I mean it’s like everything feels rickety and unstable all of a sudden.

This has taken me so long to write, and I don’t know why. I think partially it’s because I’m still processing everything that’s happening. I think there’s a lot of processing happening in the minds of a lot of people lately. Just when I think I have a handle on how I want to communicate how I’ve put everything together in my head, it slips away and I’m left with the jumble again. It’s a puzzle with slippery edges, the gears that skip. I’m going to try again.


We thought, we lost you
We thought, we lost you
We thought, we lost you
Welcome back.

Adventures in Solitude, The New Pornographers


Lenses

I think a lot about lenses. When we started making good lenses, we used them to look at stuff that was far away and stuff that was really small. These lenses let us examine our universe with more precision and detail than ever. Just by pointing them into the sky at night and down at the little droplets of water in a slide, we discovered stuff we never expected.

By observing the motions of the planets, and how light bends around really heavy objects in space, and how molecules slide in and out of cell walls, we were reassured that those laws we had to explain things were still valid. Laws of gravity and mass and thermodynamics still worked on giant things like stars and little tiny things like molecules. Great!

Albert Einstein figured out the speed limit of the universe. The fastest thing is light, and nothing can go faster than it. It goes 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum (like space). Things can slow it down, but nothing can speed it up. It’s the absolute, unbreakable, universal speed limit for how fast anything can travel.

Except it’s not

Here’s where everything starts to fall apart in my head, but I’m in good company, because nobody really understands how it works. Richard Feynman, widely considered the father of quantum mechanics, said that nobody really understood it.

Imagine that. This is the guy who was most qualified to understand quantum mechanics and here he is telling a room full of people that he doesn’t understand it. We might be able to figure out how some aspects of it operate, but that still doesn’t mean it makes sense.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about quantum mechanics.

If you want to learn about it, there are tons of places on the internet to read or watch stuff about it. It’s interesting! It’s also maddening, because none of it makes sense. The pieces that click together when we consider the Laws of Thermodynamics refuse to come together when we look at subatomic particles. You can bang your head on it for days and it will never make sense.

Remember how I said nothing goes faster than the speed of light? There’s a thing called quantum entanglement that you don’t need to know except this: it breaks Einstein’s speed limit.

Two particles can be separated by billions of lightyears and when something happens to one particle, it immediately happens to the other one, no matter how far away it is. Somehow this information passes between them instantly. We have no idea how. None!

There is nothing in our scientific lexicon to describe this. There is no law that explains it. Here’s what I’m trying to say: the structures that we are so sure holds everything together, when examined closely, tend to fall apart.

Did you know that just by observing something, we can change it? That’s what happens when we measure the spin of a particle that’s entangled to another one. Just the act of looking at it, without actually affecting it in any other way, changes it.

How the hell does that particle know I’m looking at it?

We have no idea! The universe fundamentally no longer makes sense.

This is how I feel about everything.

In the act of scrutinizing the structures of the world, I have stripped them bare and found them wanting.

Example: Here are three thoughts I’ve had in the last thirty years or so:

1) God exists. I was a kid who believed in God, went to church, never really thought much of it, but still just took the existence of God as a given.

2) God doesn’t exist. I got older and skeptical. To me, the reasons for believing in God were nonsensical. The material universe is observable, and our material universe is so thoroughly understood that there’s no room for a God.

3) Maybe God exists. I have no idea anymore. I was very confident in my atheism. That’s not to say I’ve had any kind of experience that makes me rethink everything — I’m not born again, I have not had a revelation. I am just no longer certain. I don’t say I’m an atheist anymore.

I’m open to more ideas.

Human consciousness is a force of nature

I mean, it’s so rattling to consider this. We are no longer just hairless apes mucking about in the muck of the mud of the earth. The simple act of noticing something can alter the behavior of a particle on a different side of the universe.

I mean, when you look at that on its surface, it’s just one particle. There are about ten quadrillion vigintillion atoms in the universe, so it’s not a very big change.

But imagine the possibilities. If our attention affects the universe, we’re no longer as simple as apes knuckle-dragging around this little planet.

We cannot imagine the mysteries of the universe.

I have a theory that stories are the real fundament of the universe, and that the construction of stories is what keeps the universe together. I’ll elaborate in a future newsletter, but I wrote this one to say this: your systems are unreliable, and you should question every one of them.

I will leave you with an idea that I can’t shake, because it’s philosophically bullet proof and it’s fun to think about.

