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March 21, 2013

what makes a philosopher weep

Appropriations posting

At the NYTimes today, Dennis Overbye reports on astounding results released from the European Space Ageny “Planck satellite” team on the nature of our cosmos. The Event is so fascinating! So, Overbye’s off-hand comment that “astronomers [can now] describe the birth of the universe to a precision that would make the philosophers weep” caused me to yield to my enthusiasm by e-mailing a long comment to him, which I’ll share (out of vanity), since he replied “Thanks, I needed that….” (I’m adding links to what I knew he knew about already.)

I’m a philosopher. I’m not going to waste your time with triviality, but let me start by noting that we just can’t conceive Very Large numbers. We see the millimeters on a ruler. But one can’t imagine a billion of those: There are about one billion millimeters between New York and New Haven. Words. And the national debt is about 16.74 trillion dollars. So, what’s one megaparsec? It’s a concept emblemizing a calculative operation whose results are incomprehensible.

“67 kilometers per megaparsec”? What makes Lee Smolin weep, evidently (The Trouble with Physics) is that we probably haven’t evolved far enough to conceive a mathematics capable of modeling, say, that anomaly which makes one half of the cosmic picture warmer than the other. Is it something about the “space” in which those Branes came into contact, causing the Big Bang for this universe—among so many?

We are like the ancient Greeks making up stories in the face of the cosmos we can conceive, mirroring our evolving, ongoing. Edward Witten’s brain ages like all the rest of us. I guess we’ll have to one day genetically engineer Witten brains or stop the aging process for the lucky few.

Wanna know what makes a philosopher weep? Recent results in astronomy have posited that galaxies started forming earlier than previously thought, such that suns have had greatly more time to spawn intelligent life. How intelligent does life get millions of years beyond how far we’ve so far evolved? Their Silence toward we ants surely makes this philosopher anxious.

We say it’s a category error to ask: What does our universe expand into, because it’s the universe that creates space-time into which anything can be conceived to expand. I.e., the concept of expansion is anthropic nonsense. You’ve no doubt seen one of the diagrams of universes emerging from universes like raindrops hooked to raindrops in a branching of universes growing out of universes (bottom of page), as if they’re all growing through Time in somewhere. What are the Branes bumping in?

The philosopher does not weep about cosmic modeling. Along with all the excited physicists, he laughs at the joyous mystery of it all. We’re so brightly alive!

But to be practical a moment: If Dark Matter causes the gelling of galaxies, and a Higgs field gives quanta mass, why isn’t It that Dark Matter just is the Higgs field?

Dark Energy is a dimension perpendicular to space-time itself, among the 11-or-so dimensions (all perpendicular to each other) required for modeling superstrings. So, do the branes “exist” in that multidimensionality that’s immanently (“as” the strings) elusive to our mathematizing of quantum loops, yet is there in the stringing mirrored by the Planck picture? Is the universe expanding in front of us, in the nature of ordinary thereness emergent from the strings [of quanta composing atomic particles composing atoms composing et cetera]? That would be pretty funny.
Overbye adds:
I think what I meant was that the speculations about the origins of the universe have been quantified right out of the traditional philosopher's realm.

There is less speculation and much more measurement, maybe not as much fun.