On its basic level, the universe is one thing: Unity. It is itself, the undivided whole. Identity. A rose is a rose is a rose. The gestalt of it is that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. As the Buddhist said to the hotdog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”
But beyond the warm fuzzy feeling that this realization provides us, it is of little analytical use to us as we try to fathom the facets and labyrinths of local galaxies and of quarks. We chop up the unity into bite-sized chunks. A certain feeling of fulfillment accrues to us as we begin to understand our environment. Thus we pick it apart into its constituent components in the hope that we will, at some point, be able to put it back together and regain that small bit of kerf we lost in this reductionistic process. We take the watch apart to see what makes it tick then hope to make it tick again.
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While I was taking a photography course, I took a picture of a man in silhouette, climbing a ladder, framed inside a building under construction. It was a rather mundane picture but it had this graphic impact and I wanted to figure out why. Finally, I realized that it was the black silhouette against a stark white background. It was the highest contrast area in the picture, and although it was way off-center, and small in the frame, it easily became the subject of the photo. This got me to thinking about the subject-background relationship. Things stand out from their background only by virtue of this contrast. The more the contrast, the more they stand out. This notion can easily be extended to more abstract contrasts such as masculine-feminine, young-old, slow-fast, soft-hard.
Whatever concept we might consider, or whatever attribute we might assign to anything, it immediately conjures up its opposite or conjugate attribute to serve as a background. Further, each thing and its opposite conjures a continuum which unifies them. The universe as a whole, by virtue of the things within it, expands to encompass the extremes of all these continuums. As they say about Calcutta, anything you say about it is true. This is said in the sense that it is so diverse that it encompasses the extremes of all dualities.
The universe plays host to the random, chaotic, indeterminate and meaningless processes as well as the ordered, self-organizing dissipative systems, and the entropy-defying process of life itself.
Yet there are many more impossibilities, which are illogical and false.
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Perception and, I think, thought itself, works by comparison; by analogy; no thought without its context, no object without its surrounding equivocal space. As we take and break up the world into bite-sized pieces in order to fit them into our perception of reality, the attributes we assign to these pieces form dualities with the pieces we leave behind. Extracting something from the whole conjures a contrast, which allows us to perceive that small bite-sized piece of the puzzle, and, if we are attentive, it also allows us to see that background from which it was extracted. That which can not be compared, can not be perceived.
This is duality.
Yin-Yang is the quintessential expression of the idea of duality. Each half has within it the seed of the other.
Shakespeare was big into it with, “To be or not to be.”
The Zen koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping" embodies this notion. And, in the Christian faith, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when Eve eats from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; this is duality. No heaven without hell, no God without the devil. We can only know pleasure in comparison with suffering. When we divide the world up into good and bad we are, at first, tempted to try to discard the bad part. But then, we are left with the nagging feeling that we may need to come to grips with that part, abhorrent as it is, if we ever wish to reconstruct the whole to its original ignominious grandeur and imperfect perfection. If you discard a single piece of the puzzle, you will never get a complete picture. In the final analysis, we can not discard the bad. Chaos and destruction always accompany renewal and creation.
The entire Platonic realm of mathematics is contingent upon the duality of equality and inequality. Outside of duality, the distinction between the finite and the infinite disappears.
Duality is in Newton’s law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Why is there gravity? It is the equal and opposite reaction to the expansion of the universe!
In quantum physics, there is a wave-particle duality. These are mutually exclusive properties. This is a counter-intuitive, illogical (logically discontinuous) aspect of nature.
These strange aspects of reality are usually described to the lay reader (and I consider myself one simply because I can’t follow the math) using the two-slit experiment as an example.
In this experiment, a stream of photons (light), electrons, protons, or some other particles (even large molecules consisting of 60 atoms of carbon – buckyballs) are fired at two slits. Those that pass through are collected on a photographic plate, or some other detection device, behind the slits. Since we are firing particles, we would expect to see two dark bands (overlapping piles of particles), one behind each slit, tapering off in darkness from their centers. We do not. Instead, we see an interference pattern of alternating dark and light bands, as if we had conducted the experiment in a tank of water, and the two separate waves were arriving at the plate either in or out of phase, depending on their relative distance from the two slits. Those waves arriving in phase reinforce or add to produce a dark band and, one half wavelength to either side, the waves arrive out of phase and interfere or cancel. At these points no visible darkening occurs on the plate. If we close either slit, the expected pattern of darkening behind the center of the other slit, smoothly tapering to either side is observed.
