Thursday, February 23

A February jaunt through space and time

I remain mindful of the words of one of the great religious philosophers Thomas Aquinas who said ‘All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly'.

His quote is a salutary reminder of our limitations and the need for humility. His likable philosophical style always argues the for’s and againsts before listing his numerous conclusions. He cautions making bold statements based purely on religious texts. Instead, he recommends relevant and or scientific knowledge to be studied beforehand to avoid making a fool of oneself.

Aquinas’ philosophy coincided with the emergence of modern day science when all philosophy was based upon science.
Interestingly enough it is only in more recent times once the volume of scientific knowledge expanded exponentially that we chose to separate the two.

My intention in this essay is to take a stroll through the mysterious realm of space-time to ponder its impact, if any, on traditional religious philosophy. The journey begins with the discovery of the incredible speed of light, I then examine its influence in the special theory of relativity and conclude with the quantum mystery. Along the way I will talk about how such provisional discoveries have shaped our views and/or influenced beliefs.

The speed of light and the special theory of relativity.
Danish astronomer Ole Rømer (1) in 1675 was the first to posit the incredible speed of light from observation of the moons of Jupiter.  
Remarkably he did manage to come up with a speed of 225,000 km/s per second, against the actual speed of 300,000 km/s.  
But it was Faraday (2) who discovered the influence of magnetic fields on polarized light in 1846. Later the Michelson-Morley (3) experiments of 1887, stumbled on the amazing counter intuitive discovery that light always travels at the same speed, regardless of where the measurement is taken. This applies only of course when light travels through a vacuum as if it were to encounter any resistance such as when moving from air to glass, the speed of course would change according to the new medium's index of refraction. Hence you can have the “bending” of light as is the case in understanding how lenses work.  

But in 1905, Einstein (and also the French mathematician Henri Poincaré, both reached the same conclusion: Einstein also realized  ‘that Maxwell’s equations led to an apparent paradox or inconsistency in the laws of physics, because it suggested that if one could catch up to a beam of light one would see a stationary electromagnetic wave, which is an impossibility. Einstein hypothesized, therefore, that the speed of light actually plays the role of infinite speed in our universe, and that in fact nothing can ever travel faster than light (and certainly that nothing in the universe could ever travel at anything like infinite speed). It should be noted that Einstein did not actually PROVE the constancy of the speed of light in all frames of reference. Rather, it is an axiom (an underlying assumption) from which he derived the rest of his theory. The axiom can be experimentally verified, but it is not proven in any theoretic sense.’
This constant in relation to the speed of light and the principle of relativity (mechanical laws of physics are the same for every inertial observer) are the two principal planks to the Special Theory of Relativity. When Einstein combined the principle of relativity with the constant speed of light, it became clear to him the speed of light was also independent of the speed of the observer (as well as of the speed of the source of the light), and that everyone in the universe, no matter how fast they were moving, would always measure the speed of light at exactly the same 300,000 km/s.

By way of a down to earth example we are all familiar with the concept of a game of table tennis noting it takes the same time for the ball to pass over the net when playing a game in a fast moving train as it does if the game was played on the platform. However for an observer located on the station looking into the fast moving train this is not the case since the trains speed plus the speed of the ball will equal the total speed of the ball as far he is concerned. So you can see the actual speed of the ball is the same for both scenarios,   just as it is for all observers, but the important point is it is relative to motion. On the other hand light for any observer anywhere will always only be seen as the same absolute speed of light.
Hence we can understand all the laws of science are the same to all observers regardless of their location in space after allowing for gravitational effects. Just to reiterate Einstein’ discovery paved the way for this conclusion (which however will be challenged later on) that our observations are relative to our motion and we can only think of time in the context of space-time.
After discovering the special theory of relativity Einstein incorporated the gravitational field effects which cause warping within his general theory of relativity.

A brief excursion into the slippery concept of time differences.
The obvious conclusion following on from the theory of special relativity is that any movement through space reduces our time in space to the point theoretically once you have reached the absolute speed of light, time becomes frozen.

