Quantum physics again proves a theistic God

Priest and accommodationist John Polkinghorne, previously a physicist at Cambridge University, and author of some of the most muddled apologetics I’ve ever read, gets interviewed by In Character.

And he reveals that quantum physics has been just great for theology, because a stupid old Newtonian universe would testify only to a deistic, wind-up-the-universe-and-let-it-go kind of God.  Quantum physics, however, provides a theistic God, one who changes the world by tweaking electrons. You have heard this before, of course, from Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and many other souls desperate to find evidence for a personal, interactive God in a world that appears to behave materially, predictably, and deterministically on the human plane.

Polkinghorne:

If the world were simply mechanical, as people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it would just be a gigantic piece of cosmic clockwork, and its creator would be an unseen cosmic clockmaker. That’s the creator who just makes the clock and lets it tick away. Quantum theory is something more subtle than that. We can believe a world in which we ourselves interact — we’re not clockwork at all — and we can believe in a world in which God interacts. We can believe in a God who doesn’t just sit and wait for it to happen but is involved in the unfolding of creation.

Isn’t this the worst sort of conflating science with superstition?  Quantum physics as evidence for a theistic God!  Even Ayala, I think, would diagnose Polkinghorne as mixing his magisteria.

And don’t these people ever, ever consider that they’re grasping at straws here—making a virtue of necessity by demoting their God to someone who changes the world by messing with subatomic particles? Isn’t it incumbent on them to explain why God would act this way instead of on a more macroscopic level? Is he trying to hide himself?

It’s hardly necessary to add that Polkinghorne won the Templeton Prize in 2002.

52 Comments

  1. justsearching
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Don’t you see, it’s so much more lovely and mysterious to have God tweaking with subatomic particles. It would be brutish, heavy-handed and not aesthetically pleasing for God to do such things as preventing child rape or stopping earthquakes. Besides, one can claim about the Godly happenings at subatomic levels without any evidence, and that’s a big plus for any religious claim.

    • Your Name's Not Bruce?
      Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      The god of the bible was certainly not shy about intervening in the physical world in the past. If the inhabitants of the antediluvian earth and the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (and Lot’s wife)had only had a quantum tweaking god with which to contend they would have been spared a lot of trouble. Flood, fire and brimstone are pretty brutish and heavy handed.

      So god changed his tactics, eh? What gives? Of course in “sophisticated” readings of these stories these disasters are probably only supposed to be metaphor or allegory rather than history. The sophisticated god would never stoop to wanton destruction.

      Kinda reminds me of this….

      Presenter Another man who had his head nailed to the floor was Stig O’ Tracey.
      Cut to another younger more cheerful man on sofa.
      Interviewer Stig, I’ve been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.
      Stig No, no. Never, never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to give his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.
      Interviewer But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.
      Stig Oh yeah, well – he did that, yeah.
      Interviewer Why?
      Stig Well he had to, didn’t he? I mean, be fair, there was nothing else he could do. I mean, I had transgressed the unwritten law.
      Interviewer What had you done?
      Stig Er… Well he never told me that. But he gave me his word that it was the case, and that’s good enough for me with old Dinsy. I mean, he didn’t want to nail my head to the floor. I had to insist. He wanted to let me off. There’s nothing Dinsdale wouldn’t do for you.

      • Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        I asked this question in another thread about Quantum Jeebus, but nobody really answered… so I’ll try again :)

        If you really could manipulate the outcome of each and every quantum reaction, couldn’t you create these kinds of macroscopic miracles? IANAPhysicist, so maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that if you could make quantum reactions all come out a certain way, you could cause any possible chemical reaction to definitely occur… and if you could do that, then you could do all sorts of macroscopic miracles.

        The destruction of Sodom & Gommorah? Well, if you really had control over all quantum interactions, couldn’t you cause all of the molecules in all of the residents’ bodies to spontaneously break apart? Maybe you couldn’t quite turn someone into a pillar of salt, but you could turn them into a heap of carbon and a whole bunch of gaseous hydrogen and oxygen without violating the laws of physics, right? Or is that actually impossible, and not just so unlikely as to be practically impossible?

        If my understanding here is correct, and if the many-worlds hypothesis is correct, then that leads to the somewhat disturbing notion that there exists a universe (actually, countless universes) where Jesus really did rise from the dead after three days. Why not? Which I have to say, really sucks for the people in that universe… heh…

        • Shahin
          Posted October 31, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          Many worlds interpretation is as non falsifiable as a theistic God and frankly very very few physicists believe in it. The most popular interpretation is the Copenhagen interpretation. Secondly, no quantum mechanical principle would be violated if all the residents of Sodom had all their water molecules dissociated spontaneously. It will be an isolated event and even though it will have an extremely small probability, but QM puts no restriction on the realization of events with very small probabilities. It only restricts their frequency and over all average. Besides the probability of the people of Sodom getting destroyed this way would still be orders of magnitude greater than the Universe coming into existence by chance which is by the way 1 part in Exp(10^123)

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    God is hiding in the crack that is a trillionth of a femtometer.

    He/she/it used to be as big god, but gets smaller all the time.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Behold the mightiest being ever, whose power is indistinguishable from random chance.

  3. Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    The next logical step for theologians, of course, is quantum theodicy.

    How do theists account for the fact that bad things happen to good quarks?

    • Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      No, I’m putting my money on quantum morality. A deed is both good and bad at the same time, you see. Only when God makes an observation does the superposition of good and bad collapse into a definite state.

      Oh dear, I’m giving them ideas, aren’t I?

      • Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Quantum neurology.

      • Artikcat
        Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        From the conference report, whatever it is, Fred Mcvittie, 2006; “This human moral and emotional response, and the apparent contradictions it contains, will be reviewed within the context of quantum indeterminacy and a proposal made linking ‘karma’ with a hypothetical ‘quantum morality’.” Time for seppuku, final curtain, shot of pisco.??.at least will go out laughing, still could be a sokal

      • Posted March 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Schroedinger’s Morality.

      • bad Jim
        Posted March 27, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink

        “Erwin, what did you do to that cat? It looks half dead!”

        • Gauldar
          Posted March 29, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          Suddenly the Jesus myth makes so much more sense now.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted March 26, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      Because the Bottom quark is heavier than the Charm quark, and goes to Mass more often.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted March 26, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        But the Charm quark will go farther, it has…

  4. Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    QM is at best a place to hide the activities of God so he gets to run things while being empirically undetectable, hence unfalsifiable (assuming that even works, and not being a QM expert, I can’t vouch for that. OTOH, Polkinghorne was a physicist, so he may have that part right). It’s not evidence of God; it’s just an excuse for why we don’t see his Divine Hand in operation.

  5. Dave
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Reverse-engineering at its worst. If quantum mechanics proved to be deterministic, the religious would praise the wonder of their Creator for his perfection.

    They can rationalize anything to fit their dogmatic presumptions.

    • Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Yup, that’s exactly what all theologians have been doing up to the discovery of chaos theory and QM.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted March 26, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

        The poor delusional fools have no choice whilst they begin with their positively infantile conclusion based against all evidence.

  6. orangejuice
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Since I came back here a few days ago, I’ve been very impressed with how frequently there are new interesting posts here and how often I agree with them.

    This post, by the way, reminds me of Dave Chalmers’ remark from the 1990s which nicely summarized the rather weird rationale behind quantum theories of consciousness (!):

    “[C]onsciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics is mysterious, so maybe the two