First off, there is something strange here. Waves are oscillations traveling in a medium, like water in a tank or sound in air. The wave belongs to the medium. But the photons are not in a medium. They are traveling through empty space. The experiment can be carried out in a vacuum, but it makes no difference; the air does not affect the results. Also, all of the elementary (and not so elementary!) particles behave in just the same way.
Now here, it starts to get spooky! You can slow down the beam to the point where you are getting only one photon at a time, and you will still get the interference pattern. Mathematically, this is described in Feynman’s Quantum Electro Dynamics, QED, as integrating the sum over histories. The particle takes all possible paths. The particle goes through both slits and interferes with itself! The photon is said to be in superposition, being in two places at once. How can this be?
This result is so goofy that the experiment has been conducted many times in many forms with ever increasing levels of accuracy and sophistication to try to eliminate the discontinuity or to refute the result, but to no avail.
It gets spookier still. If you put a detector at either slit so you will know which slit the particle goes through, the interference pattern disappears. The observation collapses the quantum wave-function. Even by inference, if the detector is on but registers no photon, so that you can deduce that the photon went through the other slit, the interference pattern still disappears. This is called the null observation. Now, if you turn the detector off but it is still in the same place, and you are not able to make the observation of which slit the photon goes through, the interference pattern returns. In many quite serious physics books, written by eminent, Nobel-prize-winning physicists, it is said that ‘the particle knows.’ In taking all possible paths through time, the wave-function of the quantum system seems to have, built into it, a knowledge of the endpoint.
In addition, there is a phenomenon called wave entanglement where if two or more particles ‘cross paths’ or interact in a quantum way, they are said to be entangled. If an observation is made on any one of the particles, all of the others are immediately affected, no matter how far they are separated in time or space. This is action at a distance.
The collapse of the quantum state to a classical state is dependant on the observer. The observer can arbitrarily choose which of the two mutually exclusive attributes, particle or wave, manifests. Archibald Wheeler put forth the notion of a participatory universe. In Wheeler’s words, the weak anthropic principal allows for an observer; the strong anthropic principal requires an observer. A conscious observer.
Einstein fully understood that quantum mechanics was illogical and refused to accept its acausal nature and spooky action at a distance. He contended that there must be some hidden variables that would make the description of reality complete. In answer to these objections, stated in the form of the EPR paradox, Bell’s theory rules out the possibility of any local hidden variables and reveals this aspect of reality in all of its illogical glory. Bell’s theory has been experimentally verified.
Even the current crop of grand unified string theories incorporates all of these wired aspects of quantum mechanics. The universe truly does manifest both logic and illogic in its nature. I belabor this point because I know just how difficult it is to accept.
I know all of this is rather technical and confusing. Feynman said, “If you think quantum mechanics is logical, you haven’t understood the problem.” To me, this was the single most liberating statement I have ever read. It freed me from my straightjacket of logical thinking (and it immediately made him my hero). Although, in the vast preponderance of situations, it usually does, logical doesn’t necessarily mean true and illogical doesn’t necessarily mean false.
It was a wonderment to me that something could be illogical and at the same time valid and true. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (in any logical system we may devise, there will be statements which are true but unprovable) is an elegant verification of this. Somehow it fit. And it was all tied together with one mechanism: consciousness.
The prevailing scientific view on this is that consciousness spontaneously arises from self-organized complexity and that it is an emergent phenomenon of natural chemical and physical reactions. To this view, I would reply, consciousness is not an afterthought.
This focused my attention on the logical-illogical duality. We can only see what is logical when we compare it with what is illogical. If the universe were a totally logical place, we would not have the concept of logic. Does a fish know it’s wet?
Further, there is a continuum between logic and illogic, with math at one end, and then, trailing off to the left, classical physics, the other hard sciences, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc. Philosophy is somewhere in the middle. Further to the left is religion, spirituality, and finally, all the way to the left, quantum mechanics, shaking hands with math behind its back.
