On the Ethical Implications of a Quantum Universe
Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control…we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player. Albert Einstein
Neither the subtlest philosophy nor common human reason can jeopardize freedom by means of sophisms. Reason must therefore assume that no real contradiction exists between freedom and the natural necessity of human actions; because reason cannot do without the concept of nature no more than without the concept of freedom. [Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)]
What would happen if one took quantum physics seriously at the level of lived human experience? To ask this question is at the same time to ask what sort of relation quantum physics has to human experience, and at a deeper level what it might mean in the context of moral decision-making. From a more classical perspective, physics represents the quest for laws that govern the universe and the idea that everything in nature can be broken down into constituent elements. From such a reductionist point of view, the universe is, in principle, completely knowable and predictable. This is no more audaciously demonstrated than in Pierre-Simon Laplace’s claim that with sufficient resources science can, in principle, predict the entire future of the universe from knowledge of its present state. In this century, Stephen Hawking perfectly captured the hubris of science in 1980 when he predicted that within 20 years physicists would discover a complete theory that would solve the riddle of reality and human existence. It has not happened. In fact, we still don’t really understand how it is that atoms came to be assembled into a three-pound greyish-white organ that became aware of itself, and could ask a question like ‘What’s it all about’?
Enter quantum theory. The Oxford University mathematical physicist Roger Penrose has argued that consciousness and awareness are not a mechanistic by-product but have quantum origins. Mathematics aside, everything about quantum theory is bizarre and counter-intuitive. In one interpretation a quantum entity such as an electron has no definite existence apart from our observation of it. We are not able to say definitively whether it is a wave or a particle, since it can be both—a seeming contradiction. Then there is the issue of what Einstein called ‘spooky action at a distance’—described as ‘nonlocality’ which essentially says that one sub-atomic particle has the capacity to influence another instantaneously across vast distances. The unpredictability of the behaviour and location of subatomic particles, appears to show us that at a most fundamental level the universe is not determined—at least by present laws of physics. So, we may ask the question: If determinism is incorrect, does quantum theory give us a scientific reason to believe what most of us already assume: that we are free to choose?
The problem is that even if we assume the truth of quantum theory there is no consensus on how we should interpret this theory in the context of human experience or even with respect to how things are in the world. It could be argued that events at the sub-atomic level simply have no appreciable influence on macro-level processes or events. Moreover, even if quantum events were shown to have an effect on brain processes this would not necessarily prove the existence of free will since uncertainty and freedom are not synonymous. Perhaps in embracing the idea that quantum physics can provide us with an ultimate explanation of things like human freedom, consciousness, death or the meaning of life, we have fallen back into the very scientific hubris that defined classical physics?
I don't know about you but I'm willing to set aside quaint theories of physics in order live a meaningful and ethical life! If we can make assumptions about the physical reality of the world such as many-worlds view, then why can we not assume or choose to act as if nonhuman beings and nature as a whole are intrinsically valuable and worth protecting and preserving for future generations? Not much rides on the many-worlds assumption--whereas the future of humanity rides on the second one.