Monday, August 22, 2011

Where are all the dead scientific theories?

Why does it sometimes seem like arguing with New Atheists is like shooting fish in a barrell? Here is biologist Jerry Coyne, fresh from getting schooled by philosopher Ed Feser, on what he seems to think is a really cogent argument against Christianity in his article titled, "Where are all the dead gods?":
In a very famous essay, “Graveyard of the gods,” H. L. Mencken made a huge list of deities that are no longer worshiped, including Osiris, Diana, Cronos, Elim, Astarte, Huitzilopochtli, and so on. It’s a very short piece and well worth reading since it’s often cited. Mencken was an atheist, so his point was obvious:
All these were gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute. . . ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion; you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity—gods of  civilized peoples—worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal.
And all are dead.
This is a problem for theologians, for what if this graveyard is to be the fate of Jesus, Yahweh, and Allah?  And of course, the existence of thousands of different deities in currently active religions is also a problem—that is, if you’re one of those modern and “sophisticated” theologians unwilling to claim that your god and religion are right and everyone else’s is wrong.

Okay, now let's just replace the deities mention by Coyne here with failed scientific theories of the past and see what happens:
In a very famous essay, “Cemetery of the Scientists,” T. Z. Tinkleheimer made a huge list of scientific theories that are no longer believed in, including alchemy, astrology, spontaneous generation, Lamarckism, phrenology, Ptolemaic astronomy, the Luminiferous aether theory, physiognomy, numerology, and so on. It’s a very short piece and well worth reading since it’s often cited. Tinkleheimer was skeptical of science, so his point was obvious:
All these were theories of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in older scientific treatises. They ranked, many years ago, with Darwinism Itself; the worst of them stood far higher than Newtonian gravity. Yet they have all gone down the chute. . . ask your friendly neighborhood science professor to lend you any good book on the history of science; you will find them all listed. They were theories of the highest dignity—theories of  civilized peoples—taught and believed in by millions. All were held to be definitive, explanatory of the data, and unquestionably legitimate.
And all are dead.
This is a problem for sceintists, for what if this graveyard is to be the fate of evolution, the big bang, and quantum theory?  And of course, the existence of thousands of different scientific beliefs in currently active theories is also a problem—that is, if you’re one of those modern and “sophisticated” scientists unwilling to claim that your scientific hero and his theory are right and everyone else’s is wrong.
See what I mean? The lack of philosophical sophistication of people like Coyne is witnessed not just by the fact that they use stupid arguments like this, but that they don't seem to realize just how stupid they are.

29 comments:

Singring said...

Martin, the difference between dead scientific theories and dead Gods is a very basic one - so I'm not surprised you didn't realize it. In fact, Jerry Coyne explicitly makes this point in his blog post, but you once again just see no need to honestly quote those you disagree with:

Coyne:

'In other words, religion is like a thermostat that never gets the temperature right. Isn’t it convenient, once again, that what we see is precisely what we expect? And what exactly is the “negative feedback” we get from the Inexhaustible Depths that tells us that the Abrahamic gods are better than the Greek ones?'

The problem that Coyne (and many other before you - you must know this) puts forward is this:

Scientific theories are discarded when they are replaced by other scientific theories that better explain the observed evidence. For example, the Theory of special Creation was discarded for the superior Theory of Evolution - because the evidence favoured the latter. I can give you a blow-by-blow account of which experiments and what hard, emprirical data made one scientific theory displace another in every instance.

With Gods, it is entirely different. Or can you give me the philosophical debate that conclusively showed Baal was a figment of the imagination and that Yahweh was the real deal? As I recall, it wasn't an argument, it was a genocide that ended that particular argument.

Since all Gods are claimed to be metaphysical/supernatural - there is no reason at all to relegate Thor or Vishnu or Baal to the cemetery of forgotten ideas based on their truth claims - the idea that a man with a giant hammer who has some sort of superpowers is causing thunder is no more infantile and conflicting with the evidence than the idea that a dead man rose from his grave and passed through solid walls, then zoomed off into space where he is still hanging around somewhere, waiting to make is grand comeback tour.

