Death and Particle Physics: Why I am certain that the probabilistic view of the nano-world is an error -- and will soon be corrected.
Copyright 2010, John Manimas Medeiros
We are going to first examine large "particles" or things, that is, human beings. Then we will examine very small "nano" things, that is, sub-atomic particles -- electrons, photons, neutrons, and any other toppings advertised as available for the pizza known as "physics."
As a dues-paying citizen, I feel that I have a right to resent the fact that physicists, who are supposed to be our gurus on the rules for the real, physical universe, insist that there is no determinism in the "nano-world," no identifiable cause and effect, but probability waves, strings, and mists of mystery that make the Vatican City look like amateurs. Priests want to be scientists and scientists want to be priests.
Let us quickly dispense with any doubt that we live daily and every second of our lives in a determined world and we all do accept the causes and effects that we store in our memory categories of "science," and "knowledge," and "reality." The Air Force does not buy planes that fly sometimes, sometimes not. None of us would buy a box in a supermarket labeled as "may contain meat, but sometimes sawdust." We all pay with certain money for certain things, and we do not seriously ever pay for maybe getting fed or maybe getting clothed; and we most certainly do not work for maybe getting paid.
If the car will not start, there is a cause, and if we do not find it within a few minutes, we take it to a "cause" specialist, an auto mechanic, who finds the cause, may or may not explain it to us, usually will do so if we ask, and will tell us that now the car will start. We have numerous "cause" specialists: someone who can make our hair look good, someone who can protect our pets from disease, someone who can add a room to our home, someone who can tell us about our state of health, or any illnesses or physical conditions we might have that could have an effect on the date when we will die. HOWEVER!
Yes, however, as advanced as we have become, life is still complex, and although we can buy many, many things that were not available to us in the past, one thing that is still not available to us is certainty as to the date and time that we will die. Death has accidental causes, sometimes, of course, but under peacetime conditions most people die because of just plain wearing out due to age, or that other popular cause of death -- disease. Our biological and medical science is admirable. Advances in the understanding of and repairing of the eye, the heart, joints, bones, skin and more have extended our useful lives and added great comforts to a physical life that can burden us with pain and many types of losses of function, stamina or capacity. But I still am not able to pay someone to tell me "You will die on September 29th in the year ----." This is odd, in a way, because when someone does die, it is only rarely that we do not have an explanation for the date, time and place of death. In fact, whenever there is any question as to why a person died, any interested party can petition for, and pay for, an autopsy. The forensic physician or ordinary coroner would then issue a report with a COD, not Cash-On-Delivery but Cause of Death. Coronary embolism, accidental poisoning, head trauma, loss of blood, aneurism, suffocation, electric shock, et cetera. Not being expert in this field, I do not know if there are tens, or hundreds, or thousands of different COD's that an examining physician might find in the course of a career. But, what I do know, and everyone must admit, we do know something, we know a lot about what causes death. And, when an individual dies, although we could not predict the date and time of death, we can produce a "cause-and-effect" explanation, a determination as to how the death was caused at the date, time and place that it occurred. The death, therefore, was a determined event. Even though we could not predict it as an effect that would follow knowable causes.
So what do we do about the mysterious timing of one's death? We use statistics. We make use of that wonderful mathematical science called "probability." Probability is usually studied in conjunction with a closely related field of mathematics called "combinatorics." Anyway, although we know that every death is caused, and we can with few exceptions determine the cause by scientific investigation (only after the death occurs) we still cannot predict the date and time of a specific death for a specific individual. Using probability however, we can predict with reasonable scientific precision, that for a group of persons, especially for a group of persons in a specified category, such as American males between age 45 and 80, that for every 10,000 individuals "taken as a random sample," 84 will die this year. These figures are not "official" but approximate actual records. This serves the purpose of realistic data.
