Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Goldilocks Enigma

The following is some correspondence I had with Paul Davies on his latest book “The Goldilocks Enigma” (Penguin/Allen Lane 2006)

Dear Paul,
I read your new book “The Goldilocks Enigma” over Christmas with great interest. I certainly found it a very informative and helpful survey of the latest ideas in this fascinating area – so interesting that I actually did an entry in my blog about it. I am particularly fascinated by your ideas on self-referencing necessity being found within the cosmos (I’m a theist so I have always automatically thought of necessity as lying outside the cosmos). Also, I very much feel that there is something in your conjecture that observers are not just incidental to the cosmic set up, but somehow imbue meaning and reality to the cosmos.

Your comments on Young’s slits have prompted me to have another think about this experiment. My understanding of the experiment in fig 32 on page 278 of your book is as follows: The “telescopes” do not detect a fringe pattern even when the object end of the “telescope” is placed in a dark area of the fringe pattern, because the wave from the sighted slit will travel right through the dark node and into the “tube” of the detector where, according to the respective probabilities, the state vector may “collapse” into a “detection state”. In this case, the tubular shape of the detector, if of sufficient aperture, blocks entry of waves from the other slit and so no fringe pattern will be observed. The three dimensional nature of the wave field means that it is effected by the three dimensional configuration of experimental set-ups even if those set-ups change at the last moment. True, the particle wave field is a rather mysterious entity as is the discontinuous swappings of the state vector but I hadn’t up until now thought them to be governed by anything other than conventional “forward” causation (Neglecting the effect of relativity in conjunction with state vector changes). In fact if you increase the wavelength sufficiently, then the wave from the other slit will “get into” the “telescope” and interference patterns will be re-established.

However, what I have said above may be entirely an artifact introduced by my own view of quantum mechanics. I tend to think only in terms of waves and discontinuous changes of the state vector. I don’t think in terms of particles: I see particles as an approximation brought about as a result of cases where the state vector swaps to a localized form, thus giving the impression of “particles”. This perspective on QM tends to expunge teleology. But having said that I must admit that you have prompted me think again here: if one envisages a particle model of reality then the teleological issue does arise. Moreover, one might see in the telescope detector a more complex and therefore “more conscious” piece of apparatus than just a screen. So perhaps our own very sophisticated sentience acts as a “detector” that somehow removes spatial ambiguities even in past states and thus imbues them with greater spatial reality! But then according to the uncertainty principle, less spatial ambiguity is complementary with greater dynamic ambiguity, so the more we are aware of what something is spatially the less aware we are of what it is becoming.

The moral of the story may be that artifacts in one’s perspective have a bearing. As we know, Newtonian dynamics can be developed using the “teleological” looking extremal principles. But, of course, these are mathematically equivalent to the conventional view that sees one event leading to another in sequence without recourse to end results. It is almost as if the choice of interpretation on the meaning of things is ours to make! Thus, perhaps the way we personally interpret the cosmos constitutes a kind of test that sorts out the sheep from the goats! Which are you? Some theists (but not me, I must add!) probably think you are a goat, but then some atheists probably have the same opinion! Can’t win can you?
Tim Reeves

Dear Tim,
Thank you for your thoughtful interpretation of the delayed choice experiment. I believe the teleological component in quantum mechanics is qualitatively quite distinct from the extremal principle of classical mechanics. One can formulate QM in that language too (via Feynman path integrals), but that concerns only the propagation of the wave function. The key point about the delayed choice experiment is the measurement (or collapse of the wave function), at which point the dynamics changes fundamentally. It is not the measurement per se that introduces the teleology, but the choice of which experimental configuration to use - a subtlety that lies at the heart of Wheeler's "meaning circuit." Correct though your observations of aperture diffraction etc. may be, I don't think the specific details of the telescope design and operation are germane to the central issue here. It is more a matter of whether one makes "this" sort of measurement, or "that." Complications with the telescope optics may produce "don't know" answers, but these can be filtered out.

