Bright Lights Film Journal

So, “What Is Reality?” The E8 Lattice Theory and the Angel of History

Screenshot from the documentary What Is Reality?

“All time exists all the time” – from the documentary What Is Reality?

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Emancipate yourself from the tunnel-visioned timekeeper! Return the unbending arrow of time to its quiver!

One of the key concepts behind physics’ E8 Lattice Theory (as explicated in Quantum Gravity Research’s 2017 documentary What Is Reality) is that the future works arm-in-arm with the past to create the present. In religious circles we approximate this process (with no small dose of anthropomorphism) as redemption, that is, not so much co-creating as going back and repairing what wasn’t performed properly in the first place. This brings me to my favorite Walter Benjamin quote, below:

Incidentally, Benjamin’s brilliant intuition is an instance of what Edgar Allan Poe would call ratiocination, described here by Timothy Green as “a kind of imaginative reasoning, the ability of intuition to make sweeping connections between seemingly small and disparate details, a leap from all the might-have-beens to what probably is. It’s a counterfactual logic that’s able to reveal deeper truth.” Poe prefigured many modern physics concepts before the science itself expounded them in theories. In terms of their front-running explanatory power, much the same can be said of the Bhagavad Gita or the Torah.

In Abrahamic traditions, we recognize an eschatological process. History is not shambolic but rather a purposeful convergence on an end-point or telos. Furthermore, human history (a 3D phenomenon hobbled by unidirectional time) is the process during which the Prince of This World consolidates and compresses all earthly wealth and power into a convergent geometric form or totality not unlike the tapered point of a pyramid’s capstone.

Planck-length geometric symbols – the pyramid writ small! (from What Is Reality?)

Of course, human history is as slow as molasses. (Actually, in micro-increments it’s more subjective/elastic, at times seeming to crawl or fly.) When is Jesus coming back anyway? What goes around often takes a helluva long time to come around, if it comes around at all. Alas, we are not psychologically constructed to perceive time as anything other than a sequence, a duration, a happening, a sentence necessitating a verb. This self-contained geometric block stuff is a mental stretch. Time for us is a capricious bitch of an arrow that rises with our alarm clock each morning to deliver either a coveted job promotion or a fatal arrow in the back. And they wonder why we’re riddled with fear and anxiety. Oy! Our time –down here in the world of unevenly meted-out fate– could end in a world of hurt at any moment.

Now go forth and have a copacetic day.

My belief for what it’s worth? That the end of human history will be a climactic moment when a messianic figure anesthetizes the Beast or Antichrist/Dajjal (recalcitrant cobwebs of an indigestible past) after which Benjamin’s “fullness” is recovered for all eternity. (T.S. Eliot’s still-point is much the same.)

Here’s the genius Walter Benjamin again (below). Tragically, the last sentence veers polemic and feels too much of its time. Progressivity is too much a facet of politics. Yecch. But otherwise, the Angel of History is mute because the wreckage of history acquires coherence (redemption) only with the ministrations of the future, to which his back is turned until the End. The Angel is stricken and aghast. His limited vantage (human history only) precludes him from a comprehensive “time qua block” understanding. In fact, the future is rushing in at all times on an assistive basis. Indeed, the storm in his wings that emits from Paradise is a curative for the wreckage he surveys and is nothing to be bemoaned or feared. He would be a grateful student of the E8 Lattice Theory.

Another analogy . . .

I watched a nature program years ago where a fox took a maple leaf in its mouth before walking into the narrow waters at the edge a small stream. Facing downstream, the fox very slowly immersed itself in the water, all the while grasping the leaf in its mouth. Just prior to release, the leaf had become a teeming platform of fleas. Off the drunken boat sailed! The fox had “redeemed” itself from the fleas. Is this process analogous to human history? Is a leaf strategy being employed to consolidate the full substance of evil for a final sudden expunging? The maple leaf’s tip makes a neat stand-in for a pyramid capstone.

Perhaps physics is grappling with the same redemptive drama albeit couched in the dispassionate language of physics (mathematics). Is redemption a process that ultimately has a mathematical expression? Redemption is inherently a co-creation process, albeit with a time interval – or so we perceive. Reality is created in the first instance by present conscious beings, then worked upon by a telos-consciousness from the future in order to assure the causal chain that will make that telos-conscious possible. And yet, not a tautology, but like the Mystery of Babylon, equipped with a degree or two of freedom, thus assuring a non-deterministic outcome. No, we’re not preprogrammed robots. Redemption is a way to express this two-track collaborative process. (Moreover, there is nothing to say that, in the geometric block of time, redemption doesn’t occur simultaneous with sin. Absent an arrow of time, why should anything precede or follow anything else?)

There are Jungian/Anthropic echoes here too. Man is the eyes and ears through which God beholds the particular beauty of his creation. This is consistent with quantum theory as well. Without us on-the-ground diligently forging causal chains, the universe would remain an unbeaten path, an unMANifested formless void.

A paradox is a truism that lacks coherent expression in the causal-bound 4D world. One such truism may be that free will and determinism operate as co-creators. May we anthropomorphize this into Man and God, respectively?

This brings me, belatedly, to the fascinating documentary What Is Reality? This rather ambitiously-named title lives up to its name and is well worth the 30-minute watch for its cogent, layman treatment of the E8 Lattice theory. I could have done without the Einstein cartoons and the ditzy narrator. One gets the sense we must be patted on the heads after every heavy concept is introduced. I mean, we non-science folks are dumb, but we ain’t stupid. So, take it easy on the patronizing guff, folks. Jeez.

If as the theory claims (among other things), “reality is geometric,” why can’t human history be a pyramid within this larger geometry?

The Golden ratio, which explains many structures in the universe (including Donald Trump’s comb-over), also plays prominently in the theory as the video describes.

Physicists hate us journeymen sloshing about in their field unaided by the language of mathematics. I tend to agree with them. I reached imaginary numbers, all those nefarious little i’s, then wussed out. Nonetheless I’m really taken by the co-creation of the present by the past and the future. And I feel it resonates with much of what the religionists have been delving into for millennia. So there.

One more observation. The video poses seven clues intended to bolster the E8 Lattice theory:

  • Information
  • Causality loops
  • Non-determinism
  • Consciousness
  • Pixelation
  • E8 crystal
  • Golden ratio

Of these seven, consciousness may be the stickiest wicket of all to situate within a physics rubric. (See 3:58: “We need to bring the element of consciousness into physics.”). There are scads of physicists hell-bent on bending consciousness into their favored hobbyhorses. But what if it doesn’t want to go? What if it’s a perennially elusive fit?

It’s said that if the world’s physicists were asked to name their greatest living colleague, it would be Ed Witten, the string theorist pioneer. What can I, mere poet, do but go along?

I return often to the following Witten interview snippet on Youtube. Here we have a consummate insider whose instincts on the frontiers, parameters (and yes, potential finitudes) of the physics discipline warrant our keenest attention. Here too is a man who would not be contested much were he to, in a lapse of hubris, lay claim on behalf of his beloved physics to the full expanse of all that exists under the sun.

And yet Witten exhibits the greatest genius of all – the genius of forbearance – when he claims human consciousness is, most likely, something else altogether, perhaps even a permanently withheld mystery. That a great mind can intuit the lurking curtailments of its own intellectual purview makes it that much greater in my book.

Perhaps the E8 Lattice gang has managed to eclipse clever old Ed. Only time will tell.