04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

New 'Holographic' Physics Theory Challenges Our Metaphysical Presuppositions

Down the ages, scientists have seemingly taken delight in humbling human pretensions. Galileo, picking up the Copernican cudgels, forced us to accept that Earth is not the unmoving center of the universe. Darwin showed that we are descended from and related to animals -- indeed, that we are animals. Freud, though wildly unscientific in much of his speculations, nevertheless clued us in to the role of unconscious and often uncontrollable behavior in our lives. Einstein took even the certainty of absolute time and space away.

And now comes this. In what just might be the most humiliating scientific discovery of all, scientists in Germany have found what may be evidence of the most bizarre physical theory ever: the holographic principle. If validated, this is what it would mean: you, the screen you are reading this on, I, my coffee cup, and my keyboard, along with everything else we see, touch, taste or smell are all part of what amounts to a cosmic TV show.

The holographic principle asserts that everything within the enormous space-time bubble we occupy is a 3-D projection from 2-D information inscribed on tiny pixels on the bubble's surface. If the theory and evidence agree, we are like Na'vi in the 3-D version of Avatar -- mere images ignorant of our own flatness. Or that, anyhow, is the way we are liable to interpret the holographic principle. This will come as welcome news to evolution deniers, who can now say with assurance, "No one can tell me that my ancestor was an ape." That's right, pal. You're descended from the 3-D image of an ape -- or at any rate, the common ancestor-image of us primates.

There is, however, an entirely different way to look at the implications of the holographic principle, one that may be welcomed by people of faith. I will come to that shortly. First, what is the basis for this extraordinarily mind-bending theory? And what is the evidence that may confirm, or at least support, it?

Marcus Chown, who is among the best qualified and most skillful writers on quantum cosmology, has an excellent article on the subject in New Scientist. I will try to summarize, but I recommend you read Chown's piece, or for a more technical summary of many different physicists' views, try this link.

Okay, take a deep breath and here we go. As Stephen Hawking and others studied black holes (using mathematical tools and informed imagination), they encountered a paradox. Hawking discovered that black holes must evaporate over time, and in the process all the information that they had previously sucked in seemed to be lost. But this would violate a quantum principle that information is physical and continuous, and so cannot be lost. In principle, you should be able to trace it back from one state to its predecessor, in an unbroken chain.

Jacob Beckenstein discovered a remarkable property of black holes that may lead to a resolution of that paradox: the spherical event horizon surrounding a black hole is just big enough to inscribe all of the information within on its surface. That, in turn, led to the holographic principle.

After all, we know that we are living inside a sphere at least 13.7 billion light years across. Why shouldn't the same principle hold true for us? Gerard t'Hooft, Leonard Susskind and others worked out its implications and, presto! We've had an uneasy feeling ever since that we might just be 3-D shadow puppets projected from the Universe's boundary. Speaking for myself, I've been skeptical of the claim, if for no better reason than its existential absurdity. It sounds too much like something Samuel Beckett might have come up with if he'd been conversant in physics.

But now comes the evidence. A research project known as GEO600 has been trying to detect gravitational waves by "listening" for ripples in spacetime cast off distant massive objects, like stones dropped in a pond. What they have found, however, is noise, a kind of cosmic hiss. The explanation may be that the team has found that when you examine spacetime close up, really, really close up, it is no longer smooth and continuous, but grainy. And those grains may correspond to the pixels at the Universe's boundary.

I should note that spacetime granularity is not a new idea, and that others have claimed it as part of their competing theories. Lee Smolin is one, and I would be surprised if he accepts the explanation that Chown relates. I'm certainly not qualified to choose among them. But let's provisionally accept the holographic principle for argument's sake. Would this really reduce us to puppets?

I think not. Just as knowing that our bodies are biochemical factories and our brains are electrochemical computers does not make us robots, nor should any physical principle be presumed to reduce us to less than we are. So what if you are extended over breadth of the Universe and rooted in a two-dimensional surface? Would that render your achievements worthless or your pain unreal? Of course not. As Popeye used to say, "I yam what I yam." But then again, he was a 2-D cartoon character.

One thing in physics is certain: reality is not as appears to us to be. The world is not flat. Things that seem solid are actually mostly empty space. Time is relative. So, if we add to the holographic principle to the list, what change does it make in the experience we live? Not much.

But knowledge does change us. So does the interpretation we choose to place on that knowledge. We could choose to regard the holographic principle (if true) as a further humiliation. Or, we could look on it in a radically different way. Suppose that a Creator exists outside the Universe. Let's give in to convention and call him God. We'll even assign him the male pronoun.

Under Einstein's laws, there would be no way for God to observe much of anything that goes on within the Universe. Information cannot travel faster than the speed of light, and the Universe is expanding at an accelerating pace. But, if all the information is inscribed in pixels at the boundary -- even the information representing your brain states -- well, who's to say what might be done with that?

Something to ponder before you next covet your neighbor's ass or harbor malice in your heart. # ;-)