Archives for category: Bohm

Events rather than things

The West has, from the Greeks onwards, been ‘object-based’ as opposed to ‘event-based’ at any rate with regard to natural philosophy. The only prominent Western thinker to have seriously supposed that matter, and thus by implication the entire physical universe, was inherently unstable and might conceivably disappear into thin air, i.e. revert to the nothingness from which it came, was Descartes. But, being a believer ─ a deist at any rate ─ like practically everyone else of his time, Descartes was able to bring God into the picture  to save not just appearances but (physical) reality itself. Descartes would have had a much larger audience in India than in Europe and Stcherbatsky states that a remark of Bergson’s summarizing Descartes’ theory, once translated into Sanskrit, “sounds just like a quotation from a Sanscrit text” (Note 1).
But the resounding success of the Newtonian paradigm firmly based on the concepts of matter, force and motion silenced such mystical sounding speculations. It is only in the 20th century that we find natural philosophers, or ‘scientists’ as they now consider themselves, talking about ‘events’ as such at all. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity (SR) concern ‘events’ ─ “occurrences that every observer would agree took place such as an explosion” as the author of a textbook on Relativity defines them ─ rather than things and a good deal of SR is taken up with the (ultimately insoluble) problem of ordering events so as to plot the operational range of causality. Bertrand Russell remarks :“From all this [‘all this’ being a discussion of Relativity] it seems to follow that events, not particles, must be the ‘stuff’ of physics. What has   been thought of as a particle will have to be thought of as a series of events. (…) Thus ‘matter’ is not part of the ultimate material of the world, but merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles.” (Note 2)
But Russell  does not follow up this particular line of thought mainly because of his misguided belief that mathematics was essentially an extension of logic. A sceptic and a rebel with respect to so many leading dogmas of his time, Russell was not the main to question the dogma of continuity which is so deeply embedded in Western mathematics.

Fields
As for Einstein, his basic philosophic position is not easy to determine but seems to have been, at least during his middle period, that ‘fields’ were the primary reality. Ultimately everything was part of a single ‘Unified Field’ which was continuous, and ‘matter’ was merely “that portion of the field which is particularly intense“. This is, of course, incompatible with the basic assumption of Ultimate Event Theory, namely that reality is made up of discrete bundles of ultimate events. However, these ‘observables’ can be viewed as disturbances of an underlying, invisible, all-pervading substratum which is continuous, somewhat in the manner that ripples or foam are discrete disturbances of a fluid that is continuous (or at any rate appears so to us). So there is, conceivably, an underlying ‘continuous’ entity after all (as David Bohm for one believed) but such an entity, source and origin of All That Is is not directly observable and thus does not properly speaking fall within the remit of science.

Space-time ultimates
Whitrow, in one of his numerous books on time, advances the idea of a minimal unit of time, the chronon, and suggests a plausible value based on the diameter of an elementary particle divided by c the speed of light. This was the first time I came across the idea in a Western writer. Whitrow also has some useful comments to make on the illogicality of calculus which always treats time and motion as continuous variables but, like Russell, he does not pursue this line of thought.
More recently, in his very remarkable book, A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram writes:
The only thing that ultimately makes sense is to measure space and time taking each connection in the casual network to correspond to an identical elementary distance in space and elementary distance in time. One may guess that this elementary distance is around 10 (exp -35) meters , and that the elementary time interval is around 10 (exp -43) seconds.”    (p. 520)
        He draws the conclusion :
“Whatever these values are, a crucial point is that their ratio must be a fixed speed, and we can identify this with the speed of light. So this means that in a sense every connection in a causal network can be viewed as representing the propagation of an effect at the speed of light.”
        This certainly is a crucial point but I would prefer to see this fixed space-to-time ratio as simply defining the operation of causality, i.e. it is a speed barrier which no effect propagated from one ultimate event to another can exceed, or even attain (Note 2).
More recently still, Lee Smolin writes:
“If space and time consist of events, and the events are discrete entities that  can be counted, then space and time themselves are not continuous. If this is true, one cannot divide time indefinitely. Eventually we shall come to the elementary events, ones which cannot be further divided and are thus the simplest possible things that can happen. Just as matter is composed of atoms,  which can be counted, the history of the universe is constructed from a huge  number of elementary events” Lee Smolin, Three Roads to Quantum  Gravity p. 41-2  Phoenix Paperback Edition.
      However, Lee Smolin  writes in another place:
“A causal universe is not a series of stills following on, one after the other. [Why not?] There is time, but there is not really any notion of a moment of time. There are only process (sic.) that follow one another by causal necessity.”  (Ib. p. 55)

