Category: science

We are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come.

– Carlo Rovelli

What Einstein meant by ‘God does not play dice’

By Jim Baggott

‘The theory produces a good deal but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One,’ wrote Albert Einstein in December 1926. ‘I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice.’

Einstein was responding to a letter from the German physicist Max Born. The heart of the new theory of quantum mechanics, Born had argued, beats randomly and uncertainly, as though suffering from arrhythmia. Whereas physics before the quantum had always been about doing this and getting that, the new quantum mechanics appeared to say that when we do this, we get that only with a certain probability. And in some circumstances we might get the other.

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Art and science are 

not the same thing, yet they are 

not different things. 

—Red Leaf Haiku by © John Clark Helzer

You thought quantum mechanics was weird: check out entangled time

By Elise Crull

In the summer of 1935, the physicists Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger engaged in a rich, multifaceted and sometimes fretful correspondence about the implications of the new theory of quantum mechanics. The focus of their worry was what Schrödinger later dubbed entanglement: the inability to describe two quantum systems or particles independently, after they have interacted.

Until his death, Einstein remained convinced that entanglement showed how quantum mechanics was incomplete. Schrödinger thought that entanglement was the defining feature of the new physics, but this didn’t mean that he accepted it lightly. ‘I know of course how the hocus pocus works mathematically,’ he wrote to Einstein on 13 July 1935. ‘But I do not like such a theory.’ Schrödinger’s famous cat, suspended between life and death, first appeared in these letters, a byproduct of the struggle to articulate what bothered the pair.

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This Is Why Understanding Space Is So Hard

By Dan Falk

If all the matter in the universe suddenly disappeared, would space still exist? Isaac Newton thought so. Space, he imagined, was something like Star Trek’s holodeck, a 3-dimensional virtual-reality grid onto which simulated people and places and things are projected. As Newton put it in the early pages of his Principia: “Absolute space, of its own nature, without reference to anything external, always remains homogeneous and immovable.” 1

This seems persuasive in everyday life. I’m walking east, you’re walking west, and the post office stays put: The frame of reference remains static. But Newton’s contemporary, the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, balked at this idea of absolute space. Take away the various objects that make up the universe, he argued, and “space” no longer holds any meaning. Indeed, Leibniz’s case starts to look a lot stronger once you head out into space, where you can only note your distance from the sun and the various planets, objects that are all moving relative to one another. The only reasonable conclusion, Leibniz argued, is that space is “relational”: space simply isthe set of ever-changing distances between you and those various objects (and their distances from one another), not an “absolute reality.” 2

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“What we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

Werner Heisenberg

David Chalmers is often associated with the hard problem of consciousness, but I think the credit rightfully belongs to Wilfrid Sellars. The basic thrust of the problem was spelled out in such a manner as to be the equivalent of stating it explicitly. The fact that Sellars didn’t call the problem what we now call it, ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, doesn’t take away from the fact that he did much more work in attempts to unify two conflicting images which he dubbed manifest and scientific

At first glance, this might be a reframing of Kant’s phenomena and noumena, but it is useful to note that Sellars’ manifest and scientific images would both be categorized as phenomena. On Kant, the scientific image wouldn’t qualify as noumena. Some modern day philosophers, taking after Donald Hoffman, a professor at the University of California Irvine, have it that we have evolved in such a way that we are pretty much shielded from apprehending ultimate reality, i.e., the Kantian noumena. We evolved to perceive and thus, to solely apprehend the phenomena. 

With that in mind, Sellars’ scientific and manifest images correspond to the Kantian phenomena. Yet there appears to be an irreconcilable contradiction between them. On the manifest image, a Rubik’s cube has a distinct three-dimensional shape and six colors – usually yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and white. Assuming we are trichromats that don’t have green-red color blindness, we all apprehend this object more or less equally. On the scientific image, however, the cube doesn’t have a distinct shape; nor does it have colors. The cube is comprised of particles and empty space, and though the colors are fully explainable by the science of chromatics – namely as the result of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum – particles in and of themselves don’t have a color. Aside from that, the Rubik’s cube seems to have these colors because we have three photoreceptor cells in each retina allowing us to see these colors. The colors, to put it another way, are not inherent to the object.

