Sometimes, we run so far away from something that we are eventually forced to confront it face to face.
Such might be the story of modern science and God. Ever since the Enlightenment, science has sought naturalistic explanations as alternatives to myth, mysticism, and monotheism. For a while it seemed like science was succeeding. Then quantum theory, quite literally, turned the world upside down. In order to appreciate just how far down the rabbit hole modern physics has gone, a brief sprint through the history of science might help.
Before the Enlightenment, cultures had a shared sense of mystical wonder at the world. For pre-Christian cultures like ancient Greece, the divine truth behind nature was misted in magic and myth, in which phenomena were associated with a plethora of capricious deities. Lightning came from Zeus while earthquakes and sea storms were wrought by Poseidon. Storms of the soul had divine sources too, like Ares for war and Aphrodite for love. Even the winds and streams were worshipped as near-deities.
Christianity brought order to the hurly-burly chaos of pantheism, but it didn’t diminish the role of the divine in the world: in the sacraments, miracles, the doctrine of grace and nature, and the Incarnation, all creatures and created things lived, moved, and had their being in God, as St. Paul wrote.
The Enlightenment laid siege to this God-infused worldview. In 1609, Johannes Kepler showed that the planets moved in ellipses around the sun when popular belief had held that they were nudged along circular paths by angels. Cells were shown to be the basic building blocks of life. The behavior of electricity and gases was described and the speed of light was clocked. In the late 1600s, Isaac Newton discovered that gravity was the cause of planetary orbits and falling objects. One century later, Antoine Lavoisier developed the law of the conservation of mass and modern chemistry was born.
Suddenly, the world no longer seemed mysterious and wondrous, but instead resembled some kind of neat and tidy contraption, like a well-crafted clock. God, once the Creator and sustainer of all life and being, became the clockmaker deity. Of course, soon it became easy to forget about the clockmaker and just focus on the clock itself.
The Enlightenment derailed
Enter Einstein. Classical Newtonian physics had taken a billiard-ball approach to reality: things were constant, stable, and predictable. But Einstein showed that matter could be converted into energy and that light could be bent by gravity. Even space and time were not the absolute constants Newtonians would have them be. One example is the twins paradox, in which one twin hops on a rocket that travels at near-light speed for ten years while the other sits out the ride. Einstein would say that the traveling twin would age slower than the other. In like fashion, ladders would shrink at near light speeds for some observers but not others.
Things got even weirder with quantum mechanics, which explains the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles.
It began with light. Newton had held light to be a stream of tiny particles, but nineteenth century scientists argued that it acted more like a wave. That may not have been much a problem until early twentieth century physicists claimed that light was both a wave and a stream of particles, depending upon which experiment was done. In other words, the nature of light was not fixed, but hinged upon how it was observed.
The uncertain universe
Next, in 1926, French physicist Louis de Broglie proposed that the so-called wave-particle duality was not unique to light particles, known as photons. He suggested that particles of matter, like electrons, protons, and neutrons, might be waves as well. His still-sounding radical idea soon became accepted science. The orderly clockwork universe of Newtonian science was beginning to look more like the floppy clocks painted by Salvador Dali—utterly malleable and unpredictable. As the authors of the new book, Quantum Enigma, put it:
A photon, an electron, an atom, a molecule, in principle any object, can be either compact or widely spread out [like a wave]. You can show an object to be either bigger than a loaf of bread or smaller than an atom. You can choose which these two contradictory features to demonstrate. The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it.
Quantum physics had discovered the observer—always there, of course, but never assumed to have a role to play in what he was observing. This implied that a degree of uncertainty was fundamental to the nature of the world around us: we could never be quite sure whether matter at the microscopic level was a series of waves or more like the top of a pool table. It all depends. (One famous expression of this fundamental uncertainty is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which holds that the more you know about the speed of an object, the less you can know about its position.)
A subatomic world where electrons, protons, and neutrons could be either waves or particles had troubling implications for the visible world. European physicist Erwin Schrödinger demonstrated this in a thought experiment known as Schrodinger’s cat. In one version of the experiment, a cat is put in a sealed box with a canister of cyanide and a trigger mechanism. The trigger is a radioactive atom, which, if it decays, will set off the cyanide, killing the cat. There is an equal chance that the atom will decay as not. As a result, until the box is opened, the cat could be considered both dead and alive. The reality inside the box is determined by the observer, when he opens it.
The discovery of the ‘conscious observer’
Some scientists have taken the next logical step and posited that the existence of reality as we know it is not possible without a conscious observer. Mathematician John von Neumann demonstrated this using a version of the Schrodinger cat experiment that goes something like this: imagine that outside the box, there was some instrument for measuring whether the atom has decayed. Von Neumann said that, absent an observer to read the instrument, it would report both situations as being the case: decay and non-decay. One could imagine another instrument attached to that one, and another after that in an infinite succession of measuring instruments. The result still wouldn’t be known until an observer came along. As physicist Eugene Wigner put it:
When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena, through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again: it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.
This all begs two obvious questions: Who’s there to observe things when we aren’t? And who was there in the first moments of the Big Bang, to observe the first furtive interactions of particles? Could this not, dare one say it, be evidence pointing towards the existence of God? Could not God be the ‘conscious observer’ that science says must exist?
Some physicists openly speculate about such a possibility. Here’s one example, from noted physicist John Bell:
Suppose … that quantum mechanics were found to resist precise formulation. Suppose that when formulation beyond … all practical purposes is attempted, we find an unmovable finger obstinately pointing outside the subject, to the mind of the observer, to the Hindu scriptures, to God, or even only Gravitation? Would that not be very, very interesting?
Of course, scientists have other interpretations of quantum mechanics. Some just deny the existence of atoms, viewing them as useful approximations of reality. Others, say the enigmas of quantum theory could be explained away by parallel universes. According to this theory, an atom would be a collection of particles in one universe and a wave in the other. Of course, this also requires believing in parallel copies of oneself—one for each universe—that are unaware of each other yet somehow have a shared consciousness. So maybe quantum theory isn’t yet comfortable with the idea of God, but it certainly has found faith.