Understanding “Randomness” in the Physical Universe in Physics/Quantum etc

Hello everyone. I am a layperson when it comes to science, I was raised in a conservative YEC church and have been deconstructing for a little over 8 months now. I’ve recently come across the “Determinism” debate in both free-will and the universe itself, but I’ve read conflicting things from credentialed scientists on this matter, so here is my question:

I read that the Physical Universe and it’s laws are “deterministic”, but then I’ve read that in Quantum Mechanics/Physics, at the smallest levels of particles, the Physical Universe is NOT deterministic and actually random at times.

My question is, which is it? Are these two different areas of research? Or can these both be true? I’ve read on other forums that there is no evidence in one way or the other, but I am again, not very familiar in the scientific world.

Thanks and God bless!

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Part of the problem is in defining “random”

Most physical events, including quantum mechanical ones, are in the probabilistic or chaotic categories.

What does that mean for the physical universe? I believe from what I’ve read that at the smallest level, our physical universe is unpredictable. But, I read that the “randomness” at the micro level doesn’t effect the macro level, which also leaves me confused.

Hi Damien, welcome to our corner of the internet. I hope you will find some helpful conversations as you process your questions. I also hope you give yourself some time to think through some of these topics. You don’t have to figure everything out. Many times people who come from YEC/black and white/“we have all the answers” type communities have a subconscious expectation that they are going to be able to switch out a set of unsatisfactory simplistic answers for a better set of satisfactory answers. But since the first set failed because they were simplistic, it’s good to keep in mind that nuance and complexity take time to wrap your mind around and involve an often uncomfortable amount of gray area and “we don’t know for sure.” So be patient with yourself. :slight_smile:

I think it is correct that all the way down to the quantum level our physical universe has elements of randomness and there are outcomes that cannot be predicted by us. They are indeterminate. If you believe God is transcendent, he doesn’t necessarily share our perspective, bounded by time and space, so it is good to keep in mind that all discussion of randomness in science is not at all concerned with God’s theoretical perspective and knowledge, it’s concerned with human perspective and knowledge.

There are plenty of areas of nature that are indeterminate as well, it’s not just a feature of the quantum level. Mutations are random. Weather has many random elements. Even when individual outcomes can’t be predicted, we can often calculate probabilities. And often random elements function in systems with non-random elements as well. Mutations are random, but which mutations become prevalent in a population are a function of selective pressures, not chance.

You’d probably be better off reading people who actually put some time and thought into answering these questions than getting info from an open forum. There are some very heady philosophical and theoretical elements to the discussion. Here are some articles.

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Keep in mind that ‘randomness’ is often used as an explanation for physical interactions that don’t fit in current scientific paradigms or that current theory can’t account for. Randomness is also used as a cover for limitations in our ability to observe/measure interactions. Just because we can’t fully measure or quantify an interaction doesn’t mean that the interaction is truly ‘random’. Arguing that our lack of knowledge implies that nature is fundamentally random is a logical non sequitur.

Fundamental quantum theory was based in part on the idea that we can’t measure both a particle’s position and velocity at the same time because our methods interfere with the particle itself changing one or both characteristics. So if we want to measure velocity, we end up changing the original position and v.v. Because we lose some of the information in the act of measuring, scientists apply statistical methods to define the unknown area. Unfortunately, the math is then treated as prescribing reality instead of keeping to it’s actual role of describing reality

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The thing is, I’m fine with Randomness. I understand that’s a natural part of this world, but what I am unsure about and honestly confused about, is the fact that when I read about quantum physics and classical physics, people say that the universe is deterministic and we see that in “classic physics” but in quantum physics, it’s probabilistic.

And then, there’s a huge leap in logic that since the universe is deterministic, we are deterministic beings and we have no free will. But the thing is, I don’t subscribe to that whatsoever, I do understand that our actions have causes and our choices are limited, but I just don’t understand how some scientists make the leap from a Deterministic Universe to all things being deterministic and we are essentially robots with no free will.

