Metaphysics of Wonder - Kazis Kripaitis
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Turn with me now to a survey of the concepts in particle physics that inform my metaphysics; the topics are complex, but the conclusions are easy. In setting forth, the reader need only know the most general framework of modern physics: the distinction between physics of the very big (Relativity) and physics of the very small (Quantum Theory). Above all, it is important to know that Quantum Theory is a statistical model, not a causal one like Relativity, which is to say that because it concerns things so far beyond the range and extent of perception in their inconceivable smallness, it describes only values and numbers, not direct observation of things as they interact with each other. We must interpret numbers into things with words after the fact of the math in what amounts to an act of translation and interpretation. Relativity, on the other hand, is a causal model, in which the theory describes causes and effects of directly observed empirical data and measured phenomenon.
We begin with the theory of the atom and the sub-atomic model. Classical atomic theories assumed that things are composed of indivisible, fundamental parts, a tradition that began thousands of years ago with Greek atomists like Leucippus and Democritus in the 5th C BCE, and the idea of an un-cuttable thing, the indivisible ‘atom’. If we accept the reality of atomism, we also acknowledge that we now know atoms are divisible, made up of other, sub-atomic things. And while the academy still teaches the easily understood billiard ball model of a nucleus surrounded by a cloud of orbiting electrons, we know this is not physically accurate, and gives us only adequate knowledge. In the end, the model belief-system to which we subscribe about what atoms and sub-atomic parts really ‘are’ is beyond that which a physicist can address conclusively. But we have formulated the Standard Model of particle physics nonetheless, and in this way physics has returned to its roots as a philosophy of nature. Here is the charge with which we are obliged to philosophize physics, for physicists themselves have transformed physics back into philosophy.
It is worth noting that physicists are not convinced of the universal legitimacy of atomism as a philosophy of nature, as obvious a concept as it seems to four-dimensional observing subjects. Skepticism gained momentum with Michael Faraday in the late 1800’s, who introduced the concept of fields against the idea of atom-based action-at-a-distance. The trend lives into the current era with some physicists proposing to entirely deflate atomic theory with Relativity-based field theories.(20) The science of the very small thus regards itself as a set of more or less useful belief systems which help explain observations theoretically, not a conclusively realistic description of actual reality.
Atoms are elemental, meaning they cannot be broken down into smaller distinct atomic structures, and the periodic table of elements describes the 118 atoms scientists have encountered, beginning with the simplest atom, hydrogen. A substance which is made up of only one kind of element, like a piece of aluminum, consists solely of aluminum atoms. When we bond atoms with other types of atoms, we form molecules, like brass, which is made up of atoms of copper and atoms of zinc; thus brass is not featured on the periodic table of elements, while copper and zinc are. The difference between the various atoms, that which makes copper and zinc two different kinds of things, is in the number and arrangement of their sub-atomic parts. These parts, such as electrons, are not distinct from one another, which is to say that all electrons are like other electrons, even though we find the same electrons in copper, zinc, and all of the different atoms. Our four-dimensional observations and our four-dimensionally based logic tells us that sub-atomic parts defy individuation by the principle of sameness.
In the most general model we have a vision of atoms as simple, spherical structures: electrons swarm around a central nucleus made up of protons and neutrons. The arrangement and number of electrons, protons, and neutrons determine the difference between atoms; for example, helium is simply hydrogen with an additional electron, and added protons and neutrons at the center. (Figure 1) The electrons, protons, and neutrons themselves are the ‘same’ in both atoms; individual sub-atomic parts cannot be distinguished from each other, and this may be the most universal proposition of sameness in the cosmos, placing the consequence of the individuation paradox at the foundation of all things.
Electromagnetic and nuclear forces hold the parts together, and determine the rules by which atoms combine with each other, giving us the feeling that everyday objects are tangible and material.
