Physics: Points of uncertainty

Many human procedures are based on reliably identifying points in space and time.   Points are specified directly, as in ten miles north of here, or at 15:00 hours, or indirectly, as in where the electron is found, or as soon as the cage is opened.   Either way, the mind assumes these points to provide useful markers and measures of reality.   But does this idea stack up as anything more than a cognitive convenience?   What can be learned about the mind’s identification of such points, plus its use of them to map out reality?

For practical measuring purposes and related calculations, everyday ideas of points in space and time meet various cognitive and theory-based requirements.   But what happens when we try to determine exactly what a point is?

If for example, we talk about the point where a car starts its journey, it appears that whether the reference is to a supposed point in time or in space, neither can be specified with the exactness we imagine.   Allowing for the inertia of the car plus some elasticity of its materials, there can be no exact moment when the entirety of the car suddenly begins to move – or when its understood state of rest ends.   And given the bulk of the vehicle, there is obviously no exact point in space that defines where the car really is.

This thinking suggests the concept of points compromises our potential for a fuller understanding of reality, at the same time as we rather reflexively ignore philosophical weaknesses with how we thereby construe that reality.

To calculate for example, the average speed of a car over a long journey, we might consider these finer details to be of negligible importance given their impact on our calculations will also be of negligible importance.   But is the same dismissive approach appropriate when seeking to uncover possible errors in the human mind’s normal framing of reality?

In more exacting fields such as physics, a point in either time or space is theoretically an exact position, and as such it cannot logically be either a period of time or a volume of space – no matter how small either might be imagined.   Specifying anything exactly is logically incompatible with it having a measurable amplitude in the dimension(s) of that specification, since having a measurable amplitude in either space or time implies a range of values that by definition negate exact specification.   Another way of stating this is simply that exactness allows no latitude.   An exact point in space or time cannot have any amplitude within whichever dimension(s) it is considered to be an exact point.

Hence, the concept of a point in the sense widely used throughout physics should not be considered to just have some infinitesimally small amplitude at least, not unless infinitesimally small is taken to signify absolute zero.

Philosophically, this presents a problem: surely any thing that has this zero amplitude aspect is of a purely conceptual nature, and must be devoid of any physical world correspondence?   Furthermore, if what we think of as points logically cannot have any existence within the physical world, how can we observe them or base any practical measurements on them?   We can’t.

Therefore, regardless of whether the goal is calculating some parameter of a car journey, or specifying temporal and spatial parameters of sub-atomic particles, any given specifications based on observations cannot be exact in the manner we routinely imagine.   Any observable phenomenon must have some amplitude to give it the girth that makes it observable in the first place.   Just as the car occupies a spatial volume that prevents incontrovertibly specifying its position as a given point, so does the sub-atomic particle.   At least, this is the case as long as the particle is believed to be some sort of physically dimensioned thing.   Theoretical physics now dabbles with ideas of electron clouds – or even fields in which the importance of the particle concept may be diminished or abandoned.

Whatever the case, conventional conceptualizations of atoms rather nullify our everyday notions of a world made from continuous materials; correctly or not, that world is instead thought to be constructed of particles with space between them, or alternatively, rather mysterious fields that fit theoretical frameworks much easier than they do common sense.   But much as these ideas feel awkward, the basic concept of atoms and component parts of some description is hard to dismiss, given it is the closest we have come to envisaging any basic building blocks of everyday materials.

It is in any case obvious that our attempts to comprehend whatever is going on at the atomic scale are somewhat founded on our ideas of the way things appear on the human scale.   For example, the supposed orbiting of electrons around a nucleus obviously resembles the orbiting of planets in our solar system.   But how appropriate is it to import the model of the one into the other?   Was such early theorizing about the atom simply conditioned by observations of space?

Although we can technologically probe the substance of the sun and the planets and observe their unique formation in relative detail, this is considerably more difficult with atoms and their particles.   Possibly only as a result of major research challenges, we do not generally consider sub-atomic particles to have the highly unique formations we see in the planets; we simply assume that different particles have different properties – but that they are all identical once such differences are taken into account.   Basically, protons are protons, electrons are electrons and so forth.   However, there is no immediate way of telling whether this is an appropriate stance or not, or even if the particle model is appropriate – and these questions underline how the mind’s ideas are limited and coerced by the observable.

