Science in Review: Quantum Foam Fluctuation, Roll for Initiative

Optical illusion involving a trident with either 2 or 3 tines, and a cat either on the side or in front

Is this cat clawing the front or the side of this 2 (or 3?) tined fork? Does God know for sure? (Illustration by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre; Public Domain)

I’ve always been sympathetic to Einstein’s famous assertion “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” In my public health training, I regularly and fruitfully used statistics and probability theory. Ideologically, they struck me as concessions to pragmatism. Human beings are too complex, their measurable attributes innumerable; we cannot know enough about them to accurately describe their full condition at any moment. We appeal to the law of large numbers to save us from our finitude. Somewhere behind those statistics are objective truths about the health of each individual in the public. As with people, so with photons; underneath those probability waves, surely there must be a bedrock of certainty.

When I read about this result in Big Bang cosmology, I was intrigued. I discovered that an interpretation of quantum physics with certainty at its core does exist, and has existed for some time. It was never widely adopted, and has become less popular in recent years. This new cosmological result resurrects it, or at least its central and most controversial element — a guiding equation that makes the properties of a single particle dependent on every other particle in the universe. This results in nonlocal effects which are considered irreconcilable with the locality of other physical phenomena.  It also gives each particle a definite location and velocity. The probability wave still limits how precisely those quantities can be measured, meaning this version of quantum physics gives all the same results as fundamentally probabilistic interpretations.

Having been intrigued, I began to wonder. Why am I so opposed to a fundamentally probabilistic reality? I don’t find a Laplacian-style determinism any more satisfying metaphyiscally. That path leads me to a pangalactic billiards table completely constrained by its initial conditions, and a God who is inclined to watch. Meanwhile, the world of Einstein’s relativistic spacetime is static. Nothing ever happens there, becoming is impossible and change is meaningless. At least with quantum physics there is something for us to do, right?

And then I come to 1 Samuel 14:41

Then Saul said, “O Lord God of Israel! If this sin has been committed by me or by my son Jonathan, then, O Lord God of Israel, respond with Urim. But if this sin has been committed by your people Israel, respond with Thummim.” Then Jonathan and Saul were indicated by lot, while the army was exonerated.

Is this not a picture of God literally playing dice with the world, communicating his divine will through what appears to be a game of chance. And yet it cannot be chance, can it? If it were, then it couldn’t accurately communicate the guilt of Jonathan. Nor could Achan have been implicated in the defeat at Ai in Joshua 7 (if not by the Urim and Thummim specifically, then by a similar, causally independent process). If we are to believe that God is communicating through these methods, then he must have the means of guaranteeing the outcome.

The Urim and Thummin sound like a quintessential bit of information, able to answer a single binary question. The meaning of a bit is arbitrary and extrinsic. Successful communication is thus relational, with both parties agreeing on the meaning. This is readily apparent in another story of Jonathan and Saul. David didn’t know where he stood in Saul’s eyes, and so he asked Jonathan to find out and communicate the answer to him. Their communication channel involved Jonathan shooting arrows while David watched nearby. If Jonathan told his servant he had shot short of the target, then David was in good standing with Saul; if Jonathan said he overshot the target, David needed to flee. This single “too close”/”too far” bit could only mean something about David and Saul’s relationship because of the prearranged encoding; note that the same bit means something completely different to the servant.

Assortment of dice of various numbers of sides

If God does play dice with the world, I kind of hope there are some d20s involved (Public Domain)

God must then be able to guarantee a particular outcome with the Urim and Thummin, and he also needs to know the meaning that will be attached to the answer. This implies that God has completely determined in advance both the outcome of the lots and the meaning that the Israelites will assign to them, which calls into question the legitimacy of free will. Or it implies that God intervenes directly at the time the lots are cast, after the meaning was decided by the choice of a free agent. Neither scenario leaves much room for randomness, even though it looks at first like a roll of the dice.

Even in probabilistic interpretations of quantum physics, a roll of the literal dice can still be deterministic. The uncertainty about individual particles at the subatomic level does not practically propagate up to the dice level. At some point, the particles in those dice and the air around them measure each other enough to the point that the only consistent option is for them all to tell the same story about a single definitive location and velocity for the cubes. This is conceptually similar, although different in detail, to the law of large numbers that makes public health statistics reliably predictive for populations even if they don’t tell the complete story of individuals. Randomness giving way to order at a higher level of organization also comes into play in this model of biological morphogenesis.

In light of these models of transcendent order and organization, maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned about whether quantum physics is truly random. Maybe it’s a reminder to orient myself upward and not downward when in search of certainty.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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