No one has ever observed a fundamental part; when we ‘observe’ an electron, photon, fermion, or any other fundamental particle, we gather statistical, numerical data about a set of such objects, and then statistically reduce the mathematics of the group of things big enough for us to observe down until we are talking about ‘one electron’ or ‘one particle’. We never start by observing a single electron directly, because we do not have the means to do so despite our advanced science. We are never actually talking about a specific particle in the way that we expect these words to describe.(21)
It is worth noting at this point that while larger things have a distinct feeling of tangibility and ‘is-ness’, the parts of which things are made become more and more difficult to discuss in terms of tangibility the deeper into the atom we descend, for our descent into reality also exposes the limits of language. Because sub-atomic parts are so small, atoms are mostly empty, but the forces are strong enough to make them tangible when larger things interact with them. Sub-atomic parts are, in turn, composed of either elemental or composite parts, that is, parts which are considered indivisible, and others which are made up of further constituent parts. For example, electrons are considered elemental, while protons are a composite of quarks – quarks in turn are considered to be fundamental. However, this ‘parts paradigm’ contradicts itself at the ground level: the ‘particle’ electron is regarded a ‘piece’ of the electrical force, as though the continuum of a force could be individuated into a particle – as though there could be a piece of electricity. We do this to try to understand something of which we cannot make sense in the large-scale human context, but we quickly forget that we have translated reality into a language that fits with human perception, believing that the translation is a precise representation of the original version; we then invent logic to match the way we have delimited a non-individuated reality by our individuating perception. We build our towering sciences in this quicksand, and hence do we stumble on convincing illusions and contradictions like the sameness of sub-atomic parts. Whether or not we can derive a solution, we must at least acknowledge the error. And perhaps this is indeed the best we can do, and we must stop at incomprehensibility, but I propose an answer to this problem in the metaphysics of the ontology chapter; at least, it is my interpretation.
When we try to interface with the realm of the extremely small, we are as a bull in a china shop. The gargantuan tools that we use to observe sub-atomic parts disturb the natural state of the part, such that we can never observe it in its natural, undisturbed state, and we are left to draw conclusions from mathematics – our scalpel is thick and dull and it bruises the delicate world-flesh when we cut. For example, when we see anything, photons of light must bounce off of the thing and into our eye; in this way, it is information-bearing light ‘particles’ that we actually see. But when we bounce photons off of very small things like electrons in order to see them, we change the position or speed of the electron in the collision, so we can only measure one or the other value but never both. This inescapable fact gives rise to the probability-based nature of quantum physics: we can measure the position of a part, but doing so changes its velocity and vice versa, so we can never measure position and velocity at the same time – perspective limits itself by its own mechanism. Our scope is compromised at a certain threshold, even while sub-atomic theorists boast the most accurate scientific theory ever accomplished by a very wide margin.
There is much to know about the parts which make up atoms, and there are many such parts. It is enough for our purposes to know that materialism, when framed in the parts-paradigm, says that all things are made up of molecules which are made up of atoms which are, in turn, made up of sub-atomic things like electrons, neutrons, and quarks, and that these fundamental parts are all the same as each other within their respective categories – all electrons are identical to all other electrons. For simplicity, I will use the example of electrons in this book when we need to speak of sub-atomic parts, for electrons are one of the few sub-atomic particles that are deemed truly ‘fundamental’. It is the often uncanny, impossible, absurd behavior of these parts that is our main concern and purpose for evoking quantum physics. For example, consider the combination of the following facts: a) physicists joke that the universe is naught but ‘dirty hydrogen’, because other atoms are essentially hydrogen with added electrons and other parts; b) the various sub-atomic parts are identical to every other corresponding sub-atomic part in all of the different kinds of atoms; c) atoms can sometimes exist in more than one place at a time, as we will see in the Dual-Slit Experiment, which has been conducted with parts even as large as c60 molecules.(22) And now the fool’s question, thick with cosmic absurdity: what evidence do we have that our universe isn’t ‘one’ single atom of hydrogen, existing in many different times and many different places and in many different ways?
This section will cover four curious aspects of the Quantum Theory which are relevant to my study: superposition, tunneling, condensates, and entanglement. I conclude with a brief summary of the most relevant point in each of the four examples.
1. Superposition and the Dual-Slit Experiment (‘The Trick with Two Holes’)
This four-part experiment sends waves and particles into a box with two holes in a wall dividing the box at the center, and observes their behavior. The two holes in the center wall can be open or closed, and a screen on the far wall registers the arrival of waves and particles:
Ultimately, we aim to show light existing as both a wave and as a corpuscle, so four versions of the experiment are conducted. We run the experiment with the light at full strength, and again at the lowest possible strength, once with only one of the holes open, and again with both holes in the center wall open.
