I met with my friend Jim yesterday for a discussion about the plots of our novels-in-progress. One of his stories has a religious connection, and the issues of the nature of God what happens to us after death came up. Jim proposed unconventional hypotheses for each.
He crumpled a piece of paper and dropped it on the table. Does this act affect everything around it? he asked.
Of course, the answer is yes, for a couple of interrelated reasons. The first is that transferring mass from one place to another changes the local gravitational field. Objects around should shift ever so slightly due to the gravity wave that travels outward at the speed of light. Of course, we are talking in theory here. Gravity is the weakest of forces, so the effect would be too small to notice. Scientists are trying to detect gravity waves from continental shifts and exploding stars.
The butterfly effect, too, confirms that the paper’s movement has cosmic significance. When the topic of chaos theory captured the public’s attention a few years back, mathematicians explained how non-linear relationships can lead to magnifying effects. They explained how, in theory, a tornado in Rome could result from a the flap of a butterfly’s wing in New York. The changing air pressure caused by flight of the insect can precipitate other changes that multiply. Now, no one actually credits the cause of a tornado to a specific butterfly. There are a zillion other factors that come into play, factors that have a greater influence than that one specific butterfly. Still, the math of chaos theory provides a link between the two events.
The link, Jim said, provides a theoretical explanation for God. Effectively, God is in the details. If everything in the universe is linked, God is the sum total.
In all of our discussions, I assume a contrarian position. If the entire universe is God, I pointed out, then we just have a semantics issue. Instead of using an eight-letter word starting with “u” for the cosmos, we now have a three-letter word starting with “G”. What’s the difference? This definition of God is certainly far from the concept of God as an agent for creation, as an entity to be worshipped, or an omnipotent being with a consciousness that sees all, knows all, and cares whether we win the football game or not.
(The God-is-everything concept has another problem, namely that “everything” is equivalent to “nothing”. The word “amazing” is in excessive use these days. A performance was amazing, a movie was amazing, the weather was amazing, a person’s contribution to his community was amazing, that a celebrity would talk to me was amazing. The host on CBC morning radio must use the word two dozen times in each three-hour show. But a word that means everything has no real meaning. Kind of reminds me of hell: I’ve heard hot as hell, cold as hell, mad as hell, lonely as hell, slow as hell, crazy as hell, funny as hell…by now we sure as hell have a good idea of what hell is like, haven’t we?
Jim agreed that his definition of God was unconventional. But the proposal is still useful, he said, because his dropping the paper is recorded in the history and future of the universe. Suppose he dies after the change produced by the action begins to ripple outward at the speed of light. His action still living on, as we could, in theory, detect the ripple and backwind it to gain an understanding of his existence. His body dies, but his influence in the universe lives.
I worked on pinning Jim down. What’s the difference between that and a memory? Does Aristotle have life-after-death because we remember him? Is Julius Caesar’s essence still around because some of the oxygen atoms he might have breathed are in this very room? Jim hedged on whether this lasting physical influence could be called our “soul”, but he was, at least, arguing for some existence after death.
His biggest problem arises, I think, from quantum mechanics, which blurs the boundary between “in theory” and “in practice”. Here’s where that comes into play.
The influence of one’s actions can be seen as a transfer of information. We can pass information in two ways, by particle (we write a message on a ball and throw the ball to someone) or by wave (we speak the message, and sound waves ripple out to the listener’s ears). In the Second World War, ships on the high seas used blinking lights to send Morse code messages to each other while maintaining radio silence. Instead of the weak gravity wave that we mentioned earlier, let’s shift to the very feasible method of transmitting information (and energy) using light.
We blink the light, and the light heads outward. The information spreads in an ever-widening sphere. Yes, eventually it will reach the “edge” of the universe. But by that time, a couple of fates will have befallen it. The information will suffer from information contamination and information dilution.
The intensity of the spreading light carrying our information is decreasing with the square of the distance. At ten times the distance, the intensity is down by a factor of one hundred. At great distance, the signal is lost in the random background. This is not the same as an “it’s too small to notice” argument, because we are talking in theory, not in practice. The signal is, ultimately, decodable by its effect on something. A screen glows, an electron travels around a circuit, a signal travels from an observer’s eye to brain. If the signal is smaller than the background level of signals hitting the detector, the signal can’t be distinguished from the background. The information is lost. I’ll call that information contamination. If the background weren’t there, we could still detect the signal.
Light is a succession of electric and magnetic fields. When an electron accelerates, electromagnetic radiation (of which visible light is one form) results. Here’s where quantum theory enters the discussion. As our hypothetical signal spreads, it passes through substance and vacuum alike. Every substance robs it both of intensity and integrity. Even the vacuum has an ultimately devastating effect, because in otherwise empty space, tiny particles are being created and destroyed continuously. Electrons and positrons (and other matter/antimatter pairs) appear, raising the mass of the universe but lowering the energy at that spot (E=mc2). Electromagnetic waves result. The tiny particles are annihilated when they encounter their anti-matter partners, creating a fresh bursts of energy somewhere else. If the intensity of our information wave falls below the electromagnetic waves from this vacuum froth, it’s information content has vanished, contaminated by the background.
Not so fast, you might say. The background radiation is random, the information not. Can’t we distill the non-random from the random?
Here’s where information dilution interferes. When you zoom in on a Google map, the picture becomes less sharp. If you look closely at a photograph in a newspaper, you see individual dots. Ultimately, at the edge of the universe, the information is so dilute that we are either down to an individual dot, if we are dealing with a digital signal, or a uniform wash of single colour if it’s an analog signal. Neither carries information. A uniform colour is like a steady tone: to carry information, the tone must be modulated. (FM radio is frequency modulation; AM is amplitude modulation.) If the signal is digital, that individual dot might be one “bit” of information. Or it might be the space between the bits. Who knows? Either way, you can’t reconstruct the original, or even know that the original existed.
Another quantum mechanical effect rears, namely, the observer effect. Every time we observe or measure something, we change what we are measuring. Do you have a fever? You put a thermometer in your mouth to find your body temperature. Heat goes from you into the thermometer, the mercury expands, and you read the value. But when heat went from you to the thermometer, you just changed your temperature. That is, you changed your temperature by measuring your temperature.
Do you car tires have the correct pressure? You unscrew the valve cover and tap that little gizmo to the valve. Psst, the tiny blast of air shoves the slider up and you read off the tire’s pressure. See what happened? You just took some air out of the tire. You changed the pressure in your tire by measuring it. (Could you have done it without opening the valve, perhaps by squeezing the tire? Yes, but if you compress a gas you heat it up, and that changes the pressure. Sorry.)
The Compton Effect shows that you can’t even look at something to see its location because the light that bounced from the object to your eyes changed the object’s momentum, so it’s now not at the position you detected it to be. The effect is tiny on large objects, but real. So, remember that influence of Jim’s existence and actions rippling through space? As soon as you detect it, you’ve contaminated it. Sorry Jim (or ex-Jim). I will treasure my memory of you after you’re gone (I’m older, though, so I’ll go first), but I can’t see a physical essence of you existing for eternity.