Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cosmology and Purpose

Those dancing strings sure can make the world odd..
As I finished up my reading of Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds yesterday, I'll freely confess that large chunks of it came off as coherent as Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.  As uffish in my study I thought whilst sitting by the Tumtum screen, the words describing string theory and superstring theory came whiffling through my tulgey brain, and burbled as they came.

Part of this...a large part of it...comes from the inhuman scale of quantum mechanics.  I'll catch images here and there, as my spacetime-formed mental clutch graunches gears mightily against eleventh dimensional cogs.   The best I can get are approximations, images that rise out of my knowledge base in a feeble attempt to represent a reality that is utterly beyond my capacity to experience.  As I struggled to conceptualize strings, the best I could do was think of those little wiggly dragon tongues from James and the Giant Peach.  When Kaku got into talking about the challenge in modeling the music of membranes, the dimensionally expanded forms of string theory that provides the "M" in "M-theory," I found myself thinking of drum-heads.

This is the pesky thing about being a mystic and not a mathematician, I suppose.  The swirl of symbols that Kaku doubtless uses to conceptualize these things are surely more precise.

Then again, when it comes time to lay out the "why this matters" conclusion, the summative chapter of Kaku's book has no answers.  As far as Kaku is concerned, the structures of the universe may prove to be elegant and beautiful mathematically.  But there's no meaning to be found there.  He writes:
...I do not believe this design gives personal meaning to humanity.  No matter how dazzling or elegant the final formulation of physics may be, it will not uplift the spirits of billions and give them emotional fulfillment.  No magic formula coming from cosmology and physics will enthrall the masses and enrich their spiritual lives.  (p. 358)
And then, Kaku goes on.  While he claims not to derive his ethics from his cosmology, the purpose Kaku finds in life is remarkably relativistic.  We build our own meaning, says he.  Meaning is what we make of it, nothing more, and nothing less.

Being a good sort, Kaku tries to articulate this in a way that affirms some generally good stuff.  If we're really creating meaning, then, well, we're going to create good meaning.  Work hard!  Love people!  Carpe Diem!  Be a mentor!  Work for justice!  Dominate the globe with your unstoppable army of quantum-forge-powered robots!

Well, not that last one.  Kaku's brilliance in cosmology seems to wander into Joel Osteen's shallow waters when it comes to ethics.   It's earnest and well-meaning self-actualization talk, but without a clear vision of what that might mean relative to concepts like "good."   He tries, for a whole page, to talk purpose and ethics, but it's just a gloss.  A pity, because the vision of being he proposes does seem to give a foundation for talking about "good" in terms that integrate with his physics.

When he talks about fulfilling potential, it feels for an instant like he's catching the importance of intentionality in an m-theory universe.  When he talks about the fundamental unity of quantum reality, it almost...almost...feels like the foundation of the mystic ethos.    But those things flutter away, undeveloped.

No matter.  It's still a faskinatin' book, and Kaku's efforts to translate this mindboggling complex stuff into lay language are to be strongly commended.