Presentation on theme: "Right reasons and wrong reasons why contemporary physics favors a spiritual world view Ulrich Mohrhoff Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education."— Presentation transcript:
Right reasons and wrong reasons why contemporary physics favors a spiritual world view Ulrich Mohrhoff Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education Pondicherry, India
Quantum mechanics without metaphysical embroidery
From this irreducible core of the theory two different lines of inquiry proceed. Onethe fruitful oneanalyzes the quantum-mechanical probability assignments in a variety of experimental contexts. The othera red herringaims to interpret the theorys mathematical symbols and equations as representing objective states and processes. The red herring gives rise to pseudo-problems, which give rise to gratuitous solutions, which provide the wrong reasons why quantum mechanics favors a spiritual world view. And thats it!
The irreducible core of this theory is a mathematical tool for calculating the effects that charges have on charges. The calculation of these effects can be carried out in these steps: A brief look at classical electromagnetic theory The rest is embroidery. Such as: that the electromagnetic field is a physical entity in its own right, that it is locally generated by charges, that it mediates the action of charges on charges by locally acting on itself, and that it locally acts on charges. And thats it.
Did you notice that the classical story fails to explain how a charge locally acts on the electromagnetic field, how this locally acts on itself, or how it locally acts on a charge? Apparently our familiarity of what only seems to be local actiona kick in the butt, a slap in the facemakes us feel as if we understood local action. Locally means: at one and the same place.
The classical story gives the impression that the mystery of action-at-a-distance has been solved. Type of measurement to be made Time of measurement Earlier measurement outcomes Probabilities of the possible outcomes The quantum-mechanical state vector or wave function is a machine with the following inputs and outputs: Yet this solution was never more than a sleight of handthe transmogrification of a mathematical tool for calculating the effects of charges on charges into a physical mechanism or process by which charges act on charges. And in the quantum world this sleight of hand no longer works.
Type of measurement to be made Time of measurement (t ) Earlier measurement outcomes Probabilities of the possible outcomes Type of measurement to be made Probabilities of the possible outcomes Earlier measurement outcomes To treat a probability algorithm associated with a physical system as an objective description of the system, you transmute the input slot for t into the time dependence of an evolving state of affairs (t )...... and are at once faced with the mother of all quantum-mechanical pseudo- problems:
Why does the wave function have two modes of evolving, one between measurements and another when a measurement takes place? If a system has a single mode of evolving, this is normal and we generally dont worry why the system evolves the way it does. But if it has a second way of evolving, this needs explaining. Hence the next pseudo-question: what causes the so-called collapse of the wave function at the time of a measurement? The obvious answerthe measurementraises the further question: what is so special about measurements? Here we arrive at the answer that leads to the wrong reason why quantum mechanics favors a spiritual world view: the notion that measurements owe their specialness to the consciousness of the observer. Fiddlesticks! The wave function isnt something that evolves; a fortiori, it isnt something that can collapse; a fortiori, it doesnt need anything to collapse it.
To find the real reason why quantum mechanics favors a spiritual world view, we need to examine the manner in which it assigns probabilities. (This is the theorys sole testable aspect.) To obtain the probability of a possible measurement outcome on the basis of a previous actual outcome, imagine a possible sequence of intermediate measurements, associate with each possible sequence of outcomes a complex number (called amplitude), and use the appropriate rule:
The real question is: what ontological difference corresponds to, or requires, the algorithmic difference between Rule A and Rule B? The answer, in a nutshell, is that whenever Rule B applies, the distinctions we make between sequences of possible outcomes (alternatives) are distinctions that Nature does not make. They correspond to nothing in the physical world. They exist solely in our heads. Two examples...
Here the intermediate measurement is designed to answer the question: through which slit did the electron go? Does this question have an answer even if the measurement designed to provide it is not made? If it had an answer, this would be consistent with the predictions of Rule A rather than those of Rule B. Hence there is no answer; the question is meaningless. The challenge is to learn to think in ways that do not lead to meaningless questions. Meaningless questions arise from false assumptions. The false assumption, in this case, is that the electron goes either through the left slit or through the right slit. It is based on a spatial distinction that Nature does not make.
