Does God Play Dice With the Universe ? – A review April 8, 2008Posted by dorigo in books, physics, religion, science.
About a month ago I received in my mail box a copy of a small, good-looking book, titled “God Does Play Dice With the Universe“. Author: Shan Gao, in his own words “an independent research scientist, or more accurately, a natural philosopher who aims at understanding the mysterious universe“. Shan is a reader of my site. He had previously contacted me to ask if I would be willing to review his new work.
Despite being a lazy reader and having no experience in reviewing books, I promised him I would: my curiosity won, as it usually does in such circumstances. So, as I unpacked the parcel that the British publisher Abramis had crafted for me, I had mixed feelings: the object I was unwrapping meant something new and potentially stimulating to write about – but it also meant work ahead.
The book turned out to consist in a bit over 100 pages neatly written in a pocket 9″x6” size, cleanly printed
and illustrated, and featuring a starry background on the cover. Does God play dice with the universe ? I admit I started browsing the book with a definite bias – the way I had been contacted, the title of the book, and the very fact that somebody should select me as a reviewer made me lean toward the idea that the author was some sort of a crackpot.
Now, I have to say I have nothing against the “category” in itself. People who try to understand reality and build their own theories have my deep respect; that is, until they become arrogant and presumptuous. Shan had been kind and unassertive in his communication with me, so my bias was not putting me in a bad mood by itself.
However, after a first quick look, I was left wondering about the soundness of my pre-judgement. For one thing, the book contained no formulas at all. I mean none, not even a few. This did not quite fit the crackpot idea I had put together. Secondly, the descriptions of quantum phenomena I came across by random browsing appeared actually rather well put together, even if of course simplified and not rigorous, and I could detect no obvious flaw in their presentation. I have to warn the reader here: I am no theorist, and my studies of quantum mechanics date a century back; however, usually I can still smell a fallacious statement if I read one.
I decided I would really read the damn book. It took me a while despite its light weight, because my reading time is scarce these days, but today I finally got to the last page, and can present some considerations in a less handwaving form than I thought I would at the beginning.
“God Does Play Dice With the Universe” is a book which builds on a few general principles of quantum mechanics and their contrariness to common sense to propose a bold, even cunning explanation of motion at the microscopic level. One which, I must add, is not scientifically justified or proven in any way; but the author’s ultimate goal is philosophical rather than scientific. That, in essence, is the reason why one feels one can accept without question the multitude of unproven hypotheses, which are presented as unquestionable facts, in the discussion of random motion and the concept of a discrete fabric of space-time.
Shan Gao’s goal is to understand the universe in a philosophical way, and indeed the book describes several views of motion from past thinkers ranging from Zeno to Aristotle, from Al-Nazzam to Bergson (“Movement is composed of immobilities“) and Bertrand Russell (“Motion consists merely in the occupation of different places at different times“). And even if one feels nervous to be confronted with divine actions while reading about quantum-mechanical concepts, and the G word appears a bit too often in the text, in the end the author can be appreciated for having put together his own “theory” and a imaginative way of looking at space and time and the way objects move. Rather than trying to summarize his ideas, let me quote an extended passage:
In a word, even if no concrete cause exists, a change can still happen as long as the change is purely random. In order to further understand this conclusion, it is necessary to distinguish two kinds of causes. One is concrete causes that relate to time, and the other is universal causes that are irrelevant to time. The former is our familiar causes appearing in the principle of causality. Such a concrete cause will result in a lawful change at a concrete time. The latter is a new kind of causes, which are similar to Aristotle’s final causes. A universal cause can result in ceaseless random changes. As a consequence, both lawful changes and random changes have their causes.
So, the principle of causality and indeterminism can be unified in a generalized principle of causality. […] To sum up, we find an appealing solution to the long-standing puzzle of indeterminism. The existence of uncaused events is actually logical. So it is comprehensible that God plays dice with the universe.
The last chapter of the book is one I did enjoy, despite -or maybe because of- the lack of physics or pseudo-physics arguments. Here, Shan Gao takes his ideas of motion and confronts them with the philosophical views of Aquinas, Newton, Aristotle, and the concept of a First Mover:
In Newton’s physical world, God has a new position […]. A moving object needs no mover. So there is no need for Aquinas’ First Mover. However, Newton’s First Mover still exists. […] No object has the ability to move itself. Then who moved the first moving object ? How did it start off if no object can move itself ? So, as Newton thought, the universe still needs some original thing that set it all in motion […] Indeed, Newton warned against using his mechanics to view the universe as a mere machine […]: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
According to the new picture of random motion, objects can move by themselves. What is the
position of God in the new universe then? […] So God seems to have no position in the spontaneous universe. If God did exist, He would need to do nothing. In the profound words of the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place“. This is the very Tao of the universe.
I liked this finish. After setting the stage with an almost mystical view of the universe, Shan Gao drops the curtain, and there is no God behind it. Or, if there is one, He is certainly not doing much for us.