On Physics and the Imagination

June 29, 2008:

my uncle and I have started a dialogue about – well, just about anything. Angels, Aliens, Physics. I’d like to start out by quoting an excerpt from one of his emails:

“One of my operating assumptions is that the universe is so large that if something could exist, it must exist somewhere in “space-time.” This dry principle then leads me into a reverence for the imagination and those who proved themselves “geniuses” in the realms of imagination.

So, then, does Milton give us insights into how the cosmos operates? I indeed think so.

But even our imaginations are constrained, I think. Here’s a tidbit from a genuinely smart fellow that I regard as a fundamental principle: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” –JBS Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286.

The whole idea of how imagination may play out in the study of such things got me thinking…

Nicholas Humphrey said in an article “What Have You Changed Your Mind About” at the website The Question Center, that “all the facts of the hard problem that we need to solve are already familiar with us – if only we could see them for what they are…change the way we imagine. Step out a little. Gain a wider area of vision.”

The “hard problem” is something I came across in one of my psychology classes, and that is, consciousness. However, I also like to think perhaps this can also translate over into Big Questions, such as: is there intelligent life on other planets; how exactly did we get here – is Big Bang theory correct; is there such as thing as a Unified Theory; will we ever find proof…where can we account for, and what exactly is, the soul?

C. S. Lewis wrote a story in which he tried to explain to someone why one cannot discount the spiritual world: He explained that if you had two pennies in a drawer and then you added one more, how many would there be the next day? Well, according to the laws of arithmetic, you’d have 3 pennies. Okay, but what if a thief stole the money in the middle of the night? Well, you wouldn’t have any at all…but how could you account for this? You did not see the thief. So, does by not having any money the next day go against the laws of arithmetic? No. Because in the case of an unknown, unseen thief, there is something working which is outside the known Law. This does not change the fundamentals of arithmetic, PROVIDED THAT no one tampered with the coins. Miracles, spiritual encounters, etc. do not break the laws of Nature – Laws explain an outcome only if no one interferes.

I thought this was a creative way of trying to account for things that we cannot explain – because there are certain things we cannot explain. And perhaps our limited imaginations do not allow us to comprehend that which in unknown, whatever realm — space, the soul – that may be.

So from where, and why, do we keep on searching? I think it comes down to faith. Scientists have to have faith to continue to hypothesis. Believers have to have faith to believe.

I think it is Faith that feeds the soul — a Universe we know nothing about whose physical reality is without definition. Just like Humphrey was saying, and many debate, where consciousness resides. What are the Laws of the soul? The unexplained bi-products of a country we have yet to explore (much like space), a landscape left to the imagination of children who are capable of glimpsing back into that Universe with clearer eyes than all of us; they have yet to be tainted by the leanings of our Universe, the Laws of our world. Just as Jesus said we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven…perhaps something similar can be said for the universe, and the soul. Maybe it lies in our own imagination.

Alison Gopink said that for human beings, the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room – all was once imaginary. Every one the objects you see started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone’s mind. This is even true of our identity – why am I, who I am now? I am going to be a graduate student because I willed that into action (and some wonderfully encouraging friends); I am independent because I worked toward that independence. I am healthy because I work hard at maintaining that health, etc.

People look too often for outside influences to hold them back, when really it is their responsibility to make things happen for themselves. It is the same thing with religion. People want facts about God when really it is your responsibility to maintain faith. Do you want to believe in God? Good – believe in God. Do you want to believe in the Theory of Relativity? Believe in it. We make it real, and if what turns out to be a dead theory, well. We choose to continue hypothesizing. Want to create a table? Create it. Find the wood, figure out how to cut down the tree and saw it. Construct a reality, but don’t impose it on others. Someone believes in Allah and you believe in Jesus? That’s your spiritual house – you have no ruling over theirs. They worked hard to build their faith. You wouldn’t go around burning your neighbors’ houses, would you? Why would you want everyone on your street to live in the same Tudor style house you built? Why can’t we celebrate differences? Yes, rejoice in kinship, but don’t beat someone’s soul into submission, into mirroring your own. You want to love a man, love a man; you want to love a woman, love a woman. Love is our construct as well.

Now, going back to Alison Goplink. She said: “the two abilities – finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds – are two sides of the same coin. Theories don’t just tell us what’s true – they tell us what’s possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. Science and fiction – the same thing.”

