by Ted Dace
(Swans - October 6, 2008) As a small child, I cultivated a galaxy's worth of complex, interwoven, imaginary adventures. Mom was a thousand miles away, and Dad only occasionally popped out of his bottle of gin to alternately lecture and terrorize my brother and me. In my fantasy world, I was not only a superhero but a remarkably human-like robot, and I spent hours drawing the circuits and gears and various gizmos that made up my insides. At one point, before my dad threw it away, I had a life-size portrait of my technological interior taped to the wall of my room.
Nothing could touch me.
Years later, at the age of 15, I was pacing around in the carport one day after school trying to untangle the web of contradictory beliefs my father had instilled in me. On the one hand, Dad taught that there's nothing more important than our freedom. On the other hand, he said all our thoughts and actions are determined by our genes and ultimately by unalterable laws of physics. He argued that the greatest evil in the world was communism because it opposed freedom, but also that we were utterly powerless to stop the red menace from crushing the free world. Fate, he called it, his eyes fixed on some faraway, all-consuming power.
I managed to appease my inner voice with the proposition that it didn't matter if the commies took over because there's no such thing as freedom anyway. It's all fate, predetermined, a passive product of arbitrary design. It was determined that on this afternoon I would walk in circles around the oil stain where the car was usually parked while my next-door neighbor practiced his punting skills in the field across the street. Some puppets are made of fabric; others are made of meat.
Or so I believed.
The question of freedom boils down to the question of time. As philosopher Henri Bergson said, "Time prevents everything from being given at once." As long as there is time, there is possibility. Bergson once got into an impromptu debate with Albert Einstein, who claimed that time has no intrinsic reality but is only a different kind of space, already laid out from end to end. Look, over there, it's the future. You see? Everything has already happened. It's only due to our limited vision that we can't make out any details in the particular region we call the future.
Einstein famously summed up his view of time in a letter to a colleague. "For us convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, although a persistent one."
An odd statement, to be sure. It's as if Einstein didn't really believe his own assertion and felt compelled to undermine it with those last four words. Persistence implies the flow of time and therefore the distinction between past, present and future. He may as well have said, "Persistence is an illusion, although a persistent one."
In 1949, Kurt Gödel offered up a cosmological model with no temporal flow, no built-in direction of time, which consequently allowed for travel to the past. Einstein, who had helped inspire Gödel's model, dismissed it with the observation that he didn't think he could "telegraph back to his own past." Instead of astonished praise, Gödel got the brush off but also a very useful piece of advice: have another look at the mysterious phenomenon of irreversibility.
The trouble with time goes back to Galileo and Newton, who incorporated it into their equations at the cost of neutering it. Like any other figure in an equation, the t of time can be preceded by a minus sign. Thus the time of physics is reversible, flowing backward as readily as forward. So long as t is positive, Newton's deterministic equations of motion can be utilized to predict the outcome of a given situation. Where t is negative, the equations allow us to "retrodict" whatever preceded that situation.
For centuries the object of physics was to step outside the flow of time in order to capture the essence of reality, the eternal laws that determine every facet of physical existence regardless of when or where. For Newton and his contemporaries, the idea was to storm the mind of God with the tools of mathematics, retrieving the principles by which the universe had been crafted. This attitude remained in place right down to Einstein and Schrödinger. Not only relativity but quantum theory is composed entirely of deterministic, time-reversible equations.
But something funny happened on the way to perfect knowledge.
The trouble with perfection goes back to Clausius and Boltzmann, who discovered and explained entropy, the irreversible increase of disorder in isolated systems. Rudolf Clausius introduced the arrow of time to physics in 1865, only six years after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Indeed, "entropy" is roughly the Greek equivalent of the Latin "evolution," both terms implying a fundamental difference between past and future.
Like Clausius, Ludwig Boltzmann was a physicist, but his key insight came from Darwin. Though individuals adapt, what actually evolves is the species to which they belong. According to Boltzmann's statistical mechanics, a gas behaves predictably as a whole despite the random motion of the molecules comprising it. Regardless of its initial state, over time the gas becomes completely disordered. Like evolution, entropy plays out among populations, not individuals.
Mathematician Roger Penrose, author of The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, illustrates the dilemma for theorists well aware that the fundamental laws leave no room for irreversible processes. Penrose is downright irked at entropy for daring to imply, in the midst of all this beautiful two-way deterministic math, that time has a single direction. "What we seem to have deduced is a time-asymmetric law when the underlying physics [is] symmetrical in time."