The second: Initially there is one particle (N) heading northward and one particle (S) heading southward. What is the probability that at a later time we find one particle (E) heading eastward and one particle (W) heading westward? Does this question have an answer even if the measurement designed to provide it is not made? If it has an answer, this must be consistent with the predictions of Rule A. Here the intermediate measurement is designed to answer the question: which alternative took place? In other words, which incoming particle is identical with which outgoing particle? Every particle is either a boson or a fermion. For bosons, the desired probability is smaller under the conditions of Rule B than it is under those of Rule A. For fermions it is larger. And so there is no answer; the question is meaningless.
Once again the challenge is to learn to think in ways that do not lead to meaningless questions. The false assumption, in this case, is that initially there are two things, one moving northwards, the other southwards, and that in the end there are again two things, one moving westwards, the other eastwards. Hence the meaningless question: which is which? How can it be avoided? Lets try this for size: initially there is one thing moving both northwards and southwards, and in the end there is the same thing moving both westwards and eastwards. Now the meaningless questionwhich is which?can no longer be asked. It was based on a substantial distinction that Nature does not make.
Contemporary physics makes more sense in the context of a spiritual world view than it does in the context of a materialistic one. Why? What the two examples above illustrate is that neither the spatial nor the substantial differentiation of reality goes all the way down. Materialistic world views assign ultimate reality to a multitude such as particles or spacetime points. They model reality from the bottom up. Their principal explanatory concepts are composition and interaction. By contrast, spiritual world views assign ultimate reality to a unitary principle. They model reality from the top down, using explanatory concepts such as differentiation, manifestation, emanation, or emergence. If we go on dividing a material object, its so-called constituents lose their individuality. They reveal that ultimately there is only one substance, which manifests itself with different properties (including positions).
By the same token, if we conceptually partition the world into smaller and smaller regions, we reach a point where the distinctions we make between regions of space no longer correspond to anything in the physical world. It follows that space isnt a self-existent (substantial) and intrinsically differentiated expanse. On the other hand, if space is intrinsically differentiated, then it isnt a self-existent expanse. It is a set of more or less fuzzy spatial relations. If its an expanse that exists independently of its material content, then it is intrinsically undifferentiated; it lacks parts. In other words: ultimately there is only one place, and this is everywhere. The shape of a material object then consists of the spatial relations between its parts. An object without parts, lacking internal spatial relations, is formless. And while physical space contains spatial relations (including the shapes of things), it does not contain the formless relata, the so-called ultimate constituents of matter (which we found to be identical in the strong sense of numerical identity ).
The incompleteness of the worlds substantial differentiation rules out models that construct reality by assembling a pre-existent multitude of building blocks. The incompleteness of the worlds spatial differentiation rules out world models that construct reality on the foundation of an intrinsically differentiated space or spacetime. Since the early days of quantum mechanics it has been claimed that the theory is incomplete. What is actually incomplete is the physical world. Reality is built from the top down, by a differentiation that does not bottom out, rather than from the bottom up. As it is said in the Rig Veda, the foundation is above.
We are now in a position to see why every explanation of the collapse of the wave functionwith or without observersis (at least implicitly) committed to a materialistic world view. If the notion of an evolving state of affairs is a materialistic notion, then a spiritual world view does not countenance an evolving state of affairs. Right? You have your doubts. So let me make this clear: the experiential now has no counterpart in the physical. There simply is no objective characterization of the present. The very notion of an evolving state entails an intrinsically and completely differentiated spacetime, and this is inconsistent with the ontological implications of quantum mechanics. The manner in which the theory assigns probabilities to measurement outcomesand remember that this is the theorys sole testable aspectentails that spacetime is neither intrinsically nor completely differentiated.
In other words, physical time neither flows nor passes. If you take a dim view of a physical theory that cannot accommodate Becoming, you need to think again. Physics deals with only one aspect of reality, but this corresponds, in some important respects, to the manner in which the world is seen from the supreme creative poise of the consciousness to which it owes its existence. The proper view of physical reality is not only what philosopher Thomas Nagel has called the view from nowhere (the physical world does not contain a preferred position corresponding to the spatial location whence I survey it) it is also what philosopher Huw Price has called the view from nowhen : the physical world does not contain a preferred time corresponding to the particular moment (the present) at which I experience it.
