Friday, July 01, 2005

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A few weeks ago, I had occasion to watch the movie "Wħ∀⊕ _ †h℮ _ βL∈∋P _ ∂∅ _ ℑ _ Ḱñθω!?" for the third time. I suppose this is a good opportunity for me to tell you both a bit about the movie (its strengths and also its shortcomings) and about my own background.

What tHe βlεεp Dθ wΣ kπow!?™ (What the [bleep] do we know!?) is an independent film exploring the interplay between philosophy and science, especially quantum mechanics. In doing so, it ventures into the most fundamental questions of existence, such as the balance between determinism (the universe is a mechanism, whose precise workings could be predicted in every detail if we only had all the necessary measurements), randomness (there is an element of absolute randomness or arbitrariness at some level of the moment-to-moment existence of the universe), and intelligence and free will (it is possible to choose an action which changes the unfolding pattern of the universe).

I have a fairly unusual background for watching the film: I studied quantum mechanics, and my professor, Dr. Val Fitch, was a Nobel laureate. I've long since lost the fine details, but I remember quantum enough to be able to spot some shortcomings in the movie's explanations, and even give you my answer to Albert Einstein's key complaint about quantum mechanics.

There's a scene in the film that offers a fairly good metaphor for quantum-level reality. Marlee Matlin finds herself cajoled into playing a game of basketball with a boy. The boy explains that in parallel quantum realities, the ball could be anywhere on the court; it is the act of observing the ball that fixes it to only one of those possibilities. It's an allusion to the underpinnings of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

What Heisenberg said is that there is a limit to the precision with which you can specify both the position and the energy of a particle. The more precisely you know where the particle is, the less precisely you know its energy, and vice-versa. The usual illustration is a billiard ball bouncing around on a pool table in a completely dark room with funky acoustics. In order to find out something about the ball, you shoot the cue ball at it. The harder you slam the cue ball, the more exactly you can tell where the balls collided, because you hear the "crack." However, you then send the ball careening off at high velocity, with very little knowledge of how fast the ball was going before the cue struck it. On the flip side, if you hit the cue ball gently, you can tell much more about how fast the first ball was moving, but you have much less idea where the collision took place. (The analogy is far from perfect, of course.)

Returning to the basketball court analogy from What the Bleep, think of the whole court as an infinite set of possibilities of basketball-ness. However, in the act of observing the basketball, you do not in fact collapse that infinite set to a single truth. Rather, you collapse it to a smaller infinity.

When I was a college freshman, my roommate, also a math-science nerd, was trying to explain to me the concept of different "sizes" of infinity; my mind utterly rebelled at the idea. Infinite is infinite, ∞ = ∞, right? Well, actually, no. Look up "aleph null" (א0) and read about the sizes of infinity. However, that's not the kind of "smaller infinity" I'm talking about.

What the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us is that the basketball is a better metaphor than it might seem. The act of observing the situation doesn't collapse the infinite range of possibilities to a single point, but rather collapses it to a narrower infinite range.

The unfolding of the existence of the universe from one moment to the next, results from a finite number of infinite ranges of possibility. Each proton, electron, and neutrino in the universe (whether it's part of your body, the earth, or your Winnebago), has a quantum probability field in which it has an infinitesimal chance of winding up in a dark alleyway in Cleveland. The range of possibilities is always infinite for each particle, because it could be over here or over here or over (wait for it...) here, on top of which it might have this much energy or This much energy or THIS much energy, or pi times that much. However, there are only so many particles. (Did you know that it is fundamentally impossible to write out a googolplex in numbers, because there aren't even that many protons in the entire universe? Yes, really. It would take more than a billion billion universes.)

Each particle has an infinite range of possible choices, but the number of choices to be made is not infinite. If particle A is within a certain range of possibilities, and particle B is in a corresponding range, then they are likely to interact. If all the choices are completely random, then statistically the random variations will mostly cancel out over a large enough sampling. If you roll a thousand dice, the odds are very good that your total will be pretty close to 3,500, even though there are some sixes and some ones mixed in. On a small scale, each die is random — it is equally likely that an individual roll will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 — but in large numbers the dice will average out very close to 3½. (There's about a 90% chance that the sum of 1,000 dice will be between 3,400 and 3,600.)

