Plumbing Depths

This past week we had a plumber here for a day.  Our house has been owned by a succession of DIY weekend warriors who had more confidence than ability when it came to things like electric and water (which, I’ve learned, you want to keep apart).  Somehow our home inspector failed to spot these costly fixes, and I try to think of them all as investments—a concept foreign to a guy with my background of living paycheck to paycheck.  In any case, all this plumbing has me thinking deep thoughts about water.  And depth.  Things are seldom what they seem—there’s more below the surface, and those who struggle with the depths often come up with sayings we call profound.  And they often express them in poetic form because, when you get deep enough, words themselves break down.

I often consider this in the context of science.  Physicists break things down into formulas.  There’s a certain uniformity, they tell us, until you reach the quantum level, then the rules change.  I sometimes see this as an analogy with the staid nature of scientific prose versus the depth of good poetry.  Or even, dare I suggest it, profound fiction.  These sometimes explain our world better than the accepted facts of mundane existence, such as water always seeking the lowest point.  There comes a profundity, however, at which down becomes up.  The behavior of water, which we want in our houses but only in controlled locations, is somehow indicative of this.  “Deep calls unto deep” as one ancient source says.  And the plumber walks away with a good chunk of your cash.

Learning about science in school, I was always taught that good science is elegant—there should be beauty in a theory that explains the world.  I’ve often wondered how this fits in with a reality that is often messy—chaotic even.  Ancient peoples from the area that produced our Bible believed water to be chaotic.  It had to be controlled by the gods.  It is vital for life, we need it and yet it wreaks havoc on dry land as those who experience hurricanes know all too well.  The world into which I was born was one of indoor plumbing.  Once water gets in, as our leaky roof attests, it introduces chaos in a place we want to stay dry.  When water won’t behave like we want it to, however, we no longer call on the gods.  We call a plumber and pay our offering with profound reverence.

Young Dr. Wiggins contemplates chaos

Quantum Uncertainty

Physics has moved beyond the point of comprehension for the average citizen, if I might be permitted to class myself as that. I got the concept of the atom, although I always wondered about the spaces in-between. No god-of-the-gaps there, but it didn’t fit with experience that everything was full of holes. An article my wife sent me now has me wondering if I’m a hologram. Physicists began to lose me with quarks—I can understand atoms being made of something, but what of ups and downs and leptons every way to Sunday? Then string theory. Then those particles that can be two places at once, until you look. And now I’m being told that The Matrix may be more fact than fiction and quantum uncertainty rules the day. Indeed. Physics tells us what we’re really made of. Religion used to tell us what it all means. That precarious balance seems to have tipped and religion has no other role than to motivate violence and science will save us. Help me, Neo!

I can’t even figure out my taxes any more, let alone what the universe is made of. How we could all be jittery two-dimensional particles is unclear to me. Well, the jittery part I get. I was never really satisfied being limited to three dimensions of motion. Is it ever clear which way is really forward? Height and depth seem terribly geocentric, and even a circle could be divided into more than 360 degrees, a legacy of our Mesopotamian forebears. Spheres—my primitive view of atoms—only touch at the edges. I think there must be something more. Then comes the math. The truth is in the numbers, it seems. Glad I have a calculator.

Although I don’t have the weak nuclear force at my disposal, I have tried to build with marbles many times. You can’t build upward without the bottom row rolling away. Perhaps in our world spheres just don’t balance that way. They don’t hold together. Pixels, however, have edges. They seem to fit together more fully, but leave the universe full of jagged edges. That fits much better with my experience, I guess. Shards of reality lie all around me. Religion used to be the way of putting the pieces together, but, I’m told, that’s all a myth. Instead we have a universe that the average person is incapable of understanding, and that seems to be held together by forces that are fully explainable only by math. Once upon a time, Hell was a mythical, fiery place underfoot. Now it is a universe of formulas and equations that are held together only by quantum uncertainty.

