Wisdom the building block

“Buckle your seat belt Dorothy, cause Kansas is goin’ bye bye”

The following lecture is presented by dr Gerald Schroeder.  He is a nuclear scientist, educated at M.I.T.   He was present at six underground nuclear tests of the US army.

Later he studied biology at M.I.T. and worked as a biologist.

At present he teaches in a yeshiva, (talmudic academy/rabbinic semenary) in the old city of Jerusalem.

With wisdom God created the heaven and the earth.

The universe as a symbol of thought.

Presented at the Smithsonian Institution Conference: Complexity Theory and Semiotics: Unraveling the Mystery of Nature and the Nature of Mystery

May 11 2002

We live in a world steeped in what George Gilder refers to as the materialist superstition. If we can’t see it, weigh it, touch it, it is not there. This view is not so surprising. We ourselves are material beings, in that we are made of matter. All our natural senses respond to matter in one form or another. Over the millennia of our development, it was the material environment that shaped and sharpened our senses.

But a revolution has occurred in this perception. It started with Einstein’s amazing laws of relativity, that the passage of time is not constant, and the dimensions of space are flexible. Then came the discovery of the uncertain, fuzzy world of the quantum. And suddenly, our classical view of reality, the inbred misconception that reality must conform to our logic, was shattered. We have discovered that the reality stands in place of, or better said, represents a deeper essence of truth.

And that is what I discuss here, the idea, admittedly speculative, that the truth of our universe, is not as we perceive it, even with the aid of the most sophisticated particle accelerators and the most powerful space telescope; that from the invisible realm of the quantum to the vast reaches of space, our universe may more closely resemble a thought than a thing.

The study of our universe may the the ultimate exercise in semiotics.

The physical universe is real in the sense that it is tangibly out there. I measure the size, weight, hardness of an object. Get values. Other persons do the same, and they get the same data. It’s not my imagination that when I look out from my porch, I see the row of cypress trees planted there to mark our property line. I’m part of the physical world, and so are the trees.

And therein lies the rub. We are all part of the same system. Is that perception made by me of the solid material world an artifact of how I, the perceiver, am built? I believe it was Bertrand Russel who said: The idea that there are little hard lumps that are electrons, protons, neutrons, is … derived from our perspective of touch. We perceive the world as particulate because the personal encounters we have with the world are primarily tactile. But it is an error to confuse our conception of reality with reality itself.

We are so deeply and totally within the system that we see it in self referenced terms. I mean: If ice could speak and one lump touched another, would it say: ‘my, what a cold lump you are?’ No. It would see it as being part of the same. I wonder if fish are any more aware of the water within which they swim than we are aware of the continuous stream of self-consciousness, the “I” of the self, that nonstop floods our heads.

But when we view our world from a more precise perspective its a very, very different view we get. Just as with a photo in a newspaper, up close it is only a mass of dots and spaces.

On the micro-scale, those things we call atoms that join together to become the solids we know and feel. The positive nucleus surrounded by the negative electrons. Pump up the nucleus to the size of an orange or grapefruit, and where is electron cloud? Four miles out in each direction. Four miles of exquisitely empty space. Not a space filled with air. Air is stuff. The four miles would be exquisitely empty of everything, filled only with virtual never-seen imagined photons that somehow binds the electrons in their bands of orbits. That volume ratio of an orange to a sphere eight or so miles in diameter is 1 part in 10^15. Imagine the impossibility of a task to find a single orange within a sphere of four miles in radius. It could take a lifetime. Solid though a stone may feel, it is really almost entirely empty space made to feel solid by virtual, never-seen forces.

And in the micro world of the quantum, even the protons and the neutrons and the electrons fade away into a fuzzy haze, a cloud of forces.

It was Louise de Broglie, in the 1920’s, who opened a Pandora’s box with his insight, first as a theory and then as experiment, that matter as well as light, must possess wavelike properties. With this realization, particles became waves, extended, no longer definite in size.

I wonder, as I look at the finger shaped leaves of those cypress trees, just what aspect of nature is reality and what is the metaphor.

