Playing with cosmology.
This story is one of a number to challenge assumptions about ourselves and reality. Each is inspired by a real-world scientific or spiritual genius (Einstein, LaoTzu, Ramana Maharshi…), and is presented as a visit to a game world in which that thinker’s message is re-imagined in unconventional form.
Welcome to 8arbour’s World, a creative project to unite 3instein’s and 5chrödinger’s Worlds. It spins a new scientific myth. Its reality is one in which each particle in the universe is related to every other, one in which their positional relationship is what defines each instant. Those instants are the fundamental constituents of reality.
This world is inspired by Julian Barbour, a Ph.D. physicist who lives in Oxford, England but pursues his physics outside the academic hierarchy. We could say his aim is to complete the work Einstein began but did not to take to its fruition — rejecting all space and time (and space-time) as absolute metrics for or containers of change. This could unblock the aisle, up which we’re so anxious for 3instein’s and 5chrödinger’s Worlds to walk and say, “I do.” Mainstream physics hesitates to embrace Barbour’s work. Perhaps it smells too much like philosophy. Yet, it embodies a crucial willingness to question fundamental assumptions, to see through old stories and imagine new ones that may work better.
You jump in and take your place as an apprentice in the Conceptual Reality Assessment Program. You and the other junior team members can’t believe your luck. The Chief Inspector (CI) is taking you all with her on the most important inspection in more than fifty years.
“Yesterday, we got a call from the expansion team. The theorists have been trying to add floors to the binary towers for a century, but they’ve only managed a mezzanine and a roof terrace. To push any higher, we’ve got to bring the towers together and start from a common, united floor, the hundred twentieth floor, as it happens.”
As she leads you down into the bowels of Relativity Tower, you pass below usable space into depths housing only inspection access points. “Down here,” the CI says, “Relativity Tower and Quantum Tower join, resting on a common foundation.
“The folks with the big brains want to take the towers higher, and they want to reunite them in the open air. Those guys are always looking either across or up. Now, I’ve only got a medium-sized brain, but I reckon the problem is down here.”
As you reach the bottom of the deepest access point, the CI shines her flashlight into an empty space. “Hmm. As I suspected.” She leads the group, crawling along a hundred-yard tunnel to the opposite end of the foundation. Again, her flashlight shows a void.
“First, the good news: we’ve found the problem that’s held back progress for so long. Now, the bad news: the entire structure is resting on what the big brains think is bedrock but is actually…well…nothing.”
Attenborough Owl (remember him from G0del’s World?) materializes before you and chirps in melodious tones:
We believe in two great gods we have never seen — an absolute space in which things sit and an absolute time through which change occurs. Okay, we don’t worship them as gods; but we do build our worlds on them. They are assumptions sitting so deep, we don’t even identify them as assumptions. The Chief Inspector has discovered the gaps they leave in our conceptual model of reality. 8arbour’s World emerged from the idea, “Since we’ve never seen space and time, let’s try to make sense of things without them. Let’s not have imaginary foundations.”
The owl with the beautiful voice snaps his “fingers,” and you’re with him in a giant warehouse.
“Where are we?” you ask.
“Human, we are in the Noumenal Warehouse: a visual metaphor for a conceptual, immaterial collection of universal possibilities.”
“Why do you guys keep announcing visual metaphors? Don’t you think I can spot them without you pointing them out? Anyway, yes, that’s just as I thought, but I wanted to be sure. I’m pretty sure I know what you mean, but just in case…say a little more.”
Attenborough Owl rolls his eyes and continues:
We’re nowhere. A place would be somewhere out among the particles that make up the universe. We’re in a non-place, behind the universe. Remember the wave you stood on in 5chrödinger’s World? We’re in the non-place where that exists and does its work. This is the “behind the scenes” holding area for what manifests in the physical world we’re used to living in.
Manifestation, in any moment, is defined by the position of every particle that exists in that moment, and since there is no “space” to act as an absolute point of reference for particles’ positions, the moment is defined strictly by their positions relative to each other.
“Okay,” (sort of) “but that’s out in the physical world. What’s that got to do with this conceptual, non-physical warehouse?”
“A very good question, human,” gurgles a voice behind you. You turn to face a purple… “thing” with about a hundred wavy arms and a cup of coffee.
“This,” says the owl, “is Wavus Omnius. Call him Wavey. He’s a centipus. Those hundred arms make him the universe’s ultimate warehouse picker.” Responding to your vacant stare, the owl continues:
We are in the great, zero-dimensional warehouse holding every possible moment that could ever manifest (be observed) in the (four-or-more-dimensioned) universe. Each item on the uncountable shelves of immeasurable length around you is a “card” with the enfolded particle distribution for one such moment.
In case it’s not obvious (He looks at you over his glasses.), Wavey is a visual metaphor for the wave function, the probability wave you encountered in 5chrödinger’s World. Wavey, like that mathematical construct, hovers over and selects from this vast warehouse the specific configurations to appear in our reality.
“Phew! That’s a big job,” you say. “Are you unionized?”
Wavey doesn’t get it, but he picks up from the owl. “I select on a principle of resonance — which configurations ‘fit with’ or ‘go along with’ others most smoothly? These, among countless possibilities, are the ones I shuffle into manifestation, which means they’re the ones that predominate in the life you encounter.”
Marie, from 5chrödinger’s World, joins you. “There are practical issues with constructing a wave function for the system that is ‘everything’ as opposed to the carefully defined and confined laboratory systems in which we have made our quantum progress so far. Given the eternal nature of the Noumenal Warehouse ‘behind’ 8arbour’s World, we also need to reignite our interest in a time-independent construction of that probability function. The version that has interested us, that we’ve found useful so far, is one that oscillates through time.”