First, with both holes in the center wall open and the source at full strength, light waves enter the box. They spread out until they hit the center wall, and two new wave patterns emanate from the other side of each hole in the wall. These two waves intersect and cause a banded interference pattern to form on the back wall sensor, which is what we expect when we treat light as a wave. It is the kind of pattern we see when waves of water collide and interfere with each other, like colliding speedboat wakes. (Figure 3) If we keep the source at full strength and run the experiment again, but with one hole in the center wall closed, we see a single splatter mark on the back wall sensor, as we expect to see. The light beams through the hole and projects a single beam toward the back wall like a flashlight. This simple experiment has been conducted for some time in high-school classrooms in this configuration to demonstrate the interference of light waves:
Next, we dim the light source so that only one photon of light is emitted into the box at a time, keeping one hole in the center wall closed. The particles enter the box one at a time, travel through the one open hole in the center wall, and splatter in one spot on the back wall, as we expect when we treat light as a particle. Like throwing water balloons at the same spot on a cement wall, we get a wet spot on the wall where the balloons have hit. However, when we open both holes in the center wall and emit single particles into the box, each particle that enters the box has a choice of one or the other hole.
In the fourth version of the experiment, logic slips and we confront the absurd. With both holes in the center wall open, particles stay true to their nature as ‘one’ things, and form a single spot on the back wall, but no longer in one general position. They seem to find a random spot on the wall to splatter. However, over time, something amazing appears – an interference pattern in the splatter marks!
Each particle departs as an individual particle, travels as a wave, and arrives as a particle. We know they leave as a particle, and we can visually confirm their arrival as a particle with the single ‘splat’ on the screen. But we know that they travel as a wave because over time, the particles arriving on the back wall form an interference pattern on the screen – the kind of pattern that we only see when we treat light as a wave! That is, if we run the experiment for a while and emit particles one at a time into the box with both holes in the center wall open, we see, in the end, a wave interference pattern, though only single photons of light have been in the box at any given moment. There is no rational explanation of this phenomenon, except to say that ‘parts’ exist sometimes as parts, sometimes as non-parts, and sometimes as both at the same time.
The particles interfere with each other over time because they travel as waves of position-probability: the probability of whether they went through one hole or the other, such that philosophers must wrestle with the idea of a ‘wave of position-probability’ as an ontological thing in the actual world.(Footnote 1) They interfere with themselves on the far side of the center wall when each one particle, which enters the box as a single probability wave, emerges as two waves of probability on the far side of the two holes in the center wall. The two waves interfere, but the probability collapses to zero when the ‘one’ particle hits the back wall and is detected, when reality observes itself, makes itself real in the familiar sense, and stops the absurdity. The sensor stops the particle from continuing as a probability wave, the wall itself acting as an act of 4-D perception which transforms probability into the actual.(23) Observation weaves reality and the actual into genuine tangibility, as John Linnell sang, “where your eyes don’t go a filthy scarecrow waves his broomstick arms and does a parody of each unconscious thing you do; when you turn to look its gone behind you, on its face its wearing your confused expression, where your eyes don’t go.”(24)
One way of making sense of this oddity is to say that the particle is located in the midst of its dance as a wave, and the one spot that the particle makes on the sensor registers in a single place on the overall interference pattern: the place where it was when it was stopped by the sensor. In this way, the particle exists as both a wave and a particle. We might say reciprocally that the probability wave that we call an ‘electron’, a real, albeit absurd ontological thing in the actual world, can also be perceived as a particle by four-dimensionally bound perceivers. In a similar way, and perhaps most astonishingly, if we try to detect the one particle going through both holes at the same time by arranging sensors at the holes in the center wall, the probability collapses to zero and only one particle emerges on the other side of the wall, forming one ‘splat’ on the back wall, though both holes are open; we are denied the ‘trick’ of the trick-with-two-holes by constraining it to the fourth dimension, as though the particle ‘knows’ it is being observed, and refuses to do the trick.
A few things are worth considering when digesting the astounding results of the Dual-Slit experiment and the repercussions of Superposition. Standard Model physics cannot explain the results and scientists leave us with a menu of inconclusive interpretations, including the Copenhagen, Many-Worlds, Ensemble, and Transactional interpretations.(Footnote 2) Consider also the fact that this experiment has been conducted with an assortment of particles larger than light, even as large as c60 molecules, which are enormous in comparison to photons or electrons. With c60 molecules, the experiment gives us an example of things that we consider very tangible, things that we can actually photograph, existing materially in more than one place at a time. This phenomenon holds true for all particles, the stuff of which all things are made. When we define the nature of ‘things’, we must account for this and remember that these are the things of which we are speaking – the only actual things, the things of which we speak when we do any philosophy – all else is a trick of angle and scale, of perception. Further, we see these ontological things existing as manifest probability in the form of a wave which does not always follow time’s arrow. When asked to face the public and explain their findings in a philosophically operative way, quantum physicists must speak of these probability waves as ontologically real, tangible things. I want to call this entitation rather than thing-ness to clarify the grammar and dodge the inevitable irrealism; this distinction informs the main thrust of the ontology chapter in this book. In that chapter, I call the classical, expected behavior of particles partness, while the odd behavior that we cannot deny observing in the Dual-Slit experiment I call non-partness. This will help us arrive at an ontology that can stand its ground against logic while opening new doors for knowledge and metaethics in a correlation of Self, the local world, and the universe.
