Thomas T Hills is professor of psychology at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK.
Is my car hallucinating? Is the algorithm that runs the police surveillance system in my city paranoid? Marvin the android in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxyhad a pain in all the diodes down his left-hand side. Is that how my toaster feels?
This all sounds ludicrous until we realise that our algorithms are increasingly being made in our own image. As we’ve learned more about our own brains, we’ve enlisted that knowledge to create algorithmic versions of ourselves. These algorithms control the speeds of driverless cars, identify targets for autonomous military drones, compute our susceptibility to commercial and political advertising, find our soulmates in online dating services, and evaluate our insurance and credit risks. Algorithms are becoming the near-sentient backdrop of our lives.
The most popular algorithms currently being put into the workforce are deep learning algorithms. These algorithms mirror the architecture of human brains by building complex representations of information. They learn to understand environments by experiencing them, identify what seems to matter, and figure out what predicts what. Being like our brains, these algorithms are increasingly at risk of mental-health problems.
Deep Blue, the algorithm that beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, did so through brute force, examining millions of positions a second, up to 20 moves in the future. Anyone could understand how it worked even if they couldn’t do it themselves. AlphaGo, the deep learning algorithm that beat Lee Sedol at the game of Go in 2016, is fundamentally different. Using deep neural networks, it created its own understanding of the game, considered to be the most complex of board games. AlphaGo learned by watching others and by playing itself. Computer scientists and Go players alike are befuddled by AlphaGo’s unorthodox play. Its strategy seems at first to be awkward. Only in retrospect do we understand what AlphaGo was thinking, and even then it’s not all that clear.
To give you a better understanding of what I mean by thinking, consider this. Programs such as Deep Blue can have a bug in their programming. They can crash from memory overload. They can enter a state of paralysis due to a neverending loop or simply spit out the wrong answer on a lookup table. But all of these problems are solvable by a programmer with access to the source code, the code in which the algorithm was written.
Algorithms such as AlphaGo are entirely different. Their problems are not apparent by looking at their source code. They are embedded in the way that they represent information. That representation is an ever-changing high-dimensional space, much like walking around in a dream. Solving problems there requires nothing less than a psychotherapist for algorithms.
Take the case of driverless cars. A driverless car that sees its first stop sign in the real world will have already seen millions of stop signs during training, when it built up its mental representation of what a stop sign is. Under various light conditions, in good weather and bad, with and without bullet holes, the stop signs it was exposed to contain a bewildering variety of information. Under most normal conditions, the driverless car will recognise a stop sign for what it is. But not all conditions are normal. Some recent demonstrations have shown that a few black stickers on a stop sign can fool the algorithm into thinking that the stop sign is a 60 mph sign. Subjected to something frighteningly similar to the high-contrast shade of a tree, the algorithm hallucinates.
How many different ways can the algorithm hallucinate? To find out, we would have to provide the algorithm with all possible combinations of input stimuli. This means that there are potentially infinite ways in which it can go wrong. Crackerjack programmers already know this, and take advantage of it by creating what are called adversarial examples. The AI research group LabSix at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that, by presenting images to Google’s image-classifying algorithm and using the data it sends back, they can identify the algorithm’s weak spots. They can then do things similar to fooling Google’s image-recognition software into believing that an X-rated image is just a couple of puppies playing in the grass.
Algorithms also make mistakes because they pick up on features of the environment that are correlated with outcomes, even when there is no causal relationship between them. In the algorithmic world, this is called overfitting. When this happens in a brain, we call it superstition.
The biggest algorithmic failure due to superstition that we know of so far is called the parable of Google Flu. Google Flu used what people type into Google to predict the location and intensity of influenza outbreaks. Google Flu’s predictions worked fine at first, but they grew worse over time, until eventually it was predicting twice the number of cases as were submitted to the US Centers for Disease Control. Like an algorithmic witchdoctor, Google Flu was simply paying attention to the wrong things.
Algorithmic pathologies might be fixable. But in practice, algorithms are often proprietary black boxes whose updating is commercially protected. Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) describes a veritable freakshow of commercial algorithms whose insidious pathologies play out collectively to ruin peoples’ lives. The algorithmic faultline that separates the wealthy from the poor is particularly compelling. Poorer people are more likely to have bad credit, to live in high-crime areas, and to be surrounded by other poor people with similar problems. Because of this, algorithms target these individuals for misleading ads that prey on their desperation, offer them subprime loans, and send more police to their neighbourhoods, increasing the likelihood that they will be stopped by police for crimes committed at similar rates in wealthier neighbourhoods. Algorithms used by the judicial system give these individuals longer prison sentences, reduce their chances for parole, block them from jobs, increase their mortgage rates, demand higher premiums for insurance, and so on.
This algorithmic death spiral is hidden in nesting dolls of black boxes: black-box algorithms that hide their processing in high-dimensional thoughts that we can’t access are further hidden in black boxes of proprietary ownership. This has prompted some places, such as New York City, to propose laws enforcing the monitoring of fairness in algorithms used by municipal services. But if we can’t detect bias in ourselves, why would we expect to detect it in our algorithms?
By training algorithms on human data, they learn our biases. One recent study led by Aylin Caliskan at Princeton University found that algorithms trained on the news learned racial and gender biases essentially overnight. As Caliskan noted: ‘Many people think machines are not biased. But machines are trained on human data. And humans are biased.’
Social media is a writhing nest of human bias and hatred. Algorithms that spend time on social media sites rapidly become bigots. These algorithms are biased against male nurses and female engineers. They will view issues such as immigration and minority rights in ways that don’t stand up to investigation. Given half a chance, we should expect algorithms to treat people as unfairly as people treat each other. But algorithms are by construction overconfident, with no sense of their own infallibility. Unless they are trained to do so, they have no reason to question their incompetence (much like people).
For the algorithms I’ve described above, their mental-health problems come from the quality of the data they are trained on. But algorithms can also have mental-health problems based on the way they are built. They can forget older things when they learn new information. Imagine learning a new co-worker’s name and suddenly forgetting where you live. In the extreme, algorithms can suffer from what is called catastrophic forgetting, where the entire algorithm can no longer learn or remember anything. A theory of human age-related cognitive decline is based on a similar idea: when memory becomes overpopulated, brains and desktop computers alike require more time to find what they know.
When things become pathological is often a matter of opinion. As a result, mental anomalies in humans routinely go undetected. Synaesthetes such as my daughter, who perceives written letters as colours, often don’t realise that they have a perceptual gift until they’re in their teens. Evidence based on Ronald Reagan’s speech patterns now suggeststhat he probably had dementia while in office as US president. And The Guardianreportsthat the mass shootings that have occurred every nine out of 10 days for roughly the past five years in the US are often perpetrated by so-called ‘normal’ people who happen to break under feelings of persecution and depression.
In many cases, it takes repeated malfunctioning to detect a problem. Diagnosis of schizophrenia requires at least one month of fairly debilitating symptoms. Antisocial personality disorder, the modern term for psychopathy and sociopathy, cannot be diagnosed in individuals until they are 18, and then only if there is a history of conduct disorders before the age of 15.
There are no biomarkers for most mental-health disorders, just like there are no bugs in the code for AlphaGo. The problem is not visible in our hardware. It’s in our software. The many ways our minds go wrong make each mental-health problem unique unto itself. We sort them into broad categories such as schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome, but most are spectrum disorders that cover symptoms we all share to different degrees. In 2006, the psychologists Matthew Keller and Geoffrey Miller argued that this is an inevitable property of the way that brains are built.
There is a lot that can go wrong in minds such as ours. Carl Jung once suggested that in every sane man hides a lunatic. As our algorithms become more like ourselves, it is getting easier to hide.
Thomas T Hills
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Cormac McCarthy, the celebrated American novelist, author of ten novels, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, is publishing his first-ever non-fiction science essay in Nautilus magazine. Called “The Kekulé Problem,” it explores the unconscious and the origin of human language, and is the cover story of the March/April issue. “The Kekulé Problem” was published online on April 20th at www.nautil.us.
The essay presents a new, surprising side of one of American’s greatest writing talents. Readers of his novels, which include The Road, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses, may not be aware that for more than two decades McCarthy has been a senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, a science research center.
In his introduction to McCarthy’s essay, David Krakauer, president of SFI, notes that McCarthy is an aficionado in subjects ranging from the history of mathematics to the nature of the conscious. We learn he has been debating the nature of the unconscious mind for two decades.
McCarthy’s essay is a groundbreaking, humanist take on a foundational question in science, and a remarkable window into the self-conception of one of America’s greatest living writers. The essay can be read online, purchased in print form through the magazine’s online store at shop.nautil.us, or found in bookstores across the United States and Canada.
The Kekulé Problem
by Cormac McCarthy
I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”
Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.
A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.
All animals have an unconscious. If they didn’t they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesn’t actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldn’t work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.
Problems, in general, are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.
I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy, this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.
There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I don’t know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.
There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was, in fact, the water in the glass. This in the play TheMiracleWorker. Not a dry eye in the house.
The invention of language was understood at once to be incredibly useful. Again, it seems to have spread through the species almost instantaneously. The immediate problem would seem to have been that there were more things to name than there are sounds to name them with. Language appears to have originated in southwestern Africa and it may even be that the clicks in the Khoisan languages—to include Sandawe and Hadza—are an atavistic remnant of addressing this need for a greater variety of sounds. The vocal problems were eventually handled evolutionarily—and apparently in fairly short order—by turning our throat over largely to the manufacture of speech. Not without cost, as it turns out. The larynx has moved down in the throat in such a way as to make us as a species highly vulnerable to choking on our food—a not uncommon cause of death. It’s also left us as the only mammal incapable of swallowing and vocalizing at the same time.
The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species were not protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go? If nothing else we have the evidence of history. The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit. But the scrap heap will be found to contain any number of viruses that did not fit.
There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.
Influential persons will by now, of course, have smiled to themselves at the ill-concealed Lamarckianism lurking here. We might think to evade it by various strategies or redefinitions but probably without much success. Darwin, of course, was dismissive of the idea of inherited “mutilations”—the issue of cutting off the tails of dogs for instance. But the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired. How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all. It is an area pretty much ignored by the artificial intelligence studies, which seem mostly devoted to analytics and to the question of whether the brain is like a computer. They have decided that it’s not, but that is not altogether true.
Of the known characteristics of the unconscious, its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I don’t know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?
What is at work here? And how does the unconscious knowwe’re not getting it? What doesn’tit know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)
The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.
All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.
We don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point, the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not, for the most part, come in narrative form. We have to do that.
So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course, that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being, he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course, they don’t think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually, a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old.
They haven’t explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.
One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language, you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We don’t know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?
Apart from its great antiquity, the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.
When you pause to reflect and say: “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not- what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the thisthat one wishes to putthat is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amorphous. If you explain this to someone and they say that they don’t understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they didn’t understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.
The picture-story lends itself to a parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad, it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.
To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.
I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten-hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer, of course, is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.
The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?
Physicists are closing the door on an intriguing loophole around the quantum phenomenon Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”
By Natalie Wolchover
February 7, 2017
There might be no getting around what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” With an experiment described today in Physical Review Letters — a feat that involved harnessing starlight to control measurements of particles shot between buildings in Vienna — some of the world’s leading cosmologists and quantum physicists are closing the door on an intriguing alternative to “quantum entanglement.”
“Technically, this experiment is truly impressive,” said Nicolas Gisin, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva who has studied this loophole around entanglement.
According to standard quantum theory, particles have no definite states, only relative probabilities of being one thing or another — at least, until they are measured, when they seem to suddenly roll the dice and jump into formation. Stranger still, when two particles interact, they can become “entangled,” shedding their individual probabilities and becoming components of a more complicated probability function that describes both particles together. This function might specify that two entangled photons are polarized in perpendicular directions, with some probability that photon A is vertically polarized and photon B is horizontally polarized, and some chance of the opposite. The two photons can travel light-years apart, but they remain linked: Measure photon A to be vertically polarized, and photon B instantaneously becomes horizontally polarized, even though B’s state was unspecified a moment earlier and no signal has had time to travel between them. This is the “spooky action” that Einstein was famously skeptical about in his arguments against the completeness of quantum mechanics in the 1930s and ’40s…
But given the choice between quantum entanglement and super-determinism, most scientists favor entanglement — and with it, freedom. “If the correlations are indeed set [at the Big Bang], everything is preordained,” Larsson said. “I find it a boring worldview. I cannot believe this would be true.”
