The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time--and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything

Philosophy and Metaphysics

For Albert Einstein, locality was one aspect of a broader philosophical puzzle: Why are we humans able to do science at all? Why is the world such that we can make sense of it? (location 39)

Like philosophers, their intellectual siblings, they [physicists] are driven by the conviction that the universe is within the human power to understand and that if you look beneath its variety and intricacy, you will find comprehensible rules. (location 699)

In daily life, when we ask "Why?" what we're usually after is what drove a person to do what they did. (location 751)

His [Emmanuel Kant] overarching interest was to analyze how we know and what we know, or think we know. (location 1089)

Like Albert Einstein, the author is confusing and conflating three different methods of inquiry: metaphysics, philosophy, and science. Science is the method of inquiry arising from observations made with our five senses: Why is the sky blue? Why is the half-life of cobalt-60 about 5 years? Metaphysics arises from observations rooted in our ability to make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge: What is free will? What is the conscious knowledge of human beings as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals? Philosophical questions are above and about more fundamental methods of inquiry: What is the best way to do science? What does the mathematical function used in the Schrödinger equation for quantum mechanics correspond to in reality?

In my opinion, you can't understand science, especially quantum mechanics, unless you understand the difference between the three methods of inquiry. Both of the questions in the first quote are not philosophical questions. The first is a metaphysical question because animals don't ask questions about what they see. The second question assumes that human beings can understand the world. It too is a metaphysical question because it raises the question: What does it mean to understand something?

Comprehensibility of the Universe

Much of what happens defies reason (especially when romance or driving is involved).(location 42)

When a friend wrote to ask Einstein what he'd meant by the comprehensibility remark, he wrote back, “A priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way". (location 47)

Ultimately, though, instrumentalist ["Shut up and calculate"] is just a tactical retreat. In the end most people sill crave a picture of what the universe is really like, what lies under the surface of our perceptions. (location 1035)

Relativity vindicates the age-old intuition that nonlocality would render the universe incomprehensible. (location 1388)

For Copenhagenists, indeterminism was a lesson of modernity, an antidote to a misplaced Enlightenment trust in reason, which German intellectuals in the 1920s widely held responsible for their country's defeat in the First World War. A number of historians have traced this cultural mood to the magical and Romantic belief that nature is beyond rational understanding. (location 1488)

Einstein was struck by the fact that the universe is comprehensible in so many ways, and he thought it strange to suppose that particles would prove to be an exception. Either the universe should be intelligible or it should be inscrutable, but not half and half. Furthermore, Einstein saw that indeterminism would entail nonlocality. (location 1494)

The crowning achievement of metaphysics is the argument for God's existence. This argument was explained by Ètienne Gilson in the 1920s and uses the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, not his famous five ways. The argument is based on the assumption or hope that the universe is intelligible. Since all religions in the world tell us that we will pay for our sins after we die, it is reckless to wait until you are on your deathbed before deciding whether or not the universe is intelligible. “God's wrath comes upon a sudden,” to quote St. Augustine.

Assuming the universe is intelligible in science is a double-edged sword because scientists have to decide which questions to spend time on. This assumption may have helped Johannes Kepler, who spent years working on his famous laws. A counter example is how much time Einstein spent trying to improve quantum mechanics.

Cognitive Dissonance

Yet locality is for our own good. It grounds our sense of self, our confidence that our thoughts and feelings are our own…We are insulated from one another by seas of space, and we should be grateful for it. Were it not for locality, the world would be magical—and not in a happy, Disneyesque way. (location 76)

According to Bernard Lonergan, the human mind is structured like the scientific method.

  1. At the lowest level, we make observations, which requires paying attention.
  2. At the level of inquiry, we ask questions about what we observe. We have a drive to know and understand everything, and want to know the cause of things, the relationship between thing, and the unity between things. At this level we create answers to the questions, theories, or insights. This requires intelligence.
  3. At the level of reflective judgment, we marshal the evidence and decide whether a theory is true or just probable. This requires being rational.
  4. The fourth level is deciding what to do with our bodies, which requires being responsible.

Our sense of self does not come from the observation that we are in some room or on some street corner. It comes from reflecting on our own existence. As René Descartes put it, "I think, therefore I am."

George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, did not even think the material universe was real. He arrived at this theory while sitting on a rock in a forest. He figured he
existed because God created him. He assumed God created the rock so that he would have a place to sit. But God, having infinite power, could just as easily create the rock as the illusion of the rock in God's mind. According to Berkeley, there is no reason to assume the rock is anything but an illusion. This metaphysical theory is called

Berkeley's interaction with the rock was entirely passive. Our interaction with other people is not passive at all. Other people affect our consciousness in ways that we have no control over. It is very clear that other people exist, which means that our existence is limited to ourselves. In other words, we are finite beings. We are not insulated from one another at all but we are insulated from tables and chairs. According to Martin Buber, we have an "I-it" relationship with chairs and traffic
cops. But, we have an "I-thou" relationship with people we have intimate conversations with.

