The Teleological Solution

At the end of Chapter 4 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel finally turns to his candidate for best solution to the problem of consciousness:

I am drawn to a fourth alternative, natural teleology, or teleological bias, as an account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate. I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law. . . . Teleology means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are “biased toward the marvelous.”

A teleological bias in physical law means that the laws governing all fundamental interaction would tend to produce outcomes that favor life and consciousness.  But, according to Nagel, such a bias could not be expressible in reducible physical law:

The idea of teleology as part of the natural order flies in the teeth of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the seventeenth century. Teleology would mean that some natural laws, unlike all the basic scientific laws discovered so far, are temporally historical in their operation. The laws of physics are all equations specifying universal relations that hold at every time and place among mathematically specifiable quantities like force, mass, charge, distance, and velocity. In a nonteleological system the explanation of any temporally extended process has to consist in the explanation, by reference to those laws, of how each state of the universe evolved from its immediate predecessor. Teleology, by contrast, would admit irreducible principles governing temporally extended development.

The challenge for any teleological based theory is whether such time-dependent changes in physical law can be experimentally detected.  If such goal-based bias cannot be detected in physical law, then teleology is essentially a faith-based system.  Experiments to detect time-dependent changes in physical law have so far come up empty.  So, the effect is very small if it exists at all.

I also think there must be some time-dependent effects in physical law, otherwise how could order producing organisms be created in a universe where unguided physical law seems to favor an increase in disorder.  Of course, Nagel believes such effects are attributable to “naturalistic” effects and I think they are attributable to an ordering power at work in the universe.  The difference is that an ordering power could be interpreted as evidence for God and a naturalistic approach would favor a non-theistic interpretation.  The advantage of Nagel’s interpretation is that atheists can embrace the evidence for an order producing power without directly naming it or considering it evidence for God.

The main weakness in the current atheist argument is the denial of an active ordering power in the universe.  This position flies in the face of common sense and puts atheism on the defensive, relying on arguments based on the problems with religious institutions.  This may seem like a strange thing for a believer in God to say, but atheists need a strong metaphysical argument for the naturalistic position so that faith-based institutions will take seriously their arguments about the failings of religion.  Nagel provides that metaphysical basis and atheists would do well to pay attention to him.

However, others have criticized Mind and Cosmos because Nagel fails to garner support from science for his position.  (See, for example, https://chronicle.com/article/Where-Thomas-Nagel-Went-Wrong/139129/.)  Such support does indeed exist and Nagel’s failure to include references to the science means that his argument is weakened.  In fact, even Nagel’s summary of the book in the New York Times seems to step back from the teleological argument because he does not mention it: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/?smid=pl-share.

And then there is the charge that Nagel has been too soft on the theistic option.  I don’t find him soft on theism so much as failing to put forth the standard arguments against religion.  The arguments against religion consist almost entirely on the problems that religion can cause among its adherents plus the incomprehensibility of religion from the point of view of non-theists.  But arguments against religion are not arguments against theism so I find this criticism out of place.

Of course, Nagel does admit that his teleological explanation does not definitively rule out a theistic interpretation.  But he correctly points out that theism seems like an unnecessary complication if the naturalistic explanation is sufficient.  This is where I think the argument between believers and atheists should be:  to what extent is the naturalistic explanation sufficient to account for human subjective experience?  I think that a naturalistic teleology in particular and atheism in general will fall short of satisfying the deep human yearning for spiritual truths.

That is probably the real reason that Nagel’s atheistic critics do not like his book.  A proper debate on the merits of the atheist position looks very weak unless some sort of ordering power is conceded.  But conceding an ordering power seems to be conceding too much because it can be mistaken for evidence of divinity.  However, Nagel maintains that atheism is a viable alternative if one views the ordering power as a natural teleology that is not subject to divine control.  In this position he does not waver.

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Why Does the Universe Exist?

Why Does the Universe Exist?
(And, Is this the Right Question to Ask?)

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Jim Holt has written a very interesting and readable book on this topic: Why does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story.  I should say at the outset that while I found the book engaging and interesting, I also found Holt’s insistence on a philosophical answer somewhat frustrating.  My own journey leads me to desire an empirical approach, even if that approach leads to an ambiguous answer.  This essay is a meditation on Holt’s book as it applies to my journey.

The author points out the question about “something rather than nothing” is a modern question since the ancient creation myths are intended to provide an assurance of purpose rather than a modern explanation.  The first mention of ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing) in the West comes in the early Common Era (CE) when theologians posited God’s creation of the universe out of nothing in order to remove any restriction on God’s power by eliminating any reliance of already existing matter.  The author traces various answers (and non-answers) to this question over the intervening centuries.  The theological, philosophical and scientific answers are punctuated by intriguing tales of the author’s own history and travels to visit the many scholars and writers that he interviewed.  Those personal asides keep the reader interested in his quest even if some of the answers provided by such thinkers are less than enlightening.  Although the author clearly favors a non-theistic, philosophical answer, he does a fine job of including views contrary to his own.

A key aspect of this book is captured in the subtitle, An Existential Detective Story.  The question, “Why does the universe exist?” echoes the question, “Why do I exist?” thereby placing the personal existential question front and center.  That is one reason I am interested in this book, but I think the personal existential question (“Why do I exist?”) is more important than the cosmic existential question (“Why does the universe exist?”).  My own journey has taken me to more of a scientific view of the universe.  I went to school in central Florida shortly after the Soviet Union launched the successful Sputnik satellite.   At that time and in that location there was increased emphasis on math and science as the United States sought to catch up with the Soviet Union.  I became very much interested in science, especially physics.

My own educational history was not trouble-free, however.  Early on in eight grade I missed some classes due to illness and received stern warnings from my history and algebra teachers.  I had to intensify my effort, particularly in algebra, in order to get back on track with the rest of the class.  I learned to study on my own because I had no other way to learn the material if I did not understand it in class.  This habit of studying on my own fed into an intense discipline of self-reliance that has characterized much of my life.

Born into a military family, I moved to a new school district every few years or so.   Even though I was an outsider to each new school community, I came to rely on the schools as the one consistent structure in my life as we moved around.  So it was very unsettling to me to find that I was in danger of failing in school.  But, as I developed the discipline of self-study, I soon began to enjoy the process of learning about subjects that were not fully covered in the classroom.  As I progressed through Junior high, I would sometimes find myself spending time at a local science bookstore, perusing books on subjects like Einstein’s theory of relativity.

