We know that our universe is a bit unreal. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This delay is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay.
The same delay in seeing has a lesser known manifestation in the way we perceive moving objects. It distorts our perception such that something coming towards us would look as though it is coming in faster. Strange as it may sound, this effect has been observed in astrophysical studies. Some of the heavenly bodies do look as though they are moving several times the speed of light, while their “real” speed is probably a lot lower.
Now, this effect raises an interesting question–what is the “real” speed? If seeing is believing, the speed we see should be the real speed. Then again, we know of the light travel time effect. So we should correct the speed we see before believing it. What then does “seeing” mean? When we say we see something, what do we really mean?
Light in Physics
Seeing involves light, obviously. The finite speed of light influences and distorts the way we see things. This fact should hardly come as a surprise because we do know that things are not as we see them. The sun that we see is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This delay is not a big deal; if we want to know what is going on at the sun now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We, nonetheless, have to “correct” for the distortions in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.
What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to sensing motion, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.
Einstein chose the first route. In his groundbreaking paper over a hundred years ago, he introduced the special theory of relativity, in which he attributed the manifestations of the finite speed of light to the fundamental properties of space and time. One core idea in special relativity (SR) is that the notion of simultaneity needs to be redefined because it takes some time for light from an event at a distant place to reach us, and we become aware of the event. The concept of “Now” doesn’t make much sense, as we saw, when we speak of an event happening in the sun, for instance. Simultaneity is relative.
Einstein defined simultaneity using the instants in time we detect the event. Detection, as he defined it, involves a round-trip travel of light similar to Radar detection. We send out light, and look at the reflection. If the reflected light from two events reaches us at the same instant, they are simultaneous.
Another way of defining simultaneity is using sensing — we can call two events simultaneous if the light from them reaches us at the same instant. In other words, we can use the light generated by the objects under observation rather than sending light to them and looking at the reflection.
This difference may sound like a hair-splitting technicality, but it does make an enormous difference in the predictions we can make. Einstein’s choice results in a mathematical picture that has many desirable properties, thereby making further development elegant.
The other possibility has an advantage when it comes to describing objects in motion because it corresponds better with how we measure them. We don’t use Radar to see the stars in motion; we merely sense the light (or other radiation) coming from them. But this choice of using a sensory paradigm, rather than Radar-like detection, to describe the universe results in a slightly uglier mathematical picture.
The mathematical difference spawns different philosophical stances, which in turn percolate to the understanding of our physical picture of reality. As an illustration, let us look at an example from astrophysics. Suppose we observe (through a radio telescope, for instance) two objects in the sky, roughly of the same shape and properties. The only thing we know for sure is that the radio waves from two different points in the sky reach the radio telescope at the same instant in time. We can guess that the waves started their journey quite a while ago.
For symmetric objects, if we assume (as we routinely do) that the waves started the journey roughly at the same instant in time, we end up with a picture of two “real” symmetric lobes more or less the way see them.
But there is different possibility that the waves originated from the same object (which is in motion) at two different instants in time, reaching the telescope at the same instant. This possibility explains some spectral and temporal properties of such symmetric radio sources, which is what I mathematically described in a recent physics article. Now, which of these two pictures should we take as real? Two symmetric objects as we see them or one object moving in such a way as to give us that impression? Does it really matter which one is “real”? Does “real” mean anything in this context?
The philosophical stance in implied in special relativity answers this question unequivocally. There is an unambiguous physical reality from which we get the two symmetric radio sources, although it takes a bit of mathematical work to get to it. The mathematics rules out the possibility of a single object moving in such a fashion as to mimic two objects. Essentially, what we see is what is out there.
On the other hand, if we define simultaneity using concurrent arrival of light, we will be forced to admit the exact opposite. What we see is pretty far from what is out there. We will confess that we cannot unambiguously decouple the distortions due to the constraints in perception (the finite speed of light being the constraint of interest here) from what we see. There are multiple physical realities that can result in the same perceptual picture. The only philosophical stance that makes sense is the one that disconnects the sensed reality and the causes behind what is being sensed.
This disconnect is not uncommon in philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality as we sense it). The noumenal reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.
The ramifications of the two different philosophical stances described above are tremendous. Since modern physics seems to embrace a non-phenomenalistic view of space and time, it finds itself at odds with that branch of philosophy. This chasm between philosophy and physics has grown to such a degree that the Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wondered (in his book “Dreams of a Final Theory”) why the contribution from philosophy to physics have been so surprisingly small. It also prompts philosophers to make statements like, “Whether ‘noumenal reality causes phenomenal reality’ or whether ‘noumenal reality is independent of our sensing it’ or whether ‘we sense noumenal reality,’ the problem remains that the concept of noumenal reality is a totally redundant concept for the analysis of science.”
One, almost accidental, difficulty in redefining the effects of the finite speed of light as the properties of space and time is that any effect that we do understand gets instantly relegated to the realm of optical illusions. For instance, the eight-minute delay in seeing the sun, because we readily understand it and disassociate from our perception using simple arithmetic, is considered a mere optical illusion. However, the distortions in our perception of fast moving objects, although originating from the same source are considered a property of space and time because they are more complex.
We have to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion, which is probably what Goethe pointed out when he said, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”
The distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is “actually the case.” In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external, as shown in the figure below.
In this picture, the black arrow represents the process of creating knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept.
While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.
But there is another, alternative view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs, as illustrated below.
