Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Physics of Choice

As quantum mechanics has become more refined, the physicists are increasingly clear--and increasingly divided--about the ultimate physics behind human choice. There are three dramatically different ways of understanding what happens when we "choose." It all depends whether we live in a:

  • "block universe,"
  • "random universe," or
  • "multiverse."

In a "block universe," a single timeline proceeds inexorably into the future, predetermined by precise laws. In such a universe, "choice" is a psychological state, not a physical event. We feel like we are "choosing" when we set a date or pick a mate, but all our acts are predetermined by matter in motion. Einstein was the last great champion of this view, which came under fire as quantum physics revealed the limits of classical mechanics. Heisenberg and others showed that there was a degree of uncertainty in all our measurements. Einstein did not argue with the limits of our ability to measure, but hoped that the seemingly random events of quantum physics were really determined at some deeper level by "hidden variables" that we cannot measure. Subsequent experiments tend to show Einstein wrong. Bell's Theorem holds that quantum events really aren't determined by any constraints we can identify or imagine, and that theorem has been supported by sophisticated tests. So the block universe as Einstein imagined it is largely out of favor.

In a "random universe," quantum events "determine" what happens at each "observation." There is only one timeline, but it twists and turns its way through the fourth dimension for no identifiable reason. Humans are not bound by the iron laws of physics to do whatever their molecules make them do. In this model, a human brain might be such a sensitive device that events on the quantum scale make the difference between decisions. When Julius Caesar decided to cross the Rubicon to attack Rome, he cried, "The die is cast!" Perhaps he should have said, "The quantum has fluctuated!"

In a multiverse, there isn't just one timeline. Every possible "branch" in time actually happens. David Deutsch articulated this position in The Fabric of Reality. If an event falls within the range of quantum possibilities, Deutsch argues, then it really happens--and he has a broad view of the range of quantum possibilities. It is possible for every atom in your body to move up at the same time--so you could levititate, despite the laws of gravity. In Deutsch's model, that means there are timelines where you do levitate. In fact, there are timelines where you levitate for hours on end--or levitate in groups--or levitate in groups on brooms chasing the snitch in a quiddich match.

Choice in a multiverse is real--every branch of the timeline is a true choice. But a multiverse disturbs our sense of self--if every choice I make results in two timelines, which is the "real me"? Is it the one typing this article, or the one who is playing quiddich?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Metaphysics of Prophecy

"Prophecy" is a metaphysically rich concept. Predictive prophecy flies in the face of classical physics, with majojr implications for the fundamental philosophical categories of freedom, causation, and the nature of knowledge.

There's a vast range of New Age and other postmodern discussion of prophecy, but I'm not aware of any objective discussion of the metaphysics that would make prophecy meaningful. It seems more like a visceral rejection of modern materialism in favor of a world more rich in meaning. You can just about sum up the intellectual underpinnings of all this in a bumper sticker: "Magic Happens."

The postmodernists are reacting to old-fashioned modernism, best represented by the methodological naturalists who believe that prophecy is a hoax. Fulfilled prophecies rarely persuade a true materialist--no matter how precise the prediction, they are precommitted to rule it a coincidence or "con." To the modern mind, "prophecy" is either intentionally false or worse than false--mere nonsense. For the truly secular thinker, prophecy is Macbeth's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Theological liberals are "modernists" who aren't as committed to pure materialism as the methodolical naturalists, but liberal metaphysics also rules out any predictive power to prophecy. They view biblical prophecy exclusively as "forthtelling," not "foretelling"--revealing the character of God, not the future. Prophecy is God talking about Himself, not about the world.

Christians who still believe the Bible have more material to work with in thinking about prophecy. I haven't researched the theology of prophecy from an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic perspective, so I will limit my comments to Protestantism.

There isn't a single Arminian view of prophecy. Wayne Grudem, a respected Reformed theologian, notes three different Arminian positions on prophecy:

  1. God does not know the future
  2. God knows the future but does not cause it
  3. God knows all possible futures and knows people so well he knows what they will choose

The first of these three positions has now become the starting point of "Open Theism," which holds that God knows all things, but does not know the future because the "future" does not exist. This is a refreshingly clear metaphysical position, which flies in the face of most of the old theology and most of the new physics.