You remind Marie that you’re not one of the world’s leading physicists. “All this is a bit abstract and, well, difficult for me. Can you bring it to the ‘so what?’”
“Happily,” she smiles. (You think she’s warming to you.) “The ‘so what’ is that this could be the way to put the binary towers on solid foundations, unite them, and push to ever higher floors. It could unite 5chrödinger’s World and 3instein’s World. Another ‘so what’ for you is seeing how powerful a process of questioning deep assumptions can be for opening a world of possibilities when you thought there were none.”
Wavey jumps in, “But first, let’s look more closely at some possible configurations in 8arbour’s World. We’ve gotten rid of space, but we’ve got to handle time.”
Among the cards I could pull from the shelves are:
· An uncountable set in which no interesting structures exist at all, just diffuse matter.
· A group of configurations in which structures exist, but none as complex as an organism.
· A collection in which organisms exist, but no particles are arranged such as to be a brain.
· Ones including us (humans, including our central nervous systems) “as we are.”
· Ones including countless versions of us that differ slightly, in each conceivable way, from us as we are.
Owl rejoins, “The defining aspect of these configurations, every instant, is comprehensive interconnectedness. It is the full network of relations among all particles that makes each instant unique.”
“But my life doesn’t seem to happen as one discreet instant after another. It feels smooth, and it seems to flow through time. Since each configuration on these shelves is but an instant, and since the instants all exist eternally, where is time?”
“I’m glad you asked!” hoots the owl. “What we’re about to get into is at the confluence of physics, philosophy, neurology, and psychology. But don’t worry! You’ll get it. The key is remembering that brains are made of particles.”
Owl sweeps his wing in a circle.
In some configurations, particles are arranged to suggest they must have been created in or must have progressed from previous instants. For example, a sculpture’s presence in one moment seems to “point backward,” implying an earlier moment in which it was carved.
If we’re more careful, we realize the sculpture’s existence doesn’t point backward in and of itself. It is the presence of the sculpture along with other particles arranged into a brain. It takes at least one brain to understand (to have encoded in its neurons and supporting cells) that artifacts are creations that imply a past.
The coolest configurations contain central nervous systems in certain instantaneous states — with neural correlates of ideas, including memories and expectations, that seem to refer to other “nearby” (read recent or imminent) states. Since our warehouse contains all possible configurations, these implied, referent, states also exist — at least here.
“Any instant I’m involved in, since I have a brain, is among the coolest in the warehouse of universal possibility? Excellent!”
“I thought you’d like that.”
“But I still don’t see where the sense of flow comes from.”
Owl nods. “Let’s move on to that.”
A moment that includes particles arranged as a brain experiencing a visual (still) image of a goose in flight may also include, as particles arranged elsewhere in that brain in multiple “memory banks,” images of the goose further rearward in the frame with a different wing shape. Or, to give the impression of a moving human head tracking the goose’s flight, the bird would be at the same point (say, center) in the “memory bank” frames as the main one, but the background will have “shifted” toward the rear of the bird.
Here’s the main point. These memory banks (remember, they’re just subsets of the brain’s particles, albeit special ones), in concert with the current image, perform the same function — remember, within a single instantaneous particle configuration — as a pad of paper on which we draw stick figures before “fanning” the pages to imply motion. Think of each of them as having a picture of the goose “in them.” Experiencing that holistic brain state then includes the experience of observed motion — an example of the “flow of time.”
Voilà! We have time and motion in a static brain state! And that static brain state is a tiny fraction of a static universal particle state. One such universal particle state is what is enfolded onto each card in this warehouse.
Your head hurts, but you think you might sort of get it. Is there a bar in the Noumenal Warehouse?
Wavey jumps back in. “You experience a temporal flow because I select from the warehouse shelves with a preference for configurations that have cross-instant references and static-time-and-motion brain states in them. When I choose configurations for manifestation, I favor moments containing near- and long-term histories and expectations, moments Barbour calls ‘time capsules.’”
“And why do you do that?”
“That’s just the way I am. I do, based on what and how I am. Remember, I’m really a mathematical construct, not a ‘thing’ exercising a will.”
Attenborough Owl congratulates you. “You’ve done very well, human. We’ve had to airlift many visitors from here, shambling wrecks. You haven’t even used your sick bag. There are deeper layers and questions to this, but let’s not strain ourselves further now.”
Marie puts in her final word. “As the string theorists and others try valiantly to unite 3instein’s World with 5chrödinger’s, they might be poking around a cul-de-sac they don’t notice they’re in — a sack made of time and space. 8arbour’s World explores how we might back out of that sack, throwing out the infrastructure physics doesn’t believe in yet puts at the foundation of its every thought and calculation.”
You step out and onto the observation platform of 8arbour’s World, gazing upon your own. 5chrödinger’s World and 3instein’s World seemed so different from your own, but they are its best self-descriptions. Now you’ve seen yet another, still stranger, world, that may be the foundation of your own. You understand none of them, but you shed your old false certainty and see possibility.
You question in your logbook:
Waves, eternity & flow, two-sided coins, realities that include their own illusions and misdirection. They show up in science; they abound in mystical tradition. There’s no basis for equating them, but could they be consistent, jointly possible?
Ahead lies possibility, and you’re ready, so you say, “Let’s play.”
See Julian Barbour’s The End of Time.