Friday, April 13, 2018

A Multitude of Multiverses

Long ago, we believed the Earth, the World, and the Universe were just about the same thing. The heavens were above, and the watery abyss below, and the Earth stood in the middle on it immovable foundations. In the more scholarly parts of the world, the Earth was known to be a sphere, but still thought to be the center of the Universe, with the sun, moon, and stars revolving around it. Since then, a series of world-changing scientific revolutions showed that the Earth revolves around the sun, the sun and all the visible stars are just a tiny section of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of 50 in the Local Group, which is one of 100 galaxy clusters in the Virgo Supercluster. Yet the observable universe is so vast that 10 million superclusters fit inside it.

Click to enlarge.

The observable universe is as far as we have been able to see. However, there is no reason to believe reality ends there. Time and again, the Universe has been discovered to be bigger than we thought, so why should it be any different now? Perhaps if we could look far enough in space, back in time, through another dimension, or outside of the space-time continuum, we would find the whole of physical reality to be as much bigger than we think it to be now as our current picture is to the view that Earth is most of reality—many universes, or a multiverse.

How would a multiverse come to be, and how could we know about it? You might think that if something is outside of what is observable to us, then by definition we cannot observe it. However, most multiverse hypotheses are not theories themselves, but the logical conclusions of other theories, which make other, more testable predictions. It actually turns out to be very difficult to come up with a theory that encompasses the entire observable universe throughout space and time without getting a multiverse or two on the side.

Today, we will look at several possible reasons why multiverses might exist, including physical and philosophical. We will also examine the arguments for why this universe might be the only one.

Arguments for a multiverse:

Quantum Many Worlds
The multiverse that most people are familiar with from science fiction is the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics. There have been many a Star Trek episode where a hole opens up in space in front of the Enterprise, and another Enterprise emerges, complete with all of the crew members, but everything is just a little bit different. It is a handy way to write a “what if” story, where in the other universe a key moment for the story played out differently.

Let’s look at the science behind the Many-Worlds hypothesis. Now the average person gets exposed to quantum physics either from science fiction or from modern mystics, both of whom use the word “quantum” as a substitute for “magic;” an empty term meant to convince people the speaker knows what they are talking about. Quantum physics is often described as strange and weird, the same adjectives that are used to describe consciousness, supernatural creatures, spooky coincidences, etc. But just because the same words are used does not mean they have anything to do with each other. Matter can be solid, liquid, gas, or plasma, but that does not mean all matter is made of earth, water, air, and fire. Quantum physics is a real science, the study of the basic building blocks of matter and energy at the scale of atoms and their parts. So let’s leave all of our preconceptions behind and take a look at the real weirdness of quantum physics.

Before quantum physics, the Universe was thought to be deterministic. There was a thought experiment called “Laplace’s Demon,” in which it was imagined that if there were a mind that knew the positions and velocities of every particle in the Universe with infinite precision, that mind would be able to use Isaac Newton’s laws of motion to predict everything that happened in the Universe until the end of time. Everything was thought to be determined ahead of time—not planned or fated, but flowing naturally by the laws of physics with no possibility of changing course.

The essence of the weirdness of quantum physics is that it throws determinism out the window. With classical physics, if you set up two experiments exactly the same, they give you exactly the same result every time. That’s determinism. But in a quantum experiment, you can set up two systems exactly the same, and they can give you different results. For instance, sodium-24 is an unstable atom that decays into magnesium-24, with a half-life of 15 hours. This means that if you have a bunch of sodium-24 atoms, then in 15 hours, roughly half of them will have turned into magnesium-24. This means that if you look at an individual sodium-24 atom, there is a 50% probability that it will decay within 15 minutes, and a 50% probability that it will not. This probability is baked into the fabric of reality, and does not depend on some internal clockwork of the nucleus. Rather than deterministic, quantum physics suggests that at the fundamental level, the Universe is probabilistic.

For myself, I am perfectly happy with accepting quantum physics as probabilistic, that reality itself has an element of chance that cannot be explained away. This view is known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. But many people see this as ignoring the question, and insist that there must be some explanation that resonates with a deterministic intuition (or a consciousness-based reality intuition, but that is a topic for another time). One of the most popular explanations is what we have been waiting for, the Many-Worlds interpretation.

The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics says that every time a particle does something that is probabilistic, a new universe branches off in which each possibility happens. If there is a 50% chance that a particle goes to the right and a 50% chance that it goes to the left, then there will be two universes, one in which the particle goes to the right, and one in which it goes to the left.

Schrodinger's Cat. The release of the poison is triggered by the radioactive decay of an atom, so according to the Many-Worlds hypothesis, there are two universes, one in which the cat is alive, and one in which the cat is dead.

The Many-Worlds hypothesis is often explained in terms of choices. It will be said that when you get up in the morning, there will be one universe in which you have cereal for breakfast, and one universe in which you have toast. But this is a misrepresentation. It is not merely choices that cause branching universes, but any time any particle does anything probabilistic. Few people pause to consider the massive implications of this. There are 10^27 atoms in your body alone. That is more than the number of stars in the observable universe. According to the Many-Worlds hypothesis, these atoms are creating branching universes all the time, sometimes at rates much shorter than seconds. The sheer number of universes that would exist under the Many-Worlds hypothesis is beyond comprehension, even for someone like me who spends a lot of time thinking about the size and scope of the universe.

