Transcending Uncertainty

Summary—Transcending Uncertainty recounts the events leading up to the paradigm shift of quantum theory in 1925—and then takes a look at what we still have to learn from it. The nanosecond forecast of Philosophymagazine calls for a monumental paradigm shift whereby we will finally orient ourselves to the universe.

Quote:- We dance around in a ring and suppose while the secret sits in the middle and knows. —Robert Frost

A recent Frank & Ernest comic strip shows a chick breaking out of its shell, then looking around and proclaiming—Wow, paradigm shift.

No Pain, No Pain.  Thomas Kuhn (1922-96) was a physicist and historian concerned with the sociology of scientific change.  In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he defines the term paradigm shift as a transformation taking place beyond the grasp of our undeveloped a priori comprehension.  The implication being that such shifts cannot be achieved via stepwise, linear thinking.  Scientists typically apply normal scientific methods within a paradigm until the paradigm weakens and a shift occurs.  Most people eat up normal science with a big spoon, but do everything possible to avoid the intense metaphysical pain of paradigm shifts.  Philosophy serves to temper the pain by providing higher vantage points so as to better prepare us for impending shifts.  Notably, the market, evolution, consciousness and virtually every single phenomenon in the universe exhibits this same fractal pattern—as characterized by long periods of stagnation followed by dramatic, nonlocal jumps.

Fait Accompli.  All indications suggested that the world of physics was on the verge of completion a hundred years ago.  There were comprehensive theories in place for describing the two known universal forces—gravity and electromagnetism.  Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) laws of gravitation and motion effectively characterized the mechanics of all physical bodies.  The differential equations of James Maxwell (1831-79) served to portray the wave mechanics of visible light and other electromagnetic forces.  At the time scientists believed the universe was a deterministic, clock-like machine that followed strict causality.  In support of this belief, Pierre Laplace (1749-1827) once claimed that we should be able to predict absolutely everything—given detailed knowledge of the present.

Splitting the Atom.  Classical physics started to unravel in 1897 when Sir J.J. Thomson (1856-1940) discovered the electron and the divisibility of the seemingly solid atom.  He advanced the plum-pudding atomic model in suggesting that electrons were like plums in a pudding of positive matter.  Three years later Max Planck (1858-1947) made the groundbreaking discovery that energy is transferred in discrete packets or quanta as defined by Planck’s constant.  The revelation of this new paradigm signifying nature’s ultimate granularity seemed so outrageous to Planck that he spent years looking for a more conventional rationale.

Wave Displacement.  Einstein produced three papers in 1905.  The Photoelectric Effect, for which he won the Nobel Prize, applies the quantum concept in suggesting that light is also transferred in discrete packets known as photons.  This quantizing of light presented a problem in that electromagnetic mechanics unequivocally describe light as being wavelike.  In fact, Einstein was the first to accept the seeming contradiction that light is both wavelike and particlelike.  His second paper Brownian Motion delineates the stochastic process—and is the very foundation of all risk modeling today.  His third paper Special Relativity reveals the interrelation of space and time, the interrelation of energy and matter, and the linear unification of Newtonian and electromagnetic mechanics.  Notably, Einstein’s approach was always to seek elemental conceptual pictures first before considering mathematical complexities.

The Quantum Leap.  Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) proposed a solar system atomic model in 1911 based on the revelation that both the solar system and the atom have nuclei containing about 99.9 percent of the mass and occupying about one-billionth of the spherical space.  His assistant Niels Bohr (1885-1962) soon realized that electrons are held in orbit electromagnetically rather than gravitationally.  Bohr subsequently followed Einstein’s lead in quantizing Rutherford’s atomic model so as to produce a model with discrete electron orbits.  Prince Louis de Broglie (1892-1987) argued that matter also has both wavelike and particlelike properties.  In 1925 Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) constructed an atomic model based on de Broglie’s concept of matter waves—while Werner Heisenberg (1901-76) constructed a model based on matrices of infinite dimension.  Paul Dirac (1902-84) then nailed down quantum theory once and for all by proving that the two are equivalent.  And as we know—televisions, computers and laser disk players are all based on quantum theory.