I absolutely love the idea of linking science and the imagination like that. It got me thinking about a discussion I had with my sister back in May. We were talking about how, when we were little, we used to make up personalities for numbers and letters in order to learn them better. I said seven was a pretty girl and five was a teenage boy. She said six had a crush on twelve and that one was very insecure. There were also colors to go with numbers. My mom, sitting behind us on the train, overheard the conversation and jumped in, saying “yeah! And certain colors had certain smells!” My sister and I looked at each other and shook our heads…we didn’t take it THAT far! Haha.

To learn, we create creative ways of retaining knowledge – we still retain that knowledge, but where do those other creations that aided that learning, go (like my sister’s and my own characters, for example)? As in science – energy cannot be lost but re-directed. Where do those creations go? They can’t simply “die.” I believe they redirect into other areas of our life. But is that knowledge that we learned by their hand more important? Is the math more important than these dreamed up characters? Does one retain more value than the other? No. Just as math can work toward such things as quantum theory, so, to, can imaginary beings help solve the mysteries of the soul, and in turn, the universe. Where do the acts of diverging, diverge? In what direction? Where did math come from? Did it not exist before it was explained? In the same line of thought – did God not exist before man (maybe not imagined him, but explained him)? Why is one concept accepted are more real than another?

There’s a quote by Rilke that I came across while starting another blog (which should be posted tomorrow) about people suppressing their passions, and it talks about how if one live and wrote in heat (what Rilke calls sex), then art (and I add, the imagination) would be very grand and infinitely important. But art is not taken seriously; the impulses and imaginations of others sometimes prove odd, unimportant, unnecessary, or simply not falling into societal norms. However, both art and the imagination from which it is born are essential to everyone’s nature as human beings.

It is my thought, then, that we will never be able to discover the workings of our Universe fully if we are not capable of first accepting the nature of our own being. Going back to Humphrey’s idea that all of the questions to the “hard problem” of consciousness are already answered in what we have before us (if only we could learn to see properly), perhaps it is the same with the workings of the Universe. And this is not just the hard facts about what may or may not be out there, but the Truth behind the numerous Possibilities. Is it not that which we crave in our own lives? Is it not that which keeps us moving? Possibility being the roof under which we celebrate life?

I probably will never live to see the complete answers to the workings of the cosmos, but perhaps that’s just the point – perhaps, like my uncle said of the imagination and our own reasoning, more to the point, spiritual eyesight, is constrained. Maybe the form in which we are capable of solving all of the theories is in Spirit, after passing one realm into another. Perhaps, like a far away memory, we already possess all of the answers in some hidden corner of the brain. But like even the most solid theory, there are always possible holes…and that, in and of itself, is essential.

I love this quote from Rilke that I think fits these musings on physics and the imagination: “Do not be bewildered by the surfaces; in the depths all becomes law.”

This concept reminds me of the way in which our brain fills in gaps for us. There are those optical illusions that they showed us in my psychology of consciousness class…where you know there are “gaps” in the lines, but your brain fills them in…I don’t remember exactly what these are called. It also reminds me of the telescope that NASA is trying to develop (or have?)…the fact that they are trying to see if there are other earth-like planets by sort of looking out of the corner of the eye…not trying to see the planet directly, but trying to see the gravitational “waves” that they theoretically would create. (I probably got that wrong). Maybe our own imaginations are the clue to closing those gaps. And maybe we’re already making progress, as long as we keep our minds open.

See, I think too many people are quick to label someone’s idea or theory as “crazy” or “preposterous.” Instead, I think we should acknowledge the sheer creativity of their imaginings and realize that, while their theory may not hold up as a whole, there are, in fact, some elements that may prove helpful in gaining more knowledge in the future. Maybe there is not a higher power of aliens life in space controlling our every move, but the ideas and imagination behind such a concept may reveal building blocks to some other idea or puzzle piece.

Again, I go back to Rilke: “We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it…to have courage for the most strange, the most singular, the most inexplicable that we may encounter. … The experiences that are called “visions,” the whole so-called “spirit-world,” death, all those things are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.”

Behind every imagining is the work of the human brain which has proven time and time again to be the most fundamental element — not only to sheer survival, but the ability to be extraordinary human beings. Now, if only we could allow ourselves to feel, think, and imagine more deeply, without judgment.

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