Though I’ve read other sources that say that frankly we “do not know”. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate how scientific forums can be filled with overconfidence and nonsense, but now I am just ranting. :joy:

So in short, is it fair to say that when it comes to the universe we don’t know if it’s truly “deterministic”? Or am I now making a leap in logic myself? Science is hard lol

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I’m not sure what you mean by “the universe is deterministic.” I have personally never heard anyone argue that if we had all access to all the right measurements, we would be able to predict every outcome. I guess I’m curious what philosophical or theological angle this belief in a deterministic universe serves. It sounds like something some kind of misguided Calvinist (not at all like @LM77, who is quite well-guided :wink: ) would insist on to uphold some ultra hard view of sovereignty, not something a scientist would insist on to uphold scientific observations or an agnostic philosopher would insist on to uphold a humanistic view of humanity.

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Is this what we are talking about:

It seems to me like quantum physics would have made this theory untenable.

I’m going to sound dumb, but I’ve read this on Physics Stack Exchange forums, a few YouTuhe links and from “Physicists” on Quora.

In my opinion, it didn’t make sense to me whatsoever and what was really shocking to me was how many people claim to be physicists and back this entire theory. But then I started to think like you, like if the universe was truly deterministic, we would be able to predict everything with precision, or at least a very, very, very high amount of precision. Unless I’m just out of the loop, I don’t believe that is true whatsoever.

When I first read these things, I won’t lie it was really shocking. Because how would we know if something is truly deterministic, if at the micro level it is obviously not deterministic? I just don’t get it, this is obviously why young earth creationism was so much easier for me to grasp :joy::joy::joy:

Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But apparently, the the thinking shifts from the fact that quantum physics only deals with stuff on the micro level and that it doesn’t affect the macro level. At least that is what I have read.

So basically quantum physics, quantum mechanics only affects atoms and particles and in the grand scheme of things it does not affect a macro level of beings and ultimately the universe, I believe I’m stating the position correctly.

Physical determinism is dead. Natural law according to the premises of the scientific worldview are not a causally closed system. Determinism is still possible but only if you go outside the premises of that worldview. For example, the energy-time uncertainty principle means that energy is not conserved on shorter time scales, but that energy can appear from nowhere and change the course of events as long as that energy from nowhere disappears again within a time inversely proportional to the quantity of energy (by Plank’s constant).

And BTW, it is not just quantum physics by itself but in combination with chaotic dynamics which insures that the indeterminacy of quantum physics cannot be restricted to the quantum realm but can change the course of events on the macroscopic scale in a butterfly effect. In fact this happens every time we make a quantum measurement.

Free will has more difficult problems than a philosophical attachment to determinism. It is difficult to define what you even mean by that term exactly. I think it can be done, but it requires letting go the presumption of time-ordered causality which was never accepted by Aristotle for example.

Incorrect. Ilya Prigogine proved that the non-linear equations that govern events in the universe can only be predicted if you have initial conditions to an infinite degree of precision. But that means that quantum indeterminacy CANNOT by restricted to the quantum objects but will alter the course of events on a macroscopic scale.

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Yeah, I was just reading a thread on philosophy stack exchange. It seems some people think the indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics is “proof” that the universe is indeterminate, therefore there needs to be a God? Others say no, but it seems their objections are more along the lines of “that doesn’t prove there is a God” and that is why they are arguing for determinism. I think this is a good example of how people are always trying to coopt science and math to bolster their metaphysical arguments, when we are really better off just admitting that you can’t calculate your way to God and you can’t calculate God out of existence. He invites you into a relationship with him, and you know he exists through love. (Love is an epistemology, as I learned from Christian philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek)

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I am not advocating for deterministic positions, I just flat out do not understand them. Because I have read like I mentioned in this thread, or listen to people say that stuff that happens at the micro level does not affect the macro level, but logically for me that just doesn’t make sense. I am obviously not smarter than these people in this field, but I just don’t understand how that could be true.

Is it safe to say that we just don’t know if the universe is deterministic? For me, if the quantum portion is obviously not “determined” and probabilistic, I don’t understand how we could say that the macro is deterministic.

