Thursday, November 17, 2016

Against isotropy

We think of Euclidean space as isotropic: any two points in space are exactly alike both intrinsically and relationally, and if we rotated or translated space, the only changes would be to the bare numerical identities to the points—qualitatively everything would stay the same, both at the level of individual points and of larger structures.

But our standard mathematical models of Euclidean space are not like that. For instance, we model Euclidean space on the set of triples (x, y, z) of real numbers. But that model is far from isotropy. For instance, some points, like (2, 2, 2) have the property that all three of their coordinates are the same, while others like (2, 3, 2) have the property that they have exactly two coordinates that are the same, and yet others like (3, 1, 2) have the property that their coordinates are all different.

Even in one-dimension, say that of time, when we represent the dimension by real numbers we do not have isotropy. For instance, if we start with the standard set-theoretic construction of the natural numbers as

0 = ⌀, 1 = {0}, 2 = {0, 1}, 3 = {0, 1, 2}, ...

and ensure that the natural numbers are a subset of the reals, then 0 will be qualitatively very different from, say, 3. For instance, 0 has no members, while 3 has three members. (Perhaps, though, we do not embed the set-theoretic natural numbers into the reals, but make all reals—including those that are natural—into Dedekind cuts. But we will still have qualitative differences, just buried more deeply.)

The way we handle this in practice is that we ignore the mathematical structure that is incompatible with isotropy. We treat the Cartesian coordinate structure of Euclidean space as a mere aid to computation, while the set-theoretic construction of the natural numbers is ignored completely. Imagine the look of incomprehension we’d get from a scientist if one said something like: “At a time t2, the system behaved thus-and-so, because at a time t1 that is a proper subset of t2, it was arranged thus-and-so.” Times, even when represented mathematically as real numbers, just don’t seem the sort of thing to stand in subset relations. But on the Dedekind-cut construction of real numbers, an earlier time is indeed a proper subset of a later time.

But perhaps there is something to learn from the fact that our best mathematical models of isotropic space and time themselves lack true isotropy. Perhaps true isotropy cannot be achieved. And if so, that might be relevant to solving some problems.

First, probabilities. If a particle is on a line, and I have no further information about it except that the line is truly isotropic, so should my probabilities for the particle’s position be. But that cannot be coherently modeled in classical (countably additive and normalized) probabilities. This is just one of many, many puzzles involving isotropy. Well, perhaps there is no isotropy. Perhaps points differ qualitatively. These differences may not be important to the laws of nature, but they may be important to the initial conditions. Perhaps, for instance, nature prefers the particles to start out at coordinates that are natural numbers.

Second, the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Leibniz argued against the substantiality of space on the grounds that there could be no explanation of why things are where they are rather than being shifted or rotated by some distance. But that assumed real isotropy. But if there is deep anisotropy, there could well be reasons for why things are where they are. Perhaps, for instance, there is a God who likes to put particles at coordinates whose binary digits encode his favorite poems. Of course, one can get out of Leibniz’s own problem by supposing with him that space is relational. But if the relation that constitutes space is metric, then the problem of shifts and rotations can be replaced by a problem of dilation—why aren’t objects all 2.7 times as far apart as they are? Again, that problem assumes that there isn’t a deep qualitative structure underneath numbers.

1 comment:

Avi said... is relevent