Creating Reality

Submitted by Chris Mills on November 12, 2013 - 9:05am
How do we understand this process?

I just read this over and it's pretty long, pretty weird, and pretty abstruse. Sure you don't want to duck out and head somewhere else, while you still can…?

Still with me? Brave soul…

Okay. To be awake and alive to the realities of our time these days is to be a tennis ball in a mixed doubles match, volleyed back and forth across the net by the vicious backhands of hope and fear, optimism and dread. In my work with Transition Guelph I try to stay current to what’s happening in our world, the good, the bad and the ugly, and that means that a lot of stuff from the alternative press stacks up in my inbox on a daily basis. Some of it is inspiring; some of it is exciting; some of it is infuriating; some is worrisome, and some of it is – let’s be honest – downright f**king terrifying.

On one end of the spectrum are people like Carolyn Baker and Guy McPherson. They’re two people about whom I was in part thinking when I wrote my first blog here, called “Threatened by Hope.” The teaser for that blog begins, “Why are so many people obsessively pessimistic about the future? Or, more to the point, why are they so damn determined to spread their pessimism? Are these people somehow threatened by the hope they see in others?”

Baker and McPherson are both reprinted regularly in the Transition Voice online newsletter. Carolyn Baker is author of Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, and Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times. Her message, if I may put words in her mouth, is that collapse is coming, and soon; billions will die, and it is our task as human beings to prepare, emotionally and spiritually, for that irrevocable destiny. Guy McPherson’s message is similar; however his blogs, the ones I’ve read, anyway, seem to cut even closer to the “threatened by hope” speculation of my first blog. He believes that “sustainable” and “civilization” are two words that should not occupy the same sentence; that by holding on to hope, which he calls “hopium”, is to delude ourselves, and to make the final acceptance of our fate just that much more traumatic when it finally happens. The message behind the term “hopium” is clear: hope is a drug that we use to narcotize ourselves against the grim reality of our situation; we humans have proven that we’re too stupid to survive, and that by our limitless greed we have destroyed the planet, and in the process, ourselves, by destroying the very ecological systems upon which we completely depend for our survival.

At the other end of the spectrum we have people like Chris Turner, author of The Geography of Hope: A tour of the world we need and The Leap: How to survive and thrive in the sustainable economy.

                                            

I’ve heard Chris speak twice, and a more fascinating and inspiring speaker it would be hard indeed to find. The first time was as the keynote speaker of Transition Guelph’s first Resilience Community Festival, and again just a week or so ago, at Dublin St. Church here in Guelph. I got the chance to hang out and have a beer with him afterward at the Wooly, and believe me, if he’s an inspiring and exciting public speaker, he’s even cooler to chat with informally. His talk last Thursday was a jaunt around Germany’s burgeoning renewable energy infrastructure. Germany has been a leader in renewable energy for almost a decade now, and what’s happening these days really has to be seen to be believed. They’re ahead of schedule in virtually every aspect of their 30-year plan to convert their entire grid to green energy, they’ve created almost 300,000 jobs, their grid is now number one in reliability in all of Europe (and statistically about five times more reliable than ours here in Ontario) and their green-energy initiative currently enjoys a 93% approval among voters. I was blown away.

Another inspiring speaker is Jeff Rubin, author of The End of Growth: But is that all bad? Richard Heinberg – senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute in California – also wrote a book called “The End of Growth”, conveying essentially the same message, that economic growth is a thing of the past, but it’s significant that Rubin’s book includes the subtitle, “But is that all bad?”

The short answer posed by that question is, no. It's not all bad. In fact, it might wind up being something much preferable to the highly inequitable, highly corruptible, planet-destroying economic system we have now. Oh sure, there's likely to be a bit of a rough shakedown cruise for the new economy, as structures and institutions founded on infinite growth face the wrecking ball and are gradually replaced. But the final result, according to Rubin (at one time chief economist for the CIBC) may well be fairer, more equitable, more sustainable, and sustaining than the deeply flawed system we're saddled with now.

So the question, then, is: what do we do with all this? How do we cope with this vast, dichotomous, confusing, contradictory and multivalent blizzard of information? How do we respond the stark reality of this planetary crisis we all face, and its myriad possible futures? The good - as I said before - the bad, and the ugly.