By the time I was in high school, I was confident that I wanted a career in science.  There were still disappointments however.  For example, I was not selected to take the new class in calculus.  When my friends who were in the class found out that I was studying calculus on my own, they encouraged me to apply for a special exemption and seek admittance by recommendation of the teacher.  I did so and the teacher required that I take one of his exams to see if I was really qualified to participate.  Fortunately, I easily passed the test and was admitted to the class.  As a result of taking calculus in high school, I was able to exempt the standard beginning course in calculus when I started college.  I was also told by my physics teacher in high school that I had scored the highest score on the Physics portion of the SAT.  So I had good reason to think that a career in science was my purpose for being in the world.  That was my first answer to the question, “Why do I exist?”  If only life were that simple!

It is one of the main ironies of existentialism that its presentation as a formal philosophy negates its reality.  To say that “existence precedes essence” is a statement of essence from which all urgency has been eliminated.  Yet, existentialism’s real power comes from its urgency, its immediacy of experience, its emphasis on decision and personal responsibility.  Perhaps the best way to understand and communicate the existentialist dilemma is through story rather than philosophy.  Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have won a bet that he could write a complete six word story with a beginning, middle and ending.  The story is probably apocryphal, but is worth recounting because of its brevity and poignancy.  After his betting partners anted up, Hemingway is reputed to have scribbled the following words on a napkin: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”  Hemingway won the bet.

This story brings the immediacy of human contingency to the center of our consciousness without saying a word about death.  In one of Hemingway’s authentic short stories, he deals with the power of nothingness.  In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” two waiters discuss the lone remaining customer in their café as it approaches closing time.  The customer, an old man nearing eighty years and deaf, sips brandy while the two waiters discuss his attempted suicide.  They surmise that the suicide attempt was over despair about “nothing” since he has plenty of money.  The young waiter wants the man to leave because he has a wife waiting at home for him and doesn’t like being kept until closing time.  The older waiter is more understanding of the customer and his need for a clean, well-lighted place to drink.  At one point, the younger waiter says to the deaf man as he pours another drink: “You should have killed yourself last week.”

Finally, the young waiter drives the customer away, and the two waiters close the café.  As the older waiter leaves, he muses to himself about the human condition:

“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

The story is full of answers to the question, “Why do I exist?”  The young waiter has youth, confidence, a job and a wife waiting at home.  The deaf old man likes to come to a clean café to get drunk.  The older waiter is “of those who like to stay late at the café. . . . With all those who do not want to go to bed.  With all those who need a light for the night.”  But these answers are set over against the nothingness that awaits those who do not fill up their life with activity and purpose.

One answer to the personal existential question is purpose.    To use philosophical jargon, purpose is teleology.  But a teleological answer is not a very popular approach to the question of the existence of the universe, because it does not usually show causal effect.  However, Jim Holt does include a modern-day teleologist, John Leslie, in his book.  Leslie believes that there is something rather than nothing because of an “abstract need for goodness.”  Holt is incredulous: “You’re actually suggesting that the universe somehow exploded into being out of an abstract need for goodness?”  Leslie responds, “Provided you accept the view that this world is, on balance, a good world . . . .”  And therein lies the catch.  With all of the tragedy, with all of the suffering, with all of the horror, how many can reach the conclusion that the world is, “on balance,” good?  Leslie does have an answer and it leads to the nature of consciousness.  Jim Holt is clearly not convinced by Leslie’s argument.  He calls Leslie’s approach “the ghost of a Judeo-Christian Deity.”

When we ask about the reason for the creation of the universe, we are generally asking for a causal explanation.  That is, there exists some event or agent that caused certain things to happen which resulted in the creation of the universe.  We focus on causal explanations because we can generally subject such explanations to some kind of objective verification to which we can all more or less agree.  Holt tells us that all such causal explanations fail because they all lead us to a first cause for which there is no explanation.  I believe that this failure of any causal explanation is the main reason that Holt prefers a philosophical approach.

Holt is ultimately drawn to an abstract philosophical answer that is directly related to the concept of nothingness.  The theological approach fails in his mind because there is no explanation for God.  The scientific answer fails because there is no explanation for the scientific laws that had to be in effect at the time of creation.  Holt’s mentor on this path is Derek Parfit, British Philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford, England.  I confess that I could not follow Holt on this path.  Part of the problem for me was the very abstract approach to the question.  For example, Parfit (and Holt) use such terminology as “meta selectors” and “selectors” when speaking of how our universe came to be out of all the infinitely many cosmic possibilities.  Using Parfit as a guide, Holt ultimately comes to the conclusion that whatever selectors may have been active, the most likely selectors would have resulted in a generic, mediocre universe.  This would be a universe filled with good and evil as well as large helping of the ordinary.  In other words, exactly the universe we do have.

Another problem for me is Parfit’s belief that “personal identity is not what matters” (Holt’s emphasis.)  It may be, as Parfit believes, that the person I am today is not the same person as I was yesterday, but that does not diminish my sense of self or my responsibility for what I did yesterday.  This point of view diminishes the personal existential question to a footnote to the main discussion on the cosmic question.  I have just the opposite view.  For me, the personal existential question is primary.  I think that is the true meaning of “existence precedes essence.”

I did, however, salvage something important from this part of the book.  According to Holt, most thinkers about the cosmic existential question proceed from why the universe exists to a conclusion about how it is.  In other words, if you know (or think you know) why the universe was created, you can proceed to describe how it currently behaves in a manner that is consistent with its creation.  Parfit’s innovation was to go from how to why, and Holt names two key facts about how the universe is: causality and nomological simplicity.  Although this reversal of normal methodology fits well with my approach (which I will describe later), beginning with only causality and simplicity is completely inadequate.   For one thing, the laws of physics are not all that simple!  A full empirical approach would begin with a much larger set of observations, including observations that point dramatically to an underlying order in the universe.

It turns out that I am what Holt would call a rejectionist.  I do not think there is a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why does the universe exist?” Nor I do not think that the cosmic existential question is the most important question.  Although I wonder about it and ponder what cosmologists and physicists think about it, I do not consider it more important than the personal existential question.  Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the personal existential question framed by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experience in Nazi concentration camps and describes the insights he derived from that experience that led to his form of therapy.  Using language typical of the immediate post World War era, Frankl writes (in translation):

“But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings?  Is that theory true that would have us believe that man is no more than the product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? . . . Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“. . . There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even is such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl’s emphasis on free choice is typical of the post war existentialists.  The freedom to choose one’s attitude toward the absurdity of existence is a key theme in Camus.  Sartre, too, emphasizes the decisional aspect of life.  Holt is fond of mentioning Sartre, but seems to focus more on the absurdity of existence over against nothingness (“le néant”, as Holt puts it) rather than on choice.  I will later show that decisionality is a power that runs throughout the universe and therefore forms the foundation of my approach to both the nature of the universe and the reason for its existence.  That is a position that puts me remarkably close to panpsychism that Holt describes in his chapter on mathematical Platonism.  (Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness is present in matter and therefore there is no mind / matter duality.  There would be no need for Descartes to say “I think, therefore I am” because thinking and being would be synonymous.) But before I get to that, let me summarize what Holt says about the rejectionists.

