Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Life, the Universe and Everything

Here is my perspective on the scientific ‘mysteries of the universe’. Some of these ideas are fashionable in one form or another, but many features are unique to my own view of cosmology.

You can download the full article in pdf at: King, Chris 2003 Biocosmology Monograph

The Fractal Cosmology of Biological Tissue

The first is that life is a fractal consequence of the laws of nature. I sent you before an illustration of the inflationary theory which links the microscopic relationships between the fundamental forces, in symmetry-breaking, with the cosmological level, in the big-bang and the idea that the biota are a cosmological Sigma – the culmination of interactive cosmology, in which the Alpha of the big bang and the Omega of the final heat death, or big crunch, are really only more trivial aspects of a greater living synthesis.


Hierarchical interaction of the four forces results in molecules. Wave orbitals and their non-linear charge interactions result in fractal molecular dynamics emergent structure.


We can see how this works initially as a hierarchy of the forces, the quarks firstly forming protons and neutrons by the colour force, and then atomic nuclei by its secondary effects, all balanced by the weak force turning protons into neutrons and vice versa, generating the periodic table, as stars reaching the end of their life use up their hydrogen and reach their final stages of gassy red giants. We then have the electromagnetic force kicking in at lower energies to form electron-bound atoms and then molecules. Even though the electromagnetic force is the most understandable of the forces, it never completely resolves itself, because of the intrinsic non-linearity of the charge potential involved in the chemical bond, so we find a cascade of chemical bonding effects, beginning with strong covalent and ionic bonds, disseminating into polar, H-bonding, van der Waal’s and other effects, which also become more globally cooperative as their strength weakens.


Tissue is fractal in structure from molecular complexes (a)
through cellular organelles (b) to whole organs (c).


This means that tissue, i.e. biological matter, is the ultimate product of the laws of nature, in much the same way that the Mandelbrot set is said to be the most complex mathematical object discovered. And it is the brain that is the quintessential expression of this process in interactive terms, in a closing circle, in which the quantum realities underlying biology and all physics merge with the mysteries of subjective consciousness and ‘free-will’.

A number of people write a lot of fantasy, particularly on the internet, about emergent properties of life, fractal structures, and theories of everything, and I spend some of my time debunking these hopeful monsters, yet the overall picture is genuinely fractal.

The Quantum Butterfly Entangling the Will to Order

The next connection is between chaos, fractality and the quantum realm. There are two kinds of unpredictability that confound the pristine deterministic straight-jacket of the Newtonian or Laplacian universe. The first of these is the butterfly effect of chaos – its unpredictable sensitivity to initial conditions, in which a vanishingly small initial variation can lead to catastrophic fluctuations of the outcome.

This links to another fallacy of the will to order – the idea that new order comes, not out of manipulating old order, but out of the rich fractality of the chaotic regime, and transitions from chaos to order. Many studies lead us to the idea that complex systems, from biological evolution to the conscious brain, operate on the edge of chaos and use transitions from chaos to order to induce new structure and hence new complexity.


Walter Freeman’s model of olfaction uses the broad spectrum chaotic dynamics (above) to invoke a transition (bifurcation) from high energy chaos (inhalation) to existing or new attractors (exhalation) as the energy is reduced (below).


One key application of this idea is to perception, cognition and the sudden insight of ‘eureka’. Many brilliant discoveries, including Archimedes’ principle, come about because an intractable problem, which has resisted all logical brute force attempts to conquer it, becomes solved in a flash of insight. Likewise perception, say of smell, is conceived as a neurodynamic transition from high-energy chaos to a lower energy attractor, or a creation of a new one, through learning, in a bifurcation from chaos to order.

When we come to look at the brain, although the actions of neurons might seem to operate away above the level of single quantum transformations, there are a variety of ways in which events at the quantum level can become amplified to become a global change of brain state. Chaos, self-organized criticality (a system which tunes itself to critical & often fractal instability) and so-called stochastic resonance can each result in the effects of a single ion channel triggering a neuron which then succeeds in altering the global dynamics. When the global brain state is critically poised, it may become super-sensitive to perturbations at the quantum level thus enabling quantum fluctuations to influence the brain state enough to cause a bifurcation altering conscious experience.

At the molecular level, quantum effects in biology are central to many processes. Vision, at least in the frog’s rod cells, is capable of responding to a single photon. The limit of hearing involves oscillations of the cochlear membrane of only the order of magnitude of a hydrogen atom. One molecule of a pheromone is enough to signal the presence of a female butterfly. Furthermore, similar couplings of one or two molecules will trigger an ion channel and and trigger neuro-excitation. Other effects, such as quantum tunneling are critical to enzyme action.


Ordered and ‘chaotic’ wave functions of an excited hydrogen atom, in a strong magnetic field. Scarring in the lower diagrams shows how wave aspects of quanta can suppress classical chaos by enhancing the probability of periodic orbits which would classically be repelling. This restriction does not apply to open systems.


We thus find there is a diffuse interface between classical chaos and instability, and the quantum fluctuations we associate with the second form of unpredictability – quantum uncertainty. Although in closed quantum systems, such as the atomic nucleus, the wave nature of the quantum appears to suppress many of the features of classical chaos, even when the dynamics would favour it, the situation is very different in open systems such as the kinetic billiards of biological molecular dynamics where quantum chaos remains a reality.

