Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Late But Not Too Late

Laplace had said that from a complete and detailed knowledge of the universe the future could be predicted, but [Heisenberg's] uncertainty principle shows that it is impossible to have such a detailed knowledge. The whole deterministic hypothesis therefore collapses; human free will can no longer be denied.
~Keith J. Laidler The World of Physical Chemistry Oxford University Press: 1981

I believe that I knew each "piece" of that reasoning separately but never came to that simple conclusion. How could I have missed something that obvious? Or have I just forgotten it?

7 comments:

  1. How could I have missed something that obvious?

    But are the underlying arguments valid?

    When people thought they lived in a Newtonian universe they doubted free will, now that they know the world isn't entirely as predicted by Newton they have room to believe in it again. But what if there are other physical laws we don't know about, which invalidate Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? No one has tested whether free will exists via experimentation; all the reasoning used has been meta-physical.

    And think about this: under Newton people still believed in free will. They had many reasons, among them that God allowed it. What does Heisenberg's uncertainty principle say about the power of, and possible existence of, God? (If God does exist and there is the possibility of free will, perhaps he doesn't allow it.)

    Also, is "lack of predictability" what we mean by "free will"? What we consider intelligence to be is the ability to respond to what happens in the world, to notice events and thoughts, be affected by them, and act in a responsive manner. In this sense, free will is stupidity or perhaps madness; at the very least it is noise.

    It seems to me that free will is a defect, and that some things/people have more free will than others. A person who behaved with complete free will, or even a lot of it, would be worse than a mad man and couldn't survive. Someone with no free will might be a savant, or perhaps they would die the first time they tried dividing something by zero.

    With all that said, I think it speaks to El Pollo Real's intelligence that he didn't make the assumptions the person writing the chemistry book did.

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  2. Jason- I'm curious about any experiments which disprove Heisenberg's uncertainty principle-I'm not aware of any. On the other hand I was once involved with some light atom kinetic and thermodynamic experiments which were only consistent with the principle being valid so maybe I'm biased. I've read about certain "action at a distance" experiments involving particles which seem to be addressing these issues but I can't put my finger on a link just now.

    What does Heisenberg's uncertainty principle say about the power of, and possible existence of, God?

    I guess it says that like the electron, He is ubiquitous and very hard to pin down, but that's glib. I think that under Newton, scientists began to deny free will, believing in determinism. The average person at the same time may not have felt so strongly, having not been so under the influence of Newton. In a religious sense, denial will always be allowed and for the average person it wasn't denial of Newton's laws but rather God's existence. There's a bit of legerdemain going on there, equating free will and God's existence.

    Heisenberg wrecked the ability of scientists to positively determine the nature of that very small realm of the physical world. But QM predictions do pretty good job of "explaining" that realm, at least in an organization sense. I'm less enthused about the predictive power there.

    Also, is "lack of predictability" what we mean by "free will"?

    No. Most people (myself include) associate free will with freedom of choice.

    It seems to me that free will is a defect, and that some things/people have more free will than others.

    I've recently been thinking about how inequality is a feature of nature, at least at the atomic/molecular level. Inequality (i.e. chemical potentials) drive reactions. Ensembles of seemingly alike atoms and molecules (like a gas-filled vessel) have a different amounts of energy at the individual level: some with more, some with less. A Boltzmann distribution becomes "like" a Bell curve. I haven't made the leap of associating those thoughts with the real economic world.

    You flatter me with your compliment at the end. Thank you Jason.

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  3. I'm curious about any experiments which disprove Heisenberg's uncertainty principle-I'm not aware of any.

    I would assume that in Newton's time no one was aware of any experiments which disproved his principles. My point is that the tone of the chemistry book is too arrogant.

    I think that under Newton, scientists began to deny free will, believing in determinism.

    I think you are forgetting the influence of the Calvinists. Determinism is a Christian idea that goes back at least to Saint Augustine. And determinism/free will is a meta-physical concept, not really covered by scientists.

    There's a bit of legerdemain going on there, equating free will and God's existence.

    I'm not trying to, I am trying to point out that the issue has all sorts of implications people generally ignore.

    No. Most people (myself include) associate free will with freedom of choice.

    Then Heisenberg's uncertainty principle shouldn't influence your thinking about determinism/free will.

    But let's discuss "freedom of choice":

    You go to an ice cream store and are asked what flavor you would like. You think about what you would like and make an order.

    A being who had absolutely no freedom of choice could go to the store and behave in the same way, taking the time to think about what flavor should be ordered. Even a computer takes time to figure out how to respond to inputs.

    A being with complete freedom of choice would go into the store and perhaps gouge his eye out with a spoon, perhaps try eating one of the tables, or perhaps order lobster.

    I'm not saying people don't have free will, just that I don't think it needs to be given the level of significance that many people do. Also, I would rather discuss it as scalar rather than absolute.

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  4. This is a terrific discussion. The topic is largely one I can't contribute to since I'm lacking in deep understanding of some of the science referred to, but it's fascinating, none the less.

    A being with complete freedom of choice would go into the store and perhaps gouge his eye out with a spoon, perhaps try eating one of the tables, or perhaps order lobster.

    This totally cracked me up--something about the visuals (somewhat horrifying, to be honest) it provoked in my mind. Some days I think there really is something wrong with the way mind works.

    But thanks for the laugh, anyway, Jason. And thanks to both of you for the interesting discussion (which I hope is not at an end).

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  5. Saw the title and thought of Queen. Sorry I can't add anything better to the convo. I majored in philosophy. My dad told me, "That's so you'll understand why you're unemployed."

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  6. Jason:

    I don’t think Laidler’s tone was arrogant. Too brief perhaps and some context is missing. The quote came from the end of a chapter in which he had just finished summarizing the history of physical chemistry beginning with the Greeks. There’s a lot of history even between between Laplace and Heisenberg.

    Anyway to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s what I read into it:

    Laplace had said that from a complete and detailed knowledge of the universe the future could be predicted,

    Not just Laplace and Newton, but also Planck, Einstein, Bohr, and Schroedinger. They all provided theoretical support for how to describe and understand atoms and subatomic particles. They even had to jettison a lot of classical mechanics along the way but none of them realized that there were actual physical limits to what could measured, at that level.

    but [Heisenberg's] uncertainty principle shows that it is impossible to have such a detailed knowledge.

    Well that’s exactly what he did.

    The whole deterministic hypothesis therefore collapses;

    If thoughts are predicted on neurons and ultimately atoms and electrons, we won’t be able to fully understand the mechanics behind it like the big clockwork universe which was so readily observable and testable.

    human free will can no longer be denied.

    Note that he doesn’t say “human free will is proven” That would be foolish. Science isn’t about proving things; science is about disproving hypotheses and those that survive become enduring theory. He’s just saying that it can’t be disproven.

    I’ve always liked discussions of free will. I really like the “Grand Inquisitor” part of “The Brothers Karamozov.

    All these familiar names and faces is cool. (Hi reader, hi Ruth Anne!) The last time I had a blog comment conversation about free will was with an "anonymous" on Victoria's blog which felt a bit like talking to an oracle or something. link.

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  7. Trying that Sundries link again: link

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