Few scientists today argue for a universe without the big bang. The standard model is that somehow, from absolute nothing – nothing in the sense of not a thing, not material or time or space as we know them – came a massive burst of exquisitely hot energy, electromagnetic radiation, or, in other words, super powerful light beams. That was the beginning and everything that exist or has existed was formed from that initial energy. We are made of and are powered by that fifteen-billion –year -old burst of energy.

Now I have no problem in understanding how a crafts person might turn an amorphous lump of silver into a beautiful bowl, but I do not have a clue as to how a burst of energy, akin to super powerful light rays having no mass whatsoever, can metamorphose and become the solid elements that combined to form all the material world. Yet we have discovered that the entire universe is the manifestation of the energy of the big-gang creation, articulated in a myriad of different forms.

Rene’s Magritte’s painting of a pipe looks exactly like a pipe, and from a distance it looks real enough to smoke. But up close we see it is just paint on canvas. What would our world look like if we could view it really up close?

“Tradition can be a parasite, even an enemy.” So wrote Frank Lloyd Wright in his brilliant classic “The Natural House”. Our brain is surfaced by the cortex, seat of our pure logic. But under the cortex lies the lies the limbic system, filled with emotions and memories. And those memories strongly shape how we handle our logic. At times we cling to our traditions even when our logic tells us they are counterproductive and even wrong.

The song a sparrow learns in its youth is its song for life. And we humans are no different. I learned that the atom is made of hard little nuggets called protons and neutrons. And now we have discovered something very different. But is is hard to replace the song of our youth. Illogical though it seems, those imagined particles of the subatomic world have turned out to be fields of force, fuzzy and extended. Could it be that there is a reality even deeper than those forces, a single substrate from which everything flows?

Knowing the structure of a water molecule, the 104 degree bonding angle formed by the two hydrogen atoms as they each share their electron with she single oxygen, we can predict that high-energy H2O is gaseous, with no fixed order among the molecules. We call it steam or vapor. Moderate -energy H2O becomes somewhat more organized, forming a liquid. Low-energy H2O forms the ice crystal, a model of organization. This is all intrinsic in the chemistry and physics of the H and O atoms, the sharing of their electrons. I could predict the existence of water and ice and steam, all that from the basic laws of the chemistry of oxygen and hydrogen. A totally reductionist approach, even if I had never seen hydrogen or oxygen gases or water.

But now step back a few stages, to a time before the existence of H’s an O’s, before atoms, and before quark confinement, to the moment of the big-bang creation when all the world was composed of energy. As space stretched out and energy levels fell, a tiny part of that energy changed form and became solid, protons, and neutrons, and finally you and me. How? Intrinsic in the H2O molecules are the expressions of gas, liquid, solid, That is built into the mass and charges of the atoms.

Is there something intrinsic in the wave/particles of the big-bang energy that yields the sensation of solidity when they reach a certain level? Is there something we don’t know about radiation, its nature or structure, that lets energy assume the form of matter?

I’ll take a reductionist approach and look at the universe from the beginning to see what we can learn from “first principles”.

Even with such a simplistic method we’ll find a universe very different from that which we perceive even with our unaided senses.

I’ll assume that we know all the laws of nature, a cookbook of the physics and chemistry of the universe. The first required caveat would be that fore some bizarre reason the self-annihilation of the particle/antiparticle pairs would not be complete. As the energy of the big-bang creation condenses, it forms matter and anti-matter theoretically in equal amounts. This could lead to total annihilation of all solid matter. Such was not the case. A tiny fraction of the matter survived and we are here as living evidence of that reality, as is every other tangible part of our magnificent universe. With this in place, then, based on the laws of nature and the initial condition of the universe, I could predict that through the alchemy of stellar temperatures and the immense pressures of supernova, the ninety-two stable elements would form. I’d know that among those elements would be sodium and chlorine. I could predict that through the alchemy of stellar temperatures and the immense pressures of supernova, the ninety-two stable elements would form. I’d know that among those elements would be sodium and chlorine. I could predict that they could chemically react, forming sodium chloride, common salt. All that would be known from the first principles.

