Death, Light, and Black Holes

And if it is complete lack of perception, like a sleep in which the sleeper beholds no dream, death would be a wonderful advantage...If death is like this, I say it is an advantage: for all time would thus appear to be no more than a single night.

Socrates, Plato's Apology of Socrates, 50c-e, Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus [translated by Harold North Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1914, pp.140-143]; translation modified, with comparison to translation by G.M.A. Grube, Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo [Hackett Publishing Company, 1981, p.43] [note]


And the angel... swore... that time will be no more.

Revelation 10:5-6

We die and become nothing. This, which we can call "annihilationism" (a term, indeed a heresy, in Buddhism), is the hard common sense of the materialist or atheist. The truth of that conviction, however, depends on a few things. It requries that materialism be a correct metaphysical theory. That is questionable, as I have examined at the link. Materialists often flatter themselves that their metaphysical claims are not metaphysics, but just science. They usually don't know either the science, which has gotten very bizarre, or the history of metaphysics, or even what it means -- if they think "Shirley MacClaine" rather than "Aristotle," they are out of their reckoning. Annihilationism also depends on thousands of years of religion and folk belief, in which people have been thought to survive death, being wrong. Proving the validity of religion, however, or any particular religion, requires a lot more than a critique of materialism. That might not be the easiest approach.

On the other hand, there are other philosophical problems with annihilationism. Parmenides argued, in some of the earliest arguments at the earliest stages of Greek philosophy, that the whole concept of "not being" or "nothingness" is not legitimate. Something cannot be or become nothing. The same principle can actually be found in the Bhagavad Gita:  , Nâsato vidyáte bhâvo, nâbhâvo vidyáte satah, "The unreal never is; the Real never is not" [translated by Juan Mascaró, Penguin Books, 1962]. The argument in the Gita, using this principle, is that the warriors killed in battle cannot really be dead. In those terms, the argument in Parmenides is less specific.

But in certain forms, this principle is beyond doubt, and in physics it is called a "conservation" law. Applied to mass or energy, conservation means that, while they can become each other, they cannot become nothing. Other conservation laws in physics, involving charge or spin, for instance, allow annihilation, because charge and spin can be positive or negative, which can add up to zero. Mass and energy are not like that, and even the annihilation of charge or spin (or strangeness, charm, etc.) always still results in the survival of mass and/or energy. We also have the curious feature that there is both "matter" and "anti-matter," which also can mutually annihilate, but again still leaving energy. While anti-matter can be understood as matter with negative energy, or matter going backwards in time, this doesn't change the fundamental results. It seems to be no more than an artifact of the phenomenon of where we put our negation.

Whether our personal existence would benefit from conservation laws, since the conservation of mass sounds like nothing less than materialism, is a good question. To get around it, some think that we would personally survive as energy, rather than mass. But the problem there is that energy does not obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which means that energy alone cannot form coherent structures, like atoms or molecules. There cannot be pure energy proteins, lipids, DNA, etc. There cannot be "energy beings" in physics as presently understood, despite their appearance in Star Trek. If your body were reduced entirely to energy, there would be a very large explosion, and everything of you would rapidly dissipate in all directions.

I have previously considered issues of death and the soul, as in "Thought Experiments on the Soul" and "The Metaphysics of Nothing." Here I am interested in a different approach, one suggested by the statement of Socrates given in the epigraph. This involves time. The vividness of what Socrates says is that he reduces eternity, , "all time," to something comparable to a feature of our daily experience. Thus, while death may be like sleep, the fear of death can be stated simply as the fear that "I won't wake up again." Yet Socrates puts this on the same ground as eternity. If the universe ends, especially in the entropy death now envisioned, will it wake up again? So is our problem the same as that of all existence? Are we in the same boat as the universe, or all universes, should there be many?

And this highlights that the problem of death is a problem of time. An afterlife presumably would involve our continuation in time, the kind of time we are already experiencing. We would rather just not run out of time. Would the universe rather not run out of time either? Certainly, there are cosmologists who yearn for the day when, rather than dissipating into nothingness, the universe would return on itself, crash together, and perhaps bounce back into a new Big Bang. Such excitement.

