Fundamentals, Ten Keys to Reality

by Frank Wilczek

Penguin Press, New York, 2021

Why is it so hard to accept, intuitively, that life and mind can emerge from matter?

Frank Wilczek, "A Light Show of Thought," The Wall Street Journal, February 27-28, 2016.


Impressed by the beauty and success of Euclidean geometry, philosophers -- most notably Immanuel Kant -- tried to elevate its assumptions to the status of metaphysical Truths. Geometry that fails to follow Euclid's assumptions is, according to Kant, literally inconceivable.

Frank Wilczek, "No, Truth Isn't Dead," The Wall Street Journal, June 24-25, 2017, p.C4.

Frank Wilczek is a Nobel Laureate physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also holding honors or positions at other institutions. He has written a short book on physics, much as here we have seen from Carlo Rovelli. But while Rovelli's book is modestly titled Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Wilczek's is more ambitiously subtitled Ten Keys to Reality. We might think that "reality" calls more for metaphysics than it does for just physics. However, metaphysics is not what we get, and the physics cannot quite measure up to the ambition.

Wilczek has turned up a couple of times already in these pages, thanks to his occasional column in The Wall Street Journal, "Wilczek's Universe." Key quotations are featured above, and they do not inspire confidence. The first requires that Wilczek has a deep understanding of the ontology of matter, which, from the evidence now of his book, he does not. The second reveals what must be his shallow knowledge and defective understanding of the history of philosophy. Thus, Kant asserted that the axioms of Euclidean geometry are synthetic and not analytic propositions. This means that their contradictions can be conceived with as much logical facility as their affirmations. Yet Wilczek says that contradictions of Euclid are "literally inconceivable." What doesn't Wilczek understand there? Kant's theory, or simply the meaning of "synthetic"? Either way, it is not a good start for us examining his ideas about "reality" -- although, to be sure, more informed minds have made similar mistakes.

Wilczek, like Rovelli, is a reductionistic materialist. Although Wilczek occasionally tries to hedge his bets, the materialism is unavoidable. But he must leave out, gloss over, or misrepresent certain issues in actual physics to get to it, which is not good for a book about physics.

In his Preface, Wilczek says:

Fundamentals is meant, as well, to offer an alternative to traditional religious fundamentalism. It takes up some of the same basic questions, but addresses them by consulting physical reality, rather than texts or traditions. [p.xiii]

However, Wilczek does not really mean "religious fundamentalism," but all religion, which gets not the slightest favorable nod in the book. What Wilczek does not then understand is that things like morality, meaning, and ultimate human purpose cannot be determined, or even properly addressed, by "consulting physical reality." Purpose is not, as Aristotle would have thought, a part of the structure of the physical world. This is something that makes Spinoza appealing to the modern, that purpose is purged from his metaphysics and theology. Wilczek's idea that physics can deal with "some of the same basic questions" as religion, except for irrelevancies, is delusional nonsense.

The Preface reveals a couple other problems. Wilczek says:

Quantum mechanics reveals that you cannot observe something without changing it, after all. [p.xvii]

This is apparently a reference to the wave/particle duality, which Wilczek does a very poor job of addressing, and never explains properly at all. The implication here, that the wave function collapses because an observation, nudging the physical wave, will change the reality, was one way of thinking about it one point; but it will not do now. If you can infer where the electron is because you know where it isn't, in Louis de Broglie's update of Thomas Young's slot experiment, this collapses the wave function without the observer affecting the experimental apparatus, or doing anything, at all. Thus, it is not observation or any physical act as such that changes reality, but our mere possession of knowledge that does. Since this poses a strong challenge to the materialist, Wilczek avoids the issue by leaving out part of it, or perhaps by misrepresenting it. This is of a piece with the extended treatment he offers, or doesn't offer, of both the wave/particle duality and the principle of Complementarity introduced by Niels Bohr to explain it.

Since the wave function seems to collapse because of the presence and state of consciousness, on the same page Wilczek decides to launch a materialist assault against it:

Psychophysics reveals that consciousness does not direct most actions, but instead processes reports of them, from unconscious units that do the work. [ibid.]

For this he relies on brain scans and on brain stimulations, where subjects report voluntary actions when we know that the experimenter has zapped their brain to make a change. So much for free will, I suppose.

Thus, Wilczek says:

Detailed study of matter reveals that our body and our brain -- the physical platform of our "self" -- is, against all intuition, built from the same stuff as "non-self," and appears to be continuous with it. [p.xviii]

The assumption here is, of course, that "matter" is the real thing, the underlying reality, and that consciousness is some sort of epiphenomenal illusion. Yet Wilczek never does cite Bohr's perhaps most famous quote, "Nothing exists until it is measured," presumably by a measuring mind. Also, I have found a physicist, N. David Mermin, saying, "But in quantum physics unobserved things have no properties whatsoever." That is all part of the familiar, or infamous, "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics. But reading Frank Wilczek's book, we hear absolutely nothing about it. He is not going to like its anti-realist metaphysic, and so it is ignored. This is not honest, since it impossible that Wilczek does not know about it. But it does betray Wilczek's commitment to a realist, materialist metaphysic, whose self-evidence apparently exempts it from critical examination.

Not just from Wilczek's brain zapping experiments, but from studies of many people with brain damage, we know that pathological neurological states can be reported by their sufferers with confabulations to explain them away as normal and voluntary. Oliver Sacks reports many such fascinating stories. As this certainly reveals an intimate connection between brain and mind, the only question is how that correspondence works. In Advaita Vedânta, the faculties and functioning of the mind are part of the phenomenal world, part of the "illusion" of Mâya. Consciousness itself, however, is not part of that world. Brain and matter are.