Holt names Adolf Grünbaum the “Great Rejectionist.”  Grünbaum considers the cosmic existential question a “pseudo-problem,” and if he turns out to be right, Holt’s quest “would be a colossal waste of effort.”  Grünbaum was born in Germany in 1923 and was 10 years old when Hitler took power.    His family was Jewish and he remembers being attacked by a gang some members of which were shouting, “The Jews killed our Savior.”  Quite apart from the experience of antisemitism, Grünbaum became disenchanted with religion and believes that the cosmic question ultimately arises because of a religious presupposition that even atheists don’t recognize.   Grünbaum simply believes that the universe is not in need of any explanation.

Holt tries to convince Grünbaum by asserting that nothingness is simpler than existence and therefore should be preferred.  If nothingness is preferred, then the existence of the universe is a surprise and really is in need of an explanation.  Grünbaum responds that we only know what is natural by what we observe and we have never observed (or don’t have any reason to believe in) the universe’s nonexistence.  Holt counters with the Big Bang theory, which he believes means that the universe was created from nothing.  Grünbaum dismisses that because even the Big Bang theory predicts that time began at the Big Bang Singularity and therefore there can be no causal explanation (and no reason to assume anything) prior to the existence of time.  I think Grünbaum wins this debate and even Holt admits that the Big Bang theory, by itself, does not guarantee that the universe came from nothing.

I am not quite the extreme rejectionist that is Adolf Grünbaum, but I have sympathy for his argument.  Personally, my position is closer to physicist Steven Weinberg who prefers to think of the cosmic existential question as part of a bigger question about the nature of the universe.  The nature of the universe is important for me because if one is going to satisfactorily answer the personal existential question, then the answer, the purpose and meaning for our life, should be as consistent as possible with the nature of the universe.  To do otherwise would be, in my opinion, to risk a premature personal encounter with le néant. And when I encounter le néant, I prefer the refuge of a clean, well-lighted place called empiricism.

In my next post, I will describe panpsychism and my approach to the cosmic existential question.

Transitions

In September of 2007, I published my review of the Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness that was based on quantum coherence in biological cells via microtubules.  At that time there was still significant controversy over the Penrose argument.  Roger Penrose had published numerous answers to challenges by critics and I realized at that time (2007) that there was controversy over how rigorously certain parts of the logic could be applied, particularly the Gödel-Turing argument.  I still think the Penrose-Hameroff approach is valid, but, like some other positions taken within the scientific community, it is based on some assumptions about the nature of the universe that may never be provable.

I am referring to an essay by Dr. Alan Lightman titled, “The Accidental Universe: Science’s Crisis of Faith” (Harper’s, December, 2011).  In this article, Dr. Lightman describes the multiverse model of creation and its allure.  The attraction of the multiverse model is based on the observation that many physical constants needed to describe the universe appear to be fine-tuned for the existence of life.  This situation has led some scientists, for example, Francis Collins, to see “the hands of a creator” in the existence of life.  Many scientists are uncomfortable with such statements.

The multiverse model of creation counters the fine-tuning argument by positing an infinite number of random universes, the vast majority of which have no life because the physical constants are not conducive to life.  This model also has some uncomfortable repercussions.  One issue is that there appears to be no way to prove that such a multiverse creation exists. Another issue is that the multiverse model absolutely devastates the current approach to theoretical physics by attributing the mathematical model for our universe to random chance.  There may be no grand unified theory because there is no necessity for coherence: “If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true.”  I stand with those who see the work of a creator in the design of our one universe.

The Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness may well require some worldview assumptions that are not provable.  One would be something like objective realism, where one takes the position that the collapse of the wave function in quantum physics is a real phenomenon.  That is Penrose’s position and his basis for the Objective Reduction theory (OR).  I don’t know whether OR will be proven, but it seems to me that something like it would be necessary for objective realism.  It is possible that the conditions for OR will remain hidden behind the Quantum Veil, and that we will need to assume objective realism as a premise in order to make sense of our universe.

For me, there are several interrelated questions of primary importance.  The first question concerns the nature and existence of a creator.  Another question concerns the direction of evolution.  The third question concerns whether consciousness in inherent in the universe or whether it emerges from complex information processing.  My background is software development and engineering.  I have spent 36 years designing, developing, testing and maintaining complex software systems.  Some of that work included research into design of AI (Artificial Intelligence) components.  All of my experience in software development tells me that consciousness will not emerge from programming techniques on traditional computers, and that is consistent with the Gödel-Turing argument put forth by Roger Penrose.  I will leave open for now the question of whether quantum computers can be conscious. (Some would view the brain as a complex quantum computer designed by evolution).  So, on the third question, I stand with those who think that the basis for consciousness is inherent in the universe, not something added on through complex information processing.

On the question of evolution’s direction, the evidence points toward the creation of beings of higher consciousness.  One view is that the direction towards higher consciousness is accidental but is based on the rules for natural selection.  This appears to be the view of Daniel Dennett.  It is interesting to me that Dennett holds the view that certain areas of intellectual activity could be transcendent.  Dennett is a cognitive scientist and an atheist, yet has said in an interview with Robert Wright that mathematics and even ethics may be areas subject to a platonic kind of transcendence.  I presume that the area of theoretical physics could be included as an area of transcendence.  If there are rigorous, explicit rules for natural selection, I presume they could be treated likewise.  So the deeper question about evolution and about physics is where do the rules come from?   If one accepts the multiverse model of creation, then the rules are a product of random chance and the apparent order or logic of the rules is a byproduct of the anthropic principle.  That is, because we are the product of our universe, our consciousness has evolved to ‘see’ the order and logic in the universe. I have already stated that I do not buy into the multiverse model, so it should be no surprise that I think that the platonic, transcendent areas are an expression of directionality for the universe and for evolution.  (By the way, the interview of Dennett can be found at http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid713544743?bctid=715977787).

When I look at all the relevant evidence, I see the work of the creator in the design and direction of the universe.  The evidence for me resides in the cumulative effect of these statements:  1) The assumption of one universe and an objective realism point of view; 2) The one universe has been designed for life by virtue of the finely-tuned physical constants which are conducive to life; 3) The one universe can be viewed as a conscious whole by virtue of quantum physics; 4) The universe itself is instrumental in the activity of life and consciousness through the action of quantum physics on biological molecules; 5) Evolution has direction by virtue of a conscious universe and a corollary is that history has direction and life has purpose; 6) Transcendent realms of knowledge and understanding such as mathematics, ethics, theoretical physics, and so forth are real and lead to real productive activities.  I also explicitly deny any portion of the logical positivist point of view which states that the only real entities are those that can be measured: consciousness is real; self-consciousness is real; God is real.  In summary, the one universe in which we have been created literally yearns for life and consciousness.

