This modern world, filled with so many wonders of science, technology, and human achievement. At its heart, it rests on a philosophy and a practice largely based on the paradigm of parts and silos.
Our phones and tablets don’t come out of nowhere as some monolithic slab, like the apes found in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey by (written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick). Instead, they are assembled in billion dollar factories with painstaking precision, from thousands of parts. Our skyscrapers don't appear fully forms at the stroke of the architect's pen. Instead, we require immensely powerful machines, and many skilled humans, to assemble, brick by brick, beam by beam, these towers of the modern skyline. Our populations do not come into the world as an undifferentiated whole, or act as a single unit. Instead, our world is divided into countries, states, territories, counties, various bodies of government, and different leaders with authority.
This modern world, is clearly a world of parts and silos, based on this kind of analysis. The question, is if any of that division, and subdivision into parts and silos, is underwritten by something fundamental in nature itself, or if this is just a way that human beings view the world to make it seem manageable.
Here we go into the question about the basis of parts and silos, and try to get a sense of what is real or imagined, with regard to viewing the world, and relating to the world, in this fragmented manner.
Is the World Really Made of Parts?
The short answer is not so simple, I’m afraid. As Dan Dennett says, “there’s the wrong answer, and the long answer” . In truth, even the long answer, may not bear fruit on this quandary at the present time. There are just so many outstanding, vexing, mind-bending questions and conundrums, that science and philosophy have yet to get hold of. The best we can do, at this point, is to survey the landscape of questions and possible answers, to get a sense of what can be said about the fundamental nature of parts and silos.
Physics is a great place to look at parts and silos because it is essentially the science that makes them most explicit and rigorous, via reductionism. Previously, we have covered some of the remarkable advancements that have come from the use of a parts and silos approach in physics. Here, we take a look at some places where that approach has either run out of steam, or in some cases, apparently run into a wall.
Difficulties Describing Whole Systems
As a general matter, physics is superb at describing the behavior of isolated parts. The Standard Model of particle physics, provides for us, a robust menu of the various particles, that have been confirmed by the energy scales we are capable of reaching, in controlled settings. This list of force carrying bosons (integer spin), and matter making fermions (half integer spin), function as the effective lego blocks in our current understanding of the world. The irony is that while we can know so much about these parts and their silos, in excruciating detail, we still miss the mark in significant ways. We run into some stunning problems when we need to back up and ask how these well-known parts, create the whole world of human experience.
When talking about issues and conundrums about how parts fit together, and about the reality of parts and silos, there is perhaps no richer soil to harvest than that of quantum mechanics.
Particles or Fields?
Each of the particles, in the Standard Model, is actually considered to be an excitation of a quantum field. Now, it is important to note, that although we are speaking of fields in the context of quantum mechanics, the concept of fields is not strictly quantum. James Clerk Maxwell, the progenitor of the eponymous “Maxwell’s Equations” for electromagnetism, is largely credited for popularizing the concept of fields to account for observed phenomena. The main difference between the classical electromagnetic fields of Maxwell, and the quantum fields we focus on in the rest of this topic, are that Maxwell’s fields were not quantized. In other words, the classical fields, such as electromagnetism, do not need to come in some minimum quantity or “packet”. This is why quantum mechanics has “quant” in the name. It is because for several very interesting reasons, such as the photo-electric effect, and the ultraviolet catastrophe, it was understood that some fields cannot be conceived of as having any value in a given region. Instead, some fields needed to be quantized such that they must always come in certain individual bundles or quantities, irrespective of how large the field could be. In fact, Einstein won his Nobel Prize, not for his special theory of relativity, which unified time and space, to recognize the constant speed of light, not for his unification of gravity with bending of spacetime. Instead, he received the prize for his insight that the photoelectric effect. This is the phenomena wherein the brightness of light was shown not to effect the velocity at which electrons were ejected from a metal plate. Instead, it was shown that only changing the color of the light, technically its frequency, would do this. These developments lead to a reformulation of what had previously been known as the corpuscle theory of light. Ultimately, this resulted in what we now know of as the photon. These quanta of the electromagnetic field, are the basis for everything from visible light, to infrared, to UV, to X-rays, Microwaves, and even to Gamma radiation, and radio waves for Wi-Fi, TV, Radio, etc.