But we don't need pathology to give the brain its due. In consciousness, we do not have present to us the vast majority of our memories. Yet these can be called up, though sometimes not without some effort. And it amounts to a lot, as teachers (like me) discover when some extensive material needs to be explained to a class. I rarely use notes. So, we must expect that the brain encodes memories, although there is still little sense in neurology about how that works. Memories seem to be encoded through much of the brain, perhaps holographically, but that's about as far as we can go. Because of this, skeptics, such as we have seen with Rupert Sheldrake, entertain bizarre theories that memories involve new experiences of the actual past. While this is not very credible, it does highlight how little progress seems to have been made. Yet we know that direct stimulation of the brain, sometimes during neurosurgery, can evoke memories and experiences in the patients, who may be awake during such procedures. This suggests that someday memories can be restored, or implanted, electronically (as in the movie Total Recall [1990]), with the possibility of abuse and mayhem (as in the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]). But without more knowledge of how the brain even encodes memories, there is little sense of how this would work.

Whatever is going on in the examples of Wilczek and Sacks, consciousness itself remains unexplained; and Wilczek makes no effort to explain it. It would, of course, be a little outside his speciality. But even people in psychology, neurology, and philosophy have had little luck with it either. Yet Wilczek cannot conscientiously ignore it, because of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics itself. But he does ignore it, with evasions such as we have just seen with a misrepresentation of "observation."

We might wonder about Wilczek's knowledge of the history of science from a statement in his Introduction:

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), in an anticipation of today's "Big Science," designed an observatory that enabled much more precise observations of planetary positions. The new observations showed unmistakable deviations from Ptolemy's predictions. [p.7]

I have never heard of this, and it doesn't make much difference anyway. Copernicus had died (1543) before Tycho was even born. Thus, Tycho's observations had nothing to do with the original presentation of Copernican astronomy. Furthermore, if Tycho's observations supported Copernicus, then we might be surprised to learn that Tycho himself was not a Copernican.

I may be wrong, but my understanding is that Ptolemy's astronomy and that of Copernicus are mathematically equivalent. Even the system of Kepler is mathematically equivalent to Ptolemy, which is why we still use the "Eccentric Anomaly," plotted on a circle, to calculate the values of Kepler's Second Law. The great beauty of Kepler's laws was that they eliminated all of Ptolemy's epicycles, which Copernicus had not been able to do. This prepared the way for Newton to derive Kepler's elliptical orbits (and more) directly from a law of gravitation. Wilczek explains some of that part of the story; but, as is all too common, we are left with defective ideas about Geocentric astronomy.

But then Wilczek allows Newton to get away with something. He quotes Newton saying, "This analysis consists of making experiments and observations and in drawing general conclusions from them by induction" [p.8]. Since logical induction was discredited by Hume and replaced by Karl Popper, this would give Wilczek an opportunity to discuss the logic of scientific discovery. But Popper isn't anywhere in the book, and Hume is name dropped, once (p.219), without any gloss or explanation of what he even thought. So we are left with the impression, on the authority of Newton, that science operates through induction. Perhaps Wilczek's confidence in his materialism is based on a false reliance on verification through induction and a neglect of falsification.

We have already seen a defect in Wilczek's understanding of geometry. We see more of that in Fundamentals, beginning here:

So successful was Euclid's geometry, and so majestic is its logical structure, that critical tests of its validity as a description of physical reality were rarely undertaken. In the early nineteenth century, Carl Friederich Gauss (1777-1855), one of the all-time great mathematicians, thought it was worth a reality check. He measured the angles in a triangle formed by three distant mountain stations in Germany and found that they added up 180o, as Euclid predicts, within measurement uncertainties. [p.16]

This is a very odd passage. In regard to Euclidean geometry, Gauss is not famous for measuring angles like a surveyor but for proposing one of the first systems of non-Euclidean geometry. He seems to have been first with that, but he kept it to himself. His work came to light when Nikolai Lobachevsky (1792-1856) and János Bolyai (1802-1860) developed such geometries independently and wrote to Gauss, the greatest mathematician of the age, about it. All three are now credited with the discovery. But, not only do we not hear about Lobachevsky or Bolyai from Frank Wilczek, but Wilczek introduces Gauss without even mentioning non-Euclidean geometry. In fact, the term "non-Euclidean" does not occur in the book, and we get no discussion of its terms or varieties.

But, after a fashion, it does come up. First, Wilczek discusses the expansion of the universe, the Big Bang, and how, as we look out in space, we are looking back in time. At some point, we see the opaque cloud of the universe that followed the Big Bang, which was some 13.8 billion years ago. This is at a finite distance, so Wilczek says, "However large the universe 'really' is, the presently visible universe is finite" [p.30]. So far, so good. He has not, however, discussed the alternatives, such as are allowed by a non-Euclidean geometry.

That comes up along the way:

The expanding cosmic horizon poses many questions. For instance, as the horizon expands, might the entire universe come within in? If space is finite, that will eventually happen. [p.38]

Actually, no -- not unless the universe ceases expanding, begins to collapse, and it overcomes the head start that "inflation," which Wilczek hasn't discussed yet, gave to it. It is only because "inflation" is thought to expand the universe faster than the velocity of light that any part of it passes beyond the observable horizon. Without that, the only barrier to our actually seeing the moment of the Big Bang, at the edge of the entire universe, would be the opaque gas that surrounds it. Meanwhile, the expansion of the universe is evidently increasing, not decreasing, which is the physical basis for postulating the existence of "dark energy," i.e. the field or force that would balance the attraction of gravity with a corresponding repulsion, which can be inserted into Einstein's equation for gravity easily because there was already a place for it -- the "Cosmological Constant." What this means, however, is anyone's guess. Wilczek seems more excited about the Constant than he is about the mysterious physical reality it would represent [pp.198-199].

Famously, finite space need not have an edge. A sphere -- that is, the surface of a ball -- is an example of a space that is finite yet has no boundary. The surfaces of ordinary balls are two-dimensional. Though they are challenging to visualize, for mathematicians it is child's play to define three-dimensional spaces that, like ordinary spheres, are finite yet have no boundary. Such spaces provide candidate shapes for a finite universe. [ibid.]

