Monday, May 15, 2006

The Principle of Finite Imagination

Airports have a strange atmosphere. I frequently receive emails from friends who sit at airports, and contemplate their lives, go into philosophical meditations about the meaning of reality, or the mystery of our existence. Yesterday, I was stuck on such a meditation place, even worse, I was stuck there with nothing else to read but Susskind's book, "The Cosmic Landscape".

The last dinners I had in the company of physicists inevitably ended up with a discussion of the anthropic principle. At which point I very suddenly got very tired and left early. Being asked recently for my opinion on the matter I said I have none. As Stefan told me, that's not good, I am supposed to have an opinion about everything! No matter if it is a sensible one.

To get to my opinion or it's absence, let me introduce you to Oliver. I got to know Oliver as 'Olli_6703' in some online discussion around 2001. Since then he lost his job, his long-time girlfriend, an had an unfortunate accident that left him with a permanent limp. By now he is an alcoholic. I guess, drinking is his way to arrange himself with the insight that life sucks.

It's hard to say why he ended up like this. He's been very sportive, and suddenly being confined to slow-motion was really tough on him. It might also have mattered that his girlfriend did better in her job than he did, and she chose to live alone instead of with him - something he repeated endlessly and was unable to understand. Had she cheated on him and moved in with someone else it might have made more sense to Olli. But she stayed ALONE! Or then why did he have to loose his job in the first place, which started the whole series of unfortunate events? The company he worked for installed phone systems. They went broke cause the companies that were in need of these systems went broke. I am neither a therapist, a sociologist, nor an economist and don't know what the reason is. Maybe it's "just" the genes.

Sorry for the sad story.


Now imagine you are an atom in one of Olli's liver cells. You are a smart atom and have figured out the Standard Model. You had no need for some weird assumption like gravity, but you have found very elegant laws that describe the exchange of molecules in you cell. You even managed to measure the extension of the liver! To your very surprise you found that it has been growing recently. You and the other atoms are very puzzled by this, and you try to come up with a theory to explain it.



Maybe you introduce some a-essence that causes the liver to grow, but where does it come from and why has it only become important recently? Some of your colleagues have suggested that there are other meta-livers outside yours which obey different laws, but hey, you are a serious scientist, and that's just too weird. Besides this, it doesn't really explain anything. Some insist on a fourth force, based on some kind of a principle (you keep forgetting the name). But this force would only be important on completely unobservable distance scales. Though they claim it's important for a theory of everything you fail to see the point. Some even work on an extension of this theory that implies that the cosmos is nothing but a braid, but you can't really follow their arguments.

Then there are some others who found a beautiful string-like winding structure which they claim contains all the information necessary to explain the liver and probably more! But they are unable to predict anything from it. They keep repeating it's elegant, and keep making conjectures about things they don't even know what they are.

However, none of these incredible theories was able to help you understanding the strange place that you live in. Recently, it's been dubbed a crisis in liver-physics.

How smart has the atom to be to imagine the existence of a human being? To imagine several billions of them? Of the world they live in? With all the global and sociological problems? How smart has the atom to be to imagine the existence of the earth, the solar system, our galaxy, the universe, or even multiverses? The poor atom was just looking for a theory of everything, just some few equations that extend the Standard Model such that they explain the observed liver growth.

To come back to the anthropic principle: It is certainly right, if we weren't here then we wouldn't worry why we are here. But I am a physicist because I hope that I can understand at least part of the games that nature is playing on us. Retreating to the anthropic principle means to me to give up the believe that there is something to understand.

Maybe I am just just stubborn.

But I am surprised that just because we currently can not imagine a way out of the so-called 'crisis' in theoretical physics, so much effort goes into explaining why we can't explain what we want to explain. So much time goes into arguing why we can't argue. And smart physicists declare bugs to features, instead of looking for other ways to find insights.

