Philosophical Implications of Quantum Mechanics

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) argues in his famous Lectures on Physics (1961/62) that finite accuracy of measurement also makes the future very unpredictable, because even very small errors in prediction have cascading effects that lead to vastly different outcomes. Thus, the difference between a classical interpretation (deterministic) and a quantum-mechanical explanation (indeterminisitc) is not as categorical as we sometimes assume.

He compares classical and quantum-mechanical approaches to physics, and comes to the conclusion that “…it  is not true that we can pursue science completely by using only those concepts which are directly subject to experiment.” If this applies to physics, it is even much more relevant for sciences that study the human being. The softness of an experimental basis for social science concepts leads to a methodological stance that demands to be “evidence-based”, but what does that mean when even the theories of physics use concepts that have nothing to do with scientific observation?

We also hear the argument that the mind has a relative independence from physical effects because of an underlying quantum-mechanical functioning of the brain. But is this enough to explain the freedom in human actions? In order to pursue these questions further, it is worthwhile to listen to physicists who speak about the relation between the physical world and our scientific theories. I already posted some writings from David Bohm, and here is a paragraph from Richard Feynman on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics (Lectures on Physics, Volume III, Chapter 2):

“Let us consider briefly some philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. As always, there are two aspects of the problem: one is the philosophical implication for physics, and the other is the extrapolation of philosophical matters to other fields. When philosophical ideas associated with science are dragged into another field, they are usually completely distorted. Therefore we shall confine our remarks as much as possible to physics itself.
First of all, the most interesting aspect is the idea of the uncertainty principle; making an observation affects the phenomenon. It has always been known that making observations affects a phenomenon, but the point is that the effect cannot be disregarded or minimized or decreased arbitrarily by rearranging the apparatus. When we look for a certain phenomenon we cannot help but disturb it in a certain minimum way, and the disturbance is necessary for the consistency of the viewpoint. The observer was sometimes important in prequantum physics, but only in a trivial sense. The problem has been raised: if a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise? A real tree falling in a real forest makes a sound, of course, even if nobody is there. Even if no one is present to hear it, there are other traces left. The sound will shake some leaves, and if we were careful enough we might find somewhere that some thorn had rubbed against a leaf and made a tiny scratch that could not be explained unless we assumed the leaf were vibrating. So in a certain sense we would have to admit that there is a sound made. We might ask: was there a sensation of sound? No, sensations have to do, presumably, with consciousness. And whether ants are conscious and whether there were ants in the forest, or whether the tree was conscious, we do not know. Let us leave the problem in that form.
Another thing that people have emphasized since quantum mechanics was developed is the idea that we should not speak about those things which we cannot measure. (Actually relativity theory also said this.) Unless a thing can be defined by measurement, it has no place in a theory. And since an accurate value of the momentum of a localized particle cannot be defined by measurement it therefore has no place in the theory. The idea that this is what was the matter with classical theory is a false position. It is a careless analysis of the situation. Just because we cannot measure position and momentum precisely does not a priori mean that we cannot talk about them. It only means that we need not talk about them. The situation in the sciences is this: A concept or an idea which cannot be measured or cannot be referred directly to experiment may or may not be useful. It need not exist in a theory. In other words, suppose we compare the classical theory of the world with the quantum theory of the world, and suppose that it is true experimentally that we can measure position and momentum only imprecisely. The question is whether the ideas of the exact position of a particle and the exact momentum of a particle are valid or not. The classical theory admits the ideas; the quantum theory does not. This does not in itself mean that classical physics is wrong. When the new quantum mechanics was discovered, the classical people—which included everybody except Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Born—said: “Look, your theory is not any good because you cannot answer certain questions like: what is the exact position of a particle?, which hole does it go through?, and some others.” Heisenberg’s answer was: “I do not need to answer such questions because you cannot ask such a question experimentally.” It is that we do not have to. Consider two theories (a) and (b); (a) contains an idea that cannot be checked directly but which is used in the analysis, and the other, (b), does not contain the idea. If they disagree in their predictions, one could not claim that (b) is false because it cannot explain this idea that is in (a), because that idea is one of the things that cannot be checked directly. It is always good to know which ideas cannot be checked directly, but it is not necessary to remove them all. It is not true that we can pursue science completely by using only those concepts which are directly subject to experiment.
In quantum mechanics itself there is a probability amplitude, there is a potential, and there are many constructs that we cannot measure directly. The basis of a science is its ability to predict. To predict means to tell what will happen in an experiment that has never been done. How can we do that? By assuming that we know what is there, independent of the experiment. We must extrapolate the experiments to a region where they have not been done. We must take our concepts and extend them to places where they have not yet been checked. If we do not do that, we have no prediction. So it was perfectly sensible for the classical physicists to go happily along and suppose that the position—which obviously means something for a baseball—meant something also for an electron. It was not stupidity. It was a sensible procedure. Today we say that the law of relativity is supposed to be true at all energies, but someday somebody may come along and say how stupid we were. We do not know where we are “stupid” until we “stick our neck out,” and so the whole idea is to put our neck out. And the only way to find out that we are wrong is to find out what our predictions are. It is absolutely necessary to make constructs.
We have already made a few remarks about the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. That is, that we are unable now to predict what will happen in physics in a given physical circumstance which is arranged as carefully as possible. If we have an atom that is in an excited state and so is going to emit a photon, we cannot say when it will emit the photon. It has a certain amplitude to emit the photon at any time, and we can predict only a probability for emission; we cannot predict the future exactly. This has given rise to all kinds of nonsense and questions on the meaning of freedom of will, and of the idea that the world is uncertain.
Of course we must emphasize that classical physics is also indeterminate, in a sense. It is usually thought that this indeterminacy, that we cannot predict the future, is an important quantum-mechanical thing, and this is said to explain the behavior of the mind, feelings of free will, etc. But if the world were classical—if the laws of mechanics were classical—it is not quite obvious that the mind would not feel more or less the same. It is true classically that if we knew the position and the velocity of every particle in the world, or in a box of gas, we could predict exactly what would happen. And therefore the classical world is deterministic. Suppose, however, that we have a finite accuracy and do not know exactly where just one atom is, say to one part in a billion. Then as it goes along it hits another atom, and because we did not know the position better than to one part in a billion, we find an even larger error in the position after the collision. And that is amplified, of course, in the next collision, so that if we start with only a tiny error it rapidly magnifies to a very great uncertainty. To give an example: if water falls over a dam, it splashes. If we stand nearby, every now and then a drop will land on our nose. This appears to be completely random, yet such a behavior would be predicted by purely classical laws. The exact position of all the drops depends upon the precise wigglings of the water before it goes over the dam. How? The tiniest irregularities are magnified in falling, so that we get complete randomness. Obviously, we cannot really predict the position of the drops unless we know the motion of the water absolutely exactly.
Speaking more precisely, given an arbitrary accuracy, no matter how precise, one can find a time long enough that we cannot make predictions valid for that long a time. Now the point is that this length of time is not very large. It is not that the time is millions of years if the accuracy is one part in a billion. The time goes, in fact, only logarithmically with the error, and it turns out that in only a very, very tiny time we lose all our information. If the accuracy is taken to be one part in billions and billions and billions—no matter how many billions we wish, provided we do stop somewhere—then we can find a time less than the time it took to state the accuracy—after which we can no longer predict what is going to happen! It is therefore not fair to say that from the apparent freedom and indeterminacy of the human mind, we should have realized that classical “deterministic” physics could not ever hope to understand it, and to welcome quantum mechanics as a release from a “completely mechanistic” universe. For already in classical mechanics there was indeterminability from a practical point of view.”