                                             

I think perhaps an important clue may be found in Lee Smolin’s address at the 2013 Guelph Lecture On Being Canadian, which took place last Friday at the River Run Centre. Lee is a theoretical physicist and a co-founder of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, one of the most respected centres in the world for scientific research in foundational theoretical physics. Lee’s been thinking a lot about the nature of time recently. This is not just abstract musing, it is a vitally important question, because our understanding of time goes a long way toward informing our understanding of our place in the universe, what it means, and how we can move forward.

Is time real? Does it have a physical existence, or is it an illusory manifestation of something else? Do we perceive the passage of time because we move through it, or does it move through us? Are past, present and future separate things? Or does it depend on our perspective? Ultimately, I suppose, what we want to know is this: does free will exist? Or do we simply have the illusion of free will, and instead are we simply making “choices” that were already predetermined when the universe began? This is where physics, philosophy, and even theology, do a kind of mosh pit mash-up. But what shakes out?

                                     

Albert Einstein believed in a deterministic universe. He believed that everything was set in motion, all of the matter and energy created, along with all of the physical laws and constants governing its behavior, at the first instant of time. If you were sufficiently omniscient, and smart enough, to know the position and momentum of every particle in the universe at an instant in time, then by applying the laws of physics you could predict, with absolute certainly, the rest of the history of the universe. Everything that happens is simply a re-arrangement of the fundamental particles of matter and energy, which obey a straightforward set of physical principles. In a deterministic universe, the future is pre-ordained. Everything functions like clockwork. The future is entirely a matter of a mathematical extrapolation of the present. Enormously complicated, but absolutely determinable in principle.

                              

If the universe were governed entirely by General Relativity, in other words, if the General Theory of Relativity were the last word in a complete description of the universe, that would probably be true.

But it isn’t. In the 1930’s a gigantic monkey-wrench was thrown into the cogs and gears of Relativity, in the form of a cheeky set of physical principles called Quantum Mechanics.

General Relativity is a great description of the workings of the universe on a large scale. It is breathtakingly accurate in its description of the structure of space-time, matter and energy, the wheelings of galaxies and the orbits of planets. it's one of the most tested theories of all time, and it has held up incredibly well. But at the realms of the very tiny and the very extreme, Relativity fails, and fails spectacularly. So, in stepped Quantum Mechanics, and at the same time, out went Einstein’s deterministic universe.

Because, just as General Relativity does a outstanding job of describing the macro-universe, so Quantum Mechanics does every bit as outstanding a job describing the behavior of fundamental particles, and the extremes of energy, mass and gravitation that are found in, say, the center of a black hole. And Quantum Mechanics is fundamentally non-deterministic.

Quantum theory has three key components: probability, indeterminacy, and the interaction of measurement (or “observation”) of an event and the event itself. There is no way to predict with any certainty the outcome of any quantum event. The best you can say is that there is a certain probability that the event will have a particular outcome, and a certain probability that it will have some other outcome. A particle, such as an electron or photon, travels as a wave. Even massive particles like protons and neutrons (which have masses thousands of times that of an electron) have wavelike properties. And in essence, every possible path that that particle can take, between point A and point B, it does take, as something that Quantum theory calls a "probability wave". If you try to measure the exact position of the particle, you force it to abandon its wave properties and behave like a particle (in physics terms this is called “collapsing the wave function”). You will find it in one location, and not somewhere else. But as long as you are not measuring it, it will be wavelike, and in as many places at once as it can be. That’s the dual nature of quantum particles.

But the weirdness doesn’t end there. You can measure the position of a particle to an arbitrary degree of accuracy. But the more accurate you get with position, the less you can know about its momentum. Or, you can measure its momentum, but the more you know about that, the less you can know about its position. This is the essence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And this has nothing to do with any limitation on our ability to measure these things simultaneously. It is a fundamental nature of quantum particles, that the more definite the position, the less definite the momentum, and vice versa. The same is true of energy and time, at the quantum level. The more you can know about one, the less you can know about the other.

In quantum mechanics, there are no certainties, and there is no complete knowledge.

                                              

Einstein was deeply offended by the principles of quantum mechanics – despite the fact that his early research helped point the way. He is quoted as saying, "God does not play dice with the universe.” Together with physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, he set out to prove that it was a flawed theory and therefore an incomplete description of the universe. But Quantum Mechanics withstood every challenge then, and has withstood every challenge since. It seems that God not only plays dice, sometimes He doesn't even let you see the roll.

But although Quantum Mechanics is an elegant, breathtakingly accurate description of the behavior of atoms and particles, and General Relativity is an elegant, breathtakingly accurate description of the universe on the largest scales, bad things happen when you try to put them together into a single picture. They collide like a multi-vehicle pile-up on the freeway and bits fly out in all directions. Equations yield nonsensical answers, and things generally just fall apart.

