Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Weekend At Bernies 2: Electron Boogaloo (1 of 5)

I am posting this long article in five daily installments.

In my last post, Faithful Readers and True Believers, we met ontological Materialism - a philosophical worldview that was looking very much like Bernie Lomax. Bernie looks good. He’s old, but he seems healthy and fit. He’s hanging out with his young friends, laying out on the beach, speed boating, water-skiing, haggling over the price of a Porsche, strangling his mob business associate, fornicating - he seems fine. If you pass by and wave, he seems to wave back at you. He’s not saying much, but his friends Larry and Richard are saving him the trouble. When you lean in close and listen, you can hear them. John Searle (played by Andrew McCarthy), says “ can accept the obvious facts of physics -- for example, that the world is made up entirely of physical particles in fields of force…” [The Rediscovery of the Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 28, bold emphasis mine]. Robert McHenry, former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, speaking of the materialist philosophical worldview, says to Bernie: you, sir, are “a default position for any rational being who has not been favored with a direct revelation of the divine." In agreement, McCarthy, now playing Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, says that anyone for whom the “scientific discovery” that the mind is nothing more than the purely physiological activity of the brain is a matter of doubt “cannot be said to be educated.”
In other words, Materialism is fine. Stronger than ever. Healthy as a horse. All that exists are the very teeny tiny little billiard balls click-clacking against each other against a background of Nothing. Sure, some collections of such particles are more evolved than others, but that just makes them more complicated, not more important. Ultimately, there is no difference between human beings and other animals, or any other living thing - indeed, there is no fundamental difference between living things and non-living objects. People are no better than grains of sand, and, with the huge scale of the universe, they are hardly even significantly different in size. Consciousness reduces (or will be reduced) to neuroscience, which is merely a branch of biology, which reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics - the meaningless dance of those tiny little bits. That’s all. There is no soul, and we need have no doubt about that. It’s scientifically established. No free will, no afterlife - we are biological robots who scurry about fulfilling our genetically and environmentally encoded programs, and then when we die, that’s it. No God, no Devil, no judgment, no hope of salvation, no danger of damnation. No heaven, no hell. No angels, no demons. No Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy either.

Bernie looks like he can keep on going and going like the Energizer bunny for another hundred years, No Problem.

But then I let you all in on the secret that those closest to Bernie already know: HE’S DEAD.

I even told you who killed him - the giants of early 20th century Physics - Einstein and the other pioneers of quantum theory.

I am going to explain how they did that, but first, I am going to pull a Quentin Tarantino on you and flash back to something that happened in the past. The fairly distant past, actually. You see, Bernie is older than he looks. It’s common for people to assume that Materialism is, as Pinker put it, a “scientific discovery”, and thus a product of modern times - a relatively recent insight into the real truth of things, proven by experimentation. But it is not. Materialism was not arrived at by any experimental result or scientific proof. It was not the conclusion of any recent argument. It is an assumption that is already in operation in those who believe it before they even begin to look at the evidence, and it is held in such a way that no evidence could ever overturn it - they will reject the data before they doubt the theory. It is a fundamental premise, and as such, it has been around for as long as there have been thinking people, always right alongside its opposite - the more spiritual theistic view of things. The ancient Greeks had their materialists. They were the first “atomists” - indeed, we get the word “a-tom” (un-cuttable) from them. Leucippus and his pupil Democritus we among the earliest we have on record. They believed that the whole of reality is a mixture of atoms (the very smallest bits of things, the ones that cannot be cut into smaller bits anymore), and the void.

A thinker less known for his Atomistic Materialism, because of the weird and wishy-washy way he held to it, is Epicurus.

Epicurus is more known nowadays for his advocacy of a not-obviously unreasonable form of selfish hedonism. Epicurus promoted the quiet, more lasting, more stable, and ultimately more fulfilling pleasures of the intellectual sort to those of the flesh, since the former satisfied desires while the latter ultimately excites them and makes them more persistent, more intense.

