Grand Illusions and Existential Angst

The great promise of a hyper-connected society having the world’s knowledge at its fingertips was better decisions and a more enlightened citizenry. The great disappointment is the proliferation of fake news and ways to confirm to ourselves what we already felt to be true—whether that is the case or not.

In many ways, society progresses only when people question what is already known; as Thomas Paine proclaims, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry” (Paine 1737–1809). The scientific apparatus is, arguably, the best tool for such inquiry. It has been laying waste to social hubris and human arrogance by identifying illusions for centuries.

It was common knowledge that a heavy rock falls to the ground faster than a small, lightweight pebble—until Galileo questioned such knowledge. Acknowledging our propensity for self-deception is an unparalleled route to enlightenment.

Overcoming self-deception is at the heart of science, maintains physicist Robert Muller. “A layman is easily fooled and is particularly susceptible to self-deception. In contrast, a scientist is easily fooled and is particularly susceptible to self-deception, and knows it,” he says (Muller 2017). Here are some more grand illusions science has revealed.

We curse the bedpost when it reminds our big toe of its solid rigidity. But the post is mostly empty space, as is our toe. Atoms are 99.99999999999 percent empty space. Soothing our big toe injury by consuming a dessert drink, we notice that a vacuum seems to pull liquid up the straw, which is, in fact, not the case! Outside air pressure pushes the liquid up.

For millennia people believed Earth was the center of the universe. Twenty-five percent of people in the United States still believe the Sun goes around the Earth (Neuman 2014), which calls to mind Isaac Asimov’s statement “Scientific apparatus offers a window to knowledge … scientists spend ever more time washing windows” (Asimov 1988). The Earth also seems quite flat, though scholars have known it to be spherical since the days of the ancient Greeks.

Our intuition suggests that something needs to be pushing an object for it to remain in motion. The brilliance of Isaac Newton told us otherwise: objects will continue moving for all eternity if left unimpeded by outside influences.

When you look at a yellow lemon on a pixelated electronic monitor, there are no yellow-colored pixels being shown! A gyroscope seems to magically defy gravity. As for magic, magicians don’t practice magic. They practice illusion. As you turn left in your car, you sense a force shoving you right, though, there is no such force.

Hiking in polar regions, or in high alpine, may cause you to stumble upon magnificent patterns in the ground that seem designed by a divine being or a masochistic artist willing to expend countless hours arranging rocks. Rocks, in a large expanse of geography, have been sorted—some in almost perfect circles. On the surface, it intimates intelligent design, but digging deeper reveals that freeze-thaw cycles, water, and gravity work together to create self-organized sorted patterned ground (Kessler and Werner 2003).

The physiology of our eyes and brain can taunt us with static images that appear to pulsate in autokinetic illusions. One of the best was produced by Gianni Sarcone called “Hypnotic Vibes” (Sarcone 2014). Sarcone reported that scientists have several theories to explain these illusions, but the precise neurophysiology remains unknown (Sarcone 2013).

The Monty Hall problem, which is equivalent to Martin Gardner’s Three Prisoners problem (Gardner 1959), is a classic illusion in statistics and probability. This problem has you choose from three doors. A new car is behind one. Odds of success are one-third. The host then shows you that the car is not behind one of the other two doors and asks if you would like to stick with your original guess or switch.

Always switching doors brings your odds to two-thirds (and not one-half) as many incorrectly guess. Moreover, letting a coin flip make your decision on whether to switch keeps you with one-third odds!1 This illusion is so strong it created a stir across America back in 1991 when many academics argued incorrectly the odds were one-half (Tierney 1991). (The Skeptical Inquirer played a role in stimulating and probing this controversy, when it reported on a Marilyn vos Savant column about it; see SI Summer 1991 and Winter 1992.)

On a more highfalutin plane, one discovers that time does not march into the future at the same rate for everyone according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. It is possible for someone, having been born on Earth a thousand years ago, to still be alive to speak to us today if they have been traveling in space at immense speeds or spending time near a black hole!

It is also known that all objects have a weird wave/particle duality with nonintuitive properties. At the atomic level, an alpha particle inside radioactive uranium should be viewed as being in a superposition of locations that is both inside and outside the nucleus until it is measured as in the classic thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat in quantum mechanics.

So, how do you imagine a single object in multiple locations simultaneously (Kaku 2018)? Are you imagining something ghost-like? It is equivalent to imagining a cat that is both dead and alive—simultaneously. Richard Feynman (1965) has commented about this strange reality by saying, “The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, ‘But how can it be like that?’ which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar.”

It should be noted that describing the object as being in multiple locations simultaneously is only one interpretation. A slightly more mainstream interpretation is that the object does not have definite properties, such as position, until it is observed (Copenhagen Interpretation 2018). Yet giving it an “indefinite position” does little to advance a vivid conceptualization.

Experiments have been conducted of atomic-level particles tunneling through barriers similar to how alpha particles escape uranium (Enders and Nimtz 1992; Recami 2009; Landauer 1993; Nimtz and Aichmann 2015). The results seem to show tunneling speeds faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. Such speeds would violate causality where the effect could precede its cause in certain reference frames, unleashing chaos in scientific and philosophical worldviews.

Alas, such speeds are an illusion—an illusion less accessible in everyday life but profoundly meaningful. The rescue of causality comes from the concept of dispersion and group velocity of a wave packet as it pertains to the particles (Steinber et al. 1993; O’Dowd 2016; Weisstein and Rodriques 2007; Brudny and Mochan 2001).

The quintessence illusion in nature, if bona fide, is that of free will. The implications are breathtaking. It torments philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike. Consider the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2017 killing fifty-eight people. It was no doubt tragic and prompted Vice President Mike Pence to describe it as an act of “pure evil” (Terez 2017). But this says nothing about the physical science happening inside the shooter’s brain, which is the root cause of all behavior.

