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While going down in an elevator, it recently occurred to me that the elevator doesn’t move unless we indicate the floor it has to go to, quite different from an escalator that keeps moving regardless of whether anyone has anywhere to go to. This difference is a useful way to understand how quantum “motion” is different from classical motion. This post explains the difference using the elevator vs. escalator analogy. The motion of the elevator explicitly employs meaning and purpose, while the motion of the escalator doesn’t. The difference helps us see why addressing many scientific problems needs a revision to our analogies about nature, and what such analogical shifts can do to science.

Classical Escalators vs. Quantum Elevators

An escalator has no sense of beginning and end—it is always in continuous motion, regardless of a passenger traveling on it. An elevator on the other hand moves when we press a button to indicate which floor we intend to go to. This is a useful way to characterize the difference between classical and quantum state changes because quantum objects must always know the destination to which they are “headed” before a state change begins, while classical objects just move continuously unless influenced by a force that can accelerate, decelerate, or deviate them from their path.

Suppose that there is a quantum object at the source which can be in states E1 and E2, while there is a quantum object at the destination which can be in states E3 and E4. For energy to be emitted at the source, and absorbed at the destination, the energy difference at the source (E1-E2) must exactly match the energy difference at the destination (E3-E4) before the energy transaction can begin. How does the source “know” that the amount of energy it can emit is exactly equal to the amount of energy that the destination can absorb, given that the source and destination are far apart from each other?

Note that this problem never arises in classical physics, because energy can be absorbed partially; it arises in atomic theory because energy can only be absorbed in packets. This means that either a photon is absorbed or not; there is no partial absorption. In one sense, the photon is “tailor-made” for the receiver, and the most plausible explanation for the photon’s emission and absorption should be based on something in the sender and in the receiver that causes them to be synchronized prior to transmission.

Just as an elevator moves after the destination floor is known, similarly, the photon should be considered to be emitted after its destination has been determined. However, the idea that atomic objects have a sense of destination creates a lot of problems for physics: if everything is moving with the destination predetermined, then the universe would seem to have a sense of purpose—much like the passenger who steps into an elevator!

A Philosophical Trick to Avoid Predestination

While the most plausible physical explanation of light’s emission and absorption would suggest a notion of predestination at the source itself, given the problems it creates for the materialist metaphysical notion of reality, some philosophical alternatives are offered. For example, we might say that the photon is actually not predestined but just happens to encounter an atomic object that has the same energy difference to the next higher energy state as the energy carried by the photon. This alternative takes away the problem with predestination, but creates two new problems: (1) we have no explanation of why the photon was emitted, and (2) we cannot predict when and where it will be absorbed. These, now, create both predictive and explanatory gaps in quantum theory.

The trick is to now suppose that there is no correlation between source and destination and substitute the ensuing explanatory and predictive gaps with probabilities. In other words, to maintain the dogma that nature has no purpose, we must partially sacrifice the fundamental cardinal principle that science must explain and predict.

The opposite position of predestination is supposed to be undermined by the principle of “locality”—i.e. that there must be something material that goes between the source and destination to synchronize them, although we can’t seem to find any such thing. The philosophical supposition that nature is not directed, coupled with the principle of locality, combined with our inability to find a local “traveling agent” now leads to the problem of atomic theory: the theory must forever be probabilistic; it must forever fail to explain why the photon is emitted, when it will be emitted, and where it will be absorbed.

Can Predestination Be Scientific?

Here, I will set aside the attempts to avoid the idea of predestination itself, and talk about how this idea can be inducted into science, and what that induction will do to science. I can assure you: all the fears that scientists have about predestination are true! It causes so much damage to established principles that it will completely wreck the current structure of science. And yet, you will also see, there is no other sustainable alternative. Without further ado, therefore, let’s take a look at how predestination pervades our world.

We habitually form goals—e.g. to go up and down an elevator. There is hence a reference to the destination that exists even at the start, but that reference is not the destination itself. For example, if I intend to eat an apple, then my brain does not become an apple just by thinking of the apple. This ability for a material object (e.g. a brain) to refer to another material object (e.g. an apple) is so fundamental in the living world, and yet so alien to modern physics of material objects, that I can’t help but think that physics is fundamentally mistaken in conceiving the world as being devoid of references.

We have conceived the world only as physical properties, and we are therefore missing two essential ingredients that pervade the living world—meaning and naming—which can convert the physical world into a world of symbols. A symbol too has a physical existence, but it also has a meaning (concept) and a reference (name). Through the name, the symbol refers to something other than itself, and through the concept, it describes the properties of that reference. The sentence “John is tall” has a reference (John), a meaning (tall), and a physical existence (a collection of 12 characters in the sentence).

The meaning and naming are therefore not materially separate from the sentence (many people think that the meaning is in their mind, and not in the sentence), and yet, meaning and naming are not identical to the physical properties—e.g. shape, size, color—of the letters. If you begin in the physical properties, you will have a tough time trying to explain the origin of meaning and naming. But if you began in meaning and naming, then you won’t have a problem trying to explain the origin of their physical expression.

Predestination therefore can be a scientific concept provided we acknowledged that meaning and naming (in addition to a physical existence) are material properties. Through naming, you can refer to an object far away, or to a time way into the future or past. For example, through a name a photon can refer to the destination it is headed to, even before it arrives at the destination. The name exists before the photon is emitted, and yet through the name, the photon’s destination is known. The referred objects can therefore exist in the present in one sense—namely, that they have been named. And yet, they are physically not the time or object that refers to them. In one sense, they are here and now; in another sense, they are different from the symbol that refers to them.

