My friend has a vision board and writes things on it. When something good happens that she wrote on her board, she says, “manifested!” She also has a bag of magic rocks.
She takes it seriously, yet she also makes fun of it all the time. I guess it’s like acupuncture. It probably doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work, but if it works at all, hell: let’s go tickle some meridians.
I worry about mysticism because I worry that human understanding is transcending actual humans. I don’t want future generations to see the world as a series of miracles performed by wizards. Is Pauli just some djinn that holds objects apart when you try to push them through each other? Does the Archangel Faraday move the songs through your radio? Is it Einstein’s ghost in the radioactive glass at the Trinity site?
This is not how things were supposed to be. The ideal of science is that arbitrary knowledge can converge on principles and simplicity. Without inquiry, there are two kinds of knowledge systems: the kind where you know nothing, and the kind where you eventually make something up and stop asking. Science was supposed to be the Third Way. The problem is that some of the significant discoveries of the last hundred-or-so years are traps. They undermine measurement, causality and experience.
- Special Relativity flows from Einstein’s supposition that space does not need to be permeated by some infinitely permeable framework with hard-to-explain properties which allow electromagnetism; if there were such a framework, there should be a way to measure motion relative to it. Einstein thought that the universe should look the same for every observer who isn’t accelerating. Luminiferous aether vanishes. Cue twin paradox; ladder paradox. Everything everybody experiences is valid, but nothing you can measure makes intuitive sense to anybody in a different inertial frame.
- Cosmology can rewind the VHS tape of the Universe back to Planck time (before which everything is obscured by the Primordial FBI Warning), but it also relegates the stuff we’re made of to bright foam on a sea of dark incomprehensibility, making 96% of the universe “exotic matter,” which implies a heretofore unsuspected definition of “exotic”.
- Quantum physics is the intellectual equivalent of a JJ Abrams television series.
Quantum physics: Okay, so we got a screen, three polarizers, and a light source.
QP: Now we’re going to pass the light source though one polarizer oriented horizontally. Only the light that is horizontally polarized will make it through.
QP: Now we add another polarizer at 90 degrees to the first. We’ve blocked the horizontally oriented photons and the vertical ones too. The screen goes dark.
QP: Now we add another polarizer somewhere in between the first two, at some intermediate angle, like 45 degrees. What do we see?
You: Uh, it’s still dark.
QP: WRONG! JACK DIES!
Intuitive causality ends at quantum mechanics, and that is an unsatisfying ending; it’s a nonsense mystery that changes depending on whether it has an audience (again, JJ Abrams). When science becomes arbitrary, it comes dangerously close to religion.
It is highly improbable that a bag of magic rocks does anything. Then again, there is a vanishingly small but non-zero probability that some particle in your magic rock is entangled with some particle in the brain of Mark Zuckerberg. This is an example of why you can’t say anything about anything without oversimplifying.
I hope we’ll look back on this period of scientific history with the same smug amusement we have now when we consider Aristotle’s moon rock that “naturally” moves in a circle. Maybe there is some elegance left to be found, some concept that collapses physics since 1900 into something as beautiful as F=ma.
In the meantime, if you’re on the couch and having trouble getting up, blame the Higgs. It probably exists, which is as good as it gets these days.