Quantum Mechanics and Ontological Certainty

The other day I was having an altogether uncivil conversation with a self-declared defender of science, America and reason itself. The poster was judge, jury and executioner. I was accused of being a ‘TrueChristian,’ written with ominous significance, and probably–worse–a Roman Catholic. They would deign to chat with me but there should be no confusion that I, in spite of my ostensible protestations to the contrary, or perhaps because of them, had no idea what science really was.

Inevitably the conversation turned towards some more philosophical considerations. One that came up was whether ‘something can come from nothing.’ I readily admit my favoritism for classical logic. Unsurprisingly Quantum Mechanics was conscripted into another cause. One day it’ll be allowed to trundle its way from super hadron collider to super hadron collider. That’s not today. 

Luckily the conversation veered away from Solid State Theory. I have seen atheists declare, serenely and apparently unaware, that it has been completely dormant in recent years. 

Everyone agrees on some underlying facts, or is at least familiar with them. QM is a deterministic theory and Schrödinger’s equation gives a unitary evolution. Given a boundary condition and Schrödinger’s equation, everything is set. The kicker is that the non-determinism lies in the measurement problem, since the collapse of the wave function is not a unitary process and is subject to randomness.

Yet we keep it around because it correctly predicts experiments. At least, we think it is able to predict experiments. There is not one scientist who is unaware of the limitations to what we are able to measure. Since it involves concepts that we’re not able to measure directly (such as the ‘wave function’) and doesn’t predict everything we might want it to (such as the outcome of a single measurement) it does seem to violate quite a few assumptions we have about the world.

The argument presented was based off a misconception but a popular one. The misconception, simply put, is that because scientists are not able to appropriately identify the creation and disappearance of particles then the particles themselves must appear and disappear. Thus ‘something comes from nothing.’ The universe, presumably, can then pop into existence or something marginally more banal.

The problem is that the statement commits a subtle but significant categorical error. Quantum mechanics concerns itself with probabilities (e.g. a particle has a 20% chance of appearing here, disappearing there; ‘teleporting’ from here to there). It is not expressed by statements, but is essentially a set of instructions that we accept when we accept the theory. Quantum mechanics does not tell scientists anything about probabilities. At best, it instructs them to assign probabilities in a certain way. Since instructions are neither true nor false, this part of quantum mechanics cannot be interpreted as ontological. It is not a description of the world as it is but of a world as we perceive it. 

This may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s quite significant to the field. It explains, in part, the defining contradiction between General Relativity and QM. Ultimately, the ‘probabilities’ associated with quantum mechanics are a problem because, as it has often been posed, how can one consider the logic of quantum mechanics when the mathematics used in quantum mechanics depends in such a thorough fashion on classical logic (e.g. ‘nothing comes from nothing’)?

Scientists in the field affirm the functional logic of events’ probability must be defined, so every event of algebra must be assigned a probability but the algebra of events in quantum mechanics cannot be closed under the conjunction of events and satisfy ‘every measure is defined’ (a requirement of Boolean algebra). Yes, we are returning to the ole’ can’t know where it is and where it is going at the same time. Hence the algebra of events in quantum mechanics is not defined by a Boolean algebra, because every Boolean algebra is closed under conjunction.

Boolean algebra, for this who may need a refresher, is simply the ‘type’ of algebra that involves ‘true’ or ‘false’ statements. We’re most familiar with it in binary coding: “10001101” is an expression of Boolean algebra.

The issue is, however, is that journalists and scientists–or, at least, a few of the former–sometimes produce soundbites that are misinterpreted. Yes, scientists do not use ‘classical’ logic in working with quantum mechanics (though, confusingly enough, classical logic is used as the foundation for quantum mechanics) **operationally**. But that is something altogether different from ontological certainty.

Yes, very few people who are in the field make the claim **ontologically**. Even though it is impossible to define (operationally) certain features of quantum mechanics with complete certainty it is still a far cry from ‘knowing’ certain features (ontologically). Thus, while scientists of that field will use as an operational precept ‘something comes from nothing’ they are not making an ontological claim because they do not have that sort of evidence. Most are not even considering it.

Turn back to the old cat metaphor, the one with a poor felix and poison. The point of the metaphor is not concerning itself with whether the cat is alive or dead. Saying ‘the cat is dead’ or ‘the cat is alive’ would be an ontological claim. Yet, if you notice, that is never defined because quantum mechanics is not (chiefly!) concerned with such statements. As the metaphor plays out the focus shifts to ‘us’ and how we, operationally, compensate for the lack of our ontological knowledge. To try and twist the metaphor into an expression of ontological certainty would explode it. Equally, to try and assert ontological principles (e.g. ‘nothing comes from nothing’) from QM would do a grave disservice to the field not to mention my patience.

4 thoughts on “Quantum Mechanics and Ontological Certainty

  1. In my mind, the persistent difficulty in understanding quantum mechanics has been understanding what it means for the world to have the structure that the mathematics seems to attribute to it.

    As for Schrod’s thought experiment, I quite agree. It was really just about refuting the Copenhagen interpretation, although, in Bohr’s mind, Schrod’s cat was a trivial objection because the cat would be either alive or dead long before the steel box was opened.


    • The contradiction you point out, in my mind at least, will be the defining facet of 21st Century ‘science’ and especially scientism. The hardest of the hard sciences are, suddenly, inhabiting a startling contradiction. I read E. P. Snow’s criticism of the ‘literary intellectuals’ in his lecture about the “Two Cultures” and it’s startling how much of it simply does not matter anymore. No one can say that physics is still in the business of providing absolute answers. We thought that post-modernist writers argued about the most obvious things? Get some QM experts to explain about the properties of a quark.

      • People still view the world as Newton’s machine–it’s not. People, not physicists, but many scientists, still view the world as this vast machine in which individual elements are externally related to each other in such a way that the functioning of any system or composite unit can be exhaustively described in terms of the aggregate effects of its component parts. To put it another way: Space and time are independent, objective absolutes in which particles endure and move. And this only seems to deal with commonsense notions of tiny particles moving in three-dimensional, Euclidean space. What has replaced the Newtonian scheme is difficult to describe in a few words, but I can assure you that little or nothing of the materialistic, deterministic, and mechanistic view of the world associated with Newtonian physics remains unchanged.

        In my mind, I don’t think the new view is materialistic since matter is conceived not as inert particles in motion but as patterns of pulsating energy. The mechanism has been modified in that it has become evident that external relations alone are not sufficient; internal relations are also necessary. In other words, wholes as well as parts must be taken into account. The old-school determinism, that is so prevalent amongst today’s atheists, has been challenged, not in the sense that causality has been ruled out, but in the sense that there is an openness in events that allows for alternative outcomes of given states within certain parameters determined for preceding states.

        The problem for the classical view was that it viewed certain abstractions derived from an examination of the world at its middle ranges as the concrete actuality. Relativity and quantum mechanics has suggested that the evidence derived from these macrocosmic and microcosmic dimensions of nature makes a new scheme necessary. Something that allows for creative advance I would think.


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