Quantum mechanics and God

by Neil Rickert

Does QM have anything to do with God?  Physicist Stephen Barr apparently thinks it does, and expresses that view in “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” at the BQO site.  Personally, I think he is talking nonsense.

Barr even admits to some difficulties with arguing what his title says:

Not in any direct way. That is, it doesn’t provide an argument for the existence of God.  But it does so indirectly, by providing an argument against the philosophy called materialism (or “physicalism”), which is the main intellectual opponent of belief in God in today’s world.

As it happens, I recently posted my own reasons for not being a materialist.  And those reasons had nothing at all to do with whether there is a God or whether there is such a thing as the supernatural.

Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions.

That’s pretty much the view of materialism that I disagreed with in my post, the idea that everything is reducible to matter.  But it is the reductionism, not the atheism, that I see as misguided.  I see “atheistic” in Barr’s definition as a throwaway word.  If you eliminated that word, it would not change anything.  But theists like to put in such throwaway words, because they raise the passions of the theists who are their primary audience.

It [materialism] has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities — if any there be.

I am always puzzled by arguments about cause and effect.  It should have already been obvious to Newtonians, that every event has infinitely many causes and in turn causes infinitely many effects.  The idea of discrete causes with discrete effects is naive, and it did not require QM to tell us that.

The meaning of “cause” is vague and often argued.  Hume thought that causation was the same as constant conjunction.  I am more inclined to say that what we mean by “cause” comes from our human experience of what we can cause by our own actions.  And what makes an action our own is already controversial, as the many debates on free will illustrate.

Fortunately, science can get by without a precise meaning for “cause”.  We mention causes in our informal descriptions, but the term “cause” does not show up in the equations.

Barr goes on to talk about the probabilistic nature of QM.  And that leads to:

This is where the problem begins. It is a paradoxical (but entirely logical) fact that a probability only makes sense if it is the probability of something definite. For example, to say that Jane has a 70% chance of passing the French exam only means something if at some point she takes the exam and gets a definite grade.  At that point, the probability of her passing no longer remains 70%, but suddenly jumps to 100% (if she passes) or 0% (if she fails). In other words, probabilities of events that lie in between 0 and 100% must at some point jump to 0 or 100% or else they meant nothing in the first place.

Sigh!  Such confusion.  Unfortunately, confusion about probability is very common.

I take the view that probability theory is a part of abstract mathematics.  And in  mathematics, we are always dealing with abstractions rather than “something definite.”  Much confusion results, when people assume that probabilities are things that exist in the real world.  The proper way to use probability, as I see it, is to think of us as using a mathematical model (in this case, a probabilistic model) of something in the real world.  To use Barr’s example, to say that Jane has a 70% chance of passing the French exam is to posit that as an assumption in the mathematical model we are using.  Our modeling might be poor, of course, in which case we might come to mistaken conclusions.  Our use of “probability” in ordinary conversation tends to be quite casual and often based on poor assumptions.  Serious arguments that are based on probability should be expected to flesh out the full details of the mathematical model being used.

Moving on in Barr’s post:

But what if one refuses to accept this conclusion, and maintains that only physical entities exist and that all observers and their minds are entirely describable by the equations of physics? Then the quantum probabilities remain in limbo, not 0 and 100% (in general) but hovering somewhere in between. They never get resolved into unique and definite outcomes, but somehow all possibilities remain always in play. One would thus be forced into what is called the “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum mechanics.

Hmm, no, one would not be forced into such an interpretation.  Another alternative is the anti-realist approach which, roughly speaking, says that the equations of QM have excellent predictive power, so we find them useful.  But we should be cautious about trying to interpret every term in the equation as referring to something real.  And that anti-realist view is quite consistent with taking probability as a term in  mathematical models, rather than as something real.

The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.

If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.

And that is where Barr finds God in QM.  But he is jumping to conclusions.  From “not everything is just matter in motion” one cannot conclude “there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws.”

In my earlier post on materialism, I gave the example of chairs, as something that is not precisely definable in purely materialistic terms.  In particular, we cannot give a precise definition of “chair” in terms of matter in motion.  But there is nothing transcendent about chairs, nor about our ability as humans to recognize chairs.  It is merely that chairs are a social and cultural construct.  That we call something a chair grows out of how we use in and our traditions about using chairs.  If I take a particular chair, say the one that I am sitting on, then the laws of physics do apply to that chair as a physical object.  They don’t apply to it as a chair, because “chair” is not a term in the laws of physics.  There no transcendence.  There is only a need to be careful to avoid confusion.