This is another very odd passage. The traditional terminology for a limited space allowed by a non-Euclidean geometry is "finite but unbounded." But Wilczek uses none of this terminology and doesn't give very much of an explanation of what he is talking about. While the math may be "child's play," Wilczek might consider, not just whether it is "challenging to visualize," but whether it is possible to visualize such three-dimensional spaces. We have seen the mathematician Edward Frenkel say:

The human brain is wired in such a way that we simply cannot imagine curved spaces of dimension greater than two; we can only access them through mathematics. [Love and Math, The Heart of Hidden Reality, Basic Books, 2013, p.2]

We must wait quite a while in Wilczek's book before he returns to anything about this. When he does, it turns out that Euclid is back:

We start, then, with a very hot, very homogeneous gas. We also assume that space, which (according to general relativity) might be curved, is actually flat. For a first draft of physical cosmology, that's all we need to know. [p.151]

The big bang theory assumes that space is Euclidean, or "flat." Spatial flatness is consistent with Einstein's theory of general relativity, but not required by it. [p.156]

Rather than just odd, this is an extraordinary passage. In terms of traditional cosmology, it violates one of the most obvious logical considerations, what is called the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Thus, if space is "flat" and Euclidean, it is infinite. Then, if the Big Bang begins at a point, this must be at an arbitrary location in all that infinite space. Where? Why one place rather than another? Did God just decide to put it where it is? But Frank Wilczek doesn't bring God into it, and probably, on his principles, cannot. Thus, there is no reason why the universe should begin at one point in space rather than another, which means that is no reason for it to begin at all.

Of course, we might argue that in infinite space, every location is equivalent, so a finite Big Bang in an infinite universe doesn't violate Sufficient Reason. Fair enough. But then that is the sort of discussion we might want to see, and we don't get it from Wilczek.

It was always the appeal of a non-Euclidean, finite but unbounded universe that location would never be an issue. Space begins as finite also. Space, time, and the universe begin together, at the same point. It is astonishing the Wilczek doesn't bring this up and discuss it. I would imagine that every book about physics and cosmology since The Universe and Doctor Einstein [1948, Lincoln Barnett (1909-1979)], has made a point of it. But not Frank Wilczek. Perhaps it is old hat. But the result is senseless. No informed person, apart from theists, is going to believe in a Big Bang happening at some random location in the middle of an infinite Void. It is still very odd. Since he doesn't discuss it, perhaps Wilczek isn't even aware of the problem.

Wilczek's materialism pops up again every so often:

Our experience with delicate, ultra-precise experiments puts severe pressure on the idea that minds can act directly on matter, through will. There's an excellent opportunity here for magicians to cast spells, or for someone with extrasensory powers to show their stuff, or for an ambitious experimenter to earn everlasting glory by demonstrating the power of prayer or wishful thinking. Even very small effects could be detected. But nobody has ever done this successfully. [p.69]

Unfortunately, it is natural to say that my mind acts through will to act directly on matter at the very moment that I type these words on my computer. I don't need spells, telepathy, or the power of prayer to do this.

We might notice here that Wilczek is saying that if something like the power of prayer cannot be experimentally demonstrated, then it is excluded from "Wilczek's Universe." This means, not only that Wilczek is a materialist, but that his worldview is one of "scientism," i.e. the doctrine that there is no knowledge of the world apart from that of science. It is another kind of reductionism. However, Wilczek's assertion that "nobody has ever done this successfully" would be disputed by some. Among the confused ideas of Rupert Sheldrake, there are references to legitimate science, like that of Joseph B. Rhine, which appears to demonstrate some reality to paranormal phenomena. Whether or not we should take that seriously, I find it disturbing that Wilczek would dismiss the power of prayer just because it does not measure up to his standards of scientific verification. A couple of pages later, where Wilczek says, "We can envision worlds wherein miracles can, and do happen" [p.71], the implication is that miracles do not happen in this world, which could be disputed by many. I have separately examined the issue of miracles here. This, with other religious phenomena, is clearly off the radar for Frank Wilczek.

We return to reductionistic materialism:

Anytime I decide to raise my hand, something that contradicts the principles seems to be happening. Indeed, the grammar of the sentence "I decide to raise my hand" says it all: There is something called an "I" -- a spirit or will -- that dictates how a piece of the physical world behaves. It's an illusion, or at least a take on things, that's hard to abandon. But our principles ask us to think differently. [p.72]

Wilczek could not be any clearer. That his "principles" fail to save the phenomena gives him no pause. But that is materialism for you.

We get another feature of reductionism next. Democritus is favorably cited for having a theory of matter in which things like "sweet," "bitter," "hot," "cold," and "color" don't exist at the fundamental level of "atoms and the void." So Wilczek says:

Democritus's declaration is deeply challenging. It denies the objective reality of the experiences -- taste, warmth, color -- through which we access the physical world most directly. [p.72]

In physics, Wilczek promotes a similar idea:

According to our present best understanding, the primary properties of matter, from which all its other properties can be derived, are these three:

Mass

Charge

Spin

That's it. [p.73]

Unfortunately for Wilczek, that is not it. He compounds the error with further assertions:

For any elementary particle, once you've specified the magnitude of those three things, together with its position and velocity, you've described it completely. [p.76]

...electrons have mass, electric charge, spin, and no other properties. [p.80]

No you haven't "described it completely," for electrons do have at least one other property. It is astonishing that Wilczek should say things like this.

The truth is that for all varieties of sub-atomic particles, there are other quantum numbers that are intrinsic to them. Thus, electrons, neutrinos, and other leptons have an intrinsic "lepton number," which is conserved in all interactions. Similarly, strongly interacting particles have a conserved "baryon number." The bayron number has a further significance, since the sum of protons and neutrons in a nucleus of an atom itself has a "mass number (A)" which is actually just the sum of baryon numbers (B). More mysterious are other conserved quantum numbers, like "strangeness," "charm," etc. Wilczek eventually mentions such particles, without addressing the issue of conserved quantum numbers beyond mass, charge, and spin.

And mysterious is the point. Electrons only exist because of the lepton number. If they didn't exist, there wouldn't be atoms and matter. One might think that would attract Frank Wilczek's attention. But it doesn't. Perhaps that is because there is no further explanation. Lepton numbers are there just because there are leptons. They do not derive from any other deep a priori principles. But to ignore them means that Wilczek says a number of things, as we have seen, that are just false. Since Wilczek keeps making a big point of this, he digs himself further into the ground again and again.

