Essay 5: Digging a Bit Deeper
Before we proceed into today’s discussion, let's spend a moment to take stock. Why the reverence for quantum physics in the past two essays? Quantum physics has been proven to be an exacting tool in explaining many aspects of our world. The concepts of quantum physics are put to use daily in computers, cell phones, GPS systems, lasers, medical scanners, and a host of everyday items we take for granted. This is no pie-in-the-sky theory–it’s quite real and it works. We therefore must accept all aspects of quantum physics, including the bizarre implications we have already discussed (Essay 2: The Quantum World). First and foremost is that we live in a probabilistic world where all outcomes have some chance of occurring. We witness only a single outcome–generally the most likely outcome–but quantum physics forces us to expand our myopic vision to allow for any and all outcomes no matter how unlikely or rare. In short, anything is possible. If you subscribe to the Many Worlds theory of near-infinite universes–as many physicists do–then everything is not only possible, everything happens in some universe. Keep that in mind as we move forward.
When you were a teenager, you likely drove too fast. Maybe you smoked cigarettes for a while (hopefully you don’t still.) You might have been dared to jump off a rock into a lake, or worse into a shallow swimming pool. Teenagers do stupid things. We learn as we go, and by the time we are well into adulthood, our penchant for taking unnecessary risks generally diminishes.
When you think about it, that pattern of youthful ignorance and adult wisdom makes little sense. By the time we are old enough to know better, the clock has been ticking for a while. The knowledge we have acquired would have been far more valuable to us as teenagers when we had much more life ahead of us than behind. How often has each of us said, “if I only knew then what I know now.” Why don’t we know more during our youth when it would be far more valuable? By the time we “get it”, a lot of water has rushed over the dam.
Most of us would simply shrug our shoulders in response to that question. “That’s just the way life is,” we might reply. Once again, quantum physics whacks us over the head. Wrong, it says. It’s “just the way it is” in our particular universe. We could, instead, be wise when we are young and more foolish when we are old. Wouldn’t that make a great deal more sense? If we take a major risk when we are eighty it would hardly be that big a deal. Not much left to lose at that point. Just the opposite for our eighteen-year-old selves. The number one cause of death in teenagers is accidents.
Despite parents trying to convince their children not to take foolish risks, most adolescents feel a sense of invulnerability. Illness and death seem remote concepts. “It won’t happen to me.” Generation after generation, this pattern is repeated. It seems each of us must personally experience the same dangers and challenges as those who came before in order to obtain knowledge and wisdom. Why must we do so individually? Why can’t we simply listen to parents or read a manual on how to live a life? Why is experience required? Experience is dangerous!
Let’s extrapolate from the individual to the collective. Raise your hand if you think there will never be another war.* No hands? Not surprising. We’ve been waging war since the origin of our species. How has it turned out? Whenever we have a war, thousands, even millions, die. More are wounded, left parentless or childless, or homeless. Eventually, war fades into history. We recall the precipitating events, the battles, the individual stories, but the society from which we recount those facts is usually far-removed from the event. In the end, both the vanquished and the victorious die off and are replaced by new generations with new concerns and ultimately new conflicts. Sadly, they are seemingly destined to repeat the same disastrous actions in a different setting.
Neither individuals nor societies seem able to carry knowledge over multiple generations. Socialism, a concept previously crushed by its inevitable disastrous outcomes, seems fashionable again. Conflicts among countries abound today just as they have for centuries. Religions still slam into one another. Scapegoating and bigotry rarely vanish despite their baseless origins. Ignorance, once thought something confined to the Dark Ages, is back with a fury. We still buy snake oil–with different, more contemporary names–as readily as we buy ridiculous conspiracy theories, just as we have in every previous generation. We don’t seem to permanently learn a thing.
Quantum physics, which insists that all outcomes are possible, makes it perfectly clear that it could be different. Individuals could retain knowledge from previous generations. Teenagers could be wiser than seniors. Societies could evolve so that the errors of our elders would never be repeated. No more bigotry, no more genocide, no more wars. This could be the norm in a different universe. The facts that in our particular world each of us must learn experientially, that societies recreate the past repetitively, that we don’t seem to make permanent progress in human relations, are powerful clues. They are telling us something critical about our particular world. It doesn’t have to be this way, but for some reason it is. That reason is what we are after in our quest for a common purpose.
Let’s end today with a softer clue that I have always found intriguing. Have you ever listened to an interview with a famous painter, musician, or author? When asked where the idea for their creation arose, a frequent response is this: “I don’t know. It seems that it came from somewhere outside me. It was as if I were just the conduit to transmit the idea from its source to the page.” I have been fortunate to have enjoyed that blessing. After completing a new poem, song, or book, I often look upon that creation as some sort of miracle. “How did I just do that?” I ask myself. That’s the reason many creative people fear that they will never be able to repeat the task. When inspiration seems to come from outside of you, there is no guarantee that you will once again be blessed with being the vehicle for another creation.
We have cracked open the door to a room of vast proportions. Far more remains for us to uncover.
When: April 20, 2022
* This essay was written before the Russian war on Ukraine.