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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - 11:10pmSanction this postReply
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I have a book entitled The Unconscious Quantum by Victor Stenger, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii. The publisher, Prometheus Books, has published George Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God along with a number of books recommended by The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that debunks pseudoscientific quackery (e.g., alleged paranormal phenomena, UFO sightings, etc.). Quantum mechanics has often been used to defend religious metaphysics and New Age mysticism in such books as The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and thus to impart an air of scientific respectability to such theories. Stenger's book takes aim at this unholy alliance, in an effort to redeem physics from attempts by spiritualists to co-opt it for their own ends.

Unfortunately, in what is otherwise an impressive book, Stenger propounds some bad philosophy in his attempt to refute their arguments: For example, in a chapter entitled "Cosmythology," he addresses the following argument for the existence of God: "It was believed that matter cannot be created or destroyed by natural processes. Since matter now exists, it must therefore have been created supernaturally." Before considering his rejoinder, which is based on contemporary physics, let us note that there are so many good philosophical refutations of this argument that one does not need a knowledge of physics to refute it.

Nevertheless, Stengler's response is that "accidents happen," as demonstrated by quantum mechanics. "Everything that occurs in the universe," he writes, "is not precisely predetermined by natural law. In fact, our so-called 'laws' apply only on average to ensembles of physical systems, not to individual ones. The behavior of individual systems is left to the vagaries of chance." (p. 226)

So, Stengler's argument against the First Cause argument is that there need be no first cause, because there need be no cause at all; matter could have been created by accident or by chance, which again ignores the fact that chance is an epistemological concept, not a metaphysical one. The answer to the supernaturalist explanation for the existence of matter (taking matter as the fundamental stuff of nature) is, of course, that causality presupposes existence, not the other way around, so the fact that matter (and energy) cannot be created or destroyed naturally does not mean that it requires a supernatural origin. It doesn't require an origin, period - natural or supernatural. But this is an argument to which Spengler, despite his impressive scientific credentials, is completely oblivious. Besides that, "supernatural" is an anti-concept and a floating abstraction. A "supernatural" cause is one that is non-natural - and therefore non-existent - by definition, since nature is all there is.

However well intentioned Spengler's approach, he has simply replaced the mysticism of mind in the person of a supernatural spirit with the mysticism of matter in the form of physical action governed entirely by chance.

- Bill



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Post 1

Thursday, April 20, 2006 - 9:29amSanction this postReply
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William wrote:

"the mysticism of matter in the form of physical action governed entirely by chance."

 
But this IS reality.  Denying this to someone with even a basic understanding of physics is like trying to convince an Objectivist that god will strike him down if he doesn't go to church.

My basic position is that if you have a 'break' with physics, you have a break with reality, logic, and rationality.  The biggest intellectual gift that physics can give someone is when something that seems irrational and counterintuitive becomes rational and clear. Understanding of reality can take a 'quantum' leap forward.

And I'm not ever going to argue for the 'supernatural' but realize that you dismissed his argument on a semantic/definitional basis.  You essentially said that he's wrong because by definition 'supernatural' is impossible, rather than even superficially examining what he meant by the term, then criticizing.

Bob


Post 2

Thursday, April 20, 2006 - 9:34pmSanction this postReply
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"the mysticism of matter in the form of physical action governed entirely by chance."
But this IS reality. Denying this to someone with even a basic understanding of physics is like trying to convince an Objectivist that god will strike him down if he doesn't go to church.
I wouldn't say it's reality; it's an interpretation of reality owing to a lack of information about what the underlying causes actually are. Chance is not a causal explanation; it simply tells us the likelihood of a given action's occurrence. What we want from a causal explanation is an understanding of why it occurred rather than some alternative action.