I personally don’t subscribe to the Many-Worlds interpretation, because particles do not behave according to discrete probabilities, but probability densities. To explain what that means, I’ll take us back to the unstable sodium-24 atom. With a 50% chance it will decay within 15 hours and a 50% chance it will decay after 15 hours have passed, that means there will be two universes, right? Not so fast. If we change the time frame—say, 30 hours—then there is a 75% chance it will decay before, and 25% chance it will decay after. This would mean there are three universes in which the atom decays before 30 hours, and one universe in which it decays afterward. But we can change the time again, say 20 hours, 15 minutes, and 22 seconds, and run the probabilities again. In fact, we can set up our time windows to be arbitrarily small, each with its own infinitesimal probability. This would mean that for a single atom, an infinite number of universes would be created. In 50% of these infinite universes, the atom decays before 15 hours, in 25% of the universes, it decays after 30 hours, etc.

Following the Many-Worlds interpretation to its logical conclusion, we don’t end up with a set of discrete universes, but a continuous infinite-dimensional smear of universe-ness. This does not mean it is not true, but if the reason to consider the Many-Worlds interpretation was because the idea of probability being an inherent feature of reality was too weird, it fails, because the explanation it provides is even weirder.

Hubble Volumes
Now for something that is definitely true, but may or may not count as a multiverse depending on your definition. Far off in the depths of space, there are two distances that could be considered the edge of the universe. These distances are spheres that are centered around the Earth, or rather, centered around whoever is doing the observing no matter where in the universe they are. The first is the particle horizon, which is the distance light has had time to travel in the age of the universe. Our universe began 13.8 billion years ago, which means that from 13.8 billion light years away, light from the beginning of the universe is reaching us now. As time goes on, the particle horizon expands at the speed of light. This makes sense, because when the universe was a million years old, the particle horizon was a million light years in radius, and when the universe is a trillion years old, it will be a trillion light years in radius.

But there is another sphere which is important too. The universe is not just sitting still, but it is expanding. The farther away two points are from each other, the faster they are moving apart (assuming they aren’t held together by gravity or other forces). This means there is a distance from Earth at which space is moving away at the speed of light, which is called the cosmic event horizon. Because nothing can travel faster than light, nothing that passes across the cosmic event horizon can ever affect Earth or send signals that could affect Earth.

Whichever is smaller at any given time, the particle horizon or the cosmic event horizon, contains the observable universe. Right now, the cosmic event horizon is around 16 billion light years away, so we have a couple more billion years of new light reaching us before things start vanishing across it.

There isn’t one single observable universe. Rather, every point in space has an observable universe centered around it. Our observable universe is centered on Earth, 13.8 billion light years in all directions. But if we went to the Andromeda galaxy next door, its observable universe would be 13.8 billion light years in all directions centered on it. When talking about the observable universe centered on a point other than the Earth, it becomes confusing, so instead we will call it a Hubble volume, after Edwin Hubble who discovered the expansion of the universe. A galaxy on the edge of our Hubble volume would have its own Hubble volume centered on it, and we would be at the edge of its Hubble volume. Now imagine a galaxy on the opposite side of that Hubble volume. We now have two Hubble volumes that do not overlap. In a sense, we have two different universes. And since we have no indication that there is an end to space, there may be an infinite number of non-overlapping Hubble volume universes. If you interpret this as a multiverse, there is no question that a multiverse exists.

Theory of Everything
The universe as we know it had a beginning, the big bang. It might have been the beginning of time, or it may have been a transition from another kind of universe. Either way, when we try to calculate back in time to the earliest moments of the big bang, our current understanding of physics doesn’t work. That’s fine; after all, we have two theories, Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity, and they don’t fit together. Although in this era of the universe they respectively describe the extremely small and the extremely large, the instant of the big bang falls under both of their domains.

In order to understand the beginning of the universe, we need to bridge the gap between Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity. Right now we have two major contenders for such a Theory of Everything: String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity, though neither of them have been tested. Both theories predict the existence of a multiverse, so if either of them is true, our universe is not alone.

But let’s consider the possibility that both String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity are false, and some other Theory of Everything that we have not thought of yet is correct. Such a theory must be able to describe the beginning of the universe, either from Nothing or from another universe.  No matter what it is, whatever principle or substance caused our universe to come to be would logically cause a multitude of other universes to be created for the same reason. In fact, I think it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to formulate a theory of how the universe began that did not leave us with a multiverse.

If truly no physical law acts upon a State of Nothing, then Nothing cannot remain as it is, nor can there be any limit on what would come from it, because such a limit would count as a law of physics. If that is true, then everything that is logically and mathematically possible must exist, though in completely separate spacetime continua. These possible-made-real universes would range from those with the conditions for life like our own to emerge, to many kinds of universes where life is impossible, to universes that blink out of existence the moment they appear, to the really bizarre, like universes where a single particle corkscrews through space eternally, or where time loops back on itself and events repeat in an eternal cycle.