We find Wilczek having another problem with electrons:

If, for example, an electron's electric charge were uniformly distributed in a little ball, rather than concentrated at a point, then the predicted value of the electron's magnetic field would be different, and it would no longer agree with what people have measured. (Of course, if the ball were small enough, the difference might not be noticeable. What we can say for sure is that Nature hasn't encouraged us to bring in that complication.) [p.81]

Of course, that an electron has no extension in space means that it is a "Dirac Point Particle," as postulated by Paul Dirac. Wilczek does mention Dirac in his book, but not here, where something is actually named after him. But Wilczek has missed a key point why Dirac postulated point particles. If "an electron's electric charge were uniformly distributed in a little ball," then the parts of the ball would repel each other, because like charges repel. And since the charged parts of the ball would be adjacent to each other down to infinitesimal distances, while like charges repel each other more strongly as distance is reduced, the charged election would blow apart from all this mutual repulsion of its parts. Whatever an extended charge might do to an associated magnetic field, an exploding particle would probably attract our attention first. But Frank Wilczek seems to have missed that part of it.

Returning to the implications of Democritean reductionism, Wilczek says:

While it seems to me too strong to say that sweet, bitter, hot, cold, and color are "conventions," it is surely true that it takes quite some doing to trace those things -- and the world of everyday experience more generally -- to their origins in mass, charge, and spin. [pp.73-74]

Of course, the qualia of perception cannot possibly be "conventions," except maybe to Behaviorists, and we can "trace" them "to their origins" like this only by totally erasing their nature. No logical examination of "mass, charge, and spin" (or lepton number) can deduce the qualia of color and fragrance from them. So what Wilczek misses is the issue of "emergent order," where we see structures emerge in natural and organic development that cannot be predicted from the initial states and materials. But, as we will now see, Wilczek entirely avoids questions of order. And the metaphysics of perceptual qualia is something else entirely.


Of every color and fragrance, there is none that is not the Middle Way.

Guàndǐng (561-632), Introduction, Zhìyǐ (538-597), Móhē Zhǐguān, "The Great Calming and Contemplation," translated by Jacqueline Stone; Chinese Tiantai School.

Something strangely missing from Wilczek's book is entropy. Along with so many other things, this is odd. Entropy gets discussed in other sources for a couple of big reasons. One is that the very idea of "order," which is a feature of entropy, is something that many people, including philosophers like Spinoza, think is entirely subjective and is only seen by us in nature because we project it from our own expectations. Second, the principle of entropy seems to be the only place in science where the directionality of time makes a physical difference. To some people, that is only annoying. But we have a fine discussion of both in The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. We don't get a discussion of either by Frank Wilczek; and Penrose isn't mentioned in his book. Wilczek doesn't even like the idea that time is different from space.

General relativity teaches us that the separation of space-time into space and time is unnatural. [p.125]

If so, then the formula for space-time separation is unnatural, since time is treated differently than space. Because the factor for space is subtracted from that for time, it is possible to get solutions that are imaginary. This has a physical meaning, since imaginary or "space-like" separations means "you can't get there from here" in space-time, i.e. it would be necessary to travel faster than the velocity of light. In the equation in the diagram (where we see integer solutions to several versions of the Pythagorean Theorem), we see that the value for time is larger than the value for the separation (in units of time -- where the velocity of light has disappeared from the formula because it has been set to the value 1). This is a case of "time dilation," one of the paradoxes of Special Relativity.

The implication of Wilczek's statement about space and time is that time is no more directional than dimensions of space, while past, present, and future would all exist in the same way as as different points on a spatial dimension. Many physicists, including Einstein, did believe this.

Wilczek does eventually notice that there is a peculiarity about time:

Few aspects of experienced reality are as obvious as the asymmetry between past and future. We remember the past, but can only guess about the future...

Yet beginning with the birth of modern science, in Newton's classical mechanics, and until quite recently, the fundamental laws had the character that you could run them backward in time... This feature of the laws is called time-reversal symmetry, or T for short.

Time-reversal symmetry continued to hold up as the scope of the laws expanded. [pp.188-189]

No, time-reversal symmetry did not "hold up," and it is not the case that there was nothing "until quite recently" about its violation. Entropy violates time-reversal symmetry, and everyone has known that, and talked about it, for quite some time -- since the 19th century -- except, apparently, Frank Wilczek.

But perhaps we can understand Wilczek's problem. If the direction of time is fundamental to nature, then it must be a feature of the fundamental laws embodied in his Democritean "mass, charge, and spin" business. If it's not there, then it must not be fundamental. Note how he says:

This contrast between everyday experience and the fundamental laws poses two problems. One is how the actual universe finds a preferred direction for the flow of time. We got an answer to that in chapters 6 and (especially) 7, where we saw that gravity started way out of equilibrium. [p.189]

"Started" already presupposes the "flow of time." Unless time flows into the past just as much into the future, which some people actually believe, then time-reversal symmetry is already violated. Since Wilczek doesn't mention the Big Bang creating a universe in the past, he may have missed this. Without it, we don't need to worry about the universe "finding" a "preferred direction" for the flow of time. Wilczek then reasonably addresses his second "problem," which is "Why?" I don't think we get much of answer to this, and it is also not clear why gravity "out of equilibrium" should come to violate time symmetry.

It was unclear, while T appeared to be an exact feature of fundamental laws, that asking, "Why?" would be fruitful. It appeared to be an elegant, if slightly peculiar, property of the laws. T might be rock bottom. Most physicists thought that it was. [p.190]

Still no entropy, which I suppose just isn't "fundamental" enough, even though its effects start with the Big Bang. The discussion by Roger Penrose of the low entropy of the Big Bang is one of the most illuminating and intriguing features of his book -- off the radar for Frank Wilczek.

But perhaps there is a balm in Gilead. K mesons come to the rescue. I was previously only aware of the phenomenon of K mesons implying an asymmetry between matter and anti-matter. That is intriguing in its own right, but it isn't what Wilczek introduces them for. Instead, he says that in 1964 it was observed that there was "a tiny, obscure effect in the decays of K mesons that violates T" [p.190]. Wow. Now that's "fundamental"! Wilczek considers a couple of fix-ups to theory that can account for breaking the symmetry, one involving the third families of quarks and leptons, which are things that don't make up ordinary matter. Another involves an "unwanted additional interaction" that constitutes a "quantum field" that will "evolve" into violating symmetry. There is nothing intuitive in Wilczek's explanations of these remedies, let alone why third families of quarks and leptons would account for the fact that broken glasses do not spontaneously reassemble themselves, or why the Big Bang should create a universe in the future but not in the past. But, hey, that's Frank Wilczek for you.