Needless to say, I believe that there is a reason why the universe is the way it is. It might just be very hard to find. Try to imagine there is an universe in every gluon, and our universe is a gluon in an atom in some liver-cell of an alcoholic cosmic terrorist, who aligns his angular momenta on the axis of evil while his followers are forcing cosmological natural selection on innocent citizens.

I would rather come to the (admittedly depressing) conclusion that the human mind just might not be able to solve the problems we are currently facing, than being satisfied with the statement that there is nothing to explain. Going anthropic is not a solution to anything. If anything it's reason to quit physics.

Fortunately, it is in the nature of human beings to never be satisfied. Therefore, I have no doubt that this crisis is temporarily.

That's the reason why I don't spend time on thinking about the anthropic principle and the meaning of the string landscape, not even at airports. There are just more interesting topics.

(Like, where is the next Starbucks, and what do the Americans do with their milk foam without spoons?)




See also Alejandro's recent post about the lamdscape.

22 comments:

Alejandro said...

Great post! It certainly has a far superior literary style than mine...

island said...

I continually point out that an anthropic principle is not a cop-out on first principles when we ARE the mechanism.

Fortunately, it is in the nature of human beings to never be satisfied.

What a coincidence, the universe has the exact same problem:

Bee said...

I continually point out that an anthropic principle is not a cop-out on first principles when we ARE the mechanism.

then explain the mechanism.

island said...

Since this is in reference to Lenny's book, I would refer you to this conversation:

How many assumptions are you willing to lose, is the only real question?

Garrett said...

I consider the anthropic principle to be more interesting for the setup necessary for it to work: that there are a bunch of possible universes to select from. If you start with this, anthropery narrows down these possibilities. But it's not necessarily the only selection criteria. I think you could also have a selection for universes that are beautiful, or algorithmically simple -- and this can be compatible with the anthropic principle. This way, I like to hold on to my ideal of the universe as a beautiful mathematical structure (and to search for it) while accepting weak anthropery as another selection criteria. So, I guess I'm an anthropic/platonic compatibilist.

Your anthropomorphized liver cell is funny. Just be careful not to anthropomorphize people

Bee said...

island said: How many assumptions are you willing to lose, is the only real question?

I am rather modest, I just want to understand why the universe is as it is, and the parameters in the Standard Model are what they are.

When you suggest that we ARE the mechanism you make two mistakes: First, the anthropic principle certainly does not say that we are the cause for the universe to be as it is. And second, it does not help you to understand anything unless you can explain us = the mechanism - start with conciousness. Best,

B.

Bee said...

garrett said: So, I guess I'm an anthropic/platonic compatibilist.


Hi garrett, sure, there is something about these questions that I find interesting. Even if you don't know why, but believe that there is some reason for the universe to be is as it is, then it would mean that other potential universes have properties within certain bounds around ours. What consequences does this have when they are around us? Best,

B.

island said...

I am rather modest, I just want to understand why the universe is as it is, and the parameters in the Standard Model are what they are.

When you suggest that we ARE the mechanism you make two mistakes: First, the anthropic principle certainly does not say that we are the cause for the universe to be as it is.


How would you know?... the current form of the AP is incomplete.

At the conference in Cracow, in 1973, Brandon Carter said that the AP respresents "a line of thought"[ "against exaggerated subservience to the Copernican Cosmological Principle"] that he believed was "potentially fertile", but that it "needs further development".

Carter noted that it was incomplete, so you don't pretend to know what the anthropic principle is really about.

John Wheeler encouraged Carter to indroduce the AP so that he could propose his own ideas on an and why an ANTRHOPIC CONSTRAINT ON THE FORCES means that we are the cause for the universe to be as it is... so don't pretend that physicists don't think along these lines.

And second, it does not help you to understand anything unless you can explain us = the mechanism - start with conciousness.

You start with consciousness, I'll start with the reason that we're here.

The mechanism is "asymmetric transitions" that occur with particle creation per the physics that I referred you to.

In the last four years since I began exclusively studying it, I've discovered that the anthropic principle is "entropic" in nature, and our direct contribution to the mechanism that's described in the referenced conversation is a lot more significant in that context, since matter generation in that model affects vacuum symmetry to a relatively high degree.

