Einstein’s Mentos + Diet Coke Experiment

October 30, 2012

Psychotherapy

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If you’ve never seen someone drop 4 Mentos into a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke (let alone done it yourself) you’re in for a treat. And if you’ve never dropped the speed of light into an inertial frame of reference before you’re in for an even bigger one. Because the Mentos/Diet Coke thing will blow your mind for 10 minutes. But the speed of light/inertial frame of reference thing will blow your mind for the rest of your life. It is, after all, the inexplicably undersold idea that can have anyone – and everyone – up and understanding relativity in five minutes flat. And the idea that made Einstein famous (it leads inexorably to the theory of special relativity; Susskind here), overthrew Newton, and made “relativity” a household word.

There’s a reason Einstein is considered to have rocked it: he rocked it.

Not only is it fun and exciting – it’s easy. Don’t use all the trouble you’ve had wrapping your head around E=mc2 as your frame of reference. That’s way harder because it’s all mathy and whatnot. This is as easy as dropping Mentos into Diet Coke. Promise.

Objective Subjectivity

But wait. I’m not here to show you parlor tricks. As cool as Einstein’s special relativity is per se, if you don’t think about its metaphysical implications – if you just treat it as an ACLOP (Another Crazy Law of Physics) – it ends up being a kind of intellectual parlor trick. Don’t let that happen – the metaphysics it carries go way, waaaaaay too deep. When properly understood, special relativity disproved – in 1905 – the objectivity versus subjectivity distinction. Neither view can be true; the dichotomy is false. And that’s important because almost nobody knows this; everybody seems to talk as though one or the other might be real.

What should be au courant is what should have been au courant for the past 300 years: the understanding that the mind is neither objective nor subjective. Rather, we should all know by now that – whatever it is made of – the mind must be, like everything else in nature, objectively subjective.

I say 300 years ago because  Kant figured this out in the late 1700s, and even though he’s been (unfairly) trashed as trying to have his cake and eat it too (prove an objective world by virtue of being unable to detect it), his so-called Copernican Revolution starts from subjective, phenomenal experience and reasons his way into  an objective but unknowable world that he calls the noumenal world. That is, Kant knew about objective subjectivity.

But we have someone far more respected and recent to thank for this view, and it would be a shame if the “hard core” of this blog (as Imre Lakatos would call it) – which clearly implies that the mind is objectively subjective – was attacked as some kind of radical move. It isn’t. It’s totally old hat, and it’s built into the bedrock of modern science. I’m being very, very mainstream to assume it applies to consciousness. It’s just that there’s almost nobody in the mainstream, because everyone has peeled off into extreme objectivity (e.g. Churchland and Dennett’s “the brain is all there is-ism”) or extreme subjectivity (e.g. Thomas Nagel’s “what is it like to be a bat?”). Once you realize that even putting the details aside they have to be wrong – both of them – all of them – listening to people take the subjective-objective debate seriously becomes seriously exasperating.

To help you become similarly (and appropriately) exaspertated I’d like to focus on Einstein’s special relativity and use it to hammer home the metaphysical fact (if I can use such a term) that mainstream science already believes in objective subjectivity per se. The only difference between Einstein and the neuroself view is that he assumed that only human beings were conscious. If, alternately, he had assumed the universe was universally conscious, he would have argued that it was objectively subjective.

Part 1: Einstein’s Objectivity

To consider this, put aside the thing you probably most often associate with Einstein: E = mc2. Forget it. Focus instead on something you can definitely understand with around a minute’s thought – and which he surely regarded as more important than that equation. The first step he took in order to get to that equation is the idea that:

the laws of physics are identical for all observers in all inertial frames of reference

If you don’t know what an inertial frame of reference is, we’ll get to it in a second. For now skip past theory into practice and consider a few sample laws to try the idea out. How about gravity – the idea that one body will “fall” towards another body at a rate proportional to that body’s mass? Einstein assumed that that’s true for everyone, everywhere.  Now how about magnetism – that one magnet’s north pole is attracted to another magnet’s south pole? Einstein assumed that that was true for everyone everywhere. Which means that there isn’t some planet, a billion light years away from us, where everyone is floating around in magnetized clothing having their north poles attract one another. A billion light years away, gravity and magnetism work just the same.

