Grappling With the Absurd

By Will Baker


Here in Vermont it’s an unusually warm autumn day. Snow has fallen in the mountains where the leaves are already gone but with the temperature in the valley moderating some we are being provided with a brief respite from autumn’s steady march towards winter. What a beautiful place and time for contemplation.

And speaking of time, I have spent a good bit of my life thinking about it. One of my projects concerns Arthur Eddington’s so-called Arrow of Time, time’s directional property. Among other things my specific line of inquiry deals with the mathematical inconsistency regarding our treatment of time. To state it simply, the math treats time as if it were symmetric, however our existential experience suggests otherwise—that time is in fact asymmetric (i.e. once mixed we can not separate the milk from our coffee). In addition, when one attempts to use Quantum Physics in conjunction with Relativistic Physics, with each purporting to have universal laws, the mathematical output seems like gibberish. Why does it appear that Quantum and Relativistic physics are like oil and water (they appear not to mix) and is this dynamic at all time related? And lastly, based on what we know it appears that the beginning of time is associated with the Big Bang but what conditions existed prior to the event that resulted in Time’s directional properties?

Boy, a bit of heavy topic for such a pretty day but as I watch the leaves fall gently to the ground outside my window, it seems to me that any understanding which we might have of the Quantum principles at play regarding the stuff the leaves are made of or of the Classical and Relativistic principles of physics associated with their journey to the ground makes them no less beautiful. No, perhaps the arguments of folks like Camus aside this understanding might even make them more so.

But back to time: It’s sad to say that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has ridden his arrow of time to what appears to be its conclusion. The man died this week and I for one will miss him. The passing of this post modernist, this cutting-edge deconstructionist has left me feeling quite strange. It is true that the man seemed to be influenced more by the likes of Nietzsche than Sartre but I can’t help but believe that Derrida was attempting to develop to his maximum ability what Sartre would refer to as his Essence. And living in Bad Faith he was not. When asked to describe his philosophy (that of deconstruction) Derrida replied that it is "a certain experience of the impossible." I would argue that many of the greatest achievements of humankind had this trait.

And what a grand project: seeking answers in the context of the impossible. Here’s to setting our sights high and attempting to shoot straight. Here’s to an experience of the impossible, the type of actuality that makes us feel more human and seems to ultimately advance humankind. Even if this involves doing physics and philosophy while watching the leaves fall, here’s to wonder.

In "The Fabric of the Cosmos," the physicist/philosopher Brian Greene articulated an interesting metaphor on perspective concerning the relationship of a spectator observing a twirling figure skater to that of an ant sitting upon the skate of the skater. To the ant the arena would seem to be spinning about, yet to the spectator the skater would seem to be spinning. This begs the question, which perspective on motion is more genuine or do they both have a sort of equal value? Although Greene comes solidly down on the side of Newton (as amended by Einstein) I would argue that Leibnitz, who argued that only relative motion between material objects has meaning, had it at least partially correct. For although I do not agree with Leibnitz’s assertion that the idea of space(time) is a construct it seems to me that so long as the ant and the spectator have cognition both the ant and the spectator are deriving existential value from the experience. Of course, as Newton’s famous spinning bucket experiment, which sought to prove the existence of space as a thing and not as a construct attempted to demonstrate, the test of genuine perspective would be if the arms of the twirling skater were being forced outward by centrifugal force. For if they were, then it could be convincingly argued that since it was the skater who was in fact spinning, and not the skating arena, the perspective of the ant would be more genuine, or more Prime than that of the spectator.

But back to the problem with time’s arrow – one main reason why I am so curious as to the properties of time, specifically the so-called Arrow of Time is that if my understanding of physics is correct, it could be argued that time’s directionality is a sort of common thread that leads to questions that lead to questions concerning what occurred prior to the so-called singularity where the math breaks down. But what if there is a valid reason for this fracturing?

What if we stretch Greene’s metaphor on motion so that it relates to reality itself and view the ant and the spectator as existing in two different realities such that the Ant’s is Prime and the Spectator’s is non-Prime. Is it possible that were the spectator in the arena, who in Greene’s metaphor was not experiencing centrifugal force (and is therefore not experiencing what Newton would argue is a more Genuine Perspective on motion, what I am referring to as non-Prime Mathematical Reality) to "do the math" the outputs would be as equally absurd as when from our perspective we seek to do math around the Big Bang. Yet if the ant were to run the numbers (from the perspective of Prime Mathematical Reality) the math made sense. And what if from this Prime Perspective Quantum and Relativistic Physics got along better than has been our experience?

To state the thing simply, is it possible that the reason why our math sometimes breaks down is that we are doing it in the context of a non-Prime reality where spacetime itself is Prime but our mathematical perspective is not, and is this theoretical phenomenon time related? And if this were so, what would the implications be? Is our non-Prime mathematical perspective subject to adjustment and would an understanding of this reality hold meaning for us?

Yes, here’s to grappling with the absurd, here’s to struggling with the impossible. For it seems to me that at the very least, even if we are merely spectators, by virtue of our performance we are actors also.



 (Essay Collection)




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