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The Luminous Particular: The Poetry of Jane Kenyon

Faith and Quantum Theory

Ricklondon_einstein_optI am thankful for a physicist like Stephen Barr, who can write about a subject as strange and mysterious as quantum physics and still be understood by a layman. In his "Faith and Quantum Theory," from this March First Things, he summarizes the essence of this branch of physics, updates us on the continuing difficulties with the theory, and ponders its meaning for Christian faith -- for how we view the universe around us. I was enlightened, and while I need go no farther in the esoteric world of quantum physics, I'm glad to know what all the fuss is about.

I knew of the basic puzzle of quantum physics --- something called wave-particle duality --- but I did not realize all its implcations. If you don't know, this duality is the paradoxical conclusion that light acts as both particle and wave. That this conclusion was disturbing to Einstein is comforting, as my much lesser mind really cannot grasp its implcations, but at least I know that something is mighty wierd about it, like saying 2+2=4 and 2+2=5 are both true equations. Barr cites Feynman, who called this duality "the only real mystery in science," noting that we "cannot make the mystery go away by explaining how it works."

The wave-particle dulaity led to something called the Uncertainty Principle, which basically implies that even if one had all the information there is to be had about a physical system, its future behavior could not be predicted exactly, only probabalistically. The standard interpretation of quantum theory says that for these probabilities to have any meaning at all there must be a definite outcome, and only when a person looks at the physical system and comes to a conclusion is there a definite outcome. Thus, the implication here is that we do not live in a strictly deterministic universe (where, say, whether you fell today is the result of whether someone raised their hand 1000 years ago) but one with free will, where the human, the mind, is something different than the rest of reality (even if it too is in basic ways a physical system). Is this the case, or do we simply not know all the hidden factors that might resolve the dilemma? No one realy knows, and no new breakthrough has been made in over 40 years that would put us any closer to knowing how to resolve the paradox.

What I took from all this is, first, an awe at the complex fabric of Creation. We know things about reality. In fact, sometimes we think we know a lot. But the more we know the more it seems that all the basic mysteries at the core of reality are not resolvable. For example, most of space is made of of something unknown to us. Consider just that: Over 95% of the universe is made of an unknown substance. And that's for starters.

Second, the dilemma of the wave-particle duality seems analogous to the dilemmas (if you want to call them that) of very core doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the dual nature of Christ. Jesus is fully human, and yet fully divine. We can describe the duality and profess its truth, and yet we cannot begin to explain it. Nor can we explain the Trinity, the eternality of God, or the Incarnation. Sometimes, attempts to "explain" such mysteries only violate the basic doctrine as given, much as attempts to explain wave-particle theory may end up violating the basic truth that there is a duality. I'm reminded of the modalists, who attempted to explain the one-in-three nature of the Trinity by postulating one God with three faces, a violation of the doctrine in that it negates the three separate persons of the Trinity, leavning us with simply, one God.

That's not to say that we don't grow in our understanding of physics or of God, or that some paradoxes may ultimately be resolved, but I don't think that this will happen in regard to either the dual nature of Christ or the wave-particle duality. There is an answer. It's just that our finite minds cannot hold it. That in itself is reassuring: we don't have all the answers.