The universe through a straw

The Thinker by Rodin

National Public Radio has been running a series called This I Believe. The series gives ordinary people like you and I the opportunity to tell the world what we believe and why. The series is always insightful and worth your time. Even if you cannot agree with the person’s beliefs, you should be moved by the passion and eloquence by which participants express their beliefs. Since the producers receive thousands of entries, they unfortunately cannot broadcast but a tiny fraction of them. However, there is a This I Believe web site where you can contribute your essay. Perhaps this one will end up there too.

Frequent readers of Occam’s Razor will have little doubt about what I believe. Like all of us, I have many beliefs. I may spend the rest of my life trying to put them all down here on this website. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not often say I am certain that my beliefs are accurate. They simply represent the perspective of me: a 49-year-old white middle class man living here in the United States. My beliefs are undoubtedly formed by my life experiences. Since your life was on a different path, I should not be surprised that you would have different beliefs. However, it has only been in the last few years that I have found the time and the energy to organize my thoughts. Here they exist online for your amusement, castigation, insight, or dismissal.

Last night in my covenant group, we discussed our “isms”. Simply saying what your “isms” are gives insight into your own beliefs. To help us out, many of us turned to Beliefnet. On the site is an online survey you can take if you are having a hard time categorizing your beliefs. Since we are a small group of Unitarian Universalists, not one of us was surprised to find out we were categorized highest as UUs. In fact, the survey showed me as 100% Unitarian Universalist, but also 98% Quaker. Perhaps I should not be surprised that I have a brother who is a Quaker.

For many, labeling their beliefs is simple. For me, it is hard to put a label on what I believe. The label probably does not exist. I can say I am a Unitarian Univeralist, but this really does not say what I believe. After all, you can be a UU and believe anything you want. There is no creed you have to profess in order to be a UU. I can say that I subscribe to agnosticism, but that does not say much about my beliefs either. It simply asserts that I cannot find a rational basis to either believe or not believe in God. In some ways, I feel the call of Buddhism. I have acknowledged before that I think karma is a real and natural force. Yet I maintain some skepticism that we go through a series of lives, and each life is an attempt to address our karmic issues from previous lives. Perhaps I align most closely to natural pantheism. Wikipedia says it is “a form of pantheism that holds that the universe, although unconscious and non-sentient as a whole, is a meaningful focus for mystical fulfillment.” However, I am not quite so certain that I can wholly dismiss the notion that some external or omnipresent God did not set our universe in motion. I do believe that our universe is an amazing place.

As human beings trying to understand the universe, I believe we have some serious limitations. First, we are temporal. This gives us perhaps a biased perspective. Our natural fear of death I think drives many of our beliefs, since most seem to offer tailored solutions that address our fear of nonexistence. Since we experience existence through time, we naturally assume time exists for everything. However, arguably time only exists for organisms of sufficient complexity. For example, the physicist Brian Greene asserts that at the subatomic level, time ceases to exist.

Since we are also limited by our senses, it can be excruciatingly hard to relate to things that we cannot directly perceive. We can infer that radio waves exist, even though we know we will never touch, taste or feel a radio wave. We can make similar observations about the limitations of our other senses. For example, there are sounds we cannot perceive but other animals can.

What I infer from all this is that we perceive the universe at best through a gauzy curtain. I believe what we see approximates the universe’s actual complexity. Perhaps you read recent news reports about the indirect proof for the existence of dark matter in the universe. Here again is something that physicists tell us simply must exist in the universe, but which we cannot examine. I think that my analogy that our view of the universe is through a gauzy curtain is too expansive. I believe we see the universe through a straw.

A therapist I am seeing tells me that humans tune out most of the experience that surrounds them. Perhaps there is so much of it that it is impossible for our brains to process all of it. Like a horse with blinders, to survive we focus on what is straight ahead of us. Perhaps this is because we have learned through experience that straight ahead is where it is easiest to make sense of the world. At best, we are only dimly aware of the consequences that our behavior has on not just our intimates, but on everyone who we meet.

If we spent our life looking at the same small part of the sky through a straw, we would clearly not have a very good understanding of our universe. All we could do is describe what we see through the straw. It would be hard to infer the meaning of the things we saw. If a cloud obscured our vision, we could not necessarily infer the entity we call a cloud. We would likely need a wider perspective to detect the cloud. We might pick up some clues. If a bird passed through our line of vision enough times then we might be able to infer the existence of birds, although the concept of flight may be beyond our comprehension. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine trees, or houses, or the ground, or computers, or time, or perhaps even death.