In my opinion, the above quote indicates that Musser is suffering from cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental and emotional stress we suffer when we believe something that is in conflict with some aspect of reality. My guess is that Musser believes life ends in the grave. The aspect of reality this conflicts with is the fact that the Near Eastern, Chinese, and Indian religions say there is life after death. Musser makes himself feel better by ignoring the metaphysical reasons for our "sense of self" and focusing attention on the observation that the three-dimensional location of our bodies can be specified.

Cause and Effect

Every effect has a cause linked to it by a chair of events unbroken in space and time. There's no point at which you have to wave your hands and mumble, "Then a miracle occurs." (location 88)

First and foremost, breaking the speed limit would muck up sequences of cause and effect. Different people would disagree not only on what "now" is, but on what is "before" and "after." (location 1348)

In addition to maintaining the direction of causality, the speed limit ensures that the very concept of a law of physics makes sense. (location 1370)

[Bohr to Einstein]”The whole foundation for causal spacetime description is taken away by quantum theory.” (location 1526)

You can derive time from the sequence of cause and effect. (location 2850)

There are three kinds of causality:
  1. In human action, if you spend 20 minutes washing your car, the final cause is a clean car.
  2. In metaphysics, a being that begins to exist at some point in time and a being that is a composition of two incomplete beings or metaphysical principles needs a cause. Cause and effect, in metaphysics, occur simultaneously. The cause precedes the effect in the order of causality, not in the order of time.
  3. In physics, a causal system is one where the total energy is constant. When you throw a ball into the air the only force acting on the ball is gravity, which depends only on location, not time. One might say that the initial position and velocity of the ball "causes" or "determines" the final position and velocity of the ball. In physics, cause precedes the effect in the order of time.

Hard Core Materialism

Our thoughts are impulses zapping along pathways in space. (location 106)

This is proof that Musser suffers from cognitive dissonance. Why refer to "thoughts" and not a particular kind of thought? An example of a kind of thought is the mental image we create in our minds of something we see with our eyes. We ask the metaphysical question: What is a mental image? Musser's theory is that a mental image has to do with "an impulse zapping along pathways in space." There is no evidence for this theory. Musser judges it to be true because it makes him feel better. It makes him feel better because it supports his belief that human beings are “assemblages of particles.”

A materialist is like a person collecting minerals and arranging them according to color. He builds a chest of drawers and labels the drawers one of the colors of the rainbow. He finds a blue mineral and puts it in the blue drawer. He puts a red one in the red drawer, and so on. One day he finds a white mineral. He goes back to his chest of drawers and says, "White minerals don't exist."

Probability and Spooky Entanglement

If influences can leap across space as though it weren't there, the natural conclusion is:space isn't really there. (location 157)

In all these examples [black holes], physics enters a twilight zone. Things can outrun light; cause and effect can be reversed; distance can lose meaning; two objects may actually be one. The universe becomes spooky. (location 677)

As Musser explains in the book, we observe influences leaping across space (spooky entanglement) with our eyes. We ask the scientific question: What causes spooky entanglement? We have a drive to know and understand everything and we want to understand spooky entanglement. I don't see any evidence for the theory, "space isn't really there."

This theory raises the question: What is space? This is Bernard Lonergan's explanation of what a straight line is. Look at a line drawn on a piece of paper with a straight edge and a pencil. Create the image of this lead ribbon in your mind. Now, suppose that the ribbon is infinitely thin and long. My understanding of space is this: Look at the room you are in with all its furniture and walls. Create an image of this in your mind. Now, suppose that there is no furniture and walls. In my opinion, space is a mental being, not a real being. But space corresponds to a real thing, just like a straight line corresponds to a ribbon.

I see a connection between the question of what causes spooky entanglement and the question of what causes a radioactive atom to decay at the particular time it does decay. The half-life of Cobalt-60 is about 5 years. This means that 1 gram of cobalt-60 will decay into 1/2 gram of nickel and 1/2 gram of cobalt-60 in 5 years. Looking at a single cobalt-60 atom for five years is like flipping a coin: half the time the coin comes up head (decays) and half the time tails (does not decay). One of the triumphs of the Schrödinger equation is that it explains this observation.

This raises the philosophical question: What does the Schrödinger function correspond to in reality? The theory given in physics textbooks is that it is a probability wave function. There is a lot of evidence that it is a wave, but there is no evidence, in my opinion, that it involves probability. Probability always involves two events. In the case of a coin, there is the flipping and the landing. If you step on someone's foot in a dark movie house, the probability that it is a man is 50%. The two events are selecting the person and deciding on the sex of the person. We understand perfectly well what causes the coin to come up heads when that happens and tails when that happens. We do not know what causes a radioactive atom to decay at the time it does decay but want to know, just like we want to know what causes spooky entanglement.

In my opinion, we should be open-minded about the meaning of the word cause. We can certainly exclude the causality of human action. It is tempting to exclude metaphysical causality (for every effect there is a cause) because it can’t be defined or explicated. But this may be a mistake because it leaves us only the time-based causality of physics.

Philosophy vs Science

Whenever those concept questions did come up, physicists deemed them "philosophical," which wasn't intended as a compliment, but as a way to deny that the questions were even worth asking. (location 318)

Philosophy is distinguished not just by its interests, but by its methods: philosophers are trained in logic as opposed to mathematics or experiments. (location 322)

There’s no sharp boundary between philosophical issues and physicals issues, merely a porous border with lots of trade across it. (location 1045)

Modern physicists call interpretation a "philosophical" issue, implying that it requires a different frame of mind or a different academic discipline altogether. (location1023)

The author does not agree with my opening paragraph, which implies that metaphysics and physics are equals and philosophy is superior to both. To the author, philosophy and physics are equal, “siblings” as he put it somewhere else, and metaphysics is not a method of inquiry.

According to the author, physics differs from philosophy because of different methods. Physics uses experimentation and philosophy uses logic. In my opinion, all methods of inquiry have observations, theories, and evidence because this is the way the human mind is structured. A person who judges a theory in physics,
metaphysics, or philosophy to be true when there is very little evidence has poor judgment.

Quantum Mechanics and Observers

I was struck by her [Fotini Markopoulou] thinking about how physics theories need to assimilate that we are part of the universe, rather than outsiders looking in. (location 551)

The idea that humans are “part of the universe” could be a way of expressing the metaphysical theory that human beings are collections of molecules. It could also be reference to the philosophical and scientific questions arising from double-slit experiments. When water waves hit a double slit, we can observe the interference pattern that results. When a beam of light or a beam of electrons hit a double slit, we cannot observe any interference pattern. We only see the interference pattern if we place the slit between a screen and a source of photons or electrons. In other words, we can’t just think of ourselves as being outsiders because we were the ones who decided where to place the slits.

Natural and Supernatural

Naturalistic explanations tend to be local. In our experience, when you want something to move, you can't will it to do so; you need to go over and push on it or send someone to do it for you. (location 758)

Musser is referring to natural explanations because he mentioned the theory that Poseidon causes earthquakes. Musser undoubtedly thinks there are no supernatural explanations because there are no supernatural beings. The reason there are no supernatural explanations is that there are no natural explanations. The only kinds of explanations that exist are good and bad ones. Good explanations are supported by evidence and judged to be true by rational people. Bad explanations are just the opposite.

Free Will

Human beings make decisions for any number of reasons, not all of them entirely sensible. Those reasons follow from earlier events, and ultimately the chain of causes can be traced to the origin of the universe. (location 1744)

That doesn't necessarily mean your will is unfree: freedom can be an emergent property, one that particles do not possess, but assemblages of particles do. As far as you're concerned, your choices can be entirely open until you make them. (location1754)

If A decides to marry B, the final cause is being married to B. If the reason A decided on this final cause is that B is rich, A is not a sensible person because every sensible person knows you can’t buy happiness. B’s wealth cannot be traced back to the origin of the universe. It can only be traced back to someone’s decision to work hard and save. If A decided on B because B is beautiful, this is a different matter. It may very well be that you can trace B’s beauty to the origin of the universe.

Consider this statement: Freewill is an emergent property of a human being. The word emergent is an adjective, and is an attempt at to answer a question that arises from the metaphysical observation that human beings have freewill: What is freewill? The circular answer is: Freewill means I can move my hand around anyway I decide to, but if I lose my hand in an accident, I still continue to exist. My hand is something that I have. This answer gives rise to the more substantial metaphysical question: What is the relationship between my body and myself?

There are three theories in addition to Berkeley’s idealism. Materialism is the theory that human beings are “assemblages of particles” and freewill is an illusion. Dualism is the theory that there is a spiritual substance or “little man” inside a human being that controls the body like a stagecoach driver controls a coach. The third theory, which is the one supported by the evidence and judged to be true by rational people, is that it is an unsolvable mystery. In other words, human beings are embodied spirits of spirited bodies.

This brings us to the question of what Musser means by using the adjective emergent to modify free will. My guess is that he does not grasp or is unaware of the theory that human beings are embodied sprits. In his mind, the two possible theories are dualism and materialism. He uses the adjective emergent to express his
judgment in favor of materialism.

Hardcore Atheism

Musicians call the difference between pitches a musical "interval," which has connotations of distance, as if our brains really do think of the differences between pitches as spatial separation. (Location 3122)

Emergent-spacetime models also give us a new way to understand the big bang. The genesis of the universe has always presented something of a paradox. Nothing is supposed to precede it, yet something must precede it to set the cosmos in motion. But the paradox dissipates when we think of the big bang not as an abrupt moment of creation, but as a transitional process. If space emerges from spaceless building blocks just as life emerges from lifeless atoms, then the birth of the universe is no more inscrutable than the birth of a living creature. (location 3191)

A lot of people mistakenly think that the Big Bang is evidence of God’s existence. It is rather evidence that God does not exist because it is evidence that the universe is not intelligible. The Big Bang is, however, a reason to believe God inspired the human authors of the Bible because the Bible is filled with the idea that God created
the universe from nothing. There is no evidence for the “emergent-spacetime models,” just as there is no evidence for the conjectures about how life emerged from lifeless atoms.

All the references are to the Kindle edition of “Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time—and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything,” by George Musser. Published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015.