Computational physicist Sharon Glotzer is uncovering the rules by which complex collective phenomena emerge from simple building blocks.
By Natalie Wolchover
March 8, 2017
Sharon Glotzer has made a number of career-shifting discoveries, each one the kind “that completely changes the way you look at the world,” she said, “and causes you to say, ‘Wow, I need to follow this.’”
A theoretical soft condensed matter physicist by training who now heads a thriving 33-person research group spanning three departments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”
Glotzer is searching for the fundamental principles that govern how macroscopic properties emerge from microscopic interactions and arrangements. One big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when she was a young researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She and her team developed some of the earliest and best computer simulations of liquids approaching the transition into glass, a common yet mysterious phase of matter in which atoms are stuck in place, but not crystallized. The simulations revealed strings of fast-moving atoms that glide through the otherwise frustrated material like a conga line. Similar flow patterns were later also observed in granular systems, crowds and traffic jams. The findings demonstrated the ability of simulations to illuminate emergent phenomena.
A more recent “wow” moment occurred in 2009 when Glotzer and her group at Michigan discovered that entropy, a concept commonly conflated with disorder, can actually organize things. Their simulations showed that entropy drives simple pyramidal shapes called tetrahedra to spontaneously assemble into a quasicrystal — a spatial pattern so complex that it never exactly repeats. The discovery was the first indication of the powerful, paradoxical role that entropy plays in the emergence of complexity and order.
Lately, Glotzer and company have been engaged in what she calls “digital alchemy.” Let’s say a materials scientist wants to create a specific structure or material. Glotzer’s team can reverse-engineer the shape of the microscopic building blocks that will assemble themselves into the desired form. It’s like whipping up gold from scratch — only in modern times, the coveted substance might be a colloidal crystal or macromolecular assembly.
Glotzer ultimately seeks the rules that govern emergence in general: a single framework for describing self-assembling quasicrystals, crystallizing proteins, or living cells that spontaneously arise from simple precursors. She discussed her eureka-studded path with Quanta Magazine in February; a condensed and edited version of the interview follows.
Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 462, 773-777, copyright (2009)
QUANTA MAGAZINE: Tell me about your famous 2009 Nature paper that linked self-assembly with entropy….
The hosting of awareness is something inherent in all things existent. This awareness of which I speak is the same awareness that you are using at this very moment. All awareness comes from and shares the same origin in the zero dimension. Awareness is the source of things, but awareness is not a thing. Neither is it nothing. It is what we might term the soul of the universe, not a material substance.
I am aware of the existence of a universe around me. Other things that are not my being validly exist but I can never prove it unless the world outside me and my own conscious awareness are one and the same. If the universe outside me and my being are ultimately connected and the fundamental awareness that is present in both is one and the same, then both are logically substantiated. The perceptions I use to perceive my being are the same as those used to perceive the universe.
What we call the Now, this fleeting moment that seems to move through time and space, is the very embodiment of our human personal awareness. It is always present—a universal phenomenon that can be viewed from many points of reference.
Awareness is non-material. It is not a product of a nervous system any more than it is the product of the evolution of elemental interactions. That thing which makes you aware of yourself and the world around you is not unique to you personally, but the basic property that creates the geometry and form of all things existent. Awareness has evolved an unconscious network of differentiated components that build and project an actualized world into our locally personalized world and the universe about us. The business of physical sciences is showing how this happens in a physical manner.
When we examine the material world for evidence of its history, we discover things that are both previously unknown and surprising. These things exist independently of our perception, just as the world exists independently of our perception. Why is this so if we are all of the same elemental awareness?
Each of us has our own constantly changing version of that which we are aware. It is composed of what we have been taught and what we have learned both consciously and unconsciously.
Primal awareness, the precursor of consciousness, creates the world through observation, materializing matter from a field of virtual energy, forcing time and space into existence by observing movement and slowing the speed of that movement by adding physical dimensions. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_state /react-text )
In quantum physics, a virtual state is a very short-lived, unobservable quantum state. In many quantum processes a virtual state is an intermediate state, sometimes described as “imaginary” in a multi-step process that mediates otherwise forbidden transitions. Such is the state of the universe before the actualization of dimensional realities.
The first step in actualizing an outside world is the creation of dimensional awareness. The first dimension has no time and space. It is simply a point that exists everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, as there is no time nor space nor observer with which to measure and define it.
The second dimension records the point in motion. That movement creates space, which until that movement took place, never existed. A line is composed of many clones of that individual point. All are all the same point. The prototype line also exists everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Space is defined, but not the duration, as time does not yet exist. The positions and entanglements of electrons are possible because they exist in the second dimension, everywhere at once but not in time.
It is through the ‘observation’ of itself, perhaps by touch, that a point becomes a line. This second dimension is the birth of the finite. It creates a process of a beginning and an ending. It creates an observed, closed system.
The only way a point can be influenced by itself is to clone itself into many points, all of which are the same point, and then move in a curved line that comes back to its beginning location. This creates a closed, circular system or orbit. Only at this moment is there is an inside and an outside. What is inside is virtual energy and empty, unused fields of possibility. What is outside is the undifferentiated awareness of the zero dimension.
With the third dimension, we have the birth of the unconscious mind from the formless, undifferentiated primal awareness. This awareness unconsciously observes the two-dimensional closed circle from above and adds the dimension of height to the width and length of the two-dimensional circle, creating what appears to be a sphere by the act of awareness observing a circle from above in three dimensions.
Light itself, the photon, is one dimensional and has no experience of time and duration. Light gets to its destination as soon as it leaves. We are in the 4th dimension. This dimension gives duration and time to light and perceive is as traveling many light years to reach us, but the photon does not experience time and duration. This is relativity. By the same process, electrons, being in the primary dimensions, can be many places at once and are not fixed until they interact and are observed. This is quantum mechanics.
The fourth dimension emerges as the duration of time is observed and merges with space as duration—and spacetime is added to the primordial soup. As we live in the 3rd and 4th dimensions, our awareness seems to be locked into these dimension, though more elementary existences—such as waves and particles— exist in the many dimensions.
In 1993, the physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft put forward the holographic principle, which explains that the information about an extra dimension is visible as a curvature in a spacetime with one fewer dimension. For example, holograms are three-dimensional pictures placed on a two-dimensional surface, which gives the image a curvature when the observer moves. Similarly, in general relativity, the fourth dimension is manifested in observable three dimensions as the curvature path of a moving infinitesimal (test) particle. Hooft has speculated that the fifth dimension is really the spacetime fabric.
If this is so, then we may live in the 5th dimension as well, but we cannot perceive it with our senses, as we cannot perceive any of the larger dimensions by virtue of our physical senses.
A perspective projection of a five-dimensional penteract
Entanglement or non-separability is the core idea of quantum theory. It is a simple idea: the universe is not a bunch of independent parts, but is rather one entity that evolves through time as one entity. That’s it. The problem is that this means there’s no such thing as causation. This is very hard to wrap your head around. Quantum theory is extraordinarily accurate, and our knowing quantum theory is why we have things like cell phones and computers. But what is quantum theory, really? Why is entanglement its primary prediction? This talk will explain what quantum theory is. It will show that quantum theory has nothing to do with tiny particles, wave-function collapse, or Schroedinger’s cat. Quantum theory is about how observers obtain information about the world. It is, in particular, about how observers who have memories and use language obtain information about the world. It is, in other words, about how you and I interact with perfectly ordinary things like tables and chairs and each other. You will leave this talk with a new understanding of quantum theory, and a new appreciation for entanglement. Chris Fields is an interdisciplinary information scientist interested in both the physics and the cognitive neuroscience underlying the human perception of objects as spatially and temporally bounded entities. His current research focuses on deriving quantum theory from classical information theory; he also works on cell-cell communication and cellular information processing, the role of the “unconscious mind” in creative problem solving, and early childhood development, particularly the etiology of autism-spectrum conditions. He and his wife, author and yoga teacher Alison Tinsley, recently published Meditation: If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right, in which they explore the experience of meditation with meditators from many walks of life. Dr. Fields has also been a volunteer firefighter, a visual artist, and a travel writer. He currently divides his time between Sonoma, CA and Caunes Minervois, a village in southwestern France.
Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.
“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.
Researchers have discovered that simple “chemically active” droplets grow to the size of cells and spontaneously divide, suggesting they might have evolved into the first living cells.
Once droplets start to divide, they can easily gain the ability to transfer genetic information, essentially divvying up a batch of protein-coding RNA or DNA into equal parcels for their daughter cells. If this genetic material coded for useful proteins that increased the rate of droplet division, natural selection would favor the behavior. Protocells, fueled by sunlight and the law of increasing entropy, would gradually have grown more complex.
*Correspondence: James Kowall, MD, PhD, Independent Scholar, Coos Bay, OR, USA. Email: email@example.com
An argument based on recent developments in theoretical physics is made that consciousness itself is the primordial nature of existence and that all possible physical and mental experiences that can ever become manifest in the world are only forms of consciousness. This conclusion follows from the premise that in its ultimate undifferentiated state, consciousness exists as the nothingness of the void. Modern physics then demonstrates the only way a world can be experienced is if consciousness differentiates itself into an observer that observes all the physical and mental images of that world as projected from a holographic screen to a point of view. In this scenario, the focal point of the observer arises from the void through the differentiation of consciousness while the holographic screen arises through the void’s expression of geometric mechanisms such as the expansion of space and non-commutative geometry. This scenario tells us the focal point of consciousness of the observer is the bridge that connects the ultimate being of the void to the becomings of the world. The nature of life in the world can then be understood as about becoming, while the ultimate nature of death can be understood as the final transition from becoming and the differentiation of consciousness to nondifferentiation and ultimate being. This premise also tells us that death is the end of an illusion. The illusion that ultimately comes to an end is not only the illusion of life in the world, but also the illusion of separation.
Keywords: Consciousness, nothingness, void, existence, being, becoming, life, death
Introduction and Overview
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “Consciousness isn’t a Mystery, It’s Matter,” Galen Strawson (2016) writes: “Conscious experience is itself a form of physical stuff, and the hard problem is not what consciousness is, it’s what matter is.” He asks: “What is the fundamental stuff of physical reality, the stuff that is structured in the way physics reveals?” He answers: “We don’t know—except insofar as this stuff takes the form of conscious experience”.
We’d like to point out this argument is a straw man. Once the primordial existence of consciousness is accepted, modern physics has already shown that it’s exactly the other way around: physical stuff is a form of consciousness. Ironically, this brings us back to the mystery of the primordial existence of consciousness. This line of reasoning is discussed in detail by Amanda Gefter (2014) as she surveys the landscape of modern physics. Based upon the recent observational discovery of dark energy and the theoretical discovery of the holographic principle she concludes that nothing is ultimately real.
Gefter defines ultimate reality in terms of what is invariant for all observers. Since modern physics tells us every observer’s observations are observer-dependent, nothing can ultimately be real. Everything an observer can possibly observe depends on the observer’s frame of reference. Only the primordial nothingness of the void is invariant for all observers and therefore can ultimately be real.
The only thing needed to complete Gefter’s argument about the nature of ultimate reality is to identify the primordial nothingness of the void as undifferentiated consciousness, while the perceiving consciousness present for living organisms is differentiated consciousness. This premise tells us the individual perceiving consciousness of the observer is differentiated from the undifferentiated consciousness of the void. This essay gives the scientific reasons why her argument can be extended in this way.
