The Big Picture

Once again I have not really been the world’s most conscientious blogger, have I? Sometimes other responsibilities have to take precedence — such as looming book deadlines. And I’m working on a new book, and that deadline is definitely looming!

Sean Carroll: The Big Picture

And here it is. The title is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It’s scheduled to be published on May 17, 2016; you can pre-order it at Amazon and elsewhere right now.

An alternative subtitle was What Is, and What Matters. It’s a cheerfully grandiose (I’m supposed to say “ambitious”) attempt to connect our everyday lives to the underlying laws of nature. That’s a lot of ground to cover: I need to explain (what I take to be) the right way to think about the fundamental nature of reality, what the laws of physics actually are, sketch some cosmology and connect to the arrow of time, explore why there is something rather than nothing, show how interesting complex structures can arise in an undirected universe, talk about the meaning of consciousness and how it can be purely physical, and finally trying to understand meaning and morality in a universe devoid of transcendent purpose. I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

From another perspective, the book is an explication of, and argument for, naturalism — and in particular, a flavor I label Poetic Naturalism. The “Poetic” simply means that there are many ways of talking about the world, and any one that is both (1) useful, and (2) compatible with the underlying fundamental reality, deserves a place at the table. Some of those ways of talking will simply be emergent descriptions of physics and higher levels, but some will also be matters of judgment and meaning.

As of right now the book is organized into seven parts, each with several short chapters. All that is subject to change, of course. But this will give you the general idea.

* Part One: Being and Stories

How we think about the fundamental nature of reality. Poetic Naturalism: there is only one world, but there are many ways of talking about it. Suggestions of naturalism: the world moves by itself, time progresses by moments rather than toward a goal. What really exists.

* Part Two: Knowledge and Belief

Telling different stories about the same underlying truth. Acquiring and updating reliable beliefs. Knowledge of our actual world is never perfect. Constructing consistent planets of belief, guarding against our biases.

* Part Three: Time and Cosmos

The structure and development of our universe. Time’s arrow and cosmic history. The emergence of memories, causes, and reasons. Why is there a universe at all, and is it best explained by something outside itself?

* Part Four: Essence and Possibility

Drawing the boundary between known and unknown. The quantum nature of deep reality: observation, entanglement, uncertainty. Vibrating fields and the Core Theory underlying everyday life. What we can say with confidence about life and the soul.

* Part Five: Complexity and Evolution

Why complex structures naturally arise as the universe moves from order to disorder. Self-organization and incremental progress. The origin of life, and its physical purpose. The anthropic principle, environmental selection, and our role in the universe.

* Part Six: Thinking and Feeling

The mind, the brain, and the body. What consciousness is, and how it might have come to be. Contemplating other times and possible worlds. The emergence of inner experiences from non-conscious matter. How free will is compatible with physics.

* Part Seven: Caring and Mattering

Why we can’t derive ought from is, even if “is” is all there is. And why we nevertheless care about ourselves and others, and why that matters. Constructing meaning and morality in our universe. Confronting the finitude of life, deciding what stories we want to tell along the way.

Hope that whets the appetite a bit. Now back to work with me.

Hypnotized by Quantum Mechanics

It remains embarrassing that physicists haven’t settled on the best way of formulating quantum mechanics (or some improved successor to it). I’m partial to Many-Worlds, but there are other smart people out there who go in for alternative formulations: hidden variables, dynamical collapse, epistemic interpretations, or something else. And let no one say that I won’t let alternative voices be heard! (Unless you want to talk about propellantless space drives, which are just crap.)

So let me point you to this guest post by Anton Garrett that Peter Coles just posted at his blog:

Hidden Variables: Just a Little Shy?

It’s quite a nice explanation of how the state of play looks to someone who is sympathetic to a hidden-variables view. (Fans of Bell’s Theorem should remember that what Bell did was to show that such variables must be nonlocal, not that they are totally ruled out.)

