Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 4 – Conceptual Exploration
We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne. Today we will look at Chapter 4- Conceptual Exploration. John says continuing conceptual exploration is characterized by increasing subtlety and depth. The first exploration of a new physical regime often takes the form of theoretical work formulated in close correlation with specific experimental data. Physicists use models to incorporate what appears to be the principal factors controlling the specific phenomena under consideration. There is no pretense that the model constructed is totally adequate description of the nature of the system involved; they serve a strictly limited purpose.
For example Einstein’s discussion of the photoelectric effect demonstrated the particle-like behavior of light, without being able to give any account of its wave-like properties. Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom simply imposed an ad hoc rule (the quantization of angular momentum) on an otherwise Newtonian account. Because models don’t aspire to ontological accuracy, it is possible to simultaneously employ a variety of mutually incompatible models in order to advance the understanding of the behavior of some physical entity. But physicists cannot rest content with mutually contradictory pictures of what they are investigating. Some more integrated account has to be sought. The clutch of models has to be replaced by a single over-arching theory.
Niels Bohr once said that anyone who claimed fully to understand quantum physics had just shown that they had not begun to appreciate properly what it is all about. He was echoing, unconsciously no doubt, a similar remark made earlier by William Temple (W. Temple, Christus Veritas, Macmillan, 1924, 1.139) when he said that “if any man says he understands the relation of Deity to humanity in Christ, he only makes it clear that he does not at all understand what is meant by Incarnation.”
In his book on Christology, Donald Baillie (Baillie, God Was in Christ, p.114) pointed to what he called the ‘Central Paradox’ of the Christian life. He was referring to the convictions simultaneously held, that we bear a responsibility for our lives and actions, and also that ‘never is human life more truly and fully personal, never does the agent feel more profoundly free, than those moments in which he can say as a Christian that whatever was good was not his but Gods.’ Paul expressed a similar thought when he exhorted the members of the church at Philippi to ‘work out your salvation; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13). Baillie went on to suggest that ‘this paradox in its fragmentary form in our Christian lives is a reflection of that perfect union of God and man in the Incarnation on which the whole Christian life depends, and may therefore be out best clue to understanding it’.
Grand Unified Theories (GUT). John says one could write the history of modern physics in terms of its being a continuing quest for greater generality and deeper unity in our conceptual understanding of the physical world. It began as early as Galileo’s conviction, contrary to Aristotle’s thinking, that the heavenly bodies are made of the same stuff as those that compose terrestrial entities. This insight was triumphantly confirmed by Isaac Newton’s discovery of universal gravity, showing that the force that makes the apple fall is the same force that holds the Moon in its orbit around the Earth. The next unifying steps occurred in the nineteenth century when Øersted and Faraday showed that there was direct connections between electric currents and magnetic fields. The character if this connection was made clear in 1873 when James Clerk Maxwell published his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, presenting a unified theory of electromagnetism that has proved of lasting value, and which is one of the most brilliant achievements in the whole history of theoretical physics.
The next step in the great unified advance was the marriage between electromagnetic theory and the weak nuclear forces that are responsible for phenomena such as β-decay, the emission of electrons by radioactive nuclei. The next desirable step would obviously be a further integration, drawing in the strong nuclear forces, and perhaps also gravitation. Polkinghorne says such a GUT has so far proved to be difficult to achieve and the attempts to find it have been controversial and not wholly convincing. John says:
The present favored candidate is superstring theory, but accepting its ideas depends upon believing that theorists, on the basis of mathematical considerations alone, can second-guess the character of nature at a level of detail more than ten thousand million million times smaller than anything of which we have direct empirical experience. The lessons of history are not encouraging to such a bold venture. Usually nature has something up her sleeve that only empirical pressure will cause the theorists to think of.
Whatever may eventually prove to be the case, the general hope that some form of GUT will in the end be discovered is one that is entertained by many physicist, myself among them. A belief in the fundamental unity of physics is one that encouraged by the kind of past experiences that we have reviewed. It is also supported by a metaphysical conviction of the integrity of cosmic process that is deeply appealing to scientists. Theologians may well feel that this act of faith by the physicists is a reflection of a trust, doubtless often unconsciously entertained, in the consistency of the one God whose will is the origin of the order of the created universe.
John then says the counterpart in Christian theology of the physicists GUT is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Christians of the first centuries came to recognize they had known God in three fundamental ways. There was the heavenly Father, Creator of the universe and the One who had given the law to Moses in the clouds and thick darkness of Mount Sinai. God above us. There was the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, sharing in and redeeming humanity, and making God’s will known in the plainest and most accessible terms through His life in Palestine. God alongside us. There was the Holy Spirit, that divine presence at work in the human heart, bestowing gifts that matched individual personality and need. God within us. Yet those early Christians knew that they must hold on to the conviction that they had inherited from Judaism, that God is one.
Polkinghorne says it is important to recognize that belief in the Holy Trinity was motivated by Christian experience and not rash and ungrounded metaphysical speculation. He says what was predominantly involved was engagement with what the theologians call “the economic Trinity”, and evidence-based argument from below. He says:
The adjective derives from the Greek word oikonomia, whose root meaning concerns the order of a household, in this case the household of the divinely created world. The experience that the Fathers relied on did not only come from the great revelatory events of Creation, Incarnation, and Pentecostal empowerment, but it also arose from the ordinary worshipping life of the Church, which prayed to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Spirit, and whose characteristic acclamation of praise was, and remains, ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit’.
“Reality is relational” is an insight that certainly accords with increasing scientific recognition of the relational character of the physical universe. The old-fashioned atomism of isolated particles rattling around in the otherwise empty container of space has long been replaced by General Relativity’s integrated account of space, time, and matter, understood to be combined in a single package deal. The physical world looks more and more like a universe that would be the fitting creation of the trinitarian God, the One whose deepest reality is relational. John believes that the true “Theory of Everything” is not superstrings, as physicists are sometimes move to bombastically to proclaim, but it is actually trinitarian theology.