Wednesday, February 6, 2008

POST #13: Randomness, and “Quantum Theology”

Jonathan Edwards is considered by many to be America’s greatest Theologian. He was deeply interested in the interplay of science and the Scriptures. His confidence that science and Christian Theology will always find harmony is inspiring to me. And Edwards was convinced that there is a vital connection between the material and the spiritual worlds. His interest in science, particularly physics, was born of this conviction, and a desire to understand the nature of this interconnection between the two worlds.

As a contemporary of Isaac Newton, Edwards was captivated by Newton’s fresh new understandings of the physics of the universe. As a Calvinist, Edwards looked for and found confirmation to his views of the Sovereignty of God. He built these contemporary scientific findings into his defense of Calvinism.
... since God controls the destiny of every individual, human understanding can be considered to be the product of what God determines a person should experience. Edwards's reading of Isaac Newton also supported traditional convictions about the supremacy of God and the helplessness of man in the face of causes that lie beyond human control.

Edwards read widely in his era's scientific and philosophical literature and was fascinated by the discoveries of Newton and his successors.... He was not threatened by the discoveries of science because he felt they revealed the harmony of the Divine Being. A division between the spiritual and material was uncongenial to the pattern of Edwards's thought.

(these quotes from this site.)
Newton’s theories of physics were built upon the premise of absolute space, and lineal (unbending, unchanging) time. His laws of motion, coupled with absolute space and time, gave a scientific basis that everything was utterly predictable to, if not determined by, an All-Knowing Being. Here is how it works:

If we were to stop all movement at a point in time (any point) and learn the trajectory and velocity of every atom and every subatomic particle, and if we possessed the requisite intelligence and computational skills, we could with absolute accuracy determine where every particle was a second earlier, an hour earlier, and even 10 billion years earlier. Likewise, we could with the same absolute certainty predict where every particle of space would be 24 hours later, or thousands, millions, even billions of years hence. With fixed laws of motion operating in a fixed container of absolute space moving along an immutable time line, there can be no surprises to an Omniscient Being! Hence, for Edwards, his Calvinist views were substantiated, and (if we posit Newtonian Physics) scientifically proven.

Newton’s predictions proved true again and again, and his theories of motion and space and time stood for nearly 200 years ... until Albert Einstein stood the world of physics on edge with his theories of special and general relativity. Time, Einstein showed us, is not unbending. Space is not absolute. Space and time are locked into a continuum, playing off of each other in what might have earlier been considered fanciful ways. Time and space are relative. Today, Einstein's theories have proven the tests of countless experiments, and are almost universally accepted. Meanwhile, other scientists were learning remarkable and unsettling things about motion in the world of subatomic particles. Among other discoveries, they were discovering what is now generally accepted: the movement of these particles through space is completely unpredictable. It is not that we lack the instruments or the understanding to predict their movement; we are able to prove with a high level of certainty the impossibility of determining both the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. This phenomenon is known as the Heisenberg 
Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, named for Werner Heisenberg, the 20th century German physicist.

Some mathematicians have developed an elegant mathematical proof that, as electrons move through space, not even an All-Knowing Being could predict their destination. Their conclusions were published in a short piece entitled “Electrons Have Free Will” in the January, 2007 issue of Seed magazine.

According to [John] Conway and [Simon] Kochen (two Princeton mathmeticians), even an omniscient mind, capable of knowing everything about everything, would still be unable to predict the position of particles ... [because] “the particles’ response to a certain type of experiment is not determined by the entire previous history of that part of the universe accessible to them.”
Some Christians might recoil from this claim, others would find it preposterous; perhaps we should instead be asking the appropriate “What if” questions of our own theology. If in fact God ordered his creation such that there would exist a randomness that is beyond his knowledge or control, what might that mean to our understanding of God?

(Some might argue that the very suggestion begs the question. Is it possible, they would ask, for God to create a universe he himself cannot control? as much, in their minds, a logical impossibility as “Can God create a rock so big and heavy that he himself could not move it?” But the Uncertainty Principle continues to be supported by experimentation, and it seems at least plausible that God created the cosmos with this strange, almost eerie twist.)

First, the support that Edwards found from science for God’s absolute foreknowledge and control has vanished with the Newtonian world that spawned it. Science may not yet be capable of confirming or denying free will and cosmic randomness, but it can no longer be called upon to confirm Newtonian determinism.

But what of the possibility that God did create the cosmos such that not even he could foresee all outcomes, much less engineer those outcomes. Why might he have done so? I have some ideas; but they will await future posts. For now, I ask my readers to comment. How does this notion of the possibility that God created a cosmos even he could not predict or predetermine sit with you?


Gordon J. Glover said...

Good post Cliff!

Whenever we talk about these things, the finite is attempting to explain the infinite -- which is absurd. But they are still fun to talk about!

Here is another possibility: This could just be another case of ignorance on the part of finite creatures trying to understand the actions of an infinite and eternal God. The same conclusion that scientist reach today about QED was the same one reached by Renaisance scientists about the orbits of the planets -- causing Newton to posit divine intervention to keep the system stable. Of course, we now have the computational ability to model this complex system.

Obviously, I don't have the answer to this question.

You said:
"First, the support that Edwards found from science for God’s absolute foreknowledge and control has vanished with the Newtonian world that spawned it."

I would have said that a little differently. Just as Einstein's relativity helped put Newton into a larger context (and the Newtonian world did not therefore "vanish") -- so also relativity should help modern Christians put classical views of God's sovereignty into a larger theological context. The idea of God's foreknowledge hasn't necessarily "vanished" -- but we should be willing to revisit it and nuance it according to what we now know about physical causality.

you also said, "But what of the possibility that God did create the cosmos such that not even he could foresee all outcomes, much less engineer those outcomes...How does this notion of the possibility that God created a cosmos even he could not predict or predetermine sit with you?"

Honestly, I don't like it. If God created time, then He transcends the passage of time. He therefore sees all of time as an instant -- as the cosmos would look from a photon traveling at lightspeed or a person standing at the event horizon of a black hole. So I don't see how God could possibly shield Himself from obsreving what is our future. Perhaps contingency is His way of creating novelty without disrupting the normal patterns of physical cause and effect?

I know you have thought about this more than I, so I'm interested to read as you develope this idea.


Cliff Martin said...

Thank you for your comments. I deeply appreciate your thoughts, and I know you come from a more Reformed point of view. I expect you to identify the weaknesses in my own thoughts!

As you point out, there are other possible ways of understanding this data. This post is probably the most speculative of any of my writings thus far. I am attempting to understand what the current state of quantum mechanics, if it is accurate, might say about God and his purposes. The science will be refined, and we ought not draw any hard conclusions from what is, admittedly, a very tentative science. Nevertheless, I find the potential impact of current physics upon theology fascinating, and perhaps instructive.

I should have been more clear about what "vanished". Newtonian physics did not vanish. The idea of God's foreknowledge did not vanish. What vanished in my view is the strong support that Newton's laws of motion offered to theologians like Edwards who lean toward Calvinism.

You write, If God created time, then He transcends the passage of time. He therefore sees all of time as an instant.

I know this is what I have been taught all my life. But I have not found a strong case in the Scriptures that God "created" time when he created this cosmos, nor that he is outside of time. Polkinghorne (in the book I just reviewed) rejects both notions. Help me out. Why do we believe that God is outside of time, and that time itself is temporal?

Ralph said...

note: this comment came to my email, and I have posted it here ~ Cliff

Hi Cliff,

I am blind and so use adaptive software and haven't figured out the verification process. Therefore, I am emailing my comment to you rather than posting it on the blog.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the movement of electrons is truly random and so cannot be predicted (an assumption I am not personally convinced of). It does not follow that God does not know where an electron will be in five seconds or five years (if electrons live that long). It would only follow that God cannot "predict" where the electron will be. If God knows the future only by prediction, then God would not know where the electron will be. The future is a description of time. God created time and so is not bounded by it. Time began, God did not. Therefore, it seems to me that God could know unpredictable future events.


Cliff Martin said...

Thank you for your comment, and welcome to the discussion!

Yes, I am working upon an assumption that the current state of quantum science is accurate. Our understandings of quantum electrodynamics could change tomorrow. But remember that Heisenberg made his predictions about uncertainty 81 years ago! It was not so much an admission of ignorance as it was a positive statement about what cannot be known. It may sound presumptuous. But it has stood the test of multiple experimental verifications over a period of time when scientific understandings have been mushrooming. Thousands of scientists have searched for a way to dispel the Uncertainty Principle; none has succeeded. I consider it a fairly safe assumption.

You make an excellent observation: predictive power and foreknowledge are two separate things. However, all of our ideas about the foreknowledge of God are also based upon assumptions. Your assumptions (which are shared by most Christians) are that God is not bound by time, that time does not exist outside of this created cosmos. Certainly, time in our cosmos had a beginning. But does it necessarily follow that God does not move down a path of time much as we do? I agree with you, that “God could know unpredictable future events.” But does he?

We will explore Open Theism in future discussions here. I do not wish to delve too deeply into that topic at this point. But for me, the notions that God is not bound by time, that he knows the future, are open questions. On the one hand, Einstein’s special relativity would suggest that an all-knowing God must have access to the future. But on the other, many Scriptures suggest that he does not. More on this later ...

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
You asked a simple question:

“How does this notion of the possibility that God created a cosmos even he could not predict or predetermine sit with you?”

so I’ll give you a simple answer:

Right now I am comfortable with this .. or maybe less uncomfortable with this than with a God who DOES predetermine everything. I haven't necessarily bought into "open theism" but I do find it appealing. (But there are lots of "appealing" ideas that are wrong - the jury is still out from my perspective).

Certainly when I first considered the idea it was very disconcerting. The really big question is: If God isn’t in “complete control”, how can he ensure that ultimately his divine purposes will be fulfilled? I’ll leave it at that .. I’m sure you will be addressing this point in a future post.

the.glovers said...