So the fact that so many Gods have been forgotten and are now dead is indeed a problem for currently surviving religions - because it illustrates the fundamental difference between science and religion:

Scientific theories are discarded when the evidence demands it, but religions simply come and go with demographics and pupolar demand. If it had been the Viking empire instead of the Roman Enpire, most of us would think we'd be going to Valhal, not heaven.

Both are equally nonsensical ideas, but as long as they are both supernatural claims, who's to say which is better?

In fact, I'd like to ask you, since you so boldly claim to be 'philosophically sophisticated'.

What is your argument or evidence that Valhal is less likely to exist than Heaven?

Anonymous said...

The gnu-atheists "inexhaustible mines of lol stupidity."

I was listening to Duane Berquist on the three beginnings of knowledge.

#1 As Einstein said; hypothesis is free play of the imagination which requires experiment to confirm its conclusion. And therefore the principles contained in the hypothesis. But the knowledge is never of the absolute logical kind.

#2 Syllogistic knowledge; a whole is greater than its parts; something cannot both be and not-be at the same time. The build up of axioms leads to knowledge that the truth forces on the mind by necessity. Aristotle criticised the Pythagoreans for looking for the same kind of principles as they had in geometry – Aristotle reminded them they were doing experimental science. The principles justified the conclusion in geometry, but the direction in experimental science is the testing of the hypothetical princples by their conclusion.


#3 Revealed Theology: the will gives assent to the Word of God (does not mean there aren't internal and external evidences) which is why belief is meritorious (it's truth is not forced upon the mind, God doesn't coerce) Revealed theology gives us real knowledge of God. But in philosophy alone the Greeks got an enormous distance – they got to 'the unmoved mover'.

-Martin Snigg

Singring said...

'The build up of axioms leads to knowledge that the truth forces on the mind by necessity.'

Not if you don't regard the axioms as objectively true and universally applicable.

I'd suggest you at least catch up with current knowledge before calling others stupid: on the quantum scale, some of the axioms of classical logic do not apply. For example, particles can exist in two distinct places in space at one time. It can spontaneously (i.e. without apparent cause) pop in and out of existence. That can be empirically verified.

Arguing from a 13th century state of knowledge is not exactly the way to make yourself look not stupid, if you know what I mean.

Majid Ali said...

Please help me for Christ sake

Andrew said...

Singring,

You are close, but not quite right, about Quantum theory. The current state of explanation is that we need a model that allows for a particle to appear to exist in two different spaces at the same time. That doesn't tell us that logic is no longer valid, but that we don't have a model to reconcile the other models that we use to save the phenomena.

I'd be cautious about using modern physics with too much confidence as a foundation for philosophy. It seems to me, at least, that physics has brought us to an impasse that will require a long time and some brilliant thinking to resolve it.

Glib applications of the uncertainty it has brought us to in the realm of particulate matter doesn't seem sound to me.

Singring said...

'That doesn't tell us that logic is no longer valid, but that we don't have a model to reconcile the other models that we use to save the phenomena.'

I never said it tells us that logic is no longer valid at all scales - but it certainly tells us thta logic is no longer valid at the quantum scale.

You make a good point: Maybe current models on the quantum level are wrong. If physicists can't come up with evidence for the Higgs boson or an source of dark matter, then QT might be in big trouble.

But at this point QT is the very best explanation we have for the data and it strikes me as rather unjustified to dimsiss it just because it puts a big, round hole in one of the ways you try to 'prove' God.

'It seems to me, at least, that physics has brought us to an impasse that will require a long time and some brilliant thinking to resolve it. '

I wouldn't call it an impasse - but I agree, there are still many questions to be answerd.

However, as long as real, physical, hard, empirical data shows us that at some levels, classical logic breaks down, it is very imprudent to rely on logic to explain the origin of the universe - which itself originated in a quantum level event, to the best of our current knowledge.

Wouldn't you agree?

