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Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design

September 13, 2010

Famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking just wrote a new book called The Grand Design, along with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow.  I think it’s about time to head to Amazon.com and get myself a copy!

I was just reading a review of the book from The Economist, and it looks awesome.  Here’s some excerpts from the review:

IN 1988, Stephen Hawking, a British cosmologist, ended his best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time”, on a cliff hanger. If we find a physical theory that explains everything, he wrote—suggesting that this happy day was not too far off—“then we would know the mind of God.” But the professor didn’t mean it literally. God played no part in the book, which was renowned for being bought by everyone and understood by few. Twenty-two years later, Professor Hawking tells a similar story, joined this time by Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist and writer at the California Institute of Technology.

In their “The Grand Design”, the authors discuss “M-theory”, a composite of various versions of cosmological “string” theory that was developed in the mid-1990s, and announce that, if it is confirmed by observation, “we will have found the grand design.” Yet this is another tease. Despite much talk of the universe appearing to be “fine-tuned” for human existence, the authors do not in fact think that it was in any sense designed. And once more we are told that we are on the brink of understanding everything.


The main novelty in “The Grand Design” is the authors’ application of a way of interpreting quantum mechanics, derived from the ideas of the late Richard Feynman, to the universe as a whole. According to this way of thinking, “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.” The authors also assert that the world’s past did not unfold of its own accord, but that “we create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” They say that these surprising ideas have passed every experimental test to which they have been put, but that is misleading in a way that is unfortunately typical of the authors. It is the bare bones of quantum mechanics that have proved to be consistent with what is presently known of the subatomic world. The authors’ interpretations and extrapolations of it have not been subjected to any decisive tests, and it is not clear that they ever could be.

I’m currently studying quantum mechanics (though I’ll admit it’s not an easy subject!).  I’ve never studied string theory, but I hope to get around to it within a few years.  There’s just so much math and physics left for me to study.  I can’t ever get enough.  I’ve been obsessed over the past two years or so.  The more I study the more I want to study.  And unfortunately for me, there’s always forces trying to pull me away from my studies, and direct my mind on the petty toils of everyday existence.  I hate it so much!

“… every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.”  What a profound conclusion to come to.  If that’s true, that’s just incredible!  Our universe does not have a single existence or a single history.  Every possible universe exists simultaneously.  Any possible universe can and already does exist!

There’s no beginning or end.  There was never a “creator” and no need for “creation”.  Everything has always existed.  It’s always been here.  Absolute time is an illusion created in our brains; a sort of ordered sequence of events based on what we choose to experience.  There’s just arbitrary time-lines based on which reality we choose to experience.

That’s why I purchased my most recent book on space and time (Spatial Cognition, Spatial Perception).  It’s about how our brain, and the brains of other animals come to these conceptions, and how they evolved.  Detailed studies are presented into how the brain encodes this information, and various robots which have been built to emulate these brain activities.  Just like anything else, these things evolved and have various survival purposes which they serve.   You see space and time as just one aspect of this infinite universe.

When you study neuroscience, you see that if select areas of the brain are damaged, you lose your ability to perceive motion.  Patients who have developed brain tumors in select areas lose their ability to distinguish movement.  They see a car off in the distance and then all of the sudden it’s right in front of them.  They didn’t see the transitional states.  We say, “How can this be?”  That’s because the buffer space in their brain that makes them THINK time is flowing is damaged.  Once they lose that, time stops “flowing”.  Other areas of their brain are still functioning though, so they still have, say, their haptic (tactile) spatial time systems going.  Those buffers still exist and are working.  The sequential order of bodily sensations is still being stored and processed correctly.  It’s just that their visual processing systems which parse out objects from the contrasts of color and store those objects in a temporary memory buffer, and then link them together in sequence, got damaged.  Therefore she lost visual motion processing and her consciousness of it.

You see what I mean?  The brain tricks us.  And when you think about quantum mechanics and its tie to consciousness, and my own views (and those of famed physicist Roger Penrose), that the brain exists in a sort of quantum mechanical superposition state and then collapses based on our decisions, you see how it ties to all those memory buffers and our perception of time and space itself.  You’ll have to check out his books The Emperor’s New Mind, Shadows of Mind, and The Large, the Small and the Human Mind.

Wikipedia says this about his book Shadows of Mind,

In the book, Penrose expounds upon his previous assertions that human consciousness is non-algorithmic, and thus is not capable of being modeled by a conventional Turing machine-type of digital computer. Penrose hypothesizes that quantum mechanics plays an essential role in the understanding of human consciousness, specifically that microtubules within neurons provide the brain with the hardware necessary to perform quantum computation and therefore that the collapse of the quantum wavefunction plays an important role in brain function.

Not everyone agrees with him.  I don’t know if I will ten years from now as I learn more.  But still, it’s a fascinating idea, and I’m going to go with it and see where it takes me.  With my current level of knowledge, his perspective sounds very plausible.