For example, if I flip a coin into the air, the chances are 50/50 that it will land heads. But if it does land heads, the chances of its doing so don't tell me why it landed heads rather than tails. For that, I need a knowledge of the precise forces acting on the coin that caused it to land the way it did, which is information that I don't have. In the absence of such information, the best I can do in predicting how the coin will behave is to invoke the laws of probability. But it must be remembered that these are epistemological laws, not metaphysical ones. They refer to what we can expect, given our limited knowledge of the various factors affecting the behavior of the coin. They do not explain the coin's action in terms of its nature and of the conditions under which it acts.
My basic position is that if you have a 'break' with physics, you have a break with reality, logic, and rationality.
Provided that the physics is rational. Irrational interpretations of physics have been propounded (e.g., the Copenhagen interpretation).
The biggest intellectual gift that physics can give someone is when something that seems irrational and counterintuitive becomes rational and clear. Understanding of reality can take a 'quantum' leap forward.
True, provided that the physical theories that are advanced do in fact make it intelligible. If they do not, it is a mistake to accept the interpretation on faith.
And I'm not ever going to argue for the 'supernatural' but realize that you dismissed his argument on a semantic/definitional basis. You essentially said that he's wrong because by definition 'supernatural' is impossible, rather than even superficially examining what he meant by the term, then criticizing.
But he meant by it the same thing that you and I mean by it. The argument he cited in which the supernatural is posited as the first cause of matter is not one that he agrees with, right? It is one that he disagrees with. I was simply pointing out that the very meaning of 'supernatural' (i.e., non-natural) disqualifies it as a causal explanation. I don't think he'd disagree.

- Bill

Post 3

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 5:58amSanction this postReply
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William Wrote:

But it must be remembered that these are epistemological laws, not metaphysical ones.
 
 
I think I know what you mean by this, and if I do understand what you mean, your staement is incorrect.  Your macroscopic observations betray higher understanding of the deeper realities of matter.

They refer to what we can expect, given our limited knowledge of the various factors affecting the behavior of the coin.
No.  They more accurately describe the fundamental reality of our world.

I was simply pointing out that the very meaning of 'supernatural' (i.e., non-natural) disqualifies it as a causal explanation. I don't think he'd disagree

OK


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Post 4

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 7:14amSanction this postReply
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I have sympathy for both your viewpoints here, and find it an intriguing question. By induction from macroscopic phenomenon, we expect actions to always follow causability, to be the result of deterministic properties and forces at some lower level. Yet, at the level where QM matters, we don't have evidence of underlying properties and forces below the probabilistic behavior.

Bob Mac - What experiments and evidence would convince you that this probabilistic behavior is truly the result of underlying causality?

Bill - What experiments and evidence would convince you that this probabilistic behavior is truly primary, that there's not another layer underlying the probabilities?


Post 5

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 7:15amSanction this postReply
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Bill said:
"the mysticism of matter in the form of physical action governed entirely by chance."
Bob said:
But this IS reality.  Denying this to someone with even a basic understanding of physics is like trying to convince an Objectivist that god will strike him down if he doesn't go to church.

Well, Bob, I'm not an English major, but let's see if I get your simile.  Are you saying that if I have even a basic understanding of physics, then I will believe that "physical action governed entirely by chance" is reality?  Well, I don't believe that physical action is governed entirely by chance, even at the quantum level, so I guess I can conclude, using modus tollens, that I don't have even a basic understanding of physics. 

Well, you'll have to trust me on this (we can compare credentials, if you like), but I do have a basic understanding of physics.  So, there's a flaw in your statement.

But, I have a question for you.  What, in your opinion, is the ontological status of potential energy?
Glenn


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Post 6

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 8:31amSanction this postReply
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Aaron wrote:

Bob Mac - What experiments and evidence would convince you that this probabilistic behavior is truly the result of underlying causality?

That's a good question.  I'm not sure a single experiment/evidence would do it.  It would take, I think, a new model/theory.

Though I think the term 'probabilistic behavior' is a bit of an over-simplification.  We do not resort to probability in QM because our knowledge is weak.  Probability seems to be a fundamental element of the very small.  That would need to be disproven/discredited.