'Glib applications of the uncertainty it has brought us to in the realm of particulate matter doesn't seem sound to me.'

There is empirical evidence that atoms show wave/particle duality. How is it a 'glib application' of QT to simply derive from such empirical evidence the simple conclusion that - to the best of our current knowledge - 'proofs' of God or anything derived purely from classical logic (e.g. first cause arguments etc.) are inherently suspect, irrespective of the often dubious secondary premises that are involved.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

on the quantum scale, some of the axioms of classical logic do not apply.

Please clue is in on which axioms of logic do not apply on the quantum scale and explain why.

Andrew said...

Martin,

I think I can answer that because I don't think it's a hard one. But Singring, if I get this wrong, please correct me.

Light/energy cannot be both wave and particle. Yet the models used to understand are wave and particle. There is a contradiction here that must be sustained for us to do physics.

Maybe more clearly, Singring's point about an object being in two spaces at the same time defies logic.

I'd like those explained better than I've done, but I think Singring is right on this. Logical consistency breaks down in our models of the subatomic world.

It's the law of non-contradiction.

Did I get that right, Singring?

Andrew said...

Singring,

I would never try to "prove" the existence of God. A provable God would be the God of the Deist or of a pagan. The Judeo-Christian God cannot be proven.

Singring said...

'Please clue is in on which axioms of logic do not apply on the quantum scale and explain why.'

I thought an author on books of logic would be able to figure this out for himself.

But here you go:

Empirically verified predictions of quantum theory violate Aristrotle's law of the excluded middle:

In quantum theory, Heisenberg uncertainty means it is pefectly valid to say that a particle is both in location A and not in location A at the same time and this can be empirically verified.

Let me quote on this a book I am quite certain you own because I believe you quoted from it some time ago. From 'Quantum Theory: A very short introduction.' by John Polkinghorne (p.37-38).

'Classical logic, as conceived of by Aristotle [...] is based on the distributive law of logic. If I tell you that Bill has red hair and he is either at home or in the pub, you will expect either to find a red-haired Bill at home or a red-haired Bill at the pub. It seems a pretty harmless conclusion to draw, and formally it depends on the Aristotelian law of the excluded middle: there is no middle term between 'at home' or 'not at home'. In the 1930s, people began to realize that matters were different in the quantum world. An electron can not only be 'here' and 'not here', but also in any number of other states that are auperpositions of 'here' and 'not here'. That constitutes a middle term undreamed of by Aristotle.'

In fairness, Polkinghorne points out that philosophers have conidered this possibility as well - but that just makes matters worse, because it illustrates that axioms can be any which way you like them to be.

That in and of itself makes them suspect to some degree, but matters only get worse when the axioms chosen by St. Aquinas, for example, turn out to disagree with the very kind of events we see on the scale that intimiately relates to the origin of our universe.

Singring said...

'I would never try to "prove" the existence of God. A provable God would be the God of the Deist or of a pagan. The Judeo-Christian God cannot be proven.'

I'm glad we agree on this fundamental issue. It appears we have more in common than I initially thought.

Singring said...

Andrew,

yes, as you see from my reply, I basically agree with the problems you have laid out for classical logic and QT. Just one point:

'Light/energy cannot be both wave and particle. Yet the models used to understand are wave and particle. There is a contradiction here that must be sustained for us to do physics.'

This is a bit of a contentious one, because what we think of as 'particles' or 'waves' is dependent on earlier definitions of the terms, i.e. what Newton used to think of as a particle or a wave. So it doesn't necessarily contradict the law of non-contradiction. If we simply choose a new term for what a photon is (i.e., not a wave or a particle, but simply X that has the properties of a photon and a particle), then that issue is not a problem in terms of logic anymore. I'm still a bit ambivalent about it, but I think this is where the limitations of language become apparent.

In any case, I have been cautioned by a physicist against oversimplifying this particular conflict between QT and logic, so I don't use that example.

