Quantum Religion

Quantum mechanics shows deep connections based on empirical evidence.  This is Einstein’s famous “spooky action at a distance.”  Particles that split apart from one another seem to be in communication as they track on trajectories away from one another at incredible speeds.  It’s almost as if there’s will involved.  Maybe there is.  If intention is part of the natural world, we’re in trouble.  Well, at least stark materialism is.  You can’t measure will.  We all know what it is because we feel it.  Try to define it.  Isn’t will a matter of what you want?  What could a particle possibly want?  If it’s small it can’t hurt us, right?  But once it crosses a certain level, it no longer works.  Science trembles at quantum mechanics being applied at the non-microscopic level.

Ironically science is wedded to an idea proposed by a medieval cleric.  Early scientists were often clergy—an association most scientists would prefer to forget these days.  William of Ockham (fourteenth century) proposed an idea that became the surefooted stance of science in its toddler phase.  Simply reduced it goes like this: the single natural explanation, without relying on outside forces, is probably the best.  It’s known as Ockham’s Razor (aka Occam’s Razor).   Yet Ockham was a Franciscan Friar, a cleric.  His thinking and reasoning were necessarily informed by ecclesiastical thought.  Or, not to put too fine a point on it, theology.  His razor avoided entanglements.  Ironically, science refers to this quantum connection as entanglement.

Humans, it seems, have a tendency toward contrariness.  We’re oppositional.  When we’re told that quantum mechanics applies only to the very small, we wonder if maybe the same principles don’t work “up here” at our scale.  It’s hard to conceive that even our scale is simply a matter of perspective.  Since we’re uncomfortable with the idea we suggest that only our species is conscious.  That way we can keep the will out of animals as well as subatomic particles, let alone larger scale entities such as planets, galaxies, and universes.  Maybe entanglement suggests Ockham’s Razor is dull.  Before getting out the philosophical strop, perhaps we should ask if the simplest explanation is really the best after all.  Maybe the best answer is far more complex than we’d like to admit.  I love science.  I still, when I have time, read science books written for the laity.  It’s just that science, like religion, is part of a larger picture.  As much as we fear entanglement, it is an empirically observed part of life in our universe.

Thinking about the Universe

Conscious Universe Notwithstanding appearances, I have been reading. Despite the determination, disruptions to my commuting schedule always throw me off a bit. Having recently read The Holographic Universe, I decided to follow it up with The Conscious Universe. Subtitled The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Dean Radin’s book is one of those that you don’t want other commuters examining too closely, although, however, they probably should. Radin is a fully credentialed scientist who has a rare trait: a willingness to follow where the evidence leads. Respectful of traditional scientific method and even mainstream science writing, Radin demonstrates in this book just how risky it is to go against the trends that are like deeply rutted wagon tracks over a sun-baked prairie. Science progresses by examining the evidence, but today science is, in some senses, over-reacting to the refusal of religious thought to, well, give up the spirit. Religion persists and rationalists can’t understand why. Investigating “spooky effects at a distance” is not entirely welcome in such a climate.

Radin, however, approaches psi with scientific rigor. Laboratory experiments, as he thoroughly demonstrates, have revealed with greater evidence than many readily accepted theories, that there is something behind psi. In fact, the government and private industry have invested, and continue to invest, in it. And in our more unguarded moments, most people will generally admit that sometimes coincidences are a little too odd, or that you might, from time to time, really be able to send a thought to someone else. The laboratory results, as Radin clearly shows, are simply dismissed as aberrations because they don’t fit into preconceived (frequently materialistic) worldviews. It is far easier to laugh than to sort out how all of this might actually work.

There is no triumphalism in this. It is simply the willingness to ask honest questions. Quantum mechanics, as physicists know, are not always as mechanistic as they seem. Even Einstein was willing to keep an open mind concerning the larger picture. The universe we envision today is not the same as that which Einstein knew. It isn’t easy to summarize what Radin is addressing in his book, but if I were to try I would say something like this: consciousness is essential. I know materialists dismiss essence, but I believe the evidence goes against them here. Consciousness is an integral part of the universe, and we can’t even define it yet so that all parties agree. If we don’t know what it is, how can we possibly know what it might not be able to do? Radin does what seems to be the only logical response in such a situation: he keeps an open mind.