Shakespeare wrote “all the world’s a stage” and in a way, it is.  Much of what we deal with in our everyday lives are social-cultural constructs.  Think of things such as money, football games, highways, soap operas.  Each of those has a physical component, but also depends on our cultural traditions of use.  Science talks only of the physical component, but it would be silly to assume that there is something unnatural or transcendent about a football game or a soap opera.

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9 Comments to “Quantum mechanics and God”

  1. Yeah, one hears a lot of nonsense about “Quantum Mechanics”. The best explanation of actual quantum mechanics being: “This is not a science about ‘what’s there’ but about ‘what we can know about the observations to expect if we try ___’.”

    We get a different sort of nonsense about “God”, mostly from people confusing “Blah’s concept of God” with the more useful formulation: “What sort of coherence makes this ‘a universe’ rather than ‘a chaos’?”

    Many people think that that coherence must needs be strictly physical.

    The trouble is, that hypothesis fails to explain our most basic experience of the physical world: the fact that we experience at all!

    One might well question the existence of an “I” being required for this experiencing… but the experience of questioning that requirement — or not — is quite given.

    I could (potentially) call in a lab full of neurophysiologists to account for the data convincing me that you emit plausible signals implying ‘sentient being at your end of the conversation.’

    But my own sentience is a given. I’ll take yours on faith, if that’s okay.

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  2. “Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions.”

    People need to understand that materialism and physicalism are completely compatible with theism, just as evolution is. You can still have a puppeteer of sorts or a creator of sorts behind it all, but for various reasons people want to believe that they are incompatible with one another. It’s a bunch of narrow minded nonsense. Materialism, physicalism, as well as science in general are nothing more than a type of explanation for the universe we live in. They are not THE explanation. They are only a type. No matter what physical laws or theories people say are “true”, they are only a type of explanation. Now it’s true that some types of explanations are viewed with a high regard when compared to others, but that’s a matter of preference. Science has never given THE explanation for anything. Reductionism is the most common type of explanation that science seeks (in my opinion), but it always leads to a reduction ad infinitum, or with the discovery of quantum mechanics, it leads to a brick wall (in my opinion) with the idea of non-separability. Spiritualism, mysticism, shamanism, and all religion for that matter have their own explanations for how the universe operates and the only way anyone can discredit them is if the explanation given by those religions is not the type of answer those critics are seeking. Science seems to have a lot of common ground because it utilizes rationalism and logic, and many people value these attributes as well as the types of physical evidence and types of explanations that it ensues a lot more than the types of attributes that other explanations use such as intuition or otherwise.

    I will say that it may be the case that QM provides a level of true randomness which can undermine the determinism in the universe — an undermining that SOME theists require. However it doesn’t provide a free ride for free will as randomness still implies that fundamentally our actions are not caused by us nor anything at all. However the physicalism that is supposedly at odds with a belief in God (ridiculous assertion), is only a type of explanation for the world around us. That is all. There can never be THE explanation, because our epistemological limitations channel our perception of the world through a human lens, and to think that OUR perception of the world is THE perception is the epitome of anthropocentrism (a crock).

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    • People need to understand that materialism and physicalism are completely compatible with theism, just as evolution is.

      Yes, exactly right. That’s why I said that “atheistic” is a throwaway word. Technically, it is correct in the sense that atheism can mean “without reference to gods.” Used in that sense, materialism, science and the traffic laws are all atheistic.

      Christian apologists use “atheist” in that sense as a way of appealing to the emotions of their believers. I guess we could take it as an admission that their reasoning is weak so they are spicing the argument up with calls to emotion.

      I pretty much agree with your entire comment.

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  3. Barr: “But it does so indirectly, by providing an argument against the philosophy called materialism..”

    It does not. QM is still part of a materialist understanding, albeit one that is described by a probabilistic model.

    This of course means I disagree slightly with your take on materialism. See my recent comments on that post.

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  4. I agree with you about probability maths being abstract, in the sense that it’s a descriptive model. It can be used to describe even determinate systems, if the measuring system (e.g. a human) cannot get a precise enough handle on the deterministic nature of what is being observed.

