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Reflections From The Front Porch

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Written by Darrell Anderson.

I studied basic physics long ago in a galaxy far away, therefore I will not claim to be a subject matter expert. However, I sometimes find Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle used in philosophical and religious discussions. I believe that most of the time those arguments incorrectly use the principle.

Heisenberg declared that — at the atomic level — humans can know either the position of a particle or its momentum, but not both simultaneously. That is the Uncertainty Principle in a simple sentence.

By definition momentum equals mass × velocity. By definition, velocity is the distance traveled with respect to time. To measure momentum requires two different positions and two different moments in the time domain.

Determining position requires only observation with respect to a known location, and with respect to only one moment in time. Therefore, at the atomic level, an outside observer can know only position or momentum of a particle, but not both simultaneously. The more precision needed for position measurement the less precision available to measure momentum, and vice-versa.

At the atomic level an element of uncertainty appears because if humans declare to know position then they cannot declare to know momentum, and vice-versa. Humans — as observers existing in the time domain — must make all observations and measurements with respect to time. Therefore, there always will be a slice in time where uncertainty exists — where neither position nor momentum can be simultaneously known.

Thus, when debaters try to declare that the Uncertainty Principle allows for something to appear from nothing, they are incorrectly using the principle. To declare that a particle magically appears from nothing, or that during those infinitesimal moments of uncertainty a particle might be exhibiting behavior defying known laws of physics, is only to declare that the observer is uncertain of either position or momentum, and therefore cannot determine with certainty where the particle came from, or when.

Nothing is a difficult concept for humans to understand. Possibly the philosophical opposite of infinity, nothing is not just the absence of air — a vacuum — but the absence of everything. No air, no matter, no energy, no consciousness — nothing! To assume that something called “vacuum energy” exists necessarily implies that something exists because energy is something measurable. Thus, for particles to “appear out of nothing” while assuming something called vacuum energy means the particle did not appear out of nothing, but appeared out of something.

Any other use of the principle is mere metaphysical and illusionary sleight of hand.


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