Is baseball supernatural?
Materialism 101, Pt. 4
Matthew Connally is a recent graduate of our World Journalism Institute mid-career course, but I first met him in 1992 when he was editor in chief of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at The University of Texas at Austin. From there he moved on to earn a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and become a pastor in Princeton and a campus chaplain at Princeton University. From 2012 to 2016 he was a teacher and principal in Nanjing, China, and since 2017 has been a pastor at a Houston-area Chinese church.
So let’s review: a Christian on a highly secularized campus newspaper, an evangelical at theologically liberal Princeton and in neo-Maoist China, and (as this essay shows) a critic of Darwinism. Matt is used to being in a minority, and by taking on Darwinism he’s cementing his position as a smart person who doesn’t believe what the smart set still believes—even though discoveries in recent decades about the complexity of cells, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the information coding in and around us have kicked the legs off materialism’s dining room tables.
This is the fourth in an occasional series of essays for our Saturday Series. In the last installment, he explored how the mathematical concept of infinity challenges materialism. In this one, he tackles quantum mechanics and what it has to say about free will and the soul. —Marvin Olasky
Before a pitcher puts on his glove or picks up a ball or stares down home plate, he has to do something truly mysterious: He has to make a decision. He doesn’t have to decide whether to breath, or blink, or jump if lightening strikes. Those things come naturally. But he does have to decide whether to use his brain and his body to play ball. How is that possible?
Is his mind free to make that choice?
If a student asks about free will in philosophy class, the professor might talk about determinism and compatibilism and intrinsic non-causal purposiveness. By the time he reaches a crescendo—after surveying 2,000 years of debate—and starts talking excitedly about soft metaphysical libertarianism, he has likely completely lost the student.
By contrast, if you ask the same question in traffic court, the judge might decide to hold you in contempt: “Of course you are responsible for your actions!”
But what happens if scientists ask that question in the laboratory? Well, 100 years ago, a group of physicists accidentally stumbled upon the answer: Not only is it clear we have a free will, it’s also clear free will is immaterial. Henry Stapp, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who worked with giants like Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and J.A. Wheeler, explained it this way in 2017:
Heisenberg’s discovery was that the process of observation—whereby an observer comes to consciously know the numerical value of a material property of an observed system—cannot be understood within the framework of materialist classical mechanics. A non-classical process is needed. This process does not construct mind out of matter, or reduce mind to matter. Instead, it explains, in mathematical terms, how a person’s immaterial conscious mind interacts with that person’s material brain.[i]
Although the explanation comes from quantum mechanics, in principle it is quite simple. Instead of understanding how the mind directs matter, we want to understand when. For just as any organism is preceded by a genetic code, any technology is preceded by a written plan, and any dish is preceded by a recipe, so every single quantum particle in the cosmos is preceded by rational, creative words, or what’s called a wave function. Obviously, you don’t need to be able to solve wave functions to use your brain any more than you need to be able to speak binary in order to use your laptop. But in both cases, you need to have conscious thoughts. As Richard Muller, emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley and former faculty senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, put it in 2016:
Despite arguments from classical philosophers, we now know that free will is compatible with physics; those who argue otherwise are making a case based on the religion of physicalism [a.k.a. materialism]. We can influence the future using not only scientific but also nonphysics knowledge (empathy, virtue, ethics, fairness, justice) to guide the flow of entropy to bring about a strengthening of civilization, or its destruction.[ii]
Although it has become common to talk about quantum mechanics as being incessantly bizarre and virtually impossible to understand, that is only true from a materialistic point of view. But if scientists let go of the presuppositions of materialism, it suddenly makes sense—especially when we consider that we already have overwhelming evidence (What is infinity?) that the mind is immaterial.
Following the science
In the quantum mechanics laboratory, if a scientist asks a question, the answer will literally materialize. If the scientist does not ask a question, no answer materializes.
By contrast, if NASA asks, “What percentage of Mars’ crust is iron?”, they can send a robot there to examine the soil and find the answer. The information is already there, like a book on a shelf, available to be read. Not so in the quantum lab: Answers do not exist unless scientists ask questions.
Furthermore, it is impossible for scientists to predict what those answer will be. By contrast, if they ask, “Where will the cannon ball land?” or “Where will Mars be?”, they can predict the answers to such questions with remarkable accuracy. Not so with quantum mechanics. When they ask, “Where will the quantum be?”, the answer is not just technically impossible to predict, but also theoretically impossible to predict. It’s like realizing that no matter how well you know a person, you still can’t be sure what they’re going to say.
In the quantum lab, answers do not exist unless scientists ask questions.
Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg (1933-2021), former professor of physics at Harvard University and The University of Texas, said that prior to the materialization of a particle, the waves of a wave function could be compared to a musical chord. After a measurement is taken, the chosen probability is like a single note in the chord. But he clarified that electron waves are not waves of electronic matter in the way sound waves are waves of vibrating air or ocean waves are waves of moving water. “Rather, as Max Born [1882-1970] came to realize, the electron waves are waves of probability,” Weinberg said.[iii] So when a scientist asks a question (takes a measurement) a function of probable events instantly “collapses” into a single actual event. They call that the collapse of the wave function.