An issue much like the asymmetry of time is handedness, that there is a fundamental spatial difference between left and right, i.e. mirror images. As with time, physicists were comfortable with the idea that there was no physical difference between mirror images. This is called "Parity," and it is apparently observed by gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear strong force. So, in Wilczek's terms, this looked secure at the "fundamentals" of physical law. However, it was then discovered that the Weak Force violates Parity. Whether particles "see" the Weak Force depends on their spin, i.e. right and left handed spin are physically different. There is a potential for an interesting discussion there, just as with the asymmetry of time, but we don't get it from Wilczek. One might wonder if the difference between right and left handed amino acids, one of which occurs in biology, the other doesn't, would be attributed by Wilczek to some underlying influence of the Weak Force. Or, we might think, the structure of space, like the structure of time, underlies and is logically prior to all physical laws. It may be, as Kant would have said, a necessary condition of phenomenal existence.

Ignoring the place of entropy in discussions about time, Wilczek, in turn, gives us no discussion about order -- in relation to entropy, or in relation to anything. Instead, he substitutes "dynamic complexity," about which he has a great deal to say. But complexity is not the same thing as order. Something can be very ordered, like the natural numbers, and also very simple. And something can be very complex, like the tax code, and be very disordered.

Where I have noted that purpose is purged from the universe of modern science, Wilczek nevertheless wants to talk about "human purposes," which he associates with this "dynamic complexity."

...we must address two basic questions:

What is it, in the physical universe, that embodies "human purposes"?

Why does realizing that thing require so little energy, compared to what our Sun puts forth?

The first question can be addressed at many different levels. If we try to define "human purposes" precisely, we risk a rapid plunge into murky depths of vague metaphysics. But if we ask what it is that is essential to what people do, and to what they are, in physical terms, then the answer that emerges is clearer than the question is. At that level, the heart of the matter is dynamic complexity. Although there's no scientific consensus on precisely how to define complexity, we "know it when we see it," in examples like these... [p.131]

Wilczek's "human purposes" are then things like learning and thinking, architecture and art, music and ritual. These are activities than usually involve purposes, but one could argue that they are not purposes themselves. They certainly will be complex. But if complexity is something we "precisely" cannot "define," this begins to sounds like the "murky metaphysics" that Wilczek said he was going to avoid. So all we get are things that, on the surface, look complex.

Entropy, in turn, can be precisely defined. It has physical units. Those are in terms of "Boltzmann's Constant," which is 1.3806503(24) x 10-23 J/K. The units there are Joules/Kelvin, i.e. units of energy divided by units of temperature. A big number, or a lot of Joules/Kelvin is high entropy; and a small number, or few Joules/Kelvin, is low entropy. Low entropy is more efficient, economizing on energy, and consequently highly ordered. High entropy, inefficient, is disordered.

With that in hand, we can at least answer Wilczek's second question. "Human purposes" require "so little energy," relatively speaking, because life, mind, literacy, civilization, science, etc. are all highly ordered and low entropy activities. They are energy efficient.

More difficult is the first question, if we really want an answer. But the Greeks may have had that answer already, in terms of value. Human purposes aim to realize, as the Greeks would have said, the "good and the beautiful," καλοκἀγαθός. Aristotle said that the good is "that at which all things aim." But investigating value -- the right, the good, the beautiful, the pious, as Socrates might list them -- is going to involve what Frank Wilczek would call "murky metaphysics." Or, for that matter, any metaphysics. All that Wilczek can come up with is "The principle that the essence of human purposes is expressed through flows of information in dynamic complexity..." [p.137]. So perhaps the medium is the message, and we don't need to worry about what the "information" is that is "flowing." Maybe, as Jeremy Bentham said, "Pushpin is a good as poetry."

But to finish with "human purposes," Wilczek needs to certify his political bona bides with some gratuitous boilerplate. Thus, he refers to "carbon dioxide and other pollutants" [p.140], when, as it happens, carbon dioxide is the basis of all life on earth and literally the breath of life for all plants. It is not a "pollutant," whatever the ruling class says. We have arguably been at a low point in the history of the Earth for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and now, far from this being "the first human-generated crisis" [ibid.], human activity is replenishing the supply. Even worse, Wilczek says, "we are disrupting the lives of temperature-sensitive plants and animals, thus endangering our food supplies (and our friends)" [p.141], which means he is apparently unaware that the Earth in its history, even relatively recent history, has been much, much warmer than it is now. Although we are presently still in an inter-glacial period, we are not out of the glacial regime. Wilczek needs to watch NOVA's "Polar Extremes." He otherwise betrays no interest in geology or the history of the earth.

Eventually we get back to what would be non-Euclidean geometry. Thus, Wilczek says:

4. One property that space-time can have is curvature.

5. The curvature of space-time affects the motion of bodies moving in space-time. Bodies that move "as straight was possible" might nevertheless fail to move in a straight line.

6. In space-time, a straight line represents motion at a constant velocity. Deviation from straight-line motion, therefore, represents acceleration.

7. Combining point 5 and 6, we see a way to achieve point 3: Gravity reflects space-time curvature. [p.116]

Then we get, "John Wheeler, the poet of relativity, summed it up this way: 'Space-time tells matter how to move; matter tells space-time how to bend'" [p.117].

A paradox here is that, while we see the orbits of planets as circles, geometrically, with non-Euclidean geometry, we can turn them into straight lines. But, you say, straight lines don't close on themselves. Such naiveté! Just as a plane can be curved onto the surface of a sphere, where going "straight" on the surface returns you to the point of origin, so space can be "curved" into a kind of hyper-sphere, using the extra dimension of time, so that an object in free fall nevertheless will "fall" in an apparent circle.

