Monday, March 1, 2010

Plato’s revenge – our virtual world

I recently read the book “The Black Hole War” by Leonard Susskind. I found it surprisingly easy to read and read it with almost the same intensity and eagerness to find out what’s coming next as the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. What really got me and what actually was more a confirmation of what I already knew was that reality does not seem to exist.

The more you dive into quantum theories and the latest thing “string theory”, the concept of a physical reality seems to disappear. We knew already from the arguments between Einstein and Bohr that by observing something, you influence what you observe. With all this new knowledge and theories things become even more relative then Einstein’s relativity theory covers. I learned years ago from my dear friend Tony that it is impossible to really say what the location of a particle, for example an electron, is. (Tony was much braver than I and studied physics while I took the lazy way out and studied computer sciences.) We know that the electron can be at a certain location with certain likelihood. But Susskind explains that with a very extreme super tiny possibility a car that is inside a garage suddenly can appear outside the garage. The likelihood is so small that for us normal humans we would say it will never happen. But the concept that it is not impossible is very strange and also very intriguing. I used the concept in the past as a joke but did not know if the concept could be applied to larger composite objects until I read this book. I still think it is funny and it might mean that Mr Scott’s transporter is not an impossibility.

With the string theory we also learn that reality as we humans see, measure or calculate seems to be more and more a projection of some reality that escapes our comprehension. I must say “seems” because much of this is all theory. But as Susskind explains we also learned that much of Einstein’s work was in the early stages only a theory while later we were able to prove with experiments that he was right. So we should not discard these theories as “just theories”.

Reading the book you are confirmed again that, what every scientist knows, the more we learn the more we find out how little we actually know. You can question whether we really make progress. Is our reality a projection and a virtual representation of some other hidden reality? Hmmm. Quite a while ago Plato the ancient Greek philosopher already described this situation in his “Allegory of the cave”.

I first encountered string theory on a TV show. I did not understand much about it then. Susskind’s book explains it much better for the uneducated quantum amateur. But the show related string theory to parallel universes and time travel. I have my doubts about parallel universes but can’t get my head around time travel. The issue with time travel is that I don’t believe that we humans understand the least little bit about time. We use it in our mathematics and made it an extra dimension but we lack complete control over it. It goes by, just by itself. We can calculate that time goes faster or slower and that it can go with different speeds for different objects depending on your proximity to mass or depending on your speed, but actually understanding? No, I don’t think so.

Time is something we find difficult to grasp. It seems to be more of something that we humans experience. In that sense it seems more that it is our awareness that is moving along a line in time. Our body is matter and follows all the laws of physics. Our mind, our awareness, depends on our knowledge, things that we remember, and that is all locked in our body, our brain. What we see, what we feel and what we touch might all be just an illusion of our mind. So we are back with Descartes: “I think and therefore I am”. (Wait a minute! It is me of whom I know is thinking while I do not know this of you. Am I the single soul in the universe?).

So let’s go back to time travel. In space we can move to the left and then to the right. In time we can only move forward. But could our awareness go back in time? Why not? We simply have forgotten what we experienced since that earlier moment. Somewhere that seems logical. If we are back in time with the same awareness and with the same knowledge as we had then, then we don’t know that we moved back in time. So there is probably nothing that says that we cannot jump back and forth in time the same way as our location in space is not entirely certain. Though if this would be true, would we need see other things jump back and forward in time? If it would be tiny particles only and if the time jumps are small enough, we would not really notice anything. It just adds to the randomness we already experience.

The key item of all our problems of understanding the universe is driven by our own limitations and for me that is best demonstrated through our problems in understanding the concept of time. And that concept of time is driven by our awareness traveling in a single direction. But could that change direction, given that there is any direction to time at all? Could we have parallel universes and could there be another me in another universe? That other universe would not be exactly the same, so you may assume that I would not be the same. Say I am green in that universe. But is that me? And what if I traveled in some strange way to that other universe? I will experience only one of us to be myself. The other is then just someone else, or not? Isn’t the “me” the one that I experience, the one in which my awareness resides? Otherwise we could just as well say that you and I are the same. We look similar, two hands, two eyes, etc. But of only one of us I experience myself to be me. (Unless you listen too much to Gong’s “You”, you might be convinced that “I am you and you are me”; great music by the way). Other universes might exist but isn’t it just something like a house with multiple rooms? Each room being a universe, but in the end there is only one house and I can only be in one room at the time.

We could digress to discussing our souls and bring God into the equation. It only raises more questions. And for those who want to go that way, I do not see any argument either for or against the existence of a God. Physics and all the explanations through quantum and string theory makes all sense if we keep us humans out of the equation. Though I could not help myself to come up with the question of why. Why would there be matter or light or gravity? And isn’t the concept of people with awareness who can reason about black holes or post videos on YouTube exceptionally strange if there would not be “something more”? But let’s be a quantum purist and say that there is the possibility that there is something more in or outside our universe.

On a side note, did you know that there might be a smallest unit of time and also a smallest unit in space and a smallest unit of matter? Meaning that time is not a smooth continuous transition but goes with tiny little steps. Time can only be experienced through change and change is movement through space. It means that when something travels such as light or a particle it makes little jumps. This whole binary concept comes across very strange in this day and age where binary computers are the big hot thing. But since our theories will progress over time and because there is no reason why computers have to remain binary forever, it is probably more the human mind at this stage of its development that these things seem to have come together.

But purely logically, there is no smaller unit of information than one bit of information: the bit that contains the 0 or the 1, the TRUE or the FALSE. So it should not be surprising to see that Leonard Susskind’s book and quantum theories revolve much about “information”. Specifically because for the quantum physicists there is not much difference between energy, matter or particles and waves or light. And even more that it is not just about the one particle, that single wave or that amount of energy, but it is all about how it relates to each other and how this changes in time. For example, gravity is a function of the distance between two masses. It is easier, or probably necessary, to bring it all together in the general concept of information. This is very curious for me as an IT person whose university education was actually called “Informatics”, the science of information, the practice of information processing, and the engineering of information systems.

Now let’s leave those visions of “The Matrix” behind us and go back to Plato.

I have called my blog Plato’s Revenge because wherever I go, it seems more and more that Plato was right. Science might tell us that we live in a virtual world, but to get confirmation for this we don’t have to travel far. When you read this, you are in cyberspace. Our social life is lived through computers, big or small, mobile or not. The enormous uptake of email, social networking, mobile phones and SMS makes us practically live our life in our self created Matrix. And we know that time travel takes place easily there. Once some information is out there, it is difficult to erase it.

It is Plato’s revenge because we might have forgotten about him but it is even more sinister, we got ourselves addicted to the virtualisation of our life. We’ve got ourselves voluntarily locked up in our own cave and are chasing shadows on the wall.

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