Bob


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Post 7

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 8:59amSanction this postReply
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Glenn Wrote:

Are you saying that if I have even a basic understanding of physics, then I will believe that "physical action governed entirely by chance" is reality? 

"Entirely by chance" is not what any reasonable person, especially if you've even studied high school physics, would assert.  We all know the basic Newtonian clockwork stuff works well sometimes.

Well, you'll have to trust me on this (we can compare credentials, if you like), but I do have a basic understanding of physics.  So, there's a flaw in your statement.


If you say you have a basic understanding of QM, but don't agree with it then fine (you need reasons).  But dismissing QM for a person who says they do in fact understand it is either irrational, or that person is on the cutting edge of research with an alternative model in the works.  Dismissing QM on a philosophical basis, to me, just doesn't fly.

What, in your opinion, is the ontological status of potential energy?
Not really sure what you mean.  Are you asking whether it exists or not? Or maybe how it relates to entropy?  Fundamentally, this is just energy trapped by one of many possible types of barriers.  I haven't given it much more thought than that really.

Bob

(Edited by Mr Bob Mac on 4/21, 9:01am)


Post 8

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 10:20amSanction this postReply
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Aaron asked,
Bill - What experiments and evidence would convince you that this probabilistic behavior is truly primary, that there's not another layer underlying the probabilities?
Aaron, if one believes that the quanta in question must act in accordance with the underlying statistical probabilities "governing" their behavior, as I believe Bob does, then isn't one accepting a general principle of causal necessity that applies to all existents in virtue of their respective identities? Isn't one saying that the quanta must act according to these probabilities? If so, then why wouldn't that principle of causal necessity apply with equal force to the manner in which the individual quanta behave at the most fundamental level? Conversely, if one is willing to accept that a photon or electron needn't act the same way under the same conditions, then why wouldn't one also be willing to say that it needn't act according to certain statistical probabilities? If there is no necessity in causation ontologically, then why is there any necessity in probabilistic behavior?

It is for this reason that there is no experiment or evidence that would convince me that probabilistic behavior is truly primary. If causal necessity were not an intrinsic principle of nature, then we couldn't even ascribe probabilities to naturally occurring phenomena. In this respect, the concept of probability presupposes the concept of necessity, and therefore contradicts the idea that probabilistic behavior could exist as an irreducible primary.

- Bill



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Post 9

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 11:11amSanction this postReply
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Bill:
Aaron, if one believes that the quanta in question must act in accordance with the underlying statistical probabilities "governing" their behavior, as I believe Bob does, then isn't one accepting a general principle of causal necessity that applies to all existents in virtue of their respective identities? Isn't one saying that the quanta must act according to these probabilities?

This is no a priori "must", it is an observed fact that the behavior of particles follows those statistical probabilities. If a physicist says that a particle "must" do this or that under those circumstances, he means that empirical evidence has shown that particles invariably behave in that manner, and not that there is some philosophical principle that makes such behavior necessary. Such philosophical principles are ultimately derived from empirical evidence, and it is empirical evidence that has shown that principles that work for macroscopic systems do not work for subatomic systems.

Post 10

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 12:24pmSanction this postReply
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Cal said:
Such philosophical principles are ultimately derived from empirical evidence, and it is empirical evidence that has shown that principles that work for macroscopic systems do not work for subatomic systems.
Cal: Doesn't theory play a role in here somewhere?  After all, wasn't it theorists who came up with QM?  Like Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrodinger, etc. : )  None of them did experiments to collect empirical evidence.  What do you consider the role of theory to be?
Glenn


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Post 11

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 1:27pmSanction this postReply
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And what do you think a theory is based upon?

Post 12

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 1:39pmSanction this postReply
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Bob said:
If you say you have a basic understanding of QM, but don't agree with it then fine (you need reasons).  But dismissing QM for a person who says they do in fact understand it is either irrational, or that person is on the cutting edge of research with an alternative model in the works.  Dismissing QM on a philosophical basis, to me, just doesn't fly.
Bob, A third alternative is that this person has studied alternative models that other people have come up with.  There are papers and books galore out there, written by reputable physicists and philosophers, criticizing QM.  And I could argue that if you aren't "on the cutting edge of research" then you aren't able to determine which of the alternatives is best.

