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FQXi FORUM
October 17, 2019

CATEGORY: FQXi Essay Contest - Spring, 2017 [back]
TOPIC: What does it take to be physically fundamental? by Conrad Dale Johnson [refresh]
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Author Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Jan. 30, 2018 @ 22:37 GMT
Essay Abstract

My working assumption here is unusual: that our current well-established theories already give us most of what's needed to explain the foundations of physics. These theories don’t seem fundamental, because we haven’t clearly understood what it takes to make a universe like this work. Specifically, I ask how it’s possible for a system of interactions to make any information about itself measurable and communicable, or even definable. Clearly our universe has this sort of functionality, though we take it for granted. Yet there are strong arguments that only a quite complex and finely-tuned physics could accomplish this. The question then is how a self-determining system like the physics of our universe could have come to exist. I sketch out one conceivable scenario, as a sequence of emergent levels, to show that it’s possible to address this question empirically, on the basis of current theory.

Author Bio

I have a long-standing interest in the foundations of physics and the evolution of Western thought, going back to my graduate work many decades ago in the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz. I’m grateful to FQXi for supporting this odd community, and for yet another crack at presenting and discussing my thoughts.

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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Feb. 1, 2018 @ 01:16 GMT
Dear Conrad Dale Johnson,

I agree with your basic assumption – "that we already know, to a great extent… what the base-level structures of our universe are." I also agree that the 'fine-tuning' problem is very key to the solution, and believe that the 'multiverse' or 'landscape' is the least imaginative solution to the problem. As you note, if the tuning were such that no...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 1, 2018 @ 14:46 GMT
Edwin Eugene,

Thanks very much! – I will certainly read your essay and respond to it. It’s very encouraging that my “mapping” in Part II seems reasonable to you. Though I’ve also spent a lot of time working on this approach, this is my first attempt at a presentation, and it seems to me painfully inadequate.

I’ll postpone discussing the issues you raise till I’ve...

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Marcel-Marie LeBel wrote on Feb. 1, 2018 @ 02:53 GMT
Conrad,

You say: “There were no rules or constraints at all, since there was no context in which any constraint could be defined”. In fact, there is the rule of non-contradiction, that protects and directs existence, identity and support all our maths?

...” we need to be more creative in considering what the “why”..” In my essay, I do proceed by asking “why” in order to eliminate the “how ” which requires an observer....

Good luck,

Marcel,

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 1, 2018 @ 15:16 GMT
Marcel,

Thanks for reading and responding. The thing is, there needs to be some context to define things before they can contradict each other, or not. In the scheme I’ve outlined in Part II, I try to show how mutually contradictory alternatives like +/– and left/right might first become definable within a system of other binary oppositions. The system that first gives meaning to the rule of non-contradiction seems to be the pre-metric structure of electromagnetism.

I’ll check out your essay soon.

Conrad

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John C Hodge wrote on Feb. 2, 2018 @ 19:00 GMT
Dr. Johnson:

I agree with you very good point that we already have the necessary model entries and data to obtain a next level model of the Theory of Everything. This includes a suggestion that until we do form a TOE with the available data, forming a more basic will be useless. That is, all the metaphysics stuff is a waste of time.

Hodge

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Luca Valeri wrote on Feb. 2, 2018 @ 21:06 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Nice to meet you again in this contest. We have similar topics but completely different ways on how the approach the topic. I think both believe, that the meaning of fundamental concepts depend on the context on which they are applied. The context in which our current theories apply is the actual universe with enough complexity to be able to create a web of meaning, that actually defines these fundamental concepts.

As I understand your essay in the early universe you see these conditions not as given. The primordial universe is a chaotic ocean of indeterminate events. With no structure and no laws. I like your archaeological picture of the remaining fossils of that time. Finally the microwave background is part of these fossils.

I could not follow you then on how our current universe then was created. However the question, how such a state can be described poses an epistemological problem insofar that we try to describe within our current context.

I did not try to answer that question in my essay. I was happy, that I could pose the problem.

Best luck for the contest

Luca

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 7, 2018 @ 14:46 GMT
Hi Luca – – Yes, I’m afraid my sketch of the emergence of our current world can be hard to follow. In physics we usually think in terms of causality – well-defined information generating more such information. What I have in mind here is rather what we see in quantum measurement, where definite information comes into being just to the extent that there’s a context to define it. I’ve developed that idea at more length in other essays. Here I summarize it briefly in Part I of the essay, and then try to show how this is relevant to understanding current physics. – – The basic idea is that what’s needed to set up a universe like ours is a system of contexts in which each type of information can be defined and measured, so as to provide contexts for other kinds of information. I argue that – at least in our universe – it takes all the complexity of atomic structure to support such a self-defining, self-measuring system. So in a sense, our current universe only came into being in the so-called “era of recombination”, with the emergence of stable atoms. Before that, the history that we can now reconstruct, all the way back to the earliest moments, would not have been distinguishable from any other set of events. – – Nonetheless, we can imagine a sequence of stages through which the physics of our current universe emerged from much more primitive self-defining systems. This gives us a way into the analysis of physics from a functional standpoint – a kind of analysis that’s unfortunately only vague suggested in this sketch. – – Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! – Conrad