But a lot of physicists don't like time at all. Einstein's physics allows us to think of time as just a different dimension of space, which, sub specie aeternitatis, exists all at once, now and forever. Einstein seems to have believed this himself, as did Kurt Gödel, and I recently found the same conviction in Carlo Rovelli, quoting Einstein in his defense. The results of this are bizarre, since it eliminates chance, possibility, uncertainty, and alternative futures from physics. Since all those things are essential to quantum mechanics, over which philosophers of science have been all but orgasmic, eliminating them is a step that ought to draw some attention; yet in a review of Rovelli's book, another physicist overlooked it and assumed that Rovelli had more orthodox ideas, which he did not. Also, if everything that will ever happen has already happened, the worldview we get is deeply fatalistic. They told Lawrence of Arabia, "It is written," and this is now enshrined in trendy physics.

Einstein's fatalistic universe could be compromised or rationalized with the addition of "many worlds" as the substitute for chance and possibility in quantum mechanics. So, sub specie aeternitatis, everything that can happen, will happen, indeed, will have happened, somewhere. So there is a universe where Hitler won World War II -- perhaps if Heisenberg had been able to build an atomic bomb -- and exterminated all the Jews, Slavs, etc. Charming. I find such physics disturbing, besides reducing Ockham's Razor to ashes. This is also enshrined in trendy physics, although the amount of empirical evidence for it is exactly zero.

More daring, however, is what we find in Kant, where space and time are "forms of intuition" that apply to phenomenal reality, but not to things in themselves. In terms of space, quantum mechanics even supplies some support for this, since quantum phenomena are "non-local," meaning that quantum interactions can ignore space and be communicated instantaneously, even at cosmological distances, violating Einstein's Special Relativity. Einstein himself hoped that this possibility would falsify quantum mechanics, but Bell's Theorem ended up vindicating it.

If time did not exist among things-in-themselves, it is not clear just what the import of this would be. Certainly, the physicists who don't like time could feel some relief or vindication, although this isn't quite what they meant by it, and their own transformation of time into space no longer has the same kind of payoff. If neither space nor time exist among things-in-themselves, all bets are off. But what would it mean to Socrates, or us?

One way to approach this is to note that there is a place in physics were time already seems to disappear. As objects approach the velocity of light, time slows down as observed in their frame of reference. This is "time dilation," and it is an essential part of Relativity. This also means that massless particles, like photons, spontaneously travel at the velocity of light. Time does not pass for them, and this means that they are absolutely stable and cannot decay into anything else -- although a photon striking something will disappear and contribute its energy to the thing (conserving energy). This was a serious issue with neutrinos, which were originally thought to be massless. But now they are regarded as having some mass, which enables them to transform into different "flavors" of neutrinos and even into anti-neutrinos. Physicists breathed a sigh of relief, since this could explain why the Sun was apparently not generating as many ordinary neutrinos as it should. With photons, the massless particle travelling at the velocity of light acquires a finite momentum (ordinary mass times velocity), the curious result of multiplying zero by infinity (or dividing by zero) [note].

There are photons around that have existed since the Big Bang, or at least since the Cosmic Background Radiation became transparent. For them, the entire history of the universe has been "no more than a single night."

So one way to look at death is that we instantaneously achieve the velocity of light. If we lose our physical body, and become massless beings, that would indeed happen. However, in terms of physics there would still be energy, which I have already noted could not sustain a coherent structure. We would disperse, in exactly the way that heat disperses from a dead body, as anybody can perceive. No immortality there.

