Einstein misunderstood

Einstein was misunderstood when he said that God does not play dice with the universe. Philosophers assumed that Einstein was asserting that events don’t occur randomly; that the universe is one giant clock unwinding; that everything we think, every action we take, is predetermined at birth; that we are essentially meat machines.


Einstein believed no such thing. Not only is such a claim contrary to Einstein’s theories, it violates our common sense view of free will. I can continue to read this, or not. And free will is fundamental to law. Any crime I commit is not my doing; it is simply predetermined, out of my control, not my fault.

Einstein’s comments were directed towards the “Copenhagen agreement” in which Erwin Schrödinger wrote a wave function that predicted where you are most likely to find particles, such as the location of electrons around an atom. The function determines the probability of finding particles. Science writer George Musser describes Schrödinger’s function as a “haze of potential existence.” Mysteriously, when the wave function “collapses”, particles spring into existence by merely observing them.

“When you so much as look at a particle – bam! –its stops behaving deterministically and leaps to an end result like a kid grabbing a seat in musical chairs. No law governs collapse. There is no equation for it. It just happens.”

Einstein had trouble with that concept. He reasoned that there must be some underlying mechanism; that particles don’t spring into existence at the roll of the dice. What does it mean to observe something, anyway? Would a mere glimpse do? Could cats and bats bring particles into existence by observing them?

Einstein’s had no answer to his question. He simply said that there must be more to it than that. He believed that a branch of physics called statistical mechanics might hold the answer. It hypothesizes that events happen in both a completely random yet perfectly predictable way depending on the level of examination.

Einstein knew that things appeared to happen in a random way. But that even the unpredictable decay of radioactive nucleus must be predictable at some underlying level. That was Einstein’s complaint and what the Copenhagen agreement failed to explain.

To imagine how systems at different levels operate independently, imagine a hockey puck racing towards a goalie. At the level of atoms, the action seems completely random yet the flight of the puck is perfectly predictable (while scoring may not be).

Or imagine the opposite: that some demon could calculate the trajectories of the billions of atoms in dice as they are rolled. Even if all the details are known at the atomic level, the outcome is still a statistical prediction. The probability of each die landing on any side is one out of six.

Choice has nothing to do with atoms. It has to do with desire, intention, possibility –which exist at the psychological level of living, breathing humans. Why did you chose to read this far? Because you wanted to.

“My desire explains my action,” concludes Musser, “Most of the times that we ask ‘Why?’ we are seeking someone’s motivations rather than the physics backstory.”