In my metaethics of compassion in the final chapter of this book, I evoke the Upanishadic “this art thou” doctrine (“tat tvam asi”), which is at least more feasible in a universe which permits tangible things to interfere with themselves over time and exist at more than one place at a time. In other words, while we aught avoid the error of concatenating microscopic phenomena at the sub-atomic scale with macroscopic phenomena, it is worth noting that we live in a universe which allows for non-local physical effects, even as it quarantines them to a set scale.(25) That is to say that our universe is one which does not ban non-local physics outright but allows for it in some circumstances.(26) Perhaps it is even more feasible when we assume a strong parsimony, and insist that everything that is, is actually only ever a collection of these strangely behaving parts, if any parts can ‘exist’ at all, such that everything that is, is made up of these absurdly-behaving real things… such that the basis of the real is… absurd. My interpretation could criticize therefore the idea of wave/particle duality by conjecturing a multiplicity of modes of entitation – or at least two: one that is four-dimensionally perceived, and one that is not.
Let us imagine a different, mechanical explanation of the dual-slit experiment. That which we thought of as a discrete particle at the onset is connected to the particle on the far end of the experiment only by a non-local cloud of probability in the middle. If we begin by assuming that there is no wave/particle duality, but that the thing is the middle phenomenon, we perceive of the thing-in-itself as a particle at the far end of the experiment by trapping it into manifesting in our paradigm. Had we not placed a probability-vector breaking sensor mechanism in the path of the ‘particle’, the ‘thing’ we think of as a particle would continue on its way in an unbroken state of probability. We can perceive of waves as parts by an act of our intervention, not because waves have an inherent particle nature, or vice versa. Hence, only the subject individuates – with no subject present, there is no individuation, no parts.
When we concatenate the general idea of causal sequence, the latency of the neural network in any perceiving subject, and the above interpretation of wave/particle duality, we find that things in themselves are probability waves, existing prior to what we call the ‘present moment’ in the fourth dimension. This is the root of my ontological proposal, and why a deep understanding of the Dual-Slit experiment is critical to the reader of this work. Rather than the standard expression that matter particles can be wave-like, I argue that waves have a tendency to be perceived as particles, so that while our reason knows that probability forms the actual, in the face of the absurd, only perception can form the basis of what perceiving subjects call reality.
2. Quantum Tunneling
Like the Dual-Slit experiment, quantum tunneling showcases particles existing as what we can only call waves of position-probability. Alpha particles are normally constrained to their position by the strong nuclear force, and move around within their constraints based on their probability-position function, what we call a ‘probability wave’. In this example, we imagine a particle in an enclosure, bound on all sides, bouncing back and forth – the particle is free to move around within the enclosure, but it cannot escape. When a particle is located near the center of the enclosure, the spread of its associated probability-wave remains bound within the enclosure, however, when a particle is located at the edge of the enclosure, the spread of its associated probability wave extends beyond the edge. There is a (very small) chance that we could accidentally collapse the particle’s probability function while it is at the edge of the enclosure, which would result in the particle physically manifesting on the other side of the wall and escaping the enclosure:
A very small chance is all that our sun needs to shine, because it uses the tunneling effect to do so. Beyond the reach of the strong nuclear force, the position of a particle has a small chance of resolving on the far side of the barrier. Reality works like this because the probability wave is as ontologically actual as the sun.