As a dialogue, it shares a feature that has been common to that format since the days of Plato: there are two characters, and the character that sympathizes with the author is the one who gets all the good lines. In this case the interlocutors are a modern physicist Neo, and a smart recently-resurrected nineteenth-century physicist Nino. Trained in the miraculous successes of the Newtonian paradigm, Nino is very disappointed that physicists of the present era are so willing to simply accept a theory that can’t do better than predicting probabilistic outcomes for experiments. More in sorrow than in anger, he urges us to do better!

My own takeaway from this is that it’s not a good idea to take advice from nineteenth-century physicists. Of course we should try to do better, since we should alway try that. But we should also feel free to abandon features of our best previous theories when new data and ideas come along.

A nice feature of the dialogue between Nino and Neo is the way in which it illuminates the fact that much of one’s attitude toward formulations of quantum mechanics is driven by which basic assumptions about the world we are most happy to abandon, and which we prefer to cling to at any cost. That’s true for any of us — such is the case when there is legitimate ambiguity about the best way to move forward in science. It’s a feature, not a bug. The hope is that eventually we will be driven, by better data and theories, toward a common conclusion.

What I like about Many-Worlds is that it is perfectly realistic, deterministic, and ontologically minimal, and of course it fits the data perfectly. Equally importantly, it is a robust and flexible framework: you give me your favorite Hamiltonian, and we instantly know what the many-worlds formulation of the theory looks like. You don’t have to think anew and invent new variables for each physical situation, whether it’s a harmonic oscillator or quantum gravity.

Of course, one gives something up: in Many-Worlds, while the underlying theory is deterministic, the experiences of individual observers are not predictable. (In that sense, I would say, it’s a nice compromise between our preferences and our experience.) It’s neither manifestly local nor Lorentz-invariant; those properties should emerge in appropriate situations, as often happens in physics. Of course there are all those worlds, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. For Many-Worlds, it’s the technical problems that bother me, not the philosophical ones — deriving classicality, recovering the Born Rule, and so on. One tends to think that technical problems can be solved by hard work, while metaphysical ones might prove intractable, which is why I come down the way I do on this particular question.

But the hidden-variables possibility is still definitely alive and well. And the general program of “trying to invent a better theory than quantum mechanics which would make all these distasteful philosophical implications go away” is certainly a worthwhile one. If anyone wants to suggest their favorite defenses of epistemic or dynamical-collapse approaches, feel free to leave them in comments.

Quantum Field Theory and the Limits of Knowledge

Last week I had the pleasure of giving a seminar to the philosophy department at the University of North Carolina. Ordinarily I would have talked about the only really philosophical work I’ve done recently (or arguably ever), deriving the Born Rule in the Everett approach to quantum mechanics. But in this case I had just talked about that stuff the day before, at a gathering of local philosophers of science.

So instead I decided to use the opportunity to get some feedback on another idea I had been thinking about — our old friend, the claim that The Laws of Physics Underlying Everyday Life Are Completely Understood (also here, here). In particular, given that I was looking for feedback from a group of people that had expertise in philosophical matters, I homed in on the idea that quantum field theory has a unique property among physical theories: any successful QFT tells us very specifically what its domain of applicability is, allowing us to distinguish the regime where it should be accurate from the regime where we can’t make predictions.

The talk wasn’t recorded, but here are the slides. I recycled a couple of ones from previous talks, but mostly these were constructed from scratch.

The punchline of the talk was summarized in this diagram, showing different regimes of phenomena and the arrows indicating what they depend on:

layers

There are really two arguments going on here, indicated by the red arrows with crosses through them. These two arrows, I claim, don’t exist. The physics of everyday life is not affected by dark matter or any new particles or forces, and its only dependence on the deeper level of fundamental physics (whether it be string theory or whatever) is through the intermediary of what Frank Wilczek has dubbed “The Core Theory” — the Standard Model plus general relativity. The first argument (no new important particles or forces) relies on basic features of quantum field theory, like crossing symmetry and the small number of species that go into making up ordinary matter. The second argument is more subtle, relying on the idea of effective field theory.