And again, this function of probabilities is nothing but words—invisible, silent, untouchable, immaterial words. That’s why Stapp said the process “cannot be understood within the framework of materialist classical mechanics.”
One of the first scientists who learned to translate and solve these wave functions was the Hungarian mathematical physicist John von Neumann. In 1932 he wrote a textbook, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, in which he explained wave function collapse resulted not from static physical laws (i.e. the kind that govern flying cannon balls and orbiting planets) but from the intervention of an observer—the scientist. Furthermore, it was clear that the observer (or his mind, specifically) was “a new entity relative to the physical environment” (i.e. nonphysical). The modern scientific establishment doesn’t use this sort of language anymore, but Neumann was simply relaying what the data revealed:
Let us now compare these circumstances with those which actually exist in nature or in its observation. First, it is inherently entirely correct that the measurement or the related process of the subjective perception is a new entity relative to the physical environment and is not reducible to the latter. Indeed, subjective perception leads us into the intellectual inner life of the individual, which is extra-observational by its very nature (since it must be taken for granted by any conceivable observation or experiment).[iv]
This original, and still orthodox, understanding of quantum mechanics is called the Copenhagen Interpretation because it was largely outlined by German physicist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr at the Niels Bohr Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen in the 1920s. Many other physicists, including Albert Einstein, Max Born, Erwin Shrödinger, and Neumann, contributed to the work. And, to be sure, they argued about what it all meant. But at the end of the day, the implication that the observer/measurer’s mind is extra-physical was unavoidable.
Stapp explains it this way: “The strangle-hold of materialism was broken simply by the need to accommodate the empirical data of atomic physics, but the ontological ramifications went far deeper, into the issue of our own human nature and the power of our thoughts to influence our psycho-physical future.”[v] Stapp has published many papers pertaining to quantum mechanics’ non-local aspects. He says that no physicist can deny the overwhelming empirical evidence for faster-than-light action-at-a-distance events.
As Stephen M. Barr, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, put it:
Quantum theory, in its traditional, or “standard,” or “orthodox” formulation, treats “observers” as being on a different plane from the physical systems that they observe. A careful analysis of the logical structure of quantum theory suggests that for quantum theory to make sense it has to posit the existence of observers who lie, at least in part, outside of the description provided by physics.[vi]
Again, they were all concluding that the mind of a scientist is “a new entity relative to the physical environment”, is “extra-observational” (i.e. extra-sensory), is “on a different plane from the physical systems that they observe.” In classical, traditional terms, that’s what we would call a soul.
In classical, traditional terms, that’s what we would call a soul.
How, you ask, how is it possible that our high school students and even most of our college students know nothing about these conclusions? Because, for starters, it annihilates Darwinism. Although naturalists admit that it’s all very bizarre, they have no other choice but to suppress these discoveries, for they are completely unacceptable to the establishment’s presuppositions about humanity, nature, and reality.
Suppressing the truth
Monday through Friday, materialists will work freely with the Copenhagen Interpretation and teach it to their students, for it is still the standard. But when Sunday comes along, many will suddenly start insisting that we not call the mind a new extra-observational entity. Although they can’t articulate a single argument as to why that conclusion is wrong, they can offer several arguments—really, only one—as to why it should be wrong: It changes everything. Indeed, it is a paradigm shift that enrages a lot of brilliant people.
Therefore, even the brightest scientists, including the caustic atheist Weinberg himself, ignored it for decades. At the end of his career, he wrote, “Like most physicists, I have generally been content in my past work to use quantum mechanics without much worry about such controversies.”[vii] But in 2012, when he was writing a textbook, he realized he had to grapple with the issue.
What then must be done about the shortcomings of quantum mechanics? One reasonable response is contained in the legendary advice to inquiring students: ‘Shut up and calculate!’ There is no argument about how to use quantum mechanics, only how to describe what it means, so perhaps the problem is merely one of words.[viii]
That is a common refrain. “Most users don’t worry too much about these puzzles,” writes Philip Ball, an editor for the journal Nature and a columnist for Chemistry World. “In the words of the physicist David Mermin of Cornell University, they ‘shut up and calculate’.”[ix]
But that’s not to say that many scientists, acutely aware of the threat to materialism, have not tried to find another interpretation. Today there are a couple dozen competing theories—including some that try to offer a materialistic explanation of how quantum events create consciousness—but none of them have come close to displacing the Copenhagen Interpretation. In his excellent book, Beyond Weird (2018), Ball reviews several of these competing theories. Yet he only touches briefly on this first one—the one von Neumann, Stapp, and Barr explained above—which he calls “mind-induced collapse”. He just summarizes it and then dismisses it. Why?
In particular, mind-induced collapse seems to demand that we attribute to the mind some feature distinct from the rest of reality: to make mind a non-physical entity that does not obey the Schrödinger equation. How else could it do something to quantum processes that nothing else can?