But, like I say, there definitely is a conflict between the law of the excluded middle and some aspects of QT.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Quantum theory says that a particle is both in location A and not in location A at the same time.

To say that a particle is both in location A and not in location A at the same time is to violate the Law of Excluded Middle.

Therefore Quantum theory violates the Law of Excluded Middle.

Is this your argument?

Singring said...

'Is this your argument?'

Indeed it is. But not just mine. Polkinghorne agrees and so do Birkhoff and von Neumann who first proposed an alternative 'quantum logic'.

Now, before you trip over yourself galumphing that I used a logical argument to highlight a problem with logic, please remember that that does not solve your problem. If you think the argument as you constructed it is false (even though it conforms with classical logic), you are saying that there is something wrong with the laws of logic.

You're free to decide for yourself where the problem with logic lies. But there is a problem.

All I say is that I find it extremely unconvincing to construct arguments or 'proofs' for God on such a somewhat shaky basis, particularly on matters relating to the origin of the universe.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Don't get so nervous. Of course I don't think the argument is "false," since arguments can't be false, they can only be valid or invalid (as we have discussed before, although you keep making the same mistake).

I think your second premise is problematic, since you talk about particles, which, in quantum mechanics, can sometimes be particles and sometimes be waves. In fact, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, particles are only particles when they are observed to be particles.

And, of course, this gets us back to the problem that particles are mathematical constructs in quantum theory and may or may not have physical reality as we think of it.

But let's just assume for the sake of argument that particles are bits of matter as we traditionally conceive of them.

Does your argument assume the Law of Excluded Middle?

Singring said...

'Don't get so nervous.'

I'm not nervous. I'm just tired of arguments that take us away from the issue at hand. So I'm quite grateful you adress the issue head-on.

Unfortunately, the question of whether a particle is a wave or a particle or really just a mathematical construct is a red herring.

Maybe you are prepared to believe that things that have real, physical effects are not things that exist in reality in order to maintain your view of reality. Fine. But don't expect me to take that view any more seriously than that of someone who says that the car he is sitting in is not real, that its just a mathematical construct. After all, given enough time and computing power, one could easily come up with a mathematical construct that describes the entire car on the basis of the particles it consists of - which, according to you, would somehow deprive the car of its reality.

Which brings me to your final question:

'Does your argument assume the Law of Excluded Middle?'

Of course it does. But if you accept the premises (as you seem to do at least for the sake of argument), then that means the conclusion of the argument is valid and that QT is in conflict with traditional logic.

If you accept the premises but reject the conclusion, then you are admitting that traditional logic fails in this instance, maybe because there is an excluded middle term that it does not consider.

In either case, there seem to be situations in which traditional logic - the kind that Aquinas used to come up with his proofs for god - do not apply.

It's a bit of a Catch 22 - but maybe you have a way of reconciling it?

Anonymous said...

I'm going to go with a father of quantum theory - Heisenberg. In his Gifford Lectures " Quantum theory introduced a quantitative version of POTENCY that Aristotle introduced."

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

You are arguing that because we have a scientific finding from a theory whose standard interpretation claims it does not necessarily tell us of the actual makeup of reality that violates a fundamental assumption of logic (not just "classical" logic, as you keep saying, but modern logic as well), we are somehow obligated to abandon the fundamental assumption of logic. Why shouldn't we rather question the apparent implications of the finding?

Your history of stating the beliefs of quantum theory on this blog is not exactly impressive. This is a theory the inventors of which have stated clearly that they do not purport by their theory to tell us how the world really is, and that they are merely providing a mathematical construct by which we can make predictions about the world--in addition to the fact that we can say nothing about the objects we observe when we are not observing them. Now you are taking one of these constructs (particles), pointing to an experiment which appears to show that the "particle" (whatever that actually is outside the mathematical construct--and when it is not a wave according to theory--and wherever it is when we are not observing it) appears to be in two different places at once and arguing that it disproves axioms of logic it seems to violate--and coming to that conclusion on the basis of the very axioms you claim the experiment undermines.

Why am I finding this rather hard to accept?