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Wilhelmus de Wilde de Wilde wrote on Feb. 3, 2018 @ 15:21 GMT
Dear Conrad,

I have read your comment on the essay of Marc Seguin, it gave me the reason to red your own essay and make some remarks:

“So not only are the deep structures of physics bizarrely complex and counter-intuitive, but it seems they might have to be like this to function as the basis for any higher-level structure.” The basic of your quest is indeed the counter intuitive,...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 7, 2018 @ 15:12 GMT
Dear Wilhelmus – – Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the essay. In answer to some of your questions – – As to what makes it possible for cells to reproduce, of course their constituents and structure are both needed. Most importantly, even though self-replication is what’s fundamental, from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t work by itself. This kind of foundation is not something that stands alone, not needing anything beyond itself. As a general principle, everything needs more than one kind of basis to be what it is. – – As to the “infinity of axes” – even within one reality, from one point of view, we can choose any set of axes we like. But our 3-dimensional space needs 3 orthogonal axes to define it, and these are given in the structure of electrodynamics. – – I don’t see any reason to deny the existence of other “realities” – other self-defining systems emerging in the underlying plenum of unconstrained events. But I don’t get how that’s relevant to understanding the physics our universe – I’ll check out your essay and see if it helps me. Thanks again! – – Conrad

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Ines Samengo wrote on Feb. 9, 2018 @ 10:32 GMT
Dear Conrad,

I have finally managed to come back to your essay. Really interesting, and fluent to read, congratulations! And the basic idea, that of co-emergence of observers and contexts, is – I believe – a deep and crucial one. So I start by saying that I truly like your idea of contextuality, including the complementarity (and perhaps circularity) between the main characters exchanging information and the contexts in which they move. If I only managed to set the necessary and sufficient conditions that define contexts in specific situations, I would be able to make huge progress in many questions, including several of my ongoing research projects. I have been working on this front ever since last year's contest, and it has actually made a difference in the way I stand before my work. So thanks for that.

Now going to the details, there are two points that I am still pondering.

First, I am not sure that our universe needs to be exactly the way it is for it to “work”. I do agree that a small change in fundamental constants would blow ourselves up. Yet, I do not see why perhaps a larger change of constants carefully tuned in some other region of parameter space could not give rise to some other interesting universe. One containing subsystems (as ourselves) that wonder about their ontology. They need not be based on the chemistry of carbon, they may well be completely different, as long as they have the enough complexity to have the feeling they exist. I have the impression, however, that the number of interesting universes is vastly smaller than the number of possible universes. Not that I have made the calculation, this is just an impression. But I am not sure we need to justify why things are exactly the way they are in order for existence to be possible. Maybe there is a certain range of alternatives. So when you say “I want to ask what it means – and what it takes – to be a foundation for a world like ours”, I am not sure we should aim at exactly a world like ours, or to a somewhat broader set of worlds containing the interesting stuff. If we only aim at exactly our world, I fear we might be restricting ourselves to certain particular choices that are not actually fundamental. My project, however, requires us to define precisely what I mean by “the interesting stuff”, or what you mean by “a world like ours”. Which worlds are those?

Second, and assuming we already know which those worlds are, I would suggest to do the search in the opposite direction. Instead of starting from all possible universes and trim them down to get to our world, I would try to define the set of worlds we want to arrive at, and work backwards. Like those children puzzles that look like labyrinths with several entrances and one exit, where you have to draw the path that takes you from one entry to the exit. They are easier to solve backwards, because the problem has a definite target, but the starting position is undefined. The necessity of each decision thus becomes more evident, because an alternative decision would take us away from the target. I know this may well have been the path in which you thought your deduction, and then you wrote the final version in the forward direction. For me it would have been instructive to know your internal backwards process, so as to follow it more transparently.

This year I will be rating all essays at the end, because last year I was left with the sensation that my criterion evolved as time went by, and my marking was inconsistent. But rest assured you’ll get a good one from me!

I've still not been through Marc's essay, but will do so very soon. See you there!

inés.

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 14, 2018 @ 18:12 GMT
Dear Inés,

Thanks for your very encouraging comments. The support from you and Marc in particular, in the last contest, gave me the nerve to attempt something in this essay that I knew would be difficult for readers to follow, so I’m not hoping for high ratings. But it seemed important that I try to show how these ideas can at least in principle be useful in explaining the strange combination of theories on which physics is currently founded. Hopefully, a first step toward a clearer and more coherent presentation.

