Two years ago, I sold my businesses and “retired” so that
I could focus full-time on learning about, addressing, and attempting to solve
some of the fundamental questions in physics and philosophy of mind... things like
the physical nature of consciousness, whether we have free will, the measurement
problem in quantum mechanics, etc.
gave me the audacity to think I might be able to tackle these problems where so
many have failed before?
tackling a problem only requires desire.
I find these big-picture questions fascinating and looked forward to
learning, analyzing, and at least trying.
But I did think I had a reasonable shot at actually solving some of
While I don’t (yet) have a degree in physics or
philosophy, I do have an undergraduate and master’s degree in nuclear
engineering as well as a law degree (which is certainly applicable to
philosophical reasoning), and have taken lots of physics and philosophy classes
along the way.
As an example, I’ve taken
graduate-level quantum mechanics, or a course closely related or heavily
dependent on QM, at UF, MIT, Princeton, and ECU, and even a fascinating course
called Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics.
In other words, I’m no expert – and I plan to continue graduate studies
in physics – but I certainly have more than a superficial understanding of
It takes more than education to solve problems; it also
takes creativity and a willingness to say or try things that others won’t.
As the sole inventor of 17 U.S. patents on a
wide variety of inventions, from rocket engines to software to pumps to
consumer products, I’ve always felt confident in my ability to solve problems
As for independence – let’s
just say I’ve always been a maverick.
an example, while in law school I realized that a loophole in American patent
law allowed for the patenting of fictional storylines, so I published an
article to that effect.
Over the next
couple years, at least six law review articles were published specifically to argue
that I was full of shit: great evidence that I was actually on to
(Since then the courts closed
I’m not trying to list my
CV – just to explain my state of mind when I started this process.
I had plenty of free time, an independent
spirit, a history of creativity in solving problems, and a strong and relevant
This gave me
confidence that I was in a better position than most to actually solve an
I also figured,
perhaps naively, that the field of physics was one place where novel
approaches, critical thinking, and objective analysis would be rewarded.
I jumped right in.
After extraordinary amounts of research and independent thought, I soon
realized that special relativity would cause problems for copying or repeating
I wrote my first paper
on the topic; the most recent iteration is here
Not long after that, I realized that QM would
also, independently of relativity, cause problems for copying or repeating
conscious states, and wrote my second paper; the most recent iteration is here
In July, 2018, I sent my first paper to the British
Journal for the Philosophy of Science
; it was summarily rejected without comments
Over the next year and a half, I submitted it
to four more journals, and despite getting close to publication with one, the
paper was ultimately rejected by all.
the same period, I submitted my second paper to three journals and, again,
despite getting close to publication with one, the paper was ultimately rejected.
What had gone wrong?
Was I in over my head?
Regarding the first paper, the same objection kept coming
up over and over: that copying the physical state of a person does not
necessarily copy that person’s identity.
Without getting too technical, my argument was that whether or not a
person’s identity depends on their underlying physical state, special
relativity implied the same conclusion.
But no matter how I replied, the conversation always felt like this:
“How do you know that copying a person’s physical
state would copy their identity?”
But if it does, then copying that state violates special
If it doesn’t, then there is
nothing to copy.
Either way, we can’t
copy a person’s identity.”
First you need to show that copying a person’s physical state would copy
“No, I don’t.
Consider statements A and B.
and also ¬Aà
then B is true, and we don’t need to figure out if A is true.”
How can you be so sure that statement A is true?...”
[Banging head against wall]
It’s literally crazymaking.
No one seemed to have a problem with the
physics or the implications of special relativity.
Instead, their problem almost always boiled
down to the concept of identity and its relationship to physical reality.
I suspect that what’s happening is that
people find a conclusion they’re uncomfortable with – such as “mind uploading
is impossible” or “consciousness is not algorithmic” – and then work backward
to find something they can argue with... and that something always happens to
be some variation on “How do you know that statement A is true?”
I don’t know if it’s a case of intentional
gaslighting or unintentional cognitive dissonance, but either way it took me a
long time to finally rebuild my confidence, realize I’m not crazy, completely rewrite the paper
to address the identity issue head-on, and submit it to a new journal.
