Chance and the God of religion

Dedicated to Anton Zeilinger

1. When one of the leading scientists of our time, quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger, celebrates the discovery of chance as the most significant discovery of the 20th century, we should take notice.*1* He directly opposes a tradition that goes back to the Babylonians and, of course, to all those practices spread all over the world, by which man wanted to find out the future by consulting celestial constellations (astrology), by examining the liver and other oracles, believing that the course of things was fixed since the beginning of creation. In the seventeenth century, this belief – for a mere belief it is – had been turned into a scientific dogma and decree. Chance was not allowed to exist because it was considered a mere synonym for human ignorance. Classical physics even gave a Latin name to this revolt against chance, it spoke of determinism – from Latin „determinare“ – made it sacrosanct and unchallengeable for three centuries. When Professor Zeilinger calls chance the greatest discovery of the 20th century, I assume he meant to say that with this discovery three centuries of scientific misconception were finally laid to rest.

Does this have anything to do with God? Not yet. But the discovery of chance is significant, as it frees man from the nightmare of a machine-like universe.

2. Fully developed we meet the nightmare already with Descartes around the middle of the 17th century. I wish, therefore, that all the functions which I have attributed to this machine /a machine which exactly imitates the human organism/, such as the digestion of flesh, the beating of the heart… the perception of light…, the impressions of memory… the external movements of the limbs…. ; I wish, I say, that these functions be conceived in such a way that they arise in this machine in a quite natural way from the arrangement of the organs alone – just as the movements of a clock or other automaton arise from that of the weights and wheels (Descartes, 1953; p. 873). Descartes precedes all later scientists and thinkers in that from the outset he also declares man to be a machine (apart from the soul in the pineal gland. Descartes never forgot the funeral pile that served the Church to burn Poor Giordano Bruno).

Leibniz remains faithful to this line. Everything comes about by necessity, this is as certain as three times three is nine. That is because necessity makes all things follow each other like in a chain so that what still has to happen will happen in a definite way, while what has already happened could not happen otherwise…. so that you only need a sufficient insight into things combined with an appropriate degree of memory and reason in order… to be a  prophet  who,  looking  at  the present  state  of  things, would foresee all their future relations like in a mirror (cf. Cassirer 1957: 143). A century later, David Hume expresses himself in the same manner: Look round the world, contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779). His younger contemporary, the French mathematician Laplace, only repeats the central idea of Leibniz when he asserts: An intellect, which, at a certain moment, would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes“ (1886, vol. VII, p. VI). And even in the twentieth century, long after the findings of quantum physics, Bertrand Russell continued to cling to the common dogma of classical physics. It is thought that matter consists of electrons and protons, which are of finite size and of which there are only a finite number in the world… The laws of these changes can apparently be summed up in a small number of very general principles which determine the past and the future of the world when any small section of its history is known (2004, 1).

Is there any reference to God?

3. Werner Heisenberg was one of the first who considered the world view of classical physics to be obsolete due to the new findings of quantum research. He provided concrete reasons for this rejection. A radium atom, for example, can emit an /alpha-/ particle. When observing the emission of the alpha-particle, the physicists… no longer ask for a preceding event… Logically it would be quite possible to look for such an… event… Now, why has the scientific method… changed in this very fundamental question?… If we want to know the reason why the alpha particle was emitted at this very moment, we would have to know the microscopic state of the whole world, of which we ourselves are a part, and this is certainly impossible (1959, 69).

Fritjof Capra and the followers of the New Age movement took up this idea with enthusiasm. They believed they had discovered a fundamental turning point that would split the history of science in two parts, as it were: the previous age of the mechanistic worldview and the new age of indeterministic quantum physics. Even people who did not understand anything about quantum physics were intoxicated by the „Tao of physics“ and believed that this was something like a doctrine of salvation. Classical physics had turned the world into a dead mechanical clockwork, but the new physics would give freedom and life back to it. Rarely did scientific findings, the understanding of which largely eludes the layman, have such an immediate and strong effect on thinking.