Arguments against a multiverse:

It is untestable
The most common criticism against the existence of any kind of multiverse is that it can never be tested. If these other universes are disconnected from ours, how could we possibly be able to measure them? It is a fair point, and reminds us to approach the topic with due skepticism, but it isn’t really an argument against a multiverse’s existence. Furthermore, there are some kinds of multiverses that we might, in fact, be able to detect. Gravitational wave detectors might be able to pick up signals from before the big bang, which would confirm that our universe was born from another universe. If String Theory is true, then we might be able to see signs that our 3-brane universe bumped into another 3-brane universe traveling through a fourth dimension. So while some types of multiverses really are untestable, like the physical existence of all things possible, there are some types of multiverses that we simply do not have the technology to test yet.

Strong Anthropic Principle
If our universe is the only one, then there are no other spacetime continua, no extra dimensions, and nothing at all, including space and time, before the big bang. However, in the laws of physics there are several physical constants, which describe the relative scales of things. For instance, the speed of light links space and time, the fine structure constant determines the strength of the electromagnetic force, and Planck’s constant sets the size of atoms. The number of possible combinations of physical constants that can support life is massively dwarfed by the number of combinations that prohibit life from existing. If there is only one universe, then it would be ridiculously unlikely for that one universe to be able to support life. This problem doesn’t have an official name, but I call it the Teleological Paradox, meaning the paradox of apparent design.

If there is a multiverse, then everything that can happen does happen, and the Teleological Paradox goes away. But if there is only one universe, there must be another resolution. One possibility is the Strong Anthropic Principle, the hypothesis that it is impossible for conscious, intelligent minds not to exist. If this is the case, then it is not correct to say the Universe came into being with the conditions for life, but rather the necessity of intelligent minds caused the Universe to come into being.

The Strong Anthropic Principle breaks causality as we know it. In all the rest of our experiences, causality goes from past to future. The Strong Anthropic Principle, on the other hand, says that future events (the existence of intelligent minds) cause the past (the beginning of the universe). The claim that intelligent minds must exist is also arbitrary; there is no more reason that intelligent minds necessarily exist than that elm trees necessarily exist, or that ringed planets necessarily exist. The only reason intelligent minds are chosen as the basis is to patch the Teleological Paradox. Furthermore, we might expect the Strong Anthropic Principle to make a much smaller universe, perhaps just a dwarf galaxy or star cluster, because the rest of the universe isn’t necessary for life. So although the Strong Anthropic Principle has no logical contradictions, it is a very weak explanation for why the universe can support life.

Intelligent Design

Another possible way for our universe to be the only one is if it was created intentionally so that we might exist by a personal God who exists independently of physical reality. But consider this: we have seen through our telescopes that the Universe is vast beyond comprehension. Remember, the universe is expanding, which means the farther something is from us, the faster it is moving away. Almost all of the trillions of galaxies scattered all over the observable universe will be pushed farther and farther away, until they cross the cosmic event horizon, which, remember, is the distance at which the expansion is faster than light. Once this happens, it will be physically impossible to reach them, or even see them anymore. If the Universe was created for us by an intelligent designer, we would either expect these galaxies to be reachable someday, or to not exist. If the goal was to create a universe where intelligent life would arise, it would be far easier to create a single galaxy, or even a single solar system, because that is all that is needed.

Perhaps God created all of those far-off galaxies to show his grand splendor, that the more technologically advanced we get, the greater we find the universe to be, and the more awe we feel for its creator. That makes sense, but let’s follow it through to its full implications. If God created multitudes of galaxies beyond the Virgo Supercluster to display his majesty, then why not for the same reason create a multitude of equally splendorous universes? I think that, even if the cause of the universe was that it was designed by a God, we still have good reason to believe there is a multiverse.

Instinctive Design
Finally, there is the option of some kind of unconscious mind, like the Force or a sleeping God, which created the universe with the right conditions for life out of instinct rather than intent. It may be that this kind of being would create one universe, since one is all that is needed for life. Being instinctive rather than intelligent, it might end up filling the universe with galaxies as a by-product. However, I would expect a universe created by such a being to be teeming with life on every planet, moon, and asteroid, and so far we have found no evidence of life from anywhere besides Earth.


There are many physical and philosophical theories that hint toward the idea that our universe is not the only one, that there may be several universes, or an infinite number, all with different properties, dimensions, and contents. If this universe is the only one, we run into the Teleological Paradox, that the conditions being right for intelligent life to exist is too improbable to be coincidence. Each of the Teleological Paradox’s possible resolutions predict either that we would more likely find ourselves in a universe that looks quite different from this one, or that we have a multiverse anyway. There is no evidence that a multiverse exists, but with all the possibilities, I would not be surprised if one day we discover, in the depths of time and space or in the hearts of black holes, other universes lying hidden.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Giving Star Wars Episode 7 a Good Story

Star Wars has always been the space opera of my life. After seeing the original trilogy when I was about 4 years old, I’ve seen the first six movies each about a hundred times. Though people hate on the prequels, and not without good reason, I like them anyway. I have read a good half of the hundred-odd books in the Legends timeline, which was canon before Disney. However, I have had mixed feelings about the new films. At first, I thought it was only that I had to get used to an alternate timeline, and I would grow to love them just as much as all of the other Star Wars stories. But I am finding I like them less as time goes on, not more, and I am starting to see it is because the stories really are bad.

