The limitless future.

March 4th, 2011

The promotional flyer had me with the first three lines:

“Scientists and scholars do not understand all the laws of nature, and have so far been unable to explain consciousness.

Many problems remain in physics, and some mathematical assumptions are still open to debate.

There are even questions about the accuracy of human perception.”

So on Saturday I attended “The Limitations of Mental and Physical Reality,” a free roundtable discussion at The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination in New York City. The esteemed panelists were to address whether limitations of understanding derive from inherent limitations of the human mind, or from a failure of our physics and mathematics. If innovations in physics and mathematics will reveal further mysteries. And if metaphysics, which accounts for the unseen and imperceptible, will be incorporated into an empirical theory of knowledge. I was intrigued at the provocative agenda. And after about 90 minutes of discussion and a Q&A with the audience, I left both fascinated and excited – eager for all the knowledge and understanding that most surely is continuing to unfold. And without limits.

The perfect storm of roundtable participants included:

Gregory Chaitin discoverer of the Omega number who is now trying to create a general mathematical theory of biological evolution;

Moderator Joseph J. Kohn, a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Princeton University who has written numerous research articles and has been involved in various mathematical projects in the Czech Republic, Italy, Mexico, and the United States;

Tim Maudlin, a Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University whose work centers on the interpretation of physical theory;

Edward Nelson, a Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University and winner of the American Mathematical Society Steele Prize for seminal contribution to research; and

Carol Rovane is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and author of “The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics.”

There’s a full video here.

I thought some of the most stimulating discussion was the result of comments or questions from the audience. For example, Stuart Dambrot noted a project at the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory whereby a robot embedded with a microprocessor was capable of observing its self-model. (The project was also the subject of an article published online last week in Scientific American magazine.)

Points I’ve spent the most time thinking about came in response to the question posed by Josh Armstrong, a graduate student in philosophy.  At 86:10 in the video, he asks what the idea of limitations suggests about the nature of physics. That is, if the goal of physics is to describe physical reality in the most fundamental terms, he wonders whether an acceptance of limitations should cause us to revise this notion of the goal or makes us realize it’s a goal we’re aiming for but will never reach.

Chaitin responded first with a comment that really caught my attention. “Physics says, ‘While your back was turned, physics just turned into metaphysics,’ because of lack of ideas and experimental evidence.”

What? Metaphysics!? I thought metaphysics had a bad name among scientists. But according to Chaitin it’s very much alive in the fundamental physics community.  And Maudlin concurred it’s made a comeback in the philosophical community as well. He said “It’s simply a study of what exists, and science, to that extent, is doing metaphysics: It’s trying to figure out what there is in the world.”

And Chaitin reminds us not to forget the “hot topic” of Multiverse theory – the idea of being in a universe that is part of a multi-verse of all possible universes – now being discussed by physicists, cosmologists and string theorists alike.

I was most inspired by Maudlin’s summation to Armstrong’s question. That while there may be some limitations that will keep us from completing physics, he doesn’t see any proof of such limitations. “The enterprise will always be to go as far as you can.”

It’s my belief there are no limitations to thought and its discovery. I think of it this way: the self is not limited. I have no doubt it’s our purpose to expand our consciousness, to create through conscious thought. So tell me, what are you thinking about? What are you creating for yourself?

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