Physics and Faith

One of the things people say about Christianity is that Christians believe odd, impossible things. And well, they’re right. We do.

Virgin birth.

A being who is both God and human.

The existence of miracles.

The resurrection.

That’s just off the top of my head.

If we thought more about it, I’m sure we could add to this list. We Christians believe some odd, impossible things.

And that’s why I find quantum mechanics so comforting. Yes, comforting. Because it is odd and full of impossible things. Now, quantum mechanics  doesn’t prove any of what Christians believe. What quantum physics does is show us the oddness of the world. It is proof that rational, logical thought doesn’t completely explain the universe.

Now some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute, quantum mechanics is based on math which is rational and logical.” And you are right (At least I think you are. The math required to understand quantum mechanics is well beyond my abilities. I believe have to believe physicists when they tell me that quantum mechanics is based and supported by math.)

What I am talking about is the sort of rational, logical processes that allow us to think our way into a subject and understand it. You can’t think your way into quantum mechanics. It is simply too much at odds with the way the world that we know works.

I’m no physicist. but I find quantum physics fascinating.

Light can be both a wave and a particle.

A particle doesn’t exist in a particular location in space and time until it is observed.

We cannot know precisely both the location of a particle and its direction of motion at the same time.

The physical properties of a “thing” don’t exist until they are measured.

In the quantum world, milk can unspill and eggs unbreak.

And of course Schrodinger’s Cat.

That is just odd. Impossible. Not logical. Not rational. And yet it’s true.

To quote British scientist J.B.S.Haldane, “Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” #

None of this proves Christianity, but it does undercut the argument that science is rational and Christianity isn’t.

We don’t “think” our way into quantum mechanics and we don’t “think” our way into faith. To be sure, we have to think and think hard about both. But thinking alone won’t do the job. At some point we have to do the work required to experience and understand both faith and physics. To truly understand, either quantum mechanics or Christianity, we have to enter into the practices, learn the disciplines of both.

The oddness of the universe makes the oddness of Christianity more believable. Physics doesn’t prove Christianity. But what quantum mechanics and Christianity both want to tell us is that the world isn’t exactly as it seems. It’s much, much more peculiar and much, much more wonderful than it seems.

# When Haldane lived the word “queer” meant odd or peculiar and was not a reference to one’s sexual orientation. Sometimes this quote is attributed to Arthur Eddington.

Here is a link to a video of a conversation between Stephen Colbert (out of character) and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It’s a bit long, 84 minutes, but well worth your time. It’s funny, smart and informative.


Cross posted at Presbyterian Bloggers

18 thoughts on “Physics and Faith

  1. Quantum physics – an explanation of the certainty of uncertainty and how uncertainty is definitely certain.

    This is an intriguing post and who full of thoughts that stimulate thinking. Love it!

  2. You are missing the most crucial difference between physics and Christianity, is that the reality of Quantum Mechanics has been validated by testing and measuring trillions upon trillions of times.
    QM is the most tested theory of science.
    QM goes against all human intuition and logic because our brains were made to survive and interpret the world from inside our own space-time scales. The properties of the macro and micro world seems utterly bizarre to us, but it has been VALIDATED and MEASURED. Computers are testimony to the reality of QM

    The resurrection, miracles, the Virgin birth, etc. cannot be tested and validated, so it is faith. This is a fundamental crucial difference between the two worldviews.
    One has been tested and validated, the other is a matter of faith without empirical objective evidence and validations of hypothesis

    1. Joe, You are correct, science is science and faith is faith. They are not the same thing. One doesn’t prove or disprove the other. I was, in this post, more interested in thinking about the odd nature of reality and that “logical, rational” thinking in the traditional sense doesn’t work for either quantum mechanics or religion.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. I’m afraid there is no comfort for the theist in quantum physics. Quite the opposite. You are misconstruing the terms “logic and reason”. There is no way quantum physics could defy these principles. It would not be a scientific theory if that were the case. Rather, quantum mechanics is derived thru logic and reason from empirical observations that were surprising and unexpected. But that does not make them “illogical”. It is not logic and reason that were defied by QM, but “common sense” and “intuition.” IOW, people held expectations about how the world behaved at the subatomic level based on how they experienced the world operating at the level at which we normally oberve it. But there is no logical necessity that this be the case and, as it turned out, it was not the case at all.

    So the lesson is not that the universe fails to operate in a manner consistent with logic and reason. It is, rather, that people will habitually mistake logic and reason for their own unsupported expectations and assumptions. And this is, in large part, what drives religious belief. To our ancestors the idea that something as complex as a living organism could come into being thru non-conscious, mechanistic, naturalistic processes alone seemed inconceivable, so they were forced to imagine the existence of a god that brought such things into being. It was only once Charles Darwin demonstrated that, in fact, no such intelligent being was necessary for myriad forms of life to arise that this belief was revealed to be unecessary (And, of course, I need not remind you that many religious adherents continue to find it necessary to deny the truth of evolutionary theory.)

    The reason to disbelieve tenants of Christianity such as the virgin birth and the resurrection is not because they defy logic. It is because there is no reliable, repeatable evidence that they occurred, and for them to have occurred would defy what observation tells us cannot occur.

    For theists, the bad news does not end there. Today, those who are considered “serious theologians” often attempt to use logic and reason to demonstrate the existence of God, thru arguments like the Kalam Cosmological Argument. As it happens, these arguments invariably rely on a series of logical fallacies to build their conclusions, so even at that level they fail. However, even if these arguments were not invalid, they would still be inadequate to demonstrate the existence of God. This is because they are built on premises such as “Everything that begins to exist has a cause” and “The universe began to exist.” However, these premises are supported by nothing more than the common sense and intuition that quantum mechanics demonstrates to be unreliable guides to the actual operation of the universe. The idea of the universe coming from nothing by itself may strike some as absurd, but before QM the idea of light existing as both a wave and a particle would have seemed no less absurd. So, as I said, even if these arguments were logically valid there remains no reason to accept them as sound in the absence of evidence to support the premises upon which they are based.

  4. Sorry, I got a bit carried away above. I’m not sure why I said the Kalam Cosmological Argument is invalid. It is not. It is just unsound. Mea culpa.

  5. Just realized a more fundamental way in which your argument actually undercuts, rather than supports, Christianity. What you are in effect saying is that QM demonstrates that the natural world can operate in ways that surprise us, and that things which seem impossible to our common sense can actually turn out to be commonplace. Which is correct.

    However, when you try to apply this to the supposed miracles of Christianity, it means they cannot actually be called “miracles” at all. To be a miracle, they would have to be things that could not possilbly happen in the natural world, and which require the intervention of supernatural being like God to occur. But your point, as I say, undercuts this. What you are in effect saying is that things like the virgin birth or the resurrection could actually be natural events that only strike us as impossible because of our limited understanding of the natural world. Therefore, the people who witnessed them thought they were miracles, but they were just natural events.

    To be clear, I am not sayijng these events actually occurred. But the position you take here means you can never claim any event as a divine miracle, since we have no way of knowing what can or cannot happen as a natural event without intervention from God.

      1. That really depends. There are certain branches of Christianity that insist that the earth is only 6000 years old, or that human beings do not share ancestry with any other organism that exists on earth. These religions can be, and have been, refuted by science. And there is no theoretical reason that we could not find a 2000 year old skeleton that DNA testing demonstrates beyond any doubt to have belonged to Jesus of Nazareth. Such a finding would, at a stroke, refute the central tenet of every form of Christianity (And please note, I correctly said “tenet” rather then “tenant” that time. :)) So it cannot be said that religion, in all its forms, is immune to scientific investigation. But, sure, it is possible to pose religious questions in such a way that they cannot be addressed by scientific methodology. If you choose to define God as a supernatural being whose existence cannot be demonstrated by any empiricial evidence, then obviously that would be beyond the remit of science. But it’s easy to come with myriad such imaginary concepts. I fail to see why God should be privileged over, say, Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon in the garage, or Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

        1. Lute,

          So are theologians as John Polkinghorne who are physicists acting proclaiming something that can’t be or are you simply against any explanation that unifies religion and science?

