in a prison of measured time which is no fun at all.
But I digress.
So you read on and are pleased to discover that “at a subatomic level, time can go backwards” and that “[t]here is also good evidence that quantum processes take place inside our brains and within our body cells.” Thus the barriers between inside and outside start to blur. You want to say something about the dance of Shiva or the Tao of Physics but instead, you click on a link to the New York Times discussing the “Crisis on the Edge of Physics” that tells you how some physicists are becoming anxious that their discipline is moving away from “empirical evidence.”
This, it appears, is a really big deal, so you read on in hopes of discovering how we got to this impasse:
In a way, the landmark detection three years ago of the elusive Higgs boson particle by researchers at the Large Hadron Collider marked the end of an era. Predicted about 50 years ago, the Higgs particle is the linchpin of what physicists call the “standard model” of particle physics, a powerful mathematical theory that accounts for all the fundamental entities in the quantum world (quarks and leptons) and all the known forces acting between them (gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces).
But the standard model, despite the glory of its vindication, is also a dead end. It offers no path forward to unite its vision of nature’s tiny building blocks with the other great edifice of 20th-century physics: Einstein’s cosmic-scale description of gravity. Without a unification of these two theories — a so-called theory of quantum gravity — we have no idea why our universe is made up of just these particles, forces and properties. (We also can’t know how to truly understand the Big Bang, the cosmic event that marked the beginning of time.)
Thus the specter of “evidence-independent science” arises as we grope toward answers sans empirical proof, “Many tantalizing possibilities (like the often-discussed string theory) have been explored, but so far with no concrete success in terms of experimental validation.”
You read on and learn that among the “many tantalizing possibilities” being pondered is “supersymmetry” or the idea that for every particle that exists there is a partner particle: “The theory is elegant mathematically, and the particles whose existence it predicts might also explain the universe’s unaccounted-for ‘dark matter.’”
And then it all really goes through the looking glass with the notion of the multiverse, “that our universe is just one universe in a profusion of separate universes.” Advocates for this theory are suggesting that even though it cannot, at present (whatever that means), be proven, we should continue to search for “indirect evidence.”
Of course, this all raises a big question: “How are we to determine whether a theory is true if it cannot be validated experimentally? Should we abandon it just because, at a given level of technological capacity, empirical support might be impossible? If not, how long should we wait for such experimental machinery before moving on: ten years? Fifty years? Centuries?”
Unlike Cotton Mather, who when he penned “The Wonders of the Invisible World” eschewed evidence to defend a dying Puritan hegemony during the witch trials, those who want to move beyond the empirical here seem to be pushing in a very different direction—opening the door to thinking beyond the taken-for-granted at the other end of the Enlightenment.
I have to say, I am on the side of the folks who are pushing the envelope here. Now when I look at my cup of coffee I am not entirely sure what I am seeing or drinking. If all existing matter is really just a recombination of subatomic particles that had previously been combined into something else, then maybe there is a bit of Cotton Mather in my coffee or a bit of stardust or T-Rex. You get the idea.
Maybe the universe(s) is/are more event than object.
How do we really know what we think we know is true? Perhaps reality is fundamentally different than we had previously thought. Maybe our paradigm is outdated. Or, as Ursula Le Guin beautifully suggests in the story “Schrödinger’s Cat, ” it may be that we need to take the lid off of the box and the roofs off of our houses in order to see the inordinate light of the stars.
And for my final witness, I would like to call to the stand Mr. William Blake who once said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
This column is part of Jim Miller’s “summer chronicles” series based on the Brazilian model. In that literary tradition, a chronicle allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.