But, I must reiterate (Bill has said this before also); we must distinguish between the mathematical formalism of QM, which successfully predicts the empirical evidence, and the interpretation of QM.  So, when I say that I don't agree with QM, I mean that I don't accept the Copenhagen interpretation of QM.  I don't believe that a microscopic particle has no trajectory until the wave function is collapsed by a measurement, whatever that means.  There are other interpretations which successfully predict the data which don't require the collapse of the wavefunction.

Likewise, the concept of superposition of states, where the microscopic particle is in a linear combination of different possible states, is a device that allows us to predict the probabilities of detection of these particles.  But, in reality, the particle does not exist in a superposition of states.  And there is nothing in the empirical evidence that requires it to do so.  And, there are other interpretations of QM, like Bohm's theory, that predict the empirical results but don't require particles in superpositions.

Thanks,
Glenn


Post 13

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 1:44pmSanction this postReply
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Cal:
You're answering a question with a question.  The theory is (one would hope) based on the empirical evidence.  In fact, its raison d'etre is to explain and predict the empirical evidence.  But my question to you is: how can philosophical principles be derived from empirical evidence without theory as an intermediary?
Glenn

(Edited by Glenn Fletcher on 4/21, 1:45pm)


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Post 14

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 3:13pmSanction this postReply
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But my question to you is: how can philosophical principles be derived from empirical evidence without theory as an intermediary?

I'm not saying that theory is not an intermediary between empirical evidence and philosophical principles. In post 9 I only said that those principles are ultimately derived from empirical evidence. A theory is not an arbitrary construction however, it must fit the evidence and it must also enable us to make correct predictions. That people like Bohr, Heisenberg, etc. did no experiments is not relevant, that is just a question of division of labor, just as there is a division of labor between the architect or engineer and the constructor. Their theories were definitely based on the existing experimental evidence, in fact it was that evidence that led them to the new theories, while it could not be explained by the existing theories.
(Edited by Calopteryx Splendens
on 4/21, 3:24pm)


Post 15

Friday, April 21, 2006 - 3:43pmSanction this postReply
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I wrote, "Aaron, if one believes that the quanta in question must act in accordance with the underlying statistical probabilities "governing" their behavior, as I believe Bob does, then isn't one accepting a general principle of causal necessity that applies to all existents in virtue of their respective identities? Isn't one saying that the quanta must act according to these probabilities? Cal replied,
This is no a priori "must", it is an observed fact that the behavior of particles follows those statistical probabilities. If a physicist says that a particle "must" do this or that under those circumstances, he means that empirical evidence has shown that particles invariably behave in that manner, and not that there is some philosophical principle that makes such behavior necessary. Such philosophical principles are ultimately derived from empirical evidence, and it is empirical evidence that has shown that principles that work for macroscopic systems do not work for subatomic systems.
Notice, Cal, that you are invoking "principles" here. A principle is a generalization, which however much it is based on empirical observation, extends beyond the range of what is given in immediate perception, thereby enabling us to predict what will happen in the future. The implicit premise behind such a generalization is that the same things must act the same way under the same conditions. It is the principle of necessity in causation. To say that A causes B is to say that A necessitates B; it is to say that given A, B must happen. This does not imply anything a priori, however. It is simply the law of identity applied to action. And the law of identity is implicit in perception. To be is to possess identity, and a thing's identity just is its attributes (which include its behavior). Under certain conditions, a certain entity will possess certain attributes. If, under the same conditions, it does not possess those attributes, then it is not the same thing. This is an indispensable principle of all reasoning. If I own a red Toyota, which is parked in my driveway, and next morning find a black Ferrari parked there, it is not rational for me to infer that it is the same car, albeit with different attributes. To reply that this refers to macroscopic entities is to miss the point, which is that even macroscopic principles are impossible without the underlying presupposition of causal necessity. Even something as simple as the acceleration of a free falling body (10 meters per second each second) relies on this principle, which is a prerequisite of scientific induction, and one that cannot therefore be abandoned at the quantum level.