If we take a large object like a planet or a star or a whole galaxy, any random variations on the part of the individual particles are completely lost. We can calculate that the sun will be completely eclipsed by the moon for 2 minutes and 27 seconds on August 1, 2008, because at that scale the behavior of celestial bodies is a perfect clockwork. Better yet, on July 16, 2186, there will be a total solar eclipse lasting 7 minutes and 29 seconds! (Eclipse predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard SFC)

But, hey, hang on a minute here, bucko. Not only can we tell when a solar eclipse will happen 181 years in the future, we know to the second how long it will last. Doesn't that mean that the entire universe is nothing but a clockwork, a vast system of cogs and gears in rigid pre-ordained relationships? Maybe.

Let's go back down to the sub-sub-sub-atomic level for a moment. Exactly where is that proton? Where will it be, and what will its energy state be, a nanosecond from now? The only thing we can give you is a set of probability equations. If we blast an anti-proton into our observation chamber, we can see what interactions take place, but it's still a probability field.

Einstein had great difficulty accepting the idea of quantum mechanics, objecting that "God does not play dice." Well, Albert, what if the dice themselves are God? Or how about this: what if the very existence of intelligence — the capacity to bias the rolls of a group of dice in a particular direction — is God? It is a fact that we cannot reduce the behavior of subatomic particles beyond a probability field. It is a fact that on the scale of stars and galaxies the behavior of the universe is predictable to unimaginable precision. It is a fact that the choices that intelligent beings make can affect the arrangement of at least some of the nearby "dice" for the next few rolls. Quantum mechanics neither proves nor disproves, nor even gives evidence for or against, the existence of God.

While I'm here, I may as well also demolish the so-called "Intelligent Design" theory hypothesis. The proponents of Intelligent Design maintain that there are certain structures in the physical universe that are so complex they could only have been designed by some intelligent force. Utter nonsense. Either there was an "intelligent designer" or there wasn't; all we know is that certain complex structures do exist. In order to posit the existence of an intelligent designer, we would have to know what a universe would look like with one and what it would look like without one. Since we only have the one universe, we can neither prove nor disprove "Intelligent Design." It is an intrinsically unscientific hypothesis, because it can never be tested.

We see the great warrior priest of the minus three hundred thirtieth century, Ramtha, channelling through some certifiable nutbag named J. Z. Knight. Don't be distracted by Knight's large breasts; she's utterly nuts. However, some of what she says is still true. (After following a lunatic at a public hearing once, I told the board, "Just because a crazy person says it's raining, doesn't mean you don't need an umbrella.") I certainly fault the film, though, for not telling us up front that the words we were hearing out of this woman's mouth came supposedly from someone whose body died 35,000 years ago. "The only way that I will ever be great to myself is not what I do to my body, but what I do to my mind."

We also meet Dr. Joe Dispenza, but, unless you look very carefully at the closing credits, you probably won't notice that he's really a chiropractor. I have nothing against chiropractic or chiropractors; I see one several times a year to keep my spine happy. However, Dr. Dispenza is way out of his league talking about "infecting the quantum field" each day when he wakes up, looking for some completely unexpected event that will confirm to him that he really did create his own reality. It's pretty difficult to go through an entire day without an unexpected event of some description. Also, how exactly does one "infect the quantum field"? Just by thinking about it? It's not that easy. It is by our concrete actions that we affect the quantum fields of the particles that comprise us and that surround us. Thought itself is an action, of course, but Dr. Dispenza imbues it with mystical significance that shows him to be a silly little wanker.

Another segment of What the Bleep focuses on the extent to which human reactions are determined by hormones. Taking testosterone, whether to build professional athelete muscles or to give a female-to-male transsexual a body more in line with his identity, can cause an increase in aggressive behavior. When some circumstance triggers a panic reaction, it becomes quite difficult to think rationally, because adrenaline pushes the fight-or-flight response. When we have a sexual response to someone we see (or something we see, hear, or smell), we are easily distracted.

Again, reality doesn't fit neatly into either extreme. We are neither automatons responding mindlessly to the injection of hormones and other biochemicals, nor perfectly logical beings who react only with our intellect. The reality is, if you will, along the Third Path.

The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but be in the mystery. Ponder that for a while. Fred Alan Wolf, PhD, in What the Bleep Do We Know?