Singring said...

'You are arguing that because we have a scientific finding from a theory whose standard interpretation claims it does not necessarily tell us of the actual makeup of reality...'

Martin, no scientific theory or model necessarily tells us of the actual makeup of reality. They are all just approximations to the best available evidence.

However, despite your stubborn insistence that this is not so, particles - whether you want to equate them to mere mathematical concepts or not - have real, measurable, physical effects, just like a rhino careening into a wall has real, measurable physical effects.

...'a fundamental assumption of logic (not just "classical" logic, as you keep saying, but modern logic as well),...'

I am aware that modern logic is also contradicted by QT, but I am restricting my comments to classical logic (or traditional logic), because that is what you and Ed Feser and others champion as being able to offer proof for God. Aquinas did not use modern logic, he relied on Aristotle's logic.

'Your history of stating the beliefs of quantum theory on this blog is not exactly impressive. '

You mean as opposed to your statements that atoms have no physical reality? I see.

'This is a theory the inventors of which have stated clearly that they do not purport by their theory to tell us how the world really is, and that they are merely providing a mathematical construct by which we can make predictions about the world...'

This can be said of any scientific theory. It probably can be said moreso of QT because it inherently deals with probability - but the uncertainty principle for example extands to all spatial scales - not only the quantum level - it is just that we can't detect it at the macroscopic level. It is you who needs to think through the implications of QT properly.

'...in addition to the fact that we can say nothing about the objects we observe when we are not observing them.'

Of course we can say something about them - it is just that we are dealing in probabilities rather than certainties. That may be disquieting to an adherent of logic, but that's just tough luck, isn't it? It doesn't mean we can just ignore the very fact that we are dealing with probabilities and hence the conflict with logic.

'...and coming to that conclusion on the basis of the very axioms you claim the experiment undermines.'

So then you agree with me that the axioms of logic don't apply in some situations?

Then I guess this discussion is settled.

'Why am I finding this rather hard to accept?'

Because you are dogmatically committed to a rational universe where everything - and I mean everything - has to conform to statements made by Aristotle's logic.

If you look to physicists, you will find that very few - if any - of them still believe this way, becaus they rather follow the evidence in their opinions, rather than subscribing to a dogma and then of course finding the contrary evidence 'hard to accept'.

Andrew said...

I wish you guys would stop talking past each other so I could follow the argument better.

Both of you need to stop trying to one up the other, if only for my sake.

Martin Cothran said...

Andrew,

Gosh. And I so was trying to impress you.

I'm not sure why you think we're arguing past each other here. I think we have some rather particular disagreements. And, of course, my main objective is to prevent Singring from following through on one of his frequent irrational spells.

The routine involves Singring declaring that some aspect of traditional logic or metaphysics is mistaken on the basis of some misinterpretation of science, and me trying to talk him down.

In the present case, he is under the impression that quantum physics consists of an attempt to give us an objective description of microscopic reality, and it has caused him, once again, to come to some rather queer conclusions--in this case, that there is something wrong with a fundamental axiom of logic.

This is not the first time he has misinterpreted this theory on the basis of his scientifically outmoded Newtonianism.

In reality quantum physics is nothing of the sort. "The concept that quantum mechanics does not yield an objective description of microscopic reality but deals only with probabilities, and that measurement plays an ineradicable role, is the most significant characteristic of the Copenhagen interpretation." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_interpretation)

The Copenhagen interpretation is the original and still dominant interpretation of quantum physics and Niels Bohr, the inventor of the theory and the primary exponent of the Copenhagen interpretation not only said flatly many times that the theory does not have an objective description of reality as its purpose (nor does it yield it as a result), but that that's not even the purpose of physics in general. "It is wrong," he said, "to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is."

"Einstein's ideal of having an objective description of microscopic physical reality," he said, is unattainable. This means, of course, that to definitively say that a particle can objectively be in two different places at once is not only mistaken, but impossible.

