QUANTUM MECHANICS AND DETERMISM
(First Draft completed on April 12, 2011; to be revised.) Click here for Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3 – By Ozodi Thomas Osuji – There are essentially two parts to physics, classical or Newtonian physics and new physics also called Quantum Mechanics. Old physics began with Galileo and his insistence on the experimental method and continued with Isaac Newton and through Michael Faraday, James Clark Maxwell etc. This physics (usually studied under the following headings: mechanics, heat, sound, light and electricity) sees the world as out there and sees us as inside the world. There is a world of space, time and matter and we, human beings, are inside that world. The world is external to us. There is very little that we can do to change the world. All that we can do is do science which essentially means observing the world in as objective a manner as is possible. From observation we reach certain empirical conclusions regarding the processes of the world, and those must be verifiable and replicable and, as Karl Popper added, falsifiable. The scientific method requires us to put our opinions aside as we observe phenomena as it is, not as we think that it is or as we want it to be. Science merely describes the world as it is not as man wants it to be.
As science sees it, there are no gods out there shaping the world; the world operates according to certain observable physical laws. Once we observe those laws we can then devise technology that puts them to our use and in so doing improve our existence. Isaac Newton posited the three laws of motion and gravitation that everyone can verify hence accept as factual; those are scientific ideas not mere opinions. With Newton science has been able to transform our world technologically.
Beginning with the twentieth century, on the other hand, a new type of science came into being, the science of the micro world. Newtonian science studied large objects but the new science studied small objects, such as atoms and their particles. The new science of the small found that atoms and particles behave differently from the way large objects do (that is, the macro world of planets, stars, galaxies, universes). Whereas the macro world appears outside us and there seems nothing that we can do to influence them the micro world appears to behave according to the wishes of the observer.
Quantum physics beginning with Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger etc. seem to suggest that the observer influences the world he observes. In fact, it suggests that the world observed may not be in any particular place before it is observed (is in superposition, is everywhere before it is observed and when observed it collapses, stays where the observer wants to see it).
What this means is that the classical belief that the real world is out there and all we have to do is observe it may or may not be true. Quantum mechanics, as it were, disproved naïve realism that sees the world as outside us. (These are generally studied under such arcane concepts as complementarity, uncertainty principle, probability etc.; we are not going to concern ourselves with the specifics of quantum physics here.)
If the behavior of atoms and their particles are influenced by the observer it follows that large objects composed by atoms may also be influenced by the observer. If the atom does not exist anywhere before the observer observes it, it follows that a chair, house, mountain and, indeed, the universe may not exist before they are observed. In effect, quantum mechanics challenges the objective existence of the physical world.
So does physical reality exist apart from our observation or is the world solipsistic, as some idealistic philosophers had contended? George Berkeley had hypothesized that the world does not seem independent of our minds. Consider the old philosophical saw: if a tree fell and there is no observer to see it fall did it fall or did it make sound? Indeed, if there is no observer does a tree even exist?
Considering the spooky nature of quantum mechanics that seemed to deny the objective existence of physical reality, Albert Einstein concluded that quantum mechanics cannot possibly be correct. He did all he could to disprove quantum mechanics, especially the so-called Copenhagen version of it (that claim that at the micro level the observer influences what he observed but not necessarily so at the macro level).
To compound the situation other quantum mechanics observers, such as Bell and Everest, suggest that when particles are entangled, related closely, and subsequently separated they seem to know what each other are doing regardless of the distance that now separate them. Once entangled if you separate atoms and place them at the opposite ends of the universe they seem to instantaneously know what each other is doing and respond to each other at speed greater than the speed of light, as if there is no distance between them. This raises questions with bi-locality, the idea that things are separated in space and time, and are located at different spots in space, and would seem to agree with the mystical notion that all things are joined and influence each other. Hinduism teaches that all things are connected and that separation of things is an illusion.
Quantum mechanics seem to have demonstrated its conclusions; in fact, much of our current world’s technology is based on the findings of quantum mechanics; certainly nuclear energy, computers, transistors, laser etc. operate according to quantum mechanics. There is no doubt about the reality of quantum mechanics. What there is debate about is its philosophical implication.
The implication of quantum mechanics is that all things are connected and that consciousness, the observer, does affect what he observes; in other words determinism is not as simple as classical physics had believed. Classical physics sees an external world that determines us but quantum mechanics says that we, observers, affect the world we see and live in. In fact, the more extreme interpretation of quantum mechanics would suggest that the external world, the seeming objective world is determined by us, observers. Indeed, an even more extreme interpretation of quantum mechanics is that the world does not exist apart from our thinking. The external world seems a product of our thinking. We want to see it and see it. Our thinking is done in images and we project those images out, as apparently we do in our nightly dreams, and see a world that seems real and live in it. But that world is not real in the sense that it is our minds that produced it.
This is not to accept our ancestors’ belief in supernatural notions that are not real. In primitive religion the gods are outside us and affect us; in quantum mechanics it is us that produce the world. Thus, we are not talking about religion’s foolishness here.
In simple terms quantum mechanics brings back human consciousness into physics. Physicists tend to run away from consciousness for it is difficult to observe and quantify it; they would rather observe the seeming objective external physical world but somehow quantum mechanics brings back consciousness into the discourse of physics. Physicists would rather not pay attention to consciousness hence avoid that discussion. What is denied or avoided is still there. Thus, there seems a need to discuss the reality of human consciousness and its effects on the existence of the world.