Monday, June 25, 2012

Physicist or Swami?


Physicist or Swami?
Studying physics is like a religion. It concerns absolutes, not relative concepts like money or fame or relationships. If you are willing to take other people’s word for the data, science is a mind game which can be  pursued  by anyone at any time, particularly if you have access to the resources of the Internet. The basic question is simple, “ How does everything work together to build reality as we see it.” It is the process of trying to answer the question–what’s up with that? (  See Ignorance: How it drives Science, a new book by Stuart Firestein). The worry of whether a particular cultural worldview can determine our view of reality is ignored. The assumption is that there is only one correct worldview. That seems to be the view, in retrospect, of two great world cultures, the Germans and the Japanese, which led them to challenge the rest of the world in the conflict to end all conflicts, World War II in full belief in the logic of their positions.
The hope which drives the effort to understand reality is that a reductionist analysis will work - that the answer can be built from a few basic truths to explain all the observable phenomena of nature. We also rely on the assumption that an objective “I” can observe nature without substantially being affected by the process itself, that objectivity is possible to a useful extent, that it can lead to a description of nature that is accurate enough that a proactive design of useful products and accurate methods can be generated. This positivist idea is connected with the concept of determinism in physical science which postulate that the future can be interpreted from the past unless distorted by the interference of humans.  With the advent of Einstein’s concepts of relativity, the idea of the simultaneity is seen to be impossible, which has brought into question the concept of “now” and the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics has muddied the clear idea of determinism by indicating that different outcomes are possible from the same initial (past) conditions.
Other cultures, of which I am only partially conversant, have developed a more complicated understanding of the nature of reality, feeling that the full complexity of nature can never be constructed from a set of simple principles, that the observer is intimately connected with the events observed and the objective “I”  should disappear, that complexity exists at all levels as indicated by the jeweled net of Indra, where every aspect of reality is reflective of all other reality. According to this picture, causality is just a description of interconnectedness and is not a useful way to predict the future since anyone observing observer of nature has no more access to the truth than any other. Nature isn’t described by cause-and-effect.  Nature simply is, both past and future. Time is a construct, a one-dimensional slit through which we observe a multidimensional reality which includes a mutable past and future.
Professional physicists like me still cling to the simple  KISS (keep it simple, stupid) view of nature which involves the Occam razor philosophy that the simplest idea which is in agreement with the data is the best. And we have made considerable progress technologically with that assumption. But there are developments which presage increasing complications on the horizon due chiefly to the uncertainty principle previously mentioned. A probe to the term and the basic structure of matter, say a beam of electrons from the Electron Accelerator at Stanford (SLAC), starts to develop a halo of virtual particles as its energy becomes higher and higher and what we thought was a more and more precise probe as its wavelength become shorter and shorter develops not only a cloud of light around it, but also a cloak of nuclear particles which can significantly recharacterize the probe in a way week that we cannot handle theoretically, compromising our picture of reality at very short distances.   The closer you look, the confusder it gets.
In the Buddhist worldview, the self must disappear into the event and when that is complete, the truth will become clear. In his book  “The Tao of Physics” , Fritzof Capra tries to connect this idea with the bootstrap principle which surmises that the answer is intimately connected with the problem, that you can lift yourself by your bootstraps, that all knowledge is in all knowledge, that nature simply is. Such a state of affairs is not considered to be seen as an evolving relationship, that the science of physics develops as a function of time, cause preceding effect. The detailed theory suggested on these principles and energy physics was put together by Prof. Chu at Berkeley who is who called it S–matrix theory.
Without going into the details, the theory was a dismal failure and competing cause-and-effect views of nature have continued to make significant inroads into the understanding of the forces of nature, gravitation, electromagnetic interactions, radiative decay processes, and the strong nuclear force which holds the nucleus together.
On the other hand, certain unsettling developments in the basic scientific tool bag including the problem of defining “now” and the quantum theoretical method of describing nature as the collapse of a wave function which “perfectly” represents a probability of the occurrence of a particular outcome, where rates of events can be predicted, but the actual time of the event cannot, does require some new thinking as indicated, for example, in a book called “Reality and Empathy” by Alex Comfort.  Building on the lack of direct knowledge by the brain of the natural reality around us due to our dependence on our senses for input, today’s philosopher’s on science speculate about the reality of physical particles and therefore the inability to observe them independently. This leads them to look to the Buddhist philosophers for insight.
My own personal philosophy recoils from the main philosophical tenets of the Eastern philosophies which ends up with a truth seeker dropping out of existence for all of his clear-eyed truth that existence is what it is and ever shall be, amen. No more seeking for answers seems to be necessary. Painting myself into a corner is not a useful approach for me no matter how indefensible that may become on my part. This philosophical determinism seems to deny free will or any flexibility in confronting our quest for knowledge.  As I. I. Rabi, a famous experimentalist at Columbia University where I studied once said, when told that a new particle had been found exactly like an electron but 200 times as heavy, “Who ordered that?”

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