Therefore, if I am an American male between age 45 and 80, then there is a chance (probability) of 1 in 120 that I will die this year. Please note with absolute certainty that this "statistic" or chance or probability is definitely not a prediction that I personally will die or will not die this year. It is a statement about the group of 10,000 men, not about any one of the individual men. This reality, which is a scientific and physical reality, not a "social" reality, means that my death is subject to probability. I could die this year or not die this year, and I hope we are all agreed that there is a meaningful difference between these two possible outcomes, or effects, that shall have been caused, by whatever occurs in my life this year. Such statistics, or probability, are used for many similar "applications" such as rates of specified diseases, numbers of students who graduate from high schools, and percentage of prospective customers, who, if exposed to a particular advertisement, will purchase the product or service advertised. Probability is and has been enormously important economically, because it is the tool that has been used by actuaries to enable insurance companies to operate. In order for an insurance company to stay in business, it must collect (and earn through investments) more money than it pays out for deaths, house fires, automobile accidents or medical expenses. Mathematicians make this already obscure (to many people) field more obscure by calling it a "stochastic" process, which is an ancient language word for "guessing." But in reality it is not guessing. Probability is: applying accepted mathematical concepts to groups of similar individual things when we are unable to determine the specific causes that apply to each individual thing in a given period of time or of activity. Therefore, if we had a severe shortage of fuel, people would drive less, and if this situation continued, auto insurance rates should go down, because less driving reduces the risk of an accident. If someone discovered a cure for cancer that cost $500, all health and medical insurance rates should go down, because the expenses expected to be caused by the treatment of cancer would fall dramatically. Probability is really not an alternative to cause and effect, it is just a different way that human beings perceive cause and effect. It is a lot like saying that the deaths of 84 males this year, between the ages of 45 and 80, were actually caused by the acts or actions of 10,000 men, between the ages of 45 and 80, living in the United States of America. Life causes death, and we can predict the quantity or percentage or proportion of deaths, using probability, but we do not have enough data about each specific individual in our group of 10,000 to specify that a particular identifiable individual is going to die, or live throughout the year. None of this persuades us that an individual death has no knowable cause, or that an individual accident, or an individual invasion by a disease, or an individual house fire, have no knowable causes. The opposite is true. These types of events are virtually always investigated so that we can make a record of the cause for future use. When we find a high number of similar causes, we change things such as house construction materials or auto safety devices, or even personal habits, so that fewer negative events -- disease, fires, accidents -- will be caused.
One of the main problems of particle physics is that the physicists act like they believe the old historical argument that only the physical sciences are really scientific, and the "social sciences" are more subjective, not really scientific. I believe the opposite may be true. Social scientists make a far more intensive effort to assure that their experiments and research designs are logically valid. Physicists trust their instruments, which are mechanical and electronic devices designed and constructed by human beings, but the physicists regard them as infallible and perfectly understood. They rarely ask whether the complex instrument, which is virtually always a "detector," might be detecting something other than what they believe it is detecting. The physicists in our society often do not, or can not, question their own doctrines. Punishment will result. Social scientists use probability all the time because the causes that have an effect on an individual human being are enormously diverse and complicated, and in reality are often unknown to a research scientist. But no social scientist concludes that delinquency and divorce and crime and class conflict have no causes. The causes of these things are real, but they are partly hidden from our incisive minds, especially when we are trying to predict the outcome for an individual: this individual will or will not be delinquent, will or will not commit a crime, will or will not have a single spouse for life, will or will not experience conflict with an authority. The social scientist knows with great conviction that the use of probability to study human beings and predict outcomes for groups does not discredit the viewpoint that human behavior is caused.
There is also the role of religion in the lives of physicists. The physical scientist has an unspoken but ever-present accusation hanging over his, or her, head: you must be an atheist. You do not believe in God or in human goodness. Being dedicated and controlled by the belief that every event is physical and has a physical cause, you are not religious. You must have no religion, because religion and religious beliefs cannot be tested or proven by mathematics or physics. Therefore, all you can do, if your humanity prompts you to give expression to any type of belief outside of physics, is claim that you are a witness to the "awesome" complexity of Nature, or the awesome beauty of Nature, or that the mystery of particle physics is somehow evidence that there is some kind of divine "force" or mysterious energy behind all of physical reality. And one of the best and most popular ways for the physical scientist to make the claim that they are religious is to declare that at the particle level, or in the nano-world, there IS NO CAUSE AND EFFECT, but rather probability. This absolves the physicist of the moral crime of believing and teaching that human behavior is caused, like the movements of the stars, which viewpoint is widely believed to discredit all morality on the grounds that if human behavior is caused then the human individual has not really made a choice between one course of action and another. I believe this logical issue is viewed completely backward and that determinism does not discredit human freedom but rather is absolutely necessary in order for human freedom to be real. We could not make a plan and a decision directed at a desired outcome unless the universe is controlled by cause and effect. That means that if the real universe were not determined, we could not choose. Our actions and efforts would not have knowable results, and therefore no choice would make any sense. If the universe were not determined, I could bang my thumb with a hammer and do no harm; I could throw water on a fire and increase combustion; I could jump from a great height and land unharmed, sometimes -- depending upon "probability." Whatever the logic of an individual physicist, physical scientists as a group are naturally defensive about religion and morality and human freedom or choice. I see this in the fact that there is an organization that gives prizes and publicity and money to scientists who say something that suggests they believe in God or are "religious." When I delve into this business I find that these scientists often say nothing of any greater depth or import than was said by my son when he was four years old. So why do physicists give themselves such great rewards for participating in the spirituality of ordinary children? Being a social scientist, I am convinced that the irrational commitment of physicists to the doctrine of probability in the nano-world actually has social and psychological causes. The need to be perceived as being religious and believing in human freedom -- together with the foolish doctrine that freedom and causation are not compatible -- causes physicists to view probability not as a scientific method but as a refutation of determinism, which it is not.
