Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part column series. If Christianity is to be relevant to a world of genome-mapping and large hadron colliders, Christians need to be scientifically literate. And that involves some familiarity with scientific apologetics, key scientific theories and the philosophy of science. This three-part series provides just a taster of the kinds of ideas every Christian leader could do with knowing – and sharing with those they serve. You can read the first part here.
No. 2. Quantum physics: Everything you know is wrong.
You can’t be in two places at once. A cricket ball can’t behave like a piece of music. One has to choose between the facts of science and the mystery, uncertainty and seeming irrationality of “the spiritual.”
Until relatively recently, that seemed true.
Newton’s physical laws and the science that built on them gave educated people a warm, fuzzy feeling of confidence in the rational and predictable behavior of the world.
The universe was a vast, predictable, clockwork machine of observable fact with little need or place for anything beyond the observable. But quantum physics changed all of that.
What is light? That was one of the questions physicists in the early 20th century were asking when they discovered something troubling for the “common-sense” view of the universe.
Light sometimes behaves as if it were a stream of particles and sometimes as if it were a wave in a medium. For one phenomenon to behave as particles and waves makes as much sense as a cricket ball sometimes behaving like a piece of music.
The ‘impossible’ becomes possible
Electrons are similarly puzzling. They also have a particle/wave nature and in some experiments, a single electron has been shown to pass through two slits in a screen at the same time.
The most basic logic of common sense tells us that one thing cannot have two contradictory natures or be in two places at the same time. But at the quantum level, they do.
In quantum research, uncertainty over measurement is not failure but fundamental. Our very observations alter reality, “collapsing” multiple probabilities into single realities.
The smug certainty that the world behaves in a “normal” way because “science says it does,” starts to look a little simplistic.
Instantly ‘communicating’ particles
Stranger still, when two identical particles that have been created by the decay of a “parent” particle are measured, they seem to “communicate.”
That is to say: if you measure the property of one, its “twin” will possess the same property (or collapse into having the same property), even after having changed in some way, even if the two are separated by great distances.
This remains true even after significant amounts of time. How is this instant communication possible, with no physical link between them?
One of quantum theory’s key architects, Niels Bohr, famously encapsulated the significance: “Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”
With the advent of quantum thinking, scientific certainty about how the world works and what is and is not possible seems a little more fluid than before.
Whether this has any relevance to miracles, God’s interventions in the random world and the emphasis we place on physical objective observations is a matter of debate among philosophers of science.
The fact there is room for such debate should excite and encourage us.
Jonathan Langley is editor of Catalyst. This column first appeared in BMS’ Catalyst publication, which can be read in full here.