The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Putting it all together


The mechanical philosophy against Quantum Physics
Last modified on Sun Apr 15 23:45:46 2018


I have just finished a series of posts outlining the basis of quantum field theory. These posts offer a basic and simplified (albeit not simple) outline of the scientific basis of my work. It is important to understand them, because everything else that I do builds on that. In the last of those posts, I suggested that Quantum physics was broadly consistent with Aristotelian metaphysics. Not completely consistent, of course: we have to make some modifications to Aristotle's world-view, most importantly his reluctance to view physics mathematically (although, to be fair to him, the mathematics needed to represent causality and space and time is well beyond what was available in his time). I don't adopt Aristotle because I respect his authority; I adopt him because he is close to what I need. Why re-invent the philosophical wheel, when most of the work has already been done, and it just needs to be refined?

I take two things as axiomatic:

  1. We need metaphysics if we are to make sense of the world. Metaphysics is the glue that holds philosophy together. It is what connects the philosophy of science with the more practical aspects of philosophy such as ethics and natural theology. Without a good metaphysics, our knowledge of the universe will reach a point with a black knight standing over a bridge saying none shall pass. We seek to be constrained only be natural limits, if there are any, not self-imposed ones.
  2. Our metaphysics needs to be grounded in and consistent with our philosophy of science. Especially the philosophy of physics. Even more especially the philosophy of fundamental physics. The reason for this is that it is in fundamental physics that science and philosophy meet. After all (speaking a little naively and simplistically, but more precise speech would just add details that don't deflect from the conclusion), theoretical biology builds on theoretical bio-chemistry (and some physics); that is where the basic premises of modern biology are taken from (albeit confirmed and tested against experiment). Bio-chemistry takes its premises from chemistry. Chemistry from atomic physics; atomic physics from nuclear physics and quantum electrodynamics; nuclear physics and quantum electrodynamics from the standard model of particle physics. The standard model, it is to be hoped, can be deduced directly from a unified theory of quantum physics and gravity. Maybe there are some other layers of science beyond that; maybe there aren't, but sooner or later we are going to reach the most fundamental level of physics. So where can the premises of fundamental physics be derived from? The standard answer to that is metaphysics.

Even if you say that the premises behind theoretical physics are a brute fact; just the way the world happens to be, you are still engaging in metaphysics. Not a particularly well thought-out or satisfying metaphysics, but still metaphysics.

So metaphysics provides the premises behind fundamental physics. But it also provides us with the premises behind ethics, natural theology, epistemology, the debates over realism and conceptualism, political theory, artistic theory and so on, and the rest of philosophy. Thus metaphysics provides the link between our philosophy of science and everything else.

So one plan is to induce the correct metaphysics from physics, and from that deduce everything else about the world. Of course, that plan goes a bit too far. Firstly, it ignores the importance of experimental and observational evidence in the various other fields of study. Secondly, there is no reason why our metaphysics should be solely informed by our physics, and nothing else. We use all the information we have. But there is still a grain of truth in the proposal. Our metaphysics needs to be consistent with our physics. Our metaphysics also needs to be consistent with our natural theology, and our natural theology with our revealed theology (if we have one).

Many atheists claim that their belief is only a negative one; they disbelieve in God (for whatever reason). I disagree; for atheism is either a positive statement that the true metaphysics of reality is one of those that is logically consistent and excludes the existence of a deity, or it slips into incoherence. There are, of course, many different types of atheism and many different types of atheist philosophy. The ones I want to concentrate on here are those that justify themselves, in whole or in part, on the belief that science and religion are incompatible.

Now there are certain tensions between some aspects of science and beliefs of particular religions -- for example, concerning the compatibility between evolutionary theory or cosmology and the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, or the archaeology of the exodus, conquest, or united monarchy. And these subjects are important, and worth looking at in detail, but not today. Because they are not disputes between science and theism in general, but science and one particular branch of theism. Such issues are not enough grounds for accepting atheism, because there are other branches of theism where there is no conflict (if indeed there is a conflict between between biology, cosmology and archaeology and all forms of Christianity).