We live in a simulation

It is perfectly within the limited bounds of our imaginations to consider that we will one day soon have the ability to perfectly replicate every aspect of the human experience, from the point of the view of a human experiencing it, and such an experience will be indistinguishable from our reality, and it will all be constructed within a computer. A corollary to this is that if we CAN do this, we WILL do it.

Why would we do that? Because we can, yes, but a high-fidelity simulation has a ton of important applications for science. If you wanted to know how a population would react to a given scenario, you create a simulated version of that population and subject it to the pressures and challenges that represent your area of study.

Therefore, it only a matter of time before a population of human beings living out their lives from birth to death will be incapable of distinguishing their experience from what an actual human being experienced.

How do we know which one we are? If every dimension of a human’s life can be replicated flawlessly within the confines of a computer program, how do we know we’re not in one? Would the cracks ever appear? Would we know them if we saw them?

The bedrock of the simulation theory is this: if humans can replicate the human experience in a computer simulation, then they certainly will do that, and they can do so with near limitless fidelity and replication. Therefore, the statistical odds are such that we are probably living in one such simulation, because the odds of your specific subjective experience being simulated is vastly greater than the odds of you being a meat and blood human, because one could theoretically create an infinite number of these programmed universes, and infinity is greater than one. Statistics are a shaky proposition, so your mileage may vary.

But whatever argument you can mount to argue the validity of the simulation theory is easily outweighed by the reality of our lives. It does not matter if we are living in a simulation, because the laws of the universe are reliable and consistent.

Except they aren’t

But our stories are. Terry Pratchett, a frequent influence on the way I think about all sorts of things, actually depicted stories as a force in the universe, that narratives had a weight and power of their own. Here’s an excerpt from Witches Abroad that illustrates this nicely:

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.

Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.

Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling…stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.”

While he was writing fantasy, I think there’s some truth in there. Newtonian physics are a way of telling a story about how the world works. That story is made up of rules and laws and consistent phenomena, just like a regular story has consistent characters and rules you know it will follow. The rules change depending on the story. If I’m watching a classic fantasy adventure story, I know that the dashing hero is going to defeat the villain and get the girl. If I watch a Star Wars movie and the good guys don’t win in the end, I’m going to be upset. That’s not Star Wars.

If I’m watching a movie in the surrealism genre, all bets are off. If I don’t see something weird, I’m going to ask for my money back. Art is constantly challenging the boxes we’ve made for it, and that’s what keeps it exciting. Science isn’t like that. It follows specific rules.

Except it doesn’t

Everything is a story. Look closely at the systems in our lives and you see they’re just stories we tell ourselves, each other, our kids.

Here is one story we tell:

The police are here to help us, and if you call them, they will arrest the bad guy and justice will win.

This story is told mostly by white people. Brown people know better. This story doesn’t make sense to them. They would probably laugh if you told it to them with a straight face.

Rules are just the things we’ve agreed about.

Have you ever driven on a two lane highway, where one lane is going in one direction and the other lane is going in the other direction? Have you ever driven fast enough on one of those roads that if you collide with someone coming the other direction, you are all certain to die? Probably!

The only thing that keeps that horrific scenario from happening is a mutual understanding that two yellow lines are a nonpermeable barrier. The only thing preventing mutually assured death is some paint on the pavement. But it’s not actually the paint providing a barrier, it’s our faith that the other drivers will respect the boundary. We’re all in the same story, and we have to follow the rules or we both die.

Money is just a story.

Our currency used to be gold. We traded gold for goods and services because gold had an intrinsic value. You could use it to make beautiful, valuable things that would not tarnish over time. It was rare, and not easy to mine, and its scarcity made it even more valuable. We also traded bits of other precious metals, like silver, for much the same reason.

People got tired of carrying around heavy bags of metals, so governments agreed to hold on to the gold and gave us bits of paper instead. Those papers represented an amount of gold at some location somewhere, and we could exchange that piece of paper for some actual gold that, if we wanted, we could use to make a ring or something. This was called the “gold standard.”

But this limited the government. It couldn’t just create more gold when we needed more money, so they changed the system. Now, money is just guaranteed by the government. The government can decide how much dollars are worth, how many dollars are in circulation, and none of it ever has to make sense.

Money is just a story we tell each other. The stock market is just a running narrative about how people feel about how valuable companies are. The entirety of the American economy, maybe the world’s economy, is based on a mutually-agreed upon story.

It all adheres together and keeps going because of its own momentum.

The systems are breaking down because we’re examining them.

If your attention can alter the motion of a particle, then what else can you do?

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