Perhaps most problematically of all, if wavefunction collapse depends on the intervention of a conscious being, what happened before intelligent life evolved on our planet? Did it then develop in some concatenation of quantum superpositions?[x]
Why does Ball so easily reject this explanation? He dismisses it because (1) it requires an immaterial mind, and (2) it completely contradicts evolutionary theory by making the whole universe contingent upon an intelligent “conscious being” (a.k.a. God!). Being a good naturalist, he cannot tolerate either of those possibilities.
The zealous drive to squelch questions has proven so effective that by the time graduate students learn how to use quantum mechanics, they have also learned not to wonder about the mystery of it all. “It is also not well known,” Barr said, “even among most practicing physicists.”[xi]
Materialists have hidden the mystery behind a lot of relentlessly esoteric, pathologically abstract lingo. After all, as Weinberg said, “perhaps the problem is merely one of words.” And since the establishment has already indoctrinated students about the materialistic nature of consciousness, it is that much easier to confuse them regarding quantum mechanics. They bury the mystery under philosophical fog and extremely complex and intimidating mathematical projections. It is very easy—as easy as getting a D in physics—to get completely lost and overwhelmed in the discussion.
Just shut up and calculate.
Students should not let them get away with this. They should insist on following the science even if it suggests that quantum events in the brain are directed by immaterial minds. As Stapp put it in 2010:
It is exactly this problem of the connection between physically described small-scale properties and directly experienced large-scale properties that orthodox quantum theory successfully resolves. To ignore this solution, and cling to the false precepts of classical mechanics that leave mind and consciousness completely out of the causal loop, seems to be totally irrational. What fascination with the weird and the incredible impels philosophers to adhere, on the one hand, to a known-to-be-false physical theory that implies that all of our experiences of our thoughts influencing our actions are illusions, and to reject, on the other hand, the offerings of its successor, which naturally produces an image of ourselves that is fully concordant with our normal intuitions, and can explain how bodily behavior can be influenced by felt evaluations that emerge from an aspect of reality that is not adequately conceptualized in terms of the mechanistic notion of bouncing billiard balls?[xii]
He is saying what tens of thousands of experiments have confirmed: Our minds are not physical things, as predictable as bouncing billiard balls. Instead, freewill choices flowing from extra-physical minds allow us to have an influence on the creation.
This situation is concordant with the idea of a powerful God that creates the universe and its laws to get things started, but then bequeaths part of this power to beings created in his own image, at least with regard to their power to make physically efficacious decisions on the basis of reasons and evaluations.[xiii]
Beings created in his own image?
Creating with words
The hallmark of free will is creativity, which often starts with words. We author recipes, computer programs, movie scripts, and games. We draw a diamond on the field and then write a bunch of rules for two teams of nine players each—all just for the re-creation of joy.
But do we know whether any other beings are creative? Do birds author new songs, or can we skeptically conclude that they are only singing what they are programmed to sing? Do beavers ever author new uses for their engineering skills, or can we skeptically conclude that they are only doing what they are programmed to do? Do bacteria ever find creative uses for their protein-building skills? (Keep in mind that the process for constructing proteins is more complex than the process of building beaver dams.) Could it be that animals are simply machines?
Whereas all the materialists’ presuppositions fail when applied to human consciousness, their arguments may work quite well in explaining the behavior of all other species. It is possible no other animals have free will. The appearance of animal intelligence might be comparable to the appearance of the sunrise. Just as heliocentrism revealed a staggeringly larger, more complex universe than previously seen, so also quantum mechanics revealed a much more majestic creativity than previously perceived behind nature. As intelligent as some animals may appear to be—an appearance as seemingly as obvious as the rising and setting of the sun—at the end of the day they may not be any more rational or sentient than Gandalf or Ironman.
But when it comes to human beings, perhaps our creativity reveals that we have been created in the image of the Creator. After all, no other species creates fantasy novels and science fiction films. And no other species has the creative power to throw a fast ball.
[i] Henry Stapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will (Springer International Publishing, 2017), 7.
[ii] Muller, Richard A. Now: The Physics of Time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), Kindle Edition, location 4019-4025.
[iii] Steven Weinberg, Third Thoughts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 126.
[iv] John von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, published 1932, translated from the German edition by Robert T. Beyer in 1949 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 418.
[v] Henry Stapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will (Springer International Publishing, 2017), 28.
[vi] Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 27-28.
[vii] Steven Weinberg, Third Thoughts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 125.
[viii] Steven Weinberg, Third Thoughts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 137.
[ix] Philip Ball, Beyond Weird: Why everything you thought you knew about quantum physics is different (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 13.
[x] Philip Ball, Beyond Weird: Why everything you thought you knew about quantum physics is different (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 118.
[xi] Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 27-28.
[xii] Henry Stapp, “Minds and Values in the Quantum Universe,” Information and the Nature of Reality, ed. by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 108.
[xiii] Henry Stapp, “Minds and Values in the Quantum Universe,” in Information and the Nature of Reality, ed. by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 117-118.
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