In response to your particular comments:

>> If I only managed to set the necessary and sufficient conditions that define contexts in specific situations, I would be able to make huge progress in many questions…

I’m very interested in how this problem appears to you. We have amazingly powerful tools for analyzing certain aspects of the world – involving entities with intrinsic properties in one-on-one relationships with each other, where the context is defined by abstract parameters (like space, time, temperature). The challenge is to develop adequate tools for dealing with systems more generally. In physics, biology or the human world, relationships depend on a context of other relationships, and of other kinds of relationships… and the contexts that relationships make for each other are rarely reducible to any simple structure of parameters.

Physicists tend to bracket off the question of context, treating “the measurement problem” as a technical issue in quantum theory, with little relevance to other lines of research. I imagine that in neuroscience the problem of interdependent contexts is much harder to ignore. Generally, the difficulty in understanding contexts is not only their complexity, or interdependence, but also that they involve multiple layers of functionality that are hard to sort out. I have some ideas about a categorial framework for distinguishing levels of functionality, along with the layers of context-structure that correspond to each… as exemplified none too clearly in Part II of this essay. This obviously needs a lot of work and a fuller presentation, but I hope someday to make it useful.

>> First, I am not sure that our universe needs to be exactly the way it is for it to “work”… I do not see why perhaps a larger change of constants carefully tuned in some other region of parameter space could not give rise to some other interesting universe… My project, however, requires us to define precisely what I mean by “the interesting stuff”, or what you mean by “a world like ours”. Which worlds are those?

I agree that there could well be very different kinds of self-defining worlds – worlds “like ours” only insofar as the various kinds of information that define them would all be measurable in terms of each other. Maybe that could be done without atoms, or in a completely different spacetime – I don’t think “fine-tuning” offers any evidence against this possibility. But the fine-tuning of the one universe we can investigate does strongly suggest that the requirements for any system that supports quantitative measurement are both stringent and complex. That gives me hope that eventually we’ll be able to explain most of the diverse complexities of physics in our universe as necessary to enable this one particular informational system to define and communicate itself.

>> Assuming we already know which those worlds are, I would suggest to do the search in the opposite direction. Instead of starting from all possible universes and trim them down to get to our world, I would try to define the set of worlds we want to arrive at, and work backwards… For me it would have been instructive to know your internal backwards process, so as to follow it more transparently.

That makes very good sense… to start by formulating general conditions for any self-determining system. I wish I could have done that… but at least it’s something to work toward. Meantime, it would have helped a lot to explain my internal process. Basically, I began with a schema worked out over many years for describing the stages of emerging functionality in systems of relationships – the “categorial framework” mentioned above. That gave me a map for laying out the “forward” approach, starting with “anything goes” – the superposition of all possibilities. The problem is that to explain this map would require a more philosophical context and a much larger scope – so again, something to work toward in future.

I truly appreciate your making the effort to consider these issues with me. And by the way, evidently you found time this past year to dive rather deeply into the wonderful world of quantum theory! Hope you’ve been having fun in other ways as well.

Conrad

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Ines Samengo replied on Feb. 18, 2018 @ 16:25 GMT
Hey Conrad, you are too modest! I think you make an important contribution! Whether other readers notice it or not, I cannot say. But in my humble opinion, you are taking the path that needs to be taken, that is, get one’s hands dirty in the attempt to really exhibit the consequences of the hypothesis that our universe might be, as Wheeler put it, “a self excited circuit”. Or, in your words, that the universe is the way it needs to be in order to be observable from within. We may later discuss whether the exact path you have taken is the most convenient one, whether we should start from one end or from the other, but ultimately, those are implementation details. The important thing is that all of us who like the self-excited idea really engage ourselves in defining the implications of that idea, and come up with some concrete consequences. Otherwise, we simply remain at the enunciation stage, where we make the self-excited statement, and that’s it. Your essay is very important as an attempt to go further.

I myself have been trying to think about these consequences ever since I read Marc’s and your essays last year. My dream would be to deduce certain properties of the world around us (some characteristic of the basic equations, the 4-dimensional structure of spacetime, or some other aspect) from the self-excited hypothesis. Needless to say I have made little to no progress. What I am demanding is very difficult! But we must still try, and your essay is one such attempt. From my side, as I commented above, I would start at the other end, for which we need to list the requirements for conscious observers to exist. The ones I have come up with are roughly the following:

- observers must be small compared to the whole. This means, the whole cannot be conscious, only small subparts can.

- observers must have a sense of identity, some sensation that certain parts of the world constitute an “I”, and all the rest does not. I believe that both sensory systems and the illusion of free will are required for the notion of I to emerge. One must realize that one can control certain parts of the universe (some of our thoughts, some of our movements, etc.) and not others (the parts that are outside ourselves).

- observers must have a memory. Memory is required for two things. First, for the notion of “I” to emerge. Second, for the world to be observed and kept track of. If we forget everything instantly, then there is no way to model the world.