So when Wilczek says, "Bodies that move 'as straight was possible' might nevertheless fail to move in a straight line," this is not quite right. In free fall, bodies move in a straight line in terms of the space they are in. To avoid confusion (which will hopelessly happen anyway), those are called "geodesics." A "Great Circle" on a sphere, like the Equator or any Meridian of Longitude on the Earth, is a geodesic.

In non-Euclidean geometry, a geodesic can be characterized as "curved," but within its space, it would be experienced as straight. Obviously, this does not work with the planets, which we can see orbiting in (near) circles. But it is seriously put in cosmology, where a finite but unbounded universe is where we head off in a straight line but then unaccountably come around to where we started. There are problems with this, which I have examined elsewhere.

Wilczek doesn't give us much background or discussion about all that. Where it comes back to bite is when he discusses the theory of the "inflation" of the early universe. We have seen Wilczek saying, "The big bang theory assumes that space is Euclidean, or 'flat'" [p.156]. Since most cosmologists, from Einstein's day to Hawking's, liked the finite and unbounded non-Eucidean universe, which is said to have "positive" curvature, everyone seems rather dismayed that the physical data goes with a Euclidean, "flat" space. This is not just "assumed," as Wilczek says. But Wilczek doesn't get around to the evidence for that until literally the last two pages of his book, where he mentions that the geometry of space corresponds to a certain density of matter:

They [i.e. astronomers] find that space is very nearly flat, and that the density is very nearly the critical density [for flatness]. This is consistent with the predication of general relativity [p.241]

This was very elementary stuff in the 1970's, but now it gets buried on the last page of an appendix. And while it is "consistent" with general relativity, it is not what anyone wanted for about the first 60 or 70 years of General Relativity. Wilczek avoids admitting the awkwardness or embarrassment of it all, although readers of Hawking's original A Brief History of Time [1988, 1996] will see that he wasn't quite up to date.

So, rather than giving us the background, Wilczek earlier gives us the face-saving device without it:

Relativity is ready to accommodate spatial curvature. We need some other idea to explain why Nature does not make use of that opportunity...

[Alan Guth] proposed that the universe underwent a tremendously rapid expansion early in its history, which he calls "inflation."

It is easy to appreciate intuitively how inflation can help with our issues. If the universe inflates, then inhomogeneities in matter are diluted, and curvature is expanded away. [p.156]

Thus, if the universe were a big hyper-sphere, but it was blown up big enough, a small area of its surface (or volume) would have such small curvature that it might not be detectable. Presto! Flat space!

I call this move "saving the balloon," because explanations of cosmology always used to use an inflating balloon to illustrate the Red Shift, Hubble's Law, and the non-Euclidean structure of the universe. When everyone began to wonder if space was actually Euclidean, Inflation came to the rescue with the remedy that space could actually look Euclidean, but beyond the observable horizon it could still be our balloon! -- i.e. our finite but unbounded, positively curved, non-Euclidean space.

It is not clear whether Wilczek's "curvature is expanded away" conceals a hidden and forbidden love of the balloon; for, after all, no matter how big you inflate the balloon, and no matter how flat a small part of it will look, it is still a balloon.

And this trick doesn't work anyway. The growing dread that space was Euclidean was based on the evidence of the density of matter, whose discussion Wilczek buries at the end of his book -- high enough density, and the dynamic of the universe will be "closed," low enough and it will be "open," infinite, and possibly even with the "negative" curvature of a non-Euclidean, Lobachevskian space. And the density of the universe is not affected by the horizon of the observable universe apparent to us. If the universe is "homogeneous and isotropic," which is a postulate of most modern cosmology, then its density is the same everywhere. And if that density is coupled to "flat" space-time, then the universe is, not just flat, but infinite, which is the nature of Euclidean space. Wilczek noted earlier that the mysterious "Dark Energy" now postulated "presently accounts for about 70 percent of the universe's mass" [p.199]. Thus, without it, or without enough of it, the universe would be well down the rabbit hole of infinite, negative curvature.

Also, Wilczek must admit that Inflation "is not a consequence of the fundamental laws we know today" [p.157]. This makes him very nervous. After all, he doesn't have much feeling for the asymmetry of time because he doesn't see it in the "fundamental laws." The "additional forces and fields" needed for Inflation are no different from the ad hoc remedies needed to save the phenomena of time. Indeed, I must conclude that entropy is missing from Wilczek's book because Thermodynamics is not "fundamental" enough for him.

Since we don't get a discussion or explanation of any of that in Wilczek's book, it is very far from being an informative, or perhaps even a honest, guide to cosmology.

The final chapter of Frank Wilczek's book is about Complementarity. Just about the most important application of this is to the Wave/Particle Duality. So the reader may be surprised that the Wave/Particle Duality doesn't even come up. Not even in the whole book. I am sure the reason for this is that it has implications that Wilczek doesn't like. Instead, Wilczek invests Complementarity with a completely general meaning:

Complementarity, in its most basic form, is the concept that one single thing, when considered from different perspectives, can seem to have very different or even contradictory properties. [p.206]

From this glittering generality Wilczek proceeds to one of the most absurd statements in the book:

Free will is an essential concept in law and morality, while physics has been successful without it. Removing free will from law, or injecting it into physics, would make a mess of those subjects. It is morally unnecessary! Free will and physical determinism are complementary aspects of reality. [p.218]

This is absurd, not because free will is not necessary for law and morality, but because, in his entire book, not only has Wilczek made no provision for anything outside the "fundamental" laws of physics, but he has sadly informed us that anything of the sort, like the concepts of "self" or "I" or "will" itself -- since it is "unconscious units that do the work" of self and will -- must reasonably be abandoned. Now, in the desert that he has created, Wilczek suddenly finds that free will cannot be abandoned and that we can cede to it a complementary status equal to physics itself. Wilczek has simply provided no ground for doing that.

And he returns to his reductionism in the Afterword, starting with a quote from biologist Francis Crick (1916-2004) about,

"the astonishing hypothesis": that the mind, in all its aspects, is "no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." [pp.225-226]

But there is nothing "astonishing" about a theory that has been the bread and butter of every materialist since Democritus. What is astonishing is that Western philosophy could go through the sequence of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant and a person like Frank Wilczek could still be pushing this kind of thing.