The concept of fields already throws us some challenging questions in-terms of how we think about the world. If particles, the smallest constituent “parts”, that we can currently detect, are actually excitations of pervasive fields, then we have to ask ourselves to what extent they are really “parts” at all. Furthermore, these quantum fields, are conceptualized as being omnipresent, in effect existing basically everywhere, even in the deepest most isolated vacuum of outer space. It is quite difficult to conceive of something that is “everywhere” being able to have parts. This, of course, does not mean that it can’t be incredibly useful to take this approach, as it obviously has been in many ways. The point here is to recognize that there are problems we run into when thinking of parts and silos, and trying to mesh that with what we are learning about the actual nature of reality, from quantum mechanics.
One point to add here is the following warning and request. Please try to steer clear of quantum mystics and charlatans. There are people pedaling all manner of books and philosophies that purport to unlock “secrets” to love, wealth, and happiness (usually with a small fee for materials and seminars etc., that only grows pricier over time). Somehow this is all supposedly based on quantum mechanical concepts that neither they nor the scientific establishment, for that matter, have actually understood fully. There is a quote from Jules Verne, that will be very useful when encountering such people, so I offer it here and hope you take it to heart.
“Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them”—Jules Verne
This quote, from Verne, is not only relevant when assessing the claims of charlatans and snake oil salesmen. Here, the quote does double duty, by preparing the ground for this brief dive into quantum mechanics and some truly perplexing questions about reality. Remember that, as Jules Verne admonishes, we do not need to create fiction about the nature of reality to be provocative or interesting. As Jules says, nature already provides us with facts so romantic, that we don’t need to add anything on top. That said, when it comes to the topic at hand, I might say that nature provides us with facts so insanely puzzling, that you would not even dream to imagine anything more extravagant, even if you tried to.
The Measurement Problem
The “Measurement Problem” is really where the rubber meets the road when we start dealing with parts and silos in the fundamental sciences. It is brought about by the seemingly innocuous and unremarkable process of merely observing the outcome of an experiment. Something that until the time of Quantum Mechanics was no more worthy of note than observing your toothbrush while brushing your teeth in the morning. That said, what was revealed by the ever-increasing precision of observations, particularly by means of electronic laboratory devices, is that at least for systems with accessible quantum properties, something very unexpected must be happening when measurements are being made. Notice that I did not say that the measurements themselves are the cause, but that they are at least somehow correlated with this puzzle. That’s important to keep in mind.
There are far too many technical details to cover in this section, but I will try to provide a summary that protects that most crucial details. The crux of the matter is the following. The current orthodox view of quantum mechanics, often referred to as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” posits something known as the “collapse of the wave function”. What this means, is that in an utterly bizarre way, the world must be considered to have two entirely different parts, that are effectively different realms of reality. There would be a reality where particles are not in specific locations as we are accustomed to thinking. Prior to measurement, particles are not really in any one location. They are said to be in a superposition of all possible states. These are represented by the probabilities provided by the wave function (the Schrödinger equation for those who have some background). Then, there is another reality that seemingly only snaps into place upon “measurement”. The world of the human experience, where things are in definite locations, seems to emerge when the wave function collapses, and we can predict what the probabilities for the results of the collapse will be, using the Born rule. It really can’t be overstated how radical this is. Rather than merely having parts and silos within the same reality, the Copenhagen Interpretation, with the collapse of the wave function, splits the world into 2 distinct parts. The parts are so different and alien to each other, that they do not even seem compatible to many of the people who spend their lives working on these very experiments.
There is no wide consensus on how the measurement problem should be addressed. Briefly, I will list a few of the leading options that, I think, are worth considering.
