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Einstein, Bohr and God

March 20, 2012

Quantum physics is a rather counter-intuitive subject. The continuum approximation, that works so well on human-sized objects, breaks down. Not only for matter (everybody knows about atoms, we don’t think that is strange any more) but for everything. Energy, speed, time – everything starts taking on discrete values.

And it gets impossible to measure as precisely as you’d like. Not because of flawed equipment, but as a matter of principle.

And there’s no difference between a particle and a wave.

Even more annoying, at least for people who’d like the world to be predictable, is that in certain situations, it is flat out impossible to tell what result a measurement will give. We can tell which probabilities the different outcomes have, so if we make a large number of measurements, we know what the statistical distribution will be. This is the reason physics at a human scale is perfectly deterministic. Measurement on a single particle is not. If there is a factor determining which result we get, we haven’t found it yet. Most textbooks agree that such a factor probably doesn’t exist.

This is the background to that famous Einstein quote: “God does not play dice”. Einstein developed his famous relativity theories as a young man, and then spent much of the rest of his life fighting against the emerging quantum physics. In a way, he did at least as much for the development of quantum physics as the proponents.

Einstein: If your crazy quantum theory is correct, then something absurd will happen!
The others: We checked it out. The absurd thing you predicted does indeed occur.
Einstein: But that can’t be! It violates lots of stuff we already knew!
The others: But if we interpret the old results like this? Then it works.
Einstein: Grumble grumble grumble…

Have you’ve seen the “God does not play dice” quote before? I bet it was in the context of “I claim that God has a plan for this world, Albert Einstein claims so too, therefore God does have a plan for everything.” Typical fallacious argument from authority (unless you happen to believe that Einstein knew more about God than most people. I don’t. I think his expertise was in physics and mathematics).

Not only is invoking the quote in this way a bad argument, I also think it’s bad theology. My view of God lies more along the lines of Niels Bohr’s retort to Einstein’s claim: “Einstein, stop telling God what he can’t do!”

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