Monday, August 23, 2004

Ignorance is Bliss

The human mind is a marvelous instrument for convincing ourselves that we know what is going on. But some things are simply beyond the capabilities of our consciousness. Why do we imagine otherwise.

Consider the following scenario. North Korea decides to finally take revenge for the manifold wrongs--imagined or otherwise--committed against them half a century ago. They decide to drop the big one, and they decide to do it on Denver just to prove how vulnerable we are. But their missile wobbles and hits Boulder instead. The dogs in my backyard are incinerated (as am I, but that's incidental to this particular narrative).

Now, what do the dogs understand of this in their last few seconds of existence? Absolutely nada. There's nothing in their world, nothing in the totality of their doggish existence, nothing in the totality of all doghood at all places in all times, which could possibly begin to explain to them what is happening. The dogs would be nuked into completely clueless oblivion. The idea of being nuked into oblivion by the North Koreans is completely beyond anything dog consciousness could create.

As an aside evolution itself is no use here. If dogs had repeatedly been nuked by North Koreans througout history, but a few had by chance survived, it's conceivable--if farfetched--that some sort of genetic protection might have developed. But this time, the first time, is completely orthogonal to anything encoded in the genes.

We are no different. There are events that might occur that are completely outside of our consciousness, nay, outside of any consciousness we could even dream of having. What are these events? How should I know? How could I tell you? We have the comfortable illusion of consciousness in a God-like way and we imagine that there's nothing we can't imagine. There is. There are no doubt many such unimaginable things.

Physics has already shown us a number of such things in the strange world of Quantum Mechanics. Classical physics is really only able to deal with two things, each abstracted more or less from everyday experience, to wit, balls and waves. The physics of balls is fairly straightforward, namely, if you kick a ball harder it goes faster and if it's a heavier ball then the same kick won't buy you as much. This is all summarized in Newton's Second Law, F=ma. It looks fancy but that's all it really says. The knowledge about waves isn't much deeper than what you observe by throwing a rock into a pond. I won't go into it. The point is that we really don't know anything that's not in our direct everyday experience or some sort of abstraction from that.

About a hundred years ago, physicists started trying to make sense of the strange things that happen when you look at really really small objects. They don't really behave like balls and they don't really behave like waves. They are something different, a completely new world outside of our everyday existence. We can describe them mathematically very accurately, but we can't understand them at all really.

We don't like this. When people are told about Quantum Mechanics they generally respond that it can't be true, they don't believe it, or somebody will someday come up with a better explanation. But it has been tested and retested and is the single most accurate theory ever produced by humanity. We just aren't capable of dealing with this new reality outside of all everyday human experience. But we are innately convinced that we are.

Among the many weirdnesses of Quantum Mechanics, it turns out that these strange little things, neither ball-like nor wave-like, though similar to both, can pop up out of literal nothingness from time to time. And they can do it on the grand scale, so that, in principle at least, an entire tiny little universe could pop up right inside my beer mug. Is this how the Big Bang occurred? We don't know, but at least we do know it's possible.

The Human Mind doesn't like this. The Human Mind can't really contemplate this weirder than weird reality. The Human Mind has no everyday experience with things popping up out of nothing. That doesn't happen in our experience, and has never happened in any human being's experience, ever. So we're not genetically predisposed to believe this. The idea that our whole universe may have just popped up a few seconds ago in somebody's beer mug makes as much sense to us as being nuked by North Korea does to the dogs. Go figure.


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