So how did it go over? I think people were properly skeptical and challenging, but for the most part they got the point, and thought it was interesting. (Anyone who was in the audience is welcome to chime in and correct me if that’s a misimpression.) Mostly, since this was a talk to philosophers rather than physicists, I spent my time doing a pedagogical introduction to quantum field theory, rather than diving directly into any contentious claims about it — and learning something new is always a good thing.

The Reality of Time

The idea that time isn’t “real” is an ancient one — if we’re allowed to refer to things as “ancient” under the supposition that time isn’t real. You will recall the humorous debate we had at our Setting Time Aright conference a few years ago, in which Julian Barbour (the world’s most famous living exponent of the view that time isn’t real) and Tim Maudlin (who believes strongly that time is real, and central) were game enough to argue each other’s position, rather than their own. Confusingly, they were both quite convincing.

smithsonian-mag The subject has come up once again with two new books by Lee Smolin: Time Reborn, all by himself, and The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger. This new attention prompted me to write a short essay for Smithsonian magazine, laying out the different possibilities.

Personally I think that the whole issue is being framed in a slightly misleading way. (Indeed, this mistaken framing caused me to believe at first that Lee and I were in agreement, until his book actually came out.) The stance of Maudlin and Smolin and others isn’t merely that time is “real,” in the sense that it exists and plays a useful role in how we talk about the world. They want to say something more: that the passage of time is real. That is, that time is more than simply a label on different moments in the history of the universe, all of which are independently pretty much equal. They want to attribute “reality” to the idea of the universe coming into being, moment by moment.

3metaphysics

Such a picture — corresponding roughly to the “possibilism” option in the picture above, although I won’t vouch that any of these people would describe their own views that way — is to be contrasted with the “eternalist” picture of the universe that has been growing in popularity ever since Laplace introduced his Demon. This is the view, in the eyes of many, that is straightforwardly suggested by our best understanding of the laws of physics, which don’t seem to play favorites among different moments of time.

According to eternalism, the apparent “flow” of time from past to future is indeed an illusion, even if the time coordinate in our equations is perfectly real. There is an apparent asymmetry between the past and future (many such asymmetries, really), but that can be traced to the simple fact that the entropy of the universe was very low near the Big Bang — the Past Hypothesis. That’s an empirical feature of the configuration of stuff in the universe, not a defining property of the nature of time itself.

Personally, I find the eternalist block-universe view to be perfectly acceptable, so I think that these folks are working hard to tackle a problem that has already been solved. There are more than enough problems that haven’t been solved to occupy my life for the rest of its natural span of time (as it were), so I’m going to concentrate on those. But who knows? If someone could follow this trail and be led to a truly revolutionary and successful picture of how the universe works, that would be pretty awesome.

Life Is the Flame of a Candle

Emperor Has No Clothes Award Last October I was privileged to be awarded the Emperor Has No Clothes award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The physical trophy consists of the dashing statuette here on the right, presumably the titular Emperor. It’s made by the same company that makes the Academy Award trophies. (Whenever I run into Meryl Streep, she’s just won’t shut up about how her Oscars are produced by the same company that does the Emperor’s New Clothes award.)

Part of the award-winning is the presentation of a short speech, and I wasn’t sure what to talk about. There are only so many things I have to say, but it’s boring to talk about the same stuff over and over again. More importantly, I have no real interest in giving religion-bashing talks; I care a lot more about doing the hard and constructive work of exploring the consequences of naturalism.

So I decided on a cheerful topic: Death and Physics. I talked about modern science gives us very good reasons to believe (not a proof, never a proof) that there is no such thing as an afterlife. Life is a process, not a substance, and it’s a process that begins, proceeds along for a while, and comes to an end. Certainly something I’ve said before, e.g. in my article on Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, and in the recent Afterlife Debate, but I added a bit more here about entropy, complexity, and what we mean by the word “life.”

If you’re in a reflective mood, here it is. I begin at around 3:50. One of the points I tried to make is that the finitude of life has its upside. Every moment is precious, and what we should value is what is around us right now — because that’s all there is. It’s a scary but exhilarating view of the world.