Now lets examine the particles, the nano-world. Whether one qualifies as a physicist or not, one can understand certain rather pedestrian statements made, by physicists, about the behavior of particles. We all know they are incredibly small, but are usually deemed to be real, and physically concrete. They are not spirits. Sometimes they turn left, sometimes right. Sometimes a particular event at the particle level produces particle A, sometimes particle B, or sometimes produces one particle, and sometimes two particles. There is this very small particle, the neutrino (must be Italian), that has a long life and passes through everything without slowing down and is said by some physicists to have no mass. There are three types of neutrinos, which the physicists have labeled as three "flavors." It must be nice to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to have fun. My toys cost anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred (lawn tractor). The toys of physicists cost tens of billions of dollars, and they get paid well for playing, according to the Smithsonian Magazine (November 2010), at "Looking for Ghosts" (page 77). If you look for a definition of the neutrino, most articles will say that it has a small but "non-zero" mass. This is encouraging, because if a particle is really defined as having no mass, then it does not exist as a real, physical entity. This would mean, of course, that we are paying physicists to study nothing. Some physicists claim that they are looking for the "God particle," and some claim they may have found it already. This is great. Scientists want to be priests. Why do scientists claim that they are looking for the God particle? Could it be because they want to be perceived as religious? And who is being insulted here, the religious, the scientists, or God? I think all three.
Here are a couple of quotes from "Looking for Ghosts" (Smithsonian cited above):
"Physicists study neutrinos because neutrinos are such odd characters: [in a novel, in a movie? now physicists want to be authors] they seem to break the rules that describe nature at its most fundamental. And if physicists are ever going to fulfill their hopes of developing a coherent theory of reality that explains the basics of nature without exception, they are going to have to account for the behavior of neutrinos."
[back a couple of paragraphs:] "The problem for physicists is that neutrinos are impossible to see and difficult to detect. … Physicists call them 'ghost particles.'"
This kind of talk suggests that physicists can publicize their work on television on the Ghost Hunters program, where we view people through distorted lenses, in green night-vision light, and they yell out "I saw something!" and things get kicked over and the searchers exclaim "Did you hear that?" Why do physicists allow, and often seem to promote their work as being about the invisible and the mysterious? They seem to so desperately want their work to have religious significance rather than being what we thought it was: physical explanations of the physical world. For centuries the Church asserted that it was the authority in spiritual matters, and the state was the authority in "temporal" matters, suggesting temporary as opposed to infinite -- as in heaven -- and also suggesting strictly physical and therefore inferior to the matters of a permanent yet ephemeral soul. So what I see is physicists enveloped in a plastic bubble of expecting to confirm religion -- claiming the spiritual authority as well as the temporal. This could mean that Science is America's true religion. And the physicists seem to believe that they are confirming religion, and morality, and human freedom (choice) by asserting that the universe is governed by events at the particle or nano level, and those events are governed by "probability." Thus, we are free after all, and we physicists are not condemned to be cold, heartless, atheistic determinists. The physicists need to wake up and discover that probability is a method of study and not a condition of the universe.
The nano particles are the same as people in the method of probability. We do not have enough information, we are yet unable to detect all of the subtle causes that might effect the precise behavior of an individual particle, and therefore, because we are using the method of probability, we can predict the behavior of a group of particles the same way we predict the percentages of deaths or diseases or accidents or body weight among a group of people in a given category and time period. This is actually what the now "old" concept of radioactive "half-life" means: We definitely cannot predict whether an individual neutron will escape from an individual atom, but over a given time period, using probability, we do predict what percentage of atoms will lose one of their neutrons. This is radio-nuclide decay. We use it to measure the age of materials based on the doctrine that there is no physical force that can cause an element to decay faster. (I question this doctrine because of the force of lightning, which occurs with enormous frequency.) In any case, not being able to predict the precise outcome for an individual particle is really exactly the same as not being able to predict the precise outcome for a particular human individual. We are using the method of probability because we are unable to measure the subtle and complex factors that can cause a person to die (until after they are dead), or cause a particle to turn left, or express a particular "flavor." But we can predict the outcome for a group of humans or a group of particles using the method of probability. Probability is a method of study and not a condition of the universe. We are free to choose because we know that the things we do will have predictable results. If the universe were not determined, not governed by cause and effect, we could not make any choice and rely on the outcome with reasonable certainty. Regardless of the limitations of social structures and social controls, nature does always impose natural consequences, and however we may define good behavior and bad behavior, our behavior always does have natural consequences. And this is so because the universe is an ongoing process of cause and effect. It is highly probable that physicists will soon agree to this reality, because they persistently ask for huge sums of money in order to build machines that they claim will do something predictable -- yield new information. How do these incredibly expensive machines yield new information? By doing what physicists expect them to do. Why do physicists have precise expectations of these expensive machines? Because the machine is the cause of the effect, and the effect is learning something new -- we damn well hope. All I get is my lawn tractor starts up and cuts grass -- usually. When it doesn't start, I curse, because I know there is a cause, and it irritates me that I am more reliable than my tractor, and my physicist.
Link back to: (Journey List) or (Welcome) page text links or (JMDM 2010)