Superposition is that business in quantum mechanics where a particle can exist in two contradictory states at once: a single electron passing through two slits, a particle in two opposite spin states. (That’s a simplistic boil-down, of course, but good enough for the moment.)
The idea usually comes up in the sense that the “final” measured state causes all other “potential” states to collapse. This makes no rational sense in our “macro” reality; it’s not even a condition we can conceive of. But while reading about it recently, I remembered a visual trick– maybe you’d call it an optical illusion, maybe not – the classic face/candlestick black and white pattern.
In a simple line drawing, two elaborate “candlesticks,” right and left, form between them a “face.” The way the human brain works, you can see either the face or the candlesticks, even switch mentally between the two, but you can’t register both at the same time. Yet both images are there at all times, inherent in the static pattern.
This situation has nothing to do with the behavior of quantum particles as such, it’s simply one of our mental limitations, but the effect is remarkably alike, in that it defies our basic either/or outlook on reality. Despite Aristotle (history’s great windbag), A and not-A can snooze in the same bed.
* * *
At Hastings Ave. in the Philly suburb of Havertown, as a four-year-old, why did I spend so much time in the attic, an eerie, unfinished space I thought might be haunted? The husband of the owner (we rented the house ), who died falling off a ladder, had kept weights on pulleys on the back wall of the attic. When I hauled up on one of them with both hands it would creak ominously. I imagined his ghost listening, waiting his turn.
And why did I have an easel up there? What was I, with zero artistic ability, drawing? Pretty sure it was actually an inclined chalkboard. Chalk, yes; felt eraser, yes. I remember sunshine through the front dormer window and two big metal-framed trunks, one upright with hangers holding some of Mom’s clothes, the other flat, holding nothing that comes to mind.
How accurate are those memories? You can’t trust what floats up from when you were four; your mind worked in a whole different way, the rational and the imagined near neighbors.
I love the sensual imagery of Dory Previn’s song “With My Daddy in the Attic”: “with his madness on the nightstand there beside his loaded gun…” But on Hastings Ave. it was just me, alone, me afraid of almost all of life, chalking in the sunshine with the waverings of a ghost at my back.
* * *
I don’t understand all the career politicians and diplomats and actors who tell us they didn’t report rampant sexual harassment or work abuse because they were afraid of losing their jobs or deep-sixing their careers. I guess it’s because I never had or understood a “career.” I just did stuff and moved along, headed nowhere.
So despite all my other damning fears, one I never had was fear of losing a job. I’ve quit any number of jobs because I hated them, got bored, despised the boobies giving orders, or was asked to do something I wouldn’t put up with. I don’t belong, I know it, so why the hell would I stay somewhere that’s no better and possibly worse than anywhere else?
* * *
Why have philosophers from Socrates through the scholastics to Descartes thought there were ideals that could be contemplated, and because they could be contemplated they must exist or we wouldn’t be able to contemplate them? Socrates, preparing to be sentenced to death in Plato’s Phaedo, cites “…familiar words which are in the mouth of every one, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness.” His listeners smile and nod as if there could be no disputing that.
Absolute, abstract beauty or goodness? A ludicrous idea, without a shred of a legitimate basis. And only civilized societies seem to have come up with this disjointed sense of the ideal. Tribal societies see their multiple gods as just like us: fickle, arbitrary, nasty-tempered sumbitches who demand bribes to do anything helpful. Although… come to think of it, our monotheistic god is a fickle, arbitrary, nasty-tempered sumbitch – the main difference being that he’s since he’s now idealized, he’s therefore “all good.”
Socrates again: “I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful.” Well, if that isn’t a definition chasing its little tail. Tautology on toast. Almost every philosophical point throughout history has boiled down to a matter of definition. No two philosophers (or generalized humans) define their terms in exactly the same way, and many terms have successfully fought definition by anyone. ‘Soul’ ‘spirit’ ‘good’ ‘evil’ ‘right’ ‘wrong’ ‘wise’ ‘truth’ ‘justice’ — every person’s definition differs.
(Oh, forget this section. Philosophy just pisses me off.)
* * *
Sorry I’m so materialistic. (No I’m not – not sorry.) I don’t believe in anything spiritual these days, in part because of obsessive rationality, but more because, over time, the relief of not having a soul has been one of the high points of my not-otherwise-growing-up. I’ve never seen any description of an afterlife I’d want anything to do with and can’t imagine whatsoever an independent, floating, animated gas that’s my “real” personality.
I find it much more amazing (and thrilling) that the random workings of the laws of physics have created, by odd necessity, the wondrously convoluted workings of the human brain. You toss a lot of simple shit in the air and it falls down, voila, a human being. Takes a couple billion years, but hey, there’s plenty of time before it all runs down.
It’s maybe a shame that within the next generation or two AI may make human beings redundant. We’re just another waystation.
* * *
Some day when you’re at a lunch counter with nothing better to do, take the flimsy wrapper from your soda straw and press it (the wrapper) flat. You now have a two-dimensional rectangle about 6 inches long and half an inch wide. Next, carefully, so as not to wrinkle the paper, tie that strip into a simple flat knot. Finally, tear the two loose paper ends off the knot. Look carefully at the result. You have created a small, regular pentagon.
How the hell is that possible? You tied a knot in a flat, linear object with two long edges and two short ones – and produced a pentagon with five apparently equal sides?
I know there is perfectly sound mathematical reasoning behind this transformation, but it defies my idea of how things work: “Darn it, Ma, this ain’t the way it’s spose to be!”
(Well, that last ramble’s kind of akin to the superposition stuff up at the start of all this. So, by golly, maybe I’ve tied the whole rumination in a knot. Flat? Pentagonal?)