Quantum Mechanics, Randomness, and the Bible

By Dr. Christopher Plumberg

One of the most important and outstanding achievements of modern physics is the theory of quantum physics, which describes the behavior of God's creation on the microscopic level. However, quantum physics (also known as "quantum mechanics" or QM) has led many physicists to some counterintuitive (and occasionally counter-Biblical) conclusions. This leads us to a natural question: what is a Christian to make of such conclusions and the field of QM as a whole? Should we simply accept all claims made about QM without questioning them, or are there at least some claims which should be treated with caution? Should we reject QM entirely as unbiblical, or does it contain some aspects of value for the Christian?

Before I attempt to address these questions, let me note that, although I am one of the writers for the GotQuestions website, I am also a theoretical physicist, and I can honestly say that I am unaware of any insurmountable obstacles that QM presents to a straightforward belief in the truthfulness and inerrancy of Scripture. QM may have interesting implications for how a commitment to Biblical authority works out in practice, but it does not force us to abandon anything that Scripture teaches.

Part of the reason that one should not worry too much about the implications of QM is that even secular scientists and philosophers do not all agree about the right way to make sense of the theory. Some believe that QM forces us to accept the notion that reality is "observer- or consciousness-created," as if it does not exist unless we are looking at it. This is sometimes referred to as the "Copenhagen interpretation," although other views have subscribed to something similar. Still other views have held that every quantum mechanical process or measurement which is made in the universe corresponds to the "splitting" of the universe into multiple universes, each in turn corresponding to one of the possible outcomes of the process or measurement in question. And, not surprisingly, there are even more interpretations of QM beyond these that I have mentioned. So the scene of philosophers and scientists trying to make sense of this theory is chaotic and conflicted at best.

The reason for so many different interpretations of QM is because any interpretation must strictly go beyond the available evidence to try to make sense of it. Consequently, all of these interpretations involve varying degrees of speculation, and so should not be taken as posing serious threats to Scripture. Some of these interpretations are more consistent with Scripture than others, but one should not think of the popularity of any particular interpretation as meaning that it is necessarily more likely to be correct. Frankly, strange and counterintuitive interpretations of QM are more likely to be popular, not because they are really very good interpretations, but because they make crazy predictions that people like to read about: "I study multiple universes, Schrödinger's cat, and black holes" sounds much cooler than "I need to stop by the office to check if my analysis package has finished compiling." Online articles, in particular, have a penchant for blowing scientific discoveries completely out of proportion, and should be treated with great caution (or, better yet, simply ignored).

I won't try to give a full description of QM here, but I will try to outline what is (in my opinion) the right way of thinking about it. I emphasize that what follows is my opinion, simply because Scripture does not tell us which interpretation is correct. So I must be clear that my thoughts will necessarily be somewhat speculative.

With that caveat in place, let me proceed. One claim that is commonly made by physicists is that QM implies the randomness of reality. This, however, is just a misguided statement. QM does not teach that "reality is random"; rather, it tells us that our conventional way of thinking about things may not be as helpful when it comes to describing the microscopic world. For example, we are used to thinking of subatomic particles as "billiard balls," tiny spheres which buzz around and smash into one another. If, however, such a picture leads us to make predictions which do not agree with experiments (as, in fact, it does), then we know that such a picture will ultimately mislead us, because we are approaching the problem from the wrong starting point.

One place where this wrong mental picture (of subatomic particles as billiard balls) causes lots of problems is in the context of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that it is impossible to measure a particle's position and momentum simultaneously with perfect accuracy. If you were to measure the particle's position perfectly, then the particle could be moving with any speed whatsoever; likewise, if you measure the particle's momentum with perfectly accuracy, then there is nothing you can say about the particle's position at that same moment. This is not at all how "normal" objects behave: when I am driving my car, I generally know both how fast I am going and how far I am from home, meaning that I can specify both my momentum and my position simultaneously. QM tells us that subatomic particles just don't work this way. These kinds of quantum mechanical properties are what lead some people to describe reality as "random," since any time I measure a particle's momentum (say), I could wind up with almost any result for the position. However, the problem here is probably not that reality itself is random, but that we are trying to describe something complex and non-trivial in terms of macroscopic concepts (like position and momentum of billiard balls). If physicists can get around this "non-intuitive" barrier (by finding another mental picture of subatomic particles besides billiard balls — see below), they may be more successful in finding an interpretation of QM which truly makes sense and can be understood within a Scriptural worldview. Consequently, QM does not really refute or defend Scripture, nor does it require us to believe that reality has a genuinely random element to it. Rather, our understanding of QM is consistent with Scripture, even if some speculative interpretations of QM are not.