So if I am a natural pantheist, it is because I believe that the universe is far more complex, far more amazing and far richer than what I can comprehend, simply because I am bounded by a finite life and limited senses. Philosophers and scientists must do the best they can by seeing the universe through a straw. However studying the edges of the straw, which is what physicists, philosophers and the devout spend much of their lives doing, likely gives them a very jaundiced and probably inaccurate perspective of the universe as it actually is. Even if we could see all aspects of the universe as it actually is, it is unlikely our brains could comprehend its full complexity and manifestation.

It may be that instead of seeing the universe through a straw, we are seeing it through a drainage pipe. In other words, perhaps we perceive more of the complexity of the universe than I assume. There is no way to know for sure, however. Since there is no way to know, that is where I personally draw the boundaries of my faith.

I do my best not to infer too much about the truth of our universe because I assume my perspective is severely constrained. However, I could just as easily be wrong. It can be fun to speculate on whether God exists, and if it exists whether it is a personal or an absent God. Nevertheless, I believe that when we do so we are really arguing about what we see on the edges of the straw. We are using that very limited field of observation to infer much more about the universe than we should. Perhaps that is why I often feel the need to surrender to the mysticism of it all. It is why the Pantheistic Church, if there were one, would probably call me more than Unitarian Universalism. As much as I try, I do not really understand our universe, but I am still in awe of it and under its spell. However, I sense, what the character Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact (and by inference, the late Carl Sagan, who wrote the book) said:

I … had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everybody, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope.

From Physics to Metaphysics

The Thinker by Rodin

I read Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos for a number of reasons. First I had at best a hazy idea of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. For once really wanted to fully understand them. Second, I had heard about string theory (well, really superstring theory) and the uncertainty principle. I was curious to learn a whole lot more. But perhaps the real reason I read the book was that I was hoping that just maybe (in my own mind at least) I could merge the worlds of physics and metaphysics.

Why not? Physicists are hot to validate the grand unification of relativity (the universe at the macro level) with superstring theory (the universe at the subatomic level). It’s their Holy Grail. I can have mine too. Clearly I am not easily intimidated by daunting philosophical and scientific problems, even though I am neither a scientist nor more than an amateur philosopher. I am likely tilting at windmills but someone has to start.

Through Greene’s book I learned that there likely exist 11 (or possibly just 10) dimensions to the universe. Four dimensions we seem to understand as part of the nature of our reality: space (i.e. length, width and height) and time. It is hard for us to conceive of a reality of more than four dimensions because we cannot directly perceive them. But Greene points out that in order for superstring theory to work mathematically and integrate with Einstein’s theories there must be seven more. He generally refers to these dimensions as “curled up” dimensions that are embedded in the energized superstrings. These superstrings vibrate at certain frequencies and in the process take on properties. Some of these properties we can perceive as matter and some of which we can perceive as energy (light, for instance).

But we also know that there is a lot of energy that surrounds us that we cannot directly perceive. We know that the ether of the electromagnetic spectrum surrounds and permeates us. We cannot perceive any but its visible spectrum. We can infer its presence well enough every time we use our cell phones or listen to the radio. Clearly the universe is far more complex than what we can directly observe.

Now let’s get back to metaphysics. Metaphysics is “The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.” Metaphysics is largely pure speculation and tries to give order and sense to that which lies just beyond science. Arguably a lot of it is nonsense. Most Westerners would probably say that most religions (except their own), horoscopes, palm reading and the like are nonsense. But if you read enough (and I’ve read quite a bit) there are certain areas of common agreement in the metaphysical world that seem almost scientific in nature. I’ve alluded to some of these in other blog entries. For example near death experiences and the high degree of commonality among these experiences have been well researched by academics like Raymond A. Moody, PhD and MD as well as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, MD. Many of us, including myself, have experienced deja vu. These experience suggests to me that time itself may be an illusion. There are even scientific studies into the psychics that are damned convincing.