The concept of ultimate reality is at the heart of all discussions of ontology, which is the study of what exists in reality. This directly leads into a discussion of being and becoming. This critical distinction between the concepts of being and becoming has a long philosophical tradition, beginning with the works of Plato. The idea of becoming has to do with the nature of the world, specifically the physical and mental world we experience through the perception of the world. All ideas of space, time, matter and energy have to do with becoming, while being has to do with something that is prior to becoming. As modern physics clearly points out, not to mention the conclusions of many modern philosophers, the only thing that is prior to the creation of the world is the nothingness of the void. In this sense, the void is the ultimate nature of being. Simply put, being is prior to becoming.
Relativity theory tells us that even the dynamical space-time geometry of the world has the nature of becoming. The holographic principle tells us that all the physical and mental images of the world are projected from a holographic screen to the point of view of an observer, and that these images of the world are animated through the expenditure of energy that animates the world, not unlike the animation of a movie. Everything in the world, from elementary particles to body and mind, is animated.
The animation of all things in the observer’s world requires the expenditure of energy, which relativity theory refers to as an accelerated frame of reference. It is always the observer itself as a focal point of consciousness that enters into an accelerated frame of reference. The holographic principle tells us that if energy is not expended and the observer’s frame of reference is not accelerated, the observer no longer has a holographic screen, and so all images of the observer’s world must disappear.
The big question is about what finally exists when the expenditure of energy comes to an end. Correctly interpreted, the holographic principle tells us that without the expenditure of energy only the nothingness of the void can exist, which is therefore the ultimate nature of reality. Only this nothingness is invariant for all observers (Gefter, 2014). Since the flow of time is directly related to the expenditure of energy, this is a timeless or an unchanging reality.
If the void is the ultimate nature of being, while all the animated images of the world projected from a holographic screen to the point of view of an observer are the nature of becoming, then what is the relation of the void to the world? The holographic principle tells us the only possible bridge that can connect the void to the world is the focal point of consciousness we call an observer. The perceiving consciousness of the observer must have a source, which can only originate from the void itself. In this sense, the perceiving consciousness of the observer can only be understood as differentiated.
Correctly understood, the holographic principle is telling us that the focal point of consciousness of the observer is differentiated from the all-encompassing empty space of the void whenever a holographic screen arises in that empty space and projects images of the world to the observer. Since the perceiving consciousness of the observer is differentiated, the consciousness of the void can only be understood as undifferentiated. Undifferentiated consciousness is what it means to say the void is the ultimate nature of being. As undifferentiated consciousness, the ultimate nature of being is One Being.
This nondual concept of One Being has a long metaphysical tradition, ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Vedas to Zen Buddhism. It can be found in the works of Plato and the Advaita tradition of Shankara. Most modern philosophers have also come to the conclusion of the nothingness of being and that the ultimate nature of being or ground of being can only be identified as the nothingness of the void.
This is also what modern physics tells us when correctly interpreted in the context of the holographic principle. The fundamental reason this is the correct interpretation is logical consistency. This is the only possible interpretation that is not fraught with the logical inconsistency of paradoxes of self-reference.
The nature of life in the world has to do with the animation of forms. These animated forms have a tendency to hold together while animated, which modern physics calls the coherent organization of information. The holographic principle tells us that all the bits of information that become organized into forms are encoded on a holographic screen, that forms are animated with the expenditure of energy that characterizes the world, and that images of forms are projected to the point of view of an observer.
At least superficially, the nature of death has to do with the disorganization of information in forms so that they no longer can hold together and become animated as distinctly perceived entities. At a deeper level, an argument can be made that the nature of death has to do with the transition of consciousness from the differentiated perceiving nature of an observer to its ultimate undifferentiated nature.
The holographic principle is telling us that the focal point of consciousness of the observer is the bridge that connects the ultimate being of the void to the becomings of the world. This also tells us that the nature of life in the world is about becoming, while the ultimate nature of death is about the final transition from becoming and the differentiation of consciousness to nondifferentiation and ultimate being. In this transition, the illusion of life in the world comes to an end. Ultimately, death is not only the end of the illusion of life in the world, but also the end of the illusion of separation.
The other way to say this is that consciousness is the true nature of what we are. The holographic principle tells us that the perceiving consciousness of the observer can only be identified as the focal point of consciousness at the center of its world. As we perceive the becomings of a world, the nature of our individual consciousness and being is differentiated from the void. This differentiation process can only occur as a holographic screen arises from the void and projects all the images of that world to the observer’s central point of view. If the holographic screen does not arise, this principle also tells us that the ultimate nature of our consciousness and being is undifferentiated.
Correctly interpreted, the holographic principle tells us that all physical and mental experiences are manifestations of our consciousness. Whenever we have a physical or mental experience, we manifest the experience we perceive either as an external sensory perception, an internal emotional body feeling, a memory, a thought, or some other form of mental imagination. The holographic principle tells us that all these perceptions are analogous to images projected from a holographic screen to the point of view of an observer. The screen defines our physical and mental world and the observer is only a focal point of consciousness. The mystery of our existence is that we exist as a point of consciousness.
The really big mystery is that ultimately we exist as the infinity of undifferentiated consciousness, which is the void. The void expresses its potentiality through the expression of energy, fundamentally as dark energy, which is the expansion of space. The expression of this energy is an expression of desire, specifically, the desire to create and perceive a world. From that expression of desire a physical world arises and all the possible physical and mental experiences of that world. We might even venture to say the void creates a conceptual world for itself in order to explain itself to itself within that world, and then is able to return to itself after it has gained this conceptual understanding of itself. Such a conceptual understanding of itself is not possible in the ultimate state of existence, only in a conceptual world.
What is the scientific evidence for such bold statements about the nature of reality? Relativity theory tells us the expression of dark energy is the exponential expansion of space that expands relative to the central point of view of an observer. Due to the limitation of the speed of light, a bounding surface of space called a cosmic horizon surrounds the observer at the central point of view and limits the observer’s observations of things in space. If the holographic principle is applied to the cosmic horizon, all the bits of information that define everything the observer can possibly observe in this bounded region of space are encoded on the cosmic horizon.
Leonard Susskind (1995, 2008) realized the observer’s cosmic horizon acts as a holographic screen that projects the images of things in space to the observer’s central point of view. This is just like the projection of images from a computer screen to an observer, except the images appear 3-dimensional since their nature is holographic. Gefter (2014) has stressed that in the sense of quantum theory and a Hilbert space, the observer’s holographic screen defines everything the observer can possibly observe in its world. She also realized that a consensual reality shared by many observers becomes possible if their respective holographic screens overlap in the sense of a Venn diagram and share information.
Where does the holographic principle come from? The holographic principle is automatically in effect if non-commutative geometry is applied to a bounding surface of space. Position coordinates on the surface are no longer represented by ordinary continuous numbers, but by non-commuting variables, which is a way of quantizing position coordinates. In effect, each possible quantized position coordinate defined on the surface turns into an area pixel that encodes a bit of information.
Raphael Bousso (2002) has shown the holographic principle is a general property of relativity theory called the covariant entropy bound, which is due to very general focusing theorems. The holographic principle is best understood as a geometric mechanism that allows all the bits of information that define things in a bounded region of space to become encoded on the bounding surface of that space. The bounding surface acts as a holographic screen that projects the images of things observed in that bounded space from the screen to the point of view of the observer. This geometric mechanism naturally arises with the expression of dark energy, the expansion of space, and non-commutative geometry.
How do the laws of physics that appear to govern the behavior of everything in the observer’s world fit in with the holographic principle? The strange answer is that all the laws of physics are derivative of the holographic principle, but they can only arise as thermodynamic averages. Ted Jacobson (1995) has shown that Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric, which determine the space-time geometry of the observer’s world, arise from the holographic principle as thermodynamic equations of state, which are only valid as thermal averages. In other words, the law of gravity isn’t really a law at all, but is only a thermal average that is a statistical consequence of the holographic principle.
The other laws of physics that govern the interactions of the electromagnetic and nuclear forces can be understood to arise from Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric through the usual unification mechanisms, which include super-symmetry and the Kaluza-Klein mechanism (cf. Bailin & Love, 1987) of extra compactified dimensions of space. All the usual quantum fields of the standard model of particle physics then arise as extra components of the space-time metric through unification mechanisms. The final result is akin to 11-dimensional super-gravity, which is a part of M-theory. Like gravity, the electromagnetic and nuclear interactions arise from the holographic principle as thermal averages. Like the holographic principle, these unification mechanisms can all be understood as geometric mechanisms.
These geometric mechanisms pretty much explain the creation of the observer’s world, the nature of all physical and mental stuff in that world, and why that world appears to be governed by the laws of physics. The observer’s world is only created because the void has the potential to express these geometric mechanisms. The void expresses its potentiality as it creates a world through geometric mechanisms, such as the expansion of space, and observes that world from the central point of view of that world, as all the physical and mental images of that world are projected from a holographic screen to the point of view of the observer.
2. Modern Physics Tells Us Life in the World Is an Illusion
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one – Albert Einstein
It helps to back up and review in detail how modern physics has brought us to this critical point in the development of science. Modern physics is concerned with the nature of the physical world, which is to say matter and energy apparently existing within some kind of space-time geometry. There is a big puzzle in the connection between consciousness and modern physics in that all the matter and energy in the physical world that apparently exists within some kind of space-time geometry is composed of observable things like fundamental particles, while there is a long metaphysical tradition that equates the nature of being to consciousness itself, which is to say the observer of the observable things.
The big conundrum is about whether consciousness itself, as the observer of the observable things, can arise from some complicated configuration of the observable things like a human brain. Is it possible that consciousness arises from the things it observes? The simple answer is no. The problem with this idea is it lacks logical consistency and inevitably leads to paradoxes of self-reference. Almost all serious thinkers that have considered this puzzle have come to the conclusion that this idea is not possible, which begs the question: where does perceiving consciousness come from?
The scientific answer to this question about the source of perceiving consciousness is really about what is ultimately real. Is the physical world the ultimate nature of reality, or is there an ultimate state of reality that is beyond the physical world? Until recent discoveries in physics, many physicists held the position that the physical world is the ultimate nature of reality, but that position is no longer tenable (Gefter, 2014).
The basic difficulty with this position goes back to the problem of the unification of quantum theory with relativity theory, which is the problem of fundamental particles existing in some kind of space-time geometry. Relativity theory tells us there is no such thing as an absolute space-time geometry, and so with unification there can be no such thing as fundamental particles. Change the space-time geometry as observed from the point of view of an accelerating observer, and the symmetries of that space-time geometry also change. Since all so-called fundamental particles reflect the symmetries of the space-time geometry as representations of a symmetry group, there really is no such thing as fundamental particles.
The ultimate example of this dilemma is an event horizon, which always arises from the point of view of an accelerating observer. The observer’s horizon fundamentally limits the observer’s ability to observe things like particles in space. As Hawking (1996) realized with the discovery of Hawking radiation from the horizon of a black hole, an accelerating observer that accelerates away from the black hole horizon in a rocket ship does not observe the same set of particles that an observer observes while free falling through the black hole horizon. The basic problem is the event horizon of the black hole breaks the symmetry of empty space, and so radically alters what these two observers call fundamental particles. For the freely falling observer, particles of Hawking radiation do not exist.
How can particles of Hawking radiation radiated away from the event horizon of a black hole exist for the accelerating observer but not for the freely falling observer? How can any particles be fundamental if the particles that appear to exist for an observer can change or appear to go in and out of existence based on whether the observer’s point of view is accelerated or not? If neither space-time geometry nor particles are really fundamental, what is?
We might guess that only the consciousness of the observer is really fundamental, and that so-called fundamental particles can change based on whether the observer’s frame of reference is accelerated. Although this is a good guess, it’s not the right answer. There must be something more fundamental than the point of view of the observer that explains whether that point of view is accelerated. The basic problem is acceleration implies the expenditure of energy, and that energy has to come from someplace. There must be some kind of a mechanism inherent in the generation of the energy that gives rise to the observer’s accelerated frame of reference. If that energy is not expended or the acceleration mechanism is not put into effect, the observer’s frame of reference is freely falling.
