For my next trick, ladies and gentlemen, I shall attempt the impossible: trying to say something coherent about quantum mechanics from the background of a “B” grade in A-level physics. My only encouragement is that proportionately few people in the world have any understanding of QM, and those who do disagree about its interpretation. I’m aware (with some hope of useful feedback and correction) that our subscriber Ian Thompson, a nuclear physicist who has a very similar approach to theistic science that I do and is a concurrentist and Neo-Aristotelian to boot, has actually written a book on quantum theory and philosophy of science – currently on my Amazon wish-list.
One of the problems in assessing scientific theories beyond ones own area of expertise is identifying their hidden assumptions and any ideological biases in their application. This is especially true when they seem to have religious implications. For example, to the biological layman, the claim that evolutionary theory removes the need for God seems plausible and encourages religious doubt, rather than, as it ought, provoking a reaction against unwarranted metaphysical presuppositions dressed up as science. Likewise, the philosophical confusion of certain cosmologists about what constitutes “nothing”, and hence the claim that the Universe could create itself, is hidden within the complexity of the physics and maths that obfuscate what is actually just metaphysically inept.
Likewise quantum mechanics is so complex and counterintuitive that it’s easy to forget that some of the weirdness might actually arise from the metaphysical presuppositions of those presenting the theory to the public and each other. In particular, just as in the case of evolution, the “necessity” for a “scientific” explanation to exclude the God of classical theology might actually make things more esoteric, and not less. Let me exemplify this in as homely terms as I can, consistent with my own limited understanding.
One of the weirdest things about quantum mechanics is the role of “the observer” in determining how wave-functions collapse, to the extent that many leading theorists, such as Henry Stapp, put the role of mind centre-stage in the natural world, with a variety of important philosophical and theological connotations:
Our thoughts, ideas, and feelings are obviously part of a greater whole. But I am not sure they are mere emanations of a deeper reality. Our thoughts and feelings may generate causal inputs, something that classical mechanics denies.
Amongst the weirdest phenomena in the quantum world are the predictions, and experimental confirmations, of Bell’s theorem. Pairs of quantum-entangled particles, sent to distant laboratories, are found to collapse apparently simultaneously, according to the decision of the experimenter in one of the labs of what to observe. This raises strange questions about the power of mind, about simulaneity in an Einsteinian universe, and so on.
But stranger still, ones entangled photon pair may be obtained from sources far away in the universe, “lensed” around opposite sides of a massive astronomical object. If so the same thing is observed – the wave-forms collapse simultaneously in the same way according to the observation decision of one of the experimenters. One conclusion is that the information input of the observer must travel back in time “down the light cone” to the original source of the two photons and determine the nature of their entanglement.
Now that last conclusion sounds bizarre in at least two ways: first that one lab experimenter’s choice of observation should determine events light years away and aeons ago, which is a distinctly supernatural sounding power, and secondly that backwards time travel should be possible at all. It implies the possibility that the whole reality we observe has to a greater or lesser extent been determined by our looking at its results, or maybe by our descendents observing quantum events happening now. Reality becomes very strange indeed, and completely anthropocentric. But few of the alternative explanations are any more intuitively plausible.
The general idea that mind – meaning human mind – is central to reality is incredibly egocentric and grandiose. It’s wonderful enough that our minds can, as minds, encompass the whole universe conceptually. This was an insight of the ancient philosophers, and one of the arguments for the mind’s immateriality in Aristotle’s thought. It’s true that we only experience anything at all through our minds, and in that sense all the reality we can know is subjective (the positivist approach simply cannot survive that torpedo). But to go beyond that to say that our minds directly determine, rather than simply access, external reality is a strange and unproductive philosophy.
Little better is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, in which every possible outcome of quantum events exists in reality somewhere. Stapp apparently supports that view, but like most multiverse scenarios, it effectively abolishes any meaning or ultimate truth, especially in science.
The last refuge of the sane is the hope of hidden variables – that despite appearances there are so-far hidden efficient causes leading to these observations, and to all the outcomes of quantum events. But Bell’s theorems appear to exclude all possibility of local hidden causes in the case of the separation experiments, and non-local hidden causes (ie operating across distances) still require unexplained faster-than-light travel and/or reverse travel through time.
Finally, a minority of theorists believe in super-determinism, the idea being that whatever it is that determines how separated entangled particles will behave also determines how the observer will make his choice. This too destroys science by making the free-will of the scientist entirely illusory, including, of course, the mental processes that lead to his predetermined explanations. Apart from the affront to human dignity (Prometheus is scorned! Maybe no bad thing), this also leaves any kind of rational causal understanding completely lacking: just how would microscopic quantum events determine all the observable physical and psychological factors leading up to a particular experiment? To explain the observer’s choice, does not that single quantum event also have to explain why he took up quantum physics at all? At least the old Laplacian determinism makes rational sense from the predictable collision of particles.
What happen though if, as Christians, instead of theorising from the phenomena, we try and apply our established theological principles to them? I mean the newly-named but time-honoured principles of Classic Providential Naturalism™. This, remember, is about the God whose Son was delivered up to evil men by wicked human decisions, freely made, which were nevertheless exactly what God had determined in eternity should happen.
Remember also that on my preferred concurrentist view God is the initiator and sustainer of every event, including the free choices of men: he is the first efficient cause, working everything towards his final purpose (Ephesians 1.11) and also sustaining the whole process. And yet he works through each event from within according to its type (as Aquinas, for example, discusses at length). Lawlike processes he brings about lawfully through their genuine secondary causes, and human decisions he brings about as genuine human choices, and not by coercion. The motives of men may be evil, but God intends the events themselves for ultimate good, and in that sense the will of man co-operates with the pre-ordained purpose of God.
Such a concept, as we have discussed before, is somewhat difficult to contemplate in detail, but it is attested throughout the Bible in hundreds of passages about God’s sovereignty combined with man’s own accountability. It was the majority position of Christian philosophers for perhaps 1600 years until libertarianism found fault with it on ethical grounds, and perhaps also because it seemed complex. I would argue that concurrentism makes the aspect of quantum theory above no more difficult to conceptualise than the Bible’s teaching on divine sovereignty over human affairs, at least in terms of “weirdness” – the maths and physics remain pretty tough. But one doesn’t have to think of a laboratory experiment as dictating cosmic events backwards in time, or of an infinite number of universes.
God, then, in his ordaining of the whole unfolding of the universe, encompasses within his unfolding purpose all the classical physical events (and free human choices) leading Dr (Bob) Smith to choose to make his laboratory experiment on a tangled photon pair. He honours that choice, whilst including the event itself within his own purposes, and whilst respecting the quantum physical processes he set up at creation. Hence the observer’s decision is made, and corresponds to the waveform collapsing accordingly, whether across space or even through time. The quantum pair across the universe didn’t know Dr Smith would be in his lab that day thousands of years later – and neither did Dr Smith’s experiment inform it of the fact across time sand space. But God knew, and his concursus in the choice included the quantum events associated with it as well as the free human decision itself.
Now I’m not presenting this, remember, as evidence for God, but as the outworking in the natural world of a classical theology, involving God’s providential care and genuine natural processes. As evidence the quantum experiments are no more pointers to God than they are to trans-light-speed communication, backwards time-travel, or the human mind’s determination of nature’s fundamental processes, though some of those explanations may make more sense than others.
But as an orthodox theological understanding one mind, God’s, determines both the natural processes and the associated (but physically acausal) human choice to observe. And yet he preserves the genuine freedom of that choice in a way that Christian philosophers and theologians found satisfactory for more familiar events centuries ago. Ultimately it is the scientist’s choice to make the observation, but God’s to collapse the wave function in that particular way. It seems to me far more comprehensible for an intelligent divine agent to coordinate human and natural events, than for either to “cause” the other in inexplicable, not to say spooky, ways.
All that needs to be given up in thus de-mystifying this aspect of quantum mechanics is the autonomous view of free will: the explanation above cannot apply if human choice is completely independent of God’s purposes. So contrast what I’ve said with the implications of the “free process” theology familiar to you from nondirected theistic evolution and “mere conservationism”. In this, as we are only too aware, God leaves creation – and especially human minds – free to go their own way. Human choices are fully autonomous and require that “I could have done something different”: the view known as known as libertarian free will (as distinguished from that known as theological compatibilism, which is in essence what I have decribed above).
In this scenario, God has no role in the collapse of the quantum wave-form, since he leaves all secondary causes to themselves, apart from sustaining them in being. It is therefore entirely the result of Bob Smith’s decision to plug in his instruments that day and get his distant colleague Alice to switch on hers. Result: the decision he made was so free that it changed events in a distant galaxy somewhere back in the history of the universe, in a way that (being subject to quantum statistics) was ultimately indeterminate. He will be seen to have operated the largest roulette wheel in the universe. In fact, on this view we now have huge difficulty even understanding the results of our own decisions, which would seem detrimental to their being truly free and autonomous anyway.
To me, God’s sovereign providence seems just so much more parsimonious as an explanation. But of course, being to do with God it can’t be scientific. Science has to do with infinite multiverses, universal mind, Boltmann brains and backwards time-travel, and not supernatural conjectures, even when backed by 2 millennia of philosophical discourse. Spooky action at a distance is science – the Creator isn’t. How spooky is that?