"Einstein's Theory of Relativity proved that everything is relative. There are no absolutes. So don't try to tell me that there is such a thing as objectivity or an objective morality. Science has demonstrated that such concepts are meaningless."
A statement such as this is commonplace in discussions on philosophy and morality. It is a good example of the dangers inherent in attempting to bolster a philosophical argument by means of poorly understood scientific principles. It becomes a sad situation when such sentiments are offered by scientists who should know better. This "Argument from Relativity" was more prevalent in the past. Today it has largely been superseded by the "Argument from Uncertainty." This position states that, in quantum theory, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle "proves" that one can be certain about nothing. Neither "argument" is tenable. While part of the difficulty results from a misunderstanding of what quantum theory says, the problem goes deeper than this. It results from of a misunderstanding of the very nature of science and scientific laws.
It is often said that the universe is "governed" by laws which can be discovered and known by us. While this statement is essentially true, the word "governed" carries connotations which often confuse the actual nature of the relationship between the universe and scientific laws. When people in a society are said to be "governed" by laws, it is understood that these laws are created by people and are subject to change; that to be governed in this context means to have one's behavior monitored by an agency external to oneself, for example, by the agencies of government; and that these agencies can force one to act in a particular way which might be contradictory to one's desires.
Too often, people carry this context as an organizing mental framework when discussing the laws which "govern" the universe. Unfortunately, the meanings associated with societal laws may incorrectly color the attitudes brought to a discussion of scientific laws. For example, this framework might lead one to believe that the universe is "governed" by some agency external to itself which compels or forces the entities within the universe to behave in a certain fashion; that these laws "cause" objects to act thus, and that to apply scientific laws to human behavior is therefore to deny free will (this is the erroneous dichotomy in the social sciences between theories of causal "motion" as applied to objects and theories of non-causal "action" as applied to humans); and that since scientific laws can change (as when Einstein's theories supplanted Newton's), one can never say that one is certain about anything in science.
To maintain these latter beliefs is to ignore the "Law of Identity" as described by Aristotle: this states that "A is A"; that to be is to be something (whatever that is); that an object is what it is and can act only in ways consonant with its identity; that Existence is Identity. As Ayn Rand pointed out, the role of consciousness is identification of what exists. And here is the crux of the nature of science and scientific laws or principles. It is not the goal of science to come up with laws which are imposed on nature and, for example, somehow prevent a pig from flying to the moon. It is the proper goal of science merely to identify what already exists. This identification includes, first, description of what things are and what they do, and second, understanding of how they came to be so and why they behave as they do. Science seeks to trace the antecedents of the present state of the universe all the way back to the Big Bang.
Scientific laws, then, describe and provide models of the way things are and how they work; they "govern" or "direct" nothing. We use mathematical formulae to describe the orbital dynamics of planets, but those bodies have no knowledge of and no need of calculus. They simply move in the manner that is inherent in their nature. As descriptions arising from human efforts, scientific laws can be incomplete; we are neither omniscient nor infallible. We can discover new phenomena in the universe which "violate" our scientific laws. This simply indicates that our old descriptions were incomplete (as when Einstein expanded on but did not invalidate Newton's work) or, sometimes, simply wrong (as when the ideas of "phlogiston" and the "ether" were completely discarded).
What is crucial to realize here is that scientific laws do not impose contraints on reality, reality imposes contraints on the "laws" which describe it. Our descriptions cannot be valid if they do not accurately identify and correspond with what exists. As Rand mentioned in her theory of concept formation, concepts are epistemological tools, not metaphysical entities. So, too, scientific laws are epistemological devices we use to describe and understand reality. They are not metaphysical straitjackets which somehow actively "prevent" an entity from acting in a particular way. When we describe economic, sociological, or psychological laws or principles regarding human behavior, we are simply describing the way people operate, not imposing restraints upon them or denying the notion of free will. Since a human being has an identity, he or she cannot act in an arbitrary manner which violates that identity. The reality of being human contains within itself the "restrictions" on what is possible to us. Societal laws state what one should not do. Scientific laws state what one cannot do.