At the root of this problem is the underlying foundation of relativity theory. Relativity theory is fundamentally based on the principle of equivalence. The exertion of any force, which requires the expenditure of energy, is equivalent to an observer’s accelerated frame of reference. For example, the force of gravity on the surface of a massive planet is equivalent to the acceleration of a rocket ship through empty space. An observer on the surface of the planet observes exactly the same kind of accelerated motion of objects that fall through space as an observer in the accelerating rocket ship, and so there is no possible way to distinguish between these two scenarios based only on the accelerated motion of objects. As an object accelerates through space, it gains kinetic energy. We usually think that gravitational potential energy is converted into kinetic energy as the object accelerates under the force of gravity, but where does the energy come from in the accelerating rocket ship? The answer is the energy comes from the energy expended as the thrusters of the rocket ship force it forward through space.
This means that before we can discuss an observer’s accelerated frame of reference, we have to discuss the expenditure of energy or the mechanism that generates this accelerated motion. The consciousness of the observer cannot really be fundamental because there is the issue of whether or not the observer’s point of view is accelerated and energy is expended. The observer is only in an accelerated frame of reference if energy is expended. Where does this energy come from? The strange answer is the energy comes from the same place as the observer’s point of view. The irony of this answer is that this most fundamental of all places and all things can only be described as the void or nothingness.
Closely related to the issue of the principle of equivalence is the issue of the generation of an event horizon. Although the horizon of a black hole seems like a special case, it turns out event horizons arise for all accelerated observers. The observer’s horizon always limits the ability of the observer to see things in space. An event horizon always arises for any observer in an accelerated frame of reference. In the most generic case, this is called a Rindler horizon (Smolin, 2001). In line with the idea that the observer’s accelerated frame of reference is only an accelerated point of view, we say the observer’s horizon arises as the observer follows an accelerated world-line through its space-time geometry.
This brings us back to the question of where does the energy come from that gives rise to the observer’s accelerated frame of reference? Although the answer seems exceedingly strange, it can be summarized with only a few concepts. This answer is at the heart of all theories of the big bang creation event. The energy must come from the same place that the observer comes from, which is the void. The nature of this energy is called dark energy, which is understood in relativity theory as the exponential expansion of space, which always expands relative to the central point of view of an observer. Dark energy is the creative energy that puts the “bang” in the big bang event (Gefter, 2014). If space does not expand and dark energy is not expended, only the void exists, which is like an empty space of potentiality. If space does expand and dark energy is expended, an observer’s world is created, and the observer of that world is always present to observe that world at the central point of view of that world.
In relativity theory, the force of dark energy is called a cosmological constant Λ, which gives rise to the exponential expansion of space that always expands relative to the central point of view of an observer. With the exponential expansion of space and the expression of dark energy, the farther out in space the observer looks, the faster space appears to expand away from the observer. Due to the limitation that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, the observer is always surrounded by a cosmic horizon that limits the observer’s ability to see things in space. This limitation of the speed of light is really not that mysterious, since it is like the maximal rate of information transfer in a computer network. At the observer’s cosmic horizon, space appears to expand away from the observer at the speed of light, and so this is as far out in space as the observer can see things in space.
How can space appear to expand? The answer is the curvature of space-time geometry as formulated by Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric. The space-time metric is the field that measures the curvature of space-time geometry. Einstein’s field equations relate a change in the metric in a region of space to changes in the energy content of that region of space.
With the attractive force of gravity, space appears to contract. This gravitational contraction of space is like the kind of length contraction and time dilation that occurs with uniform motion in special relativity, but with gravity generalizes to accelerated motion. Relativity theory tells us the gravitational contraction of space always occurs relative to point of view of an observer, like the observations of a distant observer limited by the event horizon of a black hole. At the horizon of a black hole, the contraction of space or the attractive force of gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape away from the black hole, cross out of the boundary of the horizon, and reach the point of view of a distant observer.
In a very similar way, the repulsive force of dark energy gives rise to a cosmic horizon that limits the observations of the observer at the central point of view. With the repulsive force of dark energy, space appears to exponentially expand relative to the central point of view of the observer, and due to the limitation of the speed of light, this limits the observer’s ability to see things in space. At the observer’s cosmic horizon the expansion of space or the repulsive force of dark energy is so strong that even light cannot cross into the boundary of the horizon and reach the central point of view of the observer.
Accelerated Expansion of the Universe (image from scholarpedia.org)
Although a lot of dark energy was used up in the big bang event, astronomical observations indicate there is still a lot of dark energy left in the universe. These are observations of the rate with which distant galaxies accelerate away from us. If the only kind of force operative over galactic distance scales was the force of gravity, the expansion of the universe should be slowing down, since gravity is an attractive force, but that is not what is observed. The expansion of the universe is speeding up, as though all the galaxies were repelling each other. This repulsive force, like a force of anti-gravity, is called the force of dark energy. Its current observed value in terms of the cosmological constant is Λ=10−123.
If the only recent discovery of modern physics was dark energy, physics would only have another puzzle, but about the same time dark energy was discovered, the holographic principle was discovered (’t Hooft, 1993, Susskind, 1995). The holographic principle is about where all the bits of information that define all the observable things in any bounded region of space are encoded (’t Hooft, 2000).
The strange answer is that these bits of information are not encoded in space itself, but on the bounding surface of that space. The bounding surface of space acts as a holographic screen that projects the images of things into space, just like a conventional piece of holographic film projects holographic images into space. The other analogy is a computer screen. Bits of information encoded on the screen project images into space to the point of view of an observer.
This kind of holographic projection from a screen into space is really no different than the kind of animated space-time geometry projected from a computer screen to the point of view of an observer, except the images appear three dimensional since their nature is holographic. Just like the animated frames of a movie, the projected images are animated over a sequence of screen outputs. With each screen output, which corresponds to an instant of time, the images are projected into space. Since the projected images can become distorted as they change in size and shape, the projection of images from a screen to an observer over a sequence of screen outputs can give the appearance of the curving or warping of space-time geometry.
Just like a computer screen, each pixel defined on the screen encodes a bit of information in a binary code of 1’s and 0’s. In a conventional computer, this encoding of information in a binary code is performed by switches that are either in the on or the off position, but on a holographic screen, the encoding is generically performed by spin variables that are either in the spin up or the spin-down position. Since spin variables are mathematically represented by SU(2) matrices, this encoding of information has a purely mathematical representation.
The holographic principle is fundamentally about how the space-time geometry of any bounded region of space is defined, specifically where all the bits of information defining the space-time geometry of that bounded region of space are encoded. The strange answer is that all the bits of information are not encoded in space itself, but on the bounding surface of that region of space.
Bits of information are encoded in a pixelated way, with each pixel on the screen encoding a single bit of information. The holographic principle tells us the pixel size is about a Planck area ℓ2=ћG/c3, given in terms of Planck’s constant, the gravitational constant and the speed of light. For a bounding surface of space of surface area A, the total number of bits of information encoded is given by n=A/4ℓ2.
What is a bounding surface of space? The answer is for any region of space, the bounding surface is an event horizon that limits the ability of the observer of that region to see things in that region of space. With the expression of dark energy and the expansion of space, the observer at the central point of view has limited ability to see things in space due to its cosmic horizon, and so the bounding surface is the observer’s cosmic horizon.
This is where things start to get weird. The holographic principle tells us the observer’s cosmic horizon acts as a holographic screen that encodes all the bits of information that define everything the observer can possibly observe in that region of space. Every observation of something is like the projection of an image of that thing from the observer’s holographic screen to the observer’s central point of view.
The Observer, the Screen and the Thing (image from Smolin, 2001)
Before delving into all the weird implications of the holographic principle, it is worth an examination of how the holographic principle arises in the first place, and secondly, how the holographic principle gives rise to a world that appears from the point of view of the observer of that world to be composed of matter and energy, all of which appears to reduce down to some kind of fundamental particles existing in some kind of space-time geometry.
The first question is: how does the holographic principle arise in the first place? The answer is it can only arise if there is a bounding surface of space that acts as a holographic screen that projects all the images of things in that bounded region of space to the central point of view of an observer. This is the critical role that dark energy and the exponential expansion of space play, as the expenditure of dark energy gives rise to a cosmic horizon that acts as the observer’s holographic screen. All the bits of information encoded on the observer’s holographic screen in effect define everything in the observer’s world in the sense of a Hilbert space. The observer’s cosmic horizon is the bounding surface of space that defines the observer’s world as it limits the observer’s observations of things in space.
How does the observer’s cosmic horizon encode all the bits of information that define everything the observer can possibly observe in its world? The answer has to do with the quantization of space-time geometry. This is what the unification of quantum theory with relativity theory is all about. The most generic way to understand unification is with non-commutative geometry. Although the holographic principle was first discovered in string theory, which has been generalized to M-theory (see Witten, 1995), string theory is a special case of non-commutative geometry. All examples of the holographic principle occur in some kind of non-commutative geometry. Even fractal geometry can be understood as non-commutative. If non-commutative geometry is applied to a bounding surface of space, the holographic principle is automatically in effect. Non-commutative geometry is manifestly holographic. This basically says the space-time geometry of any bounded region of space is a direct consequence of how bits of information are encoded on the bounding surface of that region of space.
How does this happen? The basic problem is that position coordinates on the bounding surface of space can always be parameterized in terms of some (x, y) coordinate system, like latitude and longitude on the surface of a sphere. In a commutative geometry, there are an infinite number of (x, y) position coordinates, since the geometry of the surface is a two-dimensional continuum and is infinitely divisible. The quantization of space-time geometry turns this infinitely divisible continuum into a finite number of quantized position coordinates on the surface.
The way non-commutative geometry performs this trick in the most generic case is to require an uncertainty relation between the x and y position coordinates where the product of uncertainty is at least as large as the Planck area. This is analogous to the uncertainty relation between the position, x, and the momentum, p, of a particle in ordinary quantum theory where the product of uncertainty is at least as large as Planck’s constant, except in non-commutative geometry the uncertainty relation is between the position coordinates of space itself, not the dynamical variables of particles defined in a space-time geometry. Non-commutative geometry is fundamentally about how space-time geometry is quantized, not how the dynamical variables of particles are quantized. This turns the (x, y) position coordinates defined on the bounding surface into non-commuting variables.
Horizon Information (image from Gefter, 2014)
Whenever non-commutative geometry is applied to a bounding surface of space like a cosmic horizon, there are no longer an infinite number of position coordinates defined on the surface, but rather a finite number of non-commuting variables, which give rise to pixels. In effect, each quantized position coordinate is smeared out into an area element of size 4ℓ2. The total number of pixels defined on the bounding surface of area A is given as n=A/4ℓ2, which corresponds to the number of non-commuting variables that define the non-commutative geometry.
In the most generic case of non-commutative geometry, these n non-commuting variables give rise to n bits of information defined by the n eigenvalues of an SU(n) matrix, and so the ‘n’ pixels defined on the bounding surface encode ‘n’ bits of information. Since an SU(n) matrix can always be decomposed into SU(2) matrices, and since SU(2) matrices encode bits of information in a binary code like spin variables that are either spin up or spin down, the SU(n) matrix thus encodes n bits of information in a binary code, which is the nature of horizon entropy.
The second question was about how the holographic principle gives rise to a world that appears from the point of view of the observer of that world to be composed of matter and energy, all of which appears to reduce down to some kind of fundamental particles, and appears to exist in some kind of space-time geometry. Although this sounds like a broken record, the answer is geometric mechanisms.
The first step in solving this puzzle is to understand how bits of information encoded on a bounding surface of space give rise to the appearance of a curved space-time geometry in a bounded region of space. This is the problem of how the holographic principle explains the nature of gravity, which is understood as the curvature of space-time geometry.
