Friday, January 28, 2011

The Puzzle of Existence: Past, Present and Future

"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today - it's a gift, that's why it's called present"
As said by Oogway to Po

An interesting thought! We are in general so obsessed with past and future that we rarely take time to live the present. The older we get, more time we spend reflecting on either the future or the past. Present takes only a minuscule portion of our mental space. All our sense of self is derived from our knowledge of past and memories that we have acquired over the years. We identify and restrict ourselves accordingly based on our memories.

We have different kinds of epistemic access to past and future. We remember the past, but not the future. We also believe that by acting now, we can change the future but not the past. But as far is science is concerned, there should be no distinction between past and future. There are various interpretations of quantum mechanics suggests and all realities should exist simultaneously. Time is more of a feeling inside an observer rather than an objective physical reality existing on the outside. However as far as our reality is concerned, the difference is there, irrespective of whether science predicts it or not.

The implications of this interpretation are many, some of them being quite outrageous. What it means at the fundamental level is that there is no such thing as either past or future. There is no 'was' and there is no 'will be'. Everything is 'is'. This further paints a picture of an existence with no origins and no end. It all just exists now.

This view is more or less consistence with the data that we have and even with the Big-Bang like theories. There is a widely held belief among the experimental physicists, especially the astrophysicists, that space and time originated in some kind of a cataclysmic event, over a finite period of time in the past. We'll not go into the merits and demerits of this belief itself, but we have to take note of any interesting fact here. What this shows is that there are some highly educated and intellectual people who are ready to accept the fact that somewhere down the line there is bound to be the concept of a kind of existence without either time or space. But their hands are tied because they have no idea what to do in a situation like this. It's not just Relativity and Quantum Mechanics which don't work in this dreaded realm of no-space and no-time. But unfortunately every last straw of logic known to human race breaks down here. We just don't possess the ability to even digest a concept like that. We don't know what to make of it. No logical system of thinking exists that will work here. To make matters worse, there's not even a starting point, to start any kind of analysis!

But coming back to relative sanity, there is another diametrically opposite interpretation, consistent with the current theories, that can also be considered to be equally valid. What is says is that there is no such thing as present. What we perceive as present is a fuzzy area where past and future meet. Present is either an infinitesimal line dividing the past and future or like a band with a finite width. Both the viewpoints exist. However this second interpretation leans more towards the latter. The width of this band, representing our perception of the present, differs in general from person to person and depends upon how acute somebody's perception is.

Perhaps the core point to be gained from the second interpretation is the fact that it assumes there are at least two fundamental pieces at the bottom of the existence puzzle. While the first interpretations leans more towards the concept of Everything is One.

I'd like to conclude with some generalizations of our discussion above. Although we normally spend most of our time obsessing over either the past or the future, they are not really there, at least not within the realms of our perception. The more we obsess, the more we lose track of the present, perhaps the only thing that we can be sure to be really there. It's an established fact regarding our perception of time that the years pass by at a progressively faster rate, as we grow older with time. The accumulated dirt of years begins to cloud our vision of the present. The sharpness of our ability to perceive the present slowly decreases. For the same years spent, we live less and less, effectively losing our ability to live. Past exists only in the memories, and future is unknown. This is a very important fact to understand. All of our feeling of existence is nothing but a result of our ability to perceive light, sound and other kinds of input from the environment. In effect we are creatures of our sense organs. And all our senses function only in the present. We can neither smell nor hear the past, and likewise for the future. We are what we are now, not what we were or what we will be.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Is Reality really Real!

The entire enterprise of science is based upon this simple belief that there has to be an explanation for everything. However if we analyse it critically then there is no specific reason for this belief, other than an overwhelming need that a human psyche has for some kind of an explanation for everything. It's a need for closure. We want things to make sense for us. Our mental apparatus craves for meaning in everything that we perceive.

We all have wondered, at some time or the other, from where did this universe come? Endless debates exist on this topic, some even questioning the validity of the question itself! We all have our views. Maybe God concept represents a different kind of sentience. The rules and properties of that layer of world may be different from ours, still they may make sense, even if in a way that might not be comprehensible by us.

One idea that's worth considering is - what if there is no such thing as a fixed universe in which we dwell! What if the world as we see it is a sum of everyone's individual 'sight'. The sum may be done in a very different manner, using very different rules (e.g., sum of vectors follows a different set of rules than the summing of the scalars).

What we perceive as physical substances may not be existing as 'absolute' entities. They may just be there as a consequence of our perception combined with perception of others in the basic framework of this world! Following this line of reasoning, we can conjecture maybe a few hypotheses.

What if the fundamental building blocks are made of some stuff that is not physical at all (in the current sense of the word "physical"). What are thoughts made of? What if everything is nothing but a manifestation of this core stuff!

So let's assume for a moment that this stuff is the "source" of everything, including the physical world as well as the thought processes. What if the world as a whole is a set stage! All the choices and alternatives exist simultaneously without any considerations of space or time! The observable world that manifests may just be an overlap of the individual "choices" (even the choices are not independent, if we assume this reasoning).

Maybe the substance that thoughts are made of, is the closest thing akin to the substance of this core stuff. In other words, thoughts are near raw manifestations of this core substance, rest all are complications. We assume that thoughts can only be generated by living beings. What if that's just not true! May be there are other ways that this same effect can be achieved.