Copenhagen (Orthodox Interpretation)
- Linear evolution of wave function prior to measurement (Schrödinger Equation)
- Particles are in superposition before measurement, meaning they do not have definite locations
- Wave function collapses upon measurement
- Born rule applied to describe probabilities for collapsed state
- No precise definition for what constitutes a valid “measurement”
- No definitive account for who or what can perform a “measurement” which collapses the wave function
- 2 clearly separate parts of reality, 1 prior to measurement, 1 that appears only after measurement
Many World (Everettian Interpretation)
- Every quantum possibility creates a new branch universe
- All measurement outcomes happen
- Observers branch with the measurement outcomes
- 1 universal wave function that branches into a possible infinity of branching parts which become completely separated from each other over time
Relational Quantum Mechanics (Carlo Rovelli)
- Properties of quantum systems are relative only to other systems
- No interaction = No properties
- No absolute fact of the matter about quantum properties
- Inversion of standard ways of thinking about parts and silos
- Here the system making the measurement and the system measured, which are normally seen as separate parts, are considered to be inseparable, and this must be considered to be a single-unified whole
- Creates a new notion of parts and silos, not relative to the particles, but to the acts of interaction that produce certain properties
- Facts can only be valid for the interacting systems, but not in a way that is absolute for the rest of the universe
Spontaneous Collapse Theories (GRW)
- Quantum superpositions, i.e., the wave functions, naturally collapse spontaneously
- For individual particles, collapse can take a long time
- For groups of particles, a single collapse triggers collapse for all particles, and thus macroscopic objects are constantly collapsing and being effectively fixed in place, to create the classical world of the human experience
- Describes a stochastic process by which “wholes” in the form of the wave function, become individual parts, localized in spacetime, after the spontaneous collapse
Pilot Wave / De Broglie-Bohm theory
- The wave function is a real object that guides particles
- Particles are real objects that are guided by the wave function
- Collapse occurs when particle is measured
- Faster than light propagation of the collapsed pilot wave, at every point in space
- Creates two specific ontic parts (the particles, and the pilot wave) both are real and separate parts thought they interact
Qbism (Chris Fuchs, Rutgers Shack)
- Psi epistemic (meaning the wave function is taken to be an aspect of knowledge or belief or information, not something ontic that exists in reality)
- The wave function represents the beliefs of an agent using quantum mechanics, to place bets on what the measurement outcomes will be
- Probabilities, including unity, i.e., probability 1, have no determining power on the outcomes of experiments
- Each agent has their own bubble of reality
- The Born rule for calculating probabilities of quantum measurements is a normative rule that all agents should use to make intelligent “bets” about outcomes
- There is something structurally real, about the probabilities derived from the Born rule, though nature itself is not thought to be governed by any law or mechanism whatsoever
- Creates a fragmented world of reality bubbles or frames so to speak
- Each measurement outcome is in some sense its own separate part of reality
- Via the universality of the Born rule, there is some sense of a connected reality, it is not a unified “world out there” as one thinks about classically. Instead, it is a kind of “firefly world” with different outcomes popping into reality all over the place, in tethered by what’s going on elsewhere.
Analytic Idealism (Bernardo Kastrup)
- The baseline reality is not physical but mental in a trans-personal way
- The physical world is merely a dashboard that represents the real non-physical world
- Experiments are probing the non-physical world, like an airplane measures the world outside the plane
- Measurement outcomes are just the dials on the dashboard of a plane, showing us a representation of reality, but not the thing itself
- Agents are dissociated alters of the base awareness
- Posits there are ultimately no parts, since all things are manifestations of a base awareness
- Parts are temporary patterns that are still made of the same base awareness, though have nominal or apparent independence from certain perspectives
Quantum Darwinism (Wojciech Zurek)
- Decoherence from entangled particles, spreads rapidly though the environment
- The more certain patterns are “copied” or “represented” the more they can persist in the world
- There is a Darwinian effect, in the sense that many patterns can be created, but most will be rapidly scrambled by decoherence, leaving only the patterns that are “fit” to survive
- Seems that the parts of individual particles, become localized, as the world gets increasingly entangled
- This means that in a sense, as the world becomes more entangled, it appears to us that it is getting more classical, at human scale
Wolfram Physics Project
- Explicitly computational
- Observers have branching brains in a branching universe
- Observers somehow combine multiple branches to create a coherent thread of time
- Although the universe branches, both in Spacetime and in “Branchial Space” (the space of entangled histories), it can also merge, and thus it can have causal invariance to branching
- Different observers are at different locations in “Rulial Space” the space of all possible computational rules