Non-Locality and Naming

When you send a letter (or email) to a friend, you refer to the friend through an address. The address is part of the email or letter, and therefore not a “hidden variable”. But if you only measure the height, weight, shape, or color of the letter, rather than reading what is imprinted on the letter, it would seem magical how the letter reaches its destination.

Quantum measurements are like letters or emails. They are addressed to a destination, but because we treat the world physically, we don’t “read” the quantum objects; we just measure their physical properties. Many letters can weigh 10 grams, and many emails can have exactly 350 characters; those physical properties don’t decide whether the letter or the email goes. If you can’t read the letter or email, you will compute the probability of a letter or email going to a specific destination—for example, some people may always write short emails to their friends, while others write long letters to their family. The ability to make such statistical predictions is not the final truth, because underlying that prediction is our inability to explain when and why something happens.

To rid the world of meaning and purpose, physics has modeled reality as things rather than symbols. That model is incomplete, and the incompleteness is reflected in the inabilities to predict and explain. The alternative to that incompleteness is a world that has meaning and purpose. In this world, changes don’t happen randomly. Everything has a reasonable explanation and can be predicted. But, to formulate theories about those explanations and predictions, we must think anew about meaning and purpose.

Science Needs to Induct Meaning and Purpose

Most people don’t realize that in a purely physical world, we could not judge the truth of a claim because truth judgments require meanings. Consider the thought “the sky is purple”. If the world is just physical particles (without meaning and purpose) governed by the laws of nature, then the laws of nature would also produce the thought “the sky is purple”. If the law is true, then how can the thoughts produced by the law be false? You could judge whether the thought exists but not judge whether it is true or false.

By the same token, you could not call some experience a hallucination, judge that someone is lying or deceiving, or call someone mistaken, because all these things only exist, and while we can judge (measure) that they exist, we could not judge their truth content (i.e. whether they are true or false). If you cannot claim that someone’s thoughts are false, you also cannot claim that your thoughts are true! That completely eliminates the possibility of knowing the truth, because whatever you are thinking, can only exist, but is not true. The Cartesian dictum that “I think therefore I exist” can be true because it only claims that thought exists, but the content of that thought (e.g. Cartesian Geometry) could not be true (or false) because it relies on constructs such as coordinate frames, three dimensions in space, etc. which cannot be called true (or false).

In essence, the rejection of meaning and purpose from the physical world results in the denial of the possibility of knowing the truth. You are now only left with the option of supposing that there is a “mind” different from the body, thereby creating the notorious mind-body problem of their interaction. Note how this problem arises because we think that the body (or matter) does not have meaning and purpose, and meanings and purposes have to be added to meaningless and purposeless matter.

The problems of Cartesian dualism, and the problems arising from rejecting the dualism (to only retain a meaningless and purposeless world), don’t arise when matter itself has meaning and purpose. This seems rather alien if you have been bred on a heavy dose of modern materialism, but it is, in fact, also the solution to all the problems bedeviling modern science—the problem of quantum measurements being one.

The Laws of Meaning and Purpose

The laws of nature—when nature has meaning and purpose—will involve the judgments of truth, right, and good. By admitting that material objects can refer and describe, we acquire the ability to judge whether the representation of the reference is true or false. If you can judge the truth, then you can ask whether the cause of that expression was a right or wrong intention. If you can judge an intention, then you can judge if the intention is moral. If we cannot judge the truth (because there is no meaning in nature) then we cannot also judge rightness and goodness. You might think that rightness and goodness are personal matters, not scientific topics, but you must realize that at the present moment, even truth is your personal belief without a rational justification. Present science judges neither truth, nor rightness, nor goodness; it only measures existence.

Both true and false ideas can exist; measurement of their existence doesn’t tell us whether they are true or false. Once we find the solution to the problem of truth — namely by acknowledging that truth is possible only when meanings and purposes are in nature — then we will also open the doors to judgments of rightness and goodness. In essence, you can either have the judgments of truth, right, and good, or nothing at all.

Currently, we form scientific laws of the form “if an object X with property Y exists, then it causes an effect Z”. With meaning and purpose, we will form laws of the form “if an action X is true, right, and good, then it produces an effect Y, otherwise, an effect Z”. In other words, instead of measuring physical properties of objects, we will now measure the truth, rightness, and goodness of these objects. Fundamentally, the forms of the laws will not change, except that our definition of what qualifies as a property will change.

The Emergence of New Properties

Mass, length, speed, color, etc. will now not be used in the laws of nature; rather, truth, right, and good, will be the properties that predict and explain the outcomes. At that point, we will see that the details of the material situation we are in (e.g. mass, length, speed, color, etc.) don’t matter as much as the truth, rightness, and goodness. The color of your skin, the kinds of clothes you wear, the opulence that you possess, the country you live in—all these become irrelevant to the causality in nature. What matters is whether the actions and events are true, right, and good. This transformation in science hinges upon the realization that physical theories incompletely describe the world—even at the level of material objects (e.g. the emission and absorption of light particles). We can only complete this physical description by inducting meaning and purpose, and when those changes have been imbibed, the judgments of truth, right, and good, naturally follow.

Modern materialism hinges on the idea that the physical properties of objects—e.g. the color of our skin, the size of our house and car, the opulence of our land—are the only things that matter. Truth, rightness, and goodness, are not even material properties, and therefore they are irrelevant to nature. And most people are therefore driven towards the pursuit of material goods, unable to judge truth, right, and good.

The problem, however, is not just our adaptation of science into a social world; the problem is rather quite profound: science tells us that nature is physical properties. If the world is governed by physical properties, then why would we look at anything else? The revision of our understanding of nature in science is therefore an essential preliminary step to realizing that what we have given the greatest importance to actually doesn’t matter, and what we are ignorantly neglecting by far matters the most.