The physical need for the mechanism necessarily extends the principle to its biocentric form, where life will be as *necessarily* common to the fine layer of galaxies and planets that evolved within the same "layer/habitable-zone" of conditions, (time and location-wise), as our own galaxy, (in terms of the commonality and continuity in the evolution of the same basic raw materials that were produced by our observed carbon chauvinistic universe). In this case, the principle is "biocentric", meaning that life is more-generally important to the physics of the universe at this particular time in its history, and so it will necessarily be every bit as common to the universe as the physical need for it demands.

In this same scientific context, scientists will ask questions like; I wonder if intelligent life does something that cumulatively affects the physics of the universe that makes it necessary to the process? The implication that we're not here by accident isn't so special if something that intelligent life does makes it cumulatively necessary to the thermodymaic process of the universe, because life will then be as common to the universe as the need for it demands.

If the most accurate cosmological principle is anthropic in nature, then it is highly probable that the connection between the forces of the universe and humans also extends to the evolutionary process of humans and the universe to higher-orders of the same basic structure, and that's exactly what will happen.

The physics that I referred you to very simply resolves all of the "anthropic problems" that are listed on this site... so don't pretend that it doesn't resolve your "modest" need to understand why the universe is as it is, and the parameters in the Standard Model are what they are.'

How many assumptions you are willing to lose determines whether you can get there from here... or not.

Uncle Al said...

"Blood Music," Greg Bear, 1985.

The most important experiments are discovery, contradiction, and confirmation in that order. Mechanisms of grant funding and central management overall demand a PERT chart for discovery. We vigorously seek nothing - the least publishable confirmatory bits plus elegant but untestable theory.

Anthropic postulates are the worst combination of both.

One cycle of a sine wave is modeled by an odd-power polynomial. Economics can model 200+ years of US financial history to arbitrary precision. No matter how good the fits, they don't mean diddly quat for the long term, sine waves or economics. Economics screams "heteroskedasticity!" and demands more funding.

So, too, science. We have been demoted to engineers. The most fruitful font of progress, bootlegging, is now embezzlement of research funds. We will be damned for it.

Bee said...

Hi island,

it seems to me we have some kind of misunderstanding about the meaning of cause and effect. From what I wrote in my post, I hope it became clear that I do think there is a reason why the universe evolved such that it hosts intelligent life. This reason, which we sadly don't know, is the cause for us being here. But we are not the cause for the universe to have evolved such.

scientists will ask questions like; I wonder if intelligent life does something that cumulatively affects the physics of the universe that makes it necessary to the process?

How then do we get to the point where intelligent life exists?

John Wheeler encouraged Carter to indroduce the AP so that he could propose his own ideas on an and why an ANTRHOPIC CONSTRAINT ON THE FORCES means that we are the cause for the universe to be as it is... so don't pretend that physicists don't think along these lines.

I couldn't care less who said what, it still doesn't make sense and doesn't explain anything.

Do you try to tell me that you want to figure out how it comes that the universe evolved such that the evolution of intelligent life is an unavoidable consequence? That is great! Cause that is exactly what I think should be done - and it would show that there is more to it than shoulder shrugging and saying: well, obviously we are here, so life is possible in the universe.

Best,

B.

island said...

First, I'd like to commend you for being one of only a few physicists that actually discusses physics on their blog, rather than to simply moan and complain about policy and whatnot as is common to most of the other blogs.

it seems to me we have some kind of misunderstanding about the meaning of cause and effect

Especially when the effect is the cause of the effect... as is the case in the case of a perpetually evolutionary universe, since the imbalance in the energy that derives anthropic structuring is perpetually inherent to the energy of the universe for all time... ;)

The second law of thermodynamics is the "cause" as well as the effect when the isolated release of high-energgy photons in an expanding universe causes the universe to "leap".

I couldn't care less who said what, it still doesn't make sense and doesn't explain anything.

