Is belief in God compatible with quantum physics?
Question: "Is belief in God compatible with quantum physics?"
Answer: Quantum physics, also known as quantum mechanics, is an application of mathematics used to describe the behavior of matter and energy at an unimaginably tiny scale. Even more than other specialized fields within the sciences, it is extraordinarily difficult to explain quantum theories in layman’s terms. Not only does quantum mechanics involve higher-level physics, but much of what happens at the quantum level is counterintuitive. That is, it does not follow the same flow of cause and effect we see at larger scales. Merely expressing what occurs at the quantum level sometimes requires an exceptional grasp of mathematics and physics.
The theories of quantum physics help explain why changes in physical objects at nanoscopic scales only occur in discrete amounts, known as quanta, as well as why these objects appear to act as both waves and particles. Quantum mechanics also shows that, at these tiny distances, cause-and-effect relationships work according to probabilities rather than determined, specific results. Like most other physical theories, quantum physics was developed over many decades through the work of many different scientists. As models go, however, it is a relatively recent one, having only been accepted by the general scientific community for the past one hundred years or so.
In common experience, quantum physics rarely makes a noticeable impact. Part of the difference between classical and quantum physics is that quantum-level interactions occur according to a probability curve, not a well-defined, absolute cause-and-effect response. However, as a system includes more and more interactions, the probability of some extreme result lessens. Thus, large-scale systems are, in fact, well-defined and absolute and can be predicted with accuracy. The value of quantum mechanics lies in explaining these tinier transactions, which is useful in theoretical physics and high-level design, but practically meaningless to the average person’s daily experience.
Two aspects of quantum physics are often cited when discussing God or religion. The first is the nature of observed cause and effect in quantum-level interactions. Actions and reactions at the quantum level can appear to violate barriers such as the speed of light and/or to occur without a logical relationship between cause and effect. Depending on how one chooses to interpret the observations, this property either makes God’s existence seem more likely, as it provides an unpredictable opening for some unknown “choice”; or it makes God’s existence less likely, since it makes what is normally considered impossible just a question of long odds.
The second common issue relating quantum physics to spirituality is the Many Worlds hypothesis. This stems from the wave-particle duality demonstrated by quantum physics and the necessity for probability rather than an objective, determined system. Since there are many possible states of a measured system and no objective way to know which ones do or do not exist, some philosophers claim that all of them exist, simultaneously, in parallel universes. Of course, there is no possible physical evidence to support this. The theory persists mostly because it serves to deflect fine-tuning and intelligent design arguments, as well as evidence suggesting a universe of a finite age.
The Bible claims God’s handiwork can be seen in creation (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20). The early pioneers of modern physics were mostly theists, particularly Christians, and they didn’t see their discoveries as eliminating God. Rather, they saw them as illuminating God’s methods. John Polkinghorne is an example of this in action, specifically involving quantum physics. Polkinghorne, a lifelong Christian, is one of the scientists responsible for discovering the sub-nuclear particles known as quarks, a critical part of the quantum model. He retired after twenty-five years teaching at Cambridge in order to become an Anglican priest. His scientific credentials are such that even aggressive anti-theists, such as Richard Dawkins, are at a loss to write off his faith as delusion or confusion.
Ultimately, what impact quantum mechanics has on one’s view of God has little to do with physics and much to do with personal intentions. The scientific method has been an extremely successful way of discovering how God accomplished certain parts of His creative work. Learning the physical mechanisms of the universe doesn’t change the fact that there is a Designer and Creator who put them into place. Quantum physics, like any other scientific discipline, is perfectly compatible with the Bible’s teaching of God.
Recommended Resource: Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things by Alister McGrath
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