Another place in physics where time stops is with Black Holes. In the formation of a Black Hole, gravity has overwhelmed all the other forces of nature. A star maintains its volume through the pressure of the radiation released by nuclear fusion. When fusion runs out of fuel, synthesizing elements up to iron, the pressure disappears and the star collapses. If the star is not too massive, it collapses down to a "White Dwarf," where its (small) size is maintained by electrostatic force of electrons orbiting in their atoms. However, if the star is more massive, gravity overcomes the electromagnetic interaction and the electrons of all atoms are crushed down to the nucleus, where the electrons fuse with protons to form a body consisting of nothing but neutrons -- a "Neutron Star," whose spin allows it to become a "Pulsar," radiating beams of energy on the axis of its rotation, or a "Magnetar," where a similar spin generates a rare and extraordinary magnetic field. If the star is massive enough, however, gravity overcomes even the nuclear force that maintains the volume of particles like neutrons. The star collapses below nuclear size, and there are no forces left to stop the collapse. So it collapses down to a geometrical point, called a "Singularity."

This gives physicists nightmares. Not so much, I think, just because the mass of a star, with perhaps billions of solar masses, in places, all ends up in a geometrical point. After all, all the fundamental particles, leptons and quarks, are Dirac point particles, which have no extension. There was a simple argument for this, which is why Paul Dirac postulated point particles in the first place. If electrons had a finite size, and their charge was evenly distributed over them, the parts of the electron would repel each other, since like charges repel, and since all this repelling would be done between the different parts at indefnitely small distances, the repulsion would approach infinite strength. The electrons would explode. Therefore, they do not have finite size. They are, after their own fashion, singularities.

The most disturbing thing about Black Holes may instead be what happens as they form. Matter is falling towards the singularity, and it is being accelerated. There is nothing to stop or slow the acceleration, which at some point will reach the velocity of light. Of course, an infinite force is required for this, but then there is nothing left in physics to prevent that from happening. So Nature draws a curtain. Where the velocity of infalling matter would reach the velocity of light, we reach the "Event Horizon," which is actually the totally creepy thing about the whole business. Beyond that, physicists themselves like to say that "the laws of nature break down."

This all was at first conceived, however, from the other direction. The great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), who added the mathematics to Kant's Nebular Hypothesis of planetary formation, imagined that if the matter in a body were dense enough, the escape velocity would equal the velocity of light. Now, Laplace never heard of Einstein's theory that nothing can exceed the velocity of light, but he did reason that if light could not excape from such a body, it would be black. Hence a "Black Hole." And if nothing can exceed the velocity of light, then absolutely nothing, and not even light, could escape from such a thing. So, quite reasonably, the Event Horizon is as far as light could go in trying to get out, as well as being where things falling in would have to violate Relativity's prohibition against exceeding the velocity of light.

For our purposes, the point of interest is where falling bodies are approaching the Event Horizon. Since they are being accelerated towards the velocity of light, they experience time dilation. So they seem to slow down, in motion or in any other action. Unlike photons, they can have finite size, and so they can undergo physical processes, like the tidal distortions they would suffer from the gravity of the Black Hole. We would see them getting torn apart. But this process would begin to slow down. At the Event Horizon it would stop; and we would see the falling body freeze, in whatever form it had achieved, just as it reached the Horizon. However, we might have difficulty observing this, not just because the area around Black Holes may be one of high energy chaotic interactions, but because the light from the falling body is being red shifted as its velocity increases. The red shift stretches the wavelength of light and other electromagnetic radiation. It is called the "red shift" because all light, or higher wavelengths, would move towards the red end of spectrum. However, this is not a process that stops at red light. And as velocity approaches that of light, the red shift becomes infinite, which means that the wavelength of any radiation simply becomes flat. There is no radiation left. So our body falling into the Black Hole actually becomes invisible at the Event Horizon.

Why have I recounted all this physics? Well, unlike photons, which always travel at the velocity of light, bodies falling into Black Holes begin as ordinary things and then achieve this peculiarity as they fall. So this is more like death. And that is the interest of the process. If time, which we have previously been experiencing, stops at death, this is rather like falling into a Black Hole. And if "the laws of nature break down" inside the Event Horizon, then who knows "what dreams may come" in that "undiscover'd country," as Hamlet says.