No one has ever stumbled upon a power of mind in biological organisms that is separate from conventional physical events in their bodies and brains. [ibid.]

I am tempted to say that everything in life and the world is a "power of mind" and that the burden of proof is instead on "conventional physical events," from which no one has been able to pull a single mental rabbit out of the thin hat of "mass, charge, and spin." This is really before we even get near the challenge of Penrose's "Emperor's New Mind."

But for someone who was just telling us that Complementarity allows for free will along side all of physics, it bespeaks a very confused thinker.

There is both majestic simplicity and strange beauty in this unified view of the world. Within it, we must consider ourselves not as unique objects ("souls"), outside of the physical world, but rather as coherent, dynamic patterns in matter. It is an unfamiliar perspective. Were it not so strongly supported by the fundamentals of science, it would seem far-fetched. But it has the virtue of truth[!]. And once embraced, it can come to seem liberating. Albert Einstein spoke to this, in a kind of credo:

A human being is part of a whole, called the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, a something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us. [pp.226-2227]

It is hard to see where Wilczek thinks he can fit free will into all this "delusion." How is free will going to be part of "dynamic patterns in matter," when matter is based on nothing but the fundamental laws of physics? Where is the equivalent of free will for how Wilczek's materialism is "so strongly supported by the fundamentals of science"? How is that "liberating"?

And in dismissing this "delusion," Einstein seems to have forgotten all of his pronouncements about God. But then we have every reason to suspect that Einstein's God is a cut-rate version of Spinoza's God, i.e. a God who is matter and nothing else. Spinoza's actual God, after all, has consciousness as well as spatial existence, with an infinite number of other attributes that we don't even know about. As we have seen with Carlo Rovelli, Spinoza is a favorite cartoon avatar for ignorant materialists. It is reductionism itself that creates a prison. Even Wittgenstein had second thoughts about that (without, of course, doing much about it).

Equally farcical is Wilczek's attempt to derive moral conclusions from his desert of materialism. His argument screams positivism:

Based on experience and consensus, people have gradually abandoned old views and adopted new ones. Thus, it is fair to say that, judged by experience and consensus, the new views are improvements on the old ones. Slavery was taken for granted by many in the ancient world, but now it is almost universally condemned, as are racism, sexism, nationalistic aggression, and cruelty to animals. A common theme in all these developments is a widening circle of empathy. With progress, we've come to consider people and creatures as having intrinsic value and being worthy of profound respect, just like ourselves. When we see ourselves as patterns in matter, it is natural to draw our circle of kinship very wide, indeed. [p.227]

This is not just absurd, but infantile. That "new views" replace old views does not mean that they are "improvements." Totalitarianism and intolerance have replaced their opposites in American universities, and are now spilling over into society at large. This is not an improvement. Both Nazism and Communism in many places replaced the liberal ideals of the 19th century. That was not an improvement. And right now, slavery, "nationalistic aggression," and genocide are ascendant in Communist China -- a country that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, on February 8, 2021, praised as better than the United States, while just dismissing "bad stuff with the Uighurs," i.e. the cultural and physical genocide waged against them, as, apparently, of no significance.

So Wilczek thinks that because something "new" happens, it's better. But he also appeals to "experience and consensus," without any awareness that this proves nothing. Southerners seemed to think that "experience" proved that slavery was just fine. It took a very violent war, not mutual hugs, to disabuse them. No consensus there. But what are invoked as "experience and consensus" can be totally irrelevant to truth. Wilczek needs to take a course in informal fallacies of logic. He has a bad case of them.

Similarly with "a widening circle of empathy." If we derive empathy from being matter and thus having a "circle of kinship" with everything, then the Black Death, or intestinal parasites, have as much call on our empathy as anything. We might indeed feel empathy with the asteroid that hit the Earth at the K-T Boundary, since we probably exist because it wiped out the dinosaurs. But then the dinosaurs warrant our empathy also. This is confusing. Wilczek does want the authority of Einstein again:

[This delusion is a kind of prison for us], restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. [p.228]

Since it was Christians who led the fight against slavery, not materialists, it is hard to see how what Einstein says amounts to either history or argument. But Einstein himself had to face the fact that "circles of compassion" are little help when it comes to right and wrong. The proper response to Hitler's aggression and genocide was not "you're not compassionate." Both Wilczek and Einstein overlook the problem of moral imperatives. If I think that you are not "compassionate" or have sufficient "empathy," at what point do I use force against you, or have the right to do so?

This is what makes Wilczek's argument, if it can be called that, absurd and infantile. Right and wrong impose duties. This doesn't come up in Wilczek's discussion, although he noted earlier, as we have seen, that morality presupposes free will. But neither the word nor the concept of "morality" occurs on the pages about empathy. If "we've come to consider people and creatures as having intrinsic value and being worthy of profound respect," so what? Who is "we"? And if someone doesn't think that people have "intrinsic value... worthy of profound respect," what are you going to do about it? And if you are going to do something about it that involves force, like to stop a rape or a mugging, or the invasion of Kuwait, by what right is that? I suspect that the appeal to "consensus" is more like an appeal to numbers, which is really no more than an appeal to "might makes right." I have a right to enforce "empathy" on you because I have a mob behind me, who will hurt you if you don't obey.

As noted, Wilczek drops Hume's name in his book, without any clue what Hume thought about anything. But Hume is who Wilczek needs to enlighten him that whatever "new" things people believe about slavery or cruelty, moral duties do not follow from the mere facts of their belief.

Meanwhile, I have passed over Wilczek's discussion of the actual physics of Complementarity. What we get there is not what one might expect. Nothing about the Wave/Particle duality, for which we must have recourse to the discussion of Roger Penrose. Instead, all we get is Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, that we cannot precisely know both the position and velocity (actually, the momentum, kg*m/s) of a particle at the same time. Position and momentum multiply together in the units of Planck's Constant, which are units of angular momentum (J*s, N*m*s, or m2*kg/s) -- just another part of the mysteries of angular momentum. The wave function does come in for mention:

We can't do those two forms of processing at the same time. They interfere with each other. If you want to get position information, you must process the wave function in a way that destroys velocity information, and vice versa. [p.209]

But this overlooks the issue of the boundary, the transition from wave function to particle, whether one looks at the position or the momentum of the particle.

