Monday, December 31, 2018

"What Is Reality?"—ambivalent but intrigued

A regressed part of me, some remnant of my pre-teen years, still hungers for quality science programming along the lines of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" TV series, which was a staple when I was growing up. I haven't watched any of the Neil deGrasse Tyson version of the series, but occasionally, on YouTube, I'll see this or that science-ish, science-y program. The one that I've embedded below, by the nonprofit Quantum Gravity Research organization, tackles the heady question, "What is reality?" It's heavy on E8 theory, but it's also the best pop-sci explanation of that theory that I've seen thus far.

There are parts of the episode that I liked, as well as parts I didn't like. I wasn't a fan of the obnoxious ethnic-stereotype cartoons interspersed throughout the 30-minute presentation; those vignettes proved useless in summarizing complex debates among scientists in opposing camps, e.g., those who see reality as quantized (read: pixellated) and those who see reality as a smooth continuum. I also think the program tried too hard to resolve some currently intractable philosophical problems, such as the existence or nonexistence of free will: the simplistic claim is made that the double-slit experiment led to the insight that non-determinism rules the day, thereby leading to the conclusion that free will must exist because the universe is, at bottom, non-deterministic. (This isn't what the double-slit experiment proves at all, and any Philo 101 student will realize that the issue of human freedom is far more complex than that: probabilistic non-determinism is no more a foundation for libertarian free will than determinism is.) I also didn't like how our host, Marion Kerr, seems to manifest in three primary modes: Crazy Woman (covered in string, bashing a clock with a hammer, etc.), Ethereal Woman (bathed in sunlight and lens flares, standing in the blowing wind, communing with nature, etc.), and Professor (standing in classrooms, often in front of chalkboards). I guess it's meant to be entertaining, but I'd have been fine with seeing Ms. Kerr in a Normal Human Being mode.

The episode is about a half-hour long. Here it is:

Science is at its best answering questions of What? How? When? and Where? It's at its worst when it tries to get at Why?—which is the province of philosophy and religion, and I came away thinking that, if the E8 lattice is, in fact, the fundamental structure of reality, that still doesn't answer the question of why the universe manifests that way. The episode gets dangerously close to advocating a form of panpsychism, but doesn't seem quite ready to commit to that. There's also some flirtation with the simulation hypothesis, but with no mention of its biggest modern advocate, Nick Bostrom. The weirdly atemporal "causality" that the episode espouses, sort of a mishmash of a B-theory of time and Buddhist intercausality (especially Hua-yen Buddhism, with the E8 lattice as an analogue for the Jewel Net of Indra), makes me suspect that Quantum Gravity Research might not be totally legitimate science. Then again, the host didn't come out and actually tie any of her information in to anything New Age-y, so perhaps the episode remains more or less within the bounds of seriousness. I need to chew on this some more.

ADDENDUM: this video, also by Quantum Gravity Research, is a bit more serious in tone and delves into E8 theory somewhat more deeply, while also repeating some of the basic concepts (like quasicrystals) mentioned in the video embedded above.


John Mac said...

Jesus, this post made my brain hurt. Don't think I've used some of those brain cells since I don't know when.

Seriously, I've never even heard of these reality concepts before. It might take all of the new year to get my mind around them. The fact that your post makes me WANT to do so says a lot. Good work, Kevin!

Happy New Year!

Kevin Kim said...

Happy New Year to you as well!

There are a lot of heady ideas in the video, along with some kookiness about the link between consciousness and matter, but the video has what is easily one of the clearest explanations of E8 theory I've ever come across. The second video, which I linked to at the bottom, does an even better job of exploring E8 theory, and it includes interviews with E8's main proponent, genius surfer dude Garrett Lisi.