But could I predict that in some marvelous combination of the building blocks of matter I’d find joy, sentience, awareness of emotions, the metaphysical flight of love? Not likely. In one mix of protons, neutrons, en electrons, I get a grain of sand. I take the same protons, neutrons, and electrons, put them together in a different mix, and get a brain that can record facts, produce emotions, and from which emerges a mind that integrates those facts and emotions and experiences that integration. It’s the same protons, neutrons, and electrons. They had no face-lift, yet one seems passive, while the other is dynamically alive.

Nowhere in the brain is the bright green of a leaf, the blue of the sky. But I see the green leaf and marvel at the the beauty of the sky. I hear sound, but there is no sound in my brain. From where does all this replay of my senses arise, a replay that seems as if it were physically there in my brain? If it is, it is very well hidden.

The facile answer is that we interpret the biochemistry of the brain’s auditory and visual systems as sound and sight. Of course that is the case, but where?

A jumble of letters has no meaning and in the letters there is no hint of the arbitrary meaning of a word. But from them, when joined together according to rules of a language, a sonnet can emerge. A blank surface and a pail of paint tell nothing, but by skilled combination a picture emerges so powerful that one touches the canvas to see if it is real. The sonnet is not in the letters any more that the painting is in the paint. But for physical articulation, the sonnet needs the letters and the picture needs the paint. The charge of an electron emerges from an electron, but the charge is not made of the electron. Does mind, sentience, emerge from the brain in a similar manner? Every level of existence, from the crystalline structure of salt to the changing complexity of a brain, is built from among the same ninety-two elements of our universe that in turn are made of a mix of protons, neutrons, and electrons. This being the case, at what level of atomic complexity does sentience, awareness, emerge?

Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, avers that it enters at a very basic level: “Atoms are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. … It appears that mind as manifested by the capacity to make choices is to some extent inherent in every atom.” Can mind be a part of an inert matter, an atom?

John Archibald Wheeler, former president of the American Physical Society, physics professor emeritus of Princeton University, winner of the Einstein Award, gives a clue to how that might be. Wheeler sees the world as the “it” (the tangible item) that came from a “bit” (eight of which comprise a byte of information) He is quoted as having first viewed reality as being composed of particles. Then as his understanding broadened, the particles were seen not to be particles at all, but rather manifestation of fields. Now after a lifetime of study, reality appears to be the expression of information.

Shouchen Zhang at Stanford, Anton Zeilinger at the University of Vienna, and Ed Fredkin at M.I.T. Voice the same speculation: that matter actually arises from a structured or organized substrate of information. That tangible matter is actually the manifestation of of ethereal information.

It all sounds bizarre. And is is nothing like the song I learned in my youth. Yet it is only slightly more outrageous than the proven phenomenon of intangible energy metamorphosing into matter.

This makes all the sense in the world if, in fact, matter is built form energy and energy is built from information. Suddenly, the old conundrum of how the physical brain gives rise to the ethereal mind and experienced sentience evaporates. It is not a question of consciousness arising form matter. It is rather quite the opposite, of matter arising from consciousness.

Mind, as information or wisdom, is present in every atom. Mind is ubiquitous in our universe, just as wisdom is the basis of all existence.

The tree and every other part of nature express in physical form the wavelike ethereal energy from which they are fashioned. And that elemental energy is none other than the manifestation of the wisdom from which it is built. The existence so familiar to our human sense of touch is but a metaphor that subtly implies an underlying truth far grander in its simplicity than that of the most exotic complexity of life and brain. The diversity of the cosmos, built of time and space and matter, has arisen from a singularity, not of the physical type couched within a black hole, but or a unity brought into being as mind, the first act of the creation.

J.A. Wheeler, during a BBC special, “the Creation of the Universe”, summarized the quest of ultimate reality: “To my mind, there must be at the bottom of it all, not an utterly simple equation, but an utterly simple IDEA. An to me that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, and so inevitable, so beautiful, we will say to each other: ‘How could it have ever been otherwise?’”

Plato described our perception of life as if we were persons viewing shadows on a wall, totally unaware of the reality that produces those two-dimensional images. The prophet Isaiah, three hundred years prior to Plato, laid the basis for Plato’s analogy:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. … The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwelled in the land of images, upon them the light has shown.” Isaiah 35:5, 9:1

The study of our universe turns out to be an exercise in semiotics.