Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Higgs Boson, Fate, and the Future

A Times article, pondering the vicissitudes of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, suggests that the great machine may be "sabotaged by its own future." That is, the energies generated may be so prodigious, and the elusive Higgs boson may be "so abhorrent to nature," that its creation ripples back in time to nullify itself. This could be viewed as a protective reflex on the part of the universe, or for the theologically inclined, God's version of "What part of no do you not understand?"

Maybe the whole article is tongue-in-cheek (which makes it no less interesting for that), but with particle physics apparently it's hard to tell. Yet I can't help but wonder: how is the time-travelling theory any different from the proposed project simply being impossible or contrary to the laws of nature, even if we don't yet understand how? After all, if I jump off of a tall building, flapping my arms vigorously, I will fall to my death. Is the prospect of me flying unaided across the cityscape "so abhorrent to nature" that my hypothetically successful flight travels backward in time to insure that I plunge to my doom instead? This suggests that the universe must (retro)actively cut off all kinds of transitions to metaphysically unacceptable outcomes. But if we can never directly view such outcomes, how is this different from the more prosaic notion of the inviolable laws of nature?


Josh Strike said...

I'm not a physicist, but I've had a theory about this for a long time, and even wrote a novel based on the idea when I was 18, after some long late-night hypothetical discussions with a theoretical physicist who I met on my travels.

I think with your suicide example you are even closer to the truth than Nielsen is; the point is right there, but no one seems to see it.

I think it's not that the particle -- or the flying -- is abhorrent to the universe and thus causes the paradox to wipe itself out. Rather, the collider cannot produce a particle which would destroy the world because on that timeline, we would not be here to observe it. We can only be aware of a timeline on which we are alive. Therefore, you do not jump off the building in the first place; the collider never produces the destructive particle. None of us dies on our own timeline, ever.

My proof for this is that our individual consciousness exists only in an tiny (though infinite) subset of an much larger infinite number of universes; and consciousness is defined by the ability to observe. That which cannot observe is not conscious. The very fact that we are conscious, and can observe aything at all, proves that our experience of consciousness is enclosed in the subset of universes in which it would be possible for us to be conscious. One in which the world was soon destroyed would not be a universe suitable for habitation; so whatever freak occurrences would be necessary for that (you jump off a building and fly; the particle collider eats itself; etc) is what will necessarily happen on your particular timeline. The rest of us will continue along and see you plummet to your death, unless of course your existence were the only way to save our lives, in which case we would see you fly. Because the particle collider represents potential death for everyone, the only thing unusual about it is that we will all likely stay on this timeline and see one freakish accident after another happen which blocks its success.

How sure am I about this? Not sure enough to jump off a building -- or to see that project test it. But I feel about 80% confident.

Novalis said...

Your comment is a great, if mind-boggling thought experiment, and it reminds me of the theory that the laws and quantities of nature (such as the speed of light, etc.) are just as they are because if they were otherwise, the universe would not be such that we would have evolved to be able to observe them. That is, there is no theoretical reason why the speed of light could not be, say, 20 miles per hour, but in a 20 mph universe consciousness would not have evolved.

It also reminds me of Freud's comment somewhere that one can never truly imagine the world without oneself as a conscious part of it; one can do so abstractly, obviously (just as one can imagine all of history before one's birth), but it lacks a certain reality. This in turn raises the solipsistic possibility that the only universe one "truly" knows is bounded by one's own consciousness.

But behaviorism can be a useful counterbalance for solipsism. It brings to mind the joke: what did the behaviorist say to his partner? "It was good for you; how was it for me?"

Consciousness is streaming this morning...

Josh Strike said...

I've thought a lot about your response, because it's occurred to me before that solipsism probably played some role in my willingness to take of this theory -- which started as a thought exercise -- as a working assumption. And it's not much of a justification to say that people believe far weirder and less rational things about the Universe; but to recognize that is not a terrible starting point, either. I do admit it has a lot in common with religion, in that it makes a certain leap beyond the proven, relying only on inference, and results in a sense of comfort for the believer. Having said that, I don't believe it's a wholly solipsistic notion, because it doesn't call into doubt the existence or reality of other persons or the fidelity of their consciousness. It's extremely humanistic, in that each of us is ultimately encapsulated in our own universe over infinite time; but it doesn't preclude our individual universe interfering or intersecting an unlimited number of times with others. And while it means we're each, individually, immortal, it doesn't mean we won't suffer pain or loss, and it probably means we'll all end up extremely old and very, very alone.