First, the new movies ignore everything else that has happened in the Galaxy. There is a vast and rich world built up, with plenty of planets available to choose from. In the first six movies, Tatooine appeared in four of them, Coruscant in three, Naboo in two, and Dagobah in two. Yet in the new movies, none of the planets the characters visit have been mentioned before (excluding Rogue One). It is as if the new writers want everyone to forget that all of the other Star Wars stories existed.

Second, the new movies run hard into the scale-magnitude problem. The dialog would aim to convince us that the fight between the Resistance and the First Order is on par with, and in some cases greater than, the struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire. But there is no effort put into showing this, and instead everything looks tiny, like it could have been a squabble between two small countries. In order to write a satisfactory story where the entire galaxy hangs in the balance, you have to interlace the presentation with hints of the scale of the galaxy that is supposedly hanging in the balance. The original trilogy did this well by dropping mention of things like the Senate and the Clone Wars, and the prequel trilogy did it better by having much of the action take place at the Republic capital with political drama in the background. In the new trilogy, there is simply nothing there to care about.

These problems got my imagination spinning, and I found that with just a few tweaks, Episode 7 could have fit in much better. Here is my version of an alternative Episode 7, in a form similar to a title crawl:

It is a tenuous time in the Galaxy. The Empire has collapsed, and in its place two powers have arisen: the New Republic, and the Imperial Remnant. Furious at the New Republic for claiming what they perceive to be rightfully theirs, the Remnant has been building a secret weapon, a cannon that can fire deadly beams of energy through hyperspace and has such great accuracy that it can pinpoint any city on any planet in the Galaxy. After a demonstration, they have turned their eyes to the city-state of New Alderaan on the planet D'Qar in the Ileenium system, the New Republic’s symbol of hope and renewal, where Queen Leia struggles to rebuild her people. Meanwhile, the New Jedi Order has fallen, and Luke Skywalker has vanished, leaving only a map with an old friend on the backwater world of Jakku.

As you can see, not much has changed. I’ve thought since the beginning that Starkiller base was a stupid idea, especially since it took the economic power of the entire galaxy to build the death stars. The events of the story could play out mostly the same, just on a smaller scale and with ties to the rest of the series. This time, it is not the galaxy that is threatened, only a single city, but by making it the revival of Alderaan, whose destruction had been the symbol of the Empire’s power, the stakes feel momentously higher.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Separation of Fact and Meaning

Meaning and Purpose:
Jungian Archetypes
The Most Important Question
Fact and Meaning

One of the most natural questions to ask is, “What is the meaning of life?” Why are we here on this planet, existing as living beings with the abilities to have conscious experiences, learn about the Universe, and make choices about how to act in the world? What is the purpose of our existence? This question is near and dear to us because we are built to focus our lives around a purpose, and we have a primal craving for that purpose to be as worthwhile as possible.

When we speak of “meaning,” there are three possible definitions. The first has to do with communication. When one person wants to get an idea from their head to someone else’s, they use words or non-verbal signals, and we say that these signals carry meaning. I have imbued every sentence on this blog with this kind of meaning, with the hope that you will receive it when you read it. The second kind of meaning is the wake of physical signs that are left after an event or series of events. If you walk into a room and see balloons and streamers in disarray, tablecloths with stains, and paper plates with crumbs, it means there has just been a birthday party in this room, and no one has cleaned it up yet. This kind of meaning is what detectives look for at crime scenes, and what scientists look for in experiments and observatories.

The meaning we are interested in for this discussion is the third kind, the sense of meaning, which we get when we feel our choices and efforts are in line with a worthwhile purpose. At the center of our natures, what we humans want to do more than anything else is that which is meaningful. That’s why I sacrifice time that could have been spent playing video games to write blog posts and stories. Writing itself doesn’t give me much pleasure. In fact, coming up with the next words can be uncomfortable, or even painful if I really push myself. But when I get something finished and ready to present to the world, the sense of meaning it gives me is worth every moment that could have been spent on things that would have given me immediate gratification.

We humans have sought purpose and meaning from outside of ourselves for as long as we have been around. We have looked to the Earth, the Universe, and the metaphysical nature of Reality, in the hope that we can find some principle or message woven into the fabric of existence that will give us a purpose that is so noble that we will perpetually be driven toward it and our lives will be constantly awash in meaning. However, my thoughts on the matter have led me to conclude that when we do this, we are looking in the wrong place. Meaning of the third kind comes from acting in accordance to purposes that resonate with our own instinctual natures, and are not determined in any way by the facts of our environment or our world.

To support this claim, I argue that the sense of meaning is different from the first two kinds of meaning, both of which depend on external facts. First, we observe that simply acting as you are told does not necessarily give us a sense of meaning, whether the person we follow is a parent, a ruler, or even a God. You might say that if God writes our natures into us so that we find following his instructions to be meaningful, then the meaning of life is found in God’s commands, but this is not correct. Even in such a scenario, our sense of meaning still comes from our actions lining up with the purpose found within our nature, not from the content of God’s commands.

As for the second kind of meaning, following trails of evidence can teach us facts about the world, past events, or future possibilities, but we can always ask, “so what?” At the smallest level, the building block particles of reality behave somewhat like particles and somewhat like waves. So what? Gravity is the bending of space and time. So what? Dumping waste chemicals into rivers can kill fish and make people sick. So what? Facts by themselves don’t give us purpose, they only show us how effective our actions will be at furthering our purposes. Therefore our purpose-oriented sense of meaning cannot be the same as the second definition of “meaning.”