Process

Lee Smolin thus, seemingly, pins his faith on ‘processes’ rather than ‘ultimate events’, whereas, for me, a process is simply a tightly connected chain of  events : in UET, it is the constituent ultimate events that are fundamental, not  the ensemble.
Also, Lee Smolin, reverting to a conception of Leibnitz, dispenses with the independent existence of what I call the Locality :“There is no meaning to space that is independent of the relationships among  real things in the world. Space is not a stage which might  be empty or full [Why not?], onto which things come and go. Space is nothing apart from the things that exist; it is only an aspect of the relationships that hold  between things.” Ib.  p. 18
I don’t see this. Rather, if anything at all happens (and seemingly ‘something’ does), then it must happen somewhere and this ‘somewhere‘ must seemingly already in some sense exist, even pre-exist, otherwise nothing could happen because there would be nowhere where it could happen. Smolin even goes so far as to attack the very idea of Space-Time possessing a ‘structure’ and declares, quite incorrectly as far as I can make out, that this never was Einstein’s conception. From my point of view, reducing Space-Time to ‘relations’ is throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater. What Smolin views as the fictitious entity, ’empty space’, I see as the underlying reality while ‘relationships among real things in the world‘ are not even a secondary reality : in my book, they are still farther down the actuality scale, coming well after the ‘real things’ Smolin refers to (i.e. ultimate events).

Causal Set Theory
Causal Set Theory, a contemporary version (or extension?) of General Relativity that is, in this country, chiefly promoted by Professor Fay Dowker, is  the most appealing of contemporary cosmological theories because it maintains that ‘Space-Time’ is fundamentally discrete ─ “This reasoning [concerning the physics of Black Holes] leads us to the conclusion that every region of spacetime (and not only the horizon of a black hole) should be fundamentally discrete”. The quotation comes from Causal Set Theory as a Discrete Model for Classical Spacetime by F. Soss Rodriguez of Imperial College, London. This very professional article is available free on the Internet, or was when I downloaded it. It is not, however, for the general reader since it requires extensive knowledge of topology, logical theory and the mathematics of GR. Much more approachable is Introduction to causal sets: an alternative view of spacetime structure by David D. Reid, also available on the Internet.

A Contemporary Theory of Events?
Although Causal Set Theory is committed to discreteness, it is not essentially a theory of events and their interactions. On the other hand, A Formal Ontological Theory Based on Timeless Events by Gustavo E. Romero from the Instituto Argentino de Radioastronomia of Buenos Aires really is a genuine event-based physical theory, the first that I have come across from a contemporary thinker.
Although the author says at the beginning “I assume as background knowledge the predicate calculus, set theory, semantics, and real analysis”, the text is just about approachable by the general reader, at least in parts. The author covers much of the ground that I have laboriously been exploring since I first conceived of Ultimate Event Theory after reading Stcherbatsky’s great book, Buddhist Logic. Romero specifically mentions Buddhist thinkers as the leading promoters of the ‘event-based’ paradigm, admirably summarizing their position as
The whole world [for them] is an inter-dependent storm of events that, here and there, cluster giving the illusion of stability and delivering the illusion of being”.
Although the confident use of symbolic logic gives this paper a style and concision that I can at present only envy, there is a danger that the crucial philosophic issues ─ and by implication, physical issues as well ─ are not sufficiently highlighted. My main disagreement as far as I can see is as follows. The author quite rightly distinguishes between the Universe, U, which is “the composition of all things” and the World, W, which is “the composition of all actual events and processes”. Also, he writes, quite properly, Events do not change, they simply are”.
        However, he goes on to declare, “The totality of events is changeless, otherwise there would be an event not included in the totality, which is absurd”. But this is not in the least absurd! Unless, of course, one believes, as I suspect Romero does, that, as I put it, “Everything that can have occurrence already has occurrence”. This is indeed the view of Barbour, the author of The End of Time, and many others and is implicit in the Block Universe version of General Relativity (which is the current orthodox theory of Space/Time inasmuch as there is one). That Romero adheres to this view is shown by his defining the World as “the composition of all actual events and processes” ─ the weasel word being ‘actual’. Hopefully, not all possible events are also actual; for if they were/are there is “nothing new under the sun” and as far as I am concerned there would be no point in living.

