Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Past is an Illusion

A direct link to the above video is at http://revver.com/video/1210768/the-past-is-an-illusion/

This separation between past, present and future is only an illusion…
- Albert Einstein

Physicists and philosophers often say it: "time is an illusion". But things change, things move, and it takes “time” for those processes to occur. What are we supposed to be imagining if the distinction between past, present and future is really only a persistent illusion? What we’re talking about here is that our experience of “time” from instant to instant is really just a very narrow view of a much larger picture.

Back in a blog entry called "What Would a Flatlander Really See?", we talked about how a 2D Flatlander's vision would be even more limited than most of us can imagine. One of my sons recently sent me a link to a fun little flash game that asks you to deduce the shapes of objects and letters as they pass through a plane: click here to play that game. This challenging puzzle game is actually giving you a taste of what you would be able to see if you were an imaginary Flatlander living within a 2D plane.

Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation says that we as quantum observers don't "collapse" the wave function of our quantum reality, we merely "observe" it in a particular state at each particular instant. This time around, we're going to talk about the illusions that we fall into as we observe those waves of possibility that are represented within the "now" that is our universe at this very instant, and how this can cause us to miss the potential that those waves really represent. So... here's a question that is often asked: is it possible for a person to predict the future? If so, doesn't that mean the future already exists and our free will is an illusion?

The "hard determinist" viewpoint, which says everything from the big bang to the end of the universe was inevitable and our free will is an illusion, would seem to be supported by the idea that there has been only one path from the big bang to now, so why should there be more than one path from this moment forward?

Likewise, if I pass a 3D object like a rock through a 2D plane, it does indeed appear that what is going to pass through has already been predetermined. Imagining that rock is really 4D since it exists not just within space but within time doesn't seem to make much difference, because a rock is still most likely going to be the same rock with the same shape five minutes, five months, or even five years from now.

We need the 4th dimension for change in the 3rd dimension to occur
But what about passing through a 4D human, capable of moving, dancing around, bending over and touching their toes, and doing all the other things their free will allows them to do? As that 4D person passes through the 2D plane, their shape will be unpredictable, and every time they pass through the plane there will be different 2D cross-sections visible within the second dimension.

Again, if a 2D flatlander were to somehow record the shape changes that had happened for one particular pass through by that free will human, then the flatlander would have a recording that in their minds was a "history" which, once it happened, would not change again, so a 2D flatlander could convince themselves that what had happened was inevitable if that was their chosen mindset. The flash game we started this entry off with, then, is only able to be played because there is no free will movement in the shapes being presented, and the same 2D pattern is presented over and over until you guess correctly.

Many Worlds, Many Branches, Many Histories
The quantum physics answer, promoted by respected experts like John Wheeler and Richard Feynman, is that the past has a certain amount of flexibility just as the future does, and that there are many ways we could have gotten to our current "now". Feynman called it the "sum over paths" or "sum over histories" concept, and Wheeler called it the "self-excited circuit" of quantum observation. This was an idea I talked about in my blog "Boredom and Consciousness Part One", in which I discussed the serious proposition from quantum physicists Lawrence Krauss and James Dent that our 1998 observation of the accelerating expansion of the universe has hastened its end!

This doesn't mean, by the way, that I'm claiming that simply through the act of observing we can make impossible things happen: this was the subject we explored in my blog entry "The Fifth Dimension Isn't Magic". But it does mean that if there are certain things about our history that were not completely locked in, that had elements that were indeterminate, then those things are part of a cloud of possible paths that we could have traveled upon to get to our current "now". Physicists Krauss and Dent are talking about extremely large ideas from cosmology, but this idea also works at a personal level: for each of us, there are many ways that the past could have affected us, and until we irreversibly lock in one path or another, that past can effectively be changed (this idea relates strongly to the surprising scientific proof we've talked about before that we are capable of Changing Our Genes). As I've said before, for persons trapped in repeating patterns of negative behavior this idea can offer a way out: because quantum mechanics tells us there are many paths we could have traveled to get to our current "now", this means the past has a certain amount of flexibility which we can take advantage of.

The "Now" is Real, Everything Else is Probabilistic
In my blog entry "Local Realism Bites the Dust" we talked about the Anton Zeilinger team's experiments in Vienna that demonstrate these ideas as well. Is the past really an illusion? Not completely, and Feynman's sum over histories concept demonstrates the same idea: there are many paths we could have traveled to get to the absolutely real "now" that we are observing from instant to instant. I believe that it's time's arrow and the fourth dimension that convinces us that the past is less than it really is. And with my project, I believe the answer to all of this is in the fifth dimension rather than the fourth: that gives us an easily imagined explanation that allows for the straight and unwavering 4D line of time that supports the hard determinists' view, and lets us imagine within the fifth dimension the more probabilistic future (and past!) that quantum mechanics asks us to visualize for the underlying structures of our reality.

My blog entry "What Would a Linelander Really See" offers further explanations of this way of thinking about time and free will. And all of this is part of thinking about the biggest picture of timelessness where, as Gevin Giorbran so eloquently described it, "Everything is Forever".

To close, here's a video created by Ron Scott for one of the 26 songs from my project, and this is about some of those events in the past that can create irreversible changes in the "now" that each of us is currently witnessing. The song is called "Senseless Violence". A direct link to this video can be found at http://revver.com/video/384964/senseless-violence/

Enjoy the journey,


Next: According to the Omniverse Almanac

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