Quantum Mechanics, Randomness, and the Bible

By Dr. Christopher Plumberg

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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.

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Published 5-25-2015