Beyond the Unknown

Against the Cosmic Computer

A computer cosmos will never explain quantum physics.

Progress in physics often comes about by discarding the bias that humans are at the centre of everything, the most obvious example being the repositioning of our planet from the centre of the universe. But might there still be such anthropocentrism lurking in our best models of reality? Experience and instinct make it natural to have such biases; the difficulty is recognizing them and finding a more objective vantage point from which to evaluate them. And there is one particular bias that has resisted this evaluation for far too long. We have grown accustomed to the idea that there is no centre of the universe. The space to our left is no different from the space to our right. But our instincts balk when this comparison shifts from space to time. Our immediate future seems somehow different to our immediate past.

We can fight these instincts with careful logic, realizing there is nothing special about "now", because every time we have ever experienced seemed like "now" at the time. The importance of putting the past and future on an equal footing is particularly clear in Einstein's general theory of relativity. But these arguments still seem instinctively wrong. After all, we don't know the future, and we can't act to change the past. Our human condition has given rise to an anthropocentric bias when it comes to time. Many physicists will tell you that we have purged this bias along with the others. But even though we have moved well beyond Newtonian physics, we haven't yet moved beyond the Newtonian schema. The universe, we almost can't help but imagine, is some cosmic computer that generates the future from the past via some master "software" (the laws of physics) and some special initial input (the big bang).

Note that this is very different from the claim that the universe is a computer simulation. After 400 years of solving physics problems in this way, it's only natural that we have incorporated this schema into our world view. This is the case even when it backs us into an impossible corner, as when we try to use it to explain quantum phenomena. The key point is that Newton's schema naturally arose from our human experience of time, and it is arguably out of sync with what we have discovered since. The notion of the cosmic computer is itself an anthropocentric bias. This doesn't mean that it's wrong, but it does mean that it should be evaluated from an unbiased vantage point. This evaluation has not yet occurred. That could soon change. It may be surprising to hear that there is already a wildly different alternative to Newton's 3-step schema.


The "Lagrangian" approach, largely laid out in 1788 by the mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, turns out to be of crucial importance to both relativity and quantum theory.


Kemo D. 7

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