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God's Loaded Dice: Einstein and the Death of Classical Reality

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There is a crucial distinction between explanatory systems that are based upon fate vs. prediction. Both perspectives purport to shed light upon the course of future events, however, fate is based upon a faith in metaphysics whereas prediction is scientific. Determinism represents a branch of metaphysics primarily because determinists claim to know more about the universe than any rational scientist would presume to assert. To put it mildly, there is much more in the universe than humans have yet been able to comprehend. For example, cosmologists currently estimate that scientists are capable of observing approximately four percent of the known universe. Thus, the vast majority of the universe is comprised of " dark " substances which the scientific community freely acknowledges are currently beyond the ken of science. To propose, as determinists do, that the unknown universe obeys deterministic principles every bit as faithfully as the known universe represents nothing more than patently irrational, anti-scientific thinking. It is premature, to say the least, to claim definite knowledge of vast unknowns. Before anyone can reasonably claim to have certain knowledge of its attributes, we must first figure out what's actually going on in the unknown universe.

One day, scientists may indeed discover that the unknown universe is deterministic. But, then again, they may not. For the time being, all we can say is that the unknown universe defies conventional wisdom and, as such, it would be unscientific to superimpose dogmatic presumptions on a realm that, by definition, defies conventional understanding.  

This is the error that Albert Einstein made with respect to the field of quantum physics. Though Einstein made a number of foundational contributions to the emergent field of quantum mechanics, Einstein developed an acute antipathy for what he perceived as the exceedingly counterintuitive characteristics of quantum theory. Again and again, Einstein disparaged the logic of Niels Bohr 's Copenhagen interpretation by insisting that " God doesn't play dice " with the universe. By that, Einstein meant that he refused to believe that the universe could have been designed to accommodate the irregularities of quantum phenomena that were fundamentally random, uncertain, and probabilistic. Einstein's expectations of the cosmos--as well as the "god" who created it--were more exacting. In the macro universe, observable phenomena strictly complied with rigid, universal laws, and Einstein insisted that the same logic must also apply to the quantum universe. Unfortunately, quantum phenomena persistently defied Einstein's expectations. In the second half of his career, Einstein's influence faded among mainstream physicists who, regardless of their personal preferences, were more prepared to analyze the quantum universe on its terms rather than on theirs.

Einstein remained a holdout. He struggled to the end of his days to create a unified field theory that would integrate a consistent  and cohesive explanatory framework for all physical phenomena from the smallest subatomic particle to the far flung perimeter of the expanding universe. Yet, try as he might to construct a unified field theory, Einstein never succeeded in shaping a coherent unified theory into which bizarre quantum phenomena would comfortably fit. In part, Einstein's failure is attributable to the fact that he was determined to construct an explanatory framework for quantum phenomena that complied with his expectations about the essential orderliness of the universe. God does not play dice...  

Leading proponents of quantum theory--beginning with Max Planck, and including such luminaries as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and (prior to the emergence of the Copenhagen interpretation) even Einstein himself--succeeded in developing groundbreaking quantum theories by casting aside their classical, macro physical expectations and developing quantum-specific explanations. That was an essential cognitive shift because, in practically every respect, quantum phenomena defy conventional expectations: rational, orderly, logical physical behavior breaks down at the quantum level. To understand quantum mechanics, one must be willing to concede that macro rationality simply does not apply at the level of infinitesimal physical reality. In the bizarre reality of the quantum, particles appear and disappear, transform as a result of observation, teleport, exhibit complementary qualities of wave-particle duality, etc.

Consequently, Einstein's insistence that "God does not play dice," was equivalent to a declaration that he would only be willing to accept a quantum theory that complied with his expectations about appropriate physical behavior. As a result,  from the very outset Einstein set himself up for failure. No matter how brainy, powerful, and celebrated he may have been, Einstein was not able to require persistently intransigent quantum phenomena to play by his rules. In fact, it almost seems like quantum phenomena exist to spite everything that "the great man of physics" stood for and believed. It's sort of like Einstein demanded that a bunch of the world's most rambunctious, ADHD kids should stand at attention to demonstrate how correct Dr. Einstein was about the cheeky little subatomic particles that his colleagues simply refused to discipline properly.

Einstein never stood a chance. In the insubordinate realm of the quantum, the rowdy kids rule--and the truth lives and dies according to the heedless whims of unrepentant pranksters. In the quantum realm, if you want to play ball with the quarrelsome kids, then you have to play by their rules, which amount to nothing more than: Expect the unexpected. All other bets are off.

Thanks to the quantum, determinism is dead and science will never be the same again.

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University -- Pueblo. Tim's primary research interests are in the areas of science, technology, society (STS) and the future and Tim blogs about those topics at the following sites: The (more...)
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Leading proponents of quantum theory--beginning wi... by Timothy McGettigan on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 at 4:35:50 PM
Einstein's insistence that "God does not play dic... by Timothy McGettigan on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 at 6:38:44 PM
I wonder if Mr. J*hn M*ff*tt has anything to do wi... by Ned Lud on Wednesday, Nov 21, 2012 at 8:57:58 AM
article. Coming more from a background in biology,... by Daniel Geery on Wednesday, Nov 21, 2012 at 12:11:49 PM
Daniel, Thanks for your comment. I agree that... by Timothy McGettigan on Wednesday, Nov 21, 2012 at 3:50:57 PM
Daniel, Thanks for your comment. I agree that... by Timothy McGettigan on Wednesday, Nov 21, 2012 at 3:53:00 PM
but it's my understanding that about 85% of presen... by Gentry L Rowsey on Thursday, Nov 22, 2012 at 10:19:48 AM
I used to work at Wake Forest U where many faculty... by Timothy McGettigan on Thursday, Nov 22, 2012 at 10:27:13 AM
The quantum world is "unexpected" only in referenc... by Jim Miles on Thursday, Nov 22, 2012 at 3:17:56 PM
This is a problem of logic, not a problem of physi... by Derryl Hermanutz on Thursday, Nov 22, 2012 at 10:03:17 PM