But Singring just goes on his merry way naively asserting the exact opposite (when he isn't lecturing other people on this blog about being scientifically naive)--which, I suppose, should not surprise us for a person who doesn't believe in the Law of Excluded Middle.

Singring said...

Sorry, Andrew. I can only speak for myslef, but I do get carried away quite often. The current discussion is a bit of sidetrack anyway.

If I could suggest a pretty concise and eloquent primer on some of the issue regarding the current state of physics and the origin of the universe, I would direct you to this talk by physicist Lawrence Krauss:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ImvlS8PLIo

He is rather flippant and sarcastic, but he gives a very good summary of why we have no need for a God when explaining the origin of the universe.

I'm sure Martin can provide you with a similarly representative of his side of the argument. Check out the infor and see what you make of it.

Singring said...

Let me adress some of the latest allegations Martin has made:

'But Singring just goes on his merry way naively asserting the exact opposite (when he isn't lecturing other people on this blog about being scientifically naive)--which, I suppose, should not surprise us for a person who doesn't believe in the Law of Excluded Middle.'

See, this is why you should take everything Martin says with a large degree of scepticism.

First, he selectively quotes his sources. For example, you should note that he deliberately confuses the idea that QT gives an exact, descriptive and unambiguous picture of quantum events with the idea that those events have no physical reality at all. Why does he do this? To cloud the argument and misrepresent what I say.

You can easily check this for yourself by reading my earlier posts, in which I clearly state that I consider all scientific theories to be mere approximations of objective reality derived from our best empirical knowledge.

To highlight this even more, I can quote a section from Polkinghorne's distillation of current QT 'Quantum Physics: A very short introduction' in which he very directly adresses Martin's objection. I have quoted this to Martin before, but you must forgive him - his memory is very, very short. So here it is again:

'I would disagree with Heisenberg in thinking that this fact makes an electron 'not as real' as a table or a chair. The electron simply enjoys a different kind of reality, appropriate to its nature. If we are to know things as they actually are,we must be prepared to know them as they are, on their own terms....'

So you see, Martin is deliberately misreprenting the point of conflict in the hopes that others just won't notice.

Finally, he flatly lies about what I believe about logic. He says that I '[don't] believe in the Law of Excluded Middle.'

This is of course completely false, as a cursory examination of just this thread of posts will illustrate. If have simply stated that in some situations the axioms of logic fail when compared against the empirical evidence.

I never said that the laws of logic cannot apply and be used to great effect in many situations.

I have a problem with using the laws of logic to derive a proof of God from the origin of the universe when it is precisely in that context that we have good reason to think traditional logic does not map onto reality very well.

Of course, Martin wants to disguise this problem, so he keeps clouding the issue.

One Brow said...

As it happens, I firmly believe in the Law of the Excluded Middle. When men created classical logic, they designed it with two features: every proposition has exactly one truth value, and the only choices for truth values are true and false. When you combine those two features and the proprties of negation and disjunction, the inevitable result is that either a proposition or its negation is true. It's been built into the system. In fact, you can say this about any formal truth; all formal truts are true from having been built into the system (somtimes in less obvious ways).

So, arguing about whether the Law of the Excluded Middle is true is pointless. The real question is whether classical logic is a good model of quantum events as we understand them. It seems to be fairly clear that it is not. In particular, it's lack of probabalistic assignments of truth values makes it impossible to give good descriptions of quantum phenomena using classical logic. So, we discard the model of classical logic in favor of models that offer less simplicity but more flexibility.

Formal systems are not true or false. They are either useful or not. It's a category error to portray them otherwise.

Singring said...

As usual, you express the finer points much more clearly than I think to do in the heat of debate.

I'm not sure it is clear that what you have outlined is exactly what I speak of when I say that traditional logic does not apply to quantum events and I hope the last paragraph in my previous post makes that clear.

My apologies if that was lost and thanks for distilling the essence of the debate.

Martin Cothran said...

Andrew,

This is the other thing I forgot to tell you about Singring, he gets quite emotional in these discussions, which causes him to accuses you of intentional deception, in this case intentionally "clouding the issue."