At this moment, God does indeed appear. The Tao of physics founded a quasi-religious movement.

4. Professor Zeilinger speaks of a significant discovery. But chance can by no means be discovered in the same way as the physicist discovers a new element in the periodic system or the biologist discovers a new species. Of course, everyone who is not a trained physicist let alone a member of the elite of quantum researchers, lacks the necessary competence to comment on the matter in question. But everybody may quote the opinion of competent scientists. And here again we may turn our attention to Werner Heisenberg. In the above-quoted passage he says literally that Logically it would be quite possible to look for such an… event…  /that is for a cause/ preceding the emission of an alpha particle. If we don’t do so it is because we would have to know the microscopic state of the whole world, of which we ourselves are a part, and this is certainly impossible.

This quite an astonishing explanation indeed! The reasoning of the quantum physicist Heisenberg, who helped chance make its breakthrough in physics, is almost identical to the reasoning of the classical physicists who so persistently denied it. Laplace explicitly said that an intelligence which at a given moment surveys the whole world so that it grasps all the forces at work in it – that is, a divine intelligence far superior to man – would recognize strict causality in all events: every cause would have its necessary effect and every effect its necessary cause. Heisenberg does by no means reject this argument. Instead, he maintains that it is logical to look for causes everywhere. If we refrain from doing so in the case of radium emissions, it is because human intelligence is far too limited. Thus, for Heisenberg, determinism does not fail in any fundamental way – certainly not because of logical untenability – but only because human intelligence is incapable of grasping the whole.*2*

The greatest physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, had never given up determinism anyway. With his famous dictum God does not play dice – in which he probably oriented himself on Spinoza, whom he particularly admired – he went even further than the mathematician Laplace. Einstein imputes to God the intention to have constructed the universe as a calculable machine where chance has no place at all. Following Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein, we must therefore conclude that even modern physics never really invalidated the deterministic world view.

Is here any mention of God? Not for the time being.

5. These considerations take us very close to the motif that has led scientists since the 17th century to imagine the universe as a deterministic machine. They had to do so if science was to replace and supersede religion. For God there can be no chance, because as the creator of things he knows their future course in all eternity. Therefore, in science too, chance was not allowed to exist, because otherwise scientists would have had to admit that their knowledge was limited from the outset and would therefore never equal that of religions. In other words, the world view of classical physics owes its origin to wishful and delusional thinking. The scientist as reborn Homo Deus would one day be able to grasp reality as a whole; he would explain everything because he would discover the causal mechanics hidden in all things. As we know, this expectation was to become true – up to a certain extent. Hence the breath-taking success of modern science.

Delusions can be very powerful – even if they distort reality. Anton Zeilinger, the Nobel Prize winner, is undoubtedly right when he assigns such a significant role to chance. But Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein are also right when they insistiert that there can be no empirical proof for Chance, because, after all, a superhuman intelligence might still be able to trace back every event to a cause. So is the question undecidable? Will we never be able to answer it?

Austrian biologist Rupert Riedl made exactly this point when he wrote but… no organ seems to have been formed that is capable of directly proving chance (1988, p. 98). In his words, we are programmed exclusively to recognize order, that is the laws of nature, and to make use of them, because this is necessary for human survival. The recognition of chance is without survival value. It merely designates the blanks between laws.

There is still no mention of God.

6. But what about reality itself, if we leave aside three centuries of deterministic delusion and wishful thinking? Then we get a completely changed picture of reality. Chance is not only omnipresent; we can even claim that it must exist. Because physics and with it all science would lose its sense without it. The physicist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead summarized the procedure of physics in a single sentence. Search for measurable elements among your phenomena, and then search for relationships among these measures of physical quantities (1985, 56). On this basis, physics sets up experiments to wrest the answers to its questions from nature. In these experiments, it endeavors to ascertain the measurable effects of measurable causes. 