Yes, there are “leaps of faith” in the chain of reasoning that I use.  I think that such leaps are necessary in order to make sense of our world and our lives.  I understand that other people will view reality differently.  Others will look at the same data and see accidentalness where I see purpose.  If that accidentalness comes from the multiverse model, then I think that point of view does real harm to certain transcendent-linked activities like theoretical physics.  It remains to be addressed whether there might be any moral or personal repercussions from such points of view.  I hope to address those concerns in later writings.

I will also explicitly point out that the characteristics of such a creator as I have outlined above do not necessarily include any supernatural interventions in history.  The expression of God’s intervention in history is implicit in life and consciousness.  I would view the physical laws of the universe as a kind of covenant with all of life.  I would also point out that “life and consciousness” can be quite broadly defined.  For example, the Gaia hypothesis views the entire life ecosystem of earth as a kind of unified consciousness.  I am not prepared at this point to be any more specific about these definitions.  Furthermore, my view of God raises many questions that cannot be easily answered except through faith such as: is there an eternal soul?  At this point all I can say is that the quantum world is very strange and that it is not supernatural.

Now, let me turn to the second reason for this essay.  In late 2007 after struggling with these issues of creation and purpose in the universe, my life took a dramatic and unexpected turn.  My wife and I had been attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation and we had raised our children under the UU banner.  In the fall of 2007, we decided to explore the faith tradition of our youth.  This was not just an ordinary decision, but, as my wife put it, “it was an offer we couldn’t refuse!”  It was a decision that surprised both of us.  My wife had been raised within Judaism and I had been raised in a Christian non-denominational church.  I chose Methodism in my youth, so I began attending a local Methodist church.  We also decided to participate in each other’s faith tradition as much as practical.  I participated in Torah study and some Jewish worship services and my wife sometimes attended my Methodist Sunday school and worship service.  All this began in earnest in late 2007 although some exploration of these new activities had already transpired previously.

The real surprise and shock for both of us was how much anti-Judaism was still present in Christian worship and study.  Let me be clear: there was no overt racial antisemitism, but there were statements of negativity towards the Jews of antiquity.  What became painfully clear was that Christianity as it was being practiced in the 21st century still relied on the ancient tradition and polemic of anti-Judaism.  I could not recognize this at first because the traditional Christian narrative had become so ingrained in my consciousness. But my wife could recognize this dynamic and we discussed it between us and also with others and I began to see that the Christian narrative contained significant elements of anti-Judaism.  This conclusion was supported by many books and articles.  For the next four years we studied and explored this phenomenon as a faith and justice issue within Christianity.  For my part, I recognized no pattern of anti-Christianity within Judaism.

It is perhaps fortuitous or maybe even providential that I had arrived at some theological understanding that viewed God in general terms as opposed to a sectarian view which would have made interfaith dialog very difficult.

The Universe Chooses

[This post first appeared on 24 September, 2007]

In my past segments, I have presented the argument that something non-computational and non-deterministic is taking place in human consciousness.  In so doing, I have introduced the comparison of human beings to machines, particularly computers.  On the surface the comparison is preposterous.  Ask anybody!  No serious person takes the comparison as a realistic possibility.  Most people seem to know intuitively that people are capable of more than machines.  So why not drop the whole subject and talk about something more interesting?  Because we are interested in where reason will lead us in the search for God and because there are thoughtful and intelligent people who do believe that the universe is a giant computer.

For example, John Tierney, a science writer for the New York Times, states, “it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation” (“Our Lives Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch” by John Tierney, New York Times, August 14, 2007).  In other words, the universe is a giant computer.   He has based this conclusion on the work of Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University.  Professor Bostrom, for the record, states, “My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that, is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”

But Mr. Tierney also raises the interesting question of how we should behave if, indeed, we are the products of a giant computer simulation.  He presents the alternatives of living the traditional moral life or the ‘interesting’ life, the moral life presumably being dull.  Perhaps, he muses, “You should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation.”  Presumably, that might include all sorts of nefarious dealings to enhance one’s interest quotient.  (It is intriguing to note that this choice between the ethical life and the interesting life is exactly the choice presented by Soren Kierkegaard in Either/Or more than 160 years ago.)  From my point of view, the salient connection is that one’s view of the universe has moral repercussions and there are at least some people who think that the universe is a computer simulation.  But perhaps Bostrom and Tierney have not pushed that thought through to the question about determinism.

So the question remains, if the universe is non-deterministic, where does that come from?  Roger Penrose is a mathematician and a physicist and he thinks that ultimately one has to come to terms with the basic physics.  Perhaps, a biologist would direct us to a biological answer.  One is always most comfortable with the tools one knows best.  But physics does occupy a unique position to address the question.  We can make the case that quantum physics controls the action of atomic particles which make up atoms which form biological molecules which are the building blocks of all biological entities.  The counter argument is that molecules – especially biological molecules – are much too large to be affected by quantum actions.  Certainly the chemical composition is not affected by quantum actions.

Perhaps not directly, but remember that there are some very subtle processes taking place in the living cell.   I shall use as my example an important biological molecule called tubulin, which Penrose introduces late in his book as one answer to the search for a science of consciousness.  Tubulin consists of two separate units called alpha tubulin and beta tubulin, each composed of about 450 amino acids.  Amino acid molecules are the building blocks of biological proteins.  This tubulin dimer appears in two configurations that differ in the separation angle between the alpha and beta parts.  In one configuration the angle of separation is about 30 degrees more than in the other configuration.  These two different configurations of tubulin are controlled by the position of a few electrons that resides midway between the two parts.  Tubulin plays a significant part in the structure and life of the cell.  The significant problem of protein folding is a generalization of the tubulin example.  The placement of a few electrons can affect the particular way that a protein folds.  Improperly folded proteins have been implicated in several disease processes, most notably the prion diseases of creutzfeltd-jakob disease in humans and ‘mad cow’ disease in animals.  DNA folding and RNA folding can affect the genes that are expressed within the cell.  Folding of biological molecules is a huge area of research and folding can be controlled by the position of a few electrons, and that is within the power of quantum action.

Therefore, Penrose traces the source of non-deterministic action to quantum physics.  But he does not think that quantum action on a few electrons is sufficient to give rise to consciousness.  Penrose goes straight to the critical dilemma at the heart of quantum theory:  the measurement problem.  The measurement problem arose because quantum theory did not address in detail the issue of when the wave nature prevailed and when the particle nature prevailed.  The theory says that the wave nature prevails until a measurement occurs or could in principle occur.  When a measurement is made, the wave function is said to ‘collapse’ and the particle directs its energy to a specific location and with a specific momentum.  When the wave function collapses, one of the possible locations is chosen at random by the universe according to standard theory.  However, that randomness is modified by the set of possibilities given by the physical arrangement of the environment.  At one point in his book, Penrose wonders if it really is random, but that is what the standard theory presumes.  Once again, this is all behind the quantum veil and subject to informed speculation.  When the expected result of an experiment needs to be calculated, a set of pseudo-random numbers can be used to simulate the assumed randomness.  As Penrose makes clear in his discussion on non-computability, neither randomness nor pseudo randomness is any help toward solving the problem of consciousness.

In order for us to understand exactly where within the bounds of quantum theory this non-determinism is happening, we need some of Penrose’s terminology.  There are two key processes that quantum physicists use to calculate the outcome of any quantum experiment.  The first process Penrose calls ‘unitary evolution’ designated by the letter U.  This is the process controlled by the wave function.  This process is a completely deterministic rule for how the quantum state evolves with respect to time and position.  Its value can be thought of as a kind of complex probability precursor, but it is not properly a probability function.  This part of the process can be and often is calculated on the computer.

Penrose calls the second process ‘state vector reduction’ or ‘collapse of the wavefunction’ and is designated R.  This process converts the complex probability precursor value of U into an actual probability distribution and, amazingly, chooses one of the possible outcomes.  Converting the complex probability precursor into an actual probability function is completely deterministic.  It is the ‘choice’ that Penrose points to as the source of quantum non-determinism.  This part of the process cannot be calculated on a computer for a single quantum action, because the computer has no way to choose the outcome in the same way that the universe does.  When an experiment is done to verify the U and R process, the individual outcomes appear random and not according to any recognizable pattern.  If the experiment is done many times, the pattern that emerges conforms to the probability function derived by applying the deterministic part of the R process to the deterministic U process.  The process of verifying an experiment, which is repeated many times, can be verified on the computer by substituting random or pseudo random choices for the non-deterministic choices of the R process.  It is this substituting of random choices that gives the whole process a feel of statistical modeling.

A single quantum action, for example the transfer of a single photon of light, consists of a two-part process: U followed by R.  The R process contains a non-deterministic choice of the actual time and location of the transfer from the various possibilities allowed by the physical arrangement.  These two processes may be chained together so that one energy transfer follows another:  U, R, U, R, etc.  In addition, most events are composed of many, many transfers.  For example, an ordinary electric light will produce an unimaginably huge number of photons each second (more than 1 followed by 17 zeroes.)  To further complicate the analysis, the U process is often linked with other U processes and the outcomes of the associated R processes are dependent on each other.  This has been called ‘quantum entanglement.’  It may be that the quantum entanglement between a controlled experiment and the uncontrolled environment is what gives the appearance of randomness.

Roger Penrose does not avoid controversy and he readily admits that he takes a more realistic view of the U and R processes than many physicists do.  Since both U and R take place behind the quantum veil, this is an open question:

“To such as myself (and Einstein and Schrödinger too – so I am in good company), it makes no sense to use the term ‘reality’ just for objects that we can perceive, such as (certain types of) measuring devices, denying that the term can apply at some deeper underlying level.  Undoubtedly, the world is strange and unfamiliar at the quantum level, but it is not ‘unreal’.  How, indeed, can real objects be constructed from unreal constituents?  Moreover, the mathematical laws that govern the quantum world are remarkably precise – as precise as the more familiar equations that control the behavior of macroscopic objects – despite the fuzzy images that are conjured up by such descriptions as ‘quantum fluctuations’ and ‘uncertainty principle’.”  (Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, p. 313.)

But R is still subject to the measurement problem, since we don’t really know when it might occur. Penrose then proposes a new procedure called ‘objective reduction’, or OR, for the type of action that is needed to solve the measurement problem.  Objective reduction takes place according to a set of criteria involving the amount of energy or mass that is being separated by the wave function.  Once the amount of energy or mass becomes great enough or the separation becomes great enough, objective reduction takes place.  The amount of mass / energy / separation is small enough that we never see quantum action in everyday life.  The universe is still required to choose among the various possibilities for the transfer of mass /energy, but Penrose calls that decision non-deterministic rather than random.  Penrose uses the phrase ‘nature chooses’, but I prefer to say the universe chooses because ultimately, if the process is objective, then it is happening throughout the universe and not only where consciousness is present.

But what kind of choice is the universe making?  There are three possibilities as I see it.  The choice could be calculated, like a calculated pseudo-random number, but the algorithm remains hidden from us.  This is the possibility that Penrose has debunked by the Godel-Turing argument.  The choice could be truly random, meaning that the possible outcomes are spread evenly over some interval and that there is no algorithmic connection between the random values chosen.  The model for this type of choice is the throw of a dice as in “God is not playing at dice.”  It is this possibility that perhaps led Albert Camus to write about the “benign indifference of the universe” in The Stranger.  Note that the lack of an algorithmic connection between random values means that the choices are essentially free choices, unconstrained by prior or subsequent choices.  But neither Penrose nor I think that truly random choices can lead to the coherence and power of consciousness.  The third possibility is that there is some reasoning or intelligence behind the choice, but that reasoning is hidden from us behind the quantum veil.   It would have to be this third possibility that biological entities use for intelligent decision-making, but only if there is some way for biological systems to prolong the period of quantum action.

Now we are at the point where we can plausibly say that the universe is making a choice for every transfer of energy that takes place in the universe.  From the Godel-like arguments given previously, we have plausibly eliminated a method of choosing based on calculation.  Penrose and many others think that biological components have the ability to tap into that choice-making power behind the quantum veil in order to arrive at a theory of consciousness.  Can we now plausibly conclude that the choice-making power is consciousness, intelligent, and whole?  The next segment will describe one possible way that biological systems can tap into the decision making power of the universe.

Incompleteness

[Originally posted 17 September, 2007]

In September 1930 at Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), Kurt Gödel stunned the group of mathematicians and logicians by announcing his famous incompleteness theorem.  The proof was not published until 1931, so it took awhile to sink in. But the end result was a radical rethinking about mathematics.  Why was Gödel’s theorem so unexpected?  It helps to remember that there was a movement in mathematics at that time to encapsulate all of mathematics into a formal system of axioms and theorems.  Part of the motivation was to eliminate the uncertainties associated with mathematical proofs.  David Hilbert, a German mathematician, initiated a program in the 1920’s to formalize all of mathematics.  Before Hilbert started his program, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead published a 3-volume work named Principia Mathematica, which was an attempt to derive all mathematical truths from a single, consistent set of axioms.  The title of the article published by Gödel in 1931 was On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I.

