In my conversations with Aelianus, I have frequently been both annoyed and surprised at his strongly negative attitude towards ‘scientists’, and his pessimistic estimate of their intellectual vigor.
It may be, however, that I have been living in some sort of bubble. I am, as biologists would probably stress, not myself a full proper scientist, dealing with such mundane things as farming, and, as a consequence, may be dealing with more down-to-earth people professionally than your average proper scientist would. I do read ‘proper’ scientific papers, but then these tend to be matter-of-fact reports of experimental results, of varying quality of course, but rather innocuous. Media reports about ‘science’ I mostly ignore, as I know to what extent journalists tend to garble even my own, rather straightforward, field of research. But yesterday I read a bit in a magazine called ‘Cosmos‘. In spite of being a ‘Popular science magazine’, this one appears to be written to a greater extent by people who do have some clue about the field they are writing about, including reference to proper scientific studies with mentioning of the sources.
And then, besides ‘Decode your brain’, you get titles such as ‘Are we just numbers in a matrix?’
Now, I have learnt from Dorothy McLean that authors are often not responsible for the titles of their columns. But it was the content itself just the same as the title that seriously tempted me to hit my head on the desk.
I am no physicist, so do not expect me to put this utterly correctly, but here a wee summary: Starting from Newtonian physics, where the universe is made up of the fundamentals of matter, space and forces, Einstein’s general relativity joined space and the force of gravity together. He failed to develop a ‘unified field theory’ that added matter as well, but now the discovery of the Higgs boson seems to finally make that goal achievable. In fact, modern physics is not interested in the Higgs boson as such, but in its field, and field theory is now the thing in physics.
Over the past century and a half, field theory has transformed physics as a science. It has also changed our view of reality. As theoretical physicists now see it, the core of nature is nothing more substantial than waving fields. As Carroll told us, fields are ‘the true reality’ while the apparent substance of matter – its solidity and point-like concentration – is an artefact of our limited powers of perception.
And so we return to our original question: what exactly are these fields? If fields are ‘states of space’, what exactly is ‘the state’ that is changing here? At the end of Carroll’s lecture, I put this question to him. His answer, afer a considerable pause, was both illuminating and confounding.
Each state of space, he said, was a matrix of numbers, one number for each point in space. As a field changes, what is really changing is the value of the numbers.
Carroll seemed simultaneously elated and a bit dazed by this idea. For myself, I could not help thinking of the film The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves’s character discovers that the world he has known all his life is actually a computerised simulation generated by the matrix.
But are we able to accept ourselves as flickers in a matrix of shifting sequences of numbers?
M. Wertheim, 2013, Are we just numbers in a matrix?, Cosmos 52: 60-65.
Is it too much to hope that this is really one more daft science reporting that does not reflect what goes on in the mind of the people who actually work on the topic?
Otherwise, how daft is this? I am sitting on a chair. Whether this chair ‘actually’ consists of uniform chair-matter, or of densely-packed atoms of some sort or other, or of tiny, tiny nuclei surrounded by a lot of nothing with some even tinier electrons racing through, or some fields having different states – does it make it less chairy?
As I am tired and still can plead jet-leg (account of adventures down-under to follow), I am not too sure of my analogies. But this seems to me as if you were to say that learning that a Beethoven symphony was ‘actually’ just sound waves generated in mechanical ways and reaching your ear would make the music less real or meaningful.
Moreover, not stressing the fact that given the image above, it would seem to have to be a set of numbers for each point in space, for the different fields, the only connection to the Matrix seems to be, well, a matrix involved. All our vegetation samples form matrices: rows (sites) by columns (species) with numbers (abundances) – so does this mean we have no real vegetation. The thing in Matrix seems to be (Aelianus gave some brilliant interpretation on parts one and two, and I may be confusing everything here) that there is a real reality, and what people were experiencing was just a simulation.
It seems really odd to me that materialists appear to be able to put more meaning into a world made of particles (as if you could see them), than in a world of ‘fields’. This might denote a refreshingly naive sort of mindset. It does not, in my humble opinion, show great philosophical insight, but then, I am just a farmer.