Although there are many ways to approach this problem, the most generic way is the second law of thermodynamics. The second law is a very general statistical relationship that relates how a change in the number of bits of information or entropy that define the configuration state of everything in a region of space are related to the thermal flow of energy or heat through that region of space. This relation is usually written as ΔQ=TΔS, where ΔQ is the flow of heat through the region of space, T is the absolute temperature of that region of space, and ΔS is the change in the entropy or number of bits of information that define the configuration state of everything in that region of space.
The flow of heat through that region of space is understood as the random thermal motion of those things through space, while the holographic principle tells us all the bits of information defining everything in that region of space are encoded on the bounding surface of that region of space as S=kn, where the total number of bits of information encoded is given in terms of the surface area A of the bounding surface as n=A/4ℓ2. The constant k is called Boltzmann’s constant, which converts thermal kinetic energy into conventional units of absolute temperature.
Remarkably, this simple statistical relation between the flow of heat through a region of space and the entropy of that region of space implies Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric in that region of space as a thermal average as long as things are near thermal equilibrium, which is called a thermodynamic equation of state. The reason is fairly simple. The holographic principle tells us all the bits of information that define everything in a region of space are defined on the bounding surface of that region of space as S=kn. As heat flows through that region of space and the heat content of that region changes as ΔQ=TΔS, the second law tells us the entropy of that region must also change as ΔS=kΔn.
Since entropy is given in terms of the surface area of the bounding surface, n=A/4ℓ2, as heat flows across the bounding surface, the surface area of the bounding surface must change. As the bounding surface of space changes, the geometry of the region of space bounded by the bounding surface also changes. This change in the geometry of the bounded region of space is mathematically specified by Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric, which relates a change in the curvature of the space-time geometry of that bounded region to a change in the energy content of that region of space.
Before the discovery of the holographic principle, the vast majority of theoretical physicists thought Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric were about as fundamental as physics can ever get. Thanks to the holographic principle, we now know that Einstein’s field equations are not really fundamental, but only arise as a thermal average in any bounded region of space, or a thermodynamic equation of state that is only valid near thermal equilibrium. Einstein’s field equations arise from the holographic way bits of information are encoded on the bounding surface of that space.
Remarkably, the holographic principle is more fundamental than Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric. Einstein’s field equations are derivative of the holographic principle as a statistical or thermal average that is only valid near thermal equilibrium. The force of gravity and the curvature of space-time geometry only arise in a bounded region of space from the holographic way bits of information are encoded on the bounding surface of that region of space.
The holographic principle in turn is only a geometric mechanism that allows bits of information to become encoded on a bounding surface of space whenever a bounding surface like a cosmic horizon arises with the expression of dark energy and the exponential expansion of space.
If Einstein’s field equations are only derivative of the holographic principle, which in turn is only a geometric mechanism, what is really fundamental? The weird answer is nothing is really fundamental. Only the potentiality of the void to express itself with the expenditure of dark energy and encode bits of information on a bounding surface of space is really fundamental. This is the potentiality of the void to create a world for itself and observe that world from the central point of view of that world.
The second law of thermodynamics in the context of the holographic principle also explains the temperature of an event horizon as observed by a distant observer. This becomes an important issue when we discuss the temperature of a cosmic horizon as observed by the observer at the central point of view, since this horizon temperature sets the stage for the thermal evolution of the observer’s world.
The observer will observe thermal photons radiated away from the horizon as a consequence of the horizon temperature. These thermal photons have an energy given in terms of their momentum as E=pc, where quantum theory tells us this momentum is related to wavelength as p=h/λ. The wavelength of a thermal photon that is just barely bound within the horizon as observed by the distant observer is given approximately in terms of the horizon radius R as the maximal circumference of the horizon, λ=2πR. For example, for a black hole horizon, a thermal photon that is barely gravitationally bound within the black hole as observed by a distant observer has a wavelength that is about equal to this maximal horizon circumference. This tells us the energy of a thermal photon that is barely bound within the horizon and is just barely able to escape away from the horizon and become radiated to the distant observer is given as about E=hc/2πR. The energy of this radiated thermal photon is the flow of heat, ΔQ=hc/2πR. The second law tells us this flow of heat is related to the change in entropy as ΔQ=TΔS, where ΔS=kΔn. The lowest energy thermal photon radiated away from the horizon corresponds to the smallest possible change in entropy, Δn=1, which gives the observed horizon temperature as about kT=hc/2πR.
What about other forces of nature besides gravity, like the electromagnetic and nuclear forces? What about other quantum fields besides the space-time metric that comprise the standard model of particle physics? The unification of quantum theory with relativity theory solves this problem in a straightforward way based on geometric mechanisms. The only known mechanisms of unification are supersymmetry (Dine, 2016) and the Kaluza-Klein mechanism of extra compactified dimensions of space.
If there are six extra compactified dimensions of space, then Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric give rise to the electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear forces. The quantum fields that describe these forces are extra components of the space-time metric that arise in extra compactified dimensions of space. The quantum fields for these extra forces represent the curvature of space-time geometry in extra compactified dimensions of space, just like the ordinary components of the space-time metric for the usual four extended dimensions of space-time represent the force of gravity.
If super-symmetry, which is the idea of spatial coordinates with both commuting and anti-commuting aspects, is applied to Einstein’s field equations for the space-time metric with six extra compactified dimensions of space, not only are the boson force particle quantum fields generated, but also the fermion matter particle quantum fields. If the extra compactified dimensions of space are formulated in terms of non-commutative geometry, not only are the force particle fields and the matter particle fields generated, but also the Higgs symmetry breaking fields. By breaking the symmetry of space, the Higgs mechanism gives rise to the mass energy carried by all the matter particle fields.
In the Kaluza-Klein mechanism, the electron is understood in terms of an extra compactified dimension of space. At each point of ordinary 3+1 dimensional space-time there is an extra circular dimension of space. Momentum can flow in the extra circular dimension just as it can flow in an extended dimension. Quantization of momentum in the circular dimension explains the quantization of electric charge, which is quantized in units of the electron. This is the usual Bohr argument for quantization of momentum in terms of an integral number of wavelengths fitting into the circumference of the circular orbit, nλ=2πr, where r is the radius of the circular orbit, n is the number of wavelengths, and in the sense of a Fourier transform momentum and wavelength are inversely proportional to each other, p=h/λ, except momentum in the extra circular dimension is the nature of electric charge. Momentum can flow in either the positive or the negative direction, explaining both the positron and the electron.
What we call an elementary or point particle is really only angular momentum quantized in an extra compactified dimension of space. As a geometrical mechanism, the quantization of electric charge is really no different than the quantization of energy in a hydrogen atom.
The idea of a gauge theory naturally arises from this idea of extra compactified dimensions of space. With multiple extra compactified dimensions of space the idea of an Abelian gauge theory generalizes to non-Abelian gauge theories, which explains nuclear charges in addition to electric charge. In both cases, the nuclear and electrical forces are understood in terms of extra components of the space-time metric that arise with extra compactified dimensions of space, which allows the gravitational force to become unified with the nuclear and electromagnetic forces in a natural way.
The final result of unification is called 11-dimensional super-gravity, which includes all the standard quantum fields of the standard model of particles physics, including the electromagnetic and nuclear forces in addition to gravity. Since 11-dimensional super-gravity can only arise as a thermal average valid near thermal equilibrium, it is only valid as a low energy limit. All so-called fundamental particles are thus understood to be nothing more than localized excitations of field energy, which are called wave-packets. The wave-packet is localized in space and time, which gives rise to the particle quantization of energy and momentum.
The wavelength of the wave-packet is extended in an extended dimension of space, which allows for the particle quantization of energy and momentum, while the quantization of wavelength in an extra compactified dimension of space gives rise to the internal structure of the particle like electric charge. Internal structure is related to external structure since the space-time metric relates the curvature of extended dimensions of space to compactified dimensions of space.
A so-called fundamental particle is thus nothing more than a localized excitation of field energy. These quantum fields all arise from the space-time metric through the usual unification mechanisms of super-symmetry, extra-compactified dimensions of space, and non-commutative geometry. All the quantum fields of the standard model of particle physics are really only extra components of the space-time metric that arise through these geometric mechanisms. Even the space-time metric only arises as a thermal average through the geometric mechanisms of the expression of dark energy, the expansion of space, and non-commutative geometry. In reality, there are no such things as fundamental particles or fundamental forces, only the potentiality of the void to express these geometric mechanisms.
Simply put, there is no Theory of Everything because there is No Theory of Nothing. The potentiality of the void cannot be reduced to a theory or conceptualized in any other possible way. That is the nature of infinite potentiality. Scientific reductionism simply does not apply to infinite potentiality. Anything is possible as long as it can be expressed in terms of a geometric mechanism. The expression of this potentiality always requires the expenditure of energy. In emotional terms, the expression of this energy is the expression of desire, which directly leads to the manifestation of desires. The manifested world is only a manifestation of desires.
This important point cannot be stressed enough. Correctly interpreted, the holographic principle is telling us the physical world is only an expression of the potentiality of the void. This expression of potentiality always requires the expression of energy, which in emotional terms is the expression of desire. Through its geometric mechanisms, the void has the potential to create a world for itself and to observe that world from the central point of view of that world. The void is the source of everything in that world, including all the matter, energy, information and even the space-time geometry of that world, but it doesn’t end there. The void is also the source of the perceiving consciousness that observes that world. When we use the word source, we really mean potentiality. Just as the source of the world is an empty space of potentiality called the void, the source of the perceiving consciousness that observes the world is the potentiality of the undifferentiated consciousness of the void.
If we take the big bang creation theory seriously, as formulated with inflationary cosmology, we understand that at the moment of creation of the observer’s world a great deal of dark energy is expended. That world is initially only about a Planck length in size, but then inflates in size due to an instability in the amount of dark energy. This instability in dark energy is like a process that burns away the dark energy. Inflationary cosmology hypothesizes that at the moment of creation the cosmological constant takes on a value of about Λ=1, but due to an instability in the amount of dark energy, the cosmological constant transitions to a lower value. This transition is like a phase transition from a metastable false vacuum state to a more stable vacuum state of lower energy. The most stable state, the true vacuum with Λ=0, is a state with zero dark energy.
The expenditure of dark energy breaks the symmetry of empty space by constructing an observation limiting cosmic horizon that surrounds the observer at the central point of view. The instability in dark energy is like a consumptive process of burning that burns away dark energy and undoes this broken symmetry. As dark energy burns away to zero, the cosmic horizon inflates in size to infinity, and the symmetry is restored. We understand this undoing of symmetry breaking is like a phase transition from a false vacuum state to a true vacuum state. Dark energy burns away as the phase transition occurs. This idea is also consistent with the current measured value of the cosmological constant, Λ=10−123, based on the rate with which distant galaxies are observed to accelerate away from us, which also corresponds to the size of the observable universe of about 15 billion light years.
This burning away of dark energy also explains the normal flow of energy in the observer’s world in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. Relativity theory tells us the radius R of the observer’s cosmic horizon is inversely related to the cosmological constant as R2/ℓ2=3/Λ, while the holographic principle tells us the absolute temperature of the observer’s horizon is inversely related to its radius as kT=ћc/2πR. At the moment of creation, R is about ℓ, Λ is about 1, and the absolute temperature is about 1032 degrees Kelvin. As Λ decreases to zero, R inflates in size to infinity, and the temperature cools to absolute zero.
The second law of thermodynamics simply says that heat tends to flow from hotter to colder objects because hotter objects radiate away more heat, which is thermal radiation. The instability in dark energy explains the second law as dark energy burns away, the observer’s world inflates in size and cools in temperature, and heat tends to flow from hotter states to colder states of the observer’s world.
Second Law of Thermodynamics (image from Penrose, 2005)
The normal flow of energy through the observer’s world reflects this normal flow of heat as dark energy burns away and the observer’s world inflates in size and cools. This normal flow of energy naturally arises in a thermal gradient. This also explains the mystery of time’s arrow, as the normal course of time is related to the normal flow of energy through the observer’s world. As far as the holographic principle goes, a thermal gradient is also a temporal gradient.