- The requirement for memory to exist implies two things. There must be something like time, and such a time must have a well defined direction of flow. I tend to think time must be a 1-dimensional “thing”, but to be honest, I am not sure what this means. Could time have more dimensions and still be time? If time has a direction, then there must be irreversible aspects in the evolution of things. The universe must start with order and tend to disorder, at least, when observed at the scales of observers. The storage of information in memory is an irreversible process, so time must be perceived as flowing in the direction of increasing disorder.

This is as far as I got. As you may have noticed, these requirements are not carefully defined, and probably there are more to be set. I just want to mention these thoughts to you, so that you realize that (a) you are not alone in the search for consequences of the self-excited hypothesis, and (b) that I find the problem very difficult, and am myself pretty much stuck in the search.

Ok, I send this for the time being, and hope to be able to write to you again soon, to tell you why I believe this duality between system and context is important in my research. I first need to polish the ideas! It’s quite amazing how unpolished our thoughts can be, if we do not share them!

More soon!

Inés.

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 24, 2018 @ 17:16 GMT
Dear Inés,

Thanks so much… it feels splendid to have partners in this quest. Your note makes clearer to me what you mean by “searching in the opposite direction.” And your thoughts about what it takes to make a conscious observer are very interesting – I particularly like that “the illusion of free will is required for the notion of I to emerge.” It’s not just Input/output, in other words, this business of sensation and control, there needs to be a sense of agency, maybe even of overcoming frustration, consciously choosing, etc. But it seems to me a very positive outlook that sees the value in some of our illusions.

“Consciousness” has of course a very broad range of meaning… especially, I would think, for someone professionally occupied with the neural networks both of humans and invertebrates. My sense is that the most important thing needed for the “I” to emerge is a certain kind of back-and-forth connection with “You”. For us, this is the kind of connection in which language naturally grows; we learn to see the world as we learn to listen to others and talk with them about what’s going on. But I think there are deep analogies between what we do and what happens in physics, between atoms. My thought has been, if we try to identify all the most basic requirements for what we humans do, and also for what atoms do, this gives us two very different and complementary perspectives on what it means and what it takes to exist.

Just by the way, the more I think about atoms, the more amazed I am at how unappreciated they are. We used to think of them just as irreducible bits of various types of matter… but then, as soon as we found out that was wrong, we got involved in going deeper. And the subatomic world was so completely intriguing and unexpected… that atoms themselves fell into the background. It’s somehow been nearly overlooked, that all this complication is needed to make atoms work the way they do, in so many ways. If there's no "I" there, exactly, there's certainly a remarkable back-and-forth connection with the world, with other atoms.

When you get a chance, I would really like to hear your thoughts on “system and context”. I happened to run across your 2013 paper on Noise Correlations in Neural Decoding – way over my head, of course, but just the abstract is so interesting! If there’s any possibility at all of “decoding” the crosstalk of neurons, it seems very important to be able to ignore the broader context of correlations. So I can at least begin to see how this issue appears in your work.

Thanks again - Conrad

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Feb. 10, 2018 @ 02:26 GMT
Hi onrad Dale Johnson

Nice analysis...." Clearly our universe has this sort of functionality, though we take it for granted. Yet there are strong arguments that only a quite complex and finely-tuned physics could accomplish this. The question then is how a self-determining system like the physics of our universe could have come to exist."

Here in my essay energy to mass conversion...

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Member Marc Séguin wrote on Feb. 12, 2018 @ 04:41 GMT
Dear Conrad,

I read you article a while ago and annotated it, but only now, at last, have I found time to comment on it! Sorry for the delay…

As our conversations during the last contest attests, we do share similar views about what an “ultimate”, maximally explaining theory should be. I like your focus on the functional importance of interactions, measurement and communication, as essential features of any universe that can self-determine itself, and thus be truly said to exist.

I find the scenario that you sketch (interaction – reconnection - balancing opposites, etc…) bold, ambitious and thought-provoking, and I realize it is just one conceivable scenario. But some aspects of it I find a little difficult to grasp or make sense of. For instance, I’m not sure I would agree that “before there were any atoms in the universe, physics as we know it would not have been definable”. Surely, an universe made only of photons would still have measurable properties, for instance, the relationship between the wavelength of the photons and the expansion of space… Could it be that, instead of having to reach at least atomic-structure level to be defined, a universe has to reach consciousness-level in some of its sub-structures? As you know, this is the thesis I find most believable, the existence of conscious sub-structures being the very condition that makes a mathematical structure become, “seen from the inside”, a physical universe…

I agree with you when you say that it is “perfectly possible for any kind of system to emerge within this chaos, so long as it could provide its own constraints”, and that we live in such a self-defining system. As you so eloquently put it, we can think of our laws of physics as “selection rules, picking out random events in an underlying chaos that just happen to fit together, making contexts for each other […] in the big picture everything happens, but only what happens to follow all these rules can make any definite impact on other things. The rest remains “virtual” – a subliminal ocean of indeterminate events.”

