The Language of God: Quantum Quote-Mining

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Collins spends only a few pages discussing quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. He starts with a sentence that has nothing to do with anything, really. He mentions that “Newton was a believer who wrote more about biblical interpretation than he did about mathematics and physics” (p.78). I have no idea why Collins would include this other than to say, “Hey, look everyone! This guy’s a theist, and he’s really smart. You should pay attention to him.” And we’ve already seen the problems with that kind of thinking. He continues by setting up scientific determinism with a brief discussion of the marquis de Laplace, but then knocks it down with the uncertainty principle in order to save free will and a place for God to do His work. For added emphasis, he throws in a quote from Einstein and one from Hawking.

And that’s the main beef I have with this section – and he’s done it in the past, but I’ve saved up my frustration until now: quote mining. Twice now, he’s quoted Hawking, so let’s address those first:

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determine events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it (p.80)

This comes from Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” (For future reference, I’ll just call it aBHoT.) Too bad Collins didn’t read the very next sentences:

However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us ordinary mortals. It seems better to employ the principle of economy known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed (aBHoT p.31 57)

Just because we could imagine a set of laws doesn’t make it so. I don’t see what point Collins is trying to validate by quoting material that suggests God could observe the universe without disturbing it. A god who doesn’t interfere at all with the universe seems like a useless concept. Collins himself admits that God likes to disturb things from time to time to perform miracles, but the prospect of verifying/validating a god who does interfere with the universe (either directly through miracles or indirectly through mere observation) seems highly problematic.

Collins throws in another Hawking quote when discussing cosmology, and this one was priceless:

It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us (p.75).

Hawking says this in the framework of having a universe with a specific initial configuration. He then – right in the next paragraph, no less!! – continues to discuss alternatives to specific initial universe configurations. The alternatives boil down to various models of inflationary growth of the universe. Hawking starts with describing Alan Guth’s inflationary model and discusses Linde, Steinhardt, and Albrecht’s “new inflationary model.” (aBHoT p.67-69). Hawking then talks about how the “present state of the universe could have arisen from quite a large number of different initial configurations” (aBHoT p.70). Hawking mentions later that we’d need a better understanding of quantum laws to figure out how the universe should have started off.

Ending this small section, Collins tosses out that perennial favorite of scientist quotes, “God does not play dice.” I won’t belabor the point greatly, since Ebonmuse already covered it here. I have to do some quote-mining of my own, but it’s really just alluding to the content of the page I linked to: here goes:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

and

…the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Other posts in this series:

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  • Jim Baerg

    “Hey, look everyone! This guy’s a theist, and he’s really smart. You should pay attention to him.”

    I just finished reading _Why People Believe Weird Things_ by Michael Shermer, including the final chapter added in later editions _Why SMART People believe Weird Things.

    Shermer’s answer to the the latter problem is that “Smart people belive weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

    It sounds like Collins is a perfect example.

  • http://theuniverseisanatheist.blogspot.com Joseph Patton

    It seems they just apply the same reasoning to what scientists say as they do their own bible – just pick out the bits you like, shout them incessantly, insist that you are right, and then act offended when you are proven to be nothing more than fools and liars.

  • Wednesday

    I haven’t read his argument, but the idea that the uncertainty principle would grant us free will is frankly bizarre to me. The uncertainty principle is at its heart a mathematical result that only applies on the (sub)atomic scale. According to my neuroscience friends, we don’t even have to worry about the uncertainty when we look at the level of brain chemistry, which is where I’d be looking for some sort of physical meaning to free will.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Huh. You would think that the religious would stop using people that CAME BEFORE DARWIN as examples. These people lived in a time where there was no clear reason for human existence to come about EXCEPT God! Now that we have a natural explanation for practically everything, explanations that can be tested and proven, what do you think those people would… Oh forget it. I’m preaching to the choir. But is anyone else mad about the whole “Atheism is a religion” thing, tied to “Atheism is responsible for Communist atrocities”?! I mean, come on. If ATHEISM is a religion, then surely Communism is, and we don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. Besides, what do you want to bet that if Communists WERE religious they would have been even more demented, like the Nazi party? I digress, but I really needed to get that out before I start yelling at some dude on the train platform.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m really enjoying this series, BJ. Thanks for the good work!

    Also, take a deep breath, JJ. I don’t see the point of getting angry about anything anyone says about me. Either it’s true, and I may need to learn it, or it’s false, and therefore irrelevant.

  • jack

    BJ,

    My thanks, too. I suspect it’s not easy to wade through Collins’ specious arguments and track down the sources from which he does his quote mining, but I’m grateful that you’re doing it for us.

    Shermer’s answer to the the latter problem is that “Smart people belive weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

    I think Jim hits the nail on the head with this quote from Shermer. Collins obviously wanted to believe in God because of the emotional appeal of religious belief. He was moved by the spiritual comfort he saw in his dying patients. He probably had other personal longings he never fully divulges in his book. But most of all he felt that emotional emptiness, that “God shaped-vacuum” we’ve discussed before in this thread. He then invokes quasiscientific post hoc rationalizations to support what is essentially an unsupportable world view — one that is really based on its emotional appeal.