QM has taught us a great deal about God's creation. It would take me a long time to detail all of the experimentally sound and well-documented portions of what is typically considered QM. However, let me briefly sketch some of the major highlights. Quantum mechanics tells us that, on sufficiently small scales, particles stop behaving like particles and start behaving more like waves. In fact, it's not possible to predict (in general) what the result of any given experiment will be; rather, all one can speak of with any accuracy is the probability of one outcome vs. another. These probabilities can be calculated directly from the particle's wavefunction, whose behavior is described by the Schrödinger equation. This has bothered many people because, as I noted above, some try to interpret this state of affairs as implying that reality is random. However, nothing of the sort is really going on here: the probabilities themselves are still things that we can calculate and compare with experiment. Indeed, if reality were truly random, experiments and physics would become impossible, because there would be no way of predicting even the probability of a particular experimental outcome based only on one's knowledge of the experimental set-up. Rather, it is much more likely that we are simply asking the wrong question, because we are fundamentally ignorant of how the microscopic world truly works. Quantum mechanics is strange, but it doesn't mean we have to abandon our knowledge of the world around us or what God says in His Word.

Quantum mechanics is currently the best explanation we have for all sorts of microscopic physical phenomena, from pair creation and annihilation, to our understanding of why chemistry works the way it does, to scattering experiments (when particles are bounced off of one another), to condensed matter physics (which studies the properties of matter on mesoscopic or "intermediate" scales). Quantum mechanics also fixes a whole host of problems that were present in classical mechanics at the end of the 19th century, in addition to helping us understand emission and absorption lines in atomic and molecular spectra, radioactive decays, and allowing us to develop all sorts of new technologies in medicine, science, and industry. Quantum mechanics is a well-tested idea which treats particles in terms of their wavefunctions, and is perfectly acceptable from a Christian standpoint.

There are, however, many conclusions which are drawn from quantum mechanics which are not Biblical. I have already mentioned some of them, such as the view that reality is random or observed-created. We know that God created the universe (Genesis 1:1) and that He causes it to operate according to fixed, predictable, and regular laws of nature (Genesis 1:14-19, Jeremiah 33:23-26, Hebrews 1:3). So clearly these counter-Biblical conclusions are unacceptable, if they are to be taken in an "ultimate" sense. Similarly, the multiverse theory (or, at least, certain versions of it) requires us to believe that the universe has always existed, which also clearly contradicts the teachings of God's Word, and the multiple-universes (or "many-worlds") interpretation of QM suggests that God continued creating after He rested on the seventh day, which seems unlikely. It's important to emphasize here, however, that none of these counter-Biblical conclusions follow necessarily from the data; they are extrapolations and inferences which are frequently based on data, but are often more fanciful than truly meaningful or observable. Moreover, the term "quantum" is frequently misused to make ridiculous ideas sound scientific. So, for instance, "quantum healing" is not only bad science, it's also very likely to be something of demonic origins. Thus, one should be very cautious of anything described as following from "quantum physics," in spite of the fact that QM itself is perfectly acceptable for the Christian to try to use and understand.

Whatever the strange laws of quantum mechanics teach us, they certainly do not invalidate what we read in God's Word, nor do they undermine our notion of truth. Simply because waves (and wavefunctions) appear to provide a better description of microscopic phenomena than does a purely particle-based theory does not mean that somehow certainty can no longer hold in our macroscopic world. And even though the outcomes of quantum mechanical measurements are difficult (or impossible) for us to predict, this in no way prevents the God who is sovereign over creation from ruling and remaining completely in control of His creation (Psalm 103:19), and knowing in advance the outcome of any particular measurement.

Finally, some Christians have tried to use quantum mechanics to make sense of how God acts in the world. It is not clear that God only interacts with the world through the physical laws that He has created; in fact, there seem to be some clear scenarios (such as the resurrection of Christ) where God interacts with His creation in decidedly non-physical ways. Attempting to explain miracles and other Biblical concepts (such as the human ability to choose between two alternatives, like evil and good) in terms of something fundamentally physical like quantum mechanics is probably unwise, and risks arguing for the truths of Scripture on the basis of fallible, changing human knowledge. Although quantum mechanics is an excellent description of the microscopic world and poses no problem for the Christian, it is important to remember that some things in Scripture simply are not reducible to scientific laws. In short, we should treat it for what it is: a valuable and powerful tool for enabling us to understand and steward God's creation responsibly but something we should be careful to use within the boundaries set by the Word of God.

Published 5-25-15