Einstein and Time

Einstein, towards the end of his life, did indeed come to believe that ‘past, present and future’ were “a stubbornly persistent illusion“as he put it and he was serious enough about this to mention it in a latter of soi-disant sympathy to the widow of one of Einstein’s longest friends, Besso, on the event of the latter’s death. Nonetheless, there is evidence that Einstein was much troubled by the implications.
Einstein said that the problem of the Now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the Now means something essentially different from the past and future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation” (Note 3)
It is ironic that the Western thinker who first placed events rather than things under the spotlight, namely Einstein, was also the man who dealt a devastating, possibly lethal, body blow to the renascent event-paradigm. For Einstein initiated a re-examination of the concept of simultaneity and his ponderings ended up by establishing that the term has little or no meaning on a universal scale. That there are events that are not unambiguously ‘ordered in time’ ─ the so-called ‘space-like’ events of SR ─ led on eventually (sic) to the idea that “everything is simultaneous”, for that is what the Block Universe theory implies. For there is ‘no before and after’, only a sickly ‘eternal present’. Such a conception is, just possibly, ‘correct’ physically speaking but is utterly unacceptable psychologically: it would make nonsense of all our social institutions (especially laws) and inherited ways of thinking. It is far worse than the ancients’ blind belief in fate, for the latter only implied that certain events were predestined and unalterable, not that all of them were.
S.H.  4/12/19

Note 1. More specifically, Stcherbatsky quotes Bergson (Creative Evolution p. 23-24) as writing, “the world of the mathematician deals with a world that dies and is reborn at every instant, the world which Descartes was thinking of when he spoke of continuous creation”. Stcherbatsky comments, “This idea is quite Buddhistic and…put into Sanscrit… sounds like a quotation from an Indian text” (Buddhist Logic, footnote p. 109).
Quite why Bergson should have thought  that the mathematician’s world was instantaneous is unclear; certainly the world of Euclidian geometry is not in the least ephemeral, on the contrary it views shapes sub specie aeternitatis which is why Plato endorsed it so emphatically. Bergson was perhaps thinking of differential equations which model physical changes over increasingly smaller intervals of time, but, even here, continuity rather than discontinuity is the name of the game.

Note 2. It is traditional, but by no means obligatory, to identify the actual speed of light with this ‘maximum transmission speed‘ for all physical or informational processes. Quite possibly, light, likewise other speedy particles such as neutrinos, approach but do not actually reach this speed, which allows us to attribute to them a small mass. Today, the consensus seems to be that the neutrino does possess a small mass. To my mind, nothing material can have strictly zero mass: this is a contradiction in terms. A strictly massless particle is certainly impossible in Newtonian physics since it would have absolutely no capacity to resist any attempt to change its state of rest or constant rectilinear motion ─ it would be the ultimate puff-ball.