"Why do we believe that God is outside of time, and that time itself is temporal?"

There is nothing in Genesis that would have changed the ANE belief that time, space, and matter are eternal. And neither is there anything in Newton's world that would have necessarily challenged this.

But other passages in the Bible do support creation ex-nihilo, such as Colossians 1. And Big Bang cosmology also posits the singularity from which time, space, and energy (later to condense into matter) arose.

If anything, modern physics shows just how pliable time and space are. Certainly they are at the disposal of God, who spoke them into existence? Just an assumption -- but one that seems reasonable.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Like Steve, I don't have a strong reaction to this topic pro or con. I haven't studied it enough. I find open theology intriguing, but again I haven't even begun to wrap my mind around it.

I wonder whether you've read anything by physicist Paul Davies? I dabbled in "God and the New Physics" at one time, and found it provocative. But I don't have much knowledge of science, and felt a little out of my depth.

Cliff Martin said...

Steve asks, If God isn’t in “complete control”, how can he ensure that ultimately his divine purposes will be fulfilled? Great question! And yes, that is exactly where I am headed with all of this. Your question gets to the heart of my thinking ... but we’d be jumping the gun to go into much detail at this point.

Gordon notes, And Big Bang cosmology also posits the singularity from which time, space, and energy (later to condense into matter) arose. True. We know that time is an essential dimension to this comos, and that the unidirectional time that we know had a definite beginning point, probably 13.7 billions years ago. But how do we leap from that fact to the assumption that God has always existed outside of time. Some (Hugh Ross, i.e.) have suggested that eternity is not timeless, but more “time-full” than our experience of time, with time being two, perhaps three dimensional, and perhaps omnidirectional. But now we are getting far afield. Yes, you are right about the pliability of time and space. And when we discuss Open Theology here, we will necessarily factor that in.

Stephen, thank you for the lead on the Paul Davies book. Thanks, too, for the website lead in your comment on the book review. I will check into both.

ken said...

A couple observations:

1) I believe the HUP applies to measuring both the position and momentum of a particle. Would an omniscient God need to measure anything? Or could he "know" both by another means?

2) The act of measuring electrons, for example, collapses the wave function to make a probability into a single valued answer (or something like that. I'm thinking about the two slit experiments). How would the notion of omnipresence affect this? Could God's being everywhere allow him to collapse all the wave functions of all the electrons in the universe thereby "knowing" where they all are rather than only knowing a probability function?

Cliff Martin said...

Yes, your are correct. As I understand the Uncertainty Principle, it suggests that we can only measure one of three things about the electron: its position, its velocity, or its spin. When we experimentally determine any one of those three, we can no longer determine anything else. The unpredictability referred to by Conway and Kochen may be something slightly different.

And I agree, it is difficult for us to even imagine something so fundamental as particle trajectory, spin, or velocity as being unknown and/or unknowable to God. My point here is not to debate that question. Rather, I am asking this: What if the claim of Conway and Kochen is true? What if God did design a universe which, at its very root level, was beyond his direct control? Is this possible? And might he have a purpose for doing so?

From Quantum Mechanics, we are learning some very strange things. Other metaphysical types are taking notice of this (i.e. New Agers, as evidenced by the 2004 movie, What the #$*! Do We Know) and drawing some dubious conclusions. Should Christians just ignore the possible implications to our theology?

ken said...

An analogy comes to mind:

Someone designs and builds a computer. She writes every line of code in the operating system. She solders every pin on every chip. She writes every line of every application, utility, etc. She then turns it on and starts playing Zork. Is she aware of what is going on under the hood? And I'm not really talking about on the sub-atomic level. I'm saying is she aware of when the hard drive is being touched or when pages are being swapped in and out of memory? She is still in total control of the computer. She can rewrite the OS if she wants to. She can add programs, erase programs, expand the memory, etc. She is in total control and yet does not need to know every tiny detail of how the computer is working.

Cliff Martin said...

Good comment, Ken, one that goes straight to the paradox. Let me offer another. Suppose that our computer whiz built a computer for the express purpose of generating random numbers. Of course, she would understand every detail about the inner workings of the computer hardware, the OS, and her RNG software. But could she construct a truly random, unpredictable program with indeterminate outcomes? Of course she could. This is done all the time. So the question turns from "could God pull off such a feat?" to "would he?" and then "why might he?" and finally, "did he? is there evidence that he actually did create a random universe?"

As I have considered these questions, I have come to see many reason why God might create such a universe. If you consider the possibility, I'm sure you could see these reasons as well ... but if you truly cannot imagine them, stay tuned because our discussion here will soon turn in that direction.

I have also come to see that the universe may have some built-in clues, if not straightforward evidence, that he actually did do this.

Would this imply that the universe is whirling out of divine control? No more than our lady's RNG. Would it mean that the ultimate outcomes are completely unknown to him? Not at all. But it would mean that those ultimate outcomes are produced by something other than his tight sovereign control.

Gordon J. Glover said...

A convicted sex offender just won a $10M lottery.

I now firmly believe in randomness and reject a personal God. Not really, but it does make angry.