Your concept of the “Archaeology of Physics” is fascinating… it would be indeed amazing if we could find “layers of pre-metric structure” in the basic structures of physics today. You mention that electromagnetism could be such a pre-metric level… perhaps… but I have to confess that I found this part of your argumentation a bit strange and hard to make sense of. It is, of course, extremely ambitious to imagine how the physics of our universe could have, in a certain sense, “evolved” out of chaos. I will keep thinking about it…

Of course, that’s what the best essays in this contest do, make you think… Thank you for, once again, a strong entry. I hope that my up-vote will give you a little bit more visibility…

Marc

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 16, 2018 @ 18:50 GMT
Dear Marc –

I’m deeply grateful to you and Inés for taking my efforts seriously, and I realize that’s not easy to do. I was determined in this essay to sketch out my draft “archaeology of physics” even though I knew it would be hard to follow, mainly to overcome my own doubts that I could make it seem sensible at all. Since I’ve worked hard to make all my previous essays cogent, I felt this time I could reach a bit further, expose something that’s very much work-in-progress.

I was very glad that you found connection between our perspectives on many points… but I’ll focus here on what you found problematic.

>> “I’m not sure I would agree that ‘before there were any atoms in the universe, physics as we know it would not have been definable’. Surely, a universe made only of photons would still have measurable properties, for instance, the relationship between the wavelength of the photons and the expansion of space…”

The notion that atomic structure is needed to make any kind of information definable is surely hard to swallow. In our universe, photons have wavelengths that get red-shifted with the expansion of space, and that doesn’t seem to have much to do with atoms. But I don’t see how anything at all would be measurable in a universe made only of photons. Unless there’s something to detect the photons, and something to measure space and time, I don’t see how wavelength would be definable.

The historical aspect of my claim seems more glaringly wrong. Our best theories tell us that all kinds of particles, even a lot of helium nuclei, were out there interacting at high energies in very complex ways, long before there were atoms. No one seems to wonder why all this pre-existing structure turned out to be perfectly arranged to make atoms… but I think my approach to this makes sense, and is quite in keeping with the evidence of “delayed choice” experiments in QM. That is, before the emergence of atoms, all kinds of interaction-structure were possible. With the emergence of a context in which space and time and material structure were finally determinable, only the past history that produced atoms could be relevant as a basis for the future history of our universe.

>> “Could it be that, instead of having to reach at least atomic-structure level to be defined, a universe has to reach consciousness-level in some of its sub-structures?”

When I first read that, I thought you were suggesting there could be sub-structures at the sub-atomic level that were in some sense “conscious”. Probably that’s not what you have in mind… but anyway, I went back to your last essay on “Wandering Towards Physics” to check on how you use that word. By the way, I was again really impressed by the scope and depth of that essay, a masterly piece of work! And from your initial quotation from Fuchs to the end, you treat consciousness as a matter of having a “first-person” point of view, “from inside” the world. You also sometimes include “self-awareness” as a criterion.

It seems fairly clear that a photon doesn’t have a point of view, or if it does, it’s limited to a view of two simultaneous instants, its emission and absorption. Electrons and other fermions are in contact with other particles over time, and constantly change their internal phase in response, and are also self-interacting. With atoms we have intensely self-interactive nuclei and electron-shell structures that exchange compound messages (photons carrying linear and angular momentum) with other atoms, as well as providing the basic structure needed for any kind of clock or measuring-rod. So maybe it does make sense to think of “self-aware sub-structures” as emerging here in stages. In any case your notion of “co-emergence” is appropriate to describe the way various kinds of primitive structure make contexts that help define each other.

>> “… it would be indeed amazing if we could find “layers of pre-metric structure” in the basic structures of physics today. You mention that electromagnetism could be such a pre-metric level… perhaps… but I have to confess that I found this part of your argumentation a bit strange and hard to make sense of.”

It’s obviously my fault, not yours, that this is hard to follow. My first two stages in Part II are at least a bit plausible, and the last two are just hand-waving, with no real attempt at explanation. But I knew I’d have trouble with the section on electromagnetism, which is very awkwardly half-explained. Pre-metric electromagnetism is indeed a thing – unfortunately all the papers I’ve found on it are very technical, and I haven’t yet been able to translate them into a clear mental image. I would at least have liked to make a complete inventory of this system of mutually-defining, bilaterally symmetrical variables, but didn’t have the time or space even for that.

Maybe I also failed to make clear that I consider the universal attraction of gravity and the balancing expansion of the universe, the phase-interference of quantum systems and the gauge-symmetries of the nuclear forces all to be layers of pre-metric structure in our current physics. The great obstacle to here is my lack of clarity about how the final stage might work, to quantify all these diverse aspects of the world and incorporate them into the structure of atomic interaction in continuous spacetime.