What are we to make of other forms of energy besides dark energy? Modern physics gives an answer in terms of symmetry breaking. All forms of positive energy arise from dark energy through symmetry breaking. This allows an observer’s world to emerge from the void along the lines of the inflationary scenario, but only if the total energy of that world adds up to zero.
The remarkable discovery of modern cosmology is cosmic observations indicate the total energy of the observable universe is exactly zero (Gefter, 2014). This is possible in relativity theory as the negative potential energy of gravitational attraction can exactly cancel out the total amount of dark energy and all other forms of positive energy that arise from dark energy.
How do other forms of energy, like mass energy, arise from dark energy? The answer is symmetry breaking. As dark energy burns away, high energy photons are created, and these photons can create particle-antiparticle pairs, like proton-antiproton pairs. One of the mysteries of cosmology is why there are so many protons in the universe and so few antiprotons. Symmetry breaking gives the answer. At high energies, antiprotons can decay into electrons and protons into positrons, but there is a difference in the decay rates due to a broken symmetry, and so more antiprotons decay than protons. As the universe cools, protons become relatively stable, and so that’s what’s left over. Even the mass of the proton arises through a process of symmetry breaking called the Higgs mechanism. The expenditure of energy that characterizes all the gauge forces, like electromagnetic energy in a living organism or nuclear energy in a star, all arise from dark energy through a process of symmetry breaking, but all of this positive energy is exactly cancelled out by the negative potential energy of gravitational attraction.
The observational fact that the total energy of the observable universe exactly adds up to zero tells us something important. Since everything in the world is composed of energy and all energy ultimately adds up to zero, this tells us that everything is ultimately nothing.
If the void is the ultimate nature of reality, the physical world is a lower form of reality, like a virtual reality of images projected from a screen to the central point of view of an observer. This lower form of reality, with its projection of images from a screen to an observer, only exists when the void expresses its potentiality through geometric mechanisms, which is the nature of becoming. When the void expresses its potentiality through these geometric mechanisms it creates a world for itself, which it always observes from the central point of view of that world as the perceiving consciousness of the observer is differentiated from itself. If this potentiality is not expressed, only the void exists. Simply put, being is prior to becoming. As undifferentiated consciousness, the void exists as One Being.
What about a consensual reality apparently shared by many observers? The answer is many observers can share a consensual reality to the degree their respective holographic screens overlap in the sense of a Venn diagram and share information. This is just like the kind of information sharing that occurs in an interactive computer network. Each observer only observes its own holographic screen, but to the degree different screens overlap, different observers can apparently interact and share information. The network of interacting holographic screens can share information to the degree the screens overlap.
Overlapping Bounded Spaces
Each holographic screen encodes bits of information in a binary code. This is due to defining n quantized position coordinates on a bounding surface of space, which is due to defining n non-commuting variables on the bounding surface. The n bits of information, one per pixel, arise from this holographic mechanism as the n eigenvalues of an SU(n) matrix.
It’s worth pointing out that the holographic principle is completely consistent with quantum theory. In effect, each observer has its own Hilbert space of observable values, with all the bits of information for observables encoded on the observer’s holographic screen. In this sense, each observation of something by the observer is like a screen output that projects an image of the thing from the screen to the central point of view of the observer.
The well-known fact that the observer has the innate ability to focus its attention on things in its world raises the issue of choice. How is this choice expressed? Quantum theory gives a natural answer in terms of a quantum state of potentiality. The quantum state can always be expressed in terms of a sum over all possible paths in some configuration space.
The configuration space relevant for the holographic principle are n non-commuting variables defined on the observer’s screen that give rise to the SU(n) matrix that defines the n bits of information encoded on the screen. That is the nature of the observer’s Hilbert space.
Since the observer’s holographic screen projects all images of the observer’s world, each path specified in the sum over all paths is a possible world-line through the observer’s projected space-time geometry. The observer’s space-time geometry is not only projected from its holographic screen, but is also animated over a sequence of screen outputs. It is the observer itself that follows this world-line through its projected and animated space-time geometry. As a focal point of consciousness, an accelerating observer always follows a world-line.
Just as the observer observes its own world, the observer follows a world-line through its own world. Each observer’s world-line is defined by the observations made on its world-line. In computer terms, each observation is like a screen output. A sequence of screen outputs occurring over a sequence of decision points on the world-line allow for the animation of observations. Until an observation is made, the quantum state of potentiality branches into all possible paths, but as the observer chooses to observe a particular state of information at a decision point, a particular path is followed.
Each screen output on the observer’s world-line is a decision point where the observer chooses to follow some particular path rather than some other possible path. Each possible path of the observer through its projected and animated space-time geometry is a possible world-line. At every decision point or screen output the observer has a choice to make about what to observe and which path to follow in its world. This choice arises with the observer’s focus of attention on images of its world.
Quantum theory tells us each observer has its own Hilbert space of observable values for its own world defined by quantization of non-commuting variables on the observer’s holographic screen. This defines everything the observer can observe in its own world, but due to information sharing in the network of overlapping screens, its observations can become correlated with the observations of other observers.
What is meant by other observers? Each observer is only a point of view that arises in relation to its own holographic screen. This point of view can be called a differentiated focal point of consciousness, or individual consciousness. The holographic principle tells us this focal point of consciousness is a point of singularity that arises at the center of the observer’s horizon, which is to say the observer is the singularity at the center of its own world. Many apparently distinct observers can share a consensual reality, but ultimately when these geometric mechanisms are no longer expressed, only the undifferentiated consciousness of the void exists.
What role does the observer play in the creation of its world? The nature of quantum potentiality tells us every observation is a choice or a decision point on the observer’s world-line as the observer’s path or world-line branches into all possible paths. In computer terms, every observation is like a screen output. In the language of quantum theory, every observation is a decision point on the observer’s path about what to observe and which path to follow. The observer expresses its choices through its focus of attention on images of its world.
Even the laws of physics are not fundamental but are all chosen. Everything is a choice and nothing is determined. All the laws of physics that appear to govern that world can only arise with random choice as statistical or thermal averages, which is what the second law of thermodynamics tells us in the framework of the holographic principle. As long as things are near thermal equilibrium, the laws of physics only appear fixed and stable due to symmetry breaking, and in some sense have frozen out of the quantum state of potentiality like a phase transition that turns water into ice, although the better analogy is probably the spontaneous magnetization of a magnet. The laws of physics only appear stable because they all arise through symmetry breaking within a metastable or false vacuum state.
The nature of symmetry breaking tells us that bits of information spontaneously become organized into complex forms as energy flows in a thermal gradient, like the spontaneous magnetization of a magnet. The holographic principle and the expression of dark energy explain how bits of information become encoded on a holographic screen in relation to the point of view of an observer, and the instability in dark energy explains the origin of the thermal gradient. The expression of complexity arises through these geometric mechanisms because the organization of information occurs at a metastable state. Even the transition from one metastable state to another metastable state is a kind of symmetry breaking. This is epitomized by a cosmological constant that is only constant within a metastable state, while the transition from one value of the cosmological constant to another value is akin to a phase transition.
The birth and development of the observer’s body can be understood in terms of the coherent organization of information, just as the physical death of the observer’s body can be understood in terms of the disorganization of information. Modern physics tells us the development of coherent organization arises through a process of symmetry breaking. This is as much the case for biological organisms as it is for physical objects. The only significant difference is the organization of physical objects through phase transitions is dependent on the transfer of heat, while biological organisms can also engage in a process of eating, which adds organizing potential energy to the organism.
There is always a balance between the flow of thermal kinetic energy that tends to disorganize objects and organizing potential energy that tends to organize objects. When the balance shifts in favor of organizing potential energy, symmetry breaking occurs and coherent organization develops. When the balance shifts in favor of too much heat, disorganization occurs. As organizing potential energy is added to a body through a process of eating, the development of coherent organization naturally occurs through a process of symmetry breaking. Although symmetry breaking may be sufficient to drive the development of coherent organization in the observer’s body, the observer also plays a role in the organizing process through choice, especially when those choices become emotionally biased.
3. The End of an Illusion
Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed. –Friedrich Nietzsche
The nature of consciousness only appears to be mysterious if we do not know the true nature of what we really are. Plato describes an observer that mistakenly identifies itself with the central character of an animation of images it perceives on a screen as a prisoner. The only possible freedom is an observer that no longer identifies itself, but for that we have to know the true nature of what we are.
The age-old problem of identity often expresses itself as an identity crisis. This identity crisis is about the true nature of who I am. Is it possible that I am only the observer and not the person I am observing? If I am not a person in the world, then who am I? Can the true nature of identity be purely spiritual? Can the problem of identity be answered with a statement like “I am nothing but consciousness”, or “Ultimately, I am the undifferentiated consciousness of the void?”
Ultimately, this identity crisis is about the mystery of the ultimate nature of existence. The ultimate nature of existence is a mystery that can never be explained, just as infinite potentiality can never be reduced to scientific concepts. The most that it is ever possible to say about the ultimate nature of existence is that It Exists, which is to say It Is or I Am.
The ultimate nature of existence can never be personified. The holographic principle tells us that the nature of a person in the world can only be understood as a limited expression of the ultimate nature of existence as the image of a person is projected from a holographic screen. This limited expression of a person in the world is very much like the animation of an avatar in a virtual reality world, which is no more real than the images of a character animated on a screen and projected to the point of view of an observer. As Plato tells us, the observer becomes a prisoner when it identifies itself with its character.
“If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The void expresses its potentiality as it creates a world through geometric mechanisms and observes that world from the central point of view of that world. The expression of this potentiality requires the expenditure of energy, specifically dark energy and the expansion of space. Without this expenditure of energy, neither an observer nor its world can exist.
How are these geometric mechanisms expressed? The only logically consistent answer is the void has the potentiality to express these mechanisms. The void is what exists prior to the creation of the world. Being is prior to becoming. In the sense of One Being, the void can be understood as undifferentiated consciousness. This argument is consistent with all the nondual traditions, including Advaita Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, Kabbalah Judaism and Gnostic Christianity.
Nondual traditions of the past
“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (Gospel of John 8:58)
The book of Genesis 1:4 tells us that in the beginning, God divided the light from the darkness. The light that Genesis refers to is not physical light, but the light of consciousness, which is divided from the darkness of the void. The light of consciousness is inherent to the observer itself and can be understood as the observer’s focus of attention, which allows for the observer’s expression of choice in the sense of quantum potentiality. Each decision point on the observer’s world-line is another choice.
Just as the observer is understood as a focal point of consciousness to which images of the observer’s world are projected from its holographic screen, the observer’s focus of attention allows for the projection of those images. To use a physical analogy, the observer’s own light of consciousness illuminates the images of its world like the light of a laser projects images from a physical hologram. In this sense, with the creation of the observer’s world, the differentiated consciousness of the observer is divided from the undifferentiated consciousness of the void.
Genesis 1:2 also tells us the creation of the world occurs as the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep. The Spirit of God is the observer, the motion appears to occur as the observer follows an accelerated world-line through its projected and animated space-time geometry, the face of the deep is the observer’s holographic screen, and the deep is the void.
The Rig-Veda tells us darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning. All that existed then was void and formless. The undifferentiated consciousness of the void is referred to in the sense of One Being as that One thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature. Apart from it there was nothing. The creation of the world is described in a thermodynamic sense as that which becomes was born through the power of heat. Upon that desire arose in the beginning the first discharge of thought. The observer is described as whose eye controls this world in highest heaven.
The Tao Te Ching describes the observer’s world is only created through the expression of desire, and without that expression of energy only the mystery of the void exists: Ever desireless one can see the mystery; ever desiring one can see the manifestations. The Tao describes the void as darkness, darkness within darkness. the gate to all mystery. The gateless gate paradox describes that when One passes through this gateless gate, one walks the universe alone.
What is the nature of passing through the gateless gate? When the holographic mechanism that creates the observer’s world is no longer expressed, the observer’s world comes to an end and disappears from existence. What happens to the observer? The observer’s individual consciousness must return to the undifferentiated consciousness of the void. This reunion is described as a dissolution, like a drop of water that dissolves back into the ocean (Osho, 1974).
