Saturday, August 17, 2013

Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics and Death

The New York Times recently (August 13) published an article about the problem of what happens to an object that falls into a black hole; more specifically, what happens to the information encoded in such an object: will that information be lost or (somehow) preserved?That was the gist of it anyway; the problem is complicated and elicited a wide range appropriately learned comments, arguments and explanations. By the time the editors had stopped accepting such contributions there were 372 of them, one of which was mine which was neither complicated nor learned but was accepted anyway.

Why all the fuss? Because that question about the loss or preservation of information is at the center of quantum mechanics in the form of a law, which says that information is always conserved. As you probably know there are a number of such conservation laws in Physics. All of these have been repeatedly tested and confirmed. Until now, perhaps.

I think that the law of conversation of information is violated every time an organism dies, or a great library is burned, and I said so:

Why has no one mentioned death in this controversy about information and whether or not it is conserved? Dead men tell no tales, right? (Well, there are those who believe that there is life after death, of which I am not one.) When we die ALL the information that has been somehow encoded in our brains disappears. When the sun becomes a red giant and gobbles up this planet, all the information stored in it and on it will be gone, forever. Can I prove that? No. But I know it and so do you—most of you, at any rate.

These remarks were mostly ignored or received with hostility—one fellow said I had my facts wrong, another that by saying I knew something which I could not prove I was revealing a religious bias.

Now, having given the problem a little more thought, I realize that I ought to have more forcefully acknowledged the fact that the conservation of information law is one of the foundation principles of the Standard Theory, and has been verified over and over again. Then, the point I should have made is that information has only been shown to be conserved in laboratory experiments at the atomic or sub-atomic level; never in the macroscopic world that we live in. A black-hole, however, brings both realms together; we know or think we know what happens to a macroscopic object that gets pulled into a black hole and disappears.  Though it will probably never happen, it is theoretically and practically possible for a spaceship with people in it to encounter the gravitational field of a black-hole and be sucked into it. At that point it makes sense to ask what happens to the information encoded in that spaceship and in the bodies and brains of people in it. What I am claiming is that all that information will be lost forever. Which, of course, is what happens when we die; or, when a great library, like the one in Alexandria, burns.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

A. N. Wilson's take on Hitler

Whatever Mr. Wilson writes about, he illuminates—Jesus and St. Paul for example. When I discovered that he had also written a book about Hitler, I read it wondering how he could have found something new and illuminating to say about that demonic character. Well, he did find something new to say about Hitler, something new and wrong-headed. Hitler, he says is the "cloven hoof of the Enlightenment. . . . He believed in a crude Darwinism as do nearly all scientists today and as do almost all 'sensible' sociologists, political commentators and journalistic  wiseacres. He thought that humanity in its history was to be explained by the idea of struggle, by the survival of the fittest, by the strongest species overcoming the weaker. Unlike the Darwinians of today, Hitler merely took his belief to its logical conclusion. Hitler's crude belief in science fed his unhesitating belief in modernity." It's surprising to hear such stuff coming from Wilson, who it seems is a more fervent and dogmatic Christian than I'd expected. It's not that Wilson is wrong in what he says about Hitler; it's irrelevant. Ww2 was a continuation of ww1, so that's where one has to start. When you do that you start with the fact that Germany hated the Enlightenment and in this she had deep affinities with the reactionary doctrines of Joseph de Maistre. This is something that a great historian such as Wilson ought to have been aware of.

Here is how the high-minded German philosopher and theologian Ernst Troeltsch, writing in 1922, tried to explain what had been at stake for Germany in 1914 when she forced an only too willing France and Britain to go to war:

The peculiarity of German thought, in the form in which it is nowadays so much emphasized, both inside and outside Germany, is primarily derived from the Romantic Movement... Romanticism too is a revolution, a thorough and genuine revolution: a revolution against the respectability of the bourgeois temper and against a universal equalitarian ethic: a revolution, above all, against the whole of the mathematico-mechanical spirit of science in western Europe, against a conception of Natural Law which sought to blend utility with morality, against the bare abstraction of a universal and equal Humanity. Confronted with the eruption of West-European ideas of Natural Law, and with the revolutionary storms by which they were accompanied, Romanticism pursued an increasingly self-conscious trend in the opposite direction of a conservative revolution. In the spirit of the contemplative and the mystic, the Romanticists penetrated behind the rich variety of actual life to the inward forces by which it was moved, and sought to encourage the play of those forces in a steady movement towards a rich universe of unique and individual structures of the creative human mind.

What he doesn't say is that the ruling classes in Germany wanted above all to preserve their power and privileges and hated England not only because she had the empire that Germany coveted, but especially because England—even the England of Downton Abbey and all that—had a degree of parliamentary democracy that Germany hated and feared. WW 1, therefore, was from the beginning aimed at England.  Belgium, for example was to be annexed in order that Germany might have—in addition to the industrial resources of the country—a position on the English Channel from which to harass and threaten English shipping and sea-power. Anyone interested in this subject should consult Germany's Drive to The West: A Study of Germany's Western War Aims During the First World War by Hans W. Gatzke, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966).

[See also my remarks on Troeltsch's theory of German Romantic thought, 3-24-2008; also, As Germany Saw It, 3-21-2008.]