Sep 22, 2014 | By

Is the universe rational?

Last week (September 15, 2014) we established a framework for being “rational”, and talked about the importance of consistency. To be rational, we need to avoid inconsistences and contradictions. At the same time, we expect that being rational provides the confidence that we can reach the complete truth. But at the frontiers of knowledge in mathematics and physics, things do not appear to meet the criteria of consistency and completeness. The universe may not be rational.

For example, in formal logic, a key branch of mathematics, consistency has a specific meaning: that we cannot simultaneously prove a statement and its negation. This seems quite simple, but Kurt Godel proved eighty years ago that if our logic is consistent, then it cannot be complete. Being incomplete means that there are true statements we cannot prove.   We are, unfortunately, confronted with gaps in our ability to reach true conclusions, even in the most formal and rigorous systems of logic. (for more, see: Reflection and Recursion)

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If mathematics cannot strictly meet the criteria for rationality, can we at least say that science is rational? The answer, based on the findings of quantum physics (QP), is: No. Here are a few examples below, each of which can be looked up in Wikipedia or elsewhere for more details.

  • Perhaps the most commonly cited experiment proving aspects of QP is the double-slit experiment that demonstrates that electromagnetic radiation behaves both as waves and as particles. Even when firing single photons as particles, one-at-a-time, through a double-slit device, the pattern displayed on the screen on the other side shows interference, with brighter and darker lines at various angles away from the straight line path the particles should have taken. The interference shown is consistent with the behavior of light as a wave. How can light be a wave and particles in the same experiment? These results seem quite irrational.
  • This indeterminacy and related problems in QP were patched over in what has been called the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), that postulates that units of radiation remain suspended in wave form as probability states (superpositions of two alternate possibilities, for example), and these states collapse into a single definite state – an outcome – when observed in an experiment. In response, Erwin Schrodinger offered his Cat thought experiment – a cage in which the decay of a single radioactive atom triggers a device to release poison, killing the cat inside. According to CI, before the box is opened and an observation made of the state of the radioactive atom, the atom is in a “superposition” and the cat correspondingly must be both dead and alive. When the box is opened, the wave form collapse is observed and the cat is alive or not. Clearly, this is not rational, and the thought experiment itself is a bit gruesome.
  • One line of thinking in response to Schrodinger’s Cat experiment is that the two alternate superpositions (decay – dead cat; no decay – alive cat) actually exist as alternate universes. The observation just reveals which universe we are in – the one in which the cat is dead, or the other in which it is alive.   This attempt to explain QP is the basis of the “multi-verse” hypothesis that answers one conundrum with another. Taken to its logical conclusion, the multiverse hypothesis applies to every waveform collapse that has ever taken place, generating a seemingly infinite set of alternate universes, only one of which we ever have the opportunity to observe – the one we happen to be in.
  • Entanglement is a QP phenomenon in which two paired particles are created in an experiment and fly off in different directions. Being “paired”, they share specific characteristics, such as particle spin, however the spin is subject to a probability distribution (wave-form) and is not actually determined until one of the particles is measured (wave-form collapse). Remarkably, when one particle is measured, it turns out the other particle has the same spin – no matter where in the universe that particle can be found. The simultaneity of the wave-form collapse for paired particles violates Einstein’s relativity theory, because it requires information to be shared faster than the speed of light. QP is thus inconsistent with proven features of time and space.   (See also: Quantum Physics.)

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Omar Khayyam wrote his poems in 11th century, well before the discovery of quantum mechanics or Godellian incompleteness, but some of his verses (at least as translated by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 19th century) seem to capture the bizarre sense of paradox quite charmingly. Must we join him in giving up on the goal of being rational, or is there an alternative to the strategy he espouses?

This is a good question for future consideration.

2 Responses to “Is the universe rational?”

  1. […] making: reliance on evidence, focus on desired outcomes and logical reasoning. The following week (September 22) we questioned whether the universe was rational (it does not seem to be). Last week (October […]

  2. Jay Lermitte says:

    Must be some ingenious creator that put this all into motion. Fascinating!

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