Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 3b) — Lessons from History
We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne. Today we will look at the second part of Chapter 3- Lessons from History. John continues his comparative study of science and Christian theology with some additional historical examples of how the discovery of further truth proceeds in these two disciplines. Last time we looked at: (1) Growing recognition of deeper significance. This week we look at:
(2) Collateral developments. Further examples considered. The search for understanding requires the development of a portfolio of inter-connected concepts to do justice to the richness of experience.
(a) Waves. The waves that people first thought about were directly perceptible phenomena, such as the waves of the sea and sound waves induced by vibrating strings. In these examples it was clear that an oscillating material medium served as the carrier of waves.
Therefore when James Clerk Maxwell proposed, based on electromagnetic theory, that light was made up of waves, it was natural to suppose that there was some material substrate serving as the medium to carry those waves. Hence the famous theory of luminiferous aether or ether. Contemporary physicists like Lord Kelvin and Maxwell himself puzzled over the supposed strange combination of properties. The Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887, designed to measure the velocity of the Earth through the aether, yielded a null result.
In 1905, Albert Einstein cut the Gordian knot by his discovery of special relativity, which promptly resulted in a way of thinking that abolished the need for an aether altogether. Electromagnetic waves were recognized to be just that. It was the energy present in the electromagnetic fields themselves that did the waving.
In 1926, when the Schrodinger equation was formulated as a new king of wave equation, the question once more arose, waves of what? The initial inclination was to suggest waves of matter, but it soon became clear that this would imply so diffuse an account of the electron that it would not be compatible with its localization when it was actually experimentally observed.
It was Max Born who found the answer. The Schrodinger waves are waves of probability, and the corresponding wave function is a representation of the potentialities present in the unpicturable quantum state associated with the electron. Polkinghorne says:
This brief history of the wave idea shows both how indispensable a concept it was in theoretical physics and also how its realistic interpretation moved on from a naïve objectivity to a much more subtle account, without at any time ceasing to function as a means for describing the way in which the physical world was found actually to behave.
(b) Spirit. Polkinghorne thinks a somewhat similar history can be traced in the case of the theological idea of spirit. In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of chaos, or, as can be alternately translated a wind from God is blowing over the water. There are promises of God pouring out his Spirit as in Joel 2:28-29 and the focused bestowal on the Messiah, the one anointed by God as in Isaiah 61:1. Spirit in the OT is often conceived of as a gift of power for a specific purpose like Bezalel and Oholiab empowered to construct the ark and the tent of meeting in Exodus 31:1-11. In the preaching of John the Baptist a new idea was put forth of one who would baptize/immerse with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7-8), which the early Church identified Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy. In Acts 1:8 the Holy Spirit bestows the power needed for bold witness to Christ. In the foundational event of Pentecost, it is the risen and exalted Jesus who pours out the Spirit (Acts 2:33). In Paul’s writings, the gifts bestowed by the Spirit are diverse and distributed to different believers for different purposes (1 Cor. 12:4-11), but they also yield the single fruit of a Christ-like life (Gal. 5:22-23). In one verse, Romans 8:9, Paul speaks of the Spirit, the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ. In the gospel of John 16:7-8, Jesus both promises to send the Advocate/Paraclete and also says the Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name. John says:
Everything is not sorted out neatly in the New Testament, but it is clear that mostly its witness to the Spirit is framed in personal terms. It took the Church some time to work out how to think about all this. It was not until the fourth century that the concept of the Holy Spirit as divine, and as being the Third Person of the Trinity, finally emerged with a settled clarity and definiteness in the understanding of the church. Once again one sees movement from a comparatively naïve reification (an extra ingredient given to Bezalel) to a profoundly subtle account of a deep and unexpected reality.