From this point on, when I use the word “meaning,” it is understood to be the third definition, the sense of meaning that comes from aligning one’s actions with one’s instinctually inspired purposes.

Some people say the Universe has no meaning. This is not correct; in fact, as they say, it is not even wrong. Meaning and fact are completely separate realms of existence, so trying to talk about the meaning of something that can only be described in factual terms is nonsense. Meaning exists within us, when the messages we hear resonate with us, giving us energy and driving us toward a noble purpose. This is what we mean when we talk about having a meaningful life.

The separation of fact and meaning leads to a very unfortunate dilemma regarding a very important word: truth. Most people take for granted that if something is true, it is both factual and meaningful. But we have just shown that fact and meaning are uncoupled, independent of one another, so there is no guarantee that what is factual will also be meaningful, or that what is meaningful will also be factual.

In the face of this dilemma, some people use “truth” to describe that which is factual, and not necessarily meaningful. Many scientists and science-enthusiasts hold this view. The problem with this is that “truth” has a feeling to it, a ring of purity. Truth is supposed to be a good thing, supposed to set you free. In a fact-only view of truth, there are many things that are true, but knowing them would only bring suffering.

Others use “truth” to mean that which is meaningful, and not necessarily factual. Professor Jordan Peterson, whom I look up to as a role model in many ways, is one of them. The problem with this view is that it can be used as an excuse to declare things to be true without much justification. When two people with sizable followings declare contradictory “truths” in this manner, it can create conflict, which, in the more extreme cases, can become violent.

Others simply refuse to separate fact and meaning. This leads to problems, because they prioritize intuition over evidence, and it can lead to rejecting important, well-supported facts, like that humans are influencing the Earth’s climate, and that we are part of the same tree of Evolution as all other living things on Earth. What these people fail to realize is that these facts do not dictate what our purpose should be, rather they inform us how best to live in accordance with our purpose. In denying well-supported facts, they sabotage their own purpose, making it harder for them and those around them to live meaningfully.

Still others decide to throw out the word altogether, claiming there is no truth, which, as you may imagine, does not sit well with anyone who holds a different view. My own tongue strains with derision toward these people, so I will decline to comment further about this view today.

My own way of dealing with the fact-meaning gap is to simply say there are two kinds of truth, that which is factual and that which is meaningful. We can call these literal truth and metaphorical truth. “Most snakes have fangs” is a literal truth, whereas “we are filled with snakes” is a metaphorical truth, signifying the side of human nature that runs counter to our nobler purposes. If we understand that there are two kinds of truth, it is not very hard to figure out from the context which is which.

There is a good chance that you do not like the conclusion that fact and meaning are separate. I know I don’t. Deep inside of ourselves, we want facts to be meaningful. After all, one of the most powerful ways to show meaning is by telling stories, which come in the form of a bunch of fact-like statements. But as any good storyteller knows, there is a reason why scientific papers are boring, but science fiction novels are gripping, even if they explain the same facts. That reason is because well-written stories tickle our senses of beauty, empathy, and archetypal resonance. We wish the same thing were true for reality, but we do not have to look very hard to see that Reality is not like stories. Tragedy strikes with no bright side. Patterns seem to appear and lead us nowhere. Ultimately Reality behaves exactly as we would expect if it were governed by clockwork mechanics and probability, not by human archetypes.

Meaning exists. It is not found in the facts of science, but in our own actions. As living beings, we are driven to do things, to devote our lives to projects and responsibility. Some life projects are extremely meaningful, others less so. What determines this is not the nature of the Universe, or how we have come to be as we are, but how well our actions resonate with our internal unconscious drives. The more our actions and drives are in harmony, the nobler we perceive our purpose to be. On the other hand, we find ourselves in a world made of facts, which put conditions and constraints on how we can go about our purposes. Meaning and fact are separate, but they are both important. Our sense of meaning points us toward purposes worth pursuing, and facts tell us how best to pursue our purposes.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Resolutions of Truth

In his Ted Talk, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman talks about how he and his associates did many simulation experiments where they created a variety of virtual worlds and creatures to inhabit them, and ran them forward using Evolutionary algorithms. They found that, with natural selection, the trait of seeing the world as it was went extinct, and fitness won out every time. Hoffman suggests that we see our world like a computer desktop, an interface full of icons that help us interact with the world, but are completely different from the objective parts of reality they represent.

Life evolves to see the world in ways that are useful, not in ways that are true.
We already know that the Universe is different from how we see it. The Earth looks flat, but it is really more like a sphere. Solid objects seem like continuous matter, but really they are made of atoms, which are mostly empty space. Planets seem to follow Newton’s idea of gravity as a force, but as Einstein discovered, objects in space really take as close to a straight path as possible in curved space-time. Hoffman’s idea, however, is more like what I discussed in Representational Realism, where reality-in-itself is fundamentally different from anything we can imagine, because the act of constructing a picture in our minds is automatically at least one step removed from reality itself.