I have one more question for you, are these scientists/physicists who claim that the universe is deterministic, are they the vocal minority or the majority? Because I’ve read and listened to some people who hold different views than them, and particularly people like Kenneth Miller say that a lot of folks who push strict determinism have other objectives in mind than science itself.

Is this question more along the lines of philosophy than science? I’ve read that the topic of free will and determinism is much more of a philosophical question than a scientific one. I’ve also read that the bulk of philosophers and evolutionary biologist both do not back the “no free will/deterministic” worldview.

Which also leads me to believe, could those who believe in a determined worldview, could they just be the vocal minority?

Evidently only vocal in certain spaces. I’ve been moderating this forum for like seven years now, and I thought I’d heard all the main arguments from creationist v. evolution and atheist v. theist spaces referenced repeatedly. I have not heard anyone arguing for a deterministic universe.

Usually we are trying to help Christians feel okay with the existence of randomness. I’ve never seen anyone try to convince Christians using science that nothing is truly random.

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It’s not true. They are either not keeping up with the scientific developments or they are insisting on believing something in spite of the scientific evidence. This is hard pill for the scientists to swallow – that their mathematical space-time equations do not rule the world after all.

Minority. There are such as David Bohm and followers who take science outside the premises of the scientific worldview (rejecting the premises of the Bell inequality) to insist that somehow “physical” determinism holds despite the scientific findings to the contrary. But that is NOT the consensus of the scientific community. It is part of the definition of science that we ACCEPT the results of scientific experiments and do not insist on beliefs to the contrary because that is part of what defines science and distinguishes it from pseudo-science.

Oh though some times it is a bit of empty rhetoric. You should ask them what interpretation of quantum physics they like, because the the Everett many-worlds interpretation is only mathematically deterministic. If you say that the world deterministically splits into many possible futures then that is indeterministic as far as we are concerned, isn’t it?

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Here there are plenty of “yes” and “there’s no evidence that it isn’t” and even a few “we don’t know’s”.

What a world.

Here’s one Quora link that really had my brain going on this topic, a lot of “yes” and “there’s no evidence that it isn’t” along with a few “we don’t know’s” thrown in. Safe to say Quora shouldn’t be a resource, yes? :joy:

To be fair, while (as @mitchellmckain has stated) determinism is dead, there was some historical precedent for thinking along those sorts of lines. To understand where it came from, and why some strands or forms of that thought can still haunt the periphery of our thinking even today yet, you need to go back and read of people like Pierre-Simon Laplace (Laplace’s Demon). Back in the late 1700s, when Newton’s mechanics still had that “new car” smell and were being freshly unleashed on our understanding of the cosmos (and nothing was known yet of any QM or chaos theory), it became quite compelling to think that with the complete understanding of a few basic laws, it should in principle be possible to predict everything if one were just given the complete set of initial conditions! And in fact, (here is the part that still carries some mystery for me personally) - if everything is so universally governed by these knowable laws, then what could it even mean for anything at all to be random? Isn’t even a coin toss governed by all these predictable mechanics? In short: true randomness (whatever that could be) of some particular event would itself come to seem miraculous. It would be implying that something could happen without a direct cause (because - if it had an observable cause after all, then it wasn’t really random, right?) And you can see where this would go for something like true free will then too. How can I be said to freely have chosen anything if the electrons knocking about in my brain were all just following their inevitably (already quite governed) paths? (They wouldn’t have spoken of electrons or brains in exactly that way back then yet - but they still could see the overall philosophical principle in play with regard to any of the many ‘black boxes’ they were confident would, in time, now yield their secrets.)

And of course Descartes had already mused about “the ghost in the machine” as a way to keep the human soul somehow free of this mechanical determinism (and he even preceded Newton - which shows how much this idea had already crept into fashion even prior to the powerful Newtonian fuels that would explosively fan those flames).

That is some of the history of the whole idea. And despite it being “dead” for well over a century by now, it continues to mightily influence western thought, I think.

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