The second Arminian position makes prophecy nothing more than a preview of coming attractions. I call it the "periscope model" of prophecy. The eternal God looks ahead at what is coming and reports back to an earlier time about events in their future. In this model, prophecy reveals God's omniscience but not His omnipotence--He sees the future but does not cause it. That means that prophecy should be "graded" on its truth value--the more precise the report, the greater the glory to the One who reported it. Unsurprisingly, most dispensationalists operate within this model, devoting their energies to explaining how the Old Testament prophecies to Israel will be literally fulfilled after the end of the Church Age.

The third Arminian position brings an entire set of possible futures into focus, enriching our discussion of fate and freedom. In this model, prophecy reveals God's wisdom as well as His knowledge--the One who counted every hair upon our heads knows our hearts so well that He knows our free choices before we make them. This understanding of prophecy enables us to make sense of prophetic warnings that never come true, like Jonah's message to Ninevah. God isn't just a journalist reporting what is coming in the future; He is an actor in the drama Who shapes what is to come.

Calvinists don't tend to worry about the metaphysics of prophecy. God is absolutely sovereign over past, present, and future. He is neither a reporter nor an actor--He is the author of the story we are in. Prophecy has an esthetic dimension--it "foreshadows" what is coming, adding interest to the plot.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of Dreams and Time

The Bible tells of Joseph the dreamer, whose brothers envied him and kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. The story goes on to tell of Pharaoh the dreamer, who saw seven fat cows and seven skinny cows and put all Egypt under Joseph's rule. Joseph reveals the metaphysics behind it all in Genesis 45:5-8.

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.... God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

This tale doesn't fit the modern worldview. The "experts" agree that we live in a universe of time and space and matter and energy, governed by natural laws that leave no place for dreams or deities. The consensus is that God is dead and chance is king and dreams are just coincidence.

This means that science doesn't just conflict with the first few chapter of Genesis--modern materialism contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture from start to finish. It may be easier to pick a fight over whether the world was made in "six twenty-four hour days" or not, but the real question to be resolved is whether God acts within time and space. If He does, then something in our physics is either false or incomplete. If He doesn't, then the whole Bible is in error, not just a few verses here and there.

The biggest hole in modern physics has to do with time. Mainstream physics says there is just one timeline, and it is guided just by chance. Picture a single, kinky thread writhing through fifteen billion light-years of empty immensity--then have it accidentally wind up on the one small bit of all this void that isn't empty, and you've got the best that modern science has to offer to explain how we got here.

David Deutsch is a secular physicist, but not in the mainstream. His picture of the universe makes more sense to me--he fills the void with timelines until there isn't any emptiness left. If there is some small statistical chance that particles could come together into self-replicating structures, Deutsch's multiverse will find it. If every possible world exists, then this one does--and so does Harry Potter's. But that goes way too far for mainstream physics.

John Wheeler offered a different option. The man who coined the term "black hole" believed the future could cause the past. (That sounds bizarre to the ordinary layman, but so does the rest of quantum physics.) Wheeler's participatory anthropic principle sketched out a way for future minds to create their own past. In Wheeler's model, there is only one thread through fifteen billion light years of time and space, but it isn't "kinky." It marks the shortest possible path from pure possibility to actual intelligence.

The story of Joseph doesn't make sense in two of these three models (one "kinky" timeline, all possible timelines, or one "guided" timeline). In the mainstream model, dreams don't come true. The stories in Genesis are just that--stories, myths made up by later generations around some campfire. In Deutsch's multiverse, the story may be true but it doesn't mean anything. Sure, Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows--in this timeline. But he dreamed of six fat cows and thirteen tadpoles in another. If everything happens, nothing matters.

In a world where the future causes the past, however, dreams fit nicely into physics. The dreams are essential to the outcome. If the outcome comes first, the dreams help make it happen. The most astonishing coincidences aren't coincidences at all in a "participatory" universe.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

All the Myriad Ways

David Deutsch has written a book called The Fabric of Reality which constructs a unified theory of reality out of quantum physics, evolution, epistemology, and information theory. He picks up Hugh Everett's theory of a multiverse and runs with it. I'm impressed by his breadth of vision and the scope of his imagination, even though I disagree with his final outcome.