In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In the illustration, the first arrow represents the process of sensing, and the second arrow represents the cognitive and logical reasoning steps. In order to apply this view of reality and knowledge, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is. One possible candidate for the absolute reality is Newtonian mechanics, which gives a reasonable prediction for our perceived reality.
To summarize, when we try to handle the distortions due to perception, we have two options, or two possible philosophical stances. One is to accept the distortions as part of our space and time, as SR does. The other option is to assume that there is a “higher” reality distinct from our sensed reality, whose properties we can only conjecture. In other words, one option is to live with the distortion, while the other is to propose educated guesses for the higher reality. Neither of these options is particularly attractive. But the guessing path is similar to the view accepted in phenomenalism. It also leads naturally to how reality is viewed in cognitive neuroscience, which studies the biological mechanisms behind cognition.
In my view, the two options are not inherently distinct. The philosophical stance of SR can be thought of as coming from a deep understanding that space is merely a phenomenal construct. If the sense modality introduces distortions in the phenomenal picture, we may argue that one sensible way of handling it is to redefine the properties of the phenomenal reality.
Role of Light in Our Reality
From the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, everything we see, sense, feel and think is the result of the neuronal interconnections in our brain and the tiny electrical signals in them. This view must be right. What else is there? All our thoughts and worries, knowledge and beliefs, ego and reality, life and death — everything is merely neuronal firings in the one and half kilograms of gooey, grey material that we call our brain. There is nothing else. Nothing!
In fact, this view of reality in neuroscience is an exact echo of phenomenalism, which considers everything a bundle of perception or mental constructs. Space and time are also cognitive constructs in our brain, like everything else. They are mental pictures our brains concoct out of the sensory inputs that our senses receive. Generated from our sensory perception and fabricated by our cognitive process, the space-time continuum is the arena of physics. Of all our senses, sight is by far the dominant one. The sensory input to sight is light. In a space created by the brain out of the light falling on our retinas (or on the photo sensors of the Hubble telescope), is it a surprise that nothing can travel faster than light?
This philosophical stance is the basis of my book, The Unreal Universe, which explores the common threads binding physics and philosophy. Such philosophical musings usually get a bad rap from us physicists. To physicists, philosophy is an entirely different field, another silo of knowledge. We need to change this belief and appreciate the overlap among different knowledge silos. It is in this overlap that we can expect to find breakthroughs in human thought.
This philosophical grand-standing may sound presumptuous and the veiled self-admonition of physicists understandably unwelcome; but I am holding a trump card. Based on this philosophical stance, I have come up with a radically new model for two astrophysical phenomena, and published it in an article titled, “Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?” in the well-known International Journal of Modern Physics D in June 2007. This article, which soon became one of the top accessed articles of the journal by Jan 2008, is a direct application of the view that the finite speed of light distorts the way we perceive motion. Because of these distortions, the way we see things is a far cry from the way they are.
We may be tempted to think that we can escape such perceptual constraints by using technological extensions to our senses such as radio telescopes, electron microscopes or spectroscopic speed measurements. After all, these instruments do not have “perception” per se and should be immune to the human weaknesses we suffer from. But these soulless instruments also measure our universe using information carriers limited to the speed of light. We, therefore, cannot escape the basic constraints of our perception even when we use modern instruments. In other words, the Hubble telescope may see a billion light years farther than our naked eyes, but what it sees is still a billion years older than what our eyes see.
Our reality, whether technologically enhanced or built upon direct sensory inputs, is the end result of our perceptual process. To the extent that our long range perception is based on light (and is therefore limited to its speed), we get only a distorted picture of the universe.
Light in Philosophy and Spirituality
The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. Classical philosophical schools seem to have thought along lines very similar to Einstein’s thought experiment.
Once we appreciate the special place accorded to light in modern science, we have to ask ourselves how different our universe would have been in the absence of light. Of course, light is only a label we attach to a sensory experience. Therefore, to be more accurate, we have to ask a different question: if we did not have any senses that responded to what we call light, would that affect the form of the universe?
The immediate answer from any normal (that is, non-philosophical) person is that it is obvious. If everybody is blind, everybody is blind. But the existence of the universe is independent of whether we can see it or not. Is it though? What does it mean to say the universe exists if we cannot sense it? Ah… the age-old conundrum of the falling tree in a deserted forest. Remember, the universe is a cognitive construct or a mental representation of the light input to our eyes. It is not “out there,” but in the neurons of our brain, as everything else is. In the absence of light in our eyes, there is no input to be represented, ergo no universe.
If we had sensed the universe using modalities that operated at other speeds (echolocation, for instance), it is those speeds that would have figured in the fundamental properties of space and time. This is the inescapable conclusion from phenomenalism.
The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that “the earth was without form, and void” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.”
The Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: “Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.” The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?
I know I may be rushing in where angels fear to tread, for reinterpreting the scriptures is a dangerous game. Such foreign interpretations are seldom welcome in the theological circles. But I seek refuge in the fact that I am looking for concurrence in the metaphysical views of spiritual philosophies, without diminishing their mystical or theological value.
The parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita are hard to ignore. This time-tested wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is now reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is yet to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.
As we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are beginning to discover hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. In the final analysis, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other when all our knowledge resides in our brain? Knowledge is a cognitive representation of our experiences. But then, so is reality; it is a cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. It is a fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Knowledge and reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate.
Recognizing and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavour may be the catalyst for the next breakthrough in our collective wisdom that we have been waiting for.