    I’ve seen something similar in the writings of Ken Miller, another theistic biologist, but one whom I greatly admire for all he has done in defense of evolution in the public schools. His book “Finding Darwin’s God” is mostly a superb exposition and defense of evolution, but near the end of it he indulges in some attempts at rationalizing the existence of God. In the midst of that discussion, though, he repeatedly refers to God’s love for humanity. I suspect it’s that loving relationship — albeit illusory — that really motivates his theistic belief.

  • BJ

    When people talk to me about atheism being a religion, I like to reply with something I stole from NonStampCollector’s YouTube channel: Atheism is a religion in the same respect that “not watching football” is a sport.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    That chapter from Shermer is an absolute gem. It really crystallizes the point that anyone, no matter how smart, can be tricked by others or, more dangerously, themselves into believing the most absurd thing.

    It’s a shame Shermer himself believes some patently ridiculous things, but after reading his book it didn’t surprise me as much.

  • keddaw

    Anyone postulating QM as a reason why humans have free will doesn’t understand QM or doesn’t understand free will, or both.

    If QM affects brains in a noticeable way then our choices are unpredictable but statistically predictable. If we have free will, as Collins wants it, then QM cannot play any part as we would be able to defeat the probability inherent in the QM system.

    Or, as seems likely, neither play any part and free will (Collins’ style) is non-existent and we are simply exceedingly complicated automatons with great feedback loops.

  • DSimon

    Even if the activity of our minds is entirely unpredictable, how’s that an argument for free will anyways? All it would mean is that instead of our minds being deterministic, they’re random.

  • Lynet

    We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determine events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it (p.80)

    It’s only just occurred to to me — is this statement that Collins is quoting out of date? I’d have thought Bell’s Theorem would have shown that this actually cannot be the case. Events are not secretly determined completely in some way we can’t detect. God, if he exists, might be aware both of wavefunctions and of exactly how said wavefunctions are going to collapse upon detection by humans, but Hawking’s statement about the plausibility of some secret, unobservable deterministic universe is actually false, if my understanding is correct.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Does that make “watching football” a sport? I’ll look it up.

  • BJ

    D’oh – I think it was “not playing football.” But, in any event, I do like NonStampCollector’s videos.

    Collins wrote this book in 2006. The onus was on him to provide quotes that were relevant and accurate.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    Lynet,

    Hawking mostly dismisses it, and I think clarifies in A Briefer History of Time. Or maybe I’m reading him as I want to. Either way, yeah, Hawking’s “plausible” being is actually impossible. I happen to think this makes omniscience an illogical concept, but good luck arguing that with people…

  • keddaw

    themann1086,

    I don’t see how any of that follows. If this universe is a simulation within a computer then that external system could conceivably know the position, charge and velocity of every particle in this universe. While this is irrelevant (and unknowable) to us it is theoretically possible.

  • http://lamargedegauche.wordpress.com Jordan

    Thank you for your posts in general and for this one in particular. I just want to point out a minor error (probably a typo) :

    And that’s the main beef I have with this section – and he’s done it in the past, but I’ve saved up my frustration until now: quote mining. Twice now, he’s quoted Hawking, so let’s address those first:
    We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determine events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it (p.80)
    This comes from Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” (For future reference, I’ll just call it aBHoT.) Too bad Collins didn’t read the very next sentences:
    However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us ordinary mortals. It seems better to employ the principle of economy known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed (aBHoT p.31)

    I do not have Hawking’s book, but since you say that the second quote is taken from “the very next sentences”, I guess that the pages referenced in both quotes should be the same or subsequent, not 50 pages apart. Especially if the following quote came before the preceding one. :)

    Jordan

    P.S. : Sorry if my grammar or spelling are bad or my syntax just way too convoluted: I am a francophone :)

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Well, ok, it follows assuming the universe is real and not a Matrix thing. Pretty much all science makes that assumption though, so I think it’s a silly objection.

  • Lynet

    On the contrary, keddaw, the standard interpretation of Bell’s Theorem suggests that, if this universe is a simulation within a computer, then exact positions and velocities are not the variables it’s using to determine where things are!

  • BJ

    @Jordan,

    My apologies for a typo and for the confusing convention I adopted for citing references from both LoG and aBHoT. Thanks for catching my error.

    Collins cites Hawkings on page 80 of Collin’s book (LoG). That citation references page 57 of aBHoT.

  • Wednesday

    @Keddaw — To put what Lynet said another way, if QM is correct then sub-atomic particles do not _have_ an exact position or velocity for the external computer to know. Knowing the velocity and position wavefunctions/as a linear superposition of states wouldn’t be a problem, though.