Physics reduces the present, the now of living experience, to a mathematical figure: t-zero. Starting at t-zero, the future begins with t-one and carries on through t-two, t-three, etc., while the past starts with t-minus one and proceeds to t-minus two, t-minus three, etc. Time symmetry demands that if entropy yields increasing disorder as we project into the future, it must do the same as we project into the past. But as we pass through t-minus one, t-minus two, and so on, we find that disorder drops. "What has gone wrong?" asks Penrose.
The answer, of course, is that the quest for timeless principles necessarily produces a warped view of time itself. There's no cosmic law of symmetry that says forward time must somehow be canceled out by its polar opposite. Time is a one-way street, and it was only a matter of you-know-what before physicists were confronted with this inescapable fact.
Let's say you've got a snapshot of a football midair, and along with its location you also have its mass and velocity. By projecting forward in time, you can predict where the football will land. By projecting backward, you can retrodict how hard and in what direction it was kicked in the first place. But this is just a handy methodology, not a principle of nature. That we can calculate what preceded the present moment doesn't mean time is literally reversible.
But you'd never know that studying standard physics. Famed theorist Richard Feynman is said to have believed that if the location of a particle goes forward in time its momentum must go backward. According to Penrose, Feynman conceded that particles do indeed move forward in time but that their complementary "antiparticles" are stuck in reverse.
In his 1996 offering, The End of Certainty, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine established beyond any doubt that the timeless, deterministic universe is history. Prigogine studied thermodynamics at the Free University of Brussels under the tutelage of Theophile De Donder. Unlike most physicists, De Donder didn't try to explain away irreversibility as a mere artifact of approximate, statistical measurements. As a result, he met with great hostility from many of his fellow scientists. Prigogine himself was repeatedly told that irreversible processes are merely "transient phenomena" and therefore unworthy of scientific investigation.
Yet we ourselves are transient phenomena. Irreversible processes are implicated in every aspect of our world, from sunlight to weather to oil stains on pavement to the inner workings of our own bodies. Irreversibility is associated with evolution as much as entropy, with the increase of order in open systems as much as its decrease in closed systems. In reality, says Prigogine, "irreversible processes are the rule and reversible processes the exception. Reversible processes correspond to idealizations: we have to ignore the friction to make the pendulum move reversibly."
Newton's approach works beautifully when applied to a pair of objects -- say, the sun and the earth, but try adding anything more, and it's dicey at best. Where three or more objects are related in their motion, such as sun, earth and moon, the equations break down. This is known as the three-body problem.
Around the turn of the 20th century, mathematician Jules-Henri Poincaré described this problem in terms of "resonances." In multi-body systems, trajectories become coupled with each other in exactly the same way that sounds become harmonically coupled in musical notes. Whether in terms of dynamics or acoustics, resonances cannot be pinpointed to exact locations in space or time. When confronted by these pesky couplings, scientists are no longer able to compute the motion of a given system in terms of the trajectories of its individual components. Everything gets mashed up, and none of it yields to the probing eye of physics. Unable to reduce systems to deterministic trajectories, researchers must resort to probabilistic analysis, a.k.a., statistics.
Most physicists are perfectly happy to sacrifice freedom at the altar of certainty. But Prigogine welcomed resonances. And why not? Where deterministic equations fail, possibilities erupt.
Poincaré resonances are like army ants that systematically eat away at the fabric of determinism and leave great blotches of instability in their wake. The new dynamic is fitful and imbalanced, out of equilibrium with the environment, oblivious to the deterministic principles to which physically correct systems conform. Eventually, our unhinged system hits a "bifurcation point" and either collapses or enters into a higher level of organization. There's no way of knowing what path an unstable system will choose when it reaches bifurcation.
Resonance-driven instability leads to a host of novel phenomena, including vortex formation, synchronized chemical oscillations, and laser light. In a word, it leads to coherence. Matter, says Prigogine, takes on new properties in the context of instability, becoming active and organized where otherwise passive and blind. This is the kind of materialism Darwin was reaching for, a materialism that allows for creativity to bubble up from the brains of adaptive organisms, in contrast to the sterile and abstract genetic reductionism preferred by his successors.
As organisms we are self-organized, coherent systems residing far from the passive equilibrium of the deterministic world. Our distance from equilibrium is proportional to our freedom. To revert to equilibrium is to be enslaved to physics, i.e., dead.
Five years ago, the "commies" finally came for my dad, escorting him to that great police state in the sky. But Dad's freedom had already long since been lost. In the timeless, lifeless womb of certainty, nothing will ever touch you.
If you find our work useful and appreciate its quality, please consider making aMoney is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.