Metaphysics asks, "how many futures are there?" Deutsch offers a daring answer--all possible futures exist.

Deutsch's multiverse model has some attractive features. It provides a satisfying solution to the questions raised by the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design argues that biological systems contain features that cannot be explained on the basis of mere time and chance. Deutsch provides infinitely more time and chance for evolution to play with--in his theory, the world we live in one of an uncountable infinity of parallel worlds. Not only does our improbable world exist, there are even greater improbabilities--worlds where monkeys type the text of Shakespeare. If it is physically possible, Deutsch says it exists.

Deutsch defines "physically possible" as "permitted by quantum physics," which means that all possible worlds exist. He envisions people playing quidditch in Harry Potter universes, where all the laws of physics still apply, but an endless string of improbabilities permits people to fly on brooms.

Deutsch is consistent about the implications of his theory--which tends to defeat his purpose. A Harry Potter universe just seems unthinkable. I'm not dismayed by the counter-intuitive nature of the concept, but there's more about Deutsch's model that makes it incompatible with humanity, whether or not it is scientifically sound.

The most profound counter to Deutsch is Larry Niven's classic short story, "All the Myriad Ways." As BookThink explains:
Larry Niven's story "All the Myriad Ways" features police detective Gene Trimble sitting at his desk and considering the implications of an escalating wave of senseless crimes and suicides that started soon after the Crosstime ships started traveling to alternate parallel worlds. The story ends with Trimble sitting at his desk and considering the business end of his service revolver. As written, the story has ten different, parallel endings, representative of the essentially infinite number of endings possible under the Everett Interpretation.
One of those endings, of course, is that Trimble pulls the trigger and kills himself--becoming just one more of the senseless suicides that started his investigation.

As physics goes, Deutsch's theory is mostly unobjectionable. Yet I don't see it catching on with the general public. It answers the question of "how we got here" but it tells us nothing (or way too much!) about where we are going.

If the general public believed what Deutsch says, I would predict a wave of senseless crimes and suicides--except among the "old-fashioned" religious believers who still clung to some outdated sense that there is a Higher Power who will hold them to account for their actions.

Deutsch's theory of multiversal quantum Darwinism, if it ever became widely accepted, could tempt so many people to kill themselves that the only people left to continue civilization would be fundamentalists who still believe in a God who punishes suicide.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Problem with Time

Many people have a problem with time--they don't think they have enough of it. That's odd, because time is the one commodity that is truly distributed equally: everybody gets exactly 60 seconds every minute. We don't all get the same number of years on earth, but if the Bible tells the truth, that hardly matters--everybody gets the same amount of time after the resurrection. (See John 5:28-29.)

There's more to time than too little of it. Time may be the most mysterious thing we experience directly. Scientists and theologians wrangle over questions that can't be fully solved without a better understanding of time.

Here are two trick questions about time:

  1. Can the future cause the past? Laboratory experiments say yes.
  2. Does "time out of mind" exist? The arrow of time says "not as we know it."
Here's a question that's still wide open: How many futures are there? Scientists disagree whether the correct answer is "1" or "all." Theologians are split between "0" and "1."

The scientists are split because classical and relativistic physics leave no room for what the rest of us think of as "free will." Einstein believed that every moment in time was fixed from the beginning--he envisioned all of space-time as a "block" that was cast in concrete by the laws of physics. Quantum physicists are divided between the standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and the "multiverse model," which says that every possible future is real, no matter how unlikely. So Albert Einstein would say there is one future, while Hugh Everett would say there are not merely an infinite number of futures, but that all possible futures exist.

Theologians haven't caught up to the new nuances in fundamental physics, but they have been debating what is really a question about the nature of the future since at least 1610. Calvinists and Arminians have been debating predestination and free will since then, while the Catholic debates go back even further.

The most current controversy over time is driven by the Open Theology movement, which has finally revealed that the free will debate is ultimately a question about the nature of time. Open theists say that God is omniscient, but He doesn't know the future--because there is no "future" to "know." (This puts them at odds with orthodox Arminians, who say God knows the future but doesn't cause it.)