But Epicurus also introduced a notion that should really be getting a lot more play than it has been getting lately - that of the clinamen, or atomic “swerve”. He argued that, on the level of the smallest bits of physical stuff, the tiniest particles move around partly in ways determined by their collisions, and partly with an apparent randomness. He argued for this on two grounds, one of which doesn’t have any relevance here (the idea that the atoms would all be eternally moving in the same direction on parallel tracks, all falling separately, if some didn’t randomly swerve sideways into each other to produce the collisons and fusions that produce everything we see in the world including ourselves), but the other one, which even Epicurus deemed more important, was that there must be random behavior on the level of micro particles or determinism would be true and thus we would have no freedom. But we are free, Epicurus affirmed. We have free will. Therefore all the motions of the smallest bits cannot be fully determined by the prior states of the particles (their position and prior momentum).
We don’t have much of what Epicurus wrote himself, but we have Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), so we know where Epicurus stood. He posted his tweet on the ancient world’s version of the Internet (the scroll, the university and the public lecture), and that meme got around. When it reached Cicero (centuries later - much slower than dial-up, let alone DSL), the latter had to respond.

“What new cause, then, is there in nature which would make the atom swerve? Or surely you don't mean that they draw lots with each other to see which ones will swerve and which not/ Or why do they swerve by one minimal interval, and not by two or three? This is wishful thinking, not argument.” (De Fato [“On Fate”], 46).
Flash forward to a parallel debate between two of Materialism’s executioners, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Einstein was arguing against the new quantum theory, asserting that it is incomplete. Because quantum phenomena have an irreducibly random element to even the most complete account of what occurs on that level, it cannot provide a complete causal explanation for anything that happens on the subatomic level. All it can provide is statistics, probabilities. For Einstein, that meant that there was something missing, something that would fill in the causal gaps and provide the theoretical ground for an explanation of all particle actions and interactions on the quantum level. “God,” he is famously rumored to have said, “does not play dice with the universe.” Cicero used lots in his scornful illustration. Einstein used dice. Both were objecting to the idea that at the level of the smallest bits of things some events happen apparently at random with no knowable physical explanation. Niels Bohr retorted, “Einstein, stop telling God what He can't do!”

The debate is over. Bohr won. Epicurus was right. Cicero and Einstein were wrong. The success of quantum theory vindicates the clinamen, the Epicurean swerve, and that success has been without parallel in the history of science. What’s more, there is no doubt that, when it comes to physics, quantum mechanics has the final word. There is no room for anything more ultimate. There is certainly room for a theoretical bridge between quantum theory and Einsteinian relativity at great distances, or even between the seemingly causeless weirdness on the quantum level and the undeniable ubiquity of causality at the level of ordinary sized objects. But there will never be a new discovery of physics that closes the causal gaps at the quantum level and thus revives the determinism of Laplace mentioned in the last blog post. It is impossible to determine, with absolute precision, both the location and momentum of any single subatomic particle, let alone all of them. That is Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, one of the most important laws in quantum physics. This inviolable limit is not merely epistemological. It is not merely a consequence of the largeness and clumsiness of our scientific instruments compared to the objects they help us to observe and measure. The limit is ontological - it is part of the nature of the phenomena itself.

Now I am going to tell you about what I am calling, in this blog post, the new, weird, mystical dance of matter on the level of its smallest parts: the Electron Boogaloo.

The phrase “Electron Boogaloo” is the name I am using in this blog post to refer to the crazy dance that massless particles like photons and electrons do whenever they exhibit the characteristics of waves. It was first discovered with photons, individual particles of that form of electromagnetic energy we call light. All visible light is said to have these photons. Our eyes are sensitive enough, when adapted to total darkness, to detect a single photon hitting the iris of one of our eyes. But it was later discovered that light is not the only electromagnetic energy with wave-particle duality. Just as it was surprising that light, which we already knew traveled in waves, had a particle-aspect, so we would also be surprised later still that electrons move in waves like light under certain circumstances - even individual electrons. I call the quantum dance the Electron Boogaloo because we have electrons in every atom in our bodies. Thus every electron in every atom is doing this crazy dance.

This posting is already dragging, so I will give the details of the dance in tomorrow's installment.