The real area of dispute is a matter of metaphysics. For the atheists claim to have a "scientific" metaphysics, and that belief in God is either inconsistent with that metaphysics or redundant. For example, the claim is not that the process of gradual change of species or natural selection is by itself inconsistent with the existence of God. The claim is that such an explanation of the origin of life makes God and theological claims redundant. "We have a scientific explanation of the origin of life, and therefore we don't need God to explain it." That therefore hides away a whole bunch of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of science. The theist will look at the same theories, and say "We have a scientific explanation of the origin of life, and therefore that confirms how God did it." For the theist, science is the description of how God sustains the world. A scientific explanation is a theological explanation. No less than, but also no more than, the atheist statement, that therefore relies on a whole bunch of metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of physics. The conflict is not between science and religion, but between various metaphysical assumptions which the atheist claims are induced from science combined with the science.

But here is the key point. The theist also has his metaphysics. If he is sensible about it (and I will admit that many, perhaps most, theists aren't, but a few are, just like most atheists aren't so secure in their own metaphysics, albeit that some are), his metaphysics will also be (in part) induced from science. And he will look at the scientific evidence, interpret it through his philosophy, and will claim that it is in fact atheism that is in conflict with science. Each of them accept the same scientific theories and evidence. There is no difference in the science. The difference is in the different "scientific" philosophies.

In the high medieval period (around the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries), the situation was clearer. There was a fully logically consistent world-view which embraced the best science of their day and the best theology. Indeed, there were strong arguments used to demonstrate that atheism was inconsistent with their science, since what was believed to be the only possible workable philosophy of science directly implied theism. That philosophy was derived from Aristotle's, but considerably refined and improved from the times of classical Greece.

The same period saw the first stirrings of experimental and mathematical physics. It was the time when Aristotle's physics (especially his dynamics, kinematics and cosmology) was first challenged; velocity, acceleration and things such as magnetic force, optics and temperature were first expressed mathematically and geometrically; and theories of impetus and force were first used to try to overcome the deficiencies of Aristotle's physics. Those early mathematical natural philosophers from Bradwardine to Buridan and Oresme laid much of the ground-work for the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century. It was their textbooks that Galileo taught and was inspired by in his early career.

The time was also a period of great technological advancement. One of the inventions of the late middle ages was the mechanical clock, with its regular motions carefully controlled by a series of weights and pulleys. Each part of the clock moved according to simple regular scientific laws, in isolation to the rest of the mechanism. The mechanism of the whole clock could be explained in terms of the movements of its individual parts.

Bradwardine and Buridan were, to my knowledge, the first people to compare the workings of nature with a mechanical clock. At the time, models of the solar system were being combined with the new clockwork mechanisms to create systems which rotated automatically. It was not difficult to extend this analogy; the mechanical models could mimic the solar system, could not the real cause behind the solar system's motions be analogous to the cogs and wheels that sat behind the face of the clock? I would not describe these early mathematical physicists as adherents of the mechanical philosophy -- they were still scholastics and very much Aristotelian in their world-view. The clockwork universe was an analogy, not a reality. But by suggesting that there were and uncovering mathematical laws (not quite the right laws, but still a huge step forward) they provided the basic groundwork that would be used to develop the philosophy.

Now let us skip forward to the sixteenth century -- the time of Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, and Hobbes. The high medieval period was ended by the black death; the generations that followed were weakened, and mostly lost interest in mathematical physics (although in a few places it was still studied and preserved). The generation after that was the Renaissance, which spurned all things medieval, including mathematical physics. Take, for example, Francis Bacon (a clear example of Renaissance man) who attacked the mathematicians as much as he did the Aristotelians, claiming that they had made no progress and would make no progress.

But not everyone ignored the medieval mathematicians. Galileo, Kepler and Descartes were perhaps lucky to be in the right place at the right time. They were probably the most naturally talented mathematicians of their generation, and had been raised in the right places to be trained in the medieval tradition of mathematical physics. They knew the power of those methods, and the successes that were made by the first generation of mathematical physics and people like de Soto and de Cusa who built on the work in the intervening years. They were surrounded by an intellectual culture that despised all things Aristotelian. So it was perhaps natural for them to take the hints found in Bradwardine and to try to turn it, in slightly different ways, into a philosophy of nature.