In both Hinduism and Buddhism the final dissolution of individual consciousness into undifferentiated consciousness is referred to as the experience of nothingness or Nirvana (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1973, 1996). The experience of Nirvana is understood as the final dissolution into nothingness in which individual consciousness reunites itself with undifferentiated consciousness. In the sense of spiritual reunion, the individual spirit of the observer reunites itself with the Supreme Spirit of the void, or to use the language of Advaita Hinduism, Atman reunites itself with Brahman (McKenna, 2013).
“Brahman is the only truth, the world is an illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Atman and Brahman”
“That which permeates all, which nothing transcends, and which, like the universal space around us, fills everything completely from within and without, that Supreme nondual Brahman-that thou art.” (Shankara)
The literal translation of Nirvana is to blow out the flame of life or extinguish the light of consciousness. When the light of consciousness is extinguished, only the darkness of the void remains. This reunion with undifferentiated consciousness or final dissolution into nothingness is the ultimate nature of death, which is the end of an illusion. The illusion that comes to an end is not only the illusion of life in the world, but also the illusion of separation. Ultimately, death is a transition from the differentiation of consciousness and the becomings of a world to nondifferentiation and ultimate being (McKenna, 2002, 2004, 2007).
Both the Rig-Veda and the gateless gate paradox refer to the ascension of consciousness. Plato also refers to the ascension of consciousness in the Allegory of the Cave. It is as though an ascended observer looks down on its world from a higher vantage point as it observes all the images of its world on a two-dimensional screen from a point of view outside the screen, and sees that all those images are only projected by its own light of consciousness (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1973; McKenna, 2002). An ascended observer that clearly sees this state of affairs can no longer identify itself with the image of its own character animated on the screen, but can only know itself as the focal point of consciousness or singularity at the center of its own world (Gefter, 2014). Only this singularity of consciousness can act as a bridge that connects the ultimate being of the void to the images of the observer’s world.
The birth and development of the observer’s character can be understood in terms of the coherent organization of information, just as the physical death of the observer’s character can be understood in terms of the disorganization of information. Although symmetry breaking may be sufficient to drive the development of coherent organization in the observer’s character, the observer also plays a role in the organizing process through choice, especially when those choices become emotionally biased.
The animation of the observer’s character naturally arises in the flow of energy, which in part is directed by the observer’s focus of attention. An investment of emotional energy arises whenever the observer focuses its attention on its character, but this investment of energy can be withdrawn when the focus of attention is withdrawn. The part of the animation the observer can direct arises in the sense of choice with the observer’s emotionally biased focus of attention, but this always plays out against the backdrop of the normal unbiased flow of thermal energy through the observer’s world. Emotional bias in the focus of attention gives rise to emotional feedback as it leads to the expression of biased emotions.
In some sense, every emotionally biased expression of emotional energy that arises with the observer’s emotionally biased focus of attention is an interference with the normal flow of things through its world. This interference is analogous to a quantum interference pattern in the sense of a non-stationary path. This kind of interference leads to feelings of disconnection, while coming into alignment with the normal flow of energy and following the path of least action gives rise to feelings of connection.
“Before I sink into the Big Sleep I want to hear, I want to hear the scream of the Butterfly.” (Jim Morrison, “When the Music’s Over”)
Coming into alignment with the normal flow of things is the meaning of the Grail legend, while interfering with things in an emotionally biased way is the meaning of the Wasteland. The transition to this state of energetic alignment is described as a metamorphosis, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. In this transformation, the caterpillar dies and the butterfly is born. This is the archetypal metaphor of spiritual rebirth. One dies to one’s false self-identification with one’s body and is reborn to one’s true spiritual identity (McKenna, 2002).
How is it even possible for the observer to identify itself with the form of its body? Neuroscience has demonstrated the emotional nature of meaning. Meaning is given in an emotional context, and this is also the case for self-identification (Damasio, 1999). Emotional context has to do with the flow of emotional energy that relates one distinct perceivable thing to another distinct perceivable thing. The observer is only able to emotionally identify itself with the form of its body due to the expression of emotions that relate the observer’s body to other distinct perceivable things in its world and that make the observer feel like it is really self-limited to the form of its body. This feeling of being embodied is perpetuated by the expression of biased emotions and the observer’s biased focus of attention that play an essential role in the mental construction of the observer’s body-based self-concept (McKenna, 2002).
The observer’s body-based self-concept is emotionally energized by the expression of biased emotional energy that relates the observer’s self-concept to other things in the observer’s world in emotionally biased ways. This self-identification process is also an emotional attachment process. As the observer identifies itself with its character, the observer also becomes attached to things in its world, including its own body. This emotional attachment process can only occur when the observer’s focus of attention is emotionally biased in favor of its character’s survival and is focused on its character and other things in its world in emotionally biased ways, which directly leads to the expression of biased emotions.
Emotional bias in the observer’s focus of attention and the expression of biased emotions are two sides of the same coin. As long as biased emotions are expressed by the observer’s character, the observer’s focus of attention is emotionally biased. As long as there is emotional bias in the observer’s focus of attention, its character will express biased emotions. This kind of emotional feedback is a vicious cycle. The only way this vicious cycle can be broken is if biased emotions are no longer expressed by the observer’s character and the observer stops directing its focus of attention in emotionally biased ways.
Breaking the vicious cycle is always a detachment process, or a process of letting go, as the observer detaches itself from its world and de-identifies itself from its character in that world. This letting go process is a kind of death as the observer stops being emotionally invested in or expressing bias in the outcome of any situations relevant to its character’s survival, and in effect stops caring about whether its character lives or dies. This is a giving up process both in the sense of letting go and a surrender.
The impartiality of this kind of emotional detachment is the only way the expression of emotional bias can come to an end. In this detachment process, things are accepted the way they normally occur as an expression of the normal flow of energy through the observer’s world, just like the acceptance of death that finally occurs through a process of grieving. In this detached state, the observer only watches as things play out in the normal way, and stops interfering with or trying to control things in an emotionally biased way so that things come out in favor of its character’s survival. This state of non-interference only occurs with willingness to relinquish the emotionally biased desire to control things (McKenna, 2002).
For the purpose of the observer’s awakening, only the de-animation of the observer’s character and disappearance of the observer’s world are required. This de-animation of the observer’s world is a direct result of withdrawing its focus of attention and emotional energy away from its world. Without the observer’s focus of attention on its world and this expression of energy, there can be no animation of the observer’s world. This always requires a shift in the observer’s focus of attention away from its world.
This shift in the observer’s focus of attention away from its world is what is meant by turning around, which is the original meaning of the word repent. In a spiritual or metaphysical sense, the observer turns the focus of its attention away from its world and onto its own sense of being present (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1973). The observer shifts the focus of its attention onto itself. In some sense, only the observer’s focus of attention on its character and the expression of biased emotional energy can keep the observer emotionally attached to its world and self-identified with its character. The only way the observer can detach itself is if this expression of biased emotions comes to an end, which naturally occurs when the observer focuses its attention on its own sense of being present (McKenna, 2002).
An ascended observer can only know itself as the focal point of consciousness at the center of its world, or dissolve back into the undifferentiated consciousness of the void. In a very real sense, an ascended observer exists right at the edge of the abyss that separates the existence of its world and the animation of its character in that world from the void and the non-existence of its world (McKenna, 2002).
There is no scientific way to prove the existence of the undifferentiated consciousness of the void, but anyone can confirm this ultimate state of being for oneself. It is possible to do an experiment of One. That is what it means to become a Buddha and awaken from the dream of separation. All nondual traditions describe the process of awakening. When one awakens from the dream of the world, one’s world disappears and only one’s true underlying reality remains. The experience of one’s underlying reality is the experience of undifferentiated consciousness, which is the experience of nothingness. There is no other way to describe it. With dissolution, there is a sense of falling into the void, like entering into a state of ultimate free-fall (Osho, 1974). After awakening one observes one’s world again, but from an ascended point of view and self-identification with one’s character in one’s world is no longer possible.
What happens to the observer’s differentiated consciousness with the death of its body? One possibility is the observer’s consciousness remains differentiated as a focal point of consciousness at the central point of view of its world after body death. Like a phase transition, body death is only the irreversible disorganization of information in the way the observer’s body is coherently organized on the observer’s holographic screen. Even with body death the focal point of consciousness can remain differentiated. Maybe a new body coherently forms for the observer, which would explain the nature of reincarnation.
It’s important to point out the observer’s mind is greater than just the information organized within the physical limits of the observer’s body or brain. Quantum entanglement tells us the information for mental events involves entangled bits of information that are encoded both within the limits of the observer’s body and outside those limits. Quantum entanglement is a natural consequence of the holographic principle since the observer’s Hilbert space for observables as defined by its holographic screen arises as the eigenvalues of an SU(n) matrix, and all those bits of information are entangled with each other.
Entanglement tells us that with any mental event it is possible to know about events that occur outside the limits of the body even if those events are not physically connected to the body. Even after body death, quantum entanglement remains in effect, and so the observer still has a form of mind after body death. It may be that these mental experiences after body death lead to the reincarnation of a new body.
A critical point is only the holographic principle can resolve the paradoxes of quantum entanglement, like the Schrodinger cat paradox and Wigner’s friend paradox. All these paradoxes require an outside observer to collapse the entangled state of a quantum system, but as Amanda Gefter (2014) points out, the universe has no outside observer. The only possible point of view is from inside the universe. Gefter also points out that these entanglement paradoxes are really paradoxes of self-reference. All the bits of information encoded on the observer’s holographic screen are entangled, but the observer cannot arise from entangled bits of information. The observer can only identify itself with a form of information it observes, which brings us back to the question: where does the observer come from? The answer is the observer arises from the void at the central point of view of its world as its world is created.
The way the holographic principle resolves this problem is that all possible images of the universe are projected from a holographic screen to the central point of view of an observer, which is only a focal point of consciousness. Dark energy tells us the observer’s holographic screen is a cosmic horizon that only arises with the expansion of space. Only the cosmic horizon by breaking the symmetry of empty space allows for encoding of bits of information and projection of images from the screen along the lines of it from bit. Only the undifferentiated consciousness of the void as an empty space of potentiality can give rise to the point of view of the observer and the observer’s holographic screen. In the sense of ascension and dissolution, the observer is right at the edge of being outside the universe. The only way to be outside the world is to go beyond the images of a world projected from a holographic screen. The dissolution of consciousness into nothingness is all about what is beyond the images of a world.
How is it possible for the observer to return to its original state of being and for its differentiated point of consciousness to dissolve into undifferentiated consciousness? The answer is the holographic mechanism that creates the observer’s world must come to an end, which means the end of all expressions of energy, including the emotional energy we call the expression of desire. In all nondual traditions, this end of the expression of desire is understood not as body death, but as ego death. When the expression of all desires to live a life in the world come to an end, the observer’s ego, which is the observer’s mentally constructed and emotionally energized self-concept of who it is in its world, also comes to an end.
“No One Here Gets Out Alive” (Jim Morrison, “Five to One”)
The only possible breakthrough occurs with ego death, but ego is in resistance to the very end. Ego fights for its survival until it comes to an end, since that is the nature of how ego is coherently organized as a self-replicating form of information. This fight for survival is the nature of self-defensiveness.
Self-defensive expressions can occur in the moment as an expression of the normal flow of things, but with the expression of biased emotional energy and the mental construction of ego, these self-defensive expressions become emotionally reinforced, distorted and amplified like a positive feedback loop. The ultimate expression of self-defensiveness is the fear of death, which is ultimately the fear of nothingness. Paradoxically, the fear of nothingness is the fear of the ultimate nature of being. In a twisted way, being becomes afraid of itself. This fear of nothingness can only arise through the paradoxes of self-reference and self-identification that give rise to the mental construction of ego.
