Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Free will and quantum mechanics

Lent 2018, Day 22

Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe spans three broad areas of learning - physics, biology and philosophy. He pushes at the boundaries of science towards panpsychism - the ancient notion than consciousness is pervasive throughout the universe. The Newtonian worldview based on the predictability of the paths of objects travelling through space has, says Kauffman, stunted our ability to see wonders as being anything other than that which must be.

According to classical physics, he says, "since the beginning of time, the universe is deterministic, and the present cannot have been different." This approach to life tends to rule out the existence of free will, as whatever we do is determined. "Only what actually happens can happen."

Yet the world of quantum mechanics does not work like this, nor does biology, evolution. The biosphere, he argues, unfolds in an unprestatable way - for to chaotic in its complexity for us to begin to plot how it will evolve in the future.

Once again, we delve into the strange world of entangled particles that can only be defined as probabilities until measured. Here, Kauffman loses me again when making the link between 'responsible free human will' and the outcome of an experiment to define the position of an electron within an atom's shell. This is the area of his thinking that is most open to scientific criticism, namely that a conscious observer may somehow sway the outcome of such an experiment.

"Nothing in the past of the universe determines the outcome of measurement," he says; the spin of the entangled particles cannot be predicted by any Newtonian equation. Only the presence of a conscious observe will result in the outcome becoming known.

The controversial name of Dean Radin crops up again in this context; "...via Radin's tentative results, we have starting-grounds to think human consciousness can affect or mediate measurement. By extension, we can hope for such experience of will and also consciousness in humans made of quantum variables. And by similar argument, we can hope for responsible free will among electrons and consciousness when they measure one another..."

Wow! Heavy stuff! Electrons exhibiting consciousness! Well, classical science poo-poos the idea of consciousness residing anywhere outside the brains of higher-order animals, so the notion that a single-celled bacteria such as E. Coli could display signs of possessing consciousness, such as displaying emotions, is still far-fetched.

But more importantly, more practically, the idea that we can alter the outcome of an experiment by thinking about it smacks of paranormal research rather than proper science, confirmed by repeatability of findings and subject to robust peer review. Yet this is what Kauffman is setting out to do - make all this "consistent with the context of science".

One should know a bit more about the science than I do in order to judge, yet I feel that orthodox science is all too willing to dismiss this all as woolly thinking, lacking in theoretical or experiment-based rigour. Maybe Kauffman is right - maybe we should allow in some subjectivity, some personal feelings. He quotes physicist John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008, Manhatten Project, black-hole and worm-hole theorist) as saying that the universe is observing itself, that the universe only exists because consciousness (such as ours) is there to observe it.

More to follow!

This time last year:
Good thinking captured - the importance of jotting it down

This time two years ago:
Spirit of place and our own spirituality

This time three years ago:
Poland's road death toll falls but remains too high

This time six years ago:
My photos turned into beautiful watercolours

This time seven years ago:
Silver birches and blue skies

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in late winter (2009)

This time ten years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands in late winter (2008)

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