Sellars was interested in the project of saving appearances or, in other words, unifying reality as it seems given human perception versus reality as explained through science. This is the hard problem of consciousness made explicit: neuroscience can’t explain phenomenal consciousness. This is Sellars’ exact dilemma. The contradictory images are best viewed in human consciousness. Neurologists and neuroscientists can explain to us why we see and what brain regions are involved when we see or even when we imagine seeing, but they can’t tell us why we see how and what we see. In other words, science can readily explain why we see the colors we see, but it cannot tell us how neurons and brain regions give rise to quaila; there is something it is like to see a Rubik’s cube and given the hard problem, the scientific image can’t be used to explain the manifest image.

In a recent post, I spoke about quaila and outlined why I’m suspicious of this conclusion and the consequences that follow, namely property dualism and panpsychism. Sellars’ made great strides in trying to reconcile the images, but perhaps his lack of success with regards to a reconciliation has all to do with the ignorance of his time. We can now identify quite a few strong suggestions that the scientific image does explain the manifest image. I gave some examples in the aforementioned post, but there are further examples still.

Think of synesthesia. For people who have synesthesia, hearing color, tasting sounds, and seeing numbers and letters as colored is a common experience. As with most sensory disorders, there is a neurophysical correlate to synesthesia. Sometimes the onset of the disorder is preceded by brain trauma. Jason Padgett, who was assaulted outside a karaoke bar, suffered a severe concussion. He claims to see geometric shapes and angles all around him. This is an unusual sense(s) for the majority of us and there would obviously be something it is like to experience the world in the way he does. There is, however, something to be said about the fact that a brain injury preceded the emergence of these peculiar senses. While I am wary of inferring causation from correlation, correlation is a powerful indicator and when considering that Padgett’s case isn’t unique, the correlation might be suggestive of causation.

Perception, it would seem, is entirely contingent on the condition of one’s brain. If a region is altered by injury or if communication between regions is either hindered or heightened, there are corresponding behaviors and perceptions that can be expected relative to the affected regions. This may indicate that the scientific image, in this case explaining how brain regions communicate and what each is responsible for, explains the manifest image, namely our perceptions or as Sellars would have had it, the world as it appears. Sellars’ disparate images are best exemplified in consciousness and in that, the hard problem was spelled out long before it was given a fancy name.

Why Curiosity Can Be Both Painful and Pleasurable

The emerging neurology of one of our most human characteristics.

By Mario Livio

An amusing anecdote involving Darwin epitomizes the power of curiosity in creative people. When Darwin arrived at Cambridge in 1828, he became an avid collector of beetles. Once, after stripping the bark from a dead tree, he found two ground beetles and caught one in each hand. At that point, he caught sight of a rare crucifix ground beetle. Not wanting to lose any of them, he popped one beetle in his mouth to free a hand for the rarer species. That particular adventure did not end well. The beetle in Darwin’s mouth released an irritating chemical and he was forced to spit it out, apparently losing all three beetles in the process. The disappointing result notwithstanding, the story does demonstrate curiosity’s irresistible appeal. But curiosity can also be an anxious and unpleasant experience. Do both states exist simultaneously in the brain?

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Consciousness Goes Deeper Than You Think

Awareness can be part of it, but it’s much more than that

By Bernardo Kastrup

An article on the neuroscience of infant consciousness, which attracted some interest a few years ago, asked: “When does your baby become conscious?” The premise, of course, was that babies aren’t born conscious but, instead, develop consciousness at some point. (According to the article, it is about five months of age). Yet, it is hard to think that there is nothing it feels like to be a newborn.

Newborns clearly seem to experience their own bodies, environment, the presence of their parents, etcetera—albeit in an unreflective, present-oriented manner. And if it always feels like something to be a baby, then babies don’t become conscious. Instead, they are conscious from the get-go.

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Lawrence Krauss on “Seeing” the Early Universe

By Stephen Johnson

At a 2016 convention hosted by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss spoke about scientists’ attempts to look back to when the universe was just fractions of a second old. A few highlights from Krauss’ talk are listed below, and his full presentation can be seen at the bottom of this article.

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