Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Don't Fundamentalists Hate Quantum Mechanics?

I ran across this discussion thread on Amazon today, and I think it's an interesting question. Stepping back from the current evolution debate to put it in historical perspective is very useful, and probably a better context to understand the rhetorical goals of fundamentalists in this debate.

Scientific theories are all bound to eventually run afoul of theists' sensibilities, just because science cuts at the root of arguments from authority (of which religions are a particularly pernicious and virulent species): that each of us, individually, can apprehend the workings of the universe through the application of reason. What we'll see is a repeated cycle of ignorance, denial, and furtive acceptance. I think QM in terms of provoking fundamentalists' ire is about where evolutionary theory was in the aughts or the teens of the last century. My guess is that there has not been a fundamentalist backlash against QM as yet just because the meat of QM is more difficult for the public to understand than evolution; also because giving a new account of creation as evolution does more concretely slaps the face of the religious narrative than does QM. But once there is a better public understanding of the theory in countries with large religious populations, and QM ideas start seeping further into the zeitgeist - that is, beyond science fiction and cocktail party chatter - I suspect you'll hear the exact same bizarre non-sequitur claims that fundamentalists use against evolution (that the theory, if promulgated, will cause moral decay, homosexuality, and crime). My evidence? Remember that there wasn't a court case against evolution in the United States until ~60 years after publication of OotS.

In the end QM will follow the same cycle as earlier theories:

Phase 1 - The period when the new theory is too abstruse and outside public understanding for fundamentalists to be threatened by. Current example, QM - soon to move into Phase 2; I also think that neuroscience is going to move into this slot soon. Because it's a discipline that directly impacts morality and day-to-day human experience I expect it to advance quickly into Phase 2 below, maybe even overtaking QM. There are signs that theists are already onto this.

Phase 2 - The period when it becomes a Dangerous Idea, and is deemed a horrible threat to decency. Current example, evolution. Note that the more that a science (or any way of thinking about the world) can impact understanding of one's self or day-to-day life, the more corrosive it is to religion and the more theists are threatened by it.

Phase 3 - The period when the theory is dug in and established and becomes an economically essential fact of daily life. Consequently fundamentalists and institutions sweep awkwardly under the rug any reference to their (now universally bizarre-seeming) involvement in the suppression of these ideas. This revisionism (and rhetorical fancy footwork to incorporate the theory into scripture) is necessary, lest people connect the dots and realize the other current campaigns are similarly stupid. Current example, talk to Catholics about Galileo and Copernicus and watch them shuffle their feet. Immunizations were also strongly resisted by religious authorities in Europe, and infuriatingly, still today in the U.S.


Philippe said...

Any modern Catholic can easily dismiss the church's past abuse of science, in the same way that we dismiss our country's abuse of native Americans. I had nothing to do with our forefathers slaughtering natives, and their church has nothing to do with the old less-informed church that used to impede rational science. Therefore, the fact that the church was wrong about heliocentrism has no bearing on the current evolution debate.

Michael Caton said...

It's true that modern Catholics and modern Americans share no responsibility for past acts of people in the same group, there's a big difference here. Where a secular country like the U.S. is concerned, there's no problem with a citizen of that country pointing to past or current errors, since citizens of such countries claim only that their country is based on some good ideas but at bottom is a fallible association of human beings that can make mistakes. The admission of errors is a much bigger problem for organizations that claim they are the representative of the Supreme Being of the Universe here on Earth, and that they have special knowledge and special authority. Either there's connected to the Supreme Being, or they're not. If they're connected to the Supreme Being, why all this persecution of people who have figured things out on their own that turn out (even by the church's later admission) to be true? Once heliocentrism or anything else is just a fact of daily life, that's when the revision and back-pedaling starts. It's both a PR disaster
The Catholic Church is just the longest-lived and highest-profile religious organization in the West so they provide the classic examples, but a century or two from now I can imagine mainstream Baptists in the U.S. finding ways to argue that grandpa wasn't REALLY a creationist. Same with the more developed countries in the Middle East.

But I'm not so worried about the Church's position on evolution, since a) they've already said that's a-okay with them, and b) their lies about HIV are by far the most worrisome reality-distortion they've done.

Robert said...

What to do with the theists that are physicists who DO understand quantum mechanics? I have met a number of them, and at least one Nobel Laureate (physicist). You couldn't argue that they don't understand QM nor that they were substandard physicists, and therefore don't understand QM. If there were inherent philosophical conflicts between QM and theology, wouldn't it grate at that person intellectually? Wouldn't they be smart enough to realize it?

I would argue that perhaps there isn't a conflict between the two.

Why did Einstein assume "God doesn't play dice?" I can play a game of Battleship with the full capability to peek over the board and look at the pieces (where as before hand it is all statistical). Why don't I? It takes away the purpose of the game.

The only difference between an apparent paradox and a contradiction is that an extra degree of freedom is not yet realized by the befuddled.

Michael Caton said...

It's true that you can find quantum physicists who are theists, just as you can find plenty of evolutionists who are theists (the minority of scientists theists, but the majority of evolution believers including lay people are theists). Just as with evolution, only one of the four combinations of do/don't accept QM + do/don't believe in gods is correct, and yet you can plenty of intelligent people who take any of the four positions. There's also the question of consistency, and seemingly contradictory ideas can coexist in the same brain, but it takes more work. Since there are fewer quantum physicists who don't believe in gods than do, I think the money's on quantum physics seeming incompatible with theism (without even arguing whether that is in fact the true position, just an internally consistent one).

Anonymous said...

QM provide's room in the empirical world for spiritual reality and free will. Isn't determinism as obsolete as classical mechanics.

Michael Caton said...

To your second question: classical mechanics isn't obsolete, it's just supplemented. It's still pretty useful when you're trying to figure out the behavior of macroscale objects and that doesn't look like it'll change any time soon. (F=ma works just fine for deciding not to get hit by a car or jump off a cliff.) The non-determinism aspect of QM is definitely important but it doesn't change that in many respects the world is a predictable place.

As to your first question, depends what you mean by "spirituality". If you mean questions of consciousness and ineffable human experiences that have been completely taken over by religion, then yes they're real, and they're important, and it's even more important that we "take them back" and re-root them in empirical, material terms so we can explore them better. But I haven't seen much that satisfactorily explains aspects of human experience using QM. QM doesn't give us an obvious out in the free will question - yes, it sure *seems* like we have free will, and (completely separate from that) many of us would *like* the answer to be that we do, but I've never seen an argument for how QM-mediated free will could be anything but randomness. I don't know which I would find less pleasing, that the future is already set or that what appears to be my free will is just random noise (and human behavior is in fact very predictable in many ways). The argument most people point to linking QM and consciousness is the microtubule argument from Penrose and Hameroff but the argument there is really that there is a physics "middle realm" between the macroscale and the quantum (not what most people mean by QM itself) that will help us explain the behavior of volitional entities like ourselves.