- The “Ruliad” is the entangled limit of all computational rules that can be applied, and is in effect, the mathematical basis underlying all aspects of reality
- Ruliad is the ultimate whole, in formal mathematical terms
- The appearance of parts are essentially foliations of the Ruliad, of Branchial Space, and of Spacetime
Markus Muller / 1st person Algorithmic Probability
- No absolute objective reality from third-person view
- No metaphysical assumptions made
- “What will I see next?”, is basis for all experiments and conclusions
- Algorithmic probability determines what each observer will see next
- Consistent sequences of observations create the impression of an objective external world
- Consistent probabilities about other observers, align with the idea that other observers can be thought of as existing
- Ontology is not super clear in terms of parts and silos
- Seems that parts can be thought of as individual outcomes generated by algorithmic probability
- Hard to say if there is a unified whole underlying the separate outcomes, or if more like Qbism, it's a “firefly” world with different realities flickering into existence and disappearing, largely unrelated to anything else
Orch-OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction) Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff
- Quantum superposition states actually exist (they are ontic)
- Gravitation above a threshold mass, becomes unstable due to superposed spacetime curvature, and forces an objective collapse of the wave function
- In the process of the collapse, due to gravity, a conscious experience is created
- Interesting in terms of parts and silos
- Seems that there is a strong division between reality prior to collapse, and the reality post collapse
- On the flip side, by simultaneously involving the quantum wave function, gravity, and consciousness, this approach could be viewed as unifying arguably the 3 most difficult aspects of nature to understand, into a single whole
Conscious Agents – Donald Hoffman
- The reality we experience is not fundamental, but is rather an interface created by evolution
- Our perceptions of a real, physical external world, are like a desktop on a computer screen. They are not literally real, but they provide meaningful and often crucial suggestions, for how to navigate and make decisions that are beneficial to us.
- Consciousness is not generated by brains because brains, bodies, buildings, and anything physical, is nothing more than the equivalent of an icon on a computer screen
- The base of reality is based on conscious agents
- Conscious agents interact in ways that might be characterized by positive geometries, and decorated permutations
- Multiple conscious agents create a higher order super agent
- Suggest that the conventional thinking that evolution is a product of physics, should be inverted such that physics, is a product of the evolution of the interaction between conscious agents
One of the most profound aspects of entanglement, is the realization that you can know everything there is to know about the whole, but nothing about the parts.
The basic idea is that you operate on two particles in such a way that the interaction creates a state where properties of one particle, are entirely correlated with properties of the other. This is generally expressed in terms of spin (not spin like a child’s top, but a more abstract notion of conserved angular momentum that is associated with all quantum particles), though it is increasingly done with the polarization of photons. Once the two particles have been properly operated on, they are, in some strange sense, linked in a way that no classical theory can explain. That said, if the ER=EPR conjecture turns out to be true, we actually may view a classical GR description to be equivalent to the quantum description, but this is far from settled.
The famous “EPR” paper (named for the authors initials Einstein, Padolsky, and Rosen), laid out the paradox which is at the very core of quantum mechanics. It was explained that if so-called “spooky action at a distance” holds true, i.e., influences between particles that are far enough away, that they must travel faster than light, then it would violate special relativity in particular, and causality in general.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we now routinely refer to this spooky action at a distance as entanglement. Nobel Prizes were awarded in 2022 to people involved in experiments which closed just about any loophole that can be thought of, to disprove this effect.
When it comes to thinking about the view of parts and silos, what we find here is an example, where something that appears to be separate parts to us, turns out to be an inseparable whole.
Although it is beyond the scope of this brief discussion, it is at least worth pointing out that there are debates as to whether the entangled particles should even be considered separate parts. Scientists and philosophers have wondered if, in some sense, we should consider them to be different views of the same system. In this view, we would consider the system to be a singe unit. This would hold true, irrespective of how far away the particles might be from each other, be it on the other side of the lab, or the other side of the galaxy.
Wigner’s Friend is a thought experiment (now an entire category of thought experiments) that really expose the limitations of the parts and silos approach, when dealing with quantum mechanics and the fundamental aspects of reality.
Though far from the space the topic deserves, I will do my best to at least summarize the points I think are most relevant to our discussion of parts and silos.