Regarding the second paper, the referee of the third journal
brought up what I believed, at the time, was a correct and fatal objection. But by then, I had experienced 18 continuous months
of essentially nothing but rejection, criticism, or being ignored (which is
sometimes worse). Prior to that, I’d
spent so much of my life feeling confident about my ability to think clearly
and rationally, to solve problems creatively, to analyze arguments skeptically,
and to eventually arrive at correct conclusions. So by the time I received that final rejection,
I threw the paper aside and basically forgot about it – until about two weeks
ago. Somehow the human spirit can
reawaken. I took a look at the paper
with fresh eyes, fully expecting to confirm the fatal error, but found exactly
the opposite. I (and the journal
referee) had been wrong about my being wrong.
In other words, the error that had been pointed out, as it turns out,
was not an error. That isn’t to say that
my reasoning and conclusions in the paper are ultimately correct – there could
still be other errors – but the referee had been wrong. What I argued in my second paper is original
and it just may be right. If so, its
implications are important and potentially groundbreaking. The paper needs to be rewritten, the physics
tightened, and the arguments cleaned up: a project for another day.
As for now, here’s the problem I face. On one hand, answers to some of the deepest
and most important questions plaguing humanity for millennia are finally
starting to become accessible via science, particularly physics. On the other hand, it has become, for
whatever reason, out of vogue in the physics community to research or even
discuss these issues, which is odd for many reasons. First, many of the giants of physics, even in
modern history, routinely debated them, including Einstein, Bohr, Wigner, and
Feynman. Second, physics has itself produced
several of these hard questions (like the QM measurement problem and the
inconsistency between QM and general relativity). But because physicists rarely talk about
these big-picture and foundational questions, and because there’s essentially
no funding to research them, the conversations are typically left to: a) self-made
or retired mavericks who don’t need funding (e.g., Roger Penrose); b) writers
who profit on popular viewpoints (e.g., Sean Carroll and Deepak Chopra); c) academic
philosophers who may or may not (but typically don’t) have any formal training
in physics; and d) crackpots, nutjobs, and wackadoodles. And there are a LOT of wackadoodles; category
d) might dwarf the others by a factor of 100, and occasionally even includes
members of the other categories. The
Internet is teeming with “amateur physicists” with their own solutions to
quantum gravity, theories about “quantum consciousness” (whatever the hell that
is), yada yada.
I am in category a), but I understand, if on statistics
alone, why I’d be assumed to be in category d).
The thing is, maybe I am a little crazy.
But the solutions to the big problems in physics, cosmology, and philosophy of mind
are not going to come from tweaking the same old shit we’ve been tweaking for
the past century. They are going to
require truly revolutionary ideas, and those ideas, when first proposed, WILL
seem crazy. I want to be openminded,
diligent, and creative enough to explore the crazy, revolutionary ideas that
ultimately lead to the correct solutions.
Still, the hardest challenge of all will be maintaining my confidence
throughout the process. Not only will I be
continually discouraged by incorrect solutions, but I suspect that my journey
will be somewhat lonely.
Blogger and theoretical physicist Sabine
points out that stagnation in physics is in large part due to
a feedback mechanism in which those who pull the strings – journal editors, those
who award grant funding, members of academic tenure committees, etc. – tend to
reward what is most familiar to them and popular with their peers. This has the effect of stifling innovation. Her solution: “Stop rewarding scientists for
working on what is popular with their colleagues.” Lee Smolin made a similar point in his
article, “Why No
He says that the
current system of academic promotion and publication has “the unintended side
effect of putting people of unusual creativity and independence at a
disadvantage.” Despite the current
publish-or-perish system that incentivizes scientists to do “superficial work
that ignores hard problems,” the field of physics is actually “most often
advanced by those who ignore established research programs to invent their own
ideas and forge their own directions.”
In other words, even though I didn’t know it when I began
this process two years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that my intention to
independently and creatively attack some of the hard foundational problems in
science would be met with contempt, condescension, and unresponsiveness.
I am planning to begin a master’s program in physics at
NYU in the fall. NYU has some of the
world’s best (or at least most academically well regarded) faculty in the
fields of cosmology, the foundations of physics, the philosophy of physics, and
the philosophy of mind. But I will be
entering with eyes wide open: into the lion’s den. I certainly hope some of the faculty will be
legitimately interested in answering some of the big questions – and will be
responsive to and encouraging of original approaches – but I won’t expect
it. Instead, I will enter with low
expectations, understanding clearly that any progress I make in answering the
big questions may be despite, not because of, the physics academy. I will hope to remain guided by a burning
curiosity, a passion to learn and understand, and a confidence in my abilities
to think, analyze, and create. Please
wish me luck.