Okay. Unless you are an extreme social constructivist – and I have been lately so flabbergasted to learn that social constructivism still exists amongst the overly educated (though I sincerely doubt anyone else) that I wrote a whole post about it – this sounds totally innocuous, right?

It’s basically what people had thought for hundreds of years before him – particularly Galileo and Newton. But Einstein thought this thought while knowing something Galileo and Newton didn’t know, which is that light has a fixed speed – that the speed of light is a law of nature. And it was this combo that created the brainstorm that gave us special relativity. As you will see, in the same way that adding Mentos to Diet Coke leads to an unbelievably powerful and even dangerous reaction, adding these two ideas together created Einstein’s dangerous and radically relative ideas.

But for a moment forget content. Instead notice that it is an objective statement (or more scientifically, a scientifically objective statement). And putting aside the definitions on wikipedia or wherever: can’t you just feel that Einstein thinks he is making a totally objective claim?  It seems like the most objective kind of thing a person could possibly say ! He’s making a claim about what is the case everywhere in the Universe, which includes places he’s never been, times he’s never existed, and people he’s never met. And this is objectivity.

Regardless of whether you personally believe that objectivity is possible (it isn’t), recognize that when people say things like “the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference” they are doing the equivalent of saying “such-and-such is universally true, and I don’t care if you don’t agree with me because you are definitely wrong and I am definitely right, my view is the only correct view and unless your view is the same as my view you are wrong” without all the bravado. Which just means they stand a marginally better chance – which means a terrible chance – of being hired by the University of California, Berkeley Department of Social Anthropology. Right?  Because the  University of California, Berkeley Department of Social Anthropology is teeming with people who made their names and got their jobs for being social constructionists – people who know only one thing: there are no universal truths. That’s their universal truth; that’s their hivemind. And they would look at Einstein’s statement and say – (I can say this definitely; I went to Berkeley; I took (and dropped in sheer exasperation) classes in social anthropology; I experienced the peer culture of cultural relativism first hand for years) – “that’s a social construction.”

Well, Einstein here fails the social construction standard. He’s making an objective claim. Agreed? Very well…. now let’s move to the next section, where we’ll see that that’s totally not what he’s doing.  Everything Einstein has you thinking right now is wrong, and the zen koan this is going to cause to explode in your brain, like mentos in diet coke, is what makes Einstein so unbelievably fucking cool.

Part 2: Einstein’s Ingredients = Mentos + Diet Coke  

So here comes the ingredients for the parlor trick. Just as Mentos and Diet Coke are perfectly pleasant but bland products, you need to have a feel for how bland and pleasant these two ideas were on their own so that when they come together, the explosion they create truly surprises. To prepare, hold these two ideas in your mind but don’t put them together yet.

Ingredient #1: Inertial Frames (The Diet Coke)

So what in God’s name is an inertial frame? At root it is the idea that there is no privileged, foundational position in the universe – no starting point, no home base – against which all other positions must be measured. A lot of people think that if the universe started from a Big Bang, expanding outward like a sphere, then the center of the sphere is what is “still” and against which every other position can be compared. But that turns out not to be the case. The math – which is far beyond me – shows there is no center of the universe. Everything is moving away from everything else. There is no ground truth “rest” position in contrast to which all other positions are “moving.”

So cash in this abstract idea for this concrete one: think of every object in the universe as being at rest - even a photon moving at the speed of light. Assume that it’s everything else that is moving around or past it. So now think of all these totally still objects in the universe – which is every object in the universe. Each one has what is called an “inertial frame of reference.” It sees everything from the standpoint of being still.  You probably remember that inertia in physics means the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion and an object at rest to stay at rest. All you’re doing is cashing that in to motion is just rest seen from someone else’s perspective.

The rest is easy. All Einstein was saying is that the laws of physics are the same for all these observers. If you don’t find that shocking yet, it’s because you haven’t opened your Mentos. So here’s your Mentos.

Ingredient #2: Light (The Mentos)

It takes undergrad physics students (at least at Stanford) 7 minutes and 30 seconds to realize what makes the speed of light so philosophically disturbing. If you aren’t at Stanford, I’ll just tell you: the speed of light is not a variable. It is a number. Where every other particle in the universe can go whatever speed it likes – anything between zero and the speed of light – and therefore where the speed of every other particle in the universe varies, light’s does not.  It always travels at the same speed – 671 million miles per hour. The scientific symbol for this speed is c.