A Matter of Interpretation.  While light waves are similar in nature to the waves that occur when dropping a pebble in the ocean, matter waves have no such physical meaning.  It was Max Born (1882-1970) who first proposed the idea that matter waves could be interpreted probabilistically.  As such, the wave crests represent the highest probabilities and thus coincide with the discrete electron orbits of Bohr’s model.  Heisenberg captured the essence of this interpretation perfectly in 1927 with his famous uncertainty principle—which states that causality breaks down at the boundary defined by Planck’s constant.  Schrödinger set forth his classic cat-in-a-box thought problem in 1935 with the intention of demonstrating the absurdity of the probabilistic interpretation once and for all—A quantum-cat is placed in a box such that no one can know what is happening inside.  A device releases either food or poison with equal probability, and the cat meets its fate—or does it?  Schrödinger absurdly argued that the cat must be both alive and dead until the observer opens the box.  The thought problem ironically leads to the counterintuitive conclusion that the observer’s consciousness is what actually determines the fate of the cat.  Notably, Eugene Wigner (1902-95) was one of the few physicists at the time concerned with the role that consciousness plays in determining quantum reality.  And even today, consciousness still remains the secret in the middle.

Experiencing Vertigo.  Special relativity shifted the cosmic paradigm from linear space to linear spacetime.  General relativity (1915) shifted the paradigm from linear spacetime to curved spacetime.  Quantum theory transcended material uncertainty and shifted the paradigm from determinism to indeterminism—which Einstein denied by claiming that God does not play dice.  Alas, it seems the capacity for paradigm shifts is limited in even the very greatest of minds.  As Einstein himself tells us—The years of searching in the dark for a truth that one feels but cannot express; the intense desire and alterations of misgivings; until the final break into daylight.  This can only be known to those who have experienced it.

Boundary Value Problem.  Saint Augustine (354-430) once characterized existence as an ontological set of stairs leading to God.  He maintains in his writing that God exists outside of time, and that the universe was created with time and not in time.  Saint Thomas (1225-74) later put forth an argument for the existence of God by asserting that every event is caused by a prior event which leads back to the first cause which is God.  But the argument falls down for the reason that causality is strictly a temporal concept and, by definition, has no meaning outside of time.

Nonlocality.  Blaise Pascal (1623-62) once described the universe as a sphere in which the center is everywhere and the boundary is nowhere.  Imagine the universe as a spherical ocean of spacetime with consciousness at the center like a newborn lying in a crib.  Imagine photons surfing the waves of the ocean while electrons and positrons leap in and out like pairs of synchronized dolphins.  Beyond the ocean is beyond our comprehension.  Since both photons and dolphins exist at the very boundary of our comprehension, it is reasonable to believe that they appear to us as waves some times and as particles other times.  Quantum theory thus serves to provide the best estimates as to the reentry locations of the dolphins.  And there is certainly no reason why the dolphins cannot reenter the ocean before their actual time of departure—that is, travel backwards in time.  From this it becomes clear that reality is presenting itself to our newborn minds by way of one single pair of very hardworking dolphins.  And Pascal’s sphere then supplies the elemental conceptual picture that Einstein overlooked in claiming that God does not play dice.

Conclusion.  The raison d’être of the universe is simply to allow our minds to grow in a safe environment where causality is well defined.  We are here to learn the difference between right and wrong so that we can exist without the crutch of causality when the time comes to finally break out of our oceanic shell.  The really big secret in the middle is that all the world’s problems are easily solvable.  But for this to happen we must first do one painfully simple painful thing.  We must begin to think for ourselves.  As the pirate said to the princess in the timeless movie The Princess Bride—Life is pain my dear.  Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something.