Physics Beyond Our Senses

When we look at modern physics, we see a common thread binding the different branches of physics; they all deal with reality beyond the ranges of our senses. Specifically,

  1. The Special Theory of Relativity dealing with objects at high speeds,
  2. Quantum Mechanics and particle physics dealing with very small length scales and
  3. Cosmology and Astrophysics, dealing with various phenomena in our universe.

Extrapolating physics from our reality to what lies beyond our senses involves deep philosophical assumptions. The philosophical basis of modern physics is a world view called scientific realism. In this view, the perceived reality is assumed to be a faithful representation of the physical universe out there. In other words, when we open our eyes and look at the world outside, what we see is assumed to be what is there to be seen. The space where the objects interact and the sense of time are all real. This philosophical stance is a good one – for most part. But when we extrapolate this stance beyond our sensory ranges, we need to modify our description to account for the possible distortions in reality. Looking at reality as a cognitive model distorted by the finite speed of light yields a compellingly simple understanding of the special theory of relativity. This way of looking at reality is, in fact, another philosophical stance, based on the notion from neuroscience that our reality is our brain’s creation, almost identical to the Zen and Hindu view of the world.

Why the Speed of Light?

Once we accept the neuroscience view of reality as a representation of our sensory inputs, we can understand why the speed of light figures so prominently in our physical theories. The theories of physics are a description of reality. Reality is created out of the readings from our senses. Knowing that our senses all work using light as an intermediary, is it a surprise that the speed of light is of fundamental importance in our reality? The sanctity accorded to the speed of light is a feature only of our reality, not the absolute, ultimate reality which our senses are striving to perceive.

Perception and Special Relativity

Special relativity can be thought of us a description of our perception of motion. The finite speed of a sense modality influences the perception of motion. All the strange effects of the coordinate transformation in special relativity can be understood as the manifestations of the finite speed of our senses in our space and time. When it comes to the physics that happens well beyond our sensory ranges, we really have to take into account the role that our perception and cognition play in seeing them. The universe as we see it is only a cognitive model created out of the photons falling on our retina or on the photo-sensors of the Hubble telescope. Because of the finite speed of the information carrier (namely photons), our perception is distorted in such a way as to give us the impression that space and time obey special relativity. They do, but space and time are not the absolute reality. They are only a part of the unreal universe that is our perception of an unknowable reality.

Beyond Special Relativity…

Once we accept that space and time are a part of the cognitive model created by the brain, and that special relativity applies to the cognitive model, we can ponder over the physical causes behind the model, the absolute reality itself. It may be possible to guess the nature of the absolute reality and work out how our perceived reality should look. This line of thinking explains certain phenomena that have been puzzling scientists for a while. These phenomena include symmetric radio jets and gamma ray bursts from astrophysics. Other paradoxes with a conceptually elegant resolution in this framework are the twin paradox and the issue of causality violation in superluminal motion.

How exactly radio sources and gamma ray bursts are can be viewed as artifacts of our visual perception is described in a journal article. The argument is much better illustrated using an animation.

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