Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne

There’s a reason why books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion become international “literary events”, while books like John Polkinghorne’s Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) pass quietly into the literary canon.  Whereas Dawkins’ best-seller is full of the kind of bitter vitriol and “ne’er the twain shall meet” determinism which his fans and supporters no doubt find gratifying, (and which publishers know will generate the kind of controversy that will boost sales) Polkinghorne’s volume offers a modest, generous, and ultimately joyous exploration of what he describes as the “cousinly relationship” between quantum physics and Christian theology.  This is a learned, humble, and deeply humane book; little wonder, therefore, that it has passed under the media’s sensationalist radar.

Polkinghorne himself is no stranger to publishing, science, or faith.  A particle physicist for much of his adult working life who then entered the ordained ministry of the Anglican church, Polkinghorne has written extensively on the relationship between science and religion, quietly defying the oppositionalist tendencies of both the media and militant a/theism.  In Quantum Physics and Theology, however, Polkinghorne not only sets out the argument that it is not inconsistent to be both a scientist and a person of faith, he traces the “cousinly relationship” of theology and physics through the homologies of their histories, methods, and insights.

Polkinghorne’s method is to eschew generalities and provide specific comparative examples from both physics and theology (in that order) in order to discern the underlying superstructure that is common to both, so that both might be understood as critical realist accounts of the nature of reality, albeit with respect to different dimensions of reality.  His objective is to overcome the all-too-readily accepted canard that theology involves belief and opinion grounded in an appeal to an unquestionable authority, whereas science is purely a matter of rational motivation and objective verification.  And with a generosity and gentleness that is characteristic of this book, Polkinghorne addresses his objective not only to the general public, but to his fellow scientists and fellow Christians:

It saddens me that some of my colleagues remain unaware of the truth-seeking intent and rational scrupulosity that characterise theological discourse at its best.  When I read the writings of some high-profile scientific proclaimers of atheism, I find a degree of ignorance of the intellectual content of serious biblical study and theological reflection that is not altogether different from the scientific ignorance displayed by those who send out papers with titles such as “Einstein was wrong”.  If scientists are to reject religious belief, they should do so with their eyes open and after proper consideration of the serious intellectual effort that has been exerted in theology over many centuries of careful enquiry…I hope (this book) may indicate something of the truthful intent with which theologians seek to speak of the infinite mystery of God, and that this will lead some enquiring scientists not to set aside too hastily insights that are worthy of their careful attention. (p.xiii, parenthesis added)

Polkinghorne begins by outlining the underlying intellectual and cultural context within which both science and theology exist, and identifies the common dilemma of both with respect to the particularity and individualism of the post-modern paradigm, which insists upon the absolute autonomy of the consciousness and the meaning-making which it constructs from experience.  Within the relativism of this context, the meta-narratives of both science and theology are rejected as oppressive constraints on individual liberty – or, more correctly, the plurality of individual liberties, within which no one perspective has preferential priority.

It is within this context that Polkinghorne argues that both science and theology are exercises in critical realism, in which a philosophical tension between modernism and post-modernism needs to be maintained in order to facilitate the search for truth.  With respect to science, this rejects the simplistic notion that science is merely the deduction of ineluctable facts from experimental data, whilst acknowledging the interweaving of theory and experiment that has characterised the undeniable success of the scientific endeavour.  With respect to theology, this tension between modernist and post-modernist polarity requires an understanding that rejects both unhesitating acceptance on the basis of fideistic assertion as well as any suggestion that theological enquiry should be controlled by the conventions of secular argument.  In short, both science and theology must appeal to a motivated belief based on interpreted experience; and while the experience and the motivated belief of the two may differ, they share this critical homogeneity as part of their negotiation of the post-modern context.

Polkinghorne then outlines five areas of analogy between quantum physics and theology that shape his understanding of them as exercises in critical reality which, for all their significant differences (which Polkinghorne sets out in detail), enjoin them in a cousinly relationship.  These are:

1) Moments of radical revision that lead to new understandings.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, physics was confronted by a seemingly absurd anomaly concerning the nature of light. Whereas the classical physics of Sir Isaac Newton had shown that light was a “wave”, which had a frequency and oscillated, the emerging physics articulated by Albert Einstein and Max Planck argued that light sometimes behaved as though it were composed of discreet particles (called “quanta”).  This appeared completely nonsensical – how could light be both a wave (which is spread out) and particulate (that is, made of “bits”)?  Yet, experiment (in particular, the so-called Compton experiment of 1923) clearly showed this was the case.  It was not until Paul Dirac, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and other physicists developed a series of interlocking mathematical models that in turn resulted in the development of quantum field theory that the paradox was resolved: light was a “field” that spread through space and time, in which were to be found “ripples” or “photons” of energy that “appeared” to be particulate in nature.  It was from this revolution in understanding the dualistic nature of light that the entire field of quantum mechanics was to emerge – as a result of which, scientific understanding of the fundamental nature of the cosmos shifted away from the “clockwork” physics of Newton to the relativistic (and relational) physics of quantum mechanics.