According to the profound spiritual knowledge that found its expression in the Vedas and the Upanishads, the world is a manifestation of something ineffable called Brahman. A distinction has to be made between mind and the original creative consciousnesssupermind in Sri Aurobindos terminology. Brahman relates to the world in a threefold manner: as the one substance that constitutes it (sat ), as the one consciousness that contains it (chit ), and as an infinite quality/delight that expresses and experiences itself in it (ananda ). The unity of the all-constituting substance, of the all-containing consciousness, of the infinite delight at the roots of existence, and of all three aspects of Brahman, is immutably present to the supermind. The creations of the supermind are primarily qualitative and infinite and only secondarily quantitative and finite. Essentially, mind is the agent of this secondary, limiting and dividing action.
When mind is used by supermind, its tendency to divide ad infinitum is checked. This is why there are limits to the objective reality of spatial and substantial distinctions. In the apprehending poise consciousness distantiates itself from its content. There now is a distance between the perceiver and the perceived, and objects are seen from outside, presenting their surfaces. It is in this poise that the three dimensions of spaceviewer-centered depth and lateral extentcome into being. When mind is separated in its self-awareness from its supramental parent and left to run wild, as it is in us, it not only divides ad infinitum but also takes the resulting multiplicity for the original truth or fact. This is why we tend to construct reality from the bottom up. Another important distinction is that between two poises of relation between supermind and the worldcomprehending (vijñana ) and apprehending (prajñana ). In the comprehending poise the self is coextensive with the world. The subject is wherever its objects are. No distances exist between the seer and the seen. Nor is there a difference between the all-conscious self and the all-constituting substance.
Physics has got hold of the substantial aspect of Brahmanthe fact that the number of ultimate constituents equals one. (Brahmans other two aspects are beyond its ken as a matter of course.) Concomitantly, the single self of the primary poise adopts a multitude of viewpoints within the content of its consciousness. The result is an effective multitude of individuals perceiving each other from different perspectives. Concomitantly, each self adopts a temporal viewpoint, which is to say that it experiences the world in succession. (Note that all experiential nows are synchronized since we experience each other in each others present.) In adopting the view from nowhere and nowhen, physics reflects features of the superminds comprehending poise, which is ontologically prior to (i) the selfs localization in space and time and (ii) the dichotomy of subject and object. Subjects, as distinct from objects, arise in the superminds apprehending poise. And whatever is essentially subjective, including the worlds aspect of Becoming, is beyond the reach of physics.
There are more ways in which physics points to a spiritual world view. In the quantum world everything is possiblethat is to say, every conceivable measurement outcome has a probability greater than zerounless it violates a conservation law. In other words, physics never explains why something is possible. It only explains, via its conservation laws, why certain things are not possible. This suggests to me that the force at work in the world is an omnipotent force that works under self-imposed constraints. There is therefore no reason to be surprised at the impossibility of explaining the quantum-mechanical correlations by postulating physical mechanisms or processes. There is no need to explain the working of an omnipotent force. What needs explaining is the reason why, and the extent to which, the force at work in the universe works under self-imposed constraints, and why the constraints have the particular form that they do.
It can be shown that the general theoretical framework of physicsquantum mechanicsmust have exactly the form that it does if objects satisfying the following criteria are to exist: they have spatial extent (they occupy space); they are composed of a finite number of objects that lack spatial extent (particles that do not occupy space); and they are stable (they neither explode nor collapse as soon as they are created). Moreover, since quantum mechanics presupposes measurements, its consistency requires the existence of measurements. And it is eminently plausible that this in turn requires the validity of all empirically tested physical theoriesthe so-called standard model and Einsteins theory of gravity. The validity of these theoriesat least as effective theoriesis thus guaranteed provided that spatially extended objects are composed of finite numbers of objects that lack spatial extent. This is the sole nontrivial input and the only real mystery. Why are things that occupy space made of things that dont?
Here too an answer is at hand. Our world is by no means the only possible cosmic manifestation of Brahman. The uniqueness of our world lies in its being an evolutionary manifestation. Here Brahman is playing Houdini, enchaining itself as much as divinely possible, challenging itself to escape, to re-discover its true self and to re-affirm its powers in conditions that appear to be its very opposite. Evolution presupposes involution, and the final outcome of the process of involution is physical matter and physical space, the latter being a multitude of spatial relations, the former being the corresponding (apparent) multitude of formless relata apparent because the relations are self–relations. The reason why things that occupy space are (effectively) made of finite numbers of things that dont is therefore a consequence of the reason why the physical world came into being: to set the stage for Brahmans adventure of evolution.