I don't buy it either, but I still beg to differ in context with the quantum weirdness that Wheeler used. By rights, this should be the default cosmological model in an anthropic universe until somebody comes up with something more concrete than mathematically supported conjecture beyond Wheeler's empirical model.

Garrett said...

What consequences does this have when they are around us?

None, probably.

But, you know, it's philosophy. And the point of philosophy is to discuss questions, not answer them.

Dick Thompson said...

Speaking as just an observer of physics, it seems to me that both the anthropic argument in SST and the attempt to "back calculate" the Immirzi parameter in LQG by setting the LQG derived entropy value (with undetermined Immirzi factor) equal to the Beckenstein entropy and solving, both of them amount to raising the begging of the question to the level of a search strategy.

For neither SST nor LQG has anything in it at present to give a coherent account of picking out a vacuum or determining an Immirzi value, and the methods proposed involve supposing there is some way and asking what value we THINK it would return. The physicists of the future should avoid this strategy like the plague, internalize the radical incompleteness of the present theories and build on that.

stefan said...

What I find most remarkable about the Tegmark paper is this list of things that "go wrong" compared to the physics we know if the number of dimensions are changed.

Is there a similar compilation, for exmple, for the parameters of the standard model, or even for the structure of the standard model, in 3+1D? What if the gauge groups were not SU(3)×SU(2)×U(1)? Or if all fermions had masses? Would there be any inconsistencies? Would the physics be very different from what it is? Does anyone know some references about these issues?

fh said...

I never understood the anthropic reasoning nonsense.

It's called meassurement. We are simply meassuring the values we can not predict.

It is a particularly elegent meassurement to observe that we are here, and therefore if our model of how we got here is correct this model implies that certain parameters in the theory the model is based on must be constrained to a certain range. (Of course once we say not "we" but "intelligent observers" we are no longer able to do that since we have not the faintest idea of how a modell of intelligence would look like and what it's physical pre-requisits would be)

But it's nothing but an indirect meassurement, with some philosophical nonsense attached. The philosophical nonsense is neither deep nor particularly intelligent.

It is emphaticaly NOT a paradigm shift in physics.

Some theoretical physicists have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in their favorite theory to explain why some constants have the value they have.
Therefore they say that in this theory we must meassure them.

To conclude that because they can't predict them nobody can is silly hubris of course. Nobody knows, maybe they really can not be predicted but it is in the nature of the beast that you can not prove this impossibility.

Or as W. Siegel put it:

"Of course, the latter type of argument carries a hidden assumption. Much worse than that, it actually carries a hidden argument. This hidden argument we call4 the Misanthropic Principle. It goes something like this5:

1. I can't solve this problem.
2. Therefore, you can't solve this problem.
3. Hence, this problem can't be solved.
4. So, it's got to be just dumb luck."

fh said...

Linky no worky:

http://insti.physics.sunysb.edu/~siegel/parodies/misanthrope.html

Andrew Thomas said...

"Going anthropic is not a solution to anything. If anything it's reason to quit physics."

The Anthropic Principle might well not be the answer, but I do think it reveals the limitations of experimental physics, i.e, we can only find solutions contained within the causal horizon of our universe. Physics defined the causal horizon, and so physics must live by the implications. If we truly are in a pocket universe then, actually, the anthropic principle does indeed provide the correct solution (rather than your assertion "Going anthropic is not a solution to anything") and experimental physics is not the answer.

So, sorry, you might dismiss the Anthropic Principle but you don't get to have the last word in this matter. Nature has that last word. And only nature will decide if the Anthropic Principle is the correct solution, however distasteful that might be to you.

Bee said...

Hi Thomas,

So, sorry, you might dismiss the Anthropic Principle but you don't get to have the last word in this matter. Nature has that last word.

