Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Fractal Future

Humans spend much of the present pondering the future. Christians have a branch of theology for the subject (eschatology, the "doctrine of the last things"). As a general rule, our beliefs about the future influence our choices in the present, and, conversely, our choices in the present contribute to the outcomes in the future.

Our instinctive understanding of time tempts the average human to try to "figure out the future." Some people lean towards fatalism ("I guess I'm destined to fail") while others try to outwit fate ("I won't meet Death in the marketplace!"). Either way, they react to some particular picture of the future.

Einstein's conception of time made him reject ancient Judaism and much of twentieth century science. Einstein believed the universe was governed by iron laws that determined every outcome from the beginning, and therefore rejected the notion of a personal God who judged men for their choices. He famously disagreed with Niels Bohr over quantum physics, insisting that "God does not play dice with the universe." It was his second great blunder (the other was his admitted "fudging" his own calculations to eliminate the evidence for an expanding universe well before Edwin Hubbell discovered that galaxies are flying away from each other).

Einstein thought of time as a fixed line out of an infinite past into an infinite future. Aristotle had a different idea--he did not believe in "the future," as such. He discussed the truth value of the statement, "There will be a sea-battle tomorrow" and concluded that a statement about the future has no truth value. Today's "Open Theists" enlarge upon Aristotle's position--they say that God knows everything that is, but does not know the future, because "the future" does not exist.

David Deutsch goes to the opposite extreme: in The Fabric of Reality, he argues that every possible future exists. Einstein's time is a one-dimensional line, Deutsch sees time expanding into a two-dimensional plane of possibilities. (Deutsch might argue that all time's branches form a multidimensional hypersolid.)

I'd like to suggest another option--a fractal future. In this model, some but not all futures become actual. I'll try to explain the implications of this in a later post.

Monday, December 27, 2010

What Rough Beast Slouches Towards Bethlehem?

In the darkening dawn of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold." Yeats' Second Coming glimpsed a nightmarish "rough beast, its hour come round at last" slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. As we move into the 21st century, my fear is that the "center" is getting too strong--there seems to be no limit to what technology and government can do.

Computers can only get so fast, but quantum computing harnesses parallel timelines to do things that just aren't possible in a Newtonian universe. A fully-functioning quantum computer should break the barriers between relativity and quantum physics, and should also be able to bioengineer proteins from scratch. Given today's pace of progress, I expect decent quantum computers to be operational by 2025, yielding a whole new generation of technology by 2045.

Technology isn't the only thing that changes. There's a pace of progress in human relationships, too. I'm not aware of any "Moore's Law" for human interconnectedness, but we've gone from writing to printing to telegraph to radio to television to internet to blogs to Facebook to Twitter over time. Communications move further and faster. The news cycle has gone from monthly magazines to weekly papers to the nightly newscast to 24/7 cable to a constant feed to the Blackberry.

Yeats heard the winds of chaos scattering the ashes of Europe after World War I. Today an invisible web is twining its tentacles around a shrinking world. Who knows what the future holds?