Since valid scientific laws then are nothing more (or less) than reflections of the reality they describe, these laws are independent of our thoughts or our feelings. Wanting Perpetual Motion to exist will not cause the Law of Conservation of Energy to vanish. The laws of nature (when understood in the sense described) cannot be negated by wishes, desires, or whims, and are not imposed by tradition or people. They are assertions of the fact that there are absolutes. Though the Special Theory of Relativity states that there is no absolute uniform motion (that is, the measurement one makes of a moving body is dependent on one's frame of reference, i.e., it is contextual), the speed of light is an absolute (when measured in a particular medium, it is the same for all observers regardless of the frame of reference). As Werner Heisenberg himself said, "...in science, a decision can always be reached as to what is right or wrong. It is not a question of belief...but a certain statement could simply be right and another statement wrong...(This question) is decided by nature" (quoted in Pagels, The Cosmic Code, p. 57). The universe "is." We did not invent it nor do we "socially construct" reality. We can only discover what is there. A scientist looks for patterns to simplify the complexities which are observed. These basic, underlying principles are then used to explain those complexities.
Valid scientific laws are invariant (always remain the same), exhibit universality and simplicity (work everywhere and have a foundation of logical parsimony), are complete (describe all relevant phenomena), are discovered through a process of observation and verified/modified by a process of experimentation open to anyone, and must give rise to precise predictions which are subject to falsification. In the physical world, even when the event described is ambiguous (such as radioactive decay), the math which describes it must be a precise representation of the laws of nature.
It is at this juncture that the debate regarding quantum theory and objectivity or absolutes emerges. The proponents of intellectual uncertainty usually appeal either to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or to the notion of an "Observer Created Reality" in order to defend their skepticism. Their "proofs," however, prove nothing other than their own misconstrual of the facts of reality.
The biggest mistake made is to apply the Uncertainty Principle in the wrong context. Quantum theory precisely predicts the probabilities of a large number of events. It has nothing to say about individual events. The Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot have simultaneous knowledge to an arbitrary degree of two mutually exclusive properties, in this case, position and momentum. The quantum realm is an instrumentally detected material reality. To measure the position or momentum of a quantum particle, one must use some means of detecting that particle. This is light of some particular wavelength. Because quantum particles are of a size comparable to the wavelengths of the photons used, the shorter the wavelength of the photon, the more accurate will be the measurement of the position. But a shorter wavelength translates into a higher energy, and given the relative correspondence between the particle size and the means used to measure it, this energy will, in the very process of measuring the position of the particle, disturb it and change its momentum. If one uses a longer (and less energetic) wavelength of light for measurement in order to minimize this disruption, the position one measures will be that much less precise.
Since humans are not omniscient and do not possess diaphanous perception, there is no way to use a means of observation in the quantum realm which will not disturb the particles observed. A supernatural being (if such a thing existed) could, perhaps, simultaneously observe a particle's position and momentum to an arbitrary degree. But for entities in reality, this is not possible. The more accurately one measures the position, the less accurate is the measurement of the momentum. Conversely, the more accurately one measures the momentum, the less accurate is the measurement of the position.
This translates into the fact that one can measure any one particle to any number of decimal places desired, but the next time one measures the particle, the results will be different. After a large number of measurements, one is left with a probability distribution of position and momentum of the particle. It is this distribution of measurements which is precisely described by quantum physics ([the range of momentum] times [the range in position] is greater than or equal to [Planck's Constant]). Thus the Uncertainty Principle does not apply to single measurements of an object but only to many such measurements.
(An analogy here with people would be the statistical nature of insurance tables. It would be impossible from these statistics to predict accurately whether any one person would, for example, break a leg. But given the entire population, it would be possible to predict with great accuracy how many people in total would break legs over a given period of time. It is such probabilistic distributions -- the single events of which are each causally determined even though they are not predictable on an individual basis -- which enables insurance companies to make precise predictions overall and thus earn handsome profits year after year.)
Unfortunately, the promulgators of skepticism take this contexually specific principle and apply it arbitrarily not only to other facets of the micro-realm but also to the macro-realm of which we are a part. It is not true that all properties of quantum particles are "uncertain." A particle's spin and its electrical charge, for example, are precise and absolute. They are not subject to the Uncertainty Principle. Nor does the probability distribution of a particle's position and its ability to appear on the opposite side of a barrier without actually passing through that barrier (the "tunneling effect") mean that a human has a probability of passing her hand through a tabletop without actually going through the table.
