Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the April, 2013 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
"Our rational cognition applies only to appearances, and leaves the thing in itself unrecognized by us, even though inherently actual."
Reality is so obvious to us. We've experienced it as far back as we can remember. But throughout history deep thinkers have had troubling questions about it. Back in 1781 Immanuel Kant questioned our ability to grasp it. He felt that, since our knowledge about "things" is based totally on our senses, our understanding of those things involves only appearances generated by our minds. That, in his view, leaves the "thing in itself" (reality), untouched by our limited source of information. Going back even further, this line of thinking is reminiscent of Plato's Cave Allegory in which residents of a cave deduced reality solely from shadows cast on a wall. The message, in both cases, is that our access to reality is always reflected through another medium - we never have direct contact with the "real" thing.
We now understand that our knowledge of things is based on electrical impulses cascading through nerve pathways which are interpreted by our brain. In spite of our innate reluctance to accept it, all we have of reality is a secondary, filtered interpretation - we just don't have access to things as they are. That insight, profound in the eras of Plato and Kant, is gathering incredible momentum in this modern age which is proving their point with deadly accurate scientific experiments.
Quantum wave mechanics, conceived by Erin Schrodinger, suggest that the thing in itself is actually a wave of probability propagating through space and time (that's really weird, but experiments support his thinking). The wave coalesces into a single thing only when observed. Other than Schrodinger's propagating wave, we actually have no idea what the "thing" is doing when we're not looking. But it's worth noting that quantum mathematics is based on the discipline of statistics. With quantum uncertainty we can never predict what any specific particle will do. But, even better than statistical analysis, quantum science can predict with absolute certainty what the distribution curve of an experiment involving a large number of particles will be. So, sub-atomic particles behave randomly as individuals, but with absolute predictability in groups.
[Warning: I'm about to use the springboard of science to leap into one of my unscientific brainstorms]
Could this quantum tendency translate to the macro world? Might the behavior of the universe be like a child's toy - a snow globe? When the toy is shaken the individual snow-like particles rush around following apparently random paths. However, over time they settle into the scene mandated by the design of the toy. Does the universe have a design that allows us to "sense" a stochastic environment while actually guiding us to a pre-determined end?
I'm reminded of old college debates about free-will vs. determinism. But let's extend the discussion - what if the universe translates this micro pattern to the macro world (remember, everything, including us, is made from sub-atomic particles). A false sense of free will might exist for us as individuals, while we actually operate within a predetermined framework. Any potential action of an individual could be described by a wave of probabilities. The individual is (or feels he is) free to choose. But taken together with all choices made - might there be a predetermined result? In other words - could the universe have an agenda? Further, might the fact that Kant's "thing in itself" is hidden from us be a clue that the universe is hiding its blueprint?
So, does the universe have a hidden agenda? Consider the fact that Einstein's Theory of Relativity never received a Nobel Prize, yet, it is widely considered the most incredible scientific insight ever. More recently, Peter Higgs' groundbreaking paper was rejected by "Physics Letters" which was edited by CERN. Since then, CERN has spent $Billions building and staffing the Large Hadron Collider to prove the premise of his once rejected paper.
Today, some scientists see a universe that seems to have a master plan. If proven, that would rock the world even more than proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life. In the immortal words of Albert Einstein "Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect, as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper."
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this page last updated 4 May 2013
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