Note 3.  From Carnap, Intellectual Autobiography  (quoted Smolin).  “Moreover,” Smolin adds, “Einstein was not satisfied by Carnap’s reply and repeated that “such scientific descriptions cannot possibly satisfy our human needs; that there is something about the Now which is just outside the realm of science” ”       Smolin, Time Reborn p. 91-2

 

 

 

Benjamin Lee Whorf seems to have been the first person to point out how much English, and other European languages, are ‘thing-languages’, ‘object-languages’. By far the most important part of speech is the noun and though it is now accepted that not all sentences are of the subject-predicate form, once regarded as universal, quite a lot are. We have a person or thing, the grammatical subject, and the rest of the sentence tells us something about this thing, for example localizes it (‘The cat was sitting on the mat’), or enumerates some property possessed by the ‘thing’ in question (‘The cover of the book is red’). And if we have an active verb, we normally have an agent doing the acting, a person or thing.
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with such a linguistic structure, of course, but we are so used to it we tend to assume it’s perfectly  reasonable and irreplaceable by any other basic structure. However, as Whorf points out, it is not just applied to sentences of the type ‘A is such-and-such’, where it is appropriate, but also to sentences where it makes little sense. “We are constantly reading into nature fictional acting entities, simply because our verbs must have substantives. We have to say “It flashed” or “A light flashed”, setting up an actor to perform what we call an action, “to flash”. Yet the flashing and the light are one and the same!” (from Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality p. 242, M.I.T. edition).
The quantum physicist and philosopher, David Bohm,  seemingly unaware of Whorf’s prior work, makes exactly the same point.  “Consider the sentence ‘It is raining.’ Where is the ‘It’ that would, according to the sentence, be ‘the rainer that is doing the raining’? Clearly, it is more accurate to say: ‘Rain is going on’ (from Bohm, Wholeness and the Inplicate Order p. 29 ).
Whorf and Bohm clearly have a point here and the general hostility of the academic world to Whorf’s ‘Theory of Linguistic Relativity’ is doubtless in part due to their irritation at an outsider ─ Whorf trained as a chemical engineer ─ pointing out the obvious. Moreover, one would expect the syntax and vocabulary of languages to tell you something about the general conceptions, day to day concerns and modes of thought of the people whose language it is. After all, people talk about what interests them, and languages typically evolve to make communication about common interests more efficient (Note 1).

Even if this is granted for the sake of argument, one might still object that the subject-predicate structure and the role of nouns in English simply reflects ‘how things are’ ─ and there is only ‘one way for things to be’. Since ‘reality’ consists essentially of ‘things’, and relations between these things, isn’t it inevitable that nouns should have pride of place? Well, maybe, but maybe not. And Whorf, one of the very first ‘Westerners’ to actually speak various American Indian languages, was in a good position to question what practically everyone else had so far taken for granted. Amerindian native languages certainly are very different from any European or even Indo-European language. For a start, “Nearly all American Indian languages are either distinctly ‘polysynthetic’ or have a tendency to be so. At the risk of oversimplification, polysynthetic languages can be thought of as consisting of words that in European languages would occupy whole sentences” (from Lord, Comparative Linguistics). Out and out literal  translations from other European languages into English may sound clunky but are perfectly comprehensible, but literal translations from Shawnee or Nitinat sound, not just awkward, but half crazy. Whorf writes, “We might ape such a compound sentence in English thus: ‘There is one who is a man who is yonder who does running which traverses-it which is a street which elongates’ …... the proper translation [being] ‘A man yonder is running down the long street’.” Whorf adds, “Of such a polysynthetic tongue it is sometimes said that all the words are verbs, or again that all the words are nouns with verb-forming elements added. Actually the terms verb and noun in such a language [as Nitinat] are meaningless.”

Secondly, approaching things from the physical/conceptual side, there can be no doubt that native American tribal societies, untouched as they were by Christianity or Newtonian physics, really did have very different conceptions about the world from those of the incoming European settlers, which is one reason why this meeting of the cultures was so catastrophic. Sapir (Whorf’s first teacher) and Whorf believed that this double dissimilarity was not an accident and that the structure of native American languages indeed reflected a very different ‘view of the world’.
So what, in a nutshell, were these linguistic and ‘metaphysical’ differences? According to Whorf, most Amerindian languages are ‘verb-based’ rather than ‘noun-based’ ─ “Most metaphysical words in Hopi are verbs, not nouns as in European languages”. Worse still, “When we come to Nootka, the sentence without subject or predicate is the only type….Nootka has no parts of speech”. Why were they ‘verb-based’, or at any rate not ‘noun-based’? Because, Whorf argues, the Amerindian world-view was not ‘thing-based’ or ‘object-based’ but ‘event-based’. “The SAE (Standard Average European) microcosm has analysed reality largely in terms of what it calls ‘things’ (bodies and quasibodies) plus modes of extensional but formless existence that it calls ’substances’ or ‘matter’. The Hopi microcosm seems to have analysed reality largely in terms of EVENTS” (Whorf, op. cit. p. 147).

         Again, there seems little to quarrel with in Whorf’s claim that the SAE world-view, which we can trace right back to Greek atomism for its physics, really was ‘thing-based’ ─ “Nothing exists except atoms and void” as Democritus put it. The subsequent, more sophisticated Newtonian world-view nonetheless reduces to a world consisting of ‘hard, massy’, indestructible atoms colliding with each other and influencing each other from afar through universal attraction. Whether, the world of native American Indians really was ‘event-based’ in the way Whorf imagined it to be, few of us today are qualified to say ─ since hardly anyone speaks Hopi any more and even the most remote Amerindian tribes have long since ceased to be independent cultural entities. In any case, the complex metaphysics/physics of the Hopi as interpreted by Whorf is in itself interesting and original enough to be well worth investigating further.

To return to language. Assuming for the moment there is some truth in the Sapir-Whorf theory that language structure reflects underlying physical and metaphysical preconceptions,  what sort of structures would one expect an ‘event-language’ to have?  Bohm asked himself this but sensibly concluded  that “to invent a whole new language  implying a radically different structure of thought is….not practicable”. I asked myself a similar question when,  in my unfinished SF novel The Web of Aoullnnia,  I tried to rough out the principles underlying ‘Lenwhil Katylin’, a future language invented by the Sarlang, the first of the  Parthenogenic types that dominate Sarwhirlia (the future Earth).
For his part, Bohm proposes to introduce, “provisionally and experimentally”, a new mode into English that he calls the rheomode (‘rheo’ comes from the Greek ‘to flow’). This mode is meant to signal and reflect the “movement of growth, development and evolution of living things” in accordance with Bohm’s ‘holistic’ philosophy. Whorf, for his part, finds most of what Bohm is looking for already present in the Hopi language which typically emphasizes ‘process’ and continuity rather than focusing on specific objects and/or moments of time. Although both these thinkers were looking for  a ‘verb-based’ language, they were also firm believers in continuity and the ‘field’ concept in physics (as opposed to the particle concept). My preferences, or prejudices if you like, take me in the opposite direction, towards a physics and a language that reflect and represent  a ‘universe’ made up of staccato events that never last long enough to become ‘things’ and never overlap enough with their successor events to become bona fide processes.