Implicit in the previous sentence is the conjecture, or axiom, that everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it going all the way back to the big bang, inclusive of probabilistic events from the quantum realm.

The brain is composed of nerve cells, or neurons, of which the operational characteristics are reasonably well understood. Their functionality, within the larger nervous system, is based on electrochemical interactions. There is no evidence to argue otherwise.

This leads to an existential crisis of immense proportions! It shakes the very foundation of volition. We all act as if we are agents of our own destiny who freely make choices somehow outside, or beyond the reach, of the fundamental forces in nature that govern how all objects interact. Sam Harris, a cognitive neuroscientists and ardent doubter of free will, boldly writes, “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion” (Harris 2011).

In the most general sense, this debate splits into two philosophies: those who believe in free will and those who think the brain is mechanistic or deterministic. Definitions of free will vary, but from a physical science perspective, it implies that something outside or beyond the basic interaction of how charges interact is influencing decision-making. Otherwise, it is deterministic.

There are people—some of them well-respected scientists (Dennett 2014)—who insist the collective spatial-temporal neuron activity has irreducible complexity and represents emergent phenomena that allow free will to exist. But this argument is a non sequitur; emergent complexity in nature does not imply non-mechanistic interactions. And to argue free will and determinism are compatible is a semantics-induced subterfuge of logic. Attempts to salvage free will out of brain functions with quantum influences are inadequate and largely implausible (Lopez-Corredoria 2002; Clarke 2014).

In 1966, Charles Whitman went on a murderous rampage, shooting his mother and his wife, then taking a rifle to the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, shooting and killing fourteen more people before being shot and killed by police. Whitman typed up a suicide note in which he puzzled at his actions. He complained of being a victim of unusual and irrational thoughts. In this note, he had the wherewithal to request an autopsy on his brain in hopes of finding something to explain his behavior. An autopsy was done and found a pecan-sized brain tumor that experts concluded could conceivably have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions (Charles Whitman 2017).

Theologians have long struggled with the possibility that human free will is an illusion. Astonishingly, the physical science of the brain gets no attention in most religious explorations of free will. They center on resolving the incompatibility of an omniscient deity knowing the future and human free will.

Wikipedia’s pages on “free will in theology” (Free Will in Theology 2017) and “predestination” (Predestination 2017) have no references to the physical science of the neuron or brain. This reveals a fundamental chasm between science and theology. Besides, determinism has too high of a philosophical price tag, for it undermines the concept of sin.

On Twitter, God (@TheTweetOfGod) has declared that “Free will was probably a mistake” (Javerbaum 2018). Apparently, comedy writer David Javerbaum serves as the social media communications official for the divine on Twitter. As a follow-up corollary, God has also tweeted “Everything happens for no reason. It is extremely important to understand this.”

Returning to social implications of no free will, this profoundly affects our criminal justice philosophy. Human agency, free choice, and culpability are at the heart of criminal law except in cases of mental disease or mental defect. Determinism says that actions are caused by our past world experiences and genetics. It is absurd to punish a positive charge for being attracted to a negative charge. A new field of study called neurolaw has arisen from legal ruminations on this matter (Mensching 2016; Erickson 2010).

This also nullifies the debate on whether artificial intelligence could ever develop consciousness and free will. These concepts become shapeless and unclear if the human brain is an automaton—a slave to the electrical signals of neuronal firings. Free will becomes a mirage. This does not preclude artificial intelligence from advancing to a higher degree of complexity than the brain. Logically, highly intelligent advanced beings on other worlds would be equally confined in this existential angst.

Katherine Hepburn told Humphrey Bogart in the movie The African Queen that “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in the world to rise above” (The African Queen 2017). The illusion of free will casts doubt on our ability to do so. It is a dark nihilistic existential cloud that hovers over our existence. The late Stephen Hawking made connections with brains, computers, and the afterlife by retorting “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” (Joseph 2018).

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (2017) concurs with the view that free will is an illusion as it relates to consciousness and the human mind. He argues that such worldviews greatly disturb the philosophical foundations of crime, wars, and politics. Christopher Hitchens, in his unique, witty way, enunciated: “Of course we have free will, because we have no choice but to have it” (Hitchens 2010).

Nevertheless, a world devoid of free will does not imply our existence is meaningless and improvement is futile. It is still important to corral our primitive instincts with social laws and expectations that modify human behaviors to improve the quality of our existence.

Our journey is elevated by recognizing nature the way it is—and not the way we would like it to be. It is elevated by acknowledging that you had no free will in reading these words, yet you still persist in seeking answers to important questions.

Caltech physicist Sean Carroll ponders the lofty philosophy of free will in his book The Big Picture. In it he argues:

We are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter … . We are small; the universe is big. It doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We have nevertheless figured out an amazing amount about how things actually work. It’s a different kind of challenge to accept the world for what it is, to face reality with a smile, and to make our lives into something valuable. (Carroll 2016)

Adding value, dignity, and esteem to life is what possesses geniuses of all ages. Exposing illusions is one important way in which science adds value. In this sense, such actions follow the spirit of Socrates in pursuing an examined life (The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living 2017). The French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (Sartre 1946). Our lot is to acknowledge and affirm an optimistic existentialism of being able to see the universe for what it is.

 


 

Note

  1. The author of this article built a Python language computer code utilizing a Python random number generator module to confirm the probabilities regarding the Monty Hall problem.

 


 

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The great promise of a hyper-connected society having the world’s knowledge at its fingertips was better decisions and a more enlightened citizenry. The great disappointment is the proliferation of fake news and ways to confirm to ourselves what we already felt to be true—whether that is the case or not. In many ways, society progresses …

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