Sunday, April 24, 2016

Gravity Waves, Relativity, Quantum Physics and Consciousness

Previously, I suggested that the confirmation of gravity waves grounds general relativity theory (GR) more firmly than the Standard Model of quantum physics (SM). The latter remains incomplete in a way the former is not. Relativity accounts for gravity (as a bending of spacetime); the Standard Model is still looking to do the same, perhaps via supersymmetry or string theory. For this reason, it seemed perhaps useful to look at quantum physics in light of relativity, instead of trying to extend the SM to account for gravity. GR is complete as it is and now provides the basis of classical cosmology which traces the origin of the universe to the Big Bang. But practitioners of the SM are busy seeking to use quantum physics to get beyond the Big Bang. One important and interesting effort is contained in the unbounded-universe approach pioneered by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle (see also this SETI talk brought to attention through @GeorgeShiber). This posits the origin of the universe not with a Big Bang but with the conversion of a dimension of space into a dimension of time.

With GR, the universe originates with a Big Bang that by itself has no explanation. Where does the original singularity that explodes come from? According to what physical laws does it exist? The Hawking-Hartle approach seeks to explain this by suggesting that four dimensions of space without time – and therefore without origin – give rise to the universe through a process akin to quantum tunneling that converts one space dimension into time and thus produces spacetime. But even the Hawking-Hartle approach does not offer an explanation of where and how the four dimensions of space come from. Neither theory provides any way to get a grip on the question of first causes. Both approaches reveal in their own way a reality that apparently was given, suggesting there may be no more layers of the onion to peel back. Perhaps, mathematically based science has brought us to the edge of what we can know in this way. There may simply be nothing beyond what we presently understand; we now know the givens of the universe we exist within. Or it may be that both are useful in understanding a reality that we cannot ultimately know through a single lens. The key may lie in pondering more deeply consciousness and the role of the observer.

GR and the SM appear fundamentally incompatible. Yet the observer seems central to both approaches. For the SM, it is the act of observing – measuring – which collapses the wave function of probabilities of a quantum wave (or entangled state) into a specific value. For GR, there is no privileged place to measure the state of anything else, all is in motion and each observer will see time and space differently depending upon his position relative to everything else. The relationship between light and mass creates the framework for observation by providing a measure of time and the three dimensions of space. Light “travels” at the cosmic speed limit but takes no time to get anywhere since at its speed, time stops. A surfer riding a photon is everywhere that photon will ever be at the same moment. It is stuff with mass that experiences, bends and moves through spacetime.

Observation requires consciousness; without being heard, trees that fall in the forest make no sound. Tied in some way to mass, consciousness manifests probabilities as it moves through spacetime. Looking from the perspective of what both GR and the SM tell us, the universe is one big wave function outside of time where at one level everything happens at once while to the observers immersed in the Higgs field, time exists. Why should this be true?

The practitioners of quantum physics remain focused on considering various ways to reconcile the SM with GR. Whether these efforts will ever lead to anything that can be observed and measured is an open question. But even in the event of some unification – or a new theory that subsumes both – the problem would remain of where does that come from? This leads to the ultimate question of the origin of the universe. If it's not the Big Bang but some other beginning or even some steady state, it would then beg the question of why that?

Both GR and the SM describe the universe we find ourselves in from different points of the observer's view. In one we experience relative time. In the other, we determine what is by looking at it. As conscious observers and living creatures, we are, in effect, at the center of everything. This would suggest that if we are to gain further, deeper understanding of reality we must understand more about consciousness and its relation to reality. Those who try to explain consciousness as a product of organic matter and processes get it exactly wrong. In some way, consciousness creates reality. Consciousness is not derivative but somehow primordial. There is a ghost in the machine.

This leaves us with two apparent options. One would be to accept that we can go no further. Science may yet produce new ways to manipulate the world – via technology – but we will be unable to penetrate further the veils of the cosmos we inhabit. The other would be to start with a more profound understanding of consciousness and perhaps by creating a science based upon qualia rather than quantity. This would require a new way of thinking more akin, perhaps, to philosophy than mathematics. And it might start with the question of why there should be anything rather than nothing.