Uncertainty and Action
Richard Feynman expands on the Heisenberg principle in his excellent lectures. We know that on a quantum level, the variance of momentum multiplied by position, has to be larger than a constant — i.e. we cannot measure one, without the expense of the other.
Feynman points out that the key here is measure. By what means can we find out a particle’s speed? There is a “minimum level” of measuring action which will bring a set disruption to the particle and change its position. The same rule applies, as he explained in a Cornell lecture, such that a particle-wave dualism becomes disrupted, if we shine a ray of light — i.e. electrons exhibiting wave-like patterns, will suddenly change into orderly, formed discretized objects following our intuition of Newtonian mechanics.
Now there’s even more at play here. What is intuition? Is it a knowledge frame which we are born with, and reinforce throughout history as we observe phenomena, and continuously fit observations into our frameworks? That is how scientific discovery has progressed in the past 200 years. The best physics are ones with the fewest contradictions. But physicists are still at work, as per J R Oppenheimer, precisely because of a “complementarianism,” that any physics theory a dark complementary set which is an exception. General relativity breaks down in quantum mechanics. Einstein died writing his unfinished magum opus, a unifying theory of everything.
Perhaps, as Richard Feynman suggests, it is our logic that needs a re-work. We cannot know “a priori,” for example, that the cat is either dead or alive in the box. Because knowing will change reality. Perhaps the act of knowing, measuring, is the other side of reality.
“Phenomenon, is only phenomenon as we observe it,” said Feynman.
“There is nothing more fickle than the masses, nothing more impenetrable than the people’s wishes, and nothing more likely to baffle expectations than the entire system of voting.” Historian Tom Holland has observed, that even during the early hundreds BC we can never know what great peoples will do asa whole. Prediction is always self-defeating. This eerily resembles today, as we triumphantly tout our instruments of reason and precision, and which we confidently apply to the elusive art to track down the ultimate prize, the future herself.
But in fact, prediction alters reality.
There’s a certain slippery nature of the human not unlike grabbing a live, slimy fish, that the harder you clasp, the further it will slip away. One can always argue, that our perceived reality is always but partial, and never reflective of the full reality, the objective truth. But that is quite precisely where the Feynman’s micro and history’s macro worlds meet.
What is the full reality? Does it exist? Does thinking this way hamper our progression of knowledge, conscious and humility? In the quantum world, Feynman would argue that objective truth does not exist; instead of relating the world to a subjective-versus-objective basis, it may be more helpful to realize the strict inseparability of truth and decisions, of fact and measurement — that instead of using our the enlightened, causal models to link the two, as a one-way street, sometimes it also makes sense to think of them as a totality. By taking an action or making a prediction, we alter the truth herself.
What if by attempted “knowing,” by studies and measurement, we alter the “facts” as we know them? Were there facts as such to begin with, if nothing could be evaluated objectively? Such arguments can always be applied to history, penned by a few men, but now it generalizes to science. Perhaps facts and action are the two sides of the same coin, of which we call reality.
As Oppenheimer aptly puts it, “…when you put a bone in front of a dog, he suddenly ignores his surroundings.”
Perhaps the risk as we dive ever deep into our research and knowledge base, is what we leave behind, fashioned by our interest and the wirings of our brain. There’s no changing that. In the end, if every step of progress is meticulous, we may end up building a diamond structure, where simple elements of carbon is formed into the most intricate, indestructible matter, despite the large gaps in between the connecting nodes; but the risk is, if we end up with anything other than the diamond — when the gaps in turn can swallow up our entire structure and a building project of ages.
The beauty of the entire human project, perhaps, is that a house of diamond, is really a single step away from a house of cards.