God, Particle, Reduce

Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.

I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.

Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.

Erwinrossen's image of atoms, the sight eyes can't see

Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see

Which God?

In Sunday’s newspaper (that’s the kind of week it’s been) an op-ed piece ran with the title “Is God real? Putting the idea on trial.” Written by a priest, Geno Sylva, the article tells how a Wisconsin church set up a mock trial where the litigants argued the case. The trial did not reach a consensus on the matter, even when a great deal of “money” was at stake. Rev. Sylva is okay with that, noting that the main thing is to keep the conversation around God going.

The article brought to mind the Scopes Monkey Trial, another case where God ended up, indirectly, in the dock. It also occurred to me that the real issue is not the existence of God. Juries, and even—gasp!—lawyers don’t demonstrate the truth. The lawyer’s job is to convince people to approve of his (or her) argument—many famous cases are known where the lawyer knew his (less often her) client committed the crime. The argument gets shifted to guilt (one of the favorite tactics of the God of the Bible)—is the defendant guilty or not? Not did the defendant do it. Now let’s put God in the equation. God is not on trial here—remember, it is God’s reality that is being debated.

It appears that God, as an abstract, does not and cannot matter. The mere existence of God proves nothing. Rev. Sylva mentions Einstein as a believer. Well, in a very qualified way. Einstein’s “God” was non-interventionist; the laws of relativity ran the universe. Enter the atomic bomb. QED. The existence of God is not meaningful to believers if God does nothing. The purpose of worship is, after all, to please and interact with God. If God exists like an ancient, unmoving statue, nobody’s happy. The kind of God that worshippers want must be at least able to hear prayers, and must be able to do something about them. Their God is interventionist. This is not Einstein’s god.

Arguing whether God exists proves nothing. It would be like arguing that the universe exists. If it does, so what? What Rev. Sylva’s faithful need to know is does God do stuff. Is there promise of heaven or threat of hell? Or, less crassly, does the ethic of God compel me to do good? Is God, as the old hymn says, “mighty to save”? A god who merely exists is an academic or intellectual curiosity. No more. Will Rev. Sylva’s congregation be happy with that? It seems likely that if the verdict denied God’s existence the party on the side of the Lord would simply appeal to a higher court.

What's really at stake?

The Reality of Movies

Inception was released on DVD this week, and having a weakness for struggling with reality, I knew I had to see it again. Now, people with a far sturdier grip on life than myself have been blogging about the movie since the summer, writing posts both profound and critical. I wrote an earlier post on the movie, toying with its retelling of the Theseus myth. This time, I am wrestling with the wonderful burden of having a subconscious mind. The crux of the movie is when Cobb has to decide which world is real: Mal’s or his own. The movie, of course, refuses to divulge the answer.

With a finesse that I had previously experienced with the original Matrix movie, Inception ups the ante on what we consider reality. “Reality” is a problematic concept, a bi-product, we are told, of consciousness itself. Reality is generally viewed in exclusive terms, and most of us spend our days in what I learned to denominate “naïve realism,” the concept that what we perceive is pure, unadulterated reality. Perhaps not as Inception or The Matrix, or even eXistenZ would have us believe, scientists today tend to agree that the world is not as it seems. The quantum world has opened up levels of reality undreamt of even by Einstein whose God did not play dice. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to traditional religions.

Although many religions gladly point out that there is a mythical reality behind what we experience every day, there is no hard evidence to back up these assertions. This is not the same as declaring they don’t tap into that reality, it is just that we have no final arbiter as to what that reality is. Having been in the business of religion all my life, I am absolutely certain that it isn’t what any fundamentalist group declares it is. They make claims about reality that would leave Jesus scratching his halo-encircled head. Is it Cobb’s, Neo’s, or Allegra’s reality or is it Hawking’s, Witten’s, or Greene’s? I simply don’t know. I just put the disc in an press the play button.