Only ego death, or the disorganization of this complex, mentally constructed, emotionally energized, self-replicating form of information allows for the breakthrough, which is really a break-out as the differentiated consciousness of the observer leaves its world behind, dissolves back into the undifferentiated consciousness of the void, and returns to its primordial state of undivided being. Like any process in which a coherently organized self-replicating form of information becomes disorganized, this breakthrough is really a breakdown, like a phase transition that melts ice back into water or a process of burning in which the ego burns away. Those who go through this disorganization process describe it as a mental, emotional or psychic breakdown, or a break with reality (McKenna, 2002).
“Burning, burning, burning, burning
Oh Lord, Thou pluckest me out.”
(The Buddha’s Fire Sermon)
As is often stated, the antidote is in the poison. The breakthrough can only occur with ego death, which is a complete and total surrender in which the fight for survival comes to an end. The fight for survival naturally comes to an end when all desires to live a life in the world come to an end. In this breakdown process, the self-identification of the observer with its character in its world also comes to an end, which is the only way the observer can break out of its embodied state of imprisonment. In a very real sense, only this break with reality can lead to the ascension and dissolution of consciousness.
Dissolution of the observer’s consciousness into undifferentiated consciousness requires de-animation of the observer’s world, which is a natural result of the observer withdrawing its focus of attention away from its world and its investment of emotional energy in its world. Ascension of the observer’s consciousness requires enough disorganization of the observer’s ego to allow for a state of emotional detachment in which the observer no longer identifies itself with its ego. This naturally happens when the expression of emotional bias comes to an end. Biased emotional energy is withdrawn away from its ego as the observer stops focusing its attention on its ego in emotionally biased ways.
As Plato tells us, even an ascended observer can still have an ego, but this mentally constructed self-concept no longer has enough emotional energy animating it for the observer to identify itself with it, and so the observer is no longer a prisoner. Plato calls this non-identified state of the observer freedom from bondage. The observer can only know itself as the light of consciousness emanating from its own focal point of consciousness and see its ego as another image projected from the screen like the self-referential narration of a movie by the central character (Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1973). With dissolution, the expenditure of all energy comes to an end, the observer’s world disappears, and the observer reunites itself with the undifferentiated consciousness of the void. Ultimately, the observer can only know itself to be the undifferentiated consciousness of the void (McKenna, 2002).
In a metaphysical sense, each observer’s differentiated light of consciousness, as it emanates from its own focal point of consciousness or singularity, is the nature of spiritual being, while the undifferentiated consciousness of the void is the ultimate nature of all being. Ultimately, only One Being exists.
Each observer’s consciousness has an apparent individual existence, but at the end of the day when the holographic mechanism is no longer expressed and the observer’s world disappears, every observer must return to its ultimate state of being as undifferentiated consciousness. The holographic mechanism must come to an end when energy is no longer expended and desires are no longer expressed. As the Tao Te Ching states: “Ever desireless one can see the mystery” (Lao Tsu, 1997).
Ultimately, there is only One Being. The void expresses its potentiality as it creates many worlds, each observed by its own observer at the central point of view and sharing information to the degree each observer’s holographic screen overlaps with the screens of other observers, but at the end of the day when these holographic mechanisms are no longer expressed, only the undifferentiated consciousness of the void exists. Every observer must eventually return to this ultimate state of being. Individual consciousness must ultimately reunite itself with undifferentiated consciousness. The divided light of consciousness of the observer must ultimately return to the undivided darkness of the void.
“When the Music’s Over, Turn Out the Lights.” (Jim Morrison, “When the Music’s Over”)
Bailin, D., & Love, A., Kaluza Klein theories. Rep.Prog.Physics.50, 1087-1170, 1987.
“Concerning matter, we have been all wrong. What we have called matter is energy, whose vibration has been so lowered as to be perceptible to the senses. There is no matter.”
– Quote attributed to Albert Einstein
Yes, this is quite a bold statement, if true, that would certainly demand some sort of evidence or mathematical proof to back it up. It may seem like a paradox that the things which we can see and touch are nonexistent. However, there is an answer to this, which may be found in the bold and exciting (relatively) new science of quantum physics.
In ages past, it was believed that what we can see and touch, like a rock for instance, was the elements, in other words, matter. However, as science developed, such as chemistry, and much more recently quantum physics, it had been observed that matter seems to exist on one hand, but once one takes a deep look into the heart of the matter (no pun intended), there seems as if there is nothing. In atoms, you have mostly protons, neutrons and electrons. However, electrons for example, are insignificantly microscopic and spread out over enormous distances. Inbetween them, there is what is perceived as empty space. In fact, 99.99999% of an atom is this so-called ‘empty space’. Even if we look into electrons, protons, etc, we see that there is yet more open space. Gluons, neutrinos and the like are also in there somewhere but no matter how far into these particles we look, there is not anything that we can say quantifiably that it is the building block of all of this. What’s more, electrons literally possess no dimension. An electron is simply not an object as we know it. There is nothing. However, our eyes and observations are fooling us because indeed this nothing is something but we can not quantifiably say it is something and therefore it is nothing. There has to exist an energy that holds all these particles together like a sort of glue, or else matter would not exist because it would be akin to having a rock turn into sand that can not stay together as a rock any longer.
There have been some notable quantum physicists, such as Dr. Fred Alan Wolf, that have been looking to fuse science with spirituality…and with relative success. Below is from an article attributed to Dr. Wolf concerning his perception of this most-interesting issue at hand.
Quantum physics has thus brought about a radical new understanding both of the particles and the void. In subatomic physics, mass is no longer seen as a material substance but is recognized as a form of energy. When a piece of seemingly solid matter–a rock or a human hand or the limb of a tree–is placed under a powerful electronic microscope: the electron-scanning microscope, with the power to magnify several thousand times, takes us down into a realm that has the look of the sea about it… In the kingdom of corpuscles, there is transfiguration and there is samsara, the endless round of birth and death. Every passing second, some 2-1/2 million red cells are born; every second, the same number die. The typical cell lives about 110 days, then becomes tired and decrepit. There are no lingering deaths here, for when a cell loses its vital force, it somehow attracts the attention of macrophage.
As the magnification increases, the flesh does begin to dissolve. Muscle fiber now takes on a fully crystaline aspect. We can see that it is made of long, spiral molecules in orderly array. And all of these molecules are swaying like wheat in the wind, connected with one another and held in place by invisible waves that pulse many trillions of times a second. What are the molecules made of? As we move closer, we see atoms, the tiny shadowy balls dancing around their fixed locations in the molecules, sometimes changing position with their partners in perfect rhythms. And now we focus on one of the atoms; its interior is lightly veiled by a cloud of electrons. We come closer, increasing the magnification. The shell dissolves and we look on the inside to find…nothing.
Somewhere within that emptiness, we know is a nucleus. We scan the space, and there it is, a tiny dot. At last, we have discovered something hard and solid, a reference point. But no! as we move closer to the nucleus, it too begins to dissolve. It too is nothing more than an oscillating field, waves of rhythm. Inside the nucleus are other organized fields: protons, neutrons, even smaller “particles.” Each of these, upon our approach, also dissolve into pure rhythm. These days they (the scientists) are looking for quarks, strange subatomic entities, having qualities which they describe with such words as upness, downness, charm, strangeness, truth, beauty, color, and flavor. But no matter. If we could get close enough to these wondrous quarks, they too would melt away. They too would have to give up all pretense of solidity. Even their speed and relationship would be unclear, leaving them only relationship and pattern of vibration.
Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world, there is no solidity. Once again, there is only the dance. (At) the unimaginable heart of the atom, the compact nucleus, we have found no solid object, but rather a dynamic pattern of tightly confined energy vibrating perhaps 1022 times a second: a dance… The protons–the positively charged knots in the pattern of the nucleus–are not only powerful; they are very old. Along with the much lighter electrons that spin and vibrate around the outer regions of the atom, the protons constitute the most ancient entities of matter in the universe, going back to the first seconds after the birth of space and time.
It follows then that in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles and these particles are not made of any solid material substance. When we observe them under a microscope, we never see any substance; we rather observe dynamic patterns, continually changing into one another–a continuous dance of energy. This dance of energy, the underlying rhythm of the universe, is again more intuited than seen. Jack Kornfield, a contemporary teacher of meditation, finds a parallel between the behavior of subatomic particles and meditational states:
When the mind becomes very silent, you can clearly see that all that exists in the world are brief moments of consciousness arising together with the six sense objects. There is only sight and the knowing of sight, sound and the knowing of sound, smell, taste and the knowing of them, thoughts and the knowing of thoughts. If you can make the mind very focused, as you can in meditation, you see that the whole world breaks down into these small events of sight and the knowing, sound and the knowing, thought and the knowing. No longer are these houses, cars, bodies or even oneself. All you see are particles of consciousness as experience. Yet you can go deep in meditation in another way and the mind becomes very still. You will see differently that consciousness is like waves, like a sea, an ocean. Now it is not particles but instead every sight and every sound is contained in this ocean of consciousness. From this perspective, there is no sense of particles at all.
If truly being the words of Dr. Wolf, I believe this above explanation of this fascinating reality is a beautiful description of the issue at hand.
So how is it that we exist as matter? Albert Einstein alluded to this answer. We, the people of this beautiful planet, are really beings made of energy, but we exist at the 3rd dimension because our atoms have a specific frequency which makes us able to exist in this very 3rd dimension. This specific frequency is stable enough for all our lifetime. Using this information, if we are indeed capable of accelerating and decelerating the frequencies to make us able to exist in the 3rd dimension, then naturally, we can use this in order to travel inter-dimensionally throughout the infinite multiverse…and here lies the key to the true evolution of the human being race. Once we learn, or progress far enough, to accelerate and decelerate the vibrating frequencies of our atoms, then, in theory, we will be able to exist in the 5th dimension and in parallel universes of this wonderful multiverse.
Note: The quote attributed to Albert Einstein in the beginning of the article, as well as the article quotations attributed to Fred Alan Wolf are not in the specific terms which these two physicists have used. However, upon deeper research, there is enough evidence to be compelled to believe that the general message of matter not being definitive to still hold true. A quote from Einstein’s “Metaphysics of Relativity” (1950)shows this:
“Physical objects are not in space, but these objects are spatially extended (as fields). In this way the concept ‘empty space’ loses its meaning. … The field thus becomes an irreducible element of physical description, irreducible in the same sense as the concept of matter (particles) in the theory of Newton.”
Legendary physicist Max Planck is attributed to saying in a lecture that was given in Florence the following:
“As a physicist, that is, a man who had devoted his whole life to a wholly prosaic science, the exploration of matter, no one would surely suspect me of being a fantast. And so, having studied the atom, I am telling you that there is no matter as such. All matter arises and persists only due to a force that causes the atomic particles to vibrate, holding them together in the tiniest of solar systems, the atom. Yet in the whole of the universe there is no force that is either intelligent or eternal, and we must therefore assume that behind this force there is a conscious, intelligent mind or spirit. This is the very origin of all matter.”
Source of this quote is from the following:
Pauli, Wolfgang: THE INFLUENCE OF ARCHETYPICAL PRESENTATIONS ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE NATURAL SCIENCE THEORY BY KEPPLER in: Jung Pauli: NATURAL EXPLANATION AND PSYCHE, Zuerich 1952, p. 163
Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman uses evolutionary game theory to show that our perceptions of an independent reality must be illusions.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it — or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion — we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.
Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a three-pound lump of gray matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to first-person conscious experience. This is the aptly named “hard problem.”
On the other side are quantum physicists, marveling at the strange fact that quantum systems don’t seem to be definite objects localized in space until we come along to observe them — whether we are conscious humans or inanimate measuring devices. Experiment after experiment has shown — defying common sense — that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space. As the physicist John Wheeler put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”
So while neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a first-person reality, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how there can be anything but a first-person reality. In short, all roads lead back to the observer. And that’s where you can find Hoffman — straddling the boundaries, attempting a mathematical model of the observer, trying to get at the reality behind the illusion. Quanta Magazine caught up with him to find out more. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.