Commenting About What Exists

I’ve recommended the 3 Quarks Daily site before:

3 Quarks Daily is a good place to visit for online intellectual stimulation. They publish original content on Mondays; the rest of the week they link to articles on “science, arts, philosophy, politics, literature”. Even the (moderated) comments are often worth reading. 

I mention this because there were two somewhat-related posts in the past two days that especially interested me. Both concerned what exists or is real (philosophers call the study of existence or being “ontology”).

The first article was from the BBC: “Why Does Time Go Forwards, Not Backwards?” It’s a perennial question in physics and philosophy: the nature of time. Here’s the part that bothered me:

The difference between hot things and cold things is how agitated their molecules are – in a hot steam engine, water molecules are very excited, careening around and colliding into each other rapidly. The very same water molecules are less agitated when they coalesce as condensation on a windowpane.

Here’s the problem: when you zoom in to the level of, say, one water molecule colliding and bouncing off another, the arrow of time disappears. If you watched a microscopic video of that collision and then you rewound it, it wouldn’t be obvious which way was forwards and which backwards. At the very smallest scale, the phenomenon that produces heat – collisions of molecules – is time-symmetric.

This means that the arrow of time from past to future only emerges when you take a step back from the microscopic world to the macroscopic….

“So the direction of time comes from the fact that we look at big things, we don’t look at the details,” says [physicist Carlo Rovelli]. “From this step, from the fundamental microscopic vision of the world to the coarse-grained, the approximate description of the macroscopic world – this is where the direction of time comes in.

“It’s not that the world is fundamentally oriented in space and time,” Rovelli says. It’s that when we look around, we see a direction in which medium-sized, everyday things have more entropy – the ripened apple fallen from the tree, the shuffled pack of cards.

While entropy does seem to be inextricably bound up with the arrow of time, it feels a bit surprising – perhaps even disconcerting – that the one law of physics that has a strong directionality of time built into it loses this directionality when you look at very small things.

My response:

Compared to people like Carlo Rovelli …, I’m a scientific ignoramus. Nevertheless:

The fundamental physical laws humanity has discovered, except for the one concerning entropy (the second law of thermodynamics), don’t refer to time. From this, most physicists conclude that time isn’t fundamental, or that it’s illusory or somehow less than real, even though it’s an obvious feature of the universe. Consider the Big Bang, then consider the city of Philadelphia. Is that contrast simply a matter of our perception?

Why assume that if something is a fundamental feature of the universe, it must be a variable in more than one law? Why assume that it has to be a variable in other laws we’ve discovered?

In the other fundamental laws we know about, there’s no distinction between past and future. So what? There seems to be an assumption here that time should appear in these other laws if it’s real. It looks like many physicists have turned their belief in (or desire for) simplicity, or universality, or uniformity, into a conclusion about how the universe is.

The author [of the BBC article] writes:

“Here’s the problem. when you zoom in to the level of, say, one water molecule colliding and bouncing off another, the arrow of time disappears. If you watched a microscopic video of that collision and then you rewound it, it wouldn’t be obvious which way was forwards and which backwards.”

So pay attention to what happened and don’t rewind the video.

It may be hard to believe, but neither the BBC person nor Prof. Rovelli have responded so far.

The second article is oddly titled: “Do You Want To Die With Me?” It’s by a history professor at Towson University, Akim Reinhardt, although it’s not about history. His topic is what exists (matter? energy? something else?). I’ll give you my comment first and then his response, which is clearer and shorter than the original article:

Another way to categorize our existence is to distinguish between our experiences (what we sense, including the testimony of other people) and our thoughts. It’s the empiricism/rationalism distinction. We need both categories to construct a semblance of reality. That relates to your matter/energy/ideas threesome.

So you say: “Matter, energy, and ideas: everything you observe, everything you think you know, falls into one of these three categories. Matter has mass and weight. Energy moves something against a force. Everything else is an idea.”

But a few sentences later, ideas seem to disappear: “There is no meaning. Only matter and energy, … all the conservable energy transferring elsewhere, all the matter unhinging and recombining into other things, and all the ideas as they ever were, never really here except as we imagined them.”

It’s interesting, however, that further down the page, in today’s first post, “How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise To A Battle Between Good And Evil”, Andy Schmookler writes:

… Many in our contemporary secular culture hold the belief that Values are not really “real”…. That idea goes something like this: We cannot find Value “out there” in the cosmos, therefore Value isn’t part of reality…. But, when it comes to Value, there is a big logical flaw in that way of thinking….That’s because Value must mean that something matters, and there’s no way that anything could matter unless it matters to someone. (In a lifeless universe, there could be no Value…If there were no one who cared, there would be no way any such events would register on the dimension of “Value”. Which points to the logical non sequitur involved in dismissing Value as “not real” for not being “out there” in the “objective” world…. Value can only exist in terms of the subjective experience of creatures to whom things matter.

So [I asked], do ideas exist? Do values? Do numbers? Does Sherlock Holmes? Does meaning? Deciding how to answer such questions isn’t easy. Deciding not to try is easier.

Although I think it’s sensible to say meaning exists as long as somebody finds something meaningful.

Professor Reinhardt’s response:

I think all the stuff that’s not matter or energy (values, ideas, etc.) only exists if we believe they exist. I also believe we’re wired to believe they exist. And finally, I think we can intellectually overcome that and acknowledge that all the non-energy/non-matter stuff is make believe.

However, I don’t think we can fully overcome our wiring; in the vast majority of moments in which we exist, we are doomed to have ideas, values, etc. b/c that’s how our brains work. Once one accepts this, once one peers backstage at the proverbial puppet show, I think there are only two real options. One, think it through (ironic, I know) and come up with ideas, values, etc. that work for you (while forever knowing in the back of your mind that it’s a sham on some level), or two, choose ceasing to exist, which of course will inevitably happen at some point whether one chooses it or not, thereby freeing yourself of the conundrum as your matter and energy to disperse into non-sentient forms.

I got involved with another article today, this one by a physicist: “What Entanglement Doesn’t Imply”. I don’t know if I understood his position, but there’s no denying that the 3 Quarks Daily site exists.