The issue of Complementarity is the question of when we get something behaving like a wave, and then how it becomes something that behaves like a particle. Behind this is also the issue of whether the wave is even a physical thing. Physicists may say that the wave function has "no physical significance," or that "unobserved things," like the wave function, "have no properties." However, great physicists like Louis de Broglie (1892-1987) or Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) both saw waves as physical realities equal to particles. Neither person, curiously, is mentioned in Wilczek's book, despite Schrödinger writing the actual equation for the wave function, and otherwise achieving popular immortality for the paradox of "Schrödinger's Cat." Wilczek couldn't come up with anything to say about either man.

Instead, Wilczek first sticks with Heisenberg:

At the level of physical behavior, this conflict -- this complementarity -- reflects two key points. The first key point is that to measure something's properties, you must interact with it. In other words, our measurements do not capture "reality," but only sample it. [p.210]

Wilczek likes this idea a lot. But what he doesn't explain is why the degree of imprecision of the measurement is limited by the value of Planck's Constant. Max Planck (1858-1947), although mentioned in Wilczek's book, does not come up in this context. Nor his Constant, which, however, is essential to the Uncertainty Principle: ΔxΔph/4π. The "interaction" of a measurement sounds pretty messy, so why should a basic constant of nature turn out to be part of it? It sounds like something more fundamental is going on, but Wilczek doesn't consider that. Instead, we need to recruit Niels Bohr for the measurement train:

...no sharp separation can be made between an independent behavior of the objects and their interaction with the measuring instruments. [ibid.]

Two problems here. One is the Bohr's own Copenhagen Interpretation, as I have mentioned above, dismisses the reality of "independent behavior of the objects." They only exist once they are measured. The other is that for the Wave/Particle Duality, this statement turns out not to be true. I have also already mentioned how a mere inference about the position of the particle collapses the wave function, without our touching the thing at all. In both respects, Wilczek's quotation may mean that we have not caught up with the development of Bohr's own thinking -- and the experimental evidence of things like the "spooky action at a distance," which Einstein hoped would discredit quantum mechanics.

But Wilczek likes the case of the Uncertainty Principle, and he keeps pushing it. Thus, "precise measurements require strong interactions," and "observation is invasive" [pp.210-211]. This leads to:

They [i.e. these phenomena] undermine, however, the world-model we build up as children, according to which there's a strict separation between an external world, which is "out there" and has properties that our observations reveal, and ourselves. According to the lessons of Heisenberg and Bohr, we come to realize that there is no such strict separation. By observing the world, we participate in making it. [p.211]

In one respect, this is quite right. Indeed, this is why I have described a "Kantian Quantum Mechanics," where the phenomenal world is a relation of internal and external, subject and object. Kant had the first such theory in the history of philosophy. His name is sometimes invoked in relation to quantum mechanics, but usually this means that someone has mistaken Bohr's anti-realism, where nothing exists before it is measured, for a Kantian theory. I don't know if there are any informed persons who have sorted this out. I haven't yet come across them.

On the other hand, Wilczek has entirely ignored something, namely the status of the wave function. If the wave function has a physical reality, as de Broglie and Shrödinger would have thought, then it exists independently and prior to any observation or measurement by us. Wilczek has skipped letting us know his thoughts about that. I am left wondering if he is even aware of the issue. But if the wave function is a physical reality, then "the world-model we build up as children" is still functioning and correct.

But to commit himself on that issue, Wilczek would need to directly face Complementary in its proper relation to the Wave/Particle Duality. There we simply have Bohr's principle that sometimes matter behaves as waves, and sometimes it behaves as particles. Never both at once. Richard Feynman made fun of this. But the difference is that waves exist independently of our knowledge, while particles exist once we have evidence to locate them. Waves, as it happens, are extended in space, which is why electrons can go through two slots at once in an experiment like that of Thomas Young, or why Einstein's feared "spooky action at a distance" in quantum mechanics can take place over cosmological distances.

The metaphysical choices for someone like Frank Wilczek may not be appealing. If the wave function simply has no objective or external existence, because it hasn't been observed, then the world only exists in the mind of the observer, as in Berkeley or Hegel. Some kind of "Idealism." If the wave function does exist objectively and externally, then there is an essential duality in the world between external and internal, as Kant would have thought. In neither of these, is "mind" simply an epiphenomenon of matter.

Indeed, an independently existing kind of wave function is a very odd type of matter, for the wave function is actually the sum of all possibilities, meaning that possibility, not actuality, is what is present in the external world. Equally odd is Feynman's version of the the wave function as "summing over histories" (derived from the Classical "principle of least action," which had always intrigued Feynman), since the histories go into the future. These are all very odd things, and not at all what a materialist wants to countenance, although it makes a substantial contribution to a metaphysical theory of possibility, which progressed little after Aristotle. Most modern theories of possibility, including in quantum mechanics, want to reduce it to the actuality of an infinite number of "possible worlds," meaning actually existing worlds ("many worlds" quantum mechanics), more of which are created every moment, despite troublesome "fundamental" principles like the Conservation of Energy, which must be constantly violated.

This is a potato too hot for Frank Wilczek to handle. So we hear nothing about it in his book. If it isn't Democritus, it isn't "science" to Wilczek. But, as we have seen, this means that he must leave out a lot about physics. He must leave out so much that it approaches distortion and deception, before we even get to his confusion about the moral force of "empathy," or his absurd inspiration of salvaging free will from the sterility of empty materialism. Thus, the interest of Wilczek's book lies primarily in what one can learn from other books, like those of Roger Penrose, and compare it with what Wilczek says. Perhaps this is not much of a recommendation, but I can do no better.

Some Metaphysics of Angular Momentum and Gravity

The Ontology and Cosmology of Non-Euclidean Geometry

"Einstein's Quantum Riddle," NOVA, January 9, 2019

A Summary of Modern Cosmology

Philosophy of Science, Physics

Reviews

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2021 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved