Subnatural and supernatural

I recently ran across a discussion of quantum mechanics from C. S. Lewis.

The older scientists believed that the smallest particles of matter moved according to strict laws: in other words, that the movements of each particle were “interlocked” with the total system of Nature. Some modern scientists seem to think — if I understand them — that this is not so. They seem to think that the individual unit of matter … moves in an indeterminate or random fashion; moves, in fact, “on its own” or “of its own accord.”

He goes on to explain that the macroscopic behavior of matter appears deterministic because the average behavior of billions of particles is very regular. His explanation is remarkably cogent for a professor of medieval literature writing in the 1940’s. He then discusses the philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics.

Now it will be noticed that if this theory is true we have really admitted something other than Nature. If the movements of the individual units is “on their own,” … then those movements are not part of Nature. It would be, indeed, too great a shock to our habits to describe them as super-natural. I think we should call them sub-natural. But all our confidence that Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on, would have disappeared. There is something outside her, the Subnatural. … And clearly if she thus has a back door opening on the Subnatural, it is quite on the cards that she may also have a front door opening on the Supernatural …

From Miracles by C. S. Lewis, chapter 3.

Related post: The world looks more mathematical than it is

5 thoughts on “Subnatural and supernatural

  1. Roger Penrose gives a particularly lucid explanation of quantum-mechanical determinism and indeterminancy in the first part of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, and as I recall, it is a good deal more complex and nuanced than C. S. Lewis would like to believe. I say ‘like to believe’, because he made his theological philosophy clear through his writings, and his hope that science would be adapted to it is clear in the quote here. It should be recognized for what it is: a statement of belief and hope, not a scientific argument. It does not strike me as a particularly promising line of thought: even if science were to run up against specific limits, that would not necessarily imply the existence of the supernatural, whatever that means, and certainly not the specific form of the supernatural that Lewis envisioned. After all, though no dummy, he was ‘”a medieval literature professor writing in the 1940s”, and so probably not the best guide to physics.

    By the way, I was not convinced by Penrose’s argument, but not because of any disagreement with his physics!

  2. C. S. Lewis didn’t put much stock in this argument. He mentions it in passing before going on to his main line of reasoning. He introduces it saying

    One threat against strict Naturalism has recently been launched on which I myself will base no argument, but which it will be well to notice.

  3. The thing is, quantum indeterminacy is highly reliable. A substantial fraction of the mass of your typical nucleon is believed to be mass of quantum froth: Particles which bubble out of the nothingness of space for a fraction of a moment, and then disappear.

    The idea of particles moving independent of a Laplacian-style deterministic rule meaning that they somehow “have free will” is Einstein’s mistake and is highly anthropomorphic, admittedly from my heavily opposing view. People of all stripes simply have a tough time accepting the idea we might be machines, even if such machines have biomechanical dice at their core.

  4. Just so we’re all clear: is QM actually non-deterministic? I heard that the Von Neumann formalism makes it look non-det. when in fact the theory is deterministic. The source was BBC 4’s “In Our Time” show on free will.

    I don’t get (or maybe just don’t agree with) Lewis’ assertion that these movements are sub-natural. It’s just a theory which takes account of a lack of knowledge. Not that the particles are “moving on their own” but that our equations can’t point to everywhere they ever go.

    Not to insult the efforts of a non-specialist to wrest out the philosophy behind an abstruse field.

    @Jan Do you have a link for “most of a nucleon is believed to be quantum froth”?

  5. Dürr, et al, “Ab initio determination of light hadron masses”, Science, 21 Nov 2008, vol. 322, 1224-1227, with an overview by Kronfeld beginning on page 1198 of the same issue, titled “The weight of the world is quantum chromodynamics”.

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