What possibly could be more fascinating than this?  How can someone NOT be interested in Physics?  In mathematics and logic?  How can you not be interested in neuroscience or biology?  You’d have to be completely dull-witted to not care about this stuff.  This is everything.

We live in a universe where every single possibility has always existed, and those possibilities are likely infinite.  I just can barely sit still.

Of course, when I look around me, it’s hard to believe that the fundamental laws behind this universe allow for literally anything.  Any possible reality.  There is nothing absolute about pain, suffering, disease, or any of it.  There’s nothing in the laws of nature which state that these things have to exist or that we have to experience them (at least, not in as heavy doses as this world seems to dish out).  Once removed, there’s infinite possible realities without all the suffering or pain.  There’s no need for a heaven.  Infinite heavens have always existed.  Infinite hells have all existed as well.

I think this sort of thinking was running through Dr. Mlodinow’s head when he was interviewed by Larry King to promote the new book.  King kept asking him questions about how he felt about the universe and these conclusions.  Mlodinow’s kept replying, “I don’t think how I feel about it really matters.”  When you understand this stuff, you don’t interpret these truths by emotional feelings.  Religion is all about how things make you feel.  This sort of truth is deeper than your emotions because it tells you how your very emotions work in your brain.

Your brain is so keen to give you misconceptions of this reality.  We all seek happiness and joy and we even judge the quality of our universe by how our brain tells us to feel about our environment.  What causes these feelings?  It’s all the reward chemicals in the brain, which are set to fire off at various times in and in various situations.  They’re intended to direct you toward actions which keep you alive.  But the thing is, there’s no absolute wiring as to what can or cannot make you happy.  Anything can make you happy, and anything can make you unhappy!  There’s no intrinsic beauty to anything.  It’s all based on the wiring of your brain and how it’s designed to interpret inputs it receives.

We find landscapes and starry skies beautiful because we evolved under those conditions!  If we evolved as some other form of creature, on another planet, we’d find that landscape beautiful.  Maybe we’d see a hot sea of lava, and as we skimmed across the surface of a hot basalt rock, we’d look down and say, “Isn’t this rock so warm and wonderful?  This is paradise.”  Consciousness and nervous systems in brain-like structures are likely capable of giving far more experiences than we’ve ever even comprehended or thought about.

The combination of biology and physics leads to such an amazing worldview on life.  It’s just incredible.  When I look around me, seeing people burning Korans, praying to deities, and arguing about stupid nonsense, I just want to grab them and say, “No no.  You have it all wrong!  Look at this!  It’s so much deeper and far more amazing!”

Thinking about that makes me warm and fuzzy inside.  I think our consciousness arises naturally through physical processes forming various structures which support it.  If that’s the case, then nothing can ever be taken away from us.  We’ll always have everything.  We’ve always had everything.  It may well be that even if you don’t experience something this go around, there’s always another time.

This sort of thinking is certainly spiritual.  Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativity leads to a oneness to everything which you just can’t get anywhere else.  Spiritual and religious books are just cheap imitations.  When you understand the core physical laws behind our universe, and see how they operate, you’re just left in awe.  You can’t help but see everything differently.

I was reading some material by David Bohm, the famed quantum physicist, here recently.  He attributed a great deal of the evils of our world on a misunderstanding of the fundamental connection between all things.  Talking about the misunderstanding of thinking of nature in terms of sharp, point-like, individual particles,

The notion that all these fragments is separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today. Thus, as is now well known, this way of life has brought about pollution, destruction of the balance of nature, over-population, world-wide economic and political disorder and the creation of an overall environment that is neither physically nor mentally healthy for most of the people who live in it. Individually there has developed a widespread feeling of helplessness and despair, in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming mass of disparate social forces, going beyond the control and even the comprehension of the human beings who are caught up in it.
– David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980

As we change how we think about this world, and as these ideas begin to become incorporated into mainstream thinking, there’s going to be a lot of changes.  I know this sounds cheesy, but we’re going to realize these connections between all of us and to everything else.  We’re going to have to structure our society and way of life around connectivity and interoperability.  Everything has to flow and work together.

I think understanding this sort of thing makes you think in terms of “us”, not “I”.  Our worldviews these days are FAR too individualistic.  When I drive around, every person’s house is their own little world.  We don’t see the interconnections between us and our neighbors.  Yet those connections are there, nonetheless.  Everything is connected.  Our actions affect not only our neighbors and coworkers, but all the other species living around us as well.

Every animal you see flying around, such as the birds and the bees, they’re just as live as we are.  They’re not lifeless robots.  They have consciousness.  They see and feel.  They’re experiencing reality, just like we are.  We don’t think of integrating with them though.  We don’t think of what we’re doing to them.  We don’t think of what our lifestyles do to the planet and the ecosystem.

The thing is, we’re new to the whole civilization thing.  We’ve never been powerful enough to have enough of an impact on the planet to make any difference.  We’ve never had to worry about these things.  It’s becoming more and more apparent though that we’re going to have to go through a major shift in our thinking about everything if we’re going to survive the next thousand years, or even few centuries.

Topics: Philosophy, Physics | 5 Comments »

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