The quantum realm is qualitatively different from the macro-realm. Both are parts of reality. The differences which exist are no more mysterious than the qualitative differences between the consciousness of an insect and the consciousness of a human being. To apply all of the qualities of human consciousness to a bug is no more valid than to apply all the qualities of the micro-realm to the macro-realm (or vice versa). It is the bias of applying our direct experience of the macro-realm to that of the quantum world which gives rise to much of the confusion regarding the micro-realm. We can mathematically describe it with precision. Yet just as the direct experience of color is beyond the capacity of a person who has been blind from birth, so, too, is the direct experience of the nature of sub-atomic particles beyond our capacity as beings born into the macro-world.
The idea of complementarity as described by the physicist Niels Bohr says that position and momentum are mutually exclusive (here, in terms of measurement accuracy), but both are necessary to define the quantum object. (One could compare this with the concept of "sex": the notions of male and female are "mutually exclusive," but both are necessary components of the what "sex" is and means.) This concept leads to the confusion surrounding the idea of an "Observer Created Reality."
It is often asserted that "quantum reality is
statistical." However, that reality in terms of its
existence is not
statistical. Rather, the behavior of the quantum
entities in question is statistical. When discussing an "Observer
Created Reality," the skeptic usually translates this as meaning that
reality itself has been created by the act of observation; that the
world does not exist until it is observed; that therefore reality
itself is malleable and can be whatever we want it to be; that it is
not the same from one time to another, and therefore we can never
know anything for certain.
However, what an "Observer Created Reality" actually means is that there are observer created conditions for the expression of one aspect of an underlying reality as opposed to another, mutually exclusive aspect. This means that the aspect (property, characteristic, etc.) of the entity under observation is elicited, not created, by the act of observation. Immutable laws are independent of the observer and are objective. For example, the laws of quantum physics say that an observer can only see what an experiment is designed to see. This principle cannot be overturned simply because we want to do so (have "intentions"). We are part of reality and subject to its laws. We are not aloof, godlike beings impartially watching a play. We are part of the play, and what we do can have an impact on the behavior of other entities in that play. But this impact exists only in the framework of what is possible to us as given by our nature and the context in which we exist.
Another example of complementarity in the quantum realm is the dual particle-wave nature of electrons. Both the particle and the wave aspects are necessary to define the electron yet each aspect is mutually exclusive. (This is also true for photons.) An experimenter can set up detection equipment in such a way that the electrons appear to act like particles (that is, like discrete bodies) or the equipment can be set up in such a way that the electrons appear to act like waves (that is, can exhibit interference patterns as do non-discrete wave phenomena). But the scientist cannot set up conditions to measure both aspects simultaneously. This is what "Observer Created Reality" means: to create the conditions necessary to elicit one aspect of a phenomenon. The observations are objective in the sense that anyone who sets up the equipment in the same way will observe the same aspects of these quantum particles. The results are not uncertain; one cannot set up the equipment to observe the particle property of an electron and then mysteriously observe the wave aspect.
One cannot understand the electron by looking at it only as a particle or only as a wave. The fact that one aspect is meaningless without the other indicates the essential nature of this complementarity. Just as in the discussion earlier of scientific laws, the probability distributions of quantum mechanics comes from the individual events, that is, describe them; the distributions do not cause those events. And as indicated earlier, individual events, as such, are not dealt with in quantum theory. Single measurements or observations will not establish the nature of a particle or provide a complete understanding of it.
An analogy in the macro-realm for this phenomenon of an "Observer Created Reality" can be seen in examining the role of "intentions" in trying to understand the personality of some person. For example, suppose the issue is one of determining whether person X is inherently "nice" or "mean." These terms are mutually exclusive and complementary in the sense that one cannot be "nice" and "mean" at one and the same time and in the same respect, yet each concept is dependent on the other for its meaning.
The only way as an observer to determine what kind of a person X is is to look at his behavior. First one establishes certain conditions: one smiles at person X, shakes his hand, and gives him a present. The behavior we observe is a return smile, a firm handshake, and a "thank you." Does the observer then conclude that person X is inherently "nice"? Perhaps. But then suppose the observer next slaps person X in the face and insults him and his family. The behavior we then observe from person X is anger, return insults, and a fist in the face. Do we then conclude that person X is inherently "mean"? Perhaps, but such a conclusion would mean little more than the first one.
