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The Universe and Reality

Guest Column Kenneth Nesmith

As a freshman, Philippe C. Larochelle’s column [“A Unified Theory of Everything,” August 30] felt slightly degrading to me. Freshmen do worry about such things as religion and the universe. Several of us have felt the same alternating feelings of startling despair and epiphanal joy mentioned in the column as we step back and try to gain some perspective on the universe as a whole. However, some of us arrive at different conclusions than Larochelle.

It is not possible for us to attain a complete knowledge of the universe. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that we cannot know the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. Even if we were to make measurements as accurately as possible and then attempt to use that knowledge to predict the future of the system in question, chaos theory would ensure that our initial uncertainties would quickly magnify themselves and make our predictions useless. Furthermore, the computational difficulties involved in such predictions may be insurmountable. Computations are based on physical phenomena within the processor of the computer. We cannot model such particle interactions faster than they occur in the processor itself; hence it becomes fundamentally impossible to make such predictions. These, and a host of other problems involving the way our measurements and predictions actually affect the outcome of the system we are measuring and predicting, ensure that the sort of forecasting and prediction that Larochelle envisions cannot be realized.

Our inability to predict the future belies the fact that at the most fundamental level the universe is not deterministic. Quantum mechanics tells us that if we perform a simple experiment with an electron over and over again, precisely the same way, the outcome will not be the same. The universe, on this most fundamental level, does not function as a system of wheels and cogs. There is some unavoidable element of probability and randomness.

Furthermore, the value of the conclusions drawn in the column is questionable. Regardless of how we understand and describe reality, we must accept it for what it is. Each of us feels that we have free will. If we were to suddenly find that we were only a small piece of the cosmic game of billiards with no real control over what happens to us and the world around us, would we suddenly lose our sense of free will and consciousness? Would we suddenly feel like machines? Would we immediately feel a loss of control over every choice we made, from choosing whether to drink the Sprite or the Pepsi to deciding whether to wear shorts or pants? Of course not. Regardless of the true nature of free will, we feel that we have it, and as humans, we must accept it as such. Reality is what it is. How we choose to describe it or understand it does not change it.

I am personally unsure of religion’s role in my life, but I’m leaving myself open to wherever experience may lead me. We can debate arguments for and against the existence of God, the soul, and free will for hours on end, but the nature of each of these is such that only personal experience will lead us to belief. All of us, theists and atheists alike, have our doubts, but each of us crafts our beliefs more precisely through the experiences we have each day. I’m not sure it does anyone justice to prechart their path through the waters of personal philosophy via a simple dichotomy of despair and belief.

MIT’s goal is not to understand everything in the way that Larochelle describes. The school is not attempting to create all-knowing masters of the universe who are simply able to see future events via measurement and prediction. Rather, the school seeks to endow students with a firm understanding of the world around them so that they may live their lives with an enhanced perspective and comprehension of the workings of the universe in whatever walk of life they may choose.

I need to worry about such things. I’m a human.

Kenneth G. Nesmith is a member of the Class of 2004.