John Breck in his book, BEYOND THESE HORIZONS: QUANTUM THEORY AND CHRISTIAN FAITH, makes an effort to form a synthesis between Orthodox theology, quantum theory and a theory of human consciousness. This is the 2nd post in a series building upon his book to give further thought to how theology and scientific theory are related. The 1st post in the series is Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology. In that post I suggest that quantum theory actually gives support to an idea not only of consciousness (the observer) but of free will.
Dealing with another of the surprising aspects of the quantum world, Breck notes that humans as observers of the quantum world affect the results of what we are observing. “Only when we pin down a wave function through observation—that is, measurement—does it ‘reduce or ‘collapse’ to become an actual particle with a specific location on momentum.” (BTH, p 11) This is one of the stranger aspects of quantum mechanics – at the quantum level ‘things’ have both the properties of a wave or a particle, and our observation of them or our measurements of them, determine what they appear to be – in effect observation determines reality.
Since the universe was unfolding billions of years before there were humans, theists have no problem understanding how God influences the created order on the quantum level. God is the universal observer watching the entire cosmos unfold. So there always was an observer watching the quantum world, from the beginning.
But this aspect of quantum thinking also provides an answer to another question raised by both ‘faithists’ and agnostics. That question is how it is possible that some see a miracle while others see an event as having a natural explanation, some observe spiritual events while others deny they ever happen. Is there objective reality or is it all subjective experience? Or as one of the apostles quizzed Jesus: “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22). There is a quantum answer to this – it depends on what the observer is looking for.
Pseudo-Dionyius (6th Century) describes why it is that different people can come to different conclusions while observing the same event: “For as our sun, through no choice or deliberation , but by the very fact of its existence, gives light to all those things which have any inherent power of sharing its illumination, even so the Good … sends forth upon all things according to their receptive powers, the rays of its undivided Goodness” (THE DIVINE NAMES, p 87, emphases not in the original text). What one sees, even in relation to something as big as the sun depends on the observer’s receptive powers. What is the observer capable of seeing or understanding? What is the observer looking for? What does the observer believe he or she is looking at? The observer effects what is seen or understood just like in quantum mechanics. St Maximus the Confessor (d. 662AD) also accepted this as a fact of life. “This fact is indeed of great importance, since for Maximus the Trinity remains a mystery, opening itself only to the believer” (Lars Thunberg, MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 33). How is it that believers can see the hand of God while non-believers see no sign from God while observing the same event? It is related to the fact that the observer effects what is seen, what is manifested. It no doubt explains how a saint can perform a miracle – the events are shaped by what the saint is able to observe even when others can’t observe it.
Continuing with the more mysterious characteristics of the quantum world, Breck writes: “Qunatum superposition entails the linear combination or sum of two or more physical states that produce another quantum state … the duality that marks quanta enables an electron to act as either a particle or a wave” (BTH, p 122). Such a superposition might be an explanation for John 20:19 in which Jesus seems capable of entering a room despite the doors being closed and locked. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” The resurrected Jesus appears to His disciples both showing He is physically present and yet somehow despite having a material body appears not to be limited by the laws of physics. He seems to be in two states of existence at once. At the time of the disciples, no one knew the science to understand how this is possible, but now physics offers a scientific way to understand a ‘miracle.’
Existing in two separate states of being at once is not just a quantum thought but a theological concept as well which was contemplated by the Patristic theologians. As Lars Thunberg queries in his book on St Maximus the Confessor referring to the logoi (that aspect of God which is in all created things): “Are the logoi transcendent or immanent, are they created or noncreated? … In a certain way they are, both transcendent and immanent. Yet, this immanence does not invite us to conclude that they are created. … As realized in the existence of things, they materialize in the created order. Yet they are certainly not themselves created or part of that created order in the sense that they are bound by its material appearance or actual realization” (MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 138). Many of the mysteries related to the incarnation of God in Christian Trinitarian theology require ‘things’ to exist simultaneously in two different states. St Maximus himself stated: “Indeed, the scientific research of what is really true will have its forces weakened and its procedure embarrassed, if the mind cannot comprehend how God is in the logos of every special thing and likewise in all the logoi according to which all things exist…” (MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 140). Divinity is in everything and yet everything is not divinity. All of creation participates in divinity and yet has a nature different than that of divinity. Both the concepts of incarnation and theosis require a superposition of ‘state.’
The theology required to understand the Trinity and the incarnation is helped by quantum thinking as the world is not as ‘black and white’ as physics once imagined it to be. Reality is full of mystery which is supported by the best of science today.
Breck also noted that some of Orthodox theology seems to provide a bridge to scientific thinking enabling us to better understand Patristic theology. “In classic Christian terms, that divine Force or Power which issues from the Godhead can be thought of as ‘divine energies’ that are manifested in time and space by the Persons of the Son and the Holy Spirit” (BTH, p 62). In my my reading of this, ‘fields’ and ‘waves’ which the physicist’s say underlie all that exist also are the very place in which the non-physical and physical interact – the interface between the immaterial and the empirical of the created cosmos. Fields and waves are not particles but are an immaterial reality (belonging to the created order) which we can detect and account for by mathematics. It seems to me that it should not be a problem for physicists to imagine an immaterial reality or to know it can exist. They will no doubt still see this in scientific terms as waves and fields, but for theists it is an easy step to accepting that there are not only inanimate forces but also forces based in a consciousness, forces that are part of a being, which are personal not just mathematical and whose mystery or unpredictability is because they are from a personal immaterial being. All that theism allows is that besides a created immaterial order, there is an uncreated/eternal order which is the source of all that exists. Quantum physics is showing us that particles (empirical reality) emerges from fields (immaterial reality). Theism acknowledges this and sees the created immaterial reality as then being the interface with the uncreated immaterial reality known to us as God.
Next: Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology (III)