The early Church was confronted by a similar conundrum with respect to how the New Testament writers spoke of Jesus.  Whereas, on the one hand, the very first Christians knew that Paul and the Gospel writers were speaking of a person who had actually lived and existed within living memory in the Roman province of Judea, those same writers utilised the divine references of the Old Testament (specifically, the honorific LORD, which Jews used in place of the unpronounceable YHWH) to speak of their experience of the Risen Christ.  But how could this duality make any sense, given the crucified Jesus was subjected to a form of death which devout Jews regarded as a sign of divine rejection? This dilemma was only resolved through a long process of debate and clarification culminating in the Ecumenical Councils of the early church, through which Christians expressed the duality of Jesus/Christ through the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  In doing so, Christian consciousness shifted away from the both the undifferentiated monotheism of Judaism and the detached deism of Greek philosophy toward a personal (and relational) understanding of the Triune God.

As Polkinghorne notes:

There are times of scientific revolution, moments of radical change in which the scientific “paradigm” (the currently accepted total view) is drastically altered.  An example of such an occasion would be the dawn of quantum theory, with the consequent abandonment of belief in the total adequacy of the classical Newtonian paradigm.  A physical world previously considered to be clear and deterministic was found to be cloudy and fitful at its subatomic roots.  A theological analogue would be the birth of Christianity, with its radical notions of a crucified Messiah and risen Lord, ultimately leading to the trinitarian and incarnational  paradigm of the nature of God and the relationship between Creator and creatures. (p.48-9)

2) Periods of Unresolved Confusion

Once quantum mechanics had made its presence felt in the world of science, the period between 1900-25 was one of unresolved confusion in physics.  Various attempts were made to resolve the conundrum posed by the particle-wave duality of light, but these represented “fixes” to Newtonian mechanics as distinct from a new construction of quantum theory.  Faced with this confusion, many scientists chose to concentrate instead on matters of detail that weren’t concerned with fundamental issues; in essence, they chose to “look the other way”, focusing on the kind of “problem solving” that was more a comfortable passtime than it was a wrestling with perplexities in fundamental science.

The early Christian church was confronted by a similar dilemma when it was faced by the tension in the New Testament between the human and divine language used about Jesus.  The evidence suggests that, instead of attempting to discern an overarching theological structure to make sense of this duality, early Christians chose to allow its overwhelming power and novelty to sustain their faith life, despite the fact that the tension could not be ignored indefinitely – since the tension of Jesus’ human/divine duality in and of itself gave rise to difficult questions that clamored for resolution.

3) New synthesis and understanding

The period of confusion in physicswas only brought to an end, and the subsequent new  understanding of the fundamental nature of reality realised, when the theoretical work of Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, and Paul Dirac produced an internally consistent quantum theory which demonstrated that there are physical possibilities – such as an electron being both simultaneously “here” and “there” – which both Newtonian mechanics and “commonsense” would regard as impossible.  And yet physicists would simply have to accept this strangeness as an “article of faith” since it was a very product of the emerging paradigm of quantum mechanics.

This quest to engage the deeper reality of things likewise ultimately lead the Church to make an accounting of the strange dualities recorded in the New Testament through the development of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation by the early Ecumenical Councils.  These developments occurred alongside the emerging tradition of apophatic theology which, despite the clarifications provided by the theology of Trinity and Incarnation, continues to stress the “otherness” of God and the necessary limitations to the human capacity to speak adequately about God.  This reflects the “unceratinty” about precise measurements and knowledge which is fundamental to quantum mechanics; God can be both “here” and “there” in ways that defy “commonsense” and the strictly rational categorizations of human understanding.

4) Continued wrestling with unresolved problems

Despite quantum physic’s success in producing coherent mathematical models that agree to an impressive degree with the experimental results, there remain areas of uncertainty and dispute.  For example, physicists cannot adequately explain what is called the “measurement problem”, how it is that a particular result is obtained through a particular experiment at a particular time.  Thus, for more than a century, physicists have had to “live with” the fact that there are certain problems which, despite their best efforts, have not yielded a solution – and the “measurement problem” is just one such area of obscurity.

Christian theology is no different in this regard.  For example, Trinitarian theology maps out the criteria establishing the boundaries within which Christological discussion can be held and at the same time adequately engage the experience preserved in Scripture and continued within the Church’s evolving tradition.  It is not necessarily the articulation of a fully developed Christological understanding any more than quantum physics is the articulation of a fully developed understanding of the physical universe, a reality attested to by the fact that Christological argument, both “orthodox” and “heretical”, has continued down the centuries.

5) Deeper implications

Both quantum mechanics and theology can be considered critical realist positions precisely because they give rise to further successful explanations from fundamental theory, including of phenomena not explicitly considered or known when the original formulation occurs.  Quantum physics offers a number of examples of success in this arena, including explaining the stability and spectral qualities of atoms, and the condition of the non-locality of sub-atomic particles (ie: their capacity to remain entangled once they have interacted with one another, despite being subsequently separated in space).