Quantum uncertainty has been the other great loophole cited by physicists as a possible basis for the unpredictability we associate with free-will and has been put forward by physicists, as a potential solution to the problem, from Heisenberg to Eddington’s suggestion that the uncertainty of the position of the synaptic vesicle in relation to the thickness of the membrane is sufficient to trigger free-will, on down to modern speculations in consciousness research by people such as Roger Penrose.

Although a ‘building block of the universe’ determinist, living in a Pavlovian paradigm of social conditioning, might see the whole notion of free-will as a subjective delusion of a biological robot, all sane people, and the rule of law and accountability, depend on the concept of personal autonomy we feel over our individual actions. Without this, we would, in all honesty, become catatonic over our morning cup of coffee, there being no autonomous basis for any action, and the truth a helpless unconscious determinism.

Into this heady mix has entered the intriguing discovery of quantum entanglement, stemming from the ‘EPR experiments’, in which seemingly unrelated phenomena which are linked by more than one particle in the same wave function, have a hidden connection, so that measuring the state of one, instantaneously results in the other having a complementary state, without requiring the time light would take to pass between to cement the relation. Although this cannot be used for classical signaling, it has become the basis of a variety of intriguing paradoxes and potential avenues to quantum computation through superposition.

This brings us to a related paradox that is at the core of the arrow of time and the apparent reversibility of all quantum interactions and is an oracle for all our ideas of temporal mortality and the seemingly eternal nature of space-time, which may explain the mysterious role of consciousness in the universe.

I want to describe to you an idea about quantum entanglement that may help to explain why we are conscious and why free-will may be a real part of how the sentient universe works.

This theory comes a couple of decades later, from a weird experience that happened to me as a student. We had just had our first baby daughter. I had read a famous book called “An Experiment with Time in which JW Dunne proposed that people dream as much about the future as about the past. I had a double nightmare that I was being horribly stung, told my wife about it as she got up to feed Arwen, and went back to sleep. About an hour later I was stung wide-awake by a wasp that flew in the morning window she had opened and got caught in the bed covers. This event seriously undermined my Newtonian view of the causal universe, but it took a very long search to find a possible answer in physics.

Back to the Quantum Future

Having looked at all kinds of faster than light interactions and exotic particles such as gravitinos, I finally discovered a much simpler explanation, right at the foundation of the quantum fabric. It has to do with real and virtual particles and the paradox between reversibility and the arrow of time.

The most distant galaxy with a red shift of 6.99 is only 700 million years after the big bang.

If we look out at a distant star or galaxy, the light reaches one’s eye long after it was emitted, sometimes so long ago that we are looking back almost to the origin of the universe. This is because all real quanta are retarded – that is they are absorbed after they are emitted and reach subsequent points at later times. Why are all the real positive-energy particles retarded? It’s not entirely clear, because quantum theory is time reversible and special relativity specifically admits both retarded and advanced solutions, the latter of which tend to be summarily discarded. One theory is that the big bang is a reflecting condition that reinforces only the retarded ones.

However all the forces of nature are mediated by virtual particles, which come into existence only by uncertainty and these don’t have to have positive energy and their Feynman diagrams are exactly the same if you replace a particle by its anti-particle (and a photon is its own anti-particle) traveling backwards in time.

Moreover virtual photons do become real if we give them some extra energy, as for example when we oscillate the field in a radio transmitter, when the virtual particles in the electromagnetic field become the real photons carrying the top ten and the world news.


(a) Transactions result from constructive interference between offer and confirmation waves from the emitter and absorber (b) The EPR experiment as a transaction (c) Positron creation-annihilation is time-reversed electron scattering.


One intriguing model of quantum theory is John Cramer’s transactional interpretation, which explains this situation nicely. It posits that when any quantum e.g. a photon is exchanged between an emitter and an absorber, the emitter first sends out an ‘offer’ wave and the potential absorbers respond with a ‘confirmation’ wave traveling backwards in time. Once the two have settled on a transaction, which is much like an internet match-making service hand-shaking across space-time, the transaction is formed by the constructive interference of the two, which could be interpreted either as a positive retarded or negative advanced quantum.

The transactional interpretation neatly explains all the spooky quantum entanglement situations as well. In the traditional EPR experiment, the two particles in the same wave are correlated because the two detectors send back confirmation waves to the common source, which thus has implicit information about their configuration at the outset, in forming the transaction across space-time, without any signal passing between the detectors.


Wheeler delayed choice experiment. If we use interference, the photon is found to have gone both ways round the galactic lens by superposition. If we use a particle detector, it went only one way. But the choice was made after the photon passed the galaxy!


This also explains a very puzzling aspect of quantum theory typified by the Wheeler delayed-choice experiment. If we go back to star-gazing, suppose I am looking at a very distant galaxy, gravitationally lensed by a closer galaxy. By choosing whether to make an interference test or put in separate particle detectors, I can establish that a given photon either traveled round one side of the lensing galaxy or both – after the photon has already passed the lens! Thus by changing how we receive it, it is as if I can retrospectively alter how it traveled here! Even more paradoxical, my own existence in the future is only a quantum contingency, like Schrödinger’s cat – just one of many parallel probability futures.

