we're coming over. get away.

Flames of the unknown

In Philosophy, Science on July 27, 2009 at 9:14 pm

It is said that there are two realms: that which we can observe, and that which we cannot.  These realms are constantly in flux around us as we turn corners, open drawers, discover new methods of self-annihilation, etc.  Much like the edge of the Mandelbrot set, the border between that which is known and that which is unknown is the most turbulent.  It is a beach packed with tide pools where lies vast kinetic energy, as the waves of the Unknown continually and dynamically wash over us.  It is in these zones that we both obsess and fear, for they are infinitely complex and tangled.

One such tide pool is the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat.  It is both alive and dead at once, inside its box, existing between both quantum states.  It exists; and it surely knows if it is alive–yet we, as outside observers, do not know.  We cannot know until we look into the box.  Until then, the cat is a ghost–neither alive nor dead.  And having put the cat there in the first place, we have created the paradox.  And the cat is surely conscious up until its demise.  Does it know that it has become a ghost?  Does it know when it had become a ghost?  Surely it does not, for it is intrinsically observing its own closed system.  But what of its dreams?

Even before Schrödinger, we have asked the question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”  Yet, that isn’t really a paradox at all.  It is simply a scene constructed to play on our anxieties.  “What if we’re wrong?  What if sound does not exist?  What if sound is just in our minds?”  But we have learned much over time, and science defines sound as vibration whether we are there to hear it or not.  Obviously, the tree vibrates as it falls.  So, let’s ask a more interesting question, “If a tree has a 50% chance of falling and no one is there to see it, has it fallen?” 

There is no answer, for it is a paradox.  The trees within the forest are both fallen and unfallen. 

We are amazingly resilient to paradox and infinite recursion, as shown by attempts to create artificial intelligence.  Computer programmers are still in constant fear that their creations will encounter divide by zero errors, or infinite loops.  The programs fail when those conditions occur.  But we as people are able to deal with those situations just fine.  “This sentence is ungrammatical.”  Fine.  The cat is alive and dead.  Okay.  What is 300 divided by 0?  Eh, maybe it’s just 0, or maybe it’s 300, or maybe it’s infinity, or maybe it’s a stupid question so let’s all  just go back to sleep.

But how long does our resiliency last against a constant barrage of the Unknown?  A meteor hasn’t struck the earth yet, but will it tomorrow?  Or the next day?  Or will a nuclear blast go off in our city before it hits?  Or will we fall off the side of the Earth if we sail too far?  Or will my spear protect me from the charging mammoth?  Or will the Sun even rise again tomorrow?  Am I alive?  It seems our collective impulse, when posed those questions day after day after day, is to manage our anxiety using the quickest method possible: delusion.

Both scientifically and religiously, we delude ourselves.  Every morning, we wake up on fire, and our solution is to roll over, go back to sleep, and let the flames engulf us, as we dream.

But we cannot make the Unknown go away.  Sure, we can learn and learn and learn, but there will always be more to learn.  The Unknown walks among us.  It is Us.  We try to flush it out and burn it at the stake.  We put satellites around the globe to monitor it.  We pray for divine knowledge about it.  We carefully observe anti-particles pop in and out of it.  We keep gas masks and duct tape under the bed to protect us from it.  We measure the emissions from the poles of black holes to guess what’s inside it.  We learn how to go without eating for days to endure it.  We learn to walk barefoot across coals to harness it.  We learn to speed read to combat it. 

But the Unknown is a force that cannot be quenched.  It can never, ever be fully destroyed or ignored or discovered.  On that fateful day, when Gödel published his paper, we opened Pandora’s Box, peered inside, and the contents were given form.  As we fainted and passed into a collective dream, the Unknown flared forth, filling the skies with fire and embracing us with its tendrils of flame.

With dread, we remain as sleeping ghosts.  But our universe, too, is a Schrödinger box.  One day the lid shall surely fling open and an overseer shall peer inside to observe us.  It will be at that fleeting moment that we shall discover if we were not dreaming at all–but were, in fact, always dead. 

Or not.  No one really knows anyway.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: