One of the wonderful things about science is its open-endedness. The planning and execution of experiments, the raw data, the conclusions often followed by more questions. At any point, things can lead to anywhere, sometimes even to the unbelievable. The border between science and philosophy can blur in an instant. Quantum physics, in particular, has provided ample fodder for creative interpretations due to the seemingly incredible interactions and laws governing subatomic particles. Extending the theories to their logical conclusions leads to all sorts of peculiar conclusions such as the multiverse or the universe being shaped like a horse saddle or the fact that if you run into a brick wall enough times, you’ll eventually pass through the wall unscathed and with the structure intact.
In The Vertical Ascent: From Particles to the Tripartite Cosmos, Wolfgang Smith comes to fascinating conclusions stemming from a lifetime spent problem solving in physics and mathematics. The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor turns his sights on the quantum realm and uses some of the field’s peculiarities to make a case for the primacy of classical objects, i.e. the real world dictated by Newtonian physics, over quantum particles. As Smith extends his argument over the course of the book, a familiar picture begins to emerge, albeit adorned with more technical bells and whistles. It’s the Watchmaker, most famously postulated by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature.
Smith’s argument begins with what he refers to as the “Tripartite Cosmos.” In his explanation, he describes a “two apple ontology.” In essence, he says that physicists assume that there is, categorically, only one apple, i.e., the apple that reduces to quantum particles, that can be described completely with mathematical equations. Smith asserts that there are two categories of the apple, one that can be described scientifically and one that is perceived. However, it is the observable world that is the true world. Although scientists describe red as the frequency of a light wave, and this is definitive of the color’s quantitative attribute, that is not the perception of redness. The perception, the experience, is something categorically (ontologically) different than something purely quantitative.
Smith stresses that, as far as science knows today, the only way that a quantum system comes into being (attains a position or momentum) is when it comes into contact with a “real” object, in the case of experimentation, a measuring device. This fact establishes the primacy of real objects (classical objects), over and above quantum objects.
The quantum world cannot be experienced because it lacks qualities (it lacks color, taste, texture, sound, etc.), though it can be described with equations. On the other hand, the corporeal (classical) world, i.e., that which has qualities (color, taste, texture, sound, etc.), thus can be experienced, are things that also have quantitative attributes (centimeters, grams, seconds).
With the ability to experience an object central to his argument, Smith argues that a conscious experience cannot be explained only by a material brain with its neurons, electricity, and chemistry. The brain, its neurons, electricity, and chemistry are exhaustively described by physics in terms of mass, amplitude, charge, etc., all of which, by definition, are things that are not conscious. To assume that getting enough of these non-conscious materials together will cause conscious perceptions, is similar to saying that as long as one looks at photos of birthday cakes long enough, out will pop a birthday party and cake, implicitly making the case for the human soul and all of the Pauline assumptions that go with it. Such assumptions are category errors and such errors happen by misunderstanding the difference between quantity and quality, the corporeal and the sub-corporeal. It’s a familiar argument often presented by intelligent design advocates, though he arrives at his conclusion with a few extra twists and turns than normal.
To borrow ideas from the discourse surrounding evolution, Smith’s vertical causation essentially reinstates a directionality to existence that quantum mechanical uncertainty stripped from it, only this time, rather than progressing horizontally (from simple to complex), it progresses vertically from the creator to the created, real world form, to the quantum particles Werner Heisenberg famously described as “entities between being and non-being.”
Wolfgang Smith’s notion of the Tripartite Cosmos as presented in The Vertical Ascent is in keeping with the times, to be fair. A quick search through Google or YouTube yields many brilliant minds resurrecting the Watchmaker analogy. No less than Elon Musk, Mr. Boring himself, has made the case that human beings are really just living inside a greater lifeform’s computer simulation. Or you can read Science and the Simulation Hypothesis: 5 Reasons We May Be In the Matrix published here in SCINQ. Whether there is any veracity in their hypothesis or not, they make interesting cases and are a hell of a lot better than other intelligent explanations in circulation.
IMAGE CREDIT: Eugene O’Neill