Mathew’s Article

And the most interesting thing, ofcourse, is that he’s so fanatical about it..I’ll post the chat, too.

Into the Uncertain

From Aristotle to Copernicus, and from Galileo to Newton and finally into the hands of Einstein himself, came the fate of scientific determinism – the long held belief that the ultimate and fundamental laws of the universe could completely and accurately determine and describe every event in the universe, whether it lay in the past, present or future. When Einstein laid the foundations for quantum mechanics, little did he know that it would give rise to a mysterious principle that would raise profound questions about the very nature and scope of scientific thought. This principle, known as the Uncertainty Principle and related concepts of quantum mechanics is what I would like to write about. I also intend to present some of my own thoughts and deductions related to this branch of physics apart from certain related philosophical problems.

I had always believed that the ‘purpose’ of science was to present a model of the universe (or a part of it) that enables us to ascribe ‘reasons’ to observed phenomena besides enabling us to predict future events. Thus it isn’t surprising that my initial reaction on learning the uncertainty principle (UP) was one of wary skepticism. After all, in its crude form, the UP says that one cannot predict the future position (or velocity) of a particle as it is impossible to simultaneously determine both of those parameters with 100% accuracy at any given time. What that would ultimately imply is that at a quantum level, the motion and/or interactions of particles would be ‘random’. Now I had to put ‘random’ in quotes because ‘random’ is a very mischievious word. In fact, if you tried to define ‘random’, you would end up saying something like “a thing that happens however it likes” or “without any particular reason”. Thus, the UP invariably destroys the very purpose of science as I thought it to be. Some people would say that the UP actually implies that the real laws that govern the inherent randomness of quantum systems are unreachable for human logic and understanding. But that is nothing but escapism and that sort of an attitude wouldn’t lead us very far in the pursuit of physical truth. Anyhow, I wouldn’t dare question the integrity of such a beautiful (yet irksome) principle which I hear, has a very concrete mathematical derivation, apart from strong experimental confirmations. Well, maybe not until I get into college at least.

Yet, the dependence of the UP on probability, chaos and randomness raises many deep philosophical questions. Is true chaos really possible? How can any system not be bound by laws that govern it? The real meaning of the term ‘random’ has to be probed further.

To deviate slightly from the discussion, let me confer on an aspect of philosophy that has captured my imagination for the better part of the past two years – the problem of free will. Rather than start off by asking “Does man have free will?”, I fancy asking “What does it mean to have free will?”. Free will (as far as I know) is the ability to have complete control over one’s choices and thus ‘be responsible’ for those choices. Neuroscience and cellular biology tell us that a person’s actions, speech, decisions, etc. are a result of complex electro-chemical reactions taking place inside the human brain. Even without having to look at it that way, it is obvious that a person’s genetic constitution, upbringing, past experiences, present surroundings and circumstances are factors that influence his choice in a particular situation. These factors are consequently transformed into electrical impulses and chemical signals in the nervous system, which are ultimately governed by basic physical laws. During this entire process (of factor-influence and nervous system activity), the person has had no real choice or control over his decision. After all, a person is nothing but a collection of molecules (ultimately particles) which are governed by physical laws. Where has the person exercised his ‘free will’? More importantly, what is ‘a person’? Is ‘free will’ a meaningful concept at all?

Whenever I present the above line of reasoning to a person previously uninitiated into this problem in order to hear his/her ideas, the reaction is almost always the same. Here is a typical conversation:
(After presenting my line of reasoning…)

Me: So that’s why I don’t entirely believe that man is in control of his choices. Free will is a logical impossibility.

Susan: But that’s just absurd. Of course I’m in control of my choices. Look… The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog…. See! That was purely my choice! I decided to say that particular sentence even though the factors influencing me right now didn’t have anything to do with it…

Me: Ummm… no, I disagree. First of all, the factors influencing you are complex, and so is your brain. It is not simple to generalize and predict what you would say. Things that seem to be random or unexplainable are really so only because of the complexity involved. That wasn’t really your choice; rather it was a result of complex processes in your brain fuelled by your imagination and past experiences. Secondly, even if you say your choice was not influenced by any factors, you would have to answer to the question as to what it is that ultimately made you say that particular sentence. What is the underlying cause? As long as everything happens because something else happened (causality), free will is impossible. If you want to believe in free will, you will have to accept the absurd idea that things can happen for no reason at all. So choose what you want to believe, for the choice, ironically is yours. (smiling)

The reason why I included this philosophical problem in this essay is because the UP does provide a way for things to happen for no reason at all! (Pun unintended though one can interpret the preceding sentence in two ways.) But when people argue that the apparent randomness introduced by the UP gives us back our free will, they are still wrong because though the UP makes human behavior unpredictable, responsibility for actions (which is necessary for completely satisfying the definition of free will) is still elusive.

There are several other aspects of quantum mechanics that still fire my imagination; such as the possibility that, like matter and energy, space-time too is quantized. I often like to imagine that a mathematical attempt to quantize space-time would be the answer to that marriage of Einstein’s General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that still eludes physicists today. However, I believe that the discussion undertaken above would be sufficient to demonstrate my deep and fervent interest in being an active part of the University Scholar’s Program at NUS. Let me finish by expressing my sincere and whole-hearted interest in this unique program of NUS’ that I could definitely contribute to given my drive and fascination for the fields of mathematics, physics and philosophy.


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