But during the past three centuries, a much greater, possibly the greatest experiment ever, has been carried out by mankind – though without causes and effects that could be measured. That is why it has been ignored by physicists until now, even though it is radically reshaping history in every way and is still unfolding before our eyes. The questions that this world-historical experiment implicitly answers are the following: What must be the nature of a world in which science is meaningful? Is it conceivable that its only dimension is necessity? Or, on the contrary, is it conceivable that all events obey solely chance? The unique historical experiment imposed on humanity provides a clear answer to these questions, which may likewise be summarized in a single sentence. The investigation of calculable regularities (laws) in nature gets its meaning solely by the fact that we may use these laws for our purposes by applying them – in an arbitrary, i.e. basically incalculable way – to bring about desirable effects.

This is how physics and all other sciences searching for laws did actually proceed during the past three hundred years. They explore thousands of laws in order to construct pumps, railroads, radios, airplanes, computers, cell phones etc. on the basis of recognized laws; but they do this solely for the purpose of opening up new fields of activity for human freedom. Freedom, however, is nothing else than that unpredictable and incalculable dimension which in nature outside of ourselves we call chance. Thus, the totality of laws which allow us to launch a rocket to Mars belongs to the realm of the predictable and the calculable, but that a Mr. So-and-so, at a certain place at a certain time, presses the red button which causes its launch cannot and must not be predictable.

The half-sentence added at the end of this statement is no more and no less than logically required. If freedom too would be predictable, i.e. obey laws, then the effort of the scientist would become an illusion. Not only the whole outward nature would be reduced to a deterministic automaton but also the human being itself, because he or she could not think and act differently than they actually do.  Mr. So-and-so’s pressure on the red button would be predictable too as in its turn it would be subject to deterministic laws. Thus, using predictable regularities of nature to achieve desired effects in unpredictable ways would no longer be an option. Moreover, every prediction, even a wrong one, would itself be determined which means that we dispose of the scientific concept of truth as every statement would be as necessary as its opposite. Strict determinism is logical nonsense, since it leads to irresolvable contradictions. It remains one of the greatest mysteries in the history of science that even some of the greatest minds remained unaware of the logical trap. But as we saw, the deterministic vision offers a great attraction to wishful and delusional thinking. It expells chance which stands in the way of Godlike knowledge and thus limits the power of science. 

Up to a certain degree the delusion lives on. There is one more reason for this to happen: human vanity. The world-historical experiment, which I just mentioned, is accessible to every person having some training in critical thinking – let us call such persona by the name of philosophers -, while the elaborate experiments of biogeneticists or quantum physics require years of study together with most expensive equipment. The expert in these disciplines usually looks down on the philosopher with an indulgent – in the worst case – even with a mocking smile. Thinking alone is not enough for him, even if it necessarily underlies all scientific dealings with nature. For him, experiments, even when conducted on a world scale, are not serious business unless they are based on numbers and formulas.

There is still no talk of God, but we are definitely getting closer.

7. What do we gain if we accept with Professor Zeilinger the discovery of chance as one of the most important events of the 20th century? And what if we even go one step further and consider chance as a necessary part of reality, since our search for laws would otherwise make no sense?*20a* What are the corrections to our world view once we open our eyes to the fact that most events concerning human life and that of nature are due to chance?

First of all, we delimit possible knowledge from fundamental non-knowledge. The various stages of evolution beginning from point zero of undifferentiated primal plasma about 14 billion years ago up to our time, where this plasma gave way to such fantastic things as bloodthirsty ticks, concerts of Mozart and a human consciousness capable of reflecting all this – here we encompass human knowledge in its potential infinity, because we may penetrate into any depth of detail and, moreover, there is no end in sight as evolution may continue indefinitely. On the other hand, this evolutionary process is known to us only as a past given fact. The further question why all this happened in just such a specific way and not differently, this question remains forever unanswered.  There is no way to derive from the properties of the undifferentiated primordial plasma such things as the bloodthirsty tick, the wonderful C major piano concerto no. 21 of Mozart or our human consciousness, in which the world would one day be reflected. And this impossible derivation or reduction does not merely apply to the creative process of evolution as a whole but also to each of its individual stages.*21a* Even if some Mozart expert had studied all the musical stimuli to which Mozart was exposed in his time, even if he would know every detail of Mozart’s life down to the kind of coffee brand he drank on the day of composition, the miracle of his composition cannot be explained and certainly not deduced from any such factual knowledge – no matter how great it may be.

If one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century is chance, as Professor Zeilinger says, then we must add a second discovery which should be considered just as important. Just as chance as a second ontological dimension is opposed to necessity, so non-knowledge as a second epistemological dimension is opposed to knowledge. The sciences may indeed acquire potentially infinite knowledge, but this is contrasted with non-knowledge that has an equally infinite extension. All creative processes whether in natural evolution or in the life of any human individual point to the accidental, for which there is no explanation, since it belongs to the realm of the unknowable, i.e., to non-knowledge. With Henri Bergson we may speak of Élan vital, the vital momentum. With regard to the artist who writes a poem, the musician who composes a composition, the scientist who makes a discovery, we may speak of inspiration, but by doing so we only stick a label on our fundamental non-knowledge. 

Step by step, we come closer to God

8. We commit a stupidity, however, if we call chance blind, as the great French biogeneticist Jacques Monod did. If our knowledge fails before the unknowable, that is, if we are blind to it, this is no reason to devalue the unfolding of reality itself as blind and meaningless. Chance, which made human consciousness emerge from undifferentiated primordial plasma, is neither blind nor meaningless. It would be much more correct to call this process an incomprehensible miracle, the object of never-ending amazement. Scientific intelligence is sufficient to trace in increasing detail its successive stages over fourteen billion years, but at no time x have we been able to predict the future – to deduce it from the past. In every single moment the future was what it continues to be up to the present day and will always remain, the unknowable, which we may predict only in so far  as existing tendencies prolong themselves into the future (that’s where science comes in). Everything else belongs to non-knowledge. By far the stupidest metaphor reduces the evolutionary happening to the action of an ape at some writing machine who during trillions of years produces „by mere chance“ Dante’s Commedia or the information leading to the emergence of the universe. Because in the latter case, we pretend to know how the miracle comes about. But this is a blatant error. Chance is strictly synonymous with non-knowledge.

The concept of chance and non-knowledge leads nearer to God.

9. On the other hand, it is part of our today’s potentially infinite knowledge that the physical conditions which make our survival possible on earth are indeed highly specific and therefore exceedingly improbable. We are riding through the cosmos on a ball glowing with red fire inside, whose crust must be neither too cold nor too hot, whose gossamer mantle of gases that we need to breathe must have just the right mixture and also protect us from the incessant particle bombardment from space. The improbability of our existence on this ball in the midst of a largely hostile universe awakens in us the obvious thought that this miracle cannot be the mere result of blind and meaningless chance.

This conclusion seems irrefutable. We saw that chance is neither blind nor meaningless; it is the synonym for our non-knowledge – not more and not less.*2a* At most we can imagine an intelligence for which all this makes sense – then we would speak of an „intelligent design“. God, or whatever we may call this higher intelligence, would then have made sure that on our planet the conditions within a narrow corridor are so exactly equilibrated that we, Homo sapiens, can exist on it. This is a mere metaphor, but an infinitely better one than that of a monkey blindly hammering away at a machine.