I hate being pigeonholed, so I won't respond to the sheep/goats question.
With regards,

Paul Davies
(The above correspondence has been published with permission)

Monday, January 01, 2007

Fireside Story

My fireside reading this Xmas was Paul Davies’ latest book “The Goldilocks Enigma”. This book attempts an exhaustive review of contemporary thinking (including Davies own) on the question of why the cosmic order, and physics in particular, are so well contrived to support life: or in terms of the Goldilocks story, why is it that the cosmos is “just right” for living things? For example, amongst many other seemingly fortuitous conditions favouring the existence of living organisms, is the sheer fact that complex organic configurations hold together from one moment to the next. This is proof that the physics and chemistry of matter is such as to favour the sustenance of these configurations on a moment-by-moment basis.

Inevitably with a subject of this nature, Davies is working on the boundaries of knowledge and therefore on his own admission he delves into some pretty exotic and speculative topics. But in spite of the diversity of ideas, a reading of Davies’ book reveals that workers in this esoteric field are hitting the same obstacle again and again, an obstacle I refer to as the “Contingency Barrier”.

Modern physical explanation is about the description of mathematical objects; mathematical objects that in turn are a putative description of our experiences. It is a convenient but seemingly brute fact of our world that as these mathematical objects have been developed they have become increasingly succinct and yet their descriptive power has embraced a wider and wider domain of experience. This process of description effectively means that less and less is being used to describe more and more, a process resembling a kind of conceptual data compression. But like any form of data compression this simplification cannot go on indefinitely, for there comes a point when something has to be taken as given; a hard kernel of fact that cannot be conceptually compressed any further. So, as far is the physical world is concerned we will always be left, to greater or lesser degree, with an irreducible collection of facts that cannot be reduced by further “explanation”: any attempt to “explain” this kernel simply yields yet another kernel and so on. This is the Contingency Barrier. Davies acknowledges that theologians have been aware of this sort of problem for a long while and the Monotheistic solution is to postulate an infinite creator Deity who himself is in some way a “self explaining” entity whose non-existence is a contradiction (a solution that I as a theist favour).

Davies book is probably just about as exhaustive as he could make it, and for me it constituted an excellent, organized and very informative survey of the latest ideas at the speculative forefront of cosmological thinking. However, there was one important issue that I felt Davies was not very explicit about, and that was the subject of idealism, the philosophy that the physical world is a product of mind rather than mind being an incidental by product of matter. In many accounts of cosmology the “third person perspective” is very much taken as granted. That is, it is assumed that it makes sense to talk about an existing cosmos in which there are no observers. It is assumed that the stuff of the cosmos and the laws controlling it in no way depend on the existence of sentient beings or observers. This “materialist” philosophy takes it for granted that matter is primary and sentience is secondary. And yet although this is the default common sense philosophy it is not self-evidently true. In philosophical circles, starting with Hume’s positivism, through Kant’s idealism and ending in today’s concept of virtual reality, there is a strong philosophical tradition that phenomena are not unequivocal evidence for some independent and primary noumena. In fact Berkeley, in his theistic positivism, postulated that those things going “unobserved” (like say the “big bang”) only exist because they register in some way in the mind of God. In short, the abstract cognita of materialism, such as points, lines, coordinates, spaces and loci etc are meaningless unless they are hosted by an advanced mind. In theistic idealism a complex up and running mind is considered primary, and elementary cognita like points, lines, and particles are secondary.

