Sunday, July 15, 2012

Faith and Quantum Mechanics

AT THE HEART of all things are problems that are ultimately philosophical and religious. This is despite modernity’s avoidance of philosophy and religion, for these are basics that permeate all of reality whether or not someone likes it. Every intellectual system that makes claims — and certainly all do — is ultimately a metaphysical system, and so is inherently saying something about religion.

See the article Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God? From that article:
Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities --- if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”
And so, I’ve noticed that religion and science tend to be more tightly intertwined than we may suspect, and despite the efforts of modern theorists of science. The materialism noted in the quote above was more found in the older, Newtonian physics than what we find in the newer Quantum mechanics.

During the Reformation, the new religions tended to deny human free will and instead embraced a narrow kind of predestination: that before the beginning of time, God created some humans to be saved and others to be damned. This view became widely accepted among Protestant groups, and even among many Catholics, although this was eventually declared heretical. With this religious view, which became most codified in Deism, it is pretty obvious that a completely deterministic physics would not be far behind, and we eventually found this with Newtonian mechanics.

Under Newton’s theory of motion, the initial conditions of a system — even the entire cosmos —determines completely its subsequent motion for all eternity, and this physics corresponded well to the kind of predestination being promulgated by the various reformed religions. Taking this theory seriously led to Deism, where God created the cosmos according to a pre-determined plan, and then did nothing whatsoever afterwards — not even revealing Himself to the world through his Son. Atheistic materialism itself developed from the idea that there was no ‘initial condition’ of the cosmos, that is, from the idea that the cosmos always existed: however, some philosophies of antiquity posited an eternally-existing cosmos along with an equally eternal Ultimate Deity.

While the physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955) is known more for his Special and General Theories of Relativity, he gained fame initially, in the year 1905, by mathematically demonstrating the quantum hypothesis — the theory that energy is transferred in discrete, and not continually varying, quantities. This theory was a major crack in the Newtonian framework, and eventually led to the theory of Quantum Mechanics.

Einstein developed his theories with scholastic methods — modes of reasoning more associated with Medieval friars such as Saints Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. But, as Pope Benedict XVI said:
”Yet the human mind invented mathematics in order to understand creation; but if nature is really structured with a mathematical language and mathematics invented by man can manage to understand it, this demonstrates something extraordinary. The objective structure of the universe and the intellectual structure of the human being coincide; the subjective reason and the objectified reason in nature are identical.”
This scholastic reasoning is unreasonably effective, which is something that we ought to keep in mind, especially in light of more modern theories that place all their hope in purely human and skeptical observation of things, and not in things that are larger. But we must be humble enough to realize that human reasoning is much more effective with simple systems, such as physics, and will be less satisfactory when dealing with the complexities of biology and human psychology. But this observation of complexity is in line with the old scholastic notion of the Great Chain of Being, where physics can be found at the far bottom end of the chain, and so is inherently more easily understandable.

Einstein’s Theories of Relativity posit that space and time are not absolute — these being axioms of the old Newtonian physics — but are contingent on something else even more basic, and so are ultimately malleable and changing. But this was something understood even by the ancient rabbis before Christ, that space and time are creatures of God as are we, something made and not perfect unto themselves. Einstein, although a non-practicing Jew, still used the scholastic methods of his forefathers: he knew, ahead of time, that his theories were largely correct, and that the experiments that seemed to contradict his results had to be wrong. Skeptics can doubt as much as they like, but they can never advance science.

Quantum mechanics changes things even more. Like the equations of Newton, quantum theory is deterministic in structure, yet produce results that are only probabilistic in outcome. The theory is rational, it posits true reasons for observations, and yet the future remains for us unknowable. The acceptance of this theory, as you might imagine, led many physicists away from a purely materialistic and atheistic world-view, for the theory shows that transcendence is intrinsic to the laws of nature. Now, this theory in and of itself is not completely convincing, and there are many wildly diverging philosophical opinions on the meaning of quantum mechanics, but it is more consistent with the wider Catholic view of the world than what we found under Newton.

UPDATE: having been in a hurry to get to Mass this morning, I didn’t get to the main point of this article.  The recent claim of the discovery of the Higgs Boson is of major theoretical importance, because it is the final piece required to complete what physicists call the “Standard Model,” a theory which unifies under one consistent umbrella the forces of nature which lead to electricity, magnetism, light, radio waves, nuclear energy, and certain forms of radioactivity. While important, it still leaves out an explanation of gravity. I wrote some more about this here.

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