We have arrived at God – but our non-knowledge remains

10. As soon as we give up the talk of blind and meaningless chance, only two possibilities remain: either the renunciation of all explanation or the idea of some higher intelligence. The determinists of the 17th century did not want to tolerate God at the head of creation. The reason seems obvious. In this case, HE could have arbitrarily intervened in earthly events at any time by miracles and thus overrule the laws of nature.*3* We saw that this conclusion is based on an error. The sciences presuppose as logically inevitable that human beings use the calculable order of nature (her laws) at any time in incalculable ways to their own purpose. By so doing they do not act against the laws of nature, but they prove that next to necessity there must exist in nature and man an equally extended area of chance. We do not know what man will do or fail to do in the future. Assuming that God is more than a bare metaphor and more product of human speculation we would have to admit that HE may well interfere in events as constantly as humans do (without for that matter violating the laws of nature). But we would not even notice such interference and could neither prove nor disprove it.

However, we are once again faced with a challenge for thinking. True, this higher intelligence would have provided for the conditions which make possible our improbable life on Gaia. But at the same time, we would have to credit it with the responsibility of making our existence very precarious indeed. Arthur Schopenhauer vividly describes the human condition: eating and being eaten, loving and hating, giving birth and killing, wonder and terror are the lifelong lot of living species. As we know, traditional religions have never really come to terms with this predicament. They would have liked to declare a benevolent, a „loving“ Lord as the world’s ruler (and that’s what parents tell their children), but this illusion is only possible if we close our eyes to so many horrible things. So they had to oppose their God with a counter-power, which they call devil. But then again we are faced with the “why”. This is what so much tormented Job. Beyond science and its glorification of laws, we may reach God through non-knowledge – only to be confronted again with a mystery we are unable to solve.

From my books Creative Reason and The Perennial Paradoxes of Mind.

*1* , Unfortunately, I do not remember when and where I got acquainted with this statement. On the Internet, I merely found the following source from the pen of Prof. Zeilinger, which at least comes close to this formulation:

*2* But Richard Feynmann, the great US physicist is credited with the sentence: Those who believe to have understood quantum physics have not understood it. The German-Austrian philosopher Wolfgang Stegmüller already suspected that in both extremes, the micro- as well as the macrocosm, perception could fail and that physics could then at best rely on mathematics. But how far will mathematics take us? he added. Gerhard Vollmer speaks of the „middle world“, for which alone our view and human comprehension are made.

*20a* I here contradict the great Karl Popper, whom I otherwise admire as my teacher. There are cases in which predictions turn out to be unsuccessful…. In such cases it may happen that we consider it hopeless ever to find a satisfactory law… In no case, however, can we assert with absolute certainty that there can be no laws in a given field…. I speak of chance when our knowledge is insufficient for predictions (Popper, 1980; p. 205). Yes, in certain cases our lack of knowledge can be and indeed often was the reason why we speak of chance. But that there must be chance as ontological dimension besides necessity is logically required. Popper failed to be aware of this requirement.

*21a* What I summarize in one single sentence has filled volumes in the history of philosophy and, to some extent, also in the history of science. The strata theory (Schichtentheorie) was developed in the German-speaking area by Wilhelm Dilthey, Nicolai Hartmann, Konrad Lorenz and Rupert Riedl. In France, Henri Bergson established a similar tradition. The difference to the biogeneticist Jacqes Monod is only one of (scientifically unsubstantiated) appraisal. For the one chance is creative, for the other blind.

*2a* Randomness is synonymous with what we do not know and cannot produce, for example by means of a so-called random generator. Just as our brain only recognizes order, it cannot but produce order, for example with the help of algorithms. Only if we make use of real chance, like for instance the unpredictable emission of an alpha particle, do we leave the realm of order.

*3* The reaction of „enlightened“ theologians to this objection was the so-called „deism“, which recognizes God only as the creator of the laws of nature. Once he had created them, he had to say goodbye to his creation: the machine ran all by itself. This corresponds to the reproach which Pascal had raised against Descartes. I cannot forgive Descartes, he would have preferred to build his philosophy without referring to God at all, instead he has made the small concession of letting God give a nudge to the world at its beginning so that it might start to move. After this initial event he has no more use for him” (1955: 79).

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