In their public conversation, Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and professor of psychology Jordan Peterson discussed Hoffman’s interpretation of an icon-based perception of the world. They disagreed slightly with his interpretation, because our perceptions and mental pictures inform us to some degree of what will happen when we interact with them. Thus, it is not correct to say that the icons we see are nothing like reality, but they are versions of the truth at a low-resolution.

This fits with my own experience, and I presume the experiences of most people as they progress through life. In our quest for nobler purpose and deeper truth, we keep finding that the truth as we see it is not entirely correct, and that some nuance at the edges of it speak of something more complex. We continually find ourselves looking closer at things we thought we understood, only to find new insights about them that cause them to make even more sense and explain things more thoroughly.

As reality pertains to the human experience, the lowest resolution is one of stories. We see how the patterns in the world and our lives line up with the archetypes buried in our unconscious minds—or how they deviate in tragic or amusing ways. At a slightly higher resolution, the world is made of agents of choice,* people with free will who craft the future through effort and action. At a higher resolution, we find deterministic biology and physics, with organs, neurons, and fluid systems performing their tasks like clockwork. And at the highest resolution known to humankind, we find probabilistic quantum physics, where two systems that start out exactly the same can end up differently, but with well-defined probabilities for each. That might be the highest resolution, or there might be more layers hidden beneath it. No one knows.

You might wonder, as we come to understand higher and higher resolutions of truth, if there is any reason to look at the world in the lower resolution pictures. Shouldn’t we just go with the clearest, most in-depth understanding of reality, and throw out the naive views we had before? I’ll answer that question with another question: is it better to look at a map of the world, to walk along a beach, or to examine a handful of sand? All of the layers are important, because every time we peer closer, we lose a little of the big picture. What I’m saying is that reality comes in layers. At one level, physics is probabilistic, but at a large enough scale, it behaves deterministically. At one level, human beings have free will and the power to make the future, and at another level we act out our archetypal instincts like actors on a stage. All of these pictures are true, and we find the richest, fullest understanding and engagement with the human experience by taking all of them seriously.

*I am actually not sure what order free will and archetypes come in. It may be that free will is sandwiched between telling stories at a lower resolution, and acting out archetypal instincts at a higher resolution. I left the main text as it is, though, because its lower-resolution explanation gets my point across nicely, while this higher-resolution explanation in the footnote would bog it down.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Why does Anything Exist?

The Nature of Reality:
Representational Realism
Existence and Natures

We have talked a lot on this blog about the nature of reality, about how real things exist objectively, and have natures by the mere fact of their existence. But there is a question we have yet to touch upon, and that is why there is a reality in the first place. Why is there a Universe and people and furry critters and chocolate fondues, instead of nothing at all?

When we speak of “nothing,” there are three definitions we have to keep track of. The first refers to the lack of something expected, such as when a parent asks their child, “what are you doing,” and the child replies, “nothing.” We are not interested in this type of nothing today. The second type of nothing people think of is empty space. There is no air or other matter, just the void. Those who are thorough in their thinking will say that it does not count unless no light is passing through it either.

We, however, will go a step even beyond that. To get a true State of Nothing, we must eliminate even time and space. No matter, no energy, no particles, no space, and no time. When we ask, “why does anything exist rather than Nothing?” this is what we mean.

Figure 1: This is an empty rectangle. It is not Nothing.

Figure 2: This is not even an empty rectangle. It is Nothing.

One possible reason reality exists is because there is an eternal God who has the ability to will things into existence. With this kind of God, creatio ex nihilo, or “creation from nothing,” is possible. If you look carefully though, this does not answer the question, but shifts it to “why is there a God rather than nothing?” A common response to this is that God is exempt because he is eternal, whereas the Universe had a beginning. This is unsatisfactory on two accounts, the first being that the claim that something exists eternally does not, in fact, explain why it exists in the first place. Secondly, we don’t know for sure that the Universe is not eternal. Perhaps a parent universe gave birth to our universe, in which case the Greater Universe might have an infinite sequence of past events. There is also the issue that time behaves in ways not well-understood in extreme cases like the big bang, and future scientific discoveries might reveal that concepts like “beginning of time” and “past-eternal” are naive, like the belief that all matter is made of air, water, fire, and earth. Alternatively, it may be that God is ontologically necessary, that is, it is impossible for him not to exist. But the justifications for this claim, the Ontological Arguments, are circular in their logic.

Another common response to the question of why anything exists is to reverse it and ask, “why should we expect there to be Nothing rather than a Universe?” It is a fair question, but not an answer in itself, and we have to be careful not to use it as an excuse to stop thinking about the topic.

Two common philosophical ideas about Nothing are of interest to us. The first, is ex nihilo, nihil fit, which means, “from nothing, nothing comes,” or, “nothing comes from nothing.” It seems like common sense that if nothing exists, nothing can come from it. After all, we don’t see random things popping into existence out of nowhere. However, “out of nowhere” is an example of the first kind of “nothing” that we said at the beginning of the discussion that we were not talking about. It is different from out State of Nothing, because in our everyday experience the Universe is already there, and the Universe is not Nothing. Still, it may not seem a stretch to assume that nothing can come from a State of Nothing either.