Eastern religions have promoted various planes of existence for the soul for millennium. Perhaps the best established of these is the seven planes of existence from the Hinduism and Buddhism traditions. According to these mystics, each plane of existence has its unique attributes and purpose. For example after death we arise to the astral plane where we hang out again until the Masters can figure out which new body we need to inhabit to learn new important spiritual lessons we haven’t mastered. Eventually we are reincarnated and go back to the earthly plane. Assuming we get our karmic lessons right at some point after death we arise from the astral plane to the mental plane, the home of “masters” and “spirit guides”. Maybe at that level we exist to help others trying to complete their karmic experiences. This level maps quite well to many religions versions of heaven, including Christianity to some extent. Both these levels and the experiences anticipated map well with Moody and Kubler-Ross’s research into near death experiences. They also map well as past life regression research by well established clinical hypnotherapists like Michael Newton. Beyond the mental level are the Buddhic, Nirvana, Para Nirvana and finally the God Head levels.

I find a couple interesting things in this aspect of metaphysics.

First, most describe ascending from one plane to the next as moving to a higher “vibrational level”. This is true regardless of how many levels of consciousness a particular spiritual practitioner or guru seems to be promoting.

Second, at least classically there are seven planes of consciousness described. Superstring theory talks about eleven dimensions. Subtract four that amount to our earthly experience and that leaves seven that should exist. Curiously there are seven levels of consciousness promoted by the Hindu-Buddhist philosophies. Subtract one for the existence we can perceive (or for the 11th dimension which according to Greene may not exist) and we get close to or hit the number of dimensions required to validate superstring theory.

Lastly, Greene talks about how superstrings have various properties including very definite differences in vibrational rates. Maybe it means nothing, but both physicists and metaphysicians seem enamored with vibrations and energy levels. Perhaps some of those “curled up” dimensions that Greene and fellow physicists allude to can be mapped to planes of existence?

No doubt most physicists would be surprised by or laugh at my attempt at a comparison here. And I am sure that magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer have published numerous articles on why such theories are bunk. On the other side of the equation there are many in the metaphysical world, particularly those vested in a particular religious faith who will deny any reality outside of their faith’s.

These are thin threads I am suggesting. But there are some commonalities here that should raise eyebrows on both sides of this divide. Both sides are really rushing toward the same goal. The grand unification theory sought by physicists is but a way station toward understanding the mind of God (if God exists). Similarly, the religious and philosophers among us must at some level require the assurance that all those things they are saying are true can be proven objectively true.

All I’m suggesting is I see some threads that perhaps can stitch these two seemingly dissimilar worlds together. I invite those more learned than me to continue this effort. I think we need to wrap our minds around the true nature of existence. If there are curled up dimensions in subatomic particles that can be inferred this strikes me as a wholly fantastic idea. I find it no more fantastic those eastern religions thousands of years old were talking even then about planes of existence that also cannot be seen. Perhaps both sides are speaking a sort of common lingo. My job may be to put them in touch.

Continue reading “From Physics to Metaphysics”

Our Wild, Wild Universe

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in March I mentioned that I was going to read Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. Brian Greene is a physicist currently working in the area of string theory. Fortunately for the rest of us he is also a man who can demystify modern physics for the masses. In this book he takes the casual reader on an adventure into the nature of reality. I think you will find that this adventure is beyond the wildest ride you can imagine at any theme park. To call our universe amazing is to damn it with faint praise.

Today I actually finished the 569-page tome. Yes, it took over four months to read it. Greene is excellent at making analogies so that we laypeople can wrap our minds around something so abstract as physics. Even so this is not the casual sort of book you bring to the beach with you. I doubt you spend hours curled up in your hammock reading it, fascinating though it is. I got through it in snippets of 15 minutes or so at bedtime. I did this because I found that 15 minutes was about the maximum my brain could stretch in one day. I generally needed a day or so to process what I had learned. Sometimes I had to go back and read parts again: did he really say that?

So the book is still daunting but well worthy of the read. Physics is not a subject that interests most people. Still physicists try to describe the reality of the world that we live in, and what we observe is but a tiny fraction of the reality. Since we spend our existence in this reality you would think we would care more about understanding this box that frames our existence. Most of us think we understand reality but it takes a physicist to show us that we really don’t understand squat. The problem is that it is daunting to communicate to the layperson the nature of reality. When we think about concepts like Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity we reach for the Excedrin. We figure there is no way to understand it except to spend years learning calculus and sifting through the equations. Fortunately thanks to Greene and other writers you don’t have to. He does an excellent job explaining both the special and general theories of relativity, and this entity he calls space-time in which we live our lives. In clear analogies and illustrations you will find that you too can grasp ideas like why time slows as one moves toward the speed of light or how space itself can be curved.

