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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Quantum physics requires that minds be non-physical

In a recent article in First Things, "Faith and Quantum Physics," Stephen M. Barr argues that quantum physics, one of the most non-common sense, and also one of the most successful, theories of modern science, requires that human minds be non-physical. As Barr points out, he is not the first to say this -- other prominent thinkers have done so. He also points out that some of the opposition to the seeming weirdness of quantum physics is because of exactly this conclusion.

Barr's argument goes like this:

Predictions of any kind, made as statements of probability, such as, for example, which party will win the U. S. Presidential election of 2004, are meaningless unless they predict a measurable actual outcome. There was an election, and the Republicans won, however that happened, and whatever has become of it. Quantum physics makes predictions about physical systems, in the form of mathematical equations. (There are no equations in Barr's article) But these are usually measured by laboratory devices, which are, themselves, physical systems, and the same mathematical equations apply to them, and are only predictions. Says Barr:
And this leads to the remarkable conclusion of this long train of logic: As long as only physical structures and mechanisms are involved, however complex, their behavior is described by equations that yield only probabilities-and once a mind is involved that can make a rational judgment of fact, and thus come to knowledge, there is certainty. Therefore, such a mind cannot be just a physical structure or mechanism completely describable by the equations of physics.

There is more in Barr's article, for sure. He also says that quantum physics is more congenial to Judeo-Christianity than it is to Buddhism, and that quantum physics presents strong arguments against determinism, or, in other words, for free choice. He finally examines the different philosophical views that are used to explain the findings of quantum physics, and comes down as in favor of the approach of Neils Bohr, although he understands that Bohr's thinking had some weak spots.

It is refreshing, but should not be surprising, that a physicist states that a great scientific theory provides evidence that a mind is not simply a material object, and that such minds make real choices. After all, God's revelation includes the natural world, as well as the Bible.

Thanks for reading.


Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't think this argument will convince many materialists. If he's right that QM shows an indeterminacy, it doesn't follow that it shows in indeterminacy in our decisions once they're made. QM involves the notion of wave functions collapsing, and one view is that they collapse once something is observed by someone. So perhaps our decisions count as observed and are therefore determined once we choose to do things in a way that unobserved phenomena may not be.

Also, the argument assumes that our internal sense of our decisions is accurate to what's going on objectively. I don't think the materials will grant that assumption. In the end, I don't think something like this can show whether the physical world is all there is, because all it shows is that the physical world doesn't provide complete explanations of why everything happens the way it does. But that doesn't mean there is a complete explanation, with the explanation coming from something outside the physical world.

I'm not even sure how the non-physical element explains why electrons go one way rather than another in human choices when in every other physical event it's simply indeterministic.

I say this as a committed substance dualist. I do not think we are merely physical beings. I just don't think QM proves that.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your insightful comment.

I don't know if Barr is right, but he is a physicist who points out there are scientific-based arguments that consciousness is more than material. Actually, I'm not certain that he is right on that.