What you appear to be defending is a kind of radical empiricism reminiscent of David Hume. If you go that route, you will have to surrender causality not only at the quantum level but at all levels of physical behavior.

- Bill


Post 16

Saturday, April 22, 2006 - 2:02amSanction this postReply
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Bill, I've no idea what your argument is, I can't make head or tail of your post.

Post 17

Saturday, April 22, 2006 - 12:26pmSanction this postReply
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Bill, I've no idea what your argument is, I can't make head or tail of your post.
Really! Well, then, I obviously need to work on my explanation, because you're a smart guy, Cal, and if you don't understand it, then others are probably having a similar problem. Does anyone else here not understand what I'm saying? Bob? Glenn?

Or, are you being facetious in light of my post on Kant's allegedly unintelligible verbiage? (I wouldn't put it past you! ;-)) But if you are serious, then perhaps you wouldn't mind pointing out some particular aspect of my post that you had difficulty with.

- Bill
(Edited by William Dwyer
on 4/22, 12:28pm)


Post 18

Sunday, April 23, 2006 - 7:35amSanction this postReply
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Cal,
I thought that what Bill said was pretty much basic Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology.
Glenn


Post 19

Sunday, April 23, 2006 - 7:54amSanction this postReply
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Irish damselfly: And what do you think a theory is based upon?
Well, yes, ultimately, there is only experience.  Ideas come from something.  Imagining the impossible is impossible.  We only know that which exists.

However, in most fields of knowledge, what we know now is not greatly different from what we knew way back when. The Greeks and Romans knew that Earth is a sphere.  They argued over whether it is the center of the universe.  Aristarchos of Samos put the sun at the center with the Earth going around it.  However, Archimedes performed close, careful experiments which proved that the Earth must be at the center, unless the universe is supposed to be impossibly large.  That is just one example. 

The Greeks (Aristotle, or one of his students, most likely) figured out the "vector" composition of forces, which lay intellectually dormant for about 2000 years.  The ancients disavowed "irrational" numbers, and "negative" numbers.  The medievals disavowed the "imaginary" square roots of negative numbers.  These things all EXIST, but they lacked THEORIES to explain them.  So, they were not well integrated into useful knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn called these major changes "paradigm shifts" in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The facts do not change.  Our understanding of them does.  Similarly, Ludwig vn Mises said that theory is more important than facts because theories explain facts, but, being a rationalist, he derived a perfectly logical theory -- praxeology -- that he claimed was "above" the mere facts.  Von Mises pointed out that the socialists and capitalists do not argue over what the price of a commodity was at some time in some place.  They have other disagreements, entirely.

David Kelley addressed the "problem of induction."  He pointed out that we really do not repeat the same experiment over and over and over, building an inductive expectation of the outcome which is refined with further experiment, etc., etc.  (That is the "fallacy of induction."   It is part of the dumbing down of science education caused by the epistemology of public education.) Typically, one event is all we need to build a theory.  We test theories, of course, and do so against, new, independent events, but, again, it does not take a long string of these, but only one, to test a theory.

It is a fallacy of our educational modalities that we expect scientists to laboriously measure and remeasure the light of stars passing near other stars and then abstract from those events a theory.  In truth, Einstein saw the essence of the problem and proposed an explanation, which was tested with a single experiment.

Alternatively, Edison, the arch-empiricist experimented endlessly, with no theoretical basis for his works -- or so we believe.  What great theories came from the Edison Labs?  For all their experimenting -- hundreds of them working daily for decades --  what did they establish as truths?

Like the cones of geometry we have two fallacies.  One says that tinkerers discover facts, which engineers generalize into inventions, which scientists explain with theories.  The reflexive fallacy is that scientists develop theories which engineers turn into practical applications which technicians maintain and improve. 


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