Guess what. You’re done. That’s your Mentos. The apparently objective sounding fact that light travels at a constant, single speed is about to blow your mind. All that’s left is to drop it into your Diet Coke.

Part 3: Release the Hounds Mentos

So here we are – the Mentos are falling through the bottle neck and splashing down into the Coke; the reaction is beginning, and in around two seconds your head is going to explode in the Western science equivalent of a Zen Koan on steroids. Ready?

Pop your consciousness out of your frame of reference and pop it into a photon’s frame of reference. Quick: how fast are you moving?

NO! You are not moving at c. (If you said “I’m not moving” my apologies.) If you thought that, as a photon, you would consider yourself to be moving at c, you didn’t really pop out of yourself. Because if you get your imagination all the way into the photon’s frame of reference then you are – by Einstein’s definition – not moving. It’s everything else in the universe that’s moving – past you.

So far so good. Now, shoot a beam of light, using a proverbial laser pointer, straight ahead of you – in the exact direction you are already moving. Quick: how fast does that beam of light move away from you?

YES! It moves away from you at c – the speed of light. It has to, according to Einstein. The laws of physics are the same for all observers in all inertial frames of reference. Which means that the beam of light is moving away from you – a beam of light – at the speed of light!

So here comes the (apparent) crazy. Don’t worry, it’s easy to resolve. But just let it be crazy for a moment. Pop yourself back into yourself – the person reading right now – and think about this photon you just were. It was moving at c, right? And the beam of light it shot forward was also moving at c, right? So that’s c + c = 2c, right? Which means that a beam of light can break the laws of physics – if a beam of light shoots a beam of light the resulting beam of light goes twice the speed of light. Right?

NO! That’s not possible! Because the laws of physics are the same for observers in all inertial frames of reference, right? Which means you cannot observe something moving at more than c. Things can only move past you – just like everything else in the universe – at c. Not 2c! c!

So what gives? I explain the answer more mathematically in another post on the Lorentz contraction. But in a nutshell what gives is time. Once you give up the religious belief that there is a universal time that allows God to synchronize everything in the universe – so that He could know, at any given time, what was happening where, this quandary becomes solvable. You have to accept the idea that God – if he did exist – couldn’t say what was happening in every region of space. He would be locked in his own relativistic view; individuals would see things differently than God. This is because time slows down as you speed up. And time ceases when you are moving at the speed of light.

Imagine that if you were in a photon’s inertial frame of reference the world would not have been moving past you at c. The world would not have been moving. Time would be totally stopped (spread into infinity, a process called time dilation) and the distance you were traveling would have shrunk to zero. As such – given that you were not moving – it makes perfect sense that a beam of light would move away from you at the speed of light. What other speed could it move away from you at? You’re not moving. You’re going – subjectively – 0c. That 0c is real. The light you shoot moves away from you at c. That c is also real. And 0c + c = c. See?

If you are still confused you won’t be at the end of the next paragraph. Hang in there. Switch your mind back to being the observer who is looking at the photon emitting a beam of light. You probably are analogizing that, in your thinking, to watching an objective thing – the photon – emit a second, identical objective thing – the beam of light (which is just a photon). So you probably think it’s like watching an airplane moving at 600mph shoot a missile at 600mph towards an enemy plane, which would feel the impact of this missile as though it were going 1200mph. You are “stuck” thinking that you are subjective, the first photon is objective, and the beam of light is objective.

That’s why your math is all messed up. You aren’t taking Einstein seriously. The way to understand this is that you are subjective, thinking about the first photon, which is subjective, shooting the beam of light, which is “objective” (eg, you and the photon are seeing it in the same way). In that case, you are moving (inertially = subjectively) at 0mph, the photon is moving (inertially = subjectively) at 0mph, and the beam of light is moving at c. Thus you see the beam of light move at c, and the photon sees the beam of light move at c. Which fits perfectly with Einstein’s claim that c should always and everywhere be the same. Voila!

