Friday, 11 November 2011

Cider Philosophy

We’d had quite a lot of the 6.5% Satdownbe Cider, pressed locally at The Square and Compass, Worth Matravers, Dorset. Baz and I managed to worry Rob by explaining to him not only that there was no such thing as reality, but that this had been proven repeatedly by scientific experiment. We talked him through the two-slit experiment. Individual electrons fired randomly at a screen with two slits in appear to go through both slits simultaneously, as if they weren’t particles at all, but waves (the patterns produced on the other side of the screen show that they have, apparently, ‘interfered with themselves’). It is only when you make a measurement to see where exactly the electrons went that they go back to behaving like particles. And you can wait as long as you like before doing so. You can come back the next day, or next week or a million years and the electrons will only decide where they were at the moment you make the observation. There’s no cheating: at a quantum scale, human observation itself actively determines where the electrons are. What’s more, according to a principle called the Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser, you can’t ask a computer to make the measurement for you. If you drag the data to the wastepaper basket before looking at it, the electrons continue to seem as though they drifted through both slits, like a wave. Only when the world is observed by a human does it take on any reality.

We continued the discussion on these lines, noting that even objects as heavy as gold atoms and molecules of buckminsterfullerene had been shown to behave with quantum uncertainty. And so broad is the probability curve governing the orbits of electrons, that right at this moment the chances are that one of the atoms in your body has an electron with an orbit that extends as far as the Moon, c.240,000 miles away. Think about it: a (admittedly minuscule) bit of you is, right now, probably on the surface of the Moon.* Rob sat very quietly (which is highly unusual for him) with his head in his hands.

Rob is correct to be concerned about the non-existence of reality. It is a wee bit alarming to suppose that everything you thought you knew to be the case is just a subjective fantasy. Why, then, bother getting out of bed in the morning? Why carry on with any task, or uphold any relationship? That’s quite a depressing idea. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to extract ethical questions of the ‘What should I do?’ type from scientific questions such as ‘What the hell is going on?’, even if no direct connection is to be made. The history of the formula ‘science says x therefore we should do y’ is a turbulent one, encompassing some well-meaning as well as some deeply flawed ideologies. This is largely because the moral minefield is as shapeless and confusing as a quantum field, and science is easily co-opted and distorted.

On the other hand, I have always been a big fan of the philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC), who deliberately sought to build an ethical philosophy out of a natural one. His espousal of atomism (the idea  that the world is made up of microscopic individual parcels of matter) fed directly into his programme of living without fear through learning, and prizing friendship above all else. It’s hard to argue with that. The epicurean philosophy is certainly a comforting one. His description of perception, for example, specifically guarantees that the impressions we receive through our senses are bona fide, in exactly the way the two-slit experiment contests: an impossibly thin film of atoms (today we would call them ‘photons’) is given off by the object and strikes the observer’s eyeballs. According to Epicurus, what we see is literally what we get, and vice versa.

Being an epicurean (in spirit, at least) leads me to be biased towards those theories that allow for positive outcomes. Scaremongering ideas seem to breed from theories that have sprung up precisely to fill a moral void left by an absence of a law-giving deity. I don’t mean to imply we should hide behind rose-tinted spectacles, only that grey-tinted spectacles give an equally misleading impression.

This is, for me, the primary implication of a universe that is co-created between object and observer: we are both liberated and empowered to change the face of reality and be changed by it. The two-slit experiment implies that our selves and the world we see around us are enmeshed in each other. For some, the dissolved self is undeniably a frightening prospect. They may be absolutely right, but it also reminds us not to project fear and hatred into the world – we are a part of it. Even the epicureans were forced to reassert human free will by introducing quantum uncertainty – in Latin, clinamen – into their otherwise flawless logic.

Baz sensed that Rob’s mind was about to be blown, so he back-pedalled a bit. He wasn’t, he said, trying to claim that reality didn’t exist at all. He just meant that the objective part of reality might account only for 50 per cent of the bigger picture that is co-created by ourselves. He went on to associate the two halves of the universe with observer/object, or male/female, and yang/yin.

It’s an attractive cosmology, but I’m not entirely convinced. On the basis of my experience of language, particularly stories (which are one of the things the universe could be said to be composed), it appears to be 99.99 per cent imagination, held together only by the slenderest thread of reality. But these are discussions for another night of cider drinking.

* I am unable to supply scholarly citations for any of the facts in this blog entry. In the course of our drunken conversations, we have agreed that we can get away with almost any unlikely nugget of bullshit if we preface our assertions with “I think I read somewhere in New Scientist . . .”

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