It may well be due to a similar but total lack of meaningful observations that we generally ignore the logical difficulties of working with exact points in space and time.   In any case, as regards would-be tangible impacts, the issue can appear of only philosophical interest.   But the matter is not so easily dismissed at the sub-atomic level due to measuring and observational technologies being of notable size in relation to that which is seemingly observed.   Arguably, by importing everyday conceptions of reality into the sub-atomic world, we are only handicapping ourselves in terms of the openness of mind required to meaningfully assimilate that which is observed.

Whatever the case, most ideas within any seemingly reliable model of the sub-atomic world suggest we are looking at something rather weird and at odds with traditional thinking.   And of course, a similarly counterintuitive set of ideas underpins how theories of relativity envisage matters on the cosmological scale.

It can nonetheless be argued that any surprises the human mind encounters in its investigations of reality are symptomatic of excessive confidence in whatever it thinks it already knows.   Intelligent enquiry understands human knowledge as an attempt to understand reality – but it should not imagine reality is obliged to conform to any presumptions or established ideas within that attempt.

Our mystification in the face of the macroscopic scale of the cosmos and the microscopic scale of the sub-atomic world suggests mainstream ideas and knowledge derived from the human scale of things may be somewhat delusional, despite their efficacy in everyday life.   And it becomes easy to argue that human knowledge is not the true knowledge we imagine it to be, but just an optimized collection of practical concepts and ideas.

Given such knowledge was derived for pragmatic worldly goals, it follows that its way of determining how to achieve results does not reflect any full understanding of how or why those results are produced.   Indeed, with many outstanding questions in all areas of human enquiry, it is reasonable to summarize the situation as an impossibility to fully understand anything at all.   And within a wholly holistic perspective of reality it is perfectly logical to argue that nothing can be properly understood unless everything – that is, the totality – is understood.   Our most solid facts and truths are thereby reduced to nothing more than useful hunches.

A curious aspect of centuries of work in physics is that the development of uncertainty principles was seen as a key achievement – albeit modern culture chokes impulsively on any notion that recognizing limitations to its forms of knowledge could somehow be an achievement.   Physics, as a study dedicated to discovering supposed immutable laws of nature, has nonetheless come close to arguing that nothing can be known completely or absolutely.   Non-Objective Reality (NOR) examines the implications of this, together with its huge consequences for human cultures that have thus far failed to take this idea seriously.

Quantum physics theories argue that knowing the simultaneous position and trajectory of a particle involves a compromise of one in order to maximize the accuracy of the other.   But what else should be expected given that when we try to look at any would-be exact point in space or time we progressively dispose of all the amplitude that would make anything at all observable, meaningful or measurable?  

As our minds conceive of matters, an absolute point has zero substance of any sort, and so it is nonsensical to imagine that anything exists or can happen at a point.    Logically, points simply cannot exist outside of theory.   Even if something was somehow happening at a point, we would have no way of observing it.   To state the obvious, we can neither observe nor measure absolutely nothing.

The eventual emergence of uncertainty principles within quantum physics was perhaps due only to humans being previously able to ignore them on the everyday scale of things – and so it is perhaps misleading to associate them particularly with quantum physics.

When calculating the speed of a car at a supposed point in time, we can and do ignore the troublesome philosophical issues over points having no existence.   For practical purposes, photos of the car might serve as evidence of where the car was at supposed points in time, even if photographic images are necessarily grabbed over a small duration of time.   Lack of interest in excessive exactitude, plus the use of mathematics to process what are massive measurements in comparison to those used at the atomic scale, allow us to simply ignore the fact that the same uncertainty principles ultimately apply with the moving car.   Furthermore, we do not imagine cars to radically change their understood state in minute fractions of a second in the manners sub-atomic particles do.

On a cosmological scale, such issues are of course even less relevant.   The ability to estimate the time of an event within billions of years, or the size of even a relatively nearby body within thousands of miles is often considered highly accurate.   However, this reflects nothing other than a learned extensive disinterest in real exactitude.

Not only can spatial or temporal points not have any characteristic at all because they can only have conceptual existence, but we can assume the logically-silly idea of points was created for cognitive purposes alone – typically mathematical calculations about the material world.   This is not to deny that those cognitive purposes have subsequent practical uses; on the contrary, it illustrates how human knowledge to date has evolved primarily to do things rather than to maximize its understanding of reality.   This nonetheless has a curious outcome: our belief in points is a belief in things we can logically reason do not exist.