There were two main philosophies which supplanted Aristotle's. Empiricism, of whom Francis Bacon was an early forerunner, denied the possibility of any theoretical knowledge but only that which could be derived directly from observation. This found a strong following among the non-scientific and non-mathematical philosophers, particularly in Britain. But the philosophy of the early scientists was mechanism. They believed that the universe was ultimately governed by mechanical laws, and that it was their responsibility to uncover precisely what those laws were. Of course, experiment and observation was an essential part of the process; but the belief was that the experimental philosophy's role was, rather than being an end in itself, to provide evidence for the mechanical philosophy. The empiricists denied that it was possible to know anything beyond direct experimental data and the basic proofs of geometry. The mechanists, by their success, proved them wrong.

So what was this mechanical philosophy? Fundamentally, the belief that a complex being could be reduced to the sum of its parts, that each of those parts evolved under regular and deterministic laws external to themselves, and that the evolution of the individual parts was not influenced by their place in the substance as a whole, but only their local surroundings. When two large bodies interact with each other, it was only individual parts which were directly affected by the collision. The mechanical philosophy was also tied into the belief that the laws of nature ought to be described mathematically.

That the laws are external to the particles is in sharp contrast to Aristotle's belief that the evolution of matter can be described in terms of the inherent tendencies or final causes of the beings. It is an essential aspect of the nature of the acorn that it grows into an oak tree, when placed in the right circumstances and not externally impeded. Of course, it needs to draw in nutrients from outside itself to do so, but the growth of the acorn is spurred on by its internal nature. (Of course, this doesn't close down scientific discussion: one still has to identify why the tendency to grow into an oak tree is manifested in the form of an acorn, and this will require going into microscopic detail; but those details will still lead us to form and finality). But, on the other hand, in the mechanical philosophy, the acorn can be broken down to its consistent atoms (for those many mechanists who were also atomists), and those atoms act in given circumstances according to fixed laws independently of whether or not they are part of an acorn, but the structure of the acorn happens to be such that the effect of those laws acting on each of the atoms taken together will give us an oak tree. The mechanist believes that the motions of the individual atoms gives us the oak tree. The Aristotelian (if he was an atomist, which historically few Aristotelians were) believes that the atoms are absorbed into the larger structure and cannot be treated as individuals.

There is, unfortunately, no one single mechanical philosophy (just as there is no single empiricist or Aristotelian or idealist philosophy), but rather the term describes a family of views which held a great deal in common. [One of the most common mistakes I have seen in contemporary philosophy is the idea that every term needs to be defined precisely so that it refers to one and only one distinct thing. Thus some people claim there is no such thing as the scientific method, because of the small differences in its application in different fields and different times. However, it is useful to combine related things into sets, and invent a term to describe that set. Thus while there may be many different types of the scientific methodology, they nonetheless all fall within the same class of approaches.] For example, most mechanists were atomists, but many (including Descartes himself) weren't. Descartes was a dualist, splitting the cosmos into a mechanical world of extension and a non-mechanical mental world (so that he could combine the idea of free will with his mechanical physics); while others believed that mechanism governed minds as well as bodies. Some (such as Descartes again) believed that only contact interactions were allowed; others (such as Newton) accepted action at a distance.

So this list of axioms of mechanism should not be thought of as absolute, something that all advocates of the mechanical philosophy hold to. Rather, it should be thought that mechanists will hold to most of these, or something reasonably close to them. (For example, later mechanists would say in effect that there are two different types of matter in the universe -- particles and fields.)