So what did this famous theorem prove?  In as simple a statement as I can make, it says that there is no consistent, formal system that can encapsulate all of mathematical truth.  Put another way, it says that there will be some true mathematical propositions that cannot be proven within such a system.  Therefore, any formal system is incomplete and the hopes of mathematicians who wanted to encapsulate all of mathematics in a single formal system were dashed.

(Incidentally, there is a very readable and fascinating account of the history of this period entitled “A Hundred Years of Controversy Regarding the Foundations of Mathematics” by Gregory Chaitin, mathematician and computer scientist.)

Why is this relevant?  Well, Roger Penrose’s insight is that for Gödel to arrive at this theorem, he must have been using, in his own thinking, something besides a formal mathematical system!  Here is his summary:

“It is in mathematics that our thinking processes have their purest form.  If thinking is just carrying out a computation of some kind, then it might seem that we ought to be able to see this most clearly in our mathematical thinking.  Yet, remarkably, the very reverse turns out to be the case.  It is within mathematics that we find the clearest evidence that there must actually be something in our conscious thought processes that eludes computation.  This may seem to be a paradox – but it will be of prime importance in the arguments which follow, that we come to terms with it.”  (Shadows of the Mind, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 64.)

Penrose follows this start to Chapter 2 with over 50 pages of explanation, example, argument and counter-argument concerning an extension of Gödel’s theorem that applies directly to computers.  This extension is named the ‘halting problem’ and is due to Alan Turing, one of the key contributors to the theory of modern digital computers.  The ‘halting problem’ states that it is not possible to write a computer program that can, in general, determine if another computer program will ever produce an answer (which is when a computer program halts or stops processing.)  Most of this material presents the usual objections to Gödel-type arguments of incompleteness along with Penrose’s responses to those objections.  Penrose is “trying to show that (mathematical) understanding is something that lies beyond computation, and the Gödel (-Turing) argument is one of the few handles that we have on this issue.”

In Chapter 3, “The case for non-computability in mathematical thought,” Penrose tackles the issue directly.  He considers several possible ways the Gödel argument might not apply.  Perhaps mathematicians are knowingly or unknowingly using an unsound algorithm.  Perhaps they are using an unknowable algorithm.  He considers natural selection; he considers multiple algorithms; he considers learning algorithms; he considers environmental input; he considers random events; he considers chaos theory; he considers acts of God.  It is interesting to hear what he has to say about this last point:

“Possibly there are some readers who are inclined to believe that such an algorithm could indeed simply have been implanted into our brains according to some divine act of God.  To such a suggestion I can offer no decisive refutation; but if one chooses to abandon the methods of science at some point, it is unclear to me why it would be reasonable to choose that particular point!”  (Shadows of the Mind, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 144-145.)

Penrose is leading us to the point where we may well decide that some divine activity is taking place, but he will not say so directly.  Ultimately he drops us off at the doorstep of quantum indeterminism and we will have to make our own decision.  But the journey is well worth the effort.

His conclusion at the end of chapter 3, after about 80 pages of such arguments as above, is that “there is something essential in human understanding that is not possible to simulate by any computational means.”  Although Penrose does not directly address free will and similar experiences, I think that he subsumes those experiences under the general term ‘consciousness.’  I think the act of understanding requires an act of will to choose the correct interpretation from among the various possible alternatives.

At this point, I should add that I am very much inclined to agree with Penrose.  I have spent over 30 years analyzing, designing, programming and testing complex computer systems.  I have seen the promise of automatic programming, programming by computer, come and go.  If anything, computer programming is a more exact use of logic than mathematical reasoning and, so far, no computer program has been able to do what the skilled human computer programmer can do and that is analyze and understand a problem in ways that are helpful in designing a robust solution.  From my experience, there comes a point in the analysis and design of a system when one must choose the best path through a maze of possibilities.  There is inherent risk in that choice and many times it takes courage to proceed along a chosen path.

This is not a new insight.  More than 40 years ago, Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer program named ELIZA that could converse in English somewhat like a non-directive psychotherapist.  He wrote a book, Computer Power and Human Reason (W. H. Freeman, 1976,) that presents his views on the proper role of computers in society, a role that he strongly believed should be subservient to human will and subject to human moral judgment.  Weizenbaum reached this conclusion not by the Gödel-like arguments of Penrose, but from human experience of the way that life is.  At the conclusion of this book, he argues that the teacher of computer science must resist the temptation to arrogance because his or her knowledge is somehow ‘harder’ than the knowledge of most people:

“It the teacher, if anyone, is to be an example of the whole person to others, he must first strive to be a whole person.  Without the courage to confront one’s inner as well as outer worlds, such wholeness is impossible to achieve.  Instrumental reason alone cannot lead to it.  And there precisely is a crucial difference between man and machine: Man, in order to become whole, must be forever an explorer of both his inner and his outer realities.  His life is full of risks, but risks he has the courage to accept, because, like the explorer, he learns to trust his own capacities to endure, to overcome.  What could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance and overcoming when one speaks of machines?”  (Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason, W. H. Freeman, 1976, p 280.)

I call this the existential approach and I hope to return to it in a future segment because, for most people, that is the only source of valid knowledge about the way that the universe works.

The Penrose argument is an argument from logic, not from general life experience.  It is important because it sets a boundary for what we can legitimately conclude based on our own existential analysis.  The Penrose argument is the most complete attempt that I know of to say definitively that the human mind can do something that no computer, no mater how powerful, can do.  Whether you call it understanding, awareness, insight or something else, the conclusion is that something non-computational and therefore non-deterministic is taking place in human consciousness.  So where does this non-computational capability come from?   I will take up that question, and Penrose’s answer to it, in the next segment.

Is Free Will an Illusion

[Originally Posted 9/7/2007]

Our view of the universe has been radically transformed by the quantum revolution of the 1920’s.  At first, this was not the case as quantum effects were minimized as only affecting the very small particles that we could easily ignore in everyday life.  Outside of particle physics, even the sciences could usually ignore quantum effects as very small aberrations in an otherwise classical world.  The disciplines of chemistry, biology and engineering could, for the most part, continue as though the objects of interest behaved as classical objects, unaffected by quantum indeterminism.

But key problems in understanding our universe persisted in the form of questions about the nature of life.  If the universe is basically deterministic, with indeterminism relegated to the very small world of atomic particles, where does free will come from?  Do we even have free will or is it an illusion?  Is our whole system of law with its reliance on responsibility for our actions based on an illusion?  Is the legal concept of premeditation based on the false assumption of free will?

It is interesting to note that the god in whom Einstein proclaimed belief, “Spinoza’s God,” was a god for which freedom of choice did not have a place.  For Spinoza, freedom of choice was an illusion, but Spinoza also held the difficult philosophical position that determinism does not diminish moral responsibility for our actions.

The question of free will is just the first and most obvious question raised if the underlying principles are deterministic.  Besides justice, there is freedom, beauty, truth, faith, love, hope, understanding, insight, awareness, consciousness, happiness, loyalty, courage and the list goes on.  Where do these experiences come from in a deterministic world?  One explanation is the phenomenon of emergence.  Emergence is the idea that certain complex behaviors and experiences arise de novo as systems become more complex.   This type of explanation can be found in Darwin’s theory of evolution except that emergence is called adaptation and adaptation is shaped by natural selection.

I don’t think I can over emphasize the importance of this question.  If the universe is deterministic, then there is no room for a God who “concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”  One could still hold to the Deist’s God, but that god is easily deposed because such a god is irrelevant to daily life, a life filled with uncertainty, risk, heartbreak, happiness, anger, reconciliation, forgiveness and many other challenges of ordinary living.  When Time Magazine proclaimed on its cover the question “Is God Dead?” in 1966, some 80 years after Friedrich Nietzsche first broached the subject, the question was really about the nature and relevance of God.  It was the Deist God that had to die because that god was no longer relevant.

I am not saying that the converse is true.  It is not the case that a non-deterministic universe proves the existence of God.  But, if the universe is essentially non-deterministic, then the door is open for belief in a personal God who intervenes in history.  One must come to this belief by faith; there is no other route.  But if one has come to a belief in God by thoughtful meditation on life’s experiences or by sudden awakening, then the following arguments will show that belief in God does not contradict what is known about our universe.

Despite the alleged non-deterministic nature of the quantum world, there are two main ways the universe could remain deterministic.  One way is that quantum indetermination could remain captive at the quantum level, with classical dynamics controlling all actions at the macro level, the level at which we live.  The second way is that even if quantum effects do percolate up to the classical level, what if quantum indetermination is simply the result of our inability to lift the quantum veil?  What if the quantum world is really deterministic as Einstein thought, but we simply cannot discover the rules because they are hidden from us?  Both alternatives need something like a theory of emergence to explain the appearance of free will, justice, freedom, etc.  I will call such a theory ‘deterministic emergence’ to distinguish it from other forms of emergence that allow for non-determinism.

The problem with emergence as an explanation is that it is not really a testable theory.  We would like to be able to say what criteria must be met before something new emerges from complex systems.  In fact, emergence is such a broad category of explanations, that it is not incompatible with quantum indeterminism.  However, the logic path that will prove fruitful is the case where emergence is used to explain the presence of intangible experiences like free will when the underlying reality is deterministic.  But in order for us to progress to the point of falsifying deterministic emergence in a deterministic universe, we must have a testable theory.  We seem to be at an impasse.

Well, maybe not.  There is a theory with sufficient rigor that we may well use it as a proxy for deterministic emergence.  That theory is the theory of artificial intelligence, or AI.  AI is the discipline within computer science that studies how machines learn.  This is the area of robots and chess-playing computer programs.  Within bounds, AI is a formidable theory.  Already, chess and checker playing computer programs beat the best human players.  Expert systems, a type of AI program, assist humans in certain skilled areas like oil exploration and medical diagnosis.  AI programs can recognize human faces and human speech.

It is claimed by some proponents of AI that someday computers will be fully equivalent to a human being in every way including the ability to experience all of the normal intangible experiences of humanness.  This is known as the ‘strong-AI’ viewpoint.  Roger Penrose states it this way:  “All thinking is computation; in particular, feelings of conscious awareness are evoked merely by carrying out of appropriate computations.” (Shadows of the Mind, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 12.)  Roger Penrose is a mathematical physicist who worked with Stephen Hawking when Hawking was developing his theories for ‘black holes,’ stars that are so massive that no light can escape.  Penrose and Hawking share the 1988 Wolf Prize in Physics for their joint work.  But Penrose is no champion of strong AI.  He has written two books to argue that something non-deterministic must be taking place in human consciousness.

In order for the strong-AI viewpoint to replace deterministic emergence in our line of reasoning, we will have to replace ‘deterministic’ with ‘computational’ and ‘non-deterministic’ with ‘non-computational.’  Have we lost anything in translation?  Not really, because, in theory, a computer can simulate any set of rules that can be defined.  In fact, not all of the rules need to be defined if there is a rule or set of rules for generating and accepting new rules based on experience.  There is no loss of generality by replacing a putative theory of deterministic emergence with computational AI.  The only additional qualification we need is that ‘computer’ means a deterministic computer.  Some day computers may be based on biological systems or even quantum actions.  For now we will omit such possibilities because we are really interested in whether the universe is ultimately deterministic (or computational), and we have a suspicion that quantum systems and even biological systems somehow make use of non-computational activity.

In summary, here is our line of reasoning:  If the universe is deterministic, there is no need for a god who cares about us and intervenes in our lives.  Free will would be an illusion, a way of thinking we are making choices when, in fact, our choices are being calculated for us at some unconscious level. The universe may be deterministic because either quantum non-determinism is a result of our lack of knowledge as to what takes place behind the quantum veil or any real quantum non-determinism is confined to the small scale of particle physics.  If we could show that human beings possess a capability that is impossible for deterministic computers, then we could show that something non-deterministic or non-computational must be taking place.  In the next segment we will step through Penrose’s argument that people have access to truths that deterministic computers cannot reach.  Following that we will tackle the more imposing issue: if the universe is non-deterministic then is it reasonable to attribute such non-determinism to God?

The Deist God

[Originally posted August 29, 2007]

In a New York Times article published on December 27, 2005, Dennis Overbye describes the role of quantum theory in the search for ultimate reality this way:

“Niels Bohr, the Danish philosopher king of quantum theory, dismissed any attempts to lift the quantum veil as meaningless, saying that science was about the results of experiments, not ultimate reality.” (Dennis Overbye, Quantum Trickery: Testing Einstein’s Strangest Theory, The New York Times, December 27, 2005.)

Bohr probably never used the phrase ‘quantum veil,’ but I find it an appropriate title for this series as I think you will see.  What Bohr actually said was something like this:

“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”   (Aage Petersen, Bohr’s assistant, paraphrasing Niels Bohr as quoted by Nick Herbert in Quantum Reality.)