The second philosophical idea about Nothing is that in order to be a true State of Nothing, not only must it have no matter or energy or space or time, but no laws of physics may apply to it either. In this view, a law of physics would count as something, and such a law would itself need an explanation as to why it exists.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we try to apply ex nihilo, nihil fit and “no laws of physics may apply” at the same time. As we talked about last time in the Nature of Reality series, a law of physics is a representation, often written as a mathematical equation, of a physical state’s nature. If Nothing’s nature is that nothing comes from it, we can write that as a mathematical equation, dQ = 0, where Q is a vector of all possible quantities that can change, and d represents any change that happens to those quantities. Translated into English, the equation means, “the change in anything that can be changed is zero,” or, “nothing changes.” Thus, if nothing comes from Nothing, then that in itself is a law of physics that applies to a State of Nothing.

What we have just shown is that the claims, “nothing comes from nothing,” and “no laws of physics apply to a State of Nothing” contradict each other. This means that at least one of them is not true. Either at least some law of physics applies to a State of Nothing, or a State of Nothing would be unstable, and instantly create something.

If we accept that at least some law of physics applies to a State of Nothing, we cannot yet answer why anything exists, because that law could easily be “nothing comes from nothing.” However, it could also be something like String Theory or some as yet unknown Theory of Everything, which would predict universes coming into existence. Either way, we run into the question of why that law of physics exists rather than Nothing. The only solution I can think of is that, since mathematics and logic are transcendentally true, there is something buried deep within their uncharted depths that makes the ultimate law of physics ontologically necessary.

On the other hand, if we accept that Nothing has no laws of physics that apply to it, then something must come from it. As there is no limitation on what pops into being from this state, we might expect not only to get the Universe from it, but an infinite number of universes, where everything that is logically possible happens. These universes would be completely separate spacetime continua, so we would never be able to observe them, and it does not make sense to think of them as being in any direction from us, or before our universe or after.

Ultimately, I cannot answer the question of why anything exists rather than Nothing. We can, however, propose some possibilities. Perhaps, emergent from pure logic and mathematics, there is a law of physics which, when acting upon a State of Nothing, causes a universe to be created. Perhaps Nothing is not bound by any law, and so from it all things that are logically and mathematically possible spring forth into existence, each in its own universe. Perhaps there is a middle-man, like a God or a Force or a cosmic automated factory that is brought into eternal being by pure logic, and from which universes are created. Or perhaps the Universe merely exists because it exists, and the State of Nothing is a meaningless construct. Regardless, the Universe does exist, so let’s get out there and make the most of it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Life in the Universe – Probability and Perspective

Recommended Pre-Reading:
The Fermi Paradox

When we look up at the sky at night from a place without too much light, we can see thousands of stars. Telescopes and centuries of formal astronomy have shown us that there are billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Considering the mind-bogglingly high number of chances for civilizations to arise, and the incomprehensible amount of time that has passed since the big bang, it seems natural to ask why the sky is so silent. Where are all the aliens? This is famously called the Fermi Paradox. But is it actually a paradox? Do we really have good reason to believe there should be aliens everywhere?

Back in the days of Ancient Greece, Aristotle modeled the solar system—or rather the terrestrial system—with the Earth in the center, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolving around it in perfect circles. There is something in human nature that makes it easy to believe that the universe is centered around us. Aristotle’s model survived for over a thousand years into the middle ages, until a troublemaker by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus shook the world with the model we all know today, with the sun in the center and the Earth being a planet, just like all the other planets. Since then, the Copernican Principle has been the idea that there is nothing special about us. We don’t live at the center of the Universe, Earth is not a special planet, the sun is not a special star, and so on. We are an ordinary part of the Universe, just like everything else. Taking the Copernican Principle to its conclusion, it seems the cosmos should be positively teeming with civilizations’ phone calls, TV shows, and internet sites.

On the other hand, we must also consider the Anthropic Principle,* which basically says, “we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a place where intelligent life is possible.” For example, if you were to wake up in a room and find a letter which said, “There are a million rooms just like this one, and only one of them is occupied,” would you think to yourself, “what a miracle it is that I find myself in the only room out of a million that is occupied”? Of course not, because the fact that you are there is what makes it occupied. When applied to life in the Universe, the Anthropic Principle shows us that even if the chances of life arising around any particular star are a soul-crushing one in one septillion (1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 0.000000000000000000000001) over 13 billion years, it is completely unsurprising that we find ourselves here on a planet that is perfectly suited for intelligent life. In fact, since we have no reason to believe the entire Universe ends anywhere near the edge of the observable universe, it doesn’t matter how infinitesimally small the odds are, there is really nothing interesting about the fact that we exist.

Taking the Copernican and Anthropic principles together, all we can really conclude is that we are probably normal as far as civilizations go. However, we still can make no reasonable guess as to how many civilizations should exist. There might be millions in our own galaxy that we are just on the brink of finding, or there might be no others in the entire observable universe. There are those who claim life should be everywhere, and those who claim Earth is unique. Who is right? We don’t know. What we do know is that neither has a good enough argument to win the debate, because there just isn’t enough data yet.