I have to confess that I still feel doubtful whether I can make these conjectures clear and presentable. Happily, the standards for these contest entries are not so rigorous! It makes a great difference to me to get these thoughts into print and in public, though I know I’m presuming more than I should on the patience of my readers. It makes it more possible to envision what a really successful version might look like.

Again, many thanks for your help –

Conrad

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Terry Bollinger wrote on Feb. 17, 2018 @ 03:07 GMT
Conrad,

I was intending to give a detailed response to your essay this evening, but I can't. Why? You are saying a lot of important things, and it’s going to take me a while both to digest them and to understand them fully. While it is a secondary issue in terms of rating essays, I also suspect (but am not quite sure yet) that we share a number of important ideas, but express them in somewhat different ways.

Meanwhile you get a 9 from me for factual accuracy, understanding of the topic, depth of analysis, clarity of writing, and what I would judge a nicely novel approach to how “fundamental” physics came about in our universe. Good work.

Cheers,

Terry

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James Lee Hoover wrote on Feb. 20, 2018 @ 00:24 GMT
Conrad,

Like a "once upon a time" narrative, clearly explaining the story of our development without the need for fancy formulas. It's a story that tells itself with a natural force of symmetry and structure, almost like it was constructed by an unseen master builder with natural fine-tuning. The fundamental thing is that it was an accident -- or was it?

Enjoyed your narrative. It rates well. I never considered this story myself. Hope you can check out my story.

Jim Hoover

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Jonathan Kerr wrote on Feb. 20, 2018 @ 18:24 GMT
Dear Conrad,

Good to hear from you - I have happy memories of the 2012 essay contest, and the discussions we had, particularly with four of us - You, me, Edwin and Daryl Janzen. It felt good as I had been working alone for too long. There were also occasional posts from Ben Dribus and George Ellis.

Thanks for your comments on my essay, much appreciated. I’ve just read yours, and will read it again - it’s very far-reaching, and is thought provoking - it makes one stand back further than usual.

Correct me if I’m wrong - you’re talking about emergence, and mechanisms for the emergence of, among other things, time. But you’re not talking about time emerging from the standard four-dimensional block of block time, which means your view is not the view that I’ve been arguing can’t be true.

My argument against emergent time, if it’s seen as coming out of the standard interpretation of SR, is that the laws of physics were frozen into the time sequence of the block at a deeper level than anything like a ‘flow of time’ that somehow emerged later. So if we think an apparent (or real) flow of time, like the one we seem to observe, emerged, we’re then left with a coincidence to explain - why was what emerged so appropriate?

If it emerged at a shallower level, it would have been largely unconnected with the laws which it then neatly allowed to function. And yet the laws look like they were waiting for it to arrive. No-one has refuted this argument so far, though some have said they like it. One physicist said the coincidence might be explained by anthropic reasoning - that’s not my view. My view is NOT that is shows time to be fundamental, but just that time looks unavoidably more fundamental than some of the laws.

Returning to your essay, you seem to be doing something a bit like Lee Smolin’s attempt to find a way for the universe to have created itself in a series of stages, with his ‘cosmological natural selection’. Am I right? It seems that way. There also seems to be an analogy between a living system and the universe - perhaps it’s only an analogy, or are you saying that it’s more than that?

The emphasis on measurability and the self-defining aspects of a system, obviously seems to come at least partly from QM. If it comes only from QM, my view is that we shouldn’t infer too much from a mystery that is still unsolved, and unexplained. But perhaps you take more of a range of sources than just QM, and perhaps the analogy that relates us to the wider universe is a part of that.

Incidentally, I don't agree that we have enough to explain the foundations of physics within our current theories - the mystery about energy that I've outlined in the last few paras of my essay shows, for me anyway, that there are still major unknowns to be discovered.

Anyway, wishing you the best of luck... good to read your essay, I’ll read it again.

Cheers, Jonathan

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 20, 2018 @ 19:32 GMT
Jonathan,

Your comments are much appreciated! For now, just a brief response to a couple of points:

You’re right that my emphasis on measurement comes from quantum theory. Since I’ve developed that connection in previous FQXi essays, this time I focused instead on fine-tuning and the argument from the context-dependency of information. But once I finally pull all this together, the title might well be Why Quantum Mechanics Makes Sense – arguing that any universe in which any kind of information is definable has to have a foundation much like QM, particularly as regards the role of measurement.

I think the reason measurement still seems like an inexplicable mystery is that its functional role hasn’t been appreciated. We still tend to assume things “just exist” in themselves, without needing any context to define what they are. “Observing” then seems merely incidental to physics, and the object-observer relation gets discussed with no consideration for the informational environment that makes it work.

