Friday, August 21, 2009

John von Neumann and the creation of the Universe


Once upon a time, about twenty years ago, I took a year off from teaching and traveled the country looking into some of our best depositories of knowledge. I was looking for information about unidentified flying objects ( I'll tell you about that later. It's a good story and a true mystery. Almost every sensible thing that you've heard about "them" is true, and can be read directly off the government and scientific documents.) During that year, I visited the Smithsonian Institution, the American Philosophical Library, Harvard, The University of Colorado, and even Dr. J. Allen Hynek's Center for UFO studies. It was fun and wildly interesting. You never knew what sort of new wonder would be revealed when you turned the next page. --------------------------------------------- At one point I found myself in the archives of the California Institute of Technology reading the files of Howard P. Robertson (the gentleman on the right hand side of the picture on the left above; his companion is the famous nay-sayer to UFOs, Dr. Edward Condon, plus half of the great physicist, Eugene Wigner, of the Manhattan Project). Dr. Robertson was, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the chief science advisor of the CIA. He was a good Company man, and left little in his files of a sensitive nature. Still, there were plenty of "fingerprints" relating to involvements with the CIA, Allied European Defense, UFOs, and a nest of murky subjects, including the Hydrogen bomb. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------
Turning over one page, there was a picture of three men. Now, all persons are important, but on some criteria these were some of the most important people of the 20th century. The first of them was Niels Bohr (his picture is on the upper right). Bohr is usually considered to be the father of Quantum Theory. QM is too tough a subject to go into here, but we should know a "little" about it. Bohr and the quantum physicists say that, at the most fundamental level of physical reality, there is an "indeterminism"---that it's not an iron-clad sure thing that something on this smallest scale is going to be exactly "this" or exactly "that". There's a "fuzziness" down at that level. It's a very big deal. That indeterminism, that fuzziness, is what allows the possibility of Freedom--a non-forced "choice" of alternatives--to enter our Universe. Einstein absolutely hated this as part of physics, but Bohr was the one who was right. The QM physicists talk about this fuzziness becoming concrete reality once the indeterminate state is "observed". "Observation", in their lingo, "collapses the Wave Function" (the state of reality wherein two options are still possible) and then one State-of-Being will manifest. The choice will be made. Scientists living in conservative, small "boxes" are either completely boggled by this, or they invent preposterous concepts that would make Mediaevalists dancing on the heads of pins proud. They fail to cope with the consequences of QM because they are scared to death of allowing the spiritual--consciousness--to have anything to do with this. But "observership" is screaming for consciousness to play the leading role.----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The second person in the picture was Edward Teller. Teller was the father of the Hydrogen bomb. (his picture is at the lower left). Teller was a brilliant scientist and nearly crazy-paranoid about the Soviets. Maybe he had a point, maybe he didn't; you can make up your own mind. One of his ideas at least was none too sound. Teller wanted to make a bomb so powerful that if you mounted it in near-Earth orbit and set it off, it would sterilize half the planet. Yep, he actually proposed that. Our Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time deserve high credit for informing him that this was not a project that they saw any function for whatsoever and he'd get no support from the military on it. In the picture that inspired these remarks, Teller was sitting between Bohr and von Neumann, with one of his fiery wild-animal looks on his face, and both Bohr and von Neumann had looks of sadness. The thought that came to mind was: "One of these men wants to build a bomb that can destroy half the world, and the other two know he can do it". -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The third man in the picture was John von Neumann. Contemporaries and colleagues thought that von Neumann was the smartest man in the world. Period. Not excepting Einstein, or the other two in the photo. Very early, von Neumann had an intuition. He understood, as much as anyone, what Quantum Mechanics was saying and was contemplating the fundamentalness of Observership. Von Neumann, unlike most of the others, was a religious and spiritual man. To him the solution to much of this was obvious. "In the Beginning" working with only the disorganized chaos of what physicists today would call the dynamic roiling sea of mini-black holes (what the ancients called the "Primordial Chaos"), some Prime Observer observed and organized The Creation. Put another way, GOD collapsed the Wave Function. And in all the "infinite" ways that hidden collapsings have happened since, the Prime Observer, the First Consciousness, has been maintaining the stability of the Universe through the Original Laws (which Science studies) ever since. Of course, it takes a spiritual man to stomach this, let alone come up with the idea. Most scientists are horrified, even though the thought "solves" in some way how the Original Act that produced our Universe took place, and the utilization of that idea in no way is incompatible with studying everything that resulted from it (that is, one can still do all the "science" one wants). For von Neumann, Spirituality, GOD, Freedom, and a strong role for Consciousness were not incompatible with scientific fact nor discovery. They are not for me either, and I thank our brilliant Earth-traveller for giving me one more reason for believing so.

1 comment:

  1. For what it's worth, this is the conclusion to which I have come, too, and when I hear binary arguments as if creation/created are mutually exclusive, my mind boggles. The study of everything that is includes but is not limited to scientific investigation. The gap that can not be bridged between everything that is and how and why if there is a why it began is not currently subject to scientific investigation.

    It is subject however to inference and likelihood.

    The universe does seem designed to become conscious, and the existence of consciousness is a prerequisite for how the universe seems to have come about.

    The evolution of consciousness and the expansion of consciousness throughout spacetime until all "apertures" for consciousness, i.e. all sentient life, somehow hook up ... this is a teleology worthy of conceptualizing. I tried to do so in my short story "Species, Lost in Apple-eating Time" and the language in the story breaks as it tries to express the inexpressible.

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