                                      

A new theory, called Superstring, (well, new-ish. Superstring as a mature theory first took shape in the mid-70s) or its more recent refinement, M-Theory (and, perhaps appropriately, nobody actually knows for sure what the M stands for!) holds some promise of knitting together these two antagonists. But M-Theory is still just that: a theory, one that, while mathematically consistent, is largely untestable with current technology. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland shows some promise of being able to confirm experimentally some of the more basic predictions of string theory. Earlier this year it appears that researchers at CERN may have been able to tease the Higgs boson out of hiding. The Higgs boson (which the press has referred to as the “God particle”, a bit of an overstatement if you ask me)  is the carrier of something called the Higgs field – named after British physicist Peter Higgs, who predicted its existence in 1964 - and was scoffed at, by the way – which endows massive particles with… well, mass. It’s an important prediction of M-Theory and this discovery goes a long way toward giving it a more solid foundation.

                                 

Where am I going with this, you ask? Fair question. Bear with me, please, just a bit longer…

Physicists and philosophers have long wrestled with the implications of a non-deterministic universe; and Quantum Mechanics, and more recently M-Theory, seems to have goosed those speculations into a more immediate relevancy, since it now appears that, at its most fundamental level, the universe always behaves in a deeply non-deterministic way.

One interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is the so-called “Many Worlds” theory. In it, every event that has more than one possible outcome, from the miniscule to the enormous, enacts all of those possible outcomes in some universe. Every event, and there are an infinity of them in every instant of time, spawns a new universe, one for every possible outcome. An infinity of universes every moment, branching off from one another like the limbs of a gigantic, ever-growing tree. There are universes where I wrote this blog differently, where I never wrote it at all, where I never existed, or where humans never existed, or where we have four arms, and are eight feet tall with day-glo orange hair. Pick your reality, and there’s a universe where it exists.

Another possibility is Richard Feynman’s Sum over Histories – or “Path Integral” – formulation. Stated simply, it postulates that every possible path that a particle can take, traveling from A to B, it does take. Even a path that takes it out to the Andromeda galaxy and back. Every possibility exists simultaneously, in an overlapping, or “quantum superposition” state. It only settles into a particular fixed outcome when forced to do so by observation.

        

Nils Bohr once said, “If you’re not outraged by Quantum Mechanics, you haven’t understood it.” (Or words to that effect.) But then, the universe has never much cared for whether we actually like the way things are.

So the question, then, really is this: what do we do with this knowledge?

The point to which I am slowly wending my way, and to which Lee Smolin’s lecture was directed, is this: Every instant of time, we create a new reality. This is a participatory universe that we live in. We are all active agents in the creation of our reality, every moment of every second. Every action that we undertake has consequences. And this process is non-hierarchical. Everyone’s contribution, everyone’s choices and actions, are equally significant.

The future is unwritten. We co-create the future by co-creating the present, moment by moment.

This means that we can, if we so choose, create the future we want, through our actions in the present moment. That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s also enormously exciting, and enormously inspiring.

Lee finished his lecture by saying that, while climate science has some dire things to say about our future should we fail to get climate change under control, those predictions have not yet happened, and until they do, the choice of futures is still ours to make. We can avert the outcome we don't want, and choose the one we do. We have only to make that choice, and act on it.

So the future of Chris Turner’s The Geography of Hope, a world in which we humans can live sustainably on planet Earth for a long time to come, is within our grasp. So is Guy McPherson’s future of collapse and extinction. The choice is still absolutely ours to make.

To quote Norman Cousins, “Everything is possible, once enough human beings realize that everything is at stake.”

Or to put it another way, “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” (George Bernard Shaw).

Let’s get to work.

            

Comments:
Thanks, Christine!

Thanks for sharing all of your thoughts. :)

Admittedly, Quantum Mechanics scares me, a bit... but, I stuck with it and see how it fits into the larger picture. I really enjoyed your last quotation:

“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” (George Bernard Shaw)

To focus on all that is wrong can lead to fear and though this can be a motivator, it is not a motivator that is life-giving. I think for every piece of evidence that shows the destruction of the world (ie. ice caps melting), there are stories of people making positive changes (ie. using green bins, more companies installing solar panels, children manking abondonned lots into gardens to produce healthy food). I am motivated by love and goodness... by the abundance and assets I see in my community... what about you?