The observer can provoke (elicit) "nice" or "mean" behavior from person X by what he chooses to do or how to do it. Can one "measurement" determine the inherent nature of person X? No. Single observations would mean nothing as far as establishing inherent characteristics. Only a large number of observations would determine the probability of person X being "nice" or "mean." But even if a basic classification were established ("Person X is basically 'nice.'"), there would still be uncertainty as to what the behavior would be in any particular instance. None of this means that the observer "created" the reality of person X's personality, only that he "established the conditions necessary to elicit an expression of one of two complementary but mutually exclusive properties."
The ideas of complementary and an "Observer Created Reality" lead to the fact that there can be different representations of one reality. Only the specific manifestations of the defining properties of an entity can be influenced by an observer's intentions. In this sense only is reality "contingent" on the presence of an observer. For example, while matter and energy appear in our daily existence to be distinct, both are needed to define the nature of entities in reality (E = MC2). They are complementary yet mutually exclusive; they cannot both be manifested at the same time. Yet we as "observers" can create conditions in which matter can be manifested as energy (as in a fusion bomb) or energy manifested as matter (as in using the energy in an accelerator to find new subatomic particles).
So where does this leave the champion of uncertainty? Nowhere of any importance. The laws of nature are not artifacts of our mode of thought but are inherent in the structure of reality. Quantum theory does not open the door to the paranormal or the supernatural. It does not lead inexorably to uncertainty, skepticism, and moral relativity. It is simply and elegantly a description of one aspect of reality. Indeed, the quantum fields which some physicists see as irreducible entities arise from the symmetry inherent in reality and are not subject to the uncertainty principle. They are expressed as quantum particles. It is the intensity of these fields in space which equals the probability of finding an associated particle there.
In any event, the observer (the subject) does not create the entity which is observed (reality) but only perceives it in whatever manifestation it presents. Reality is not observer dependent (subjective). It is objective.
So what is "objectivity"? An old definition of "objectivity" might have been: "The world has a definite state of existence independent of our observing it" (Pagels, The Cosmic Code, p. 114). When examining the quantum realm, however, we saw that in the context of the Uncertainty Principle, it is impossible to view or even be aware of what all those "states" are independently of the means we use to observe them. The very act of observation changes what those (unknown) states were before we observed them. So what does it mean to talk about "definite states of existence independent of our observing them"? Since we as humans do not possess supernatural means of perception, we cannot ever "know" precisely what those states are. Does this then deposit us back in the arena of subjectivity and uncertainty?
No. Of course not. Being uncertain about some things does not automatically mean being uncertain about all things. When we make observations of the quantum realm, we are only changing one random, probabilistic distribution to another. The underlying nature remains the same. According to Leonard Peikoff, "objectivity" means that there are "absolute truths stating facts about reality...binding on every man, whatever his feelings" (The Ominous Parallels, p. 107). In the context of the present discussion, I would define "objectivity" as stating that "the universe has an invariant set of laws which describe its functioning and its existence independently of our desires regarding those laws." These invariant laws describe the facts concerning the "absolute truths" which are integrally and inseparably part of reality.
Whether in science, ethics, or any other human endeavor, truth is discovered and must correspond to objective reality in order to be valid. It is not "received" from or "revealed" by some external agency. Our identifications may sometimes be incomplete or in error, but if there is not something which exists independently of us, then there is no standard by which to determine whether we are, in fact, right or wrong, getting closer to an understanding of truth or miring ourselves in falsehood. There is no need to invoke the supernatural, the arbitrary, or the causeless in order to understand the world around us or our place in that world. Reason and logic, not faith and superstition, are the tools which will lead us to the understanding we seek.
Ordinary reality is all there is. It is also all that we need.
Hawkings, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam, 1988.
Pagels, Heinz. The Cosmic Code. New York: Bantam, 1982.
-- . Perfect Symmetry. New York: Bantam, 1985.
Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels. New York: Signet, 1982.
Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. New York: Signet, 1967.