Thus, in Lenwhil Katylin, a language deliberately concocted to reflect the Sarlang world-view, the verb (for want of a better term) is the pivot of every communication and refers to an event of some kind. In many cases there is no need for  a grammatical subject at all: events simply happen, or rather ‘become occurrent’, like the ‘lightning flash’ mentioned by Whorf ─ in the Sarlang world-view, all events are, at bottom,  ‘lightning flashes’. The rest of a typical LK sentence provides the ‘environment’ or ‘localization’ of the central event, e.g. for a ‘lightning-flash’ the equivalent of our ‘sky’, and also gives the causal origin of the event (if one exists). We have thus a basic structure Event/Localization/Origin ─ although in many cases the ‘localization’ and ‘origin’ might well be what for us is one and the same entity.
As to the central events themselves, the Katylin language applies an  inflection to show whether the event is ‘occurrent’ or, alternatively, ‘non-occurrent’. One might compare the inflection with Bohm’s ‘is going on’ in his formulation “Rain is going on” ― in LK we just get Irhil~ where ‘~’ signifies “is occurrent”. Being ‘occurrent’ means that an event occupies a definite location on the Event Locality and has demonstrable physical consequences, i.e. brings into existence at least one other event. Such an event is what we would perhaps call an ‘objective’ event such as a blow with a hammer, as opposed to a subjective one like a wish to be somewhere else (which does not get you there). But the category ‘non-occurrent’ is much larger than our ‘subjective’ since it covers all ‘general’ entities, indeed everything that is not specific and precisely localized in space and time (as we would put it). On the other hand, the Sarlang consider a mental event that is infused with deep emotion, such as a flash of hatred or empathy, to be ‘occurrent’ even if it is completely private since, they would argue, such events can have observable physical consequences. This is somewhat similar to the Buddhist distinction between ‘karmic’ and ‘non-karmic’ events: the first have consequences (‘karma’ means ‘action’ or ‘activity’) while the second do not.
After the ‘occurrent/non-occurrent’ dichotomy, the most important category in Lenwhil Katylin is discontinuity/continuity. Although the Sarlang believe that, in the last analysis, all events are a succession of point-like ‘ultimate events’ (the dharma(s) of Hinayana Buddhism), they nonetheless distinguish between ‘strike-events’ such as a blow and ‘extend-events’ such as a ‘walk’, a ‘run’ and so on. Suffixes or inflections make it clear, for example, whether the equivalent of the verb ‘to look’ means a single glance or an extended survey. And the suffix –y or –yia turns a ‘strike-event’ into an ‘extend-event’  when both cases are possible. Moreover, ‘spread-out’ verbs themselves fall into two classes, those that are repetitions of a selfsame ‘strike-event’ and those that contain dissimilar ‘strike-events’. The monotonous beating of a drum is, for example, a ‘strike spread-event’ while even a single note played on a violin is classed as a ‘spread strike-event’ because of the overtones that are immediately brought into play.
A further linguistic category distinguishes between events which are caused by events of the same type and events brought about by events of an altogether different type. In particular, a physical event brought about by a physical event is sharply distinguished from a physical event brought about by a mental or emotional event: the latter case exhibits ‘cause-effect-dissimilarity’ and is usually, though not invariably, signalled by the suffix -ez. This linguistic distinction has its origin in the division of perceived reality into what is termed ‘the Manifest Occurrent’, very roughly the equivalent of our objective physical universe, and the Manifest Non-Occurrent which consists of wishes, dreams, desires, myths, legends, archetypes, indeed the whole gamut of mental and internal emotional occurrences. Nonetheless, these two domains are not absolutely independent and the Sarlang themselves claimed to have developed a technique (known as witr-conseil) that transferred whole complexes of events from the Manifest Non-Occurrent into the Manifest Occurrent and, more rarely, in the opposite direction. Whatever the truth of this claim, the technique, supposing it ever existed, was lost for ever when the Sarlang, reaching the end of their term, committed mass extinction.                                       SH  13/1/18

Note 1 The standard argument against the ‘Linguistic Relativity Theory’ is that, if it were correct, translation would be impossible which is not the case. This argument carries some weight but we must remember that almost all books successfully translated into English come from societies which share the same general religious and philosophic background and whose languages employ similar grammatical structures. Few books have been translated from so-called ‘primitive’ societies because such societies had a predominantly oral culture, while Biblical translators ‘going the other way’ have typically found it extremely difficult to get their message across when communicating with  animists.
There may be something in Whorf’s claim that the Hopi world-view was closer to the modern ‘field of energy’ paradigm than to the ‘force and particle’ paradigm of classical physics. ‘Energy’ (a term never used by Newton) is essentially a ‘potential’ entity since it refers to what an object ‘possesses  within itself’, not what it is actually doing at any particular moment. Generally speaking, primitive societies were quite happy with ‘potential’ concepts, with the idea of a ‘latent’ force locked up within an object but which was not accessible to the five senses directly. It is in fact possible to formulate mechanics strictly in energy terms (via the Hamiltonian) rather than on the basis of Newton’s laws of motion, but no one ever learned mechanics this way, and doubtless never will, because it requires such advanced mathematics. It is hard to imagine a society committed from the start to an ‘energy’ viewpoint on the world ever being able to develop an adequate symbolic system to flesh out such a vision.