This supports the NOR idea that human abstract knowledge to date has been employed primarily to achieve ends, rather than to understand the human condition itself.   Our minds successfully utilize the concept of points within theories and calculations to produce desired results, even though the concept has no meaning whatsoever in relation to the physical world we believe ourselves to inhabit.

The basic principle of uncertainty, as derived through experimental issues in quantum physics, can in fact be derived by pure reason alone: the closer any sampled evidence approaches to the idealized non-existent point, the less the sampling will have meaningful amplitude – at the same time as the inaccuracies and influences of the sampling technique will increase their relative significance.   Alternatively, it can be amusingly but perfectly logically reasoned impossible to observe or know anything at all about absolutely nothing.

In the theory of relativity, the situation is not so dissimilar in that observations require amplitude, and prevailing conditions within that amplitude ultimately impact observations of whatever is observed.   The common element with quantum physics is that certain things cannot be viewed in themselves, in the sense that they can be shown to have some true condition independent of observations.   In plain English, we only know the world by our sensory apparatus: all else can be reduced to mere speculation and theory – albeit such speculation and theory obviously have their uses.

As a curious spin-off of this thinking, it can be argued that wholly clinical experimentation is ultimately impossible – even if current scientific thinking would adamantly deny this.   The idea that a phenomenon can be fully isolated for examination beyond any influence from its surrounding reality is merely an idealistic presumption of scientific procedure – a purely theoretical position lacking even proof-of-concept despite centuries of extensive efforts to establish just such clinical conditions.

Again, for practical purposes on the everyday scale of things, the traditional conventions of science might be seen to have obvious merits, but both cosmology and quantum physics suggest that the very pursuit of that practicality creates a false sense of importance regarding science’s limited ideas and modes of thought.

The whole drive for clinical procedures within the overall scientific endeavor can in fact be seen as symptomatic of human abstract thought’s inability to handle complexity – the entire approach being just an unconscious attempt by the mind to simplify reality and reduce it to the most basic would-be component parts – an attempt that has demonstrably failed.

But as regards NOR, the argument is that no such discrete component parts exist – or that no truly independent things can be found conforming to abstract thought’s presumption of a reality composed of bits of reality.

Perhaps if history’s efforts to understand the human condition had been less driven by immediate goals, sciences’s principles of uncertainty might in fact have been recognized as hampering every effort the human mind might ever make to achieve absolute exactness.   But physics itself obscured this realization through its persistent but unfounded assumption that absolute laws based on absolute phenomena merely awaited human discovery.

Based on this approach, one of the supposedly greatest theory-based achievements of relativity is its curious idea of mass-energy equivalence: the idea two phenomena consciously identified as different, are in fact equivalent – however that be understood.   But rather than merely seeing observations as relative to the conditions of the observer, reasoning could go further and note how mass-energy equivalence stands as evidence that abstract concepts themselves have only relative significance.   Mass and energy appear neither wholly different nor wholly the same, just as difference and sameness themselves appear different but with something in common – being both misleadingly absolutist descriptors.

Nothing at all appears absolute – other than perhaps the wholly conceptual stance of a statement making such a point.   Absolutism is therefore arguably a characteristic unique to the mind – but a source of illusion when applied to the physical world.

All conventional measurements of that physical world are mere comparisons in which observed inexactitudes suggest a distorting role played by human ideas and interpretations.   Whereas physics has traditionally assumed that some true exactitude lay behind its countless more or less muddy experimental results, that stance of physics can in fact be considered a logical error within what might be a more or less muddy universe.

As the discipline of physics itself makes clear, even the basic notion that an observer is at rest is meaningless unless this condition is in relation to something else.   By the theory of relativity, even the slightest movement relative to that position of rest will alter that which is observed – albeit almost always to an undetectable degree.   But in understanding anything – or everything as physics increasingly tries to do – it is plain foolishness to completely dismiss even that which appears of minor impact.   The principles of relativity do not exclude any parts of our universe – even if we habitually ignore such principles.

Going further, the apparent universality of relativity can be seen as more evidence that nothing at all exists discretely – which is to say that abstract cognition’s base concept of a world full of things has only relative meaning within a reality where all apparent things might just as easily be considered as local attributes of one single thing.   And such attributes may even be totally related, such that thing-based objectivity is just a crude artifact of demonstrable limitations inherent to the human form of cognition.