    Hold a penny heads up horizontally 1mm off level ground and drop it and barring any remotely unlikely quantum effects on all its particles simultaneously it will drop deterministically to land on heads. Repeat with increasing variation in starting state, until you reach some distance from the ground and with an initial spinning motion and it becomes best described by probabilistic models – but only because other models are too complex (simulation might do better). No more quantum indeterminacy has been added to this state of affairs that was present in the initial trial. The system is no more actually random than the first case. Only the complexity of the dynamic action has changed. It’s true that the system may become so complex that some quantum event on one particle of the penny, or the air around it, might tip it from one landing state to another. But there’s so much classical complexity that the quantum effects can be ignored. We’d be none the wiser as to the predicted outcome. All quantum effects would be contributing, I’m sure, but they would already be swamped by classical behaviour, and it would still all be indeterminate to us.

    The real problem comes down at the level of considering quantum events in isolation, where behaviour appears to be random. But what is true randomness?

    Classically we can explain cause and effect; we can sort of understand it. But when we examine just two objects then even according to Newton’s principle of action and reaction we start to question what causation actually is. If objects A and B of same mass are moving at the same speed in some frame, but in direct opposition, then they are both cause and both effect, on each other, when they collide. Or, they are neither one cause and effect, but just coincidences of motion. We have a better appreciation of cause and effect if B is stationary when struck by moving A, and we say A caused B to move. But equally B caused A to slow down and possibly change course. Cause and effect are bound to our appreciation of the arrow of time. And some physicists and philosophers think we acquire that only because we observe the 2nd law of thermodynamics in action.

    Getting back to randomness, where does this stand in relation to cause and effect? If a random event is not part of a causal system, and yet it can have a causal effect on other particles, then is it an un-caused cause? Or, are random events actually caused, but by processes that just happen to match a probabilistic model in some way we don’t yet understand.

    I agree that causation is a convenience. But, any challenge to causation does nothing for God. God is, after all, supposed to have caused the universe to come into being, is ultimately supposed to be responsible for causing miracles to happen. So, though challenging causation is an interesting philosophical pastime, and may question how we interpret scientific observations, it can only be bad for religion.

    And the same goes for quantum randomness, whatever that might be.

    So, that’s materialism, causation, and quantum randomness – all interesting to science and philosophy when trying to understand the world, but hopeless aids to religious apologetics.

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    • But, any challenge to causation does nothing for God.

      I agree. Apologists for religion are trying to hang onto Aristotelian concepts, but the world is not cooperating with them.

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      • “But, any challenge to causation does nothing for God.”

        Which means it does nothing for nor against God. Causation is implied as a result of the laws of physics, or we could say that they are one in the same. If “God” created the laws of physics, then before they were created, this “God” could still have a sense of creation without following a causal chain that we’re familiar with (since the physical laws that we believe a causal chain adheres to, wouldn’t necessarily have existed before “God” created them. Thus challenging causation does nothing for nor against “God”, unless we are to believe that the laws of physics have always existed for eternity or as long as “God” has existed.

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    • “If objects A and B of same mass are moving at the same speed in some frame, but in direct opposition, then they are both cause and both effect, on each other, when they collide. Or, they are neither one cause and effect, but just coincidences of motion.
      We have a better appreciation of cause and effect if B is stationary when struck by moving A, and we say A caused B to move. But equally B caused A to slow down and possibly change course.”

      In this case, Relativity suggests that we can treat either A or B as the moving object (and the other as stationary) since all motion is relative to an inertial frame of reference. So some may have a better appreciation of cause and effect if B is stationary, but we must remember that B is only stationary if we define it to be so, within that frame of reference.

      “Cause and effect are bound to our appreciation of the arrow of time.”

      I agree.

      “And some physicists and philosophers think we acquire that only because we observe the 2nd law of thermodynamics in action.”

      Yes, and also the weak nuclear force, the cosmological constant (which may have given rise to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and eventually a heat death), etc.

      “Getting back to randomness, where does this stand in relation to cause and effect? If a random event is not part of a causal system, and yet it can have a causal effect on other particles, then is it an un-caused cause?”

      I would say that if it has a causal effect on other particles, which it seems to, then it is a part of a causal system. So either the randomness is only superficial and is in fact determined, or if we are to believe the conundrum of an un-caused cause, then this is where the non-separability or “one-ness” comes in to play (in my opinion). If nothing is separated, then there is no causal chain of particle interaction and the paradox is resolved. Who knows? It’s all speculation.

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  5. FWIW, theism isn’t compatible with materialism unless “God” is a material entity.

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