Is Christianity incompatible with quantum physics?

A little over a month ago, I published a text in this blog about the multiverse theory (or parallel universes), in which I said that it was one of the most common subjects people address in the Q & A sessions after the lectures I give on the existence God. There is another subject that always comes coupled with the former one; which is the subject of quantum physics. In today’s discussion, we’ll be talking about quantum physics and how it relates to Christianity.

In order to explain quantum physics (or quantum mechanics) in a very simple way, I’d like to ask you to imagine a basketball game. In this sport, there are three types of shots; there is the one-point shot, the two-point shot, and the three-point shot, right? What is not possible is having a player scoring half a point, or a 0.75 point, correct? Therefore, since the smallest value that the score can increase is one point, we can say that one point is the quantum in basketball.

How does it apply to physics? Simple. Max Planck discovered that when we heat any material, the radiation it emits does not increase in a gradual manner. Radiation increases in leaps, it increases in packets of energy. He called these packets of energy quantum.

Now we can understand what the term quantum means. Now let’s look at how quantum physics began: its discovery was due primarily to the research of the early 20th century scientist Niels Bohr.

In Bohr’s day, the way the atom was understood was generating many problems in physics. Nobody knew how atoms behaved in such a stable way; for when Maxwell’s theory was applied to the understanding of the atomic world, the theory would tell us that such stability would not be possible.

Bohr then had a great idea. Since there was no theory that could adequately explain the atomic behavior, he thought: what if we apply Planck’s quantum concept to the atomic world and see what happens? In an absolutely stunning fashion, the quantum concept when applied to the atomic world began to produce results that coincided with those obtained by experiments. This was the embryo of what we call quantum physics.

The most interesting part of the story, was that although there was a coincidence between the new theory’s predictions and what was recorded in experiments, no one understood how the atomic quantum world really worked; that is, no one understood why the electrons gained energy in packages and not continuously.

To make things even more complicated, Einstein reformulated the Newtonian concept that light was a particle and said that light also works as energy packets. Thanks to this, it was seen that, depending on the experiment we made, light would behave sometimes as a wave and sometimes as a particle. And if that wasn’t enough, Broglie said that this characteristic of light (being a wave or a particle, depending on the experiment) was not exclusive, but what happened in the entire atomic world.

This is interesting, especially the fact that both waves and particles are descriptions that have characteristics that are contradictory and yet, the same elements behave in one way or another, depending on the experiment.

Not having a satisfactory understanding of reality, physics simply abandoned the idea that if we knew all the variables involved, we would be able to determine everything in the future. The solution was to adopt a probabilistic view of things. It was in this context that Heisenberg created his famous Uncertainty Principle. This principle says that we cannot determine the position and the velocity (or momentum) of a subatomic particle at the same time.

From this point, and the first time, uncertainty came into the world of physics, not as a hope for future discoveries, but as a scientific category itself. The implications were many; some people, as the ones of the Copenhagen school, even said that reality would only have certain characteristics while it was measured.

To demonstrate the paradox in this position, Schrödinger created a hypothetical experiment in which a cat is locked in a box with a deadly radioactive element, which could potentially kill the animal depending on chance. For the Copenhagen School, the cat is neither alive nor dead until the experiment is checked—a notion which in itself is absurd.

Given the enormous difficulty of understanding how uncertainty, as a scientific category itself, relates to reality, some linked uncertainty to causation, even denying the principle of causality. Based on that thought, some tried to attack the claim that God created the world, that He was the first cause of all that exists.

The most commonplace criticism was that, as there was no more need for causality, the universe wouldn’t need such a thing as God to have created it. As subatomic particles come into existence from nothing without a cause, the universe may as well have come into existence without a cause.

Firstly, it should be made clear that in the subatomic world, no particle comes to existence from nothing. Some appear to do so, but in actuality, they were just fluctuating as energy in the quantum field. What occurred at the origin of the universe was a completely different situation; when physics talks about the origin of the universe, it establishes the creation out of nothing (where there was no existing energy at all).

Again, physics itself states that the universe was created out of nothing. Subatomic particles come into existence from something that already exists, which is energy. Nothing, as Aristotle would say, is what stones dream about. Energy is quite another thing.

Secondly, it is a mistake to say that quantum physics extinguishes the need for causality. Even in quantum physics, everything that comes into existence has a cause. In other words, uncertainty in quantum physics does not say that it spelled the end of causality. The situation is, according to quantum physics, it’s not possible to determine what the past causal chain was, that made a particular element to be in a certain position in the present.

The problem here is not with causality, but with determinism. That is, what quantum physics brought to our understanding was that we cannot know all causal relationships in nature as we thought we could. Quantum physics has proven that science itself is short-sighted when it tries to understand the world from a cause and effect perspective, which is not to say that everything that comes into being does not have a cause of its existence.

Therefore, to say that a particle comes into existence out of nothing and without a cause in the quantum world – is a double error: firstly, because quantum physics does not deny causality; and secondly, because quantum physics does not say that particles come into existence out of nothing, but rather from an environment full of fluctuating energy.

Quantum physics, therefore, is not a threat to Christianity. Even though quantum physics doesn’t attack the principle of causality, it shows that science is unable to understand the entire causal relationship that exists in reality. It’s interesting that quantum physics actually contributes to the understanding of some of the most important theological concepts in Christianity.

I mean, the philosophical principle derived from quantum physics even helps us to understand God. We can immediately realize that the principles involved in quantum physics are completely compatible with the idea of miracles, in which the relations of casualties involved in the supernatural acts of God are not understood by science, but, according to what the philosophy of quantum physics states, they cannot be denied by science. The bottom line is that there’s one way left for the quantum scientist to have a full understanding of reality, and this is by faith.

God bless,

Tassos Lycurgo