Toward the end of his book however, Davies presents the solutions he himself favours and those solutions, I suppose, do classify as a form of idealism in as much as sentient (non-divine) observers are required in his scheme to imbue the cosmos with reality and meaning. Although I would not classify Davies as an atheist, neither is he a convinced theist. He therefore favours the notion that logical self-containment exists, not within a Divine creator Godhead external to the cosmos, but to somehow reside within the cosmic order itself. (My own opinion is that we will never successfully find logical necessity within the cosmic order, an order that I suspect is of finite complexity. Therefore we will ultimately have to accept the brute contingency of our world - see the contingency conjecture). Even so, Davies ideas are dangerously subversive of the atheistic position, a position that so often unconsciously presupposes the primacy of an impersonal elemental world over against the personal. As Davies says, many will criticize his inclination “as being crypto-religious”. In this latest book of Davies we have what seems to be the nearest thing to a kind of “religious coming out”. I have long waited Davies to commit himself to something. In his previous books like “Superforce” and “The Cosmic Blueprint” it was clear that he is someone who feels there is something very fishy and contrived about the Cosmos. Moreover, he finds the naive materialist response, which greets the contingency barrier with an unquestioning shrug of the shoulders, as inadequate. Davies, in contrast, always comes over as a fair-minded person who is genuinely looking for the truth wherever that might lead him. He lacks the presuppositional prejudices one finds amongst both fundamentalist atheists and theists. But on the notion of a Cosmic Creator he says:

“The other main problem with intelligent design is that the identity of the designer need bear no relation at all to the God of traditional monotheism. The designing agency can be a committee of gods for example. The designer can also be a natural being or beings, such as an evolved super-mind or super-civilization existing in a previous universe, or in another region of our universe, which made our universe using super-technology. The designer can also be some sort of superdupercomputer simulating this universe.”

There is an issue here of just how validly one can extrapolate from a simulated physics to the physics of a surmised “real world” that hosts it. However the general idea here is clear: although the revelation of a mathematically ordered world may point to the existence of some a-priori hyper-complex creating intelligence, that in itself says very little as to the specific nature of that intelligence, e.g. whether it is benign are malign, comprehensible or incomprehensible, personal or impersonal, interested or indifferent etc. The grand rationality of the cosmos is too general a revelation and is simply not enough to inform us about the exact nature and motives of its background Creator, if there is one. A much more specific revelation is needed if the personality of that designer is to be revealed. It is at this point where I part company with Davies. For if there is a God who is deeply personal and, metaphorically speaking, is Father to his creatures then revelation as to His specific personality must be present somewhere in the Cosmos. In seeking this revelation we cannot neglect human history, because if there is a God who is worthy of the name, then human history, past and present may be His agent of revelation. As the book of Hebrews says:

“God who at sundry times and in many ways has spoken in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us in the Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, by Whom He also made the worlds. And He, who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of His Person, and who is upholding all things by the Word of his power, when He had purged sins by Himself, He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high”.This revelation of Christ is grounded in history and in one’s day-by-day walk with God. This is the Revelation of God through Christ. My own opinion is that if there is a personal Father-like God then there are not many other contenders for the title of a quality revelation. It’s Christ or nothing. The average person in the street or in the field does not have access to scientific equipment. Therefore, he has little choice but to get his cosmology from the texts of society, whether those texts are Paul Davies books or historical books like the Bible. And if the Bible isn’t right about Christ being an express revelation? The Bible itself has an answer to that: “… if Christ has not been raised your faith is foolish….”

Even though Davies is unlikely to agree that the Divine persona has revealed His full personality through Christ I have to admit that, in actual fact, I feel a stronger connection with people like Davies than with those anti-reason Christians who vehemently identify faith and revelation with fideism. How can one be loyal to Christains who are likely to attack one’s faith as inferior or non-existent, either because it fails to conform to some mindless robotic rulebook misreading of the Bible or alternatively lacks a mystical gnostic union with God? In this world there are many threats to faith, but Paul Davies is certainly not one of them. However, gnostic and rulebook Christains with their sectarian outlook are amongst the worst faith threats and constitute some of the best arguments against Christianity. So in one sense I very much support Davies quest for truth, wish him well, and hope that his pilgrimage brings revelation.