This idea of course in reality is quite farcical since any object travelling through space at that speed would develop such an unimaginative amount of mass as it would approach the equivalent of all matter already present in the entire universe.
However there is a relative difference for all of us depending on our motion through space but the miniscule differences on planet earth can effectively be ignored and we can feel comfortable with our outdated Newtonian view of time. We can have no doubt however as to the soundness of the theory since it is has been independently verified by extremely accurate atomic clocks stationed on board aircraft. Spend your entire life flying in planes and you will be younger than your comparable walker but the differences are so small that on your death bed the flyer would scarcely have the additional time to think about even saying a few ‘Hail Mary’s’.
However in the vast distances of space the effects can be calculated to show huge disparities.
Imagine one in a spacecraft in the future when we have discovered a way to travel at close to the speed of light to find some remarkable consequences. Since our motion at close to the speed of light this drastically reduces our time in space for any prolonged space journey requiring us to wind forward our clocks hundreds of thousands of years on reentry into planet earth.
But our stay at home earthlings have long since perished as those who welcome us home are thousands of generations later than those present when we left. That is because time has not slowed for them as it has for the space travelers whilst the biological aging is no different for either group. In attempting to explain the outcomes using simple numbers consider the following:

Spacecraft intrepid travelers take up a most of space time with motion so that time is only a tiny fraction of (.1) with motion at 99.9. The opposite effect applies to the stay at home earthlings whose time makes up 99.8 plus motion at a tiny slither (.2)
These are simply arbitrary numbers I have chosen to help illustrate my point.
At this point can we draw any religious philosophical conclusions?
Since the universe is subject to unique laws which unfolded miraculously in exact sequences to allow life to form one can posit that we are the product of a creation in an evolving mystery which I think can only leave us in state of wonderment.
For me there is abundant evidence around us everywhere to indicate that all life and nature itself is simply miraculous. By virtue of the laws of science we might also posit we live in the most probable of many possible universes which leads us to reasonably suggest within those predestined routes there only exists causality for freedom of thought or actions or choice. That causality I see as an evolved creation gift which gives us the sense of freedom or free will within the determinism arising from constraints of those (but only big picture if you will) predetermined laws.
Although we can measure time we cannot say what it is and can only better understand time by combining time with space for the absolute concept of space-time.
But even this concept may turn out to be fatally flawed since it only works in the application of large scale physics. However if we accept the idea for the moment then for a creator GOD both past present and future becomes irrelevant. That is to accept the proposition we remain trapped within what seems to be to us our enclosed universe.

And so it does seem necessary for our existence time does always indicate an arrow always moving forward except for possibilities inherent in extreme warping effects of gravity.
But so far we have only barely scratched the surface to already reveal our rather tenuous grip on reality and our brief sojourn into space -time.

Understanding classical physics through the time application of the quantum.
So far we have viewed the universe through the time prism of classical physics (a jaunt confined to seeing only big pictures) which confidently predict planetary movements and space travel to the extent we can have confidence in these evidence based outcomes. But if we attempt to understand classical physics on the micro scale the picture becomes blurred and all our well tested notions seem to be turned on their head as if a dark cloak was thrown over the picture we are attempting to view. At the outset the applications of the quantum (the subatomic level of particles present in the universe) you begin to question the veracity of previously adopted universal laws. Indeed the general theory of relativity barely clings on to its integrity when you begin to contemplate the bizarre behaviors of the smallest of those fragile tiny particles known within our universe and what ultimately comprises that remarkable you or me. Einstein’s explanation for quantum mechanics (the probabilities and uncertainties of sub atomic particles known as quantum laws) where particles split into respective waves or particles to mimic behaviors as if they were still one, regardless of their distances apart, was to say those correlations were due to the underlying properties already present prior to and after disentanglement. In other words these 'spin characteristics' were integral to the separated particle and its wave function before and after they became separated.
Once again Einstein’s elegant theory seemed plausible enough but other physicists were doubtful. The matter was settled once and for all when Einstein and other brilliant physicists that followed him were all proven to be wrong half a century later.
There is now overwhelming evidence for this so called quantum entanglement. (See Brian Greene – 'The Fabric of the Cosmos – Space, time, and the texture of reality').
The search in modernity continues.  

So the quest continues as I attempt to meander along on our space jaunt to now ask an intriguing question: can quantum theory underpin the idea of the mind and our consciousness to posit an afterlife?
There seems to be at least some anecdotal evidence to support the dualists (Cartesian mind – brain dualism) in that it is plausible for there to be a non-material or “none locally” (a soul if you will) identity to the brain itself. What we can deduce is a pair of separated electrons each of opposite spin and from the same source retain their entangled state until such time as one is observed.  What happens is they exhibit retaining knowledge of one to the other instantly on observation regardless of the immense distance they may be apart. This invalidates Einstein’s theory that nothing can exceed the speed of light. 