  1. Space and time either are or can be represented by a geometrical space, and the motions of physical beings can be fully expressed in terms of this mathematical structure.
  2. The only things that influence physics are matter, local motion, and perhaps a small number of other properties such as size, texture, mass, and electric charge. The variable state of the particle depends on and only on its location and velocity (or momentum). Size, texture, mass and so on are constants for each particle, although there is no reason why two different particles need have identical properties.
  3. A large, composite object is made up of innumerable parts, and can be thought of as solely the sum of these parts. Motions of the larger object can be expressed solely can be reduced to a consideration of the motion of the individual parts. These parts (which at the most fundamental level were known at the time as atoms or corpuscles, although I call them fundamental particles) themselves are indestructible, and cannot be created or destroyed.
  4. Every object is built up from different arrangements of these fundamental parts, and this alone is sufficient to explain all the phenomena we see around us.
  5. These parts evolve under fixed, deterministic laws, which treat all matter the same, depending only on their local circumstances. These laws can be expressed mathematically, and we are capable of understanding and uncovering them, in part through careful experimentation.
  6. The parts act independently of the rest of the substance, and that they are arranged within a larger body makes no difference to their motions: they only react to the immediately local surroundings.
  7. Motion (i.e. local motion) continues with unchanged velocity except when a force is applied. This force could either (depending on your school of thought) depend on
    • Collisions between particles alone; or
    • Both collisions between particles and interactions at a distance between particles, perhaps mediated by electromagnetic and gravitational fields.
  8. The laws of physics might have been designed by God (or might not), but operate independently of God. All God needed to do (if anything) was to start the system in motion, sit back, and enjoy the show. Possibly God occasionally intervenes in the system (gives it a little push here or there), with such interventions known as miracles. However, many mechanists would deny the possibility of miracles, either in principle, or in practice, or as being superfluous and demeaning to God.
  9. Formal and final causes are at best redundant, and at worst are an ill-defined superstition, more harmful than helpful.

    Form, which posits that complex substances each have their own identity, contradicts the principle that matter can be reduced to the sum of its parts. The notion of form states, for example, that a water molecule cannot be analysed simply in terms of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, and by considering their motions independently. Rather, in a philosophy which accepts form, the energy levels of the atoms combine to create something very different from the individual atoms. The behaviour of what is left of the hydrogen atom within water is thus very different from what we would expect from a single hydrogen atom which happens to be stuck in the electromagnetic field emanating from the other atoms. One cannot fully treat each atom within a molecule in isolation. The mechanical philosophy would imply that one could.

    During the renaissance, final causality was confused with purpose, and all proponents of the mechanical philosophy I am aware of repeated this error. Since there is no purpose inherent within the laws of motion, it was easy to see how they dismissed final causality (although several early scientists used the concept that things were designed for a purpose to their advantage, for example in early medical studies or in developing the principle of least time or the principle of least action). If we use the more accurate definition of final causality as tendency towards an end, then again the mechanist would regard this as redundant. Whatever tendencies a particle has depend only on the laws of motion which govern efficient causality. Because the system is deterministic, there is no difference between efficient and final causality, except one looks into the past and the other into the future. The idea of an inherent final cause which differs from one form to another is repellent to the mechanist. It would deny the idea that the laws are external to matter.

The most important difference between theism and mechanism is that theists (by definition) believe that God is active in sustaining and upholding the universe. The laws of nature (in whatever other way we think of them) are thus not independent of God, but a description of God's activity in the universe. Thus the theist also cannot accept the mechanist definition of a miracle. Miracles cannot be an intervention by God, because the word "intervention" suggests that God is otherwise inactive. Rather theists think of miracles as signs which directly show some aspect of God's character. I, for example, would define a miracle as an event which (when taking into account what happens elsewhere in similar circumstances) provides evidence that God is not indifferent to mankind. But there are other good definitions available which don't assume mechanism. This is one of the reasons why theists find the standard atheist arguments against the possibility of miracles unconvincing; those arguments usually start with the mechanical definition of the miracle, and thus either implicitly or explicitly assume a world-view similar in at least some respects to mechanism. Theists reject the arguments in part because they reject the philosophy of nature which those arguments assume.

Of course, it is possible to believe in the mechanical world view and also the existence of God. Most of the early developers of the mechanical philosophy were firm believers in God, and they developed it partly for (mistaken, in my view) theological reasons. Such a perspective is known as deism, and it dominated intellectual life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is clear that one cannot be both a mechanist and a theist.