Lee Smolin’s book on The Life of the Cosmos made a case that we need something like a theory of evolution to answer the big “”Why?” questions in physics, and I certainly agree. But his theory of self-replicating universes seems far-fetched to me, partly because it requires so many assumptions about black holes and inheritance of variation that have no solid basis in established theory. More importantly, I think there’s an important evolutionary aspect to physics that’s grounded not in replicating information, but in measuring and communicating it. I discussed this in my last essay on the Accidental Origins of Meaning, talking about the ways natural selection works in physics, biology and human communication. I also wrote about QM in an earlier essay on The Evolution of Determinate Information. What I’ve tried to outline here is something more primitive, the emergence of basic features of our universe that precede the beginnings of quantitative measurement.

Looking forward to further discussion in both our threads – and thanks again!

Conrad

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Jonathan Kerr replied on Feb. 21, 2018 @ 18:08 GMT
Hi Conrad,

I'm wondering what you think time emerges from, I have trouble seeing time emerging from anything static. But if it emerges from something that moves, then time exists already, so one still needs to explain it. That why I don't think emergence works in the context of time, certainly not for the apparent flow of time, and to me not for its direction either (which I'd say is a far smaller mystery). I think when we eventually understand time, we'll also understand its consistent direction. And probably not before.

I agree it's surprising that the universe is measurable, definable, and (as others have also said) comprehensible, but I don't find a need to see it as having made itself so - I'd say the more surprising thing is that we can find out about it, and work things out about it - from our end. That's a more conventional view than the idea that it comes from both ends. I guess to me the universe is mostly hardware, though QM does suggest what used to be called the software/hardware entanglement.

Anyway, best wishes, Jonathan

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 21, 2018 @ 19:18 GMT
Hi again… good question! No, I don’t see time as emerging from anything static… or moving. I imagine the beginning as a plenum of happening, but with no given order or connection between events… hence no definable space or time. The events that make up our observable universe are a very tiny subset of these events, that happen to be able to define their order and connection, by conforming to the laws of physics.

So don’t I think of the emergence of time as something that happened once and for all, way back when. I agree it doesn’t make much sense to say, there used to be a time when there was no time, and then time began to exist. Rather, the emergence of time keeps on happening in every local present moment. The laws of physics guarantee that in every situation, there’s some way of defining what happens next.

At the level of classical physics, this works so well that we can imagine the laws as divinely ordained from the beginning; we can imagine that things automatically “obey” these laws with mathematical precision – though in fact, it would take a vast computing power to calculate the real-time motion of just a handful of particles. At the quantum level, it becomes clear that something different is going on – contexts are being set up that randomly choose a particular outcome, passing that information on to other contexts where other choices can get made. In the deep quantum vacuum anything is possible – but the only possibilities that can participate in our observable world are those that help keep the process going… “time” being one basic aspect of this process.

Don’t know if that will make sense to you, but that’s my thought. And that’s why I think of defining and measuring as fundamental – because I don’t see anything as “hardware” that just sits there and keeps on being itself “over time”. Incidentally, I noticed in your last comment to Marc Séguin about the map and the territory – “that something, somehow, was doubling as its own description.” That might apply here: the universe is what it is, insofar as it’s able to describe itself. Information about things doesn’t just “exist” in the things themselves; it also gets communicated out through contexts of interaction that make it physically observable to other things, and therefore meaningfully definable. Otherwise its “existence” would be an empty concept.

Thanks for giving me another shot at this…

Conrad

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Steven Andresen wrote on Feb. 22, 2018 @ 07:05 GMT
Dear Conrad

If you are looking for another essay to read and rate in the final days of the contest, will you consider mine please? I read all essays from those who comment on my page, and if I cant rate an essay highly, then I don’t rate them at all. Infact I haven’t issued a rating lower that ten. So you have nothing to lose by having me read your essay, and everything to...

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Philip Gibbs wrote on Feb. 24, 2018 @ 14:05 GMT
Conrad, I have now read your essay after replying to your comment in mine. I am glad to see that some of my reply fits with some of your ideas.

I like your physics archaeology and the sense that all levels are part of the picture. The sections about networks and loops also rang true to me, but the ideas are still a little too vague to really get a handle on. I hope you will be able to take them further.

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Feb. 25, 2018 @ 11:00 GMT
Dear Conrad Dale Johnson, your essay is a scientific picture of the world, in which is the main question - What does it take to be physically fundamental? I'll try to answer it as it looks New Cartesian Physics, which is based on the principle of identity of space and matter of Descartes. For a long time believed that the Foundation for fundamental theories is matter, an attribute which had mass. Once there was a formula of mass – energy equivalence, and mass lost the status of a value characterizing the amount of matter, about it rarely began to remember and physics has lost the Foundation. Any theory of everything is created in such circumstances would not be fundamental. The principle of identity of space and matter of Descartes, according to which physical space is matter and matter is space that moves, gives us the Foundation for fundamental theories.

When Copernicus asserted that the Earth revolves around the Sun, he had to add that along with the Earth revolves around the Sun, all the solar space. Space is what created the universe. Time is a synonym for universal movement of the physical space. Thus, space is the Foundation for fundamental theories. Space contains information about the development of the Universe. Space is the body of God.