When we discuss Quantum Theory, the value of language becomes quickly suspect, because it is a statistical science; the objects in quantum theory, sub-atomic particles and so forth, are never observed directly, they are deduced by way of numerical reduction. For example, when we talk of a ‘single electron’, we are actually talking about groups of electrons that we mathematically reduce down to ‘one electron’; no one has ever observed a sub-atomic particle directly.(27) A common criticism is that when we extend the meaning of a description like ‘probability wave’ to something beyond what the formulas on the chalkboard mean to say, we introduce interpretation, and that only trained specialists are qualified to offer such interpretation. But then we must think as critically about the materiality of the enclosure! In the case of quantum tunneling, we have a science which teases interpretation out of problems in our reasoning, from which we create our logical foundations and linguistic tools.
3. Bose-Einstein Condensates
A Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) is a state of matter in which individual particles are cooled to temperatures close to Absolute Zero (-273.15°c/−459.67°f). At such temperatures, fundamental particles called bosons condense into a unified, singular blob so that the physical place where one particle ends and another begins becomes equivocal. In this state, quantum effects like wave-particle duality can be observed at a macroscopic scale, for example, by human eyes through a microscope. The fact that we can observe this at a macroscopic scale is important, because it presents a situation in which the zaniness of the quantum realm extends to the macroscopic scale, from the statistical to the observable. That is to say that in the case of Bose-Einstein condensates, not only does the universe allow for the strange behavior of the quantum world, it allows for this behavior on a scale that is perceivable by humans and commensurate to the human experience. The particles in a BEC become physically identical to each other, and cannot be distinguished from the other particles in the condensate blob – a rare example of pure, macroscopic ‘sameness’. The burden of axiomatic proof is within the scope of perception, lending realism to theoretical model belief systems. It is through such examples that we can subscribe to realism in a physics of absurdity.
The identity of particles in a BEC overlap as they exhibit wavelike properties and vibrate in coherent unison. They are cooled to such a low temperature that they have lost all of their energy, and are rendered into a state of rest and total non-motion. In this state, the individual particles coalesce, and cannot be distinguished from one another as individuals. The principle of individuation breaks down, and we are left with no means to describe the blob in a way that would compliment our description of nature as something made-up of discrete parts – parts lose their ‘partness’. The status of particles in a BEC shows us that it is quite possible in the macroscopic, physical space that we share with rocks and stones and trees, to find things that do not reflect our perception of things as parts.
4. Quantum Entanglement
Particles in a state of entanglement cannot be described individually, rather, they must be regarded as a cohesive system. When we measure the physical properties of entangled particles, we find that the properties are correlated. If we make changes to the properties of one of the particles in an entangled system, no matter the physical distance between the particles, the other particles in the system exhibit those changes instantly, though it seems impossible that the information that one particle has changed could be communicated to the other distant and physically non-attached particle. The perplexing inseparability of particles in this state was described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”. In our causal context and by the rules of our logic, there should be ‘no-communication’, immediately, between two discrete and individual things. So in order to be comfortable with entanglement, we must let go and conceded that it is not possible to understand the particles as separated physically or individuated in the usual way that we understand material physicality or individuation. The interaction of billiard balls gives us a good analogy, as they follow the rules of standard Newtonian physical mechanics, and place the inconceivable in a familiar physical context. We strike the cue and it collides with the 8 ball, which travels away at an angle of reflection relative to the angle of incidence of the cue. In the quantum mechanical state of entanglement however, the results are absurd: if we were, for example, to spin one ball at one end of the table, an entangled ball on the far end of the table would begin to spin suddenly in a way that could not be explained by classical physics. Another example shows that if we measure the value of a physical property of one particle in an entangled system and find that it is five, and we find the same value in another particle entangled with the first, the sum of the two values would not be ten, as we would expect, it would be five because the two particles are, in a way that seems logically absurd, the same particle. We arrive at these results because the particles in an entangled state cannot be regarded as individual things; they exist as an inseparable system, and the usual principle of individuation does not apply in the way it does in the macroscopic world of four-dimensional perception.
5. Relevance of these four examples to the purpose of this text:
A. Superposition: We invent a parts paradigm, then conduct experiments in which our parts paradigm requires that we invent an absurd probability-wave paradigm to explain the absurd results.
B. Tunneling: Understanding how a part identifies at the smallest scale requires that we redefine the absurd idea of parts and scales.
C. Condensates: We know, scientifically, that there are some circumstances in which parts are not parts, which means that we know that parts are not always parts, and that our understanding of parts is, at best, incomplete. The absurdity of quantum theory is extended to the human scale of perception.
D. Entanglement: In order to avoid action-at-a-distance problems, entanglement evidence requires a chaotic causality paradigm where our usual understanding of the flow of time and determinism is more absurd than it is useful.
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