Incarnational theology has resulted in a similar success in developing new insights.  perhaps one of the most striking is the theology of the “crucified God”, the insight that the God who is incarnate in the person of Jesus is also a God who is not merely a spectator of human suffering (however compassionate) but a fellow-sharer in the travails of creation.  This in turn has helped resolve some of the thorniest problems of theodicy by rendering null the need to explain or justify the goodness of God in light of the reality of evil and suffering in the world; God’s goodness is not contestable in light of suffering and evil, but demonstrable through God’s participation in the realities of human existence.

The bulk of Quantum Physics and Theology is spent elucidating and expanding upon these five areas of analogous relationship.  In doing so, Polkinghorne does much to elucidate the nature of theology and quantum physics as both exercises in critical realism and cousinly explorers in the dimensions of reality:

…the history of science is the best clue to the philosophy of science.  If you want to know how science operates, and what it may legitimately claim to achieve, you have to be willing to study how science is actually done and how its understanding actually develops…The philosophy of science, properly pursued, is largely a bottom-up argument about how things have turned out, rather than a top-down argument about how they had to be.

Theology, with its necessarily greater engagement across the centuries with other perspectives beyond that of the present alone…particularly needs to work with the idea of an historically unfolding development of doctrine.  Those who believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit…will see revelation as a process, rather than a once-for-all act of the communication of instant knowledge.  There will certainly be times of special insight, such as the New Testament period, that are comparable to times of revolutionary scientific paradigm shift, but there will also be times of steady “normal theology”. (p. 49-50)

In doing so, Polkinghorne liberates both theists and atheists alike from the necessity of approaching science as an either/or battleground which either “proves” the veracity of science contra theology, or the legitimacy of theology as an intellectual exercise that is “the equal of” science.  Instead, the possibility of living fruitfully in the “middle ground” of uncertainty is opened up as the incomplete and evolving nature of both science and theology is explored, and the case made for their “cousinly relationship” as endevours in critical realism.  As Polkinghorne notes:

Living with unresolved paradox is not a comfortable situation.  Yet it is not an unfamiliar state for men and women to find themselves in.  Even quantum physics has its unsettled questions, such as the measurement problem.  In fact, Niels Bohr once said that anyone who claimed fully to understand quantum physics had just shown that they had not begun to appreciate properly what it is all about.  He was echoing, unconsciously no doubt, a similar remark made earlier by William Temple when he said that “if any man says that he understands the relation of Deity to humanity in Christ, he only makes it clear that he does not at all understand what is meant by Incarnation”.  (p.90-91)

Moreover, Polkinghorne demonstrates that the interchange between physics and theology is not merely a matter of their analogous relationality, or of theology being an enterprise that is “as rational” as science.  Rather, he shows that the very nature of quantum physics, with its paradoxes and challenges to “commonsense” that require physicists to accept as an “article of faith” the data that their models and experimental outcomes force upon them, means that there is as much of the metaphysical in quantum mechanics as there is of the rational.  Indeed, the notion of an underlying unity between quantum physics and relativity physics is as much a metaphysical statement as anything else, reflecting as it does a belief in the nature of the universe at its most fundamental level:

A belief in the fundamental unity of physics is one that is encouraged by the kind of past experiences that we have reviewed (in this book).  It is also supported by a metaphysical conviction of the integrity of cosmic process that is deeply appealing to scientists.  Theologians may feel feel that this act of faith by the physicists is a reflection of a trust, doubtless often unconsciously entertained, in the consistency of the one God whose will is the origin of the order of the created universe. (p. 99, parenthesis added)

Ultimately, Polkinghorne’s generous, modest, and decidedly non-parochial book (itself perhaps a product of his own capacity to straddle the “in between” ground where theology and physics meet) concludes with an elegy on the relational co-existence of all things, science and theology included, that itself is articulated through the physicists’ quest for a “grand unifying theory” that brings quantum physics and relativity mechanics together, and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity itself.  It is one of the most striking and poetic of all the images which Polkinghorne deploys in this remarkable book, and it is altogether fitting that it also the ultimate summation of his thinking.

An influentional contemporary book on trinitarian thinking has as its title Being as Communion.  One might paraphrase this as “Reality is relational”, an insight that certainly accords with an increasing scientific recognition of the relational character of the physical universe.  The old-fashioned atomism that pictured isolated particles rattling around in the otherwise empty container of space has long been replaced by General relativity’s integrated account of space, time, and matter…The physical world looks more and more like a universe that would be the fitting creation of a trinitarian God, the one whose deepest reality is relational.

Finally, the picture of the three Persons, eternally united in the mutual exchange of love…gives a profound insight into that foundational Christian conviction that “God is love”…A substantial revival of interest in trinitarian thinking has taken place in recent years, inspired by just such considerations as these.  I believe that the true “Theory of Everything” is not superstrings, as physicists are sometimes moved bombastically to claim, but it is actually trinitarian theology. (p. 103-4)

A profound, insightful, and deeply important work by a thoughtful scientist and equally thoughtful Christian.  Highly recommended to anyone who wishes to bypass the trivial contraversialism of Dawkins or the defensive reactionism of his theistic fundamentalist counterparts.

(c) Copyright Brendan Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.