Essentially, the Wigner’s Friend thought experiment is a way of probing the application of quantum mechanics, when it must also include as a quantum system, another observer in an isolated laboratory. Rather than merely asking “what will I see next” based on the formalism of quantum mechanics, the Wigner’s Friend experiment asks, “What will Wigner’s Friend see next?”. One striking implication, is that the friend must also be in a quantum superposition, from Wigner’s perspective, as impossible as that may sound.
So here, quite explicitly, we are asking how to address a view of parts and silos, when the perspective of observation, seems to be relevant to which parts have the “true” story. It turns out that there are many so called “no-go” theorems, which indicate that there are significant assumptions about the reality of the world, that must be abandoned. They must be abandoned, in order for this scenario to be reconciled with what we know about quantum mechanics.
In the preceding sections we have gotten a brief sense for how the perspective of parts and silos, is being addressed by the most fundamental science we currently have, that of quantum physics.
Right off the bat, the question of how to think of particles and fields, made us question what the actual parts of this world really are. On one hand, it appears that a field is a unified whole. On the other hand, experiments and phenomena, such as the photo-electric effect, show us that some fields must be quantized such that they behave as if they had completely separate parts.
We took a look into the measurement problem, an issue at the very heart of the foundations of modern science. What does it mean to say that prior to measurement, there exists a quantum wave of possibilities, and that after measurement such a world disappears only to be replaced by the normal-looking world of tables and chairs and beer? Can that be true, can it be right, is this all a giant misunderstanding, what is real, and what parts should we actually count as existing?
We talked about entanglement, and about “Wigner’s Friend”, two ways of seeing some truly perplexing ways that quantum mechanics forces us to think about parts and silos. If two particles are entangled, and they can instantly share information, even if inaccessible to us, faster than light, at any distance, then in what sense are they separate parts, or merely different views of the same whole? Likewise, if we imagine trying to apply the formalism of quantum mechanics, to a human, as in the case of the “Wigner’s Friend” thought experiments, then we found ourselves stuck again when it comes to parts and silos. Is this a single reality where there are objective, absolute facts that must be the same for everyone, as in classical physics? Alternatively, is this a world where Wigner can have his facts, and yet his friend can have her own different facts, and somehow both are equally valid?
To provide a starting point for addressing these questions, we surveyed a sample of theoretical approaches that people are proposing to address the measurement problem, and several others. Although no single theory has been selected as victorious by the scientific community writ large, we can at least say one thing for sure. Whatever is going on at the fundamental level, and likely unnoticed even at the human scale, is so absolutely alien relative to our normal human experience. There can be no doubt, that we will have a true watershed moment, whatever answers we may finally reach.
I encourage you to take some time, to research some of these questions, theories, and people, mentioned here. All are involved in helping us to understand how our human experience arises, whether it be from pats and silos, a unified basis, or something even more mystifying.
General relativity is one of the two premier frameworks for physics including quantum mechanics. GR for short, inherets the unification of space and time into a 4D spacetime (Minkowski Space), that was so crucial for Einstein’s preceding theory of Special Relativity. In contrast to special relativity, general relativity deals with the curvature in Spacetime, rather than the flat spacetime of special relativity.
What Einstein was able to do with General Relativity, was to take a part of the world, gravity, that up until that point, had been treated by newton and others, as completely seperate from space and time. What Einstein did was to show that gravity coudl in fact be conceived of as the curvature of spacetime, rather than as some separate force.
Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity Together
The Dark Sector
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics
Platonic Concept of Math as It’s Own Realm
Is Mathematics Seprate from the World or Is it One and the Same?
Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem
Origin and Essence of Life
The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness
Semantic Information and Meaning
The Human Experience
Algorithms and Amplification
Machine Learning / AI “Tide”
Crossing the Tech/Social Boundary
Loss of Connection
Loss of Significance
Loss of Direction “Game Loop of Life”
Civilization is another place where we can run into walls when dealing with a perspective of parts and silos.
Loss of Feedback / Delayed Feedback
One of the biggest issues when dealing with systems is the issue of reduced feedback. What this means is that instead of getting feedback at a detectable level, and in real time or close to real time, you get delayed feedback, or sometimes none at all.
This can happen as a side effect of breaking a system, or even just the perception of a system, into parts and silos. In doing so, we may “miss the forest for the trees”. In other words, we lose sight of the bigger situation, by focusing on the parts.