However, it is clear that if one accepts the mechanical philosophy of nature and the eternity of the universe (which science seemed to suggest until the first direct evidence started coming in that the universe wasn't eternal back in the 1920s), then it is an easy step to take to say that God is redundant. There is no need to invoke God to start the system if the system had no start. That leaves arguments from design and arguments from miracles as the only possible arguments for God. Arguments from miracles were dismissed by (for example) supposing that it would be a sign of imperfection of God if He designed a set of laws which required his intervention; or perhaps by saying that given so much behaviour seems to be governed by the laws of nature, that it is always far more likely that the witnesses to miracles were mistaken or deluded than a violation of the laws occurred; or perhaps by saying that what seem to us to be miracles are identified as such because we have an incomplete knowledge of the laws of nature, and if we knew them perfectly the apparent miracles could be explained perfectly naturally. The theist has solid responses to each of these arguments, but this isn't the place to go into those. It is enough to say that many people found (and still do find) these arguments convincing, and thus could immediately dismiss any miraculous testimony.

Thus the argument from design, which was never one of the traditional arguments for God (Aquinas' teleological argument is very different) was seen in the nineteenth century as the one good remaining argument for God. Darwin's explanation (and its subsequent refinements) that apparent design could be explained in terms of mechanical processes put the nail into this argument. That the argument from design was last man standing at the time and knocked over by the revolution that birthed modern biology is perhaps the reason why atheist biologists such as Richard Dawkins put so much emphasis on it, and this was the main reason why they initially became atheists. But, as already remarked, this argument depends on a prior acceptance of the mechanical philosophy. No theist would accept this argument for atheism, because theists don't believe that physics is or can be independent of God. Darwin's theory should only drive one to atheism if one were previously convinced that theism is false, and the choice lies only between deism and atheism.

There is no question about the mechanical philosophy's historical importance. It was the philosophy that drove the birth of modern science. But how relevant is it today?

Among contemporary philosophers, perhaps not so much. Granted, I am no philosopher, so perhaps I am not the best person to judge, but I would say that the majority of philosophers today have moved on from mechanism. The dominant philosophies today would be forms of idealism or empiricism or maybe some form of existentialism, but there are, of course, some mechanists, as well as a few accepting other philosophies such as various forms of Aristotelian thought. Philosophers are aware of quantum physics, and other issues with mechanism which emerge in the problems of the mind, consciousness and epistemology, and have tended to move away from the old-fashioned mechanical world view; basing their thoughts more on the authorities of Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Quine, or others.

Among contemporary physicists, I would again say that there are very few pure blooded mechanists who would accept the premises described above, because of the "obvious" incompatibilities between the mechanical philosophy and quantum physics. Some interpretations of quantum physics, the Everett multi-world scenario being the most obvious, retain as much of mechanism as possible; however most interpretations violate it in significant ways. However, the majority of contemporary physicists don't really care about philosophy. The death of the mechanical philosophy destroyed their faith in philosophy, and they don't tend to think of metaphysics as being of any use whatsoever.

However, among the general public, the mechanical philosophy is more important. The physics learnt at school is mechanical physics; the mechanical philosophy is then picked up implicitly from both these lessons and the wider culture. I would say that contemporary biologists still adopt a broadly mechanistic metaphysics; among the social sciences and humanities perhaps even more so. In particular, the mechanical scepticism of final, formal and miraculous causes is in epidemic proportions in such areas. So even though the mechanical philosophy, as defined according to the principles listed above, is not so important in contemporary academic philosophy, it is still very influential both in wider society and in the university culture.

Most of the premises of mechanism are, of course, in direct contradiction to modern physics.

So the mathematicization of physics survives, but nothing else of the mechanical philosophy. It is, or ought to be, utterly dead. Some of the premises were killed by quantum mechanics (which adopted some principles of the mechanical philosophy and other principles of the quantum philosophy, to form what is ultimately an incoherent mess, philosophically speaking), and most of the remaining premises (baring the one I have just mentioned) by quantum field theory.

So that just leaves the question of God's relationship to the new physics. Most physicists, and philosophers, have just retained the idea that the laws of physics operate independently of God from the mechanical philosophy, and done nothing with it. Of course, since by this time (due in part to the influence of mechanism) I expect that they didn't give the matter that much thought. But we have found the other axioms of the mechanical philosophy wanting; why should we keep this one alone? After all, it is easy to picture a mechanical clock operating independently of the clockmaker. If the clockmaker was needed to continually turn the handle, then it would have been a step back from the sundials and water clocks which preceded it. But the clock picture no longer stands. The universe is indeterminate, and at a fundamental level.

