During the Intelligence Squared debate which frames this series of essays, Dr. Lawrence Krauss described the laws of physics as deterministic. What?

If you’re a determinist, you do not believe in free will. In the debate about science and God, Dr. Krauss expressed that idea this way:

The laws of physics are deterministic. … Our observations aren’t deterministic, but the underlying laws are deterministic.  …Your measurement of the system has uncertainty, but the evolution of the underlying system is completely determined.

Krauss invokes determinism—the belief that all events, including the ones caused by humans, are ultimately determined by external causes over which we have no control—to explain away the problematic element of human volition or free will. This is a circular argument. Krauss is saying that since we have chosen to describe quantum equations in a particular way, the laws themselves are deterministic.

On the surface, the argument seems satisfying: that our observations are ambiguous, but not the underlying laws. It obviously applies to mechanistic physical structures, but it fails to adequately account, not just for volition, but for intervention by other systems and sub-systems.

To illustrate, gravity pulls objects along a pre-determined trajectory—unless another system or object intervenes, then the trajectory is changed (per Newton’s first law of motion). That new trajectory may be determined by laws of physics, but it can be upset yet again by another intervention. That these other objects or systems can intervene is, itself, an evidence that though physical laws may be deterministic taken alone, as a system, they are not.

More significantly, this argument is being advanced by the same limited human consciousness that makes the ambiguous observations in the first place. If we want to have any external knowledge of the “water” we drink or swim in, or of the human souls we all possess, it must come from an external intelligence. It must come from God.

Back in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha spoke at length about the scientific role of the senses and reason before an audience of agnostics, atheists, and free-thinkers in San Francisco. I’m going to let him debate the atheist team on this point:

The criterion of judgment in the estimation of western philosophers is sense perception. They consider that which is tangible or perceptible to the senses to be a reality.… For example, we prove the existence of this light through the sense of sight…. The opinion of these philosophers is that such perception is reality…

In the estimation of the philosophers of the Orient, especially those of Greece and Persia, the standard of judgment is the intellect. They are of the opinion that the criterion of the senses is defective, and their proof is that the senses are often deceived and mistaken…

Among the senses the most powerful and reliable is that of sight. This sense views a mirage as a body of water and is positive as to its character, whereas a mirage is nonexistent. … The eye sees the sun and planets revolving around the earth, whereas in reality the sun is stationary, central, and the earth revolves upon its own axis. The sense of sight sees the earth as a plane, whereas the faculty of reason discovers it to be spherical. The eye views the heavenly bodies in boundless space as small and insignificant, whereas reason declares them to be colossal suns. … Briefly, there are many instances and evidences which disprove the assertion that tangibilities and sense impressions are certainties, for the senses are misleading and often mistaken. How, then, can we rightly declare that they prove reality when the standard or criterion itself is defective? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 356.

In the original debate, Krauss’ argument raises an interesting question: if the universal laws really are so deterministic that literally nothing can happen that is not predetermined, what does it mean to say that the human intellect is not deterministic? Is that not, after all, the argument the Baha’i teachings advance as proof that the human intellect is qualitatively different than anything else in the universe?

All other beings are captives of nature and cannot free themselves from its exigencies: Man alone can withstand nature. So nature attracts all bodies to the centre of the earth, but through mechanical means man moves away from it and soars in the air; nature prevents man from crossing the sea, but man builds ships and traverses the heart of the great ocean, and so forth—the subject is endless. …The sea in all its vastness cannot deviate one iota from the rule of nature; the sun in all its greatness cannot stray so much as a needle’s point from the rule of nature, nor can it ever comprehend the states, conditions, properties, movements, and nature of man. What then is the power residing in man’s puny form that encompasses all this? What conquering power is this that subdues all things? – Abdu’lBaha,  Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 217-218.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

2 Comments

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  • Mar 06, 2017
    The Free Will Theorem of Conway and Kochen (2006) is based on quantum entanglement experiments. It proves that either everything has a degree of free will, from elementary particles on up, or nothing does, including humans. If anyone argues that the universe is deterministic, the only logical conclusion is that they have no free will and are preordained to argue that way. Although the Free Will Theorem admits such a possibility, it doesn't seem sensible to say, in effect, that we think that it is impossible for us to think. I wish more scientists were ...aware of this theorem.
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  • Guy Pierre Poulin
    Mar 05, 2017
    The human spirit (or mind?) has an exceptional power to design models and understand many laws of nature. Doing so it can transcend them, play with them and alter that nature. Like a magician, it ends up performing unbelievable tricks. This requires discipline and great intellectual rigour. But sometime, in that process, the ego takes over, and rigour gets skewed and becomes mere bouffonnerie. And if the EGO is big enough, it becomes God itself, nothing less. The sky is the limit! Mr Krauss has expressed a few quite audacious thoughts so far. His best shot is to write ...a book (2012) claiming that a universe like ours can be created from nothing. I'm not in a position to validate his claim, but that would make a darn good show. ?
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