Click to view larger.
Speaking of data, we can turn this question into a scientific one with the Drake Equation, which says the number of civilizations in a given volume of space is equal to a bunch of stuff multiplied together. Those variables are the rate of formation of stars in that volume that could potentially host life, the fraction of habitable stars with solar systems, the average number of habitable planets per solar system, the fraction of habitable planets where life begins, and the fraction of planets with life that evolve civilizations. I have taken liberties and condensed some of the variables together to make it easier to explain, but that is the gist of it. We know the first three pretty well. Almost all stars have solar systems, and it is quite common for stars to have rocky or ocean planets in their habitable zones. However, Earth is the only planet we know of that has life, and we don’t know how it got started, so we have no idea what the last two variables are. They could be anything from so small that ours is the only planet in the Universe with even microbial life, to so large that we might stumble upon our neighbors’ interstellar radio network any day now.

Talking about the Fermi Paradox has always bothered me. Not because it is a paradox, but because everyone calls it a paradox and I don’t see why. A paradox requires a valid theoretical prediction that either leads to two apparently contradictory conclusions, or disagrees with observational evidence. But the assumption that life should be everywhere in the Universe is not valid, hence no paradox. Regardless, whether or not we are alone is still one of the deepest, most awe-inspiring questions a human being can ask.

*The Anthropic Principle should not be confused with the Strong Anthropic Principle or the Weak Anthropic Principle, both of which apply the Anthropic Principle to the Universe. The Weak AP assumes there is a multiverse, while the Strong AP assumes there is not.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Question at the Core of Existence

Meaning and Purpose:
Jungian Archetypes
The Most Important Question
Fact and Meaning

A year ago, the intellectual giants Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson got together on Sam’s podcast to talk about the relationship between fact and morality, and ended up arguing for two hours about the definition of the word “truth.” Sam argued for what Jordan called Newtonian truth, which is the set of beliefs that most closely resemble fact, while Jordan argued for what he called Darwinian truth, which is the set of beliefs that lead to the survival and flourishing of humankind. Though they parted on a friendly note, they left with the frustration of talking in circles without end, and their audience felt the same.

From the promotional poster for their Vancouver event this coming June.

Although I side with Sam over this disagreement of definition, the question begs to be asked, what went wrong between them? How can two men with IQs so far through the roof that you couldn’t see them with binoculars disagree so stubbornly about the mere definition of a single word? I suspect it was not about the word at all, but something deeper and more profound than either of them realized. It surrounds a single question so basic and monumental that the entirety of human existence revolves around it.

For most of my life, I thought the most important question was, “What is true?” After all, it seemed like the quest to understand the universe and how we have come to wake up in it was the highest, most noble goal of being alive. If someone was factually incorrect, it seemed my duty to drum up a logical argument and correct them for Truth’s sake. As recently as August of last year, I wrote a blog post titled “Truth,” in which I treated Truth with a capital T as if it were a god. But being skeptical in nature, I came to doubt that putting Truth at the center of my existence was, in fact, objectively correct. To my great surprise, I discovered that there is another, more fundamental, more profound question than what is true.

One of the observations that led me to this conclusion is that not all truth is equal. For instance, it never does you any good to know exactly how many atoms are in the paint on a particular stop sign. It is obvious that this type of fact is pointless, but I needed to know why. What makes some truths worth knowing, and others a waste of time?

We are here, existing with corporeal bodies on Planet Earth. We have internal drives that cause us to do things, but we also have a strange feature called a will, which lets us choose actions and courses that deviate from the path of least resistance. We can do things that are easy, or things that are hard. We can reach for pleasure or satisfaction, or to meet the needs and desires of others. We can set out to punish wrong, or to forgive. Thus, after the observation of self-existence, the very first question, which guides our lives from beginning to end, and which must be asked anew every waking moment, is “What should we do?”

In answering this, we find a momentary purpose. Some people go out and act on this purpose immediately, but those who are wise look open-mindedly for relevant facts, using the purpose as a guide. For the most part, the better informed we are about the facts relating to our purpose, the better we can fulfill this purpose. It may be that during our pursuit of relevant knowledge, we discover something that makes us reevaluate our purpose, and this new purpose may send us looking for other information, and the cycle continues. We might say that this is the course of intellectual maturity. Looking at this cycle, it is easy to see how one might get these questions, “What is True?” and “What should we do?” mixed up in their order of importance. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first? It’s hard to tell.

But it can be resolved by considering an asymmetry between the questions’ results. It is possible to have great and meaningful purpose while being completely wrong about the facts. Just compare people from different religions, who believe different sets of facts that contradict each other, but who have equally purposeful lives. On the flip side, however, things are different. It is completely possible to have deep and thorough knowledge about many things, problems that need solving, injustices that need correcting, and also have a clear understanding of the boundaries of one’s knowledge, and yet do nothing at all. While logically these amount to A and not B, and B and not A, there is no question that from a human perspective there is a world of difference between the two. It is infinitely more fulfilling to be with purpose than with knowledge, and fulfillment is what we spend every bit of energy striving toward.

I think the core of the argument between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, the disagreement between the lines, is to what degree one must ground themselves in factual reality in order to have a maximally positive purpose-driven life. Sam’s position is that it is essential to have the facts straight, and the more factually correct you are, the nobler a purpose you find, and the better you will be able to successfully live it out. Jordan is more interested in what to do when the facts are beyond one’s reach or comprehension, or when doubting one’s current knowledge might lead to a loss of purpose. Both men have important things to say, and are well worth a respectful listen.