  6. The philosophers and mathmatics in 600 BC looking for ” perfect forms” in the geocentric Universe model of the universe, , were horrified and confused to find evidence that orbits were elliptical, not perfect circles. they found it violated their worldview that the Universe was less than symmetrical and perfect.

  7. @ aFrankAngle

    I must admit to not having heard of Polkinghorne, so I can’t comment on him specifically. I really see no use for religion, period, so I’m not sure what the purpose would be of “unifying” it with science. I can see the value of bringing theological thought into line with the insights into the universe that science has provided. I fail to see anything that can be gained by science in the bargain, however. It seems to work quite fine by just pretending religion does not exist at all.

  8. Lutesuite: You have certainly spent a lot of time interacting with this post, probably more than the post deserves!

    You and some commentors at the Christian Century site ( ) are not happy with my use of the terms “rational” and “logical”. I evidently didn’t make myself clear- that I was using these terms in their non technical common usage. ( Or perhaps you understood that and my non technical use was just too annoying to ignore. That happens to me when people say “theory” when they really mean “hypothesis”)

    I do agree with you that there comes a point where all attempts to prove the existence of God fail. God is not definable by the methods of science.

    In this post I really wasn’t trying to say anything too complex or profound. Simply that there are all sorts of odd, non intuitive, difficult to imagine statements -claims about the world- made by both scientists and Christians. One set of claims needs higher math, one set needs faith, but both claim that there is more to the world than meets the eye.

    Just for your general information, John Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist at Cambridge who became an Anglican priest. He has done extensive speaking and writing on the topic of science and religion, claiming there is no fundamental conflict between science and religion (for people of faith.) All truth is God’s truth and so people of faith don’t need to fear science and vice versa.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    1. Thanks Nancy. I still think you’re misconstruing the lesson of QM. It does not offer a licence to legimitimize faith. “Faith”, IMHO, is just a fancy word for “Believing in one’s preconceptions with absolute conviction, despite the absence of any corroborating evidence.” QM shows us the dangers of putting too much faith in any of our assumptions, no matter how self evidently true they may seem, if they have yet to be tested empirically. It is not “higher math” upon which QM rests, but simple observation. And that is what religious faith lacks.

  9. “Solutions to Schrödinger’s equation describe not only molecular, atomic and subatomic systems, but also macroscopic systems and possibly, even the whole universe. Its solution provides the probability of finding a particle in a given location at a given time. But Schrödinger’s equation does not answer where any given particle is. It only discloses that when measured, the particle will be found in only one spot. It does not reveal why this should be the case, or where that spot should be. Its solution only provides probabilities.
    The equation also happens to be a linear one. This means that if a wave function 1 is a solution and some other wave function 2 is also a solution, then the sum is a solution too. But wave 1 and wave 2 could correspond to vastly different situations. For example, wave 1 might correspond to the particle being on the Moon and wave 2 might correspond to the particle being on Earth. Since the sum is also a solution, there is a sense in which the particle is in both places at once! When this happens it is said that the particle is in superposition of the two states.
    “This twenty-first century understanding of the building blocks of matter and energy sheds new light (pun intended) on Jesus’ instructions on how to pray.
     Pray then like this:
    “Our Father who art in heaven,
    Hallowed be thy name.
    Thy kingdom come,
    Thy will be done,
        On earth AS IT IS in heaven.
    Matthew 6: 9-10 (RSV)”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “On Earth As It Is In Heaven.” iBooks.

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