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Robert Marks: Randomness and the Enigma of Creativity


Is there any true randomness in nature? Or are deterministic processes the rule, even down at that quantum level? Over at Mind Matters, Robert Marks examines these questions in a really interesting post. From “Quantum Randomness Gives Nature Free Will”:

Albert Einstein (1879–1955) did not like the sheer probability associated with quantum mechanics. He was famous for his many remarks to the effect that “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” Einstein thought that the quantum collapse of probabilities must be like flipping a coin. Before we flip a coin, we can only think probabilistically about the outcome, heads or tails. After the flip, whose individual outcome was actually determined by the environment, we know the deterministic result. In practice, if we flip a fair coin enough times, we will get about half heads and half tails. That is not because the environment is not deterministic but because the ways in which the environment is determined do not favor either side of a fair coin.

Einstein thought that quantum mechanics must be like that too. There are deeper, unknown things happening in the universe (hidden variables, in his words). But because we don’t know what they are, the best we can do is apply a probabilistic model to explain our observations….[H]is hypothesis seemed to be untestable at first. How can we know for sure if there are hidden things we don’t know about? This seemingly unresolvable position is known as the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen (EPR) paradox.

So, is nature predestined or does it have free will? When a quantum wave function collapses, is it predestined to collapse for an unknown underlying reason, as Einstein supposed? Or is the collapse independent of any applied influence? If the latter, the implication for nature’s free will is fascinating:

In the case of a collapse of a quantum state with two possible results, a random binary bit of information is being created out of nothing (ex nihilo).

Unlike the post hole problem, however, there is an answer to the EPR paradox based on a profound insight called Bell’s theorem. The bottom line of Bell’s theorem is that the collapse of the quantum state creates new information. There is no underlying cause of the result. Nature has free will! New fresh bits are continually being introduced to our universe.

Under Bell’s theorem, the mechanics of coin flipping is no longer applicable to quantum mechanics. In the quantum world, I can flip the same coin under the exact same conditions and sometimes heads will result and sometimes tails, without any factor in the universe determining the result.

Sir Roger Penrose believes that human nonalgorithmic (noncomputable) characteristics such as creativity are due to quantum collapse in the brain’s microtubules. If he is correct, truly fresh new information is being created in our brains. But there’s a problem. The bits of information generated by quantum collapse are merely random. That is, they are uselessly random. Randomness alone is incapable of generating the specified complexity evident in creative thinking. A random buzz generated in our neurons will not solve a stubborn math problem or write a great novel. New bits must be formulated or organized for a general purpose. We are still left with the question of how that creativity happens.

You should read the rest. Whether nature includes true randomness or not, Professor Marks is saying, it still leaves unexplained the enigma of creativity, whether in the human experience or the wider world of biology with its fantastic innovations. Only a freely acting, designing agent resolves the mystery. Only such an agent creates, truly, ex nihilo.

Photo credit: Nicu Buculei, via Flickr (cropped).