If an appreciation for special and general relativity weren’t enough, the second half of the book takes us into the far more mysterious world of quantum physics. You don’t have to get too far into the quantum physics portion of the book before you say to yourself, “Gosh, this stuff is so amazing it should be in a science fiction book.” And that’s the point: what we understand about our reality really is amazing. You should be awed by the time you finish this book. Those crazy, nerdy physicists are onto amazing stuff. We have mystics and theologians who try to tell us what lies beyond: physicists are pulling back the gauzy curtains that frame our vision of reality to show us the beauty and mystery of what lies behind the curtains.

Although I am not sure Brian Greene would share my assessment I feel physicists are tantalizingly close to joining two universes that hitherto have been as separate as oil and water: science and religion. Actually I’d describe it more as physics and metaphysics. I’ll have more on this in a blog entry soon. Reading Greene’s book made me realize that we were knocking on God’s door. The mysticism that embraces much of our most profound needs and hungers is peeling away. The good news: the universe is an awesome place.

Here are capsule summaries of some of the main ideas I took away from the book. If Brian Greene were to read this review I suspect he would caveat it, footnote parts of it and say certain of my observations are in error. If so some translation errors are to be expected on a book of such depth.

The Universe is principally space pervaded by energy that we can see and cannot see. It is pervasive and it is everywhere. There is no part of the universe that is not alive with energy. The whole notion of a vacuum is a misnomer. There is no space in our universe that is untouched by some form of energy. A vacuum is an area of space with no matter in it. But as I learned about halfway through the book energy and matter truly are the same thing. We learn that E=mc2 but we don’t really understand what this means. It means that mass is a property of energy. In fact there is nothing that is truly solid. Mass and energy are bound up together. So a vacuum, even if it can be construed as empty of matter, is never empty of energy. Even an empty chamber at the center of the earth is coursing with cosmic rays. To me it is not unrealistic to say the universe itself is alive.

Moreover within this boundary of reality that we can perceive nothing ever really perishes. Form may change. I doubtless will die as a homo sapien some day but the matter that makes up this thing I call me is as external as space-time. Some of my matter will decompose into simpler elements. Some of my matter will become energy. I am never destroyed. I only change form. The big question to be discussed in another blog entry is whether I have a soul and whether that unique signature that is me survives death.

What is there to understand about quantum mechanics? Fundamentally it is about uncertainty. Uncertainty is hardwired into our universe. At the subatomic level there is no guarantee of any outcome. We can only speak about probabilities of outcomes. It seems counterintuitive that the more precisely we try to measure something the less certain we are of the outcome. But this is the undeniable truth.

And what exactly is the nature of reality? At the quantum level Greene makes the assertion that things that frame our notion of reality cease to exist. There is no time. Time can only be perceived at the macro level. Indeed toward the latter chapters we come to understand that space-time itself may be an illusion. Everything we perceive or think we perceive may well exist in a two dimensional universe. Our existence may well be on the edge of an enormous balloon.

String theory tries to tie quantum theory with the general theory of relativity. Here we enter a world of the theoretical since strings are too small to be seen: they can only be reasonably inferred. Like a dot on a picture tube of the monitor that you are reading this on there are areas too tiny to be observed. There are only mathematical models to work with. Linear accelerators may give credence to certain string theories over others but there appears to be no way to prove that strings exist. But as our models get better and as the math used in them gets more rigorous we can reasonably infer the rules by which quantum physics and that which we call particles operate.

I strongly recommend this book. Life is too short to spend ignorant of the nature of reality. What we teach in school covers a tiny percentage of the truth, and the truth of our reality is always becoming better understood. I think courses on relativity, quantum physics and string theory should be a requirement for any college diploma. It’s not necessary to be down in the weeds with the physicists on the mathematics to get an appreciation for our amazing universe. But it does take time and effort to truly have a decent understanding of who we are and our place in this thing we call reality. Books like Greene’s are invaluable. For a curious mind to get through life ignorant of such amazing discoveries means in some sense to live the unexamined life.