But think about what you’ve just done: you’ve been unable to validate an objective law of physics by viewing a beam of light objectively.  Weird, right? But you have been able to validate that same objective law by viewing a beam of light subjectively – that is, from its own point of view. And for all those critics who will say that I shouldn’t have run this example with a photon, but rather the proverbial spaceship traveling at .99 the speed of light, all I can say is: the math makes it too hard for people to grasp the basic idea. We’re trying to capture the spirit of this way of thinking, not the math. For mathematically valid ways of thinking about this, check out this post or this Susskind lecture or this 5-minute Gal Barak video or this write-up.

Metaphysical Conclusion

So we’re done. I hope I’ve demonstrated that relativity – which is still very much a going proposition – claims neither that reality is objective nor that reality is subjective. It implies – unavoidably – that reality is objectively subjective. Not subjectively objective! (That’s Kant). Objectively subjective.

In the neuroself framework we make exactly the same metaphysical move, but not with light – with the electromagnetic field.

We assume that the electromagnetic field objectively exists – that it has ontological standing. We assume it works the same way everywhere and for everyone and for all of time. Further, we don’t just assume that it is the best available candidate for the substrate of consciousness. We actually allow ourselves to notice that it is a completely fantastic, powerfully explanatory candidate for the substrate of consciousness. It’s a dream substrate – it’s massless and moves matter and stores energy and processes information and is spontaneous – it thinks and has will and freedom and is distinct from the physical (fermionic) world just like everyone has always intuited the mind must be. And once we make this so-called “leap” (which is really quite the opposite; it is the giving up of the untenable scientific position that there is no currently available way to explain consciousness) we are launched, instantaneously, into infinitely nested subjectivity. Every arbitrary region of the electromagnetic field in the universe is looking out at the whole rest of the field and seeing it operate according to the laws of physics from its own point of view. Which immediately renders Churchland and Dennett and Nagel obsolete. Of course everything is conscious. And of course you can’t know what someone else is thinking. Everyone is locked into their own view of the world, but this is an objective fact. It’s exactly what Einstein said 100 years ago, and what makes him way more radical than the most radical self-professed radical in the University of California, Berkeley Department of Social Anthropology. The only weird thing about it is that we’ve wasted 100 years not believing it.

To which all I have to say is this:

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About Peter Freed, M.D.

I am a psychiatrist (psychopharmacology and psychotherapy) specializing in the so-called "personality disorders," particularly narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. I was a Fellow and then an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia from 2004- 2011, when I had an intellectual crisis-of-faith in which I stopped believing that neuroimaging could shed significant insight into the mystery of subjective experience. Since then I have focused on my clinical practice (at the Personality Studies Institute) and philosophical concerns.

View all posts by Peter Freed, M.D.

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10 Comments on “Einstein’s Mentos + Diet Coke Experiment”

  1. bmeacham Says:

    Nice try, but I don’t think your argument works. You smuggle the conclusion you want — that everything has a subjective point of view — into your premises.

    You say “the laws of physics are identical for all observers in all inertial frames of reference.” But strictly speaking you do not have to include the observer. All you need to say is that physical laws take the same form in all inertial frames. (Wikipedia. “Inertial frame of reference.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inertial_frame_of_reference as of 15 November 2012). The article you link to says the same: “The Laws of Physics are the same in all Inertial Frames. Einstein then simply brought this up to date by pointing out that the Laws of Physics must now include Maxwell’s equations describing electric and magnetic fields as well as Newton’s laws describing motion of masses under gravity and other forces.” (Fowler, Michael. “Special Relativity.” http://galileoandeinstein.physics.virginia.edu/lectures/spec_rel.html as of 15 November 2012). The article you cite says nothing about observers within a frame of reference.

    So when you say “[every object] sees everything from the standpoint of being still” you are using the very premise you want to prove. It would be more accurate to say that we can construct mathematically a coordinate system applicable to every inertial frame, and that given two inertial frames we can construct mathematically a transformation from one to the other. But that does not entail that anyone or anything is experiencing anything in those frames. (There might be beings capable of experience in there or there might not; the theory is silent on that point.)

    You say “the photon sees the beam of light move at c” and speak of “viewing a beam of light subjectively – that is, from its own point of view.” But you have not shown that a photon has a point of view. You assume it does, and then conclude that it does. That is not a sound argument.

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