I am back on the quantum interpretation part of the Physics and Buddhism book project. I am explaining that many interpretations have choices in rejecting or accepting this or that classical concept to interpret quantum.
One of them is determinism vs intrinsic randomness. Please help to review if my Buddhist understanding of it is correct and comment on your own preferences if any based on your understanding of the Dhamma.
Meaning: results are not probabilistic in principle. In practice, quantum does look probabilistic (refer to Stern-Gerlach experiment), but with a certain interpretation, it can be transformed back into deterministic nature of things. This determinism is a bit softer than superdeterminism, it just means we can in principle rule out intrinsic randomness. The choice is between determinism and intrinsic randomness.
Classical choice: deterministic. Many of the difficulties some classical thinking people have with quantum is the probabilistic results that we get from quantum. In classical theories, probability means we do not know the full picture, if we know everything that there is to know to determine the results of a roll of a dice, including wind speed, minor variation in gravity, the exact position and velocity of the dice, the exact rotational motion of the dice, the friction, heat loss etc, we can in principle calculate the result of a dice roll before it stops. The fault of probability in classical world is ignorance. In quantum, if we believe that the wavefunction is complete (Copenhagen like interpretations), then randomness is intrinsic, there’s no underlying mechanism which will guarantee this or that result, it’s not ignorance that we do not know, it’s nature that doesn’t have such values in it.
A Buddhist’s comment (basically me lah): On the one hand, we do not admit the existence of fatalism or fate, on the other hand, we don’t believe things happen for no reason. There was a heretical teacher back in Buddha’s time called Makkhali Gosala. Makkhali teaches the doctrine of fatalism. Everything is fixed, predetermined, there’s no role for effort in morality.
From sutta DN2, we get a glimpse of his teachings, which seems to include both fatalism and no causes.
“Great king, there is no cause or condition for the corruption of sentient beings. Sentient beings are corrupted without cause or condition. There’s no cause or condition for the purification of sentient beings. Sentient beings are purified without cause or condition. One does not act of one’s own volition, one does not act of another’s volition, one does not act from a person’s volition. There is no power, no energy, no manly strength or vigor. All sentient beings, all living creatures, all beings, all souls lack control, power, and energy. Molded by destiny, circumstance, and nature, they experience pleasure and pain in the six classes of rebirth. There are 1.4 million main wombs, and 6,000, and 600. There are 500 deeds, and five, and three. There are deeds and half-deeds. There are 62 paths, 62 sub-eons, six classes of rebirth, and eight stages in a person’s life. There are 4,900 Ājīvaka ascetics, 4,900 wanderers, and 4,900 naked ascetics. There are 2,000 faculties, 3,000 hells, and 36 realms of dust. There are seven percipient embryos, seven non-percipient embryos, and seven embryos without attachments. There are seven gods, seven humans, and seven goblins. There are seven lakes, seven winds, 700 winds, seven cliffs, and 700 cliffs. There are seven dreams and 700 dreams. There are 8.4 million great eons through which the foolish and the astute transmigrate before making an end of suffering. And here there is no such thing as this: “By this precept or observance or mortification or spiritual life I shall force unripened deeds to bear their fruit, or eliminate old deeds by experiencing their results little by little,” for that cannot be. Pleasure and pain are allotted. Transmigration lasts only for a limited period, so there’s no increase or decrease, no getting better or worse. It’s like how, when you toss a ball of string, it rolls away unraveling. In the same way, after transmigrating the foolish and the astute will make an end of suffering.”
Here’s the Buddha’s critique on him, from the sutta AN1:319
“Mendicants, I do not see a single other person who acts for the hurt and unhappiness of the people, for the harm, hurt, and suffering of many people, of gods and humans like that silly man, Makkhali. Just as a trap set at the mouth of a river would bring harm, suffering, calamity, and disaster for many fish, so too that silly man, Makkhali, is a trap for humans, it seems to me. He has arisen in the world for the harm, suffering, calamity, and disaster of many beings.”
In practise terms, we should acknowledge that there are causes which we can built to attain to liberation from suffering, effort is important. Causes are important. So morality observance is not wasted, it is encouraged. The law of kamma does argue against suffering happening for no cause and against suffering is fated to happen. It gives hope in that in the present moment, we can plant good seeds to ripen to good results. The patterns from old kamma by itself doesn’t predetermine all future, the input from present moment is important too. (Anyone can provide sutta citation support for this? Thanks)
So in choosing between determinism and intrinsic randomness, it is a toss up. If we can be assured that this kind of determinism does not lead to superdeterminism (which is basically fatalism), it’s a better choice. If not, intrinsic randomness of quantum can be made to not contradict Buddhism. The results of individual experiments cannot be pointed to have one cause or another. To see this, refer to Stern-Gerlach experiment, same set up, that is same cause and conditions, different results of up and down for each identically prepared particles. Remember the exercise in ruling out hidden variables, there’s no underlying difference between one particle and the next already, if we believe that wavefunction is complete. So this seems to violate cause plus conditions equals results in kammic teaching. Yet, it allows for the future to have different paths even if the past is exactly the same.
Richard A. Muller in his book the Physics of Now, argues that physics cannot rule out free will based on quantum phenomenon. His work as an experimental physicists allowed him to analyse pions (one of the many subatomic particles in particle physics) in particle accelerators. Two pions he had observed interfere with each other, that shows that their wavefunctions are exactly the same. So same cause and condition. However, the pions disintegrated at different times, so different results. Thus it would seem that quantum rules out fatalism if we interpret wavefunction as the complete description of the quantum system. The price we pay is, we cannot point to a reason why this pion decay faster than that one. If we light up two dynamites, they explode at the same time, not so with two identically created pions which are born in the same instance.
Also, when quantum is decohered up to the Newtonian physics, this quantum randomness hardly shows up in the macroscopic realm, well except for the radioactive decay which is used in the popular example of Schrödinger’s cat. So we cannot claim that there’s no cause for things based on mere acceptance of intrinsic quantum randomness. The results of quantum experiments are also pretty well defined to be in a range, eg. The spin result in Stern Gerlach is only up or down in the measurement axis. There’s no unpredictable thing like the electrons suddenly group together to become a dragon for no reason. So the cause-condition-result relationship can be restored, if we expand the definition of result to be quantum probabilistic range of result, and the probability distribution function is well defined and deterministic based on the experimental set up. For example, pion is created as cause and condition, result is, pion will decay. The time for the decay of pion matters not much.
Thus, there might be a stronger push to reject determinism.