Orthodox Theology and Quantum Theory

Beyond These Horizons, Quantum Theory and Christian FaithJohn Breck in his book, BEYOND THESE HORIZONS: QUANTUM THEORY AND CHRISTIAN FAITH, undertakes a monumental task of attempting a synthesis between Orthodox theology, quantum theory and a theory of consciousness.  These truths are all related.  However, unlike in physics which seeks a theory of everything that can be reduced to a mathematical formula, Orthodoxy understands God as holding all things together and there is no mathematical formula which can contain all we can know about God (let alone all that God is).  Orthodoxy understands God to be beyond mathematics, which may be the point at which theology and scientific theory part ways.  God who is the source of everything, including all that can be contained in mathematical formulas, cannot be understood by an equation.

Breck puts his whole synthesis within a fictional narrative of a university professor who is giving a series of lectures on this topic to a group of alumni.  The story allows Breck to touch upon a few social issues which reflect the difficulties in our society of any professors attempting to bridge the human-made chasms between quantum physics, theology and consciousness.  One can, I think, read his work as an essay attempting to create this great synthesis.  Orthodox thinkers have a tradition of creating exactly such a great synthesis of ideas.  One can think of St Maximus the Confessor creating a synthesis between Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, Origin, neo-Platonism, Evagrius and Pseudo-Dionysius.   The theological equivalent of a scientific theory of everything.  Yet, history has shown there are ideas and concerns beyond what Maximus dealt with.  Quantum theory and scientific materialism were not even invented yet in Maximus’ day.  So modern Orthodox theologians have more to grapple with than Maximus did.

Einstein Field Equation

Certainly today, if Orthodoxy is going to speak to the modern world it has to find a way to incorporate or synthesize science (scientific materialism and mathematics) with the Bible and theology.  Orthodoxy continues to look at the Patristic Fathers as brilliantly dealing with the Hellenic culture by bringing together Platonic/neo-Platonic thinking with Biblical, Trinitarian theology.  Yet it often fails to see that science today cares nothing about Platonism/neo-Platinism, and that scientific materialism is the competing paradigm with which we must deal in the 21st Century.  For modern thinkers, Plato, Ptolemy, and Aristotle – the ancient sages of the prescientific era – were not remotely doing what we understand to be science today.   The Patristic writers worked out a synthesis between the science of their day (what we would call philosophy) and biblical Trinitarian theology.  We have to do the same thing in our age in which scientific materialism is the prevailing philosophy of the day, and we need to work out a language which enables us to convey Scriptural truths to the best minds of our day.  Kudos to Fr Breck for making the effort to bridge that gap and try to broach the vacuum between science and Orthodoxy.  The Patristic writers were not intimidated by the genius of the non-Christian Hellenistic world and worked hard to show Christianity’s compatibility with all knowledge (and superiority to non-Trinitarian ideas!).

rublevtrinity

Breck offers his understanding of quantum mechanics in the book and then relates Orthodox theology to certain aspects of quantum thinking to show how quantum physics might also be a help to our understanding of the nature of God and of salvation.  I want to take some of Breck’s ideas and develop them in directions other than what he does but still related to Orthodox theology.  I do not pretend to understand quantum theory, but his book caused me to reflect on other connections between the theory and theology.  I won’t rehearse in these posts all the definitions of the scientific terms and concepts to which Breck refers in his book.  My reflections may only reveal my lack of understanding of the concepts.  What interests me is that there is an interface between the quantum world and the world we experience, but the exact relationship between the two remains a mystery to us.  The same is true between the interface of God/Creator/divinity with creation/the empirical world/materialism, or one might say between the spiritual and the physical.  Also between consciousness and the brain in which consciousness can be measured/studied – the physical reality of the brain is not coterminous with mind/consciousness.  What exactly is the relationship between the empirical world and the immaterial?

e=mc

Quantum thinking has shown there is a relationship between matter and energy, between particles and waves such that the two are not completely different things but share in a mysterious way existence and allow us to experience reality.  Breck writes that quantum fieldsact and interact in such a way that they become excited to produce localized points that we recognize as particles.  … Even there where no excitations of the fields produce particles, the fields themselves are present, filling the universe with what could be called quantum potentiality.” (BTH, p 9-10)

Certainly, here we are dealing with that interface – what is the relationship between fields and particles?   Do these elements move from one state to another, sometimes being field or wave and sometimes being particle, or are they really both and we are the ones who can never fully experience reality in all its states but can only have limited experiences of all that is?  Qunatum physics tells us that what we set out to observe determines what we know about things at the quantum level, and there will always be some aspects of reality that we cannot know because of the nature of things.  Uncertainty is built into creation.