I don't know of any scientist or theologian who thinks there might be more than one future but less than all possible futures--but it makes for some fascinating speculation. More on that later!

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Is Time?

Kevin at After Existentialism, Light wants to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday by buying this book for every Young Earth Creationist. I looked up some reviews on Amazon and was pleased with what I read:

Young's treatment of origins from a geological point of view is fully cognizant of the theological and doctrinal issues with which Evangelicals struggle and the need to bring science and Scripture into vibrant conversation. And as I said before, the tone is pastoral: the authors have no interest in winning a rhetorical battle. Rather, their wish is to provide a thorough assessment of the available evidence, evaluate young-Earth creationism, and encourage those who hold an Evangelical faith with a paradigm for holding the two worlds together.

I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on its content. But I can zero in on the word "paradigm" at the end of that quote--for that is a word that means a lot more than people seem to think.

Thomas Kuhn turned "paradigm" into a buzzword when he published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Here's Wikipedia's current entry on "paradigm shift":

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn's view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. There are anomalies for all paradigms, Kuhn maintained, that are brushed away as acceptable levels of error, or simply ignored and not dealt with (a principal argument Kuhn uses to reject Karl Popper's model of falsifiability as the key force involved in scientific change). Rather, according to Kuhn, anomalies have various levels of significance to the practitioners of science at the time....

When enough significant anomalies have accrued against a current paradigm, the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis, according to Kuhn. During this crisis, new ideas, perhaps ones previously discarded, are tried. Eventually a new paradigm is formed, which gains its own new followers, and an intellectual "battle" takes place between the followers of the new paradigm and the hold-outs of the old paradigm.

Kuhn says that scientists have to have a paradigm to be scientists. In general, when a scientist discovers so many anomalies to his existing paradigm that he can't sleep with himself any longer, he doesn't just throw out his old paradigm to go look for a new one. A scientist without a paradigm isn't a scientist--he's just as likely to burn his lab coat and open a bicycle shop.

With all due respect for Young and Stearley, I don't expect God, Rocks, and Time to end the war. The battle between "fundamentalism" and "modernism" has been raging for more than a century, and even though it's Darwin's 200th birthday, there's no evidence that modernism is winning the war. To the secular mind, this just proves how blind and wicked fundamentalists are. They simply won't accept the evidence! To the fundamental mind, this just proves how blind and wicked secularists are. They simply won't believe God!

If there is a God, then He is the God of the evidence. That means that a believer cannot ignore the evidence forever. But if that God has revealed Himself to us in the Bible, then we can't ignore that evidence, either. Each approach has too many anomalies to satisfy a believer.

Which brings me back to the title of Young and Stearley's book, The Bible, Rocks, and Time. Modernists are willing to question the Bible; young earth creationists are willing to question the rocks. I'd like to suggest a third option--why not take a fresh look at time?

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Metaphysics of Scripture

There seem to be countless ways of reconciling Scripture to the world we see around us. Just this morning I've skimmed articles on Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (which differ as to whether Old Testament prophecies of Israel tell the future of Jews or Christians) and on Noah's Flood (was it a real, world-wide event or just God's "accommodation" of ancient Near Eastern myths?).

In the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was all the rage to limit Scripture to "religious" truth and leave the "real world" to science. In the 1800s, Schleiermacher handed "truth" over to science but gave religion the whole realm of "feeling." In the 1900s, the logical positivists argued that Nature gave us "facts," while Scripture gave us "values."

It is tempting to limit Scripture to the realm of "faith and practice," but that retreat is not strategic: with one google search I could click to the fierce egalitarian/complementarian or sexual orientation debates. Where now is the practice of monogamous marriage for life? Where now is the faith in the God who created one man and one woman and joined them in a type of Christ's union with His Bride? It seems like "faith" and "practice" and "values" are just as vulnerable to erosion as the age of the Earth or the extent of Noah's Flood.

I suspect that each of us places Scripture within some metaphysical framework (whether we recognize it or not, and that out metaphysics of Scripture drives our interpretation of it.