This has led to an explosion of ideas to what seems to be an intractable mystery. There are many axioms such as the proposition that if you believe knowledge is reality (which can’t be proven or disproven) it could be we simply do not have sufficient knowledge about the particles since that knowledge is hidden from us. Others posit information may be stored in another dimension upon which we are not privy.
Dualists (those embrace the idea of a spirt separate to the mind) point to the possibility this provides food for thought for the existence of some form of a soul not subject to the laws of the universe. 

The Hammeroff/Penrose school (4) of thought posit quantum information exists at every point in space – time.  Bits are entangled throughout the universe, just as they form part of the human brain. Suffice to say we do not know what space is really made up of other than what we can theoretically calculate and observe, being what was necessary for our existence.   
So at the most fundamental level we still do not have concrete evidence or experience about the reality that underpins the universe. Even the time distortions in our imaginary spacecraft in the future when we have discovered a way to travel at close to the speed of light may not yield the remarkable consequences predicted. In that sense we can return finally to a religious philosophical view and conclude that hardnosed materialistic evidence based science is now leading us to the view our ultimate reality remains a mystery that cannot be explained by science, which may well always be the case. So that trust which is so important in our relationships with others, but so often can be misplaced, is also analogous to the universe, since human experience is not always a good barometer in understanding her rich fabric, bearing in mind ‘ All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.’
So that all we can do is to have trust in the human spirit and for those who have a religious leaning, an ultimate trust - we need not fear our mortality for in death it seems plausible we return home from whence we came. References



♥ N o v a said...

This discussion is so interesting, and it brings up a few thoughts for me:

-If something is moving at the speed of light, does it experience time, and further, does it travel through distance?

-Interestingly enough, I just read an article yesterday about NASA finding several planets the size of Earth just a mere 40 light years away.

-I often wonder with the the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, if she happened to come across some time/light continuum, and that would explain why she and her crew and plane were never found?

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Nova,
Interesting questions. Bear in mind it is impossible for anything other than light to travel at the speed of light. Assuming the impossible is possible theoretically time would be frozen, but it would still be travelling through distance. But I gather it was the question what happens to time if I travel through space at very close to the speed of light that prompted you to ask that question. As you probably appreciated time does not change for you individually but rather you would see the startling effect upon returning to where you had set off. Upon you return you are now in a new age – maybe thousands of years further on in time then from when you first departed. So that if we were to imagine, as you have suggested Amelia Earhart became entangled in some time/light continuum, upon returning to earth we would never know because it would in a future time.
But the concept it is impossible for anything other than light to travel at the speed of light may not be true when we talk about the very small particles called photons, who many physicists believe do not experience time.
I agree with you the report that NASA has discovered 7 potential Earth-similar planets orbiting a star only 40 light-years away is simply amazing. These planets conceivably could contain liquid water and maybe even carry life on the surface.
Best wishes

susan said...

The ascendancy of scientific materialism in educated culture pretty much mandates the dismissal of philosophy when scientific materialists insist that something can’t exist or something else can’t happen, simply because current theory doesn’t happen to provide a mechanism for it.

The fact that the world so often baffles us offers good evidence that behind the world we experience, the world as representation, there’s some 'thing in itself' that’s the source of the sense data we assemble into representations. It appears to me the power of reason alone is ephemeral and fading fast. The point Schopenhauer makes is that the will in its various forms (including consciousness) is the only thing other than representation that we encounter

Then there's Einstein's 'spooky action at a distance':

I once had the feeling of something looking at me. I looked up and there they were in their tank, the many tiny guppies staring at me.

I had forgotten to feed them.

I doubt they could focus their individual vision on me but as a group...

Thanks for the fascinating post, Lindsay.
All the best

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
Within my limited association with some fellow tutors at U3A who have an interest in such things and who are retired physicists or professors of science they are all surprised at the rigid stance taken by the mind-brain monists. As you may be aware the mind-brain monists make no distinction between the mind and the brain. Rather the brain in its entirety is seen by that group just as a supercharged mass of neurons and that our consciousness is just the biological product of that purely material state. Hence there can be nothing more than this materialistic view, yet it doesn’t seem to sit very well logically with what know about physics either.
Thanks for your thoughts and interest in the post.
Burst wishes