Monday, December 8, 2014

The Zero Theorem

Last entry we talked about psychobiologist and author David Jay Brown, who gave my approach to visualizing the dimensions a very positive mention in his recent textbook The New Science of Psychedelics. This time we're going to talk about a film released this year by Terry Gilliam, who regular readers of the blog will know I'm a huge fan of, and who I had the chance to work with when one of his stranger films, Tideland, was shot here in Saskatchewan in 2006*. Terry's new film, The Zero Theorem, is rooted in a mystery I've talked about many times with this project. Here's one of my videos about this concept: Imagining the 'Zeroth' Dimension.

In The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz puts in an electric performance as Qohen Leth, a worker for the mega-corporation Mancom, charged by Management with the dreaded task of proving the Zero Theorem. Here's some dialogue from the film, in which "Bob" (the precocious teenage son of Management) explains to Qohen one version of the solution to the Theorem:

You're trying to prove that the universe is all for nothing.
All matter, all energy, all life, it's just
this one-time-only big bang glitch.
The expanding universe will eventually contract into a 
super-dense black hole. Gravitational forces will be so 
strong that everything will get squeezed into a point of 
zero dimension, and "poof" the center disappears. 
No space, no time, no life, no afterlife, nothing.
Nada, zilch, zip, zero.
Stop! How would anyone believe such a horrible thing?
What's so horrible? I believe it. Nothing's perfect. 
Nothing lasts forever. It's nothing to worry about
if you really think about it.

Near the show's climax, Management appears and explains, in a fashion, why Qohen was assigned the task of proving the Zero Theorem:

Chaos encapsulated. That's all there is at the end,
just as it was at the beginning.
There it is then. You've proved the zero theorem.
Not quite. Mancom is still, as you said, crunching the data.
Why would you want to prove that all is for nothing?
I never said all is for nothing. I'm a businessman,
Mr. Leth. Nothing is for nothing.
There's money in ordering disorder. Chaos pays, Mr. Leth.
Chaos comprises a rich vein of ore that with Mancom's
muscle will be all mine to mine. The saddest aspect of
mankind's need to believe in a God, or to put it another
way, a purpose greater than this life, is that it makes
this life meaningless.

A harsh conclusion? You bet, and this takes us back to another point I mentioned last time: there is a certain mindset which teaches that anyone who believes in free will is being tricked by the chemistry of their body into believing they have control, when in reality every outcome is inevitable. Looking back at our lives, do we see any evidence of multiple outcomes, of cats that are both alive and dead? No, there is only one reality, one possible version set in motion at the beginning of the universe and continuing inexorably to the end.

The counterpoint to that idea, for me, has always been contained within the fifth dimension - the dimension at "right angles" to our 4D space-time, where the multiple outcomes of Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics have room to co-exist. As I mentioned a couple of entries ago, the fact that Christopher Nolan's new film Interstellar also embraces the idea of a fifth spatial dimension (with the approval and support of a mainstream physicist!) is very exciting. 

What's tricky, then, is trying to show that both points of view -- free will vs. the inevitable universe -- are really two ways of viewing the same outcome, the same "enfolded everything" or "ultimate ensemble" that must underlie our reality or any other. Early on in this project I mentioned the fable of the six blind men and the elephant: each touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a very different impression. The blind men in that story, though, have no pre-conceived notion, they are only reporting their findings. The difference in what we're discussing here is that mindset is the key - if you expect to see free will, that's what you see. If you expect to see an inevitable chain of causality and nothing more, then that's the conclusion you will draw. Both are ways of describing exactly the same thing, even though the two camps are unlikely to acknowledge such a heresy.

I believe that Terry Gilliam's film does a masterful job of showing these two viewpoints, and how accepting that there is something unchanging and everlasting from which our universe or any other is derived does allow us a certain peace, regardless of which viewpoint you subscribe to. Please watch The Zero Theorem and see if you agree.

Next entry we'll do a quick review of The Science of Interstellar, the new book written by Kip Thorne, the famed physicist who acted as a technical advisor to Christopher Nolan's challenging film throughout its creation.

Enjoy the journey!

Rob Bryanton

*As I've mentioned before, my son Todd and I co-wrote a song that one of the on-screen characters sang in Tideland. My company, Talking Dog Studios, also was in charge of dubbing all of the daily location recordings from Dolby SR to a digital format.


Unknown said...

Hello! I have a question about 'randomness', and you're the only one I could think to ask! So here goes:

If I were to witness a truly random event (four instance, radioactive decay?), then travel back in time to just to before that moment occurred, would the random event repeat itself?

Thank you!

Rob Bryanton said...

Lovely question! To me, at first the answer seems obvious - if the outcome of an event is random, then each time you "rewind" to view the event there's no guarantee that the same outcome will occur.
But what if that outcome were part of some "hidden variable" that said "at this point in time at this position in the universe, this is the random outcome that will be observed"?
Since none of us have a time machine to implement the experiment you're proposing, both positions can be argued. If I were a betting man, though, I would still put my money on "random really is random", which should mean that there is no guarantee on repeat viewing of a random event that the same outcome will occur.
Thanks for writing!

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