Thursday, September 17, 2009

Why cannot we know the future? Or, can we?

Well, many people might have asked this question many times in life. However, this current blog post is triggered after my friend commented on my previous post “What is Life?” and then said that she “wished” to know some things. I might not be able to provide the answers for all her questions, but I will try to give some pointers. Here is what she commented:

Hey.. Welcome back.. Sateesh.. good post..! now, I understand the double-slit experiment of quantum mechanics.. coming to the core insights you have given here.. Convincing..!! but, why can not one organism know.. its next transformation? I wish to know… if possible.. :-) And, why doesn’t every organism understand what other communicates? How would it be if everything can be understood? How can one develop such skills? Hehe… all weird questions... right? but, I wish to get answers.. :-)

Of course, we can know the so called transformations and know the future. However, there are two complex problems with that. One, we do not have awareness about all the forces involved in any action. We just know about the four forces: gravitational force, electro-magnetic force, strong and weak nuclear forces. Even if we knew about all these forces, we need to evaluate the infinite number of permutations and combinations that are affecting a single system at any given point in time. Let’s say you throw a ball into air and decide to predict where it would fall, you need certain data regarding some of the forces affecting the ball.

1. You have to evaluate your strength with which you threw the ball
2. The weight of the ball
3. The surface structure of the ball
4. The angle at which you threw
5. The air resistance
6. The temperature of the environment
7. The gravitational force of your environment; if you threw it from moon ;-)
8. The composition of different gases in the environment because different gases have different fluid dynamics

Now, your ability to predict where the ball will fall will depend on the accuracy of the data you have regarding these parameters, and then, the formula that you have to apply to get to the solution. Very interestingly, these two aspects reflect two important elements in life. The accurate data represents Knowledge, and the formula represents your Understanding of the Laws of Nature: knowing what it is and then knowing how it interacts with what is.

In life, generally, we miss either one of these elements. Sometimes, we have the wisdom but do not understand “how things happen like that”. We all know that a cyclone or storm will bring lightning and thunder; this is Knowledge. But, how many of us know exactly why lightning strikes only when there are storms or cyclone? Simple example, but not many of us know the intricate details of it.

Sometimes we might know how things happen, but we do not have the data. For instance, while I was first trying to learn how to play flute, I saw others playing flute and I knew that if I blow into the embouchure, it will produce beautiful sound. I knew how the air interacts with the flute and produces sound. But I did not know how much air to blow or at what angle to blow.

Now, to make life more interesting, there is another element, which is the “Why” of it. Even when I know how much to blow and at what angle to blow, I do not know why blowing at that angle produces sound. Advanced physicist might explain me that when the longitudinal mechanical waves that are triggered from the vibration of the air touching the edge of flute, it creates certain vibration in the wood at certain frequency and amplitude and wavelength and it produces the experience called sound at our ear drums. Wonderful! But, why does such and such interaction produce such an experience at all? These kinds of questions, irritating as they might seem, lead to the cliff from where you will find a seemingly endless abyss. It’s your choice to take the plunge into it or not. No one can tell what you will find if you plunge, or what you will miss if you don’t. You will know, only by jumping. But, you know that jumping is a risk. We have been conditioned to avoid risks from childhood, and probably even from prenatal period.

This is where Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle sneaks in. Who can tell whether you will jump or not? If I have to predict about certain event which involves you, I have to also know whether you will jump or not. But I do not know that since your choice is totally yours and it may not have any reasoning; it might just be pure “Intent” to which I do not have access. Then, can I predict?

I know I started the answer by saying that “Of course, we can…” I still stand by that statement. You can know provided you have both the Knowledge and Understanding of the complex interactions, which many cultures have been calling as “Wisdom”. To know all the forces in the universe, you should have access to the entire universe. For that, you need to communicate with the entire universe. How will you communicate to someone without knowing their language? Do you know how your brain communicates to your hands when you are typing? You don’t know. But you know that it communicates. You take it for granted because you believe that your brain and hands are part of the “you” and hence it is no big deal. So, when you realize that you are part of this universe just like your brain and hands are part of “you”, you will know how to communicate. This realization cannot be in the realms of belief. It has to be your “reality”. It cannot be something that you hope, believe, or accept. It has to be something that you “Know”.

How to develop such skills? Well, there is nothing to develop or learn here. In fact, you have to un learn whatever our conditioning has taught us from centuries. You have to break the boundaries of your ego and stop believing that you exist independently. A star across few million light years is as much a part of yourself as your hand!

What is life?

I did a brief search on Google, (which happens to be my personal secretary) on what is the definition of life and here is what I found on Wikipedia:

Life (cf. biota) is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have self-sustaining biological processes ("alive," "living"), from those which do not[1][2] —either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as "inanimate."

