Saturday, December 24, 2005

Free Will & Parallel Universes

If your appreciation of The Matrix Reloaded extends beyond watching leather-clad Trinity whup ass then you have no doubt contemplated the thematic tension inherent in the machines’ ideal of a Clockwork Universe versus human Free Will.

Just for example, The Merovingian was obsessed with a Clockwork Universe that revealed itself in cause and effect:

Merovingian: Oh my god Persephone, how could you do this? You betrayed me! [Stream of French]
Persephone: Cause and Effect, my love.
Merovingian: Cause? There is no cause for this. What cause?
Persephone: What cause? How about the lipstick you`re still wearing?

Or The Architect discussing his Clockwork model of the Matrix:

Neo: Why am I here?
The Architect: Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the Matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control.
Neo: Bullshit!

If you believe, as I do, that Neo`s Free Will was `reloaded` from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure then you will see where I am coming from.

Blame the clockwork universe on Isaac Newton. Newton borrowed his algebraic approach to physics and mechanics from John Wallis. It was far superior to the geometric approaches used in his day (though in his Principia he restated all his results geometrically to keep his methods secret from his colleagues). The success of his cause-and-effect models of celestial motion owed much to its popularization by the eloquent Pierre-Simon Laplace amongst Parisian café society.

The clockwork universe prevailed for three centuries before being challenged by the 20th century mathematics of Russell and Gödel, by quantum mechanics, and other developments. The seeds of discord, though, were planted a century earlier by the polymath Thomas ‘Phenomenon’ Young.

Among other things, Young was the first to correctly interpret the hieroglyphics of the Rosetta stone (though he lost interest after two weeks; the complete translation by Champollion had to wait another 20 years). His most famous work determined the wavelength of light using diffraction experiments where he correctly concluded that light must be a transverse wave (Newton thought light consisted of particles). His wave theory also explained the interference of light and has produced one of the great controversy’s of the 21st century.

The controversy: one of Einstein’s 1905 papers, on the photoelectric effect, was a seminal paper on quantum theory, pointing out that light had particle-like characteristics. Young’s classic ‘two slit experiment’ had established the wave character of light. Both views are valid leading Princeton graduate student Hugh Everett III to propose in 1957 the idea of a multiverse – essentially an infinite set of parallel universes that are evolving continuously (click here for Max Tegmark’s article in Scientific American ).

Everett disappeared from academic life to pursue classified work for the US government, but his view is widely accepted today (see David Deutsch’s website for relevant materials). The multiverse segues with Minkowski’s insight on time and motion – ‘time’ is a heuristic device used by our brains to handle an overwhelmingly complex flow of information from the real world – and only space and motion are real. Everett`s space has more dimensions ― "a lot more" Neo would say.

From Everett`s perspective, multiple universes diverge, letting Free Will and the Clockwork Universe converge – they are just different paths among an infinite set of outcomes.

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