The principle of identity of physical space and matter allows us to extend physics to living matter. For this we need to pay attention to the fact that matter within the body is the same as outside the body. Our brain creates an image of the outside world not within themselves and in the space around them. This way the outside world has an active nature, as it controls the body.

New Cartesian Physics needs your support to develop further. Visit my page and give your assessment there.

I hope on highly appreciate her ideas.

FQXi Fundamental in New Cartesian Physics by Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich

I wish you success! Sincerely, Boris Dizhechko

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Gregory Derry wrote on Feb. 25, 2018 @ 23:20 GMT
Conrad--

Interesting and enjoyable essay. I don't have the time and energy to record all of my thoughts on it, so I'll just ask one question that I think is interesting. Do you regard the narrative you offered here as being compatible with the more conventional narrative of spontaneous symmetry breaking at later times and lower energy regimes in the evolution of the universe, or would you regard it as a competing and incompatible alternative to that narrative? Your thoughts on this will be illuminating.

I hope you have time and inclination to take a look at my essay too. It is quite different from yours but I suspect you will enjoy it and find it stimulating. Thanks.

--Greg

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 22:11 GMT
Greg – I did read your essay and am much in sympathy with your point of view… I’ll leave you some comments when I get a chance. I’m glad you enjoyed mine, and your question is a very good one.

I’m not exactly sure how to explain the compatibility of these two stories, but I wouldn’t offer mine if I thought it flew in the face of the evidence… and there is quite a bit of evidence for many aspects of the “conventional narrative,” though maybe not for the symmetry-breaking part. But most physicists find the apparent convergence of coupling constants at higher energies to be very suggestive, at the least.

The conventional view assumes that all the laws of physics were well-established (almost) from the beginning. In my view, this history makes sense retrospectively – even though before the emergence of atomic structure, the quantitative features of the quarks and leptons and their various modes of interaction would not have been definable. My “alternative” story doesn’t take place along a well-defined historical time-line, because it has to do with the emergence of time and space. But my thought is, once our current universe was able to define itself, it could also define its history back (almost) to the beginning. If and when I manage to rewrite this more carefully, I’ll try to show that this makes sense… as it is, a lot of this is just “conceptual intuition.” Which should certainly not compete with empirically grounded theory!

Thanks – Conrad

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Armin Nikkhah Shirazi wrote on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 17:57 GMT
Dear Conrad,

Your essay contains many different threads of thoughts but the single one I appreciated most is that you are trying to delve more deeply than many people in fundamental physics today. You are not satisfied by simply elucidating the mathematical patterns of nature, but try to understand what they signify in a physical sense as well as how it all fits together in a "big picture",...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Feb. 26, 2018 @ 21:18 GMT
Armin – I’m very pleased that you read the essay and left me such thoughtful comments!

1-2. I can understand your confusion with this – I did not make clear in the essay what I had in mind with “anything was possible... no rules or constraints… so everything happened.” I certainly agree that the distinction between actualities and possibilities is key to understanding QM,...

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Armin Nikkhah Shirazi replied on Feb. 27, 2018 @ 07:52 GMT
Dear Conrad,

Thank you for your reply, I understand your perspective a bit better now. I just want to comment on the last point: Yes, Zeeman, Hawking, Malament and a few others have come up with topologies specific to spacetime, but overall, it is my impression, to the extent that anybody thinks about this matter, people consider these as little more than toy models which, to put it bluntly, have failed to live up to the promise of leading to any new extratopological insights. I had a brief discussion on this with Robert Geroch a couple years ago, and he conveyed to me that for a while in the 70s this was a hot topic, then people proved everything they could about it, and then they moved on. Nowadays, people think of the topology of spacetime more in terms of the Alexandrov topology.

Having said all this, recall that part 2, when it is finished, will present an attempt to integrate the concept of existence into physics. This will, I believe, open a whole range of new questions one could ask, and one of these pertains to topological implications. Specifically, I have a suspicion that one may be able to use it to define a novel homeomorphism that distinguishes spacetime from Euclidean four-space (arising from the fact that in the latter there is no such thing as a partition of existence in n-dimensional space by absolute dimensionality; that seems to be a feature of spacetime) and which induces the difference in metric signature between the spaces. Unfortunately, it will be a while before I can take up this thread because I am already behind on working out so many others. The main point is that while I agree with you that there is a topological distinction, this is by no means universally accepted.

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Juan Ramón González Álvarez wrote on Feb. 27, 2018 @ 13:52 GMT
"Its three basic forces are “unified” mathematically". Weak and electromagnetism aren't unified in the Standard Model because each interaction is described by a different boson.

"Now the fact that things are observable is so obvious that it’s always been taken for granted". It depends on what one means by observable. If we restrict the term of human observers, then observations did...

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