"HAtomOrbitals". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

“HAtomOrbitals”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

Tempting Truth

Recently I was discussing the internet with friends. Real ones, I mean, physically in the room with me. One asked if the internet made conspiracy theories more believable. My response was that the internet has changed truth. That probably seems like a bold statement, I know. Truth, however, is an abstract very difficult to pin down. Science, for starters, does not deliver truth. Science is theoretical, and since it is falsifiable, a scientific theory, while based on facts, is always contingent; it is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Scientists generally know not to conflate this with truth, deferring the latter to the realm of philosophy. The average person probably conceives of truth as that which is literally real. Reality itself is, however, a very slippery concept—quantum physics reveals realities where many are not comfortable going, and which very few truly understand. Truth is a philosophical concept that reflects what humanity collectively accepts to be reality. It is in this sense that the internet has changed truth. It is the Wikipedification of the mind.

People, for as long as they’ve had the luxury to consider abstracts, have struggled with the question of truth. For a few centuries—almost a couple of millennia—in much of the western world, the Bible was considered a source of truth. If it was in there, it was true. The source of authority here was that of a deity who oversaw the writing of the Bible, word by sacred word. When science began to demonstrate that this Weltanschuung was untenable, people realized that truth was a bit more complex. When westerners came into contact with other religions, the complexity grew. Large swaths of humanity believed things completely different from the rest of us. What was the truth? A rear-guard action was often the result. Those who had the Bible had the truth already, and since truth doesn’t change, what more was there to be said.

Truth or dare?

Truth or dare?

The internet is not yet a mature adult, but an entire generation has now grown to a kind of maturity with it. It is the first line of recourse for true information. Who has a phonebook in their house anymore? When is the last time you opened a physical dictionary? Some of us routinely look up Bible verses online, since the internet is the ultimate concordance. Instead of turning to the Bible, or any other source, we turn to the collective “wisdom” of humanity as the measure of what is true. Snopes aside, we plow ahead with what we read online, confident that with all those millions of users, we just can’t be wrong. How strange a concept to unplug and look at the actual reality behind the screen. We might be surprised to learn that there are great and terrible wizards back there after all.

God, Particle, Reduce

Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.

I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.

Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.

Erwinrossen's image of atoms, the sight eyes can't see

Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see

AP Physics

AP Physics. Few words strike terror into high school students like these initials and scientific surname. As a student I didn’t really comprehend AP, and never took any Advanced Placement courses, but I enjoyed physics. It was by far my favorite science class. Even as a Fundamentalist, I saw that here was the explanation for the entire universe, as we knew it. Laws deduced by people far smarter than I could even dream of being could explain everything. But then Heisenberg. And Schrödinger. And quantum mechanics. I remember being taught that nothing was smaller than an atom. (Primarily school teachers in the early ‘60s can easily be forgiven the generality.) Still, on my own I read about protons and neutrons and electrons with wonder. When physics and chemistry brought these to the level of reality, it was like we really understood that each atom was like a solar system and boy didn’t it look intelligently designed! But then we looked closer. Quarks, in a Life-Saver array of juicy flavors, string theory, and the God particle itself, the Higgs boson, coyly showed their elusive faces and physics got weirder and weirder.

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

Edinburgh does physics (and God) proud

When my daughter told me about AP Physics recently, I was reacquainted with this world where apparently conscious beings have their choice about reality. The observer bends the results of the quantum experiment. And yes, particles can be two places simultaneously. When a friend pointed me to an article on Quantum Reality in The Waking Times, I was ready to throw open the doors of perception and celebrate life in a universe so strange that the very concept of reality itself is up for grabs. Some physicists now believe the entire physical universe is constructed of energy and that it flashes into and out of existence at a staggering speed that makes me feel a little perpetual-motion sick. Reality is, literally, what we make it.

I have to admit just a little bit of pride on the part of having chosen to study religion here. The more we learn about the quantum world, the more religious it becomes. There will be hard-core reductionists who dispute this, I know. Those who’ve spent any time among the mystics, however, will know what I mean. Back beyond the singularity the laws of physics are so stretched and protracted that even Stephen Hawking can’t sort them all out. And we find ourselves daily living in a world that we help create, on a sub-atomic level. Reality may not be what it seems. I learned this in high school physics. Now that my brain has ossified into patterns that don’t admit much of calculus or accounting any more, I’m beginning to realize that physics is suggesting that reality may be consciously constructed after all. Only this time we’re the gods. And that’s a really weird concept.