January 02, 2004

Time, space, and the kitchen sink


The Time We Thought We Knew
By BRIAN GREENE



This New York Times op ed piece
deals nicely - and with great clarity - with how most of us have failed to internalize what science reveals to us about space and time. It has me scurrying for the author’s book - and looking forward to his next one due out soon. But it also brings to the surface long-standing issues that have been foundational in my thinking for a long time.

The whole subject is one that in my quasi-scientific way I have struggled to comprehend all my life. For years I was torn between a spiritual interpretation of ultimate reality and a scientific one. I would go for months - years even - held completely by the scientific arguments, though my understanding of physics is limited by what I can learn from popular books on the subject. I have always been frustrated by not understanding the mathematics and physics directly. So I always depend on the translations provided by many very capable authors, such as Greene.

But I was saying that for long periods of time the scientific view of reality would hold command of me and I would dismiss all religious/spiritual perceptions as superstitions built largely on the fear of death. Then I would shift gears and read the works of theologians, such as Paul Tillich, and for another period of time the spiritual view would dominate. (I say “spiritual” to separate what I am thinking from religious. To me all religions tend to corrupt the very spiritual truths they ostensibly serve. )

However, in he past decade I have come to see that there is no conflict between reality as revealed by science and reality as revealed by spiritual experience. The scientific reality has the advantage of being confirmed by well-documented experiment. The spiritual reality also rests in experience, but experience that is not well controlled, or documented and is difficult - though not impossible - to duplicate.

In this article, Brian Greene barely hints at the implication for the spiritual view of life, but he is clear that there is a tremendous gap between scientific perceptions of space and time and our intuitive perceptions of space and time. He points out that science is moving in a direction to abandon them entirely.

What he doesn’t deal with in this article are two other fundamental areas where science and common experience/perception clash. The first is the concept of “now.” For me, “now” is an imaginary point - imaginary in the mathematical sense of the word. That is, it is impossible to grasp. It is a dividing line between past and future and we can keep hacking it into smaller and smaller pieces until we get to the point where it doesn’t exist at all. It is merely a useful reference. It bears no relationship to reality.

The second area he does not address here that to me is fundamental is our perception of “stuff.” That is, it has long seemed clear to me that the universe does not consists of energy and matter - but energy alone. Matter is an illusion generated by energy.

This should have been obvious with some of the earliest descriptions of the atom. We are talking about a “thing” that has a very small nucleus and yet occupies a very large space - nearly all of which is empty. And then we started taking even the nucleus apart and began defining “elementary” particles. But by around 1970 we had so damned many of them, they were embarrassment. The name implied they were the building blocks and there should be very few of them - certainly not hundreds.

Finally,we have to recognize that we are trying to understand all this from the inside and as such may have inescapable limits to our understanding. That is, we are part of the problem trying to understand the whole. But we can’t step outside the whole to understand it - we must see it with the tools we have. So we are roughly akin to a part of the engine trying to understand the entire automobile - not only what it is, but why it is. And we can’t.

But even within our limits what we are seeing is that the reality as defined by common experience is not the reality that is defined by science. For me, the reality defined by science is much closer to the reality defined by uncommon experience - experience derived from such practices as meditation. I hasten to add, however, that my own most uncommon experiences - momentary flashes of indescribable insight - usually take me completely by surprise and do not come from any practice that I am able to define and repeat. And that, sadly, is what separates them from science. Yet there is a certain comfort in sensing that these two greta halves of my existence - the scientific and the spiritual - seem to be traveling down separate paths that lead to the same point - though I can not define that point, nor clearly perceive it. And I am trying my best to avoid the word “god” because it is far too superficial and restraining for what I believe is there.

Posted by Greg Stone at 07:23 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack