An aspect of nature I love is its elegant ambiguity. Despite our best efforts and the amazing discoveries we’ve made in the past few centuries there are fundamental questions about the nature of the universe that may not ultimately be knowable through objective inquiry. It’s always too early to tell, of course, since we don’t know what we may learn next, but the pattern of ambiguity is fairly clear. The ambiguity goes all the way back to the Greeks. At least.
Two fundamental questions on which we still cannot definitively rule upon with our present knowledge are free will vs determinism and atomism (discreteness) vs holism (interrelatedness). Other assumptions that appear to be true given our present knowledge but may ultimately be disproven are the notion that natural laws and/or fundamental properties do not change in time, the idea that causality holds at the most fundamental level of the universe, and the idea that the universe is only one thing at a time.
We just don’t know.
Generally speaking I think scientific discoveries provide interesting data points for our conversations regarding the really big questions, but I do not believe any of the discoveries we’ve made to date should be parlayed into big picture conclusions just yet. For instance, some may look at the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics and suggest that the uncertainty gives room to justify the existence of free will, or the movement of the will of God, etc. I think it is inappropriate to draw these conclusions, and thankfully, nature’s ambiguity makes them untenable anyway.
That said, I do think the patterns and correlations we observe in the natural world are interesting. I think they tell us something about ourselves, much like our artwork may reveal qualities of our subconscious minds. I think that our discoveries tell some of the truth, but not the whole truth, if you will, and although I argue we have to be careful about drawing metaphysical conclusions from physics, for instance, I do think it is worthwhile to note correlations between the two—not as one serving as rigorous proof of the other per se, but more like the manner in which good literature invokes a sensation of the familiar. Good literature reminds us of something genuine about ourselves and our experience of life that cannot necessarily be reduced to simple statements. Likewise, I think the patterns we see in the natural world can resonate with and spark a memory of what we experience and know at a deep level. It is like seeing something and going, “Oh, yes… I remember this… it is familiar… it is life…”
So one really interesting field of research in modern physics today is quantum entanglement, and while I don’t have space to explore the idea fully here, I will try to provide a simple example. In quantum physics a particle does not have definite properties until one or more of them are measured and information about the particle is extracted from it. In some cases, more than one particle can be bound by natural laws to form a singular quantum system. One example is two particles who have the same point of origin, or birth point. Due to natural laws, and by way of example, we could say that the property of spin must be conserved: if one particular spins one way, the other particle must spin the other. But until one or the other particle is acted upon or measured, both particles exist together as a singular quantum system in which the spin of neither particle is determined. They “exist” in multiple spin states simultaneously until we force them to choose one state or another. What is remarkable about entanglement is that we can take these two particles in carefully constructed carrying cases to the opposite poles of the earth, and then measure one of them. What has been proven in modern physics experiments is that both particles always show equal and opposite spins when the measurement is made.
The head-scratcher here is that the particles are too far apart in space to receive any signal from the other, so they essentially coalesce into the mutually correlated states instantly. If one is spin up, the other is spin down. How do they do that? If their condition wasn’t predetermined at the moment of their conception, how does the roulette wheel land in precisely opposite points every time? That is entanglement. Theoretically it has been shown that IF the outcomes of the particles were predetermined by some factor that existed at their mutual birth, then an experimental result would be different than if they were truly a quantum system whose final state was NOT predetermined. Time after time the quantum result has been measured.
But recently physicists have noted that the quantum outcome of the experiments could be measured AND the outcome could still be related to some predetermined factor that related them from birth IF it were the case that instead of having all possible spin states to choose from, they were limited to a particular menu. In other words, if some factor existed at their birth that constrained the possible spin states from which they could choose, then the quantum experimental results would be observed but it would NOT prove the quantum position. The experiment could not distinguish then between two particles whose identities were determined at birth from two particles whose identities were randomly determined only at the time a measurement was made.
The distressing outcome of this realization is that there is no way to know for certain that everything in the universe is not constrained in some way all the way back to the common point of origin for the entire universe—e.g.the Big Bang. If I replace the word constrained with related, and if I understand the article correctly, it means there is no way to disprove the existence of a fundamental relatedness of all things to all other things that extends all the way back to the birth of this universe.
Scientists call this catastrophe super-determinism, and they call it a catastrophe because it suggests the entire universe is pre-determined. But I view it for the time being as an interesting corollary to the sort of “God” described in A Course of Love, a God which is described as “the relationship of everything to everything.” [ACOL D:D35.3] A key idea in A Course of Love is that to shed our false skins we must forgive reality for being what it is. We have to forgive the fact that the universe is based upon relationship, and none are truly separate.
“Joining rests on forgiveness. This you have heard before without understanding what it is you would forgive. You must forgive reality for being what it is. Reality, the truly real, is relationship. You must forgive God for creating a world in which you cannot be alone. You must forgive God for creating a shared reality before you can understand it is the only one you would want to have. […] You have to forgive yourself for being what you are, a being who exists only in relationship.” [ACOL C:6.1]
I think that this idea of super-determinism is perceived as catastrophe because it speaks to our deep relatedness and we are culturally enamored of our own independent greatness. We marvel at the self-made man, the one who puts destiny on their back and sallies forth. We don’t generally like the idea there may be something we cannot overcome, some condition that binds us. Now I’m not sure that this finding implies every last thing is known in advance (e.g. is as deterministic as the behavior of billiard balls for instance) or if it merely implies that because of our relatedness the universe may not explore every conceivable situation or possibility. The menu may be limited, and it may be limited by the choices we make together, or perhaps by a choice we made together at the very beginning. I find that to be a beautiful thought.
So I’m not suggesting we have proof of God here. Far from it. But I do think we have a piece of cosmic literature with which to resonate. Or not. What we most assuredly do not have, is answers.
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The article that kicked this musing off is here.