Is Heisenberg a Defeater for an Evidentialist Epistemology?

by Max Andrews

(For further context on my epistemology see Einstein’s Impact on the Epistemic Method.  I would consider myself a moderate evidentialist.)

Scientific theology takes Einstein’s knowing and being and his understanding of reality as a whole and applies this method of theology in Christian theology.  If the world is indeed the creation of God, then there is an ontological ground for a theological engagement with the natural sciences.  It is not an arbitrary engagement, which regresses back to Newtonian engagement, but it is a natural dialogue, grounded in the fundamental belief that the God about whom Christian theology speaks is the same God who created the world that the natural sciences investigate.[1]

A major problem that presses my theory of knowledge is the Heisenberg Principle.  This principle states that an observer changes the current state of affairs being observed.  For instance, if I am measuring the velocity of a particle I cannot know the position of the particle and vise versa.  This is called uncertainty.  How this comes into the epistemic process is whether or not this principle is epistemic or ontic.  This uncertainty creates an epistemic limit.

If this principle is epistemic then what relationship does the nature of reality have on our epistemic faculty?  Heisenberg himself believed that this uncertainty was not merely epistemic but it was ontic. Back to the example of velocity and position, if Heisenberg’s ontic uncertainty is true then if an object that is not in an eigenstate[2] of position then the object does not have a position.  Position then becomes a potential property.  When the observer measures the position it is then actualized.[3]

If this principle is ontic then this may potentially be a defeater for my position.  By way of realism, there is a certain element of reality that truly is uncertain.  Causation is even worse than what Hume told us.  That is still not to say that causation does not occur, it must, but this ontic uncertainty may affect more than just the quantum world.  If all of reality is composed of particles then there is a certain extent to which properties of particle can be extrapolated to a set aggregate of particles.  It’s easy to see how this can affect evidence and meeting sufficiency for belief.  I do not believe that ontic uncertainty makes reality unknowable since, intuitively, there are some propositions that we do know to be true such as the reality and existence of the external world.  So, even if it were the case that there is an element to ontic uncertainty it would not affect my epistemic theory in a capacity that would render it void and untenable.  There may be minor nuances to my theory that would render this theory questionable but given epistemic charity or probability one may still be justified in believing any proposition that is onticly uncertain as true as long as it meets the criteria for sufficiency.

            [1] Both the natural sciences and Christian theology are to engage with the nature of reality—not deciding this in advance, but exploring and establishing it through a process of discovery and encounter.  Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004),  21-22.

            [2] An eigenstate is a state corresponding to a fixed value of a physical variable.

            [3] Jonathan Allday, Quantum Reality:  Theory and Philosophy (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009), 250-251.


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