And if Kant is right, and time does not exist among things in themselves, death is indeed vividly the equivalent, with an excellent metaphor, of falling into a Black Hole. If this is death, what could immortality be like without time? Well, we cannot say, any more than physicists can say what reality is like beyond the Event Horizon. Death is its own Event Horizon. So our whole conception of life, that it continues from moment to moment, may not be applicable to the Hereafter.

Is it is possible that continuation could be involved without actual time? Time is indeed the only form of continuation that we can imagine, but they are not conceptually the same thing. "Continuation" simply posits distinct states of existence that are ordered in some way. And when this ordering is done with time, as we know it, we get an extra feature, which is that the transition from one state to another involves the application of laws of nature.

Ay, there's the rub! The laws of nature break bones. The laws of nature open wounds and transmit diseases. The laws of nature age the body. It is the laws of nature that deliver us to death. This is what Buddhism calls "suffering," , duhkha. We are helplessly in the grip of those laws, just like the body falling helplessly into the Black Hole. Hence the popularity of miracles, which these days include the "superpowers" of comic book characters and their movie avatars. But then miracles and superpowers are simply dreams of a reality where "the laws of nature break down" and causality with its specific forms cannot do its number on us.

How likely is that? We cannot say, not without more consideration of the metaphysics of personal existence, as I have done elsewhere. Here, however, we see that, far from death doing its number on us, death is where we do a number on time, since "all time would thus appear to be no more than a single night," and this can amount to what John Donne (1572-1631) said, "Death thou shalt die." The "single night" eats the entire phenomenal universe.

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Death, Light, and Black Holes; Note 1;
the Greek term

Tangential to the issue here, but noteworthy for my general concerns, is the use by Socrates of the word kerdos -- -- which is defined as "gain, profit, advantage" [Liddell & Scott, Intermediate Greek Lexicon, Oxford, 1889, 1964, p.429]. As it happens, Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary uses exactly the same terms to define , "profit, gain, advantage" [Harvard, 1972, character 3867]. Socrates obviously has no problem with the word, but Confucius and Confucians have very mixed to entirely negative feelings about .

A similar negative attitude is what we find later in Greek philosophy and Christian theology, and this culminates in the Marxist condemnation of "profit" as illegitimate. But we see the beginning of that in Aristotle, where "exchange," , "usury," , and "interest," , are condemned as "not according to nature," .

It is curious that Christian theology should have followed this, when the "Parable of the Talents" at Matthew 25:14-30 features a man rebuking his servant (, actually "slave") who failed to invest the talent () he entrusted to him with the bankers (), thereby earning no interest () [Matthew 25:27]:

Oportuit ergo te mittere pecuniam meam nummulariis, et veniens ego recepissem utique quod meum est cum usura.

Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have recieved what was my own with interest.

See "bankers' tables" in the Apology. While some sophistries are employed to try and reverse the plain meaning of this story, so as to condemn interest, what is most revealing is that the man had entrusted seven talents to two other "servants." The one he rebukes had only gotten one talent, because the man had already judged that the distribution was , "to each according to his own power" (curiously echoing the Marxist phrase, "to each according to his ability"). He didn't expect much from this one, and indeed didn't get much. Consequently, the screw-up is judged a "worthless servant," .

The moral of this for his own teachings, which are not really about making money, would seem to be for Jesus that those entrusted with the spiritual wealth of his teaching will get more, a reward, or even that it is their job to use the teaching to generate their own reward. Otherwise, those without the teaching, or those with it who nevertheless do nothing with it, will be cast into the "outer darkness," , and "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth," [25:30]. Seems a little harsh.

When the "worthless servant" told his master what he had done, his statement sounds more than a little like a rebuke. He says:

Domine, scio quia homo durus es, metis ubi non seminasti, et congregas ubi non sparsisti.

