Monday, November 2, 2009

Hugh Ross's Creator and the Cosmos, Chapter 12

In chapter 12, Hugh Ross focuses on work by Paul Davies on the idea that the universe might have arisen spontaneously by a process called "quantum tunneling", and then makes some cursory comments on quantum mechanics. I am no expert on quantum mechanics, but I believe that quantum tunneling is the odd event of quantum particles (if you like that term) spontaneously "jump" barriers or go from one side of a barrier to another without passing through the intervening space. This is related to the idea that particles and anti-particles can spontaneously come into existence from the quantum field. Then, in theory, the singularity could pop into existence from the quantum field. This singularity would then expand as a Big Bang, and then the universe would inflate rapidly. I don't pretend to understand this, but even if I do not understand it, and even if it doesn't bring a universe into existence from nothing but only from a quantum field, it's still a step in the right direction.

But of course these tentative steps towards a quantum physical understanding of the origin of the universe can be immediately rejected in favor of the theory that an intelligent, personal being who exists in some mysterious way beyond our standard time dimension who created the universe (and possibly added new creations at various points throughout the history of the universe) and whose "son", who is actually himself, was born and died in order to save us from the punishment that he levied on our ancestors for failing to remain deliberately ignorant about morality. Clearly that conclusion is so obvious that we would never need to develop an alternative that we could understand scientifically.

But, for now, I want to say a bit about Ross's discussion of quantum mechanics.

Ross tries to draw a strong distinction between the science, philosophy and religion of quantum mechanics. Doing this allows him to treat all the consequences of quantum mechanics that Ross believes are problematic as part of the philosophy or "religion" of quantum mechanics. The main problem for Ross is that quantum mechanics gives the observer an essential place in determining reality (making it the case that quantum particles have determinate properties). Ross's strawman here is the view that human observers created the universe by observing it. This would be worth discussing if anyone besides a few weirdos believed that we could cause the universe to come into existence by observing.

In reality the measurement problem in quantum mechanics is how to account for the difficulty that particles do not appear to have determinate properties until an observation is made. Moreover, it appears to be possible to describe the physical instruments that one would use in making an observation in quantum mechanical terms. Hence, the measurement devices appear also to lack determinate properties until someone reads the dial on the device. The Copenhagen interpretation stops this slippery slope with a human observer on the theory that a human cannot be described in purely quantum mechanical terms.

Ross, on the other hand, takes God to be the observer who makes it the case that particles have determinate properties. That's a great idea in many ways since it would certainly explain how there could be determinate properties before there were any living beings to observe anything. That certainly raises a problem of circularity since it should be impossible for observers to evolve without there being determinate properties.

However, the problem with Ross's solution is that it proves too much. If God is the observer for quantum events before the existence of (other) observers, then God ought to observe every quantum event since then. However, if there is an observer for all quantum events, then there should be no mysterious quantum effects in which particles do not have determinate properties until an observation is made. In other words, Ross's solution relies on God observing everything before other observers exist to do so. And if God makes these observations, then there would be no quantum effects to discover; everything would have its determinate properties even without human observations because God would make those observations. So, Ross's solution to the measurement problem would banish the phenomenon that he wishes to explain. If God does observe quantum events, one can appeal to God to solve the problem, but this would contradict the evidence that quantum indeterminacy exists.

The only response I can think that Ross could give is that God observes everything up to the existence of observers and then God stops observing (or stops observing whenever physicists are conducting experiments that exhibit this indeterminacy). Why God would observe for some time and then stop is completely mysterious. I am unsure that it is even coherent to suggest that an omniscient being could fail to observe quantum events.

Ross may simply be out of date, or he may be playing word games. Here is his claim although I've dropped a few so we can just get a flavor of his alternative models.
At last count, ten independent philosophical models have been seriously proposed:
1. A coherent reality exists independent of human thinking.
2. A common fundamental cause lies behind the cause-and-effect phenomena humans observe.
7. The only observer who counts is the conscious human observer.
10. The physical realm is the materialization of pure thought (p. 94).

I only included four of them, and there is no point in trying to refute these theories since the measurement problem remains. But I wanted to illustrate that Ross is not taking his argument seriously when he proposes these as alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation. If, on the other hand, he is not endorsing any of these but only noting that they have been proposed, then he really hasn't advanced anything that could be considered a solution.

The problem with "model" 1 is that there are determinate properties independent of measurement/observation. If Ross is denying that a measurement is necessary for particles to take on determinate properties, then he is promoting a model that is not consistent with the evidence. Perhaps Ross means to emphasize that the observer need not be human. Perhaps so, but this does not really resolve the measurement problem at all because it would then not provide an answer to the measurement problem.

"Model" 2 is a statement of Einstein's "Hidden Variable" theory. That model has indeed been proposed but, unfortunately, refuted. I included 7 because this "model" is a specific form of the problem that Ross wants to reject as absurd. So why is he proposing it as an alternative to the supposedly problematic theory? This is a bit like rejecting the theory that Bigfoot exists on the grounds that a previously unknown primate could not exist in the US for centuries with no credible observations or remains, and instead proposing as an alternative that what people have been reporting, when they report seeing Bigfoot, is that they have actually been seeing the Yeti. And, of course, I included 10 because I have no idea what it means, and neither does Ross.

Finally, since I have clearly gone on far too long, Ross offers an explanation for these physicists hostility to Christianity. He writes,

It seems the issue for these atheists, agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers [in a random magazine to which he provides no reverence] is not so much the deficiency of evidence for the Christian faith but rather the deficiencies of Christians. They seem to be reacting to their past, holding bitterness over the wrongs or abuses they incurred in their experiences with Christians (p. 96).

Lovely ad hominem there, Ross, especially since you say that these atheists (etc.) incurred the abuses. Even if this were relevant to the truth of these theories, it's nice to see that he assumes that any unpleasant experiences atheists (etc.) have had with Christians is their fault--or at least the unpleasantness simply occurred with no one to blame. "Mistakes were made" and all that.

In sum, Ross's chapter on quantum mechanics is completely unserious. He attacks a strawman, suggests a solution that is inconsistent with the empirical evidence (unless you add ad hoc hypotheses), throws out some alternatives that he cannot take seriously, and closes with an offensive ad hominem.

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