Bohr, we remember, was the originator of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, though he never called it that.  The Copenhagen Interpretation developed from dialogs between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg around 1927 when Heisenberg was employed as a lecturer at Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen.  Heisenberg was the creator of the uncertainty principle that bears his name.  Heisenberg’s view favored the particle nature of matter with discontinuities during which the wave formulation affected the path of a particle.  Bohr’s view was that it takes both the wave interpretation and the particle interpretation to understand the science at the quantum level.  Bohr gave equal weight to both interpretations and called this concept ‘complementarity.’  Bohr’s view won out because quantum theory could not precisely address the crucial question of when the wave nature prevailed and when the particle nature prevailed.  The most that could be said about this critical point is that the wave nature prevailed until a measurement was made or could in principle be made.  This is known as the ‘measurement problem’ because the theory could not say precisely when a measurement might take place.

But, the really interesting thing about Bohr’s statement is that he had to say it at all.  Was physics really about discovering ultimate reality?  And what was there about quantum physics that made such a quest untenable?  We have to recall that before quantum physics, the universe was completely deterministic.  For every result, there was a cause.  By chaining cause and effect together, and tracing the chain back to the first cause, one could, perhaps, discover the mind of God.  This is not such a farfetched claim.  Stephen Hawking made such a claim in A Brief History of Time:

“However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.  Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.  If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” (p. 175, Bantam Books, 1988).

We can debate what a physicist means when he or she uses the word ‘God.’ Few would think that they mean a traditional personal God familiar to most people of faith.  I think the G-word tells us more about a physicist’s motivation than anything about a personal belief.  I think they are talking about religion in Paul Tillich’s sense of ultimate concern.  When someone speaks about religion or god in this sense, they usually mean whatever motivates or drives a person to excel.

Another physicist, Richard Wolfson, put it less dramatically, but no less forcefully:

“I happen to believe, and most of my fellow physicists believe, that the laws of physics as we describe them are either a fairly accurate reflection or a very good approximation of an underling objective physical reality.  We happen to believe that.  I think it would be difficult to motivate doing physics if we didn’t believe that.”  (Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution, Lecture 1, The Teaching Company, 2nd Edition, 2000).

Albert Einstein also spoke of God, and he was deeply troubled by quantum theory. In particular he was troubled by the fact that quantum theory could only predict the statistical probability of the results of experiments and could not predict the actions of individual particles.  He wrote to Max Born in 1926:

“Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing.  But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing.  The theory says a lot but does not really bring us closer to the secret of the ‘Old One.’  I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.”

This is usually paraphrased, “God does not play dice.”  Nor was Einstein’s God a personal God.  When asked by a Rabbi if he believed in God, Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”  (New York Times, April 25, 1929).    Spinoza, a pantheist, rejected dualism and believed that God and The Universe were one and the same.  So another way to look at what a physicist means when he or she uses the word ‘god’ is the natural order of the universe as revealed by reason.  The discovery and understanding of this natural order is what motivates the physicist to do physics.

This brings us back to the heart of the upheaval that took place in physics in the early twentieth century.  At the end of the nineteenth century, physical science seemed to be on the verge of a complete description of the universe.    Newton’s laws of motion and gravity had accurately described physical matter and Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism had described the non-physical forms of energy. These two pillars of physics were the proud accomplishment of two centuries of post-enlightenment scientific thought.

Isaac Newton, working in the late seventeenth century, did not think his theories were contrary to the existence of God, but nevertheless they gave momentum to the Deist movement that promoted a god that did not intervene in the affairs of the world.  Deists sought to strip traditional religion of its supernatural mysteries and proclaim a religion in concert with the natural universe.  For Deists, the mind of God was revealed by reason and was synonymous with the natural order of the universe.

James Clerk Maxwell, working in the late nineteenth century and extending the work of Michael Faraday, created a set of mathematical equations that described the interaction of the electric and magnetic fields to produce all electromagnetic phenomenon.  The most common form of electromagnetism that we encounter in everyday life is light.  Maxwell’s laws formulated light as a wave that progressed through space much like an ocean wave traverses the ocean.

By the end of the nineteenth century the essence of the entire known phenomenon of the universe was explained by Newton and Maxwell.  There were just two small problems that stood in the way of a complete understanding of ultimate reality.  On April 27th, 1900, Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thompson) gave a lecture to the Royal Institution of Great Britain saying “two clouds” overshadowed “the beauty and clearness of theory”.  These two clouds were the unexpected results from two experiments.  One experiment measured the energy given off from a perfectly radiating object, called ‘blackbody radiation’ and the measured spectrum of energy was not in agreement with expectations.  The second experiment was the Michelson-Morley experiment, and it attempted to measure the speed of the earth through the ether by measuring the velocity of light as the earth orbited the sun.  Lord Kelvin had proposed the ether as the medium through which light waves traversed empty space.  The Michelson-Morley experiment could detect no change in the velocity of light as the earth orbited the sun, another unexpected result.

The answer to these two problems required the development of Einstein’s relativity to solve the problem concerning the velocity of light and quantum theory to solve the problem of blackbody radiation.  But these two theories radically changed our understanding of the universe.  With relativity, measurements of distance and time could no longer be thought of as an abstract, universal overlay to the physical universe.  Measurements of distance and time were part of the underlying reality of the universe.  With quantum theory, the underlying reality of the universe was statistical and not deterministic.  Quantum theory had a second devastating effect:  light could not be thought of as exclusively a wave phenomenon.  Energy was transferred in packets of energy called photons, and the energy depended on the frequency of the underlying wave.  In other words, each photon transferred energy to a specific location.  The transferred energy was not spread out as would be suggested by a wave model.

The revelation that the universe was non deterministic was so devastating to the ideals of physics that Einstein was never reconciled to it.  The reason this is such a problem for physics is that it changes forever what we can know about ultimate reality.  How can light be both a particle and a wave?  How can electrons and other sub-atomic particles be both a particle and a wave?  When energy is transferred from one point to another at the quantum level, how does the universe choose the particular outcome from the many theoretical possibilities?  Physicists would love to describe in detail how the quantum world works, but are forever prevented from knowing for sure.  From the outside, the best answer looks like little more than statistical modeling so that the results of experiments agree in aggregate with theory.  The theory says nothing about how the universe actually works behind the quantum veil.  That is why Bohr had to declare that the quantum world does not exist.

Therefore, any discussion about what is behind the quantum veil is speculation.  But speculation can run the gamut from reasoned conjecture to uninformed surmise.  And the question I would like to address in the next segment is this:  Are the laws of physics, as we now know them, compatible with a personal God, a God who cares about the fate of individuals and intervenes in human history?  Or is belief in a personal God necessarily delusion as some have proclaimed?  And, how do we discuss such an issue without getting lost in idle speculation?  Is there a way to use reason as a guide?