Lord, I knew you, that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow. [25:24]

We might think that the "worthless servant" has been reading his Marx. The master is a "hard," , man, perhaps like John D. Rockfeller. And the illustration of his hardness is that he has money, but otherwise he benefits from reaping and gathering without the work of sowing and winnowing. So he does not do the hard labor of farming, and since all we hear about is his money, and not about his craft, trade, or profession, he therefore seems to just make money off of money. Aristotle regarded this, of all forms of getting wealth (), as "the most contrary to nature." So this may be someone more like the Rothschilds than the Rockefellers -- although it looks like he is using the bankers () rather than being one. So he may just be an investor or speculator, like Jay Gould (1836-1892). Either way, this would be a devastating denunciation of him in Greek philosophy, Christian theology, or modern Leftist political science and economics. Anarchists would riot against him at the modern university, even as the academic sages would blame him for making the rioters mad.

The "worthless servant" may just be trying avoid sin, or the exploitation of the workers, by refusing to give his talent to the bankers. He buries it, but then his faithful and honest return of the money to his master is condemned. So the rebuke by the servant is not taken as such in the Parable of the Talents. If he intended his explanation to be a remonstration, he gets nowhere with it, either with his master or with Jesus. This may be bad news for anyone trying to dress up Marxism as "Liberation Theology," although, to be sure, Jesus elsewhere enjoins poverty and condemns the rich, leaving the lesson of the Parable as a bit of an anomaly.

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Political Economy

Death, Light, and Black Holes; Note 2

A serious test involving the mass of neutrinos came with the observation of Supernova (SN) 1987a, which was spotted in the Large Magellanic Cloud, an irregular galaxy in the Local Group (which includes the Milky Way and the Andromedy Galaxy, M31), on February 24, 1987. This seems to have been the closest supernova to the earth since one observed by Johannes Kepler in 1604.

More remarkable than the observation of the supernova was that two or three hours before the light from the event reached the Earth, a "burst" of neutrinos was registered at three different neutrino observation facilities (such things are constructed deep underground, often in old mines, to screen out cosmic rays). A "burst" in such a case is that one detector lit up with twelve neutrinos. This is a lot in the neutrino detection business. It does means that hundreds, thousands, or more neutrinos came by undetected.

The striking thing about this is obviously that the neutrinos beat the light to the Earth. One might naively gather from this that the neutrinos were moving faster than the velocity of light. But light has more trouble geting out of a star, even an exploding star, than the neutral and barely interacting neutrinos. So the light just got delayed. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the neutrinos going very much slower than the velocity of light.

If everyone was still thinking that neutrinos were massless, this might be taken to close the case. However, physics now has a lot invested in neutrinos not being massless. So the neutrinos from SN 1987a instead could be used to get some idea how little their mass must be. The result was that it could be no more than 1/30,000 the rest mass of an electron -- to 5% confidence. I am thus reassured. But this is really not much mass, when the electron itself is not very massive. Neutrinos were originally called "nothing with spin." Now we can only say, "almost nothing with spin."

The Higgs Boson, now detected, is supposed to be responsible for the mass of subatomic particles. I have never seen an explanation of how this is supposed to work, much less an intelligible, discursive explanation. Now, Richard Feynman assumed that a certain physical constant was equal to 1 and then magically, by mathematics alone, conjured it into a value that matched its observed value in Nature. He won a Nobel Prize for that -- although he seems to have felt bad that it involved what he could only regard as some mathematical tricks. Nevertheless, this is the Holy Grail of physics, and I don't think that anyone should consider the science remotely satisfactory until the Gravitational Constant and the masses of all the particles, and more, can be calculated by pure mathematics.

So I would say, that the proof of the mass or masslessness of the neutrino awaits its calculation. Perhaps someone has done it already. When Edmund Halley asked Newton what the orbits of bodies would be like under an inverse square law, Newton answered immediately, "Conic Sections." When Halley asked how he knew, Newton answered, "I have calculated it." As it happens, Newton had lost his work (having focused for many years on alchemy and Biblical numerology), and he had to prove he had done it by doing it all over again. So he did. The future of physics is one thing like this after another.

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