Overweening Generalist

Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Religious Function of Physicists

Recently I read in M.I.T.'s Technology Review this article. As a lay follower of quantum mechanics and cosmology, this was sheer gold; it gave me the frisson of the Ineffable. As a non-believer in any organized religion, especially any monotheistic creed, I cop the lion's share of my awe from...science. And for a long time I've thought that the public intellectuals - Third Culture-ists - who bring the uncanny, the weirdness from their fields: they serve as secular priests to the atheistic or agnostic Educated Classes.

Now, whether you skipped the link above or not, note how speculative it is, really. But the function of speculative thought is for us to play with those ideas for awhile; who knows, something might come of it. This seems related to abduction.

The multiverse idea seems lately to be taken more seriously by String Theorists, whose ideas are so marvelous it's about all the religion I need. At the same time, from an epistemological standpoint, String Theory seems overly Platonic, and there are severe problems with testing its ideas.

The other idea in the article - the so-called Many Worlds Hypothesis of quantum mechanics, says that, if we interpret the Schrodinger's Wave Equation, the most parsimonious solution is that, any time any observation is made, by anyone anywhere and anywhen, the universe splits into every possible outcome of that observation! First posed in the mid-1950s by Hugh C. Everett, R. Neill Graham, and the incomparable John Archibald Wheeler, it was largely taken as a "wild" idea, even if, of all the interpretations of quantum mechanics, the one that seemed best fit to survive Occam's Razor...it was not taken seriously until the 1970s, and has been gaining more converts since then.

Science fiction writers loved the idea from its beginning. You are reading the next blog over in another possible universe, according to this idea. You've never seen this blog. In another universe, I'm reading YOUR blog right at this very moment. I wanted to start a blog but thought maybe I ought to get a job instead. I was aborted in a billion other universes; in a trillion (I'm winging it, but who cares?) I was born a female. In another possible universe, I had followed the exact course the person who is writing followed, but then was killed eight years ago when visiting London; forgetting about the traffic difference, I stepped off a curb and you hit me. (There are more than enough universes in this theory that when I say "you" I literally mean anyone reading this blog.) It was an accident; try not to let it bother you! These things happen - theoretically - in this interpretation of quantum mechanics.

(I just hope you weren't hurt.)

According to this interpretation/abduction/hypothesis - which is taken quite seriously by many physicists with the PhD from highly reputable universities - you are or are not going to finish reading the OG dude's blog post. And the version of you that does has some sort of counterpart - in a matter of thinking - in another nearby universe in which you do finish this post. "They" - other "you"s - exist, in some philosophical-logical-mathematical sense. Why does this all feel like art? Like surrealism, or really good cannabis?

So, 30 years or so after the Everett-Wheeler-Graham hypothesis (abduction?), some String Theorists did their boggling-beyond abstruse mathematics and came up with an idea that there are possibly either an infinite number of universes or some Very Large Number of the them. Anything that can be imagined seemingly "really" exists in the sum total of those universes, because the physical laws "there" are different...
The late Professor George Carlin wondered in his Napalm and Silly Putty, "If there really are multiple universes, what do they call the thing they're all a part of?"-p.32
Edward Shils, a sociologist who also happened to have translated Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, once wrote in an essay in a book whose title I have forgotten: intellectuals have long served this function: as secular speakers particularly adept at relaying the marvelous to the masses, the given religion one subscribed to was one thing; we all want to hear a mindblowing story that just might be true!
In his book The End of Science John Horgan wrote about Ironic Science. What is it? Okay, well, most scientists are people who want to wake up in the morning and go to a secure area to work on a Problem. In this age, these days, those problems are so specialized it takes them 45 minutes to try to tell you what the problem is and why it's important, what's at stake, and why this part of the problem has proven difficult, etc. They need continued funding. Their 45 minute explanation you just heard might have been interesting to you, but politicians are usually morons compared to your understanding of science, and we're not even talking about the scientists themselves yet! So, they must WOW! the morons who control the money. So we get, say, Stephen Hawking, intoning via a remarkable device that, we're not far from "Knowing the mind of God." In the late 1970s, Carl Sagan reached the living rooms of Americans with Cosmos and enchanted us. Today we have Michio Kaku, who I think is better than Sagan in many ways, but I digress...Think of the emissaries from the world of science today: there are many; they have worm-holed their way into the popular imagination and colonized us: Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brian Greene. I'm not saying they're "lying," I'm just saying, "how much of this is a pitch?"

The point is: it's one thing for us Generalists to read all the latest popularizations about String Theory, Theories of Everything (TOEs), nanotechnology, exoplanets, robotics, cloud-computing, etc: but there may be something funny going on too: the specialist technical intelligentsia have gotten better and better at their own version of Public Relations. And perhaps a lot of that has to do with their need to romance us with possible marvels down the road, so they can keep the flow of funds fluid, so that they can get up tomorrow and work on that something-problem that, when explained, does not break down into a 20-second soundbite that fills us with awe and wonder.

But I'm only a Generalist, albeit an overweening one, so take all this with grain of salt...or some melatonin...or HGH?...or methylenedioxymethamphetamine?...or cannabis indica? (There seems more than one road to Religion.)
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."- Albert Einstein
Hey! You finished reading! In n number of other worlds, you gave up earlier and went to porn, or email, or dinner, or... n number of "things." Now what will "you" do in "this" universe?

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