Academia, Books, Philosophy

The Right Kind of Fantasy: An Evening with Roger Penrose

Roger Penrose is my favourite living physicist. He has had a prolific career to date, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

I first encountered Penrose’s work after reading In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin. The book sparked my interest in quantum physics, and after a while I stumbled upon The Emperor’s New Mind and then Shadows of the Mind by Penrose.

Like many lay people, I found Shadows exciting in its depiction of quantum consciousness, but I also understood how little I understood. Things are never quite as simple as the books make them sound, even when the books are fairly technical, if said books have been written for non-technical readers.

So I learned more. I read about quantum physics, about mathematics, about Gödel and Schrödinger and Poincaré and Penrose himself. And I came to a loose understanding of what Penrose was talking about.

I wrote an essay about it, trying to work out my own thoughts on the matter and how far (if at all) I agreed with Penrose’s view that it is impossible to make a conscious machine. In the essay, I came to the conclusion that I agreed with Penrose.

The essay must have made some sort of sense, because it got me onto an MA programme without having a BA under my belt. Then the MA programme was cancelled, which was a desperate shame because I’d been very enthusiastic about studying Philosophy of Cognitive Science.

But, no matter. I carried on reading and writing. And I always held in the back of my mind the fantasy that one day I would hear Roger Penrose speak in person – maybe even meet him.

Well, last night I fulfilled that dream.

Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe by Roger Penrose
Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe by Roger Penrose

Conway Hall’s London Thinks series of lectures promotes original thinking and helps bring complex ideas to members of the public. I went to their Brexit one just after the EU Ref happened, and then I went along last night to listen to Penrose speak (and plug his new book) about ‘Fashion, Faith and Fantasy’.

Huh? Fashion?

Yeah, not like clothes. Like fashions of thought.

Penrose talked about how he has a problem with string theory. It is, he proclaimed, the fashionable theory: the one that gets all the funding, and that everyone just sort of believes. But, in his view,

“No matter how beautiful some of the ideas are, string theory does not hang together as a coherent physical theory. Quantum mechanics is crazy, but it works.”

I liked this view especially because some of my own work in mathematics has led me to believe that there is a kind of obsession with elegance, sometimes to the detriment of more thorough solutions. This can be seen in pure mathematics; in mathematics as it relates to the physical sciences; in mathematics as it is used by developers in IT departments.

There is this belief that things have to be beautiful; that not only does it have to hang together, it has to do so elegantly. But I think that sometimes, the best answer is actually messy. There is a kind of elegance to some things, sure – but not all. And just because something is elegant doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

The Beauty of Complexity

Simplicity and complexity have obsessed me as concepts ever since I was (briefly) an undergraduate Theology student. We were looking at concepts of god, and of god being ‘wholly simple’. I found this idea fascinating – that people could posit a wholly simple being; and not only posit it, but assume its responsibility for the entire universe, and come to mysterious and – yes – elegant conclusions about how it is that a wholly simple being could be responsible for vast complexity.

It has long been my opinion that diving beneath the way things appear on the surface will bring you to a whole new world of complexity. And yet it has also been my belief that, if we somehow manage to fully comprehend the complex, it will lead us full-circle, back to a sort of “Ohhh! That’s what it is!” level of simplicity.

I call this the Gateway, but that is a digression for another day.

Suffice it to say that I have an appreciation for the complex and the manifold secrets it hides. So does Penrose, which is probably one of the reasons I like his work so much.

On the beauty of complex numbers vs. natural numbers last night, he said:

“hiding behind that [which we see clearly] is this complex world that describes how these things operate”

He illustrated this with the example of a mermaid: you might see her human side and she looks straightforward – or at least as straightforward as the rest of us – but dive below the surface and you’ll discover that she partly lives in this strange mysterious entangled world.

Penrose's Mermaid, from the back cover of Fashion, Faith and Fantasy
Penrose’s Mermaid, from the back cover of Fashion, Faith and Fantasy

Throughout the evening Penrose elaborated (as far as is possible in an hour and a half) on his ideas regarding entropy, string theory, quantum physics, and the progression of science in general.

One of my favourite things he said all night (and there were several!) was about fantasy; about how mysterious and complex the quantum world seems, but how important it is not to ignore it.

“We really need fantastical ideas, because the universe is fantastical. It’s just got to be the right kind of fantasy.”

Then it was time for a Q&A, and I asked a question about philosophy. Throughout the evening, Penrose had mentioned philosophers several times, in a seemingly positive light, which frankly is quite unusual these days.

I mentioned this, and talked about how many scientists seem to look down on philosophers. And then I asked whether, assuming I was correct in believing that Penrose saw philosophy as worthwhile to the furthering of scientific knowledge, he had any advice for philosophers who wanted to bridge the gap and make their ideas both heard and useful.

His reply was not what I expected.

I thought he’d probably talk about the limitations of philosophers’ understanding of scientific theory; of their need to learn more about the subject before dismissing or theorising about them. But he didn’t say that.

His main piece of advice was:

Don’t be too timid.

Many scientists, he said, take quantum theory too seriously; it doesn’t seem to have a consistent ontology, though. Many philosophers are obsessed with the many-worlds interpretation and this draws them away from other possible solutions. Many philosophers of science accept the scientific status quo and assume that the scientists themselves are correct, and then they argue from that assumption. While they shouldn’t tell physicists how to do their jobs, they should do more studying of the history of science and look at the ways science has been wrong in the past. They should also think about the ontological problems they encounter.

But again, he said, don’t be too timid. Don’t assume you have nothing to contribute. 

I could go on and on for ages, but I won’t because Penrose explains everything he said last night (and more) in his new book, Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe.

I bought a copy, and once I’ve read it I’ll probably review it, but if his previous books are anything to go by, it’ll be excellent and my review will be glowing.

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