I also read in my psychology course that children before developing the cognitive skills have a phase of life during which they believe in animism. Animism refers to the belief that everything is alive. That’s probably why my two-and-half year old nephew shouts “mama, the door hit me”.

For a long time, I was perplexed with this question as to what is “alive” and what is “not-alive”. Pondering over it for years, I proposed some axioms to define what can be called “alive”:

  • It should grow
  • It should cease to exist after certain time
  • It should have intent or the experience of being alive or the self-identity which identifies itself from the surrounding environment

I was very happy when I formulated these three axioms because they seemed to fit the bill exactly. Before you read any further, stop and test these axioms. Take any living organisms and see if they fit these three properties. Years passed in bliss until I went back to studying my favorite subject once again from fundamentals; Physics.

When you read physics in conjunction with philosophy and then read any literature on mysticism, your brain gets the same experience that a lump of meat gets in pressure cooker while it is happily blowing its own whistle. That’s when I realized the fallacy of the axioms I postulated in defining life.

Growth is not necessary in terms of the macro-world. Even a single cell division can be regarded as growth. Similarly, even nuclear fission can be considered as growth. If my basic physics is right, the basic principles behind cell division and nuclear fission are the same. There is an external catalytic source of energy which causes the cell or atomic particle to get charged and start splitting. So, there is a problem with this axiom as well.

The second axiom is even more complex. Yes, all living organisms cease to exist. What we call as the organism is defined by its characteristic features such as shape, form, structure, pattern, etc. But, these features cease to exist in anything under the sun (even inside the sun). Nothing in this universe remains in the same shape, form, size, or pattern. The time involved in transformation is different, that’s all. Humans take about 100 years to transform from one pattern of energy system to another; a star takes about a billion years.

Intent and consciousness are subjective realities and can never be detected by someone else unless expressed by the organism that is experiencing them. The expression requires certain apparatus like language, or gestures, or behaviors, or something else. What if the organism does not have any of the required apparatus to express its experiences? Let’s say there is an organism which does not have muscles, which cannot move, which cannot express what it is feeling if it is feeling anything. How will you ever know that it is alive?

However, if you observe the above drawbacks, the axioms do not fail in fitting with all living organisms. They actually fit for everything in the universe! Let’s explore how.

If you approve big bang theory, the universe as a whole is growing; from a point of singularity to an ever increasing entropic system. All the atomic and sub-atomic particles are continuously bonding and forming new relationships, and systems. A single-proton hydrogen atom acquires energy along with some more protons and electrons, and forms helium and grows henceforth towards higher states (or complex states).

All the shapes, forms, and patterns of all the things in the universe are constantly changing and transforming. Nothing exists as it exists in the “here and now”.

Coming to the last postulate, to understand this it might help if you know about double-slit experiment of Quantum mechanics. In a classic experiment to unravel the wave-particle duality of electrons and photons, a physics experiment was conducted where electrons were fired from an electron gun towards the other end of the apparatus where the pattern is detected on a screen. They placed a filter in between the source and destination which has a slit in it. When the electrons are fired, the electrons behave like Good Samaritan particles and form a single straight line patterns on the screen. Now, when the filter is changed and replaced with one that has two slits, the electrons suddenly behave like waves and show an interference pattern on the detector screen. This is interesting. But, there is something more which is bamboozling. When the experimenter decides to see what actually is happening at the filter and places a detector there, the electrons behave like particles when there are two slits and show straight line patterns on the detector screen. I know it is little confusing to imagine all this. So, I suggest you see this vide here to understand the exact scene. Click here for the video

Now, I wonder what makes the electron “aware” that it is being watched. There are physicists out there who argue that it is the existence of the additional apparatus that change the interaction between the particles and changes the outcome of the experiment. However, I fail to understand how the electron suddenly recognizes the observer? This experiment has been conduced thousands of times by thousands of physicists and it yielded the same results. This has swindled the western scientists and philosophers. But for us great souls in the east, it is easy to understand the concept because it has been long told in Vedas that everything is conscious and this is very much reflected in our culture, tradition, and rituals.

So, if all particles in the universe are conscious and have their intent, grow, and cease to exist after some time, is there any point in debating what is alive and what is not? Don’t you think this whole universe is one gigantic living system with so many organs and sub-systems? Can any one part be “living” and other “non-living”? If one part of my body can communicate to the other, and express its desires or despairs, don’t you think that all the systems in the universe also communicate with each other in languages not known to us at this level? Do we understand what our heart is currently talking to our left hand little finger? Why are we so fixated in this “dead” world? Is it our search for meaning as unique and special creatures in the universe? Or is it the restlessness to attribute value to our seemingly purposeless “lives”. For me, this understanding has changed the way I use the words “live”, “life”, or “alive”. They don’t seem to have the same meaning as they had earlier. Now, to me, “transformation” precedes “life”…