Using Richard Feynman's quantum mechanical explanation of a mirror as a model to guide the development of human ethics in a modern world
Song of Songs: Apple of the Eye: The Aperture
In the ancient world people had no choice other than to live with, and to accept a great deal of uncertainty. New knowledge was hard won. Technological advancement was so slow that it was almost imperceptible. After Isaac Newton introduced mathematically precise laws to govern physical phenomena this began to change. The expectation of an orderly and very predictable world spread, not just within the scientific community, but among the general population as well. The ancients were forced to develop ways to manage a mysterious world, but we now assume that when anything is not currently understood, that it is just because the governing physical law has not yet been discovered. The notion that some things are unknowable is lost for most purposes.
Relatively recently, the study of quantum mechanics has introduced the idea that some amount of uncertainty is a feature of physical laws. It is no longer only the limitations of our ability to make precise measuring instruments that limits what can be known, but those limits are an inescapable feature of nature. It also appears that on the smallest scale events occur as if by chance, and that these events are guided by unknown mechanisms that follow fixed rules of probability.
Consider Richard Feynman’s discussion of light being reflected by a mirror, beginning at 1:32:03 as shown in one of the videos shared below. Even though we have very precise laws to analyze optical phenomena. and even though these laws are easy to apply, Feynman approaches the mirror using a counterintuitive quantum mechanical approach. Instead of assuming that light from a given source always follows the expected path, when it is reflected from the mirror and into a detector, he proposes that every unobstructed path is a possibility. Each path is assigned an amplitude vector that corresponds to the probability that a photon will travel by that path. That probability is a function of the time that is required for light to complete the chosen path. The path that is predicted by classical optical analysis, will require a short travel time, and will thus be represented by a long amplitude vector. As alternate paths diverge from the expected norm, the travel times lengthen, and the associated vectors grow shorter. These vectors not only have magnitudes but also have directions. Fortunately, some components of the exotic vectors, those vectors that are not expected by classical methods, cancel each other so that only those components that contribute to the expected path remain. All of this sounds like nonsense and that is O.K. because Feynman himself admits that it is incomprehensible. In spite of this type of analysis being overcomplicated for most purposes, it has value because it can predict phenomena that the classical view is unable to explain. He continues the analysis by demonstrating how the mirror will behave when it is altered by removing carefully chosen parts of the mirror. The results of these alterations cannot be explained by classical optics therefore the bizarre quantum effects can be demonstrated and are shown to be real. It can even be shown that when the photons are emitted one at a time, and we presume that they reflect from only locations that remain possible on the altered mirror, that they still behave as if the whole altered mirror system is accounted for.
Even though it seems as if only one of the available paths can be taken by each individual photon, they all behave independently and in conformance with the given field of options according to rules of probability. The fact that this knowledge of quantum effects resembles something like decision making, has given rise to speculation that quantum effects are somehow associated with another great mystery. That mystery is: What is the source of our own consciousness?
We began this discussion with an ancient world so full of mysterious uncertainty, that practices and beliefs, without understanding, were needed to cope and to bring some semblance of order to life. We have moved into a modern world in which great and growing knowledge has made technical advancement easy and has given an expectation that these skills will grow and grow rapidly. This apparent certainty has also given rise to arrogance and shortsightedness. In truth, very few of us understand modern science or technology, but instead believe that others are in place who will manage the deployment of new and great things. Just as modern scientific thought has rediscovered the inherent uncertainty of the physical world, perhaps we too should adjust our views to find our way in an uncertain future. Because we are unaccustomed to thinking in such terms, maybe we can find guidance from those who did so in the past.
The Song of Songs is considered by some to be just ancient erotica and by others to be an inspired spiritual text. It is composed of flirtations and flattering descriptions exchanged between lovers. Any description of actual contact is limited to dreamlike narratives. The images of a wall and of a door are introduced in the second and fifth chapters. Passage through the door is frustrated by the lover’s retreat. There are three admonitions given not to awaken love, or the lover, until he is ready. Near the end of the book images of a wall and door are reintroduced as part of a plan to adorn a young bride, one who is unready. She is not physically mature. A wall maintains the distinct separation of two places or environments. A door allows passage between these two. The door is Jacob’s ladder. Communication between ourselves in our current circumstance, and something desirable but beyond our reach is possible. This is two-way communication, as shown by the two-way traffic on Jacob’s ladder.
Reading ancient text is not enough. If incredibly insightful words were eternally preserved in some library, and if they were universally admired, but no one pondered those words or ever tested their own thoughts about them, these words would be worthless. We should also apply our own intelligence and intuition with diligence and honesty.
Let us now return to our discussion of Feynman’s mirror. Imagine that if one photon after having been projected into this field of uncertainty decided to cheat by copying the course of another photon. Imagine now that this type of behavior became fashionable and that large factions of photons were all choosing identical paths. Whatever errors become fashionable will be amplified. Mirrors would not function properly. They might be useless. They may become unstable or even dangerously deceptive with their ever-shifting fashions of error.
We are like these photons and with every new moment are we projected into a field of uncertainty. Those who promise guaranteed good results, if we follow their prescribed path, are liars or fools. Let us look beyond our origins, our current circumstances, and the available fashions, into the unknown and the unknowable. Let us send and receive messages through the door, or aperture, then deal with the necessarily vague or cryptic insights that will ultimately force us to make decisions and to act. Please think, speak, and act in good conscience.
The whole lecture series