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Monday, October 30, 2006

Chance and 20th Century physics, 2

The previous post on this topic is here. In it, I discussed the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and quantum physics in general. Some thinkers have believed that the unpredictability of sub-atomic particles is the explanation for free choice in the human brain.

Albert Einstein, who was, of course, one of the pillars of twentieth century physics, including quantum physics, is renowned for many things. One of them is that he said something like "God does not play at dice." (in German) Another is his long argument with Neils Bohr, another of the titans of twentieth-century physics, about quantum physics. (The Wikipedia article on Bohr includes a photo of Einstein and Bohr, engaged in this long argument.) These facts are often taken to mean that Einstein believed that everything can be predicted, at least in principle, or that he disbelieved in quantum physics. Apparently this is not completely correct.

I have recently read a book which deals with the subject of Einstein, indeterminacy, Bohr, and quantum physics, Einstein Defiant: Genius versus Genius in the Quantum Revolution, by Edmund Blair Bolles. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2004. (The two geniuses are Bohr and Einstein.) Bolles puts Einstein's saying this way: "I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice." Quote is from p. 252. Bolles' source is Max Born's Born-Einstein Letters, translated by Irene Born. New York: Walker Publishing, 1971. Bolles says that the statement was in a letter to Born, also an important physicist.

Bolles argues that what Einstein really meant was that indeterminacy, or unpredictability, does not imply that there are not real causes, even for the actions of sub-atomic particles. Some of his colleagues were, it seems, willing to believe that all we could do is predict these actions statistically, not individually, and that what happened to an individual particle was simply a matter of chance. Einstein apparently agreed, except that he would not have agreed with the last clause. He believed that, if we could just perceive them, there are real influences, even on sub-atomic particles.

I suppose that Einstein's view, if correct, means that quantum uncertainty cannot be the foundation of human free will.

Thanks for reading.


elbogz said...

My thoughts on quantum physics go back to my college days when I read the book the “Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. In his search he found came saw that molecular activity was influenced by mankind’s expectation and behavior. He tied it all together with great religious teachings of “As you sow, so shall you reap, Do unto others, and saw the universe even at the molecular level to be influenced

He of course went on to write the Seat of the Soul and other books, and is now the Senior pastor at the Church of Oprah. Somewhere along the way I departed in my beliefs from his writings.

What’s amazing to me is that as we look, we find the universe, not only infinitely big, but it is also infinitely small. We look and look and look though our telescopes and our microscopes and hope to see proof there is God, or proof there isn’t God, but we just keep peeling off another layer of God’s creation to see even greater wonder.

Martin LaBar said...

Interesting comment. Thanks.