And then there's his customary accusation that I am misrepresenting him. He often includes this accusation in the same post in which he misrepresents me. He says I "deliberately [confuse] the idea that QT gives an exact, descriptive and unambiguous picture of quantum events with the idea that those events have no physical reality at all." I have no clue what he is talking about here. My guess is it has something to do with the Copenhagen interpretations belief that the theory provides predictability, but no view into the "inner workings of nature." But, of course, it isn't stated very well and doesn't really add anything useful to the discussion.

In the present case he quotes John Polkinghorne's disagreement with the Copenhagen interpretation, which is all fine and dandy. I have never denied that minority interpretations like Polkinghorne's are true. I have no idea whether they are true are not, but they are minority interpretations, since, according to most accounts I have seen, the Copenhagen interpretation is the original and still majority view.

And, of course, the problem with Singring's point here is it makes his position even weaker: he thinks it is perfectly logical to abandon the axioms of logic when quantum objects seem to defy these rules in a field in which the best minds can't even agree on the reality (or level of reality) of the things seemingly doing the defying.

It makes you wonder why it takes so little to make Singring leap into irrationalism.

Singring said...

Martin, here's a simple question for you hat should go a long way to resolve the debate:

Do you believe that an electron physically exists when we are not observing it?

One Brow said...

And, of course, the problem with Singring's point here is it makes his position even weaker: he thinks it is perfectly logical to abandon the axioms of logic when quantum objects seem to defy these rules in a field in which the best minds can't even agree on the reality (or level of reality) of the things seemingly doing the defying.

Regardless of the interpretation, the axioms of logic make a poor model for quantum effects. Why should we not abandon them when they fail us?

Anonymous said...

Paul Davies' intro to "Physics and Philosophy" W. Heisenberg (Scribd Download - highly recommended)

We here reach the topic that forms the culmination of Heisenberg's thesis. How, he asks, can we speak about atoms and the like if their existence is so shadowy? What meaning are to we attach to words that refer to their qualities? Again and again he emphasizes that the facts on which we build the world of experience all refer to macroscopic things – clicks of a geiger counter, spots on a photographic plate and so on. These are all things that we can meaningfully communicate to each other in plain language (to borrow Bohr's phrase). Without this already existing backdrop of classical, common-sense, familiar `things' (the reality of which seems assured) we can make no sense at all of the quantum microworld. For all our measurements and observations of the microworld are made by reference to classical apparatus and involve noting well-defined records, such as the position of a pointer on a meter, about which everybody can agree and in connection with which no vagueness or conceptual ambiguity arises.

Heisenberg buttresses his argument here by appeal to Bohr's so-called principle of complementarity. This principle recognizes the essential ambiguity inherent in quantum systems, that the same system can display apparently contradictory properties. An electron can behave
both as a wave and as a particle, for example. Bohr asserts that these are complementary, as opposed to contradictory, faces of a single reality. One experiment
may reveal the wave nature of the electron, another the particle nature. Both cannot be manifested at once; it is up to the experimenter to decide which facet to expose by his choice of experiment. Similarly, position and momentum are complementary qualities. The experimenter
must again decide which quality to observe. The question `Is an electron a wave or a particle?' has the same status as the question `Is Australia above or below Britain?'

The answer is `Neither and both.' The electron possesses both wave-like and particle-like aspects, either of which can be manifested but neither of which has any meaning in the absence of a specific experimental context. And so the language of quantum mechanics employs familiar words, such as wave, particle, position, etc., but their meanings are severely circumscribed and often vague. Heisenberg warns us that: `When this vague and unsystematic use of language leads us into difficulties, the physicist has to withdraw into the mathematical scheme and its unambiguous correlation with experimental facts.'

This is really the bottom line of the argument, for quantum mechanics is, at its core, a
mathematical scheme that relates the results of observations in a statistical fashion. And that is
all. Any talk of what is `really' going on is just an attempt to infuse the quantum world with a
spurious concreteness for ease of imagination.