The idea of the laws of physics are independent of God is ingrained into our culture. It thus can be difficult for people to accept that there are other, and maybe even better, ways of thinking about physics. It is an assumption that rose as part of a world-view that we now know to have failed. The assumption doesn't depend on that world-view; it can survive the death of mechanism. But it is not the only option on the table. It is an assumption, and without the mechanical philosophy, one that lacks any rational foundation (unless we can find a new one). But there are other approaches as consistent and maybe even more consistent with modern physics. Many times I have encountered atheists so blinded by their dogma and presumptions that I could not get any further than this. But it is presumption; it is atheist dogma, and as such it ought to be challenged (even if that challenge leaves us agreeing with the notion).

Probability is a parametrisation of uncertainty. Usually, we fall back on giving a probabilistic answer when we don't know precisely all the causes. Thus the invocation of probability (or likelihoods) is an admission that not all the information we need is available to us. If physics is inherently probabilistic, then that means that the universe itself is not a complete system of information. Whatever is needed to complete it exists outside the physical universe.

So when we have an electron happily sitting in an atomic energy band, there is a certain likelihood that it will emit an photon and a certain likelihood that it won't. That it is expressed in terms of likelihoods means that there is uncertainty. That there is uncertainty means that some information is missing. But where is this information? It cannot be contained within the material universe, because that would imply that quantum physics would rest on the foundations of a hidden variables theory, which has been experimentally dis-proven. Thus the missing information, that is the difference between the electron emitting and not emitting, must exist outside the material universe. That is to say, something immaterial. This something acts towards an end (namely causing the electron to decay at that moment), so it possess a will. It can distinguish between the concept of an electron and the concept of a muon (since these have different rates and types of decay), so it possesses an intellect, something capable of distinguishing between and thus grasping abstract concepts. So we are talking about an immaterial mind. Since it is immaterial, it must exist outside of space and time (since if it were part of space and time, we could in principle map it into our geometrical representation of reality, describe it physically, which means that no information would be missing and physics deterministic again) thus a timeless, and therefore eternal, and omnipresent mind. From the unity of physics we can deduce the unity of this mind; from its ability to influence the decay of any particle in the universe we see that it is omnipotent, and because it is "aware" of every particle in all places and times omniscient. The timelessness means that it cannot itself undergo change (since time is the measure of change), and thus can only exist in one actual state, with no potential states. From this we deduce simplicity. It's immutability implies that it cannot come into existence, and thus cannot by a nature have a cause. So we have one timeless, simple, uncausable, omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, immaterial mind that is a cause of everything else. Sounds an awful lot like the classical conception of God to me.

Of course, whether you accept this argument (or a more fully fleshed out version of this argument) would depend on whether or not you accept the hidden assumptions, most importantly that uncertainty in physics always arises from an unknown cause (in my view, the hardest of the assumptions to justify), and the various definitions of mind, omnipotence, omniscience and so on which I have used but not (here) stated. But if we do accept this argument, then it is clear that God is not an innocent bystander to the universe, but actively involved at every moment; while still respecting the final causes and nature of the individual particles. Thus we are lead to neither extreme of deism nor occasionalism, but theism.

Thus the mechanical understanding of God also seems to depend on its premise that physics is deterministic. It is this God, a very different beast from the God of theism, that atheists tend to object to. Which is one reason why theists tend to find the standard atheist arguments either irrelevant or risible.

The main question of whether science is compatible or incompatible with theism or atheism boils down to whether the true philosophy of science is consistent with whatever philosophy underlies that form of atheism or theism. One historically dominant (maybe not so much today, at least among academic atheists) philosophy behind atheism was the mechanical world view. Atheists, accepting the sixteenth century confusion between this science and the philosophy, believe it to be science that is in conflict with religion, when it is in practice the philosophy. They claim that mechanism is inconsistent with theism; I won't dispute that. But they also need the premise that it is a workable philosophy of physics. That idea, which seemed so certain back at the end of the nineteenth century when atheism started to dominate academia, is now untenable.

So classical theism survives, and that particular form of atheism is dead.



Love and Love aren't the same thing.


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