It may be that the whole world may be nothing but a spectrum of various possibilities, all existing simultaneously. Our 'perception' of it gives it a physical reality. This has been touted as a popular interpretation of quantum mechanics as well. What this means is that nothing has any physical existence until an observer perceives it in some way or the other. Also it does "not" imply that simply by thinking we can change whatever we want. The stuff that we possess is only a small part of the whole stuff. Our perception is not ours alone, but a kaleidoscope of everything and everyone around us. As we think and perceive our world, we modify and create it!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Determinism and Free Will - II

Note: This is a continuation of my previous musings.

Thinking more about it... I feel that there might be one little flaw with my logic. And that flaw (if it's a flaw!) is associated with my earlier statement that we might (even theoretically) be able to determine anything exactly!

The reason we are not able to determine anything exactly could be in the fact that we are a part of this world... what we need is an external vantage point. Being ourselves a part of this world, it limits the level of understanding that we can achieve! We can only understand something if we are looking at a whole and objective view, instead of a partial and subjective view. Now this may only be possible if we are watching this world (an isolated system?) from outside!

If we follow this line of reasoning, then we have to assume that either the world or in fact any system under observation (we're not restricting our world to this universe... it may be at any level of existence) is either an isolated system, or it's not! If this existing system can't be classified as an isolated system at any level, then the logic for understanding it is bound to become extremely convoluted! However, on the other hand, if it is indeed an isolated system then what conclusions can we draw?

What I mean here is that, as an example, let's take our universe. It might be an isolated system, with no information exchange with any other universes (if they exist!), or with a super-universe (again if it exists!). Let's assume that there are no sentient beings capable of free will here. A super-observer looking from outside will be able to determine conclusively and exactly the various states of this system, assuming he/she/it has access to all the required laws governing the system and the needed parameters. This means the super-being will be able to determine exactly the various states of the universe. Till now it should make sense because the enterprise of science is based upon the belief that there exist well defined laws and rules that govern our existence.

The situation becomes tricky once free will is introduced in our example system, i.e., a system with non-sentient existence only (see above). The first question to consider here is how can the free will be introduced in this isolated system? Here the way we are defining and interpreting the concept of free will, leads us directly to the conclusion that in absence of free will, everything will be deterministic. So the introduction of free will introduces non-determinism in the system. But if a system is deterministic at some point then it can't become non-deterministic on it's own! So now the question is how do we introduce non-determinism in an isolated system? It can be done in two ways.

1. The free will was introduced at the creation (if there was a creation at all) in which case the system was never deterministic, or,

2. The free will was introduced at a later stage in which case, the system can't be classified as isolated!

So, we can conclude by the above logic here that any given system can't be isolated and non-deterministic at the same time. If our universe is isolated, or it's also bound to be deterministic, that is our fates have already been decided by some kind of well defined law at some level of existence! Anyone who knows the state of the universe at any point, will be able to exactly determine what we do at any point of space of time or any other related dimension.

This further implies that if our universe is isolated, then we don't have any free will, everything is predestined!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Determinism and Free Will

Can any of us be absolutely sure that we have a free will? Maybe what we consider as free will is not as free as we think it to be. What if it's already destined what choices we are going to make, even as we believe we are doing so of our own volition.

Here are some reflections that I've had in the above context. If everything is predestined (i.e., it's a deterministic world), then that means that whatever anybody does, what has to happen is not going to change even in the slightest details.

Before we proceed further, I'd like to clear up a few things. The approach that I'm going to take here is that there are only two choices that we have:

1. Either the world is completely deterministic or
2. It's non-deterministic.

This is so because there's no such thing as partial determinism. Even a trace amount of non-determinism will make the whole system non-deterministic. So if we can prove the existence of even one such instance that is non-deterministic, we can conclude that the whole system is non-deterministic.

Another approach that many people (especially religious people) prefer, is that certain things (e.g., small details) may be non-deterministic but the other things (e.g., the events on the whole) are deterministic. It means that we may have freedom to choose within a boundary. It may change a few things, but the overall picture is not going to change.

More compelling reasons for the above classification can be understood by closely looking at the way we are going to define determinism. Many people are aware that related to Chaos Theory (Non-linear Dynamics) there is a famous concept called the butterfly effect. It propounds, in a nutshell, that even a seemingly small change can cause a major upheaval in the overall scheme of things. We see in our course of life that seemingly small decisions and events can cause a sea change in our lives. So if non-determinism is involved in a system even in very small ways, it has the capability to influence big events (the subsequent state of the whole world). Hence if we can show the existence of even one case of non-determinism, then we are forced to consider the entire existence as non-deterministic.

But if something is deterministic, then there may exist a way of knowing it! So if we know it (or somehow find out), which should theoretically be possible in a deterministic world (the reason it's called deterministic!), we may also be in a position to change it. If we have prior knowledge that something is going to happen (e.g., what we are going to eat at a give point of time) we may intentionally decide to change details, and may also succeed. And if we really do succeed in our endeavor then the world will no longer remain deterministic.

This is a paradox. Hence if the above logic is correct then our world can't be deterministic!

P.S: These are random thoughts... I'm not putting them down for an audience, but mostly as a documentation of my thoughts. However I'll welcome any insights into these musings.