Logic and truth are supplementary attributes. Even in math, there is a small degree of illogic. At some point in math, we stumble upon the square root of minus one; i for short. What’s up with that? It defies the rule that when you square a quantity, you always get a positive result. To perform the inverse operation of extracting the square root on a negative quantity makes no sense. The great mathematician and philosopher Descartes (another one of my heroes for “I think, therefore I am”) was so offended by this concept that he derisively labeled it an imaginary number, and the name stuck.
This imaginary number, i, shows up repeatedly in equations that describe the natural world, particularly in electronics where phenomena are described in terms of phase space.
In its mathematical formalism, quantum mechanics is formulated in Riemann space of complex numbers, which have a real component and an imaginary component.
As a teenager, Richard Feynman copied out, in his notebook, the derivation of Euler’s equation using infinite series:
eiπ + 1 = 0
He labeled it, “The Most Remarkable Formula in Math.”
Here it is: The irrational, the imaginary and the transcendental (all math terms) all in one equation. And no, I don’t even begin to understand its implications.
Math comes to us from the Platonic realm. It is not invented, it is discovered. Nature obeys it. It would be a meaningless waste were it not for a consciousness to comprehend it.
Another duality, which I find particularly interesting is the interplay of causal determinism and free will.
Causal determinism is the idea that everything happens for a reason or a preceding cause. Newton’s clockwork universe described by classical physics is causal. Most scientists are causal determinists. The corresponding concept in religious thought is fate or destiny.
Quantum physics is acausal. Einstein famously said, “The Old One does not play dice with the universe!” (That’s right, She plays Parcheesi.) If the decisions we make in life are preprogrammed by our nature or conditioning, then we do not have free will. Our legal system is based on the concept of freedom of will. If we are not free to choose to do right or wrong, then how can we be held accountable for our actions? Most of us, I think, hold the strong feeling that we do have free will.
If even a small portion of brain function is quantum in nature, as many researchers in the field now believe, we may hold in our minds the future as the superposition of a multiplicity of possibilities which are amenable to choice by a conscious observer; then we have free will. The acausal nature of quantum reality is the loophole that allows the existence of consciousness and permits this free will. Where this shines most brightly is in any creative act. No preprogrammed algorithm can produce creativity. Only the past is carved in stone. The future is yet to be determined.
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Consciousness is the ground of all being. The nature of this consciousness shall always be a mystery. Its nature lies outside the realm of logical proof and causality. We may only get an inkling of it, from time to time, glanced out of the corner of our eye. Its essence can only be arrived at by a leap of faith.
My own conjecture is to make an analogy between the nature of consciousness and the wave-particle nature of light.
The way we are on a day-to-day basis corresponds to the particle nature of consciousness; the individuated I, the eye that looks out in all directions from a single point of view and sees things from a single perspective.
On occasion, we get to experience the wave nature of consciousness.
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Does life have meaning? Yes, quite obviously, it does. We as conscious beings give it meaning. We continue on, with volition; we observe and assimilate our conditions of existence. We solve the solvable puzzles and refine our guesses at the answers to the unsolvable puzzles.
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I am an observer in the most general sense of the word. I avidly look at everything with fascination and wonder. To look is my purpose for being. It is a spiritual act. It is a natural outgrowth of the duality of the subject-object split, which is one of the great mysteries of being.
Science affords us the best description of physical reality. It gives us a view of nature that is objective and verifiable by observation. We rely on it for survival. The phenomenon of consciousness is self-evident. Indeed, our experience and understanding of nature depends upon it. Its nature must be folded into our view, consistent with science, granting its paradoxical nature, not as an afterthought, but as a basic building block of reality.
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Duality is the implicit rule of being. It is binary and asymmetric. Being implies nonbeing, but nonbeing does not imply being. Nonbeing doesn’t imply anything. Taken as a whole, this unitary universe of being is undifferentiated. What is the sound of one universe rhyming? Consciousness initiates the subject-object split. The observer and the object observed. The observer breaks the object into further parts and assigns attributes to each of these parts. Each attribute conjures its conjugate (opposite or complementary) attribute, which acts as the contrasting background without which the object can not be seen. Consciousness is the conjugate attribute of entropy.
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So here is your pop quiz. Define universe. Be specific and complete. Give several examples.
Jim Stanfield is a mechanical designer working at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. His lists as main interests: photography and writing. Jim hs been been in Mensa for 20 years and a resident of San Francisco for 30. He is originally from Michigan.
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