Yeah, right. What I meant to communicate is should the AP be Nature's last word, then this means physics can't explain the universe. So, being a theoretical physicist, why would I want to work on it? The AP might have its place in the world, but I don't want it to overtake theoretical physics. And I don't think we should give up too easily with our attempts to understand the world that we live in. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

That's a fair comment. Don't give up hope! It's surely worthwhile to work in physics without being able to find the most fundamental principles. You're still advancing human understanding. Physics might never be able to completely explain the universe, but it's still worth pursuing.

Steven Weinberg: "I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go, when we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world, because we will still be left with the question 'why?' Why this theory, rather than some other theory?"

I do have some sympathy with your thinking that anthropic solutions are lazy, and we're rushing to grasp them. But it looks like we can never discount them. And I find them interesting, and rather fun. I'm sorry they seem to depress you!

Bee said...

It's not that anthropic reasoning in itself depresses me. In a certain regard you are right that its interesting in some way. What depresses me is when smart people who could significantly contribute to understanding Nature do instead waste their time with arguing about things we can't understand by assumption. Not to mention freak observers or Boltzmann brains, but enough. Thanks for your comments btw, it's an interesting point of view. Your blog looks interesting as well, may I ask what you are working on? Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

"smart people who could significantly contribute to understanding Nature do instead waste their time with arguing about things we can't understand by assumption."

I guess that's the "unfalsifiable" criticism. I can imagine it must be frustrating if you're working hard in physics and see people making highly speculative, untestable claims.

My blog is just a hobby. I'm reading Peter Woit's book at the moment and it makes me glad I'm not working in high energy physics at the moment. As an outsider, I quite enjoy reading about the arguments and crises! I like the idea of creative destruction. Something better will come out of all this, and then progress will continue as normal.

Dale Ritter said...

Physics theory has traversed some territory with some gains. The real issue is how can the Schrodinger equation be solved? Or the correlation function for mapping the set of virtual force photons onto the spacetime manifold of the atom's electron cloud region? One way to define the cosmos and the atom is to place the atoms as standing overtone wavenodes of the universe's total mass and energy.

Recent advancements in quantum science have produced the picoyoctometric, 3D, interactive video atomic model imaging function, in terms of chronons and spacons for exact, quantized, relativistic animation. This format returns clear numerical data for a full spectrum of variables. The atom's RQT (relative quantum topological) data point imaging function is built by combination of the relativistic Einstein-Lorenz transform functions for time, mass, and energy with the workon quantized electromagnetic wave equations for frequency and wavelength.

The atom labeled psi (Z) pulsates at the frequency {Nhu=e/h} by cycles of {e=m(c^2)} transformation of nuclear surface mass to forcons with joule values, followed by nuclear force absorption. This radiation process is limited only by spacetime boundaries of {Gravity-Time}, where gravity is the force binding space to psi, forming the GT integral atomic wavefunction. The expression is defined as the series expansion differential of nuclear output rates with quantum symmetry numbers assigned along the progression to give topology to the solutions.

Next, the correlation function for the manifold of internal heat capacity energy particle 3D functions is extracted by rearranging the total internal momentum function to the photon gain rule and integrating it for GT limits. This produces a series of 26 topological waveparticle functions of the five classes; {+Positron, Workon, Thermon, -Electromagneton, Magnemedon}, each the 3D data image of a type of energy intermedon of the 5/2 kT J internal energy cloud, accounting for all of them.

Those 26 energy data values intersect the sizes of the fundamental physical constants: h, h-bar, delta, nuclear magneton, beta magneton, k (series). They quantize atomic dynamics by acting as fulcrum particles. The result is the picoyoctometric, 3D, interactive video atomic model data point imaging function, responsive to keyboard input of virtual photon gain events by relativistic, quantized shifts of electron, force, and energy field states and positions.

Images of the h-bar magnetic energy waveparticle of ~175 picoyoctometers are available online at http://www.symmecon.com with the complete RQT atomic modeling manual titled The Crystalon Door, copyright TXu1-266-788. TCD conforms to the unopposed motion of disclosure in U.S. District (NM) Court of 04/02/2001 titled The Solution to the Equation of Schrodinger.