Many scientists object to the idea that the observer’s eye can have any active role, because it is the positive energy of the emitter that determines the process. Naturally it is hard to image that my passive eye, which is only a future contingency, can play any part in determining how a photon is released on the hot surface of a bright young star, which might also radiate its energy into empty space if the universe expands forever. But if the universe is self-contained and we are all part of the cosmic wave function, perhaps all particles, like the virtual ones, are ultimately suspended between an emitter and absorber and all events are caught in the cosmic quantum entanglement in a kind of eternal ‘implicate order’ – a network stretching from Alpha to Omega, which however has the paradoxical property that, as we cut a swathe through life we are altering which eternal multi-verse is the one actually being manifest in history. Everyone, from Jesus to Napoleon, and you and I too, alter the history of the universe in this way without having an eschatological handle on the final cause, because our boundary conditions are only a part of the matchmaking with the undetermined future, enticing us in a handshake, just as our eye does, to the distant galaxy at the dawn of time.

My understanding is that free-will and consciousness exist because the universe is super-abundant – there are far more possibilities can exist than the number which can coexist in space-time simultaneously, just as there are far more viable DNA sequences than the number of organisms that can exist on planet Earth, even in a million years, so a major part of how the universe functions is to reduce the super-abundance of possibilities to a realizable set of realities. This is also where multi-verses and parallel universes come into the picture and the idea of some physicists that consciousness collapses the wave function, thus causing Schrödinger’s cat to be alive or dead, rather than suspended all the way in between, as the probability interpretation and wave superposition suggests.

The brain uses the phase coherence of it’s excitation waves in very much the way quanta use the phase of their waves to maintain coherence e.g. in a laser. In the brain, in one key model of attention and perception, those excitations which oscillate in phase together are recognized from the random groundswell of other excitations and become a connected dynamical system, leading to the perception or recognition of a stimulus.

My idea is that the brain does more than this. It also acts as a transactional emitter and absorber of excitations, which leads to it having an intrinsic biophysical way of anticipating the immediate future, that is entirely complementary to the sort of deductive logic we usually associate with the computational idea of intelligence, reason and cogitating brains.

Humans by and large are very bad calculators. Except for a few idiot savants and the rare numerical genius, we can barely keep seven digits together let alone manipulate them, which for a brain with 100 billion neurons and maybe a thousand trillion synapses, this looks a trifle silly. Maybe the brain is doing something else altogether.

Try to look back at how we got to be conscious sentient beings and to imagine all these wild-eyed ideas like God and divine destiny of apocalypse and you run straight into life at the water hole.

What makes subjective consciousness valuable, and why it may have been selected by evolution, is not mental calculation, but an immanent sense of foreboding that enables the antelope to jump out of the way and thus survive against the odds, just as the leopard leaps on the prey. No amount of computational calculation can tell us which is the safest route to the water hole, because, whichever route might look safer, or figures to be so, this will have also been taken into account by the predator and compensated for in the hunt. The computational open problem is intractable, and so a robotic antelope would be pounced upon at the forking of the paths, catatonically unable to decide which way to go, because the computation times involved stretch out exponentially towards the entire lifetime of the universe.

This is why the brain evolved to be conscious and why the ephemeral phenomenon of free-will interacts with physical matter. Rather than merely being a computer, subjective consciousness is intuitively and immanently anticipating reality in the raw, and free will is not subject to the dictates of circumstance, or conditioning, because most of the time there is no ‘right’ choice, but a plethora of enticing possibilities beckoning us, all of which are viable alternatives, and it is up to us, as the ‘grim reapers’ of reality, to decide which route to take, and thereby collapse the wave function of the universe irretrievably, all the way to the river.

This is another manifestation of the superabundance of the universe and in my view is central to the quest of meaning and being. We are here to participate in the unfolding of the universal state of awareness and bring about the joyous cosmology of existence, by anticipating the very process we are invoking and through our compassionate awareness bringing about a more blessed and more conscious state of existence.

References:
King, Chris 2003 Biocosmology Monograph

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2 comments:

Robin said...

With the CPR experiment, what is the force that binds the two particles in the first place. Can one of the particles be bound to another once separated, such that it now reflects spin in relation to the new particle. If so the the force that connects them in the first place must still act until cancelled out by the new interaction. So what is the original force of connection? I’m a novice so speak slowly please.

Dhushara said...

This is the billion dollar enigma question. Bell's theorem says we cant think of it in terms of local causality. David Bohm suggests it is driven by a non-local quantum potential, but the transactional interpretation implies the future and the past are bound together in a hand-shaking across space-time which means we can't model the interaction in terms of past causing future - i.e. initial conditions and causality. I take the transactional approach as a key to understanding how consciousness may anticipate reality by using quantum entanglement in a way which no causal process e.g. classical computation can replicate - hence its role in biology. In a sense all particles are 'bound to one another' since they all emerged from the cosmic wave function.