Stanley Jaki on Einstein’s Failure

‘The year of that Slovay Congress, was, it is well to recall, the year in which Heisenberg gave his derivation of the principle of indeterminacy concerning measurements in physics. One can therefore in a sense understand Einstein’s tactics in taking on the Copenhagen interpretation at its nerve center, which consisted in the insistence that measurements were inconceivable without someone doing them. Thus it would be argued that the act of measurement, which in one way or another implied pointer readings and therefore a reliance on light quanta, deprived the measurement of absolute precision. Such insistence when elevated into a first principle became equivalent to withdrawing into a citadel. Once confined to measurements within that citadel, one could declare that physical theory was limited to the measurable and therefore had no need of hidden variables. Withdrawal into that citadel also meant the the viewing of anything outside it as unreal. It was such a citadel that Einstein wanted to conquer from within, by trying to devise a thought experiment in which absolute precision was in principle possible. He was bound to fail for the very reason that no measurement is possible without observation. But it did not follow from this that knowledge of reality was equivalent to measuring it with absolute precision. Philosophically the citadel in question did not represent the full range of man’s knowing reality, and it certainly did not represent the full range of modern physics. Einstein’s own theory of relativity was a case in point, and all members of the Copenhagen school could have been forced to admit that it was a telling case.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 209)

Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)


On Modeling Divine Action

In ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, Alvin Plantinga draws up a model for divine action using quantum mechanics. It’s one of the most creative projects in the world of philosophy/theology/philosophy of science world, in my opinion, and I think it merits some serious attention. Some of my questions are: is such a project necessary? Is it genuinely useful? Is it relevant? Does it make sense? Is this trying to assign God a place in the world? Other questions will surface, I’m sure (for the sake of brevity, I’m going to avoid going into huge detail regarding the background information of the topic of quantum mechanics – high-quality  information on this topic is readily available online).

Plantinga’s thesis is made in the context of a discussion on divine action in general – the thesis is basically trying to solve some of the problems posed by thinkers on the topic of divine action. Some folks (Plantinga cites the ‘Divine Action Project’, whose most prominent member is John Polkinghorne) have a problem with typical accounts of such action and have raised important objections – this thesis is an answer to those objections.

Briefly, the objections amount to this: if God acts specially in the world, His actions would be a violations of the laws of nature – God’s acting in a special way entails a suspension of the natural order, which, so the story goes, then entails that the regularity of nature, which allows for inquiry into nature, can’t be counted on. If God makes and upholds the laws of nature, He can’t also go against them or break them. This is a broad stroke, and there are different opinions and distinctions to be made, but the majority of Plantinga’s thesis deals with ‘hands-off theology’ objections. The goal, then, is to answer these objections.

After an account of classical science and contemporary physics, Plantinga goes in-depth with quantum mechanics, setting his sights on various collapse-interpetations. After spending some time expounding the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber collapse interpretation, Plantinga goes on to apply it to divine action. One reason Plantinga picks up on this interpretation is that it avoids some of the uncertainty of, say, the Copenhagen interpretation:

‘The Copenhagen interpretation is a collapse interpretation; but there are other collapse approaches. For example, there are spontaneous collapse theories, including in particular the Ghirardi-Rimini-Weber (GRW) approach. On these collapse approaches, collapses are not restricted to measurements; they occur spontaneously, and at a regular rate.’ (p. 115)

‘On this approach we could think of the nature of a system as dictating that collapses occur at the regular rate they in fact display. What is presently of significance, however, is that on these approaches there is no cause for a given collapse to go to the particular value (the particular position, for example) or eigenstate to which it in fact goes. That is, there is no physical cause; there is nothing in the previous physical state of the world that causes a given collapse to go to the particular eigenstate to which it does go. But of course this state of affairs might very well have a nonphysical cause. It’s wholly in accord with these theories that, for any collapse and the resulting eigenstate, it is God who causes that state to result. Perhaps, then, all collapse-outcomes (as we might call them) are caused by God. If so, then between collapses, a system evolves according to the Schrodinger equation; but when a collapse occurs, it is divine agency that causes the specific collapse-outcome that ensues.’ (p. 116)

Pretty interesting stuff. My first thought on reading this was ‘is this just god of the gaps?’ I don’t think so. A god-of-the-gaps account would be something along the lines of ‘we don’t know how it works, therefore, god’, whereas Plantinga’s model is an answer, a scientifically grounded answer, to various objections raised against divine action.

‘How can we say that God intervenes in our scientific world?’

‘Well, here’s an account of how, given the scientific data available, we can model divine action such that the objections you raise are answered.’

So, to conclude this first post examining Plantina’s DCC theory: I would say that such a project is genuinely useful and is definitely not a god-of-the-gaps argument.

More thoughts on ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’

So far, the strongest point in the book are the two chapters on divine intervention – ‘The Old Picture’, and ‘The New Picture’. Plantinga really, really knocks this one out of the park. Having read some of his essays where he more broadly sketched out this topic, it was nice to see it developed at length and in depth – this is a topic that deserves to be engaged much more fully in the theological world.

A thought I had while reading these sections: has the realm of the quantum become a refuge for God and His action, or is this a legitimate way of modeling God’s activity in the world?

I did think that some of Plantinga’s defense of intelligent design was a bit weak – I personally find the more Aristotelian accounts of teleology to be a sounder foundation/explanation than the William Paley style arguments employed here. More to come.

Thoughts on ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’

Alvin Plantinga has really fired on all cylinders with this book – do yourself a favor and read it. This is cutting edge philosophy – Plantingas arguments and ideas (especially his use of quantum mechanics as a model for understanding how God intervenes in the world) are among the most creative and thought-provoking out there. Between this book and Torrance’s ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’ I’ve had my hands full, but hopefully some reviews or commentary on both will be forthcoming.

‎’On this view of God’s special action – call it “divine collapse-causation” (DCC)- God is *always* acting specially, that is, always acting in ways that go go beyond creation and conservation, thus obviating the problem alleged to lie in his sometimes treating the world in hands-off fashion but other times in a hands-on way.

Furthermore, if, as one assumes, the macroscopic physical world supervenes on the microscopic, God could thus control what happens at the macroscopic level by causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes. In this way God can exercise providential guidance over cosmic history…in this way He might also guide human history. He could do this without in any way “violating” the created nature of the things he has created. For on this suggestion, it is in the nature of physical systems to evolve between collapses according to the Schrodinger equation; it is also in their nature to undergo periodic collapses; but it is not part of their nature to collapse to any particular eigenstate.’ (Alvin Plantinga, ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, p. 116-117)