Quantum potentiality also makes me think that everything which exists (from the cosmic macro level down to the most micro quantum level) has potential to become something else, but this becoming is not predestined.   Creation changes or moves (however you want to frame it) and its actualization does not occur until it does – namely, until it is observed. What is true of everything in the cosmos is also true of humans  and has theological implication for us – we are created with this same potential to become dust or to become God.  That is how many of the Church Fathers understood humans.  We were not created as perfect by God but were created with the potential of perfection but we ourselves had to choose what we are to become.  Already for humans consciousness enters into the picture.  We are not simply evolving according to the immutable laws of nature but have consciousness and an ability to choose from all the potential choices before us.  Humans are now by their choices and decisions changing evolution on this planet.  The changes occurring are not merely random but are affected by every conscious choice we humans make.  We are able to shape not only human evolution but the evolution of every species on the planet.    There are natural limits to the potentials open to humans, but there really are choices to be made.

CreationAdamEve
Creation of Adam and Eve

As David Bentley Hart explains potentiality is related to free will, to consciousness.

“God, in his omnipotence and omniscience, is wholly capable of determining the result of all secondary causes, including free will, while not acting as yet another discrete cause among them. In one sense, naturally, this is merely a function of the coincidence in his nature of omniscience and omnipotence. Knowing not only all the events that constitute each individual life, but also all of an agent’s inner motives and predispositions and desires—all thoughts, impulses, hopes, preferences, yearnings, and aversions—and so knowing what choice any given soul will make when confronted with certain options and situated among certain circumambient forces, God can (if nothing else) so arrange the shape of reality that all beings, one way or another, come at the last upon the right path by way of their own freedom, in this life or the next. In a very limited way, of course, we can all at times do something similar. If I entice a child, whom I know to be in complete possession of her rational faculties, to eat a slice of cake when she is hungry by presenting her no other options except a bowl of sand and a scorpion, I have not made her choice of the cake any less free even in making it (as far as I am able to do so) inevitable. Even if I offer her another slice of cake as well, knowing that it is one she will like considerably less, I can still accomplish much the same thing.”  (That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2539-2549)

One doesn’t even have to think about God to understand this.  Think about the much sought after quantum computer which relies on elements being in two quantum states simultaneously.   The speed of quantum computing relies on the fact that all things are possible for an element in simultaneous states and so is known instantaneously.  One doesn’t have to rely on the binary ‘either or’ state to choose.  All possibilities exist and yet the possibilities still are finite and contained by the quantum computer.  It is a form of omniscience which does not predestine things. We come to understand how quantum thinking allows us to envision free will and consciousness as related to physics.

Next:  Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology (II)

 

3 thoughts on “Orthodox Theology and Quantum Theory

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Theology and Quantum Physics (II) – Fraternized

  2. Brendan the Navigator

    “create this great synthesis”

    While I believe such a synthesis is in the long run very much needed, and do not in any way wish to discourage attempts at developing such a synthesis, I should like to offer some words of caution, especially with respect to quantum mechanics and even more so with respect to consciousness.

    Concerning quantum mechanics, one should bear in mind Feynman’s comments about how no one understands quantum mechanics, but that nonetheless nature does behave this way, and it is delightful:

    The usual explanation proposed for why quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive to us is that our physical intuitions are adapted to life at the scale of footballs, not electrons. In the early days of quantum mechanics, macroscopic language and intuitions were used to draw a cartoon picture of nature at the atomic level (Bohr’s model of the atom, Schrodinger’s “wave mechanics”, and so on), and we have a tendency to take these cartoons too seriously. What really works is the mathematical model (Hilbert space of states, self-adjoint operators of observables, and so on), which is independent of the particular cartoon that we use to imagine what is going on.

    As for the “interpretation” of quantum mechanics, it remains to this day controversial, though the “Copenhagen interpretation”, with “collapse” of wave functions, is the most widely known and repeated in popular treatments. In particular, the relation of quantum mechanics to the nature of free will is not at all clear, since the evolution of states in quantum mechanics is in fact perfectly deterministic. Indeterminacy only appears in measurement, the nature of which is still debated. So I believe it is unwise to hitch the wagon of free will onto a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics. We simply don’t understand enough about either quantum mechanics or the mystery of free will to tell a satisfactory story. Nonetheless, one cannot help speculating.

    Concerning consciousness, far less is known about it scientifically than about the behavior of electrons, and most work on it is not so different from philosophical speculation, so there is not even a theory onto which we would be tempted to hitch our wagon. At this point, any attempt at a synthesis of Orthodox theology and a scientific theory of consciousness is probably best explored through fiction. Monks In Space!

    1. Fr. Ted

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. What seems to me needed is that the Orthodox take science seriously and try to engage the thought rather than just see it as hostile to theology.
      I also think that the nature of things at the quantum level gives some hope for being able to find images or metaphors or paradigms that might help us communicate back and forth between science and religion. While quantum mechanics may still be in its infancy and present us with some uncertainty, apophatic theology teaches us that all images, concepts, metaphors, models, when applied to God will fall short, and also carry risk of hardening our beliefs about God but failing to acknowledge that God is always beyond knowing. Our human concepts and words, which we struggle with when applying to quantum mechanics fall far more short when applied to God.

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