Causa negatur est…

…consecutionis eadem abrogatur sunt. To do away with the cause is likewise to do away with the effects. [My apologies for the undoubtedly wonky Latin!]

With that in mind, consider the following from Mortimer J. Adler:

At the same time that the Heisenberg uncertainty principles were established, quantum physicists acknowledged that the intrusive experimental measurements that provided the data used in the mathematical formulations of quantum theory [QT] conferred on subatomic objects and events that indeterminate character.

The foregoing italicized words imply that the indeterminate character of subatomic objects and events is not intrinsic to them–not properties they have quite apart from their being affected in any way by the measurements made by intrusive experimental devices.

If the cause of the indeterminacy attributed to the subatomic objects and events by quantum theory is the intrusive and disturbing measurement of those objects and events, which confers upon them properties (namely, intrinsic indeterminacy) not possessed by supra-atomic physical objects and events, then does not elimination of the cause also eliminate the effect?

Philosophically speaking, the answer to that question must be affirmative. The opposite answer, given by the quantum theorists, as if they knew it to be the right answer as a result of their scientific research, cannot draw any support from the fact that their theory, which based on their own intrusive measurements, gives rise to completely verifiable predictions. …

The humans [that discovered a hidden, placid pool] describe the pool as it appeared to them after they jumped into it and attribute wave motions and other properties to it. …

Is the unexamined interior of the atom intrinsically indeterminate in character, or it like the determinate character of supra-atomic reality? …

[P]hilosophy can give a good reason for favoring the answer that affirms similitude between the character of subatomic and of supra-atomic reality–both intrinsically determinate. The reason is that quantum theorists repeatedly acknowledge their intrusive and disturbing measurements are the cause of the indeterminacy they attribute to subatomic objects and events. It follows, therefore, that indeterminacy cannot be intrinsic [i.e., observer-independent] to subatomic reality. …

To sum up: the quantum theory is a theory of the examined interior of the atom. The scientific examination of that interior is, according to quantum theory, an intrusive disturbance of what is going there. It follows that further developments of quantum theory and additional scientific investigation cannot tell us about the character of the unexamined atomic interior.

(Intellect: Mind over Matter [New York: Macmillan, 1990], pp. 111-113)

A couple comments.

First, the last sentence of this quotation, about the inability of QT to tell us anything about the unexamined interior of the atom, may seem prima facie to be a tautology: it goes without saying that whatever we don’t examine, will remain unknown to us. But I don’t think that objection respects Adler’s point, which is not that the interior of the atom is unknowable undique, but that QT lacks the ability to give us that insight.

Contrast this with other scientific theories and inquiries. We don’t have to, and indeed cannot, examine the interior of the sun, nor even that of the Earth; yet astronomers and geologists have very good insight into those interiors. Nor can we actually observe black holes (since the disappearance of light into them renders optical observation impossible omnino), yet physicists can knowledgeably extrapolate about their character and existence, based partially on the curvature of space, and also on elaborate inferences about cosmic mass, interstellar expansion, and gravitational limits. Einsteinian general relativity is simply a more complete theory than QT, quatenus the former can give us insight into things so far unobservable, and perhaps even in principle unobservable (such as star formation or the conditions of flight at the speed of light); quod the latter is still unable to give any more insight into its own proper field of inquiry based on the limitations inherent in its own methods of inquiry.

To protest that, fortasse, there simply is no further or deeper level of insight we can gain in quantum reality, is to forfeit not only the entire premise of science as a rational method of gaining coherent answers (as opposed to just-so prohibitions), but also the screaming need for a reconciliation between general relativity and QT (viz., a unified field theory).

Second, someone might object that Adler is begging the question in his favor by ignoring the empirical fact that indeterminacy is the only thing we actually and consistently observe in quantum reality. The only “face” quantum reality shows us, is intrinsic indeterminacy; so Adler is just asking for a different solution than the one we have actually discovered.

The problem with this objection is that defending QT in terms of indeterminacy is not pari passu with complicating it in the way Adler does (i.e., in terms of indeterminacy). Adler is being perfectly consistent with the claims of QT itself, and simply pointing out that if observation is the cause of quantum indeterminacy, then that indeterminacy is not intrinsic (or, invariant) to quantum reality. Indeterminacy may, then, be inescapable in QT, but that does not mean it is intrinsic to quantum reality, since according to QT itself, indterminacy is an observed effect. This objector might say Adler is imposing this inconsistency on QT, sed atqui, Adler is simply being pari passu with the terms QT imposes upon those who would understand it.

The objector to Adler is trying to have it both ways, to wit, by defending the thesis of QT that indeterminacy is intrinsically caused by observation, on the one hand, and claiming that this indeterminacy persists or holds even without anyone observing it, on the other. This, autem, is to make nonsense of the main thesis of QT, namely, that observation is the actual cause of indeterminacy. If the ground for QT’s thesis about intrinsic indeterminacy is nothing else than our observation of it, then the removal of those grounds is eo ipso the invalidation of the thesis (viz., qua removal of its empirical basis radicitus). If my observing John to blush whenever I look at him is my only basis for saying he is intrinsically flushed, then my refusal or unwillingness to look at him any longer removes the grounds I have for saying he blushes all the time, under any circumstances, with or without an observer looking at him.

Responsae?

4 Responses

  1. Elliot:

    Your conclusion is correct, and is a good analogy to the question of sub-atomic particles’ “indeterminacy.” However, from indeterminacy’s not following from the absence of observation, it does not follow that there are no grounds for positing indeterminacy. All that follows is that, if the position and velocity of sub-atomic particles are intrinsically indeterminate, that cannot be established by observation. It might, however, be a requirement for this-or-that theory, or an inference that can be made from within various theories.

    Best,
    Mike

  2. BTW, you might want to consider using fewer Latin phrases. The more of them you use, the smaller the audience you’ll retain.😉

  3. As a graduate student who works on the “reconciliation between general relativity and QT”, I can’t resist commenting.

    The interpretation of quantum mechanics is an extremely controversial field; however, not many physicists these days think that “the intrusive experimental measurements that [provide] the data used in the mathematical formulations of quantum theory [confers] on subatomic objects and events that indeterminate character.”

    The question here is that disputed by Einstein and Bohr. Einstein thought that because quantum mechanics is indeterminate, there has to be a deeper description of reality that is determinite, from which the predictions of quantum mechanics could be recovered. Bohr thought that quantum mechanics had to radically change our view of what reality is like, and that classical thinking about the subatomic world could only provide partially applicable metaphors.

    Bohr is widely considered to have won out. Not only did he refute all of Einstein’s gedanken experiments trying to show that QM was inconsistent, his position has also been bolstered by some “no-go theorems” which show that no local theory describing determinate “hidden variables” can reproduce the predictions of QM. The most famous example is Bell’s inequality. Roughly speaking, this states that if two particles interact but are then taken to distant locations and measured, the correlations between the measurements are too strong be explained classically without faster-than-light communication between the particles (“classical” is physics jargon for not-quantum).

  4. You might want to have a look at the article I’ve got listed on the “Selected Publications of Our Authors” page, the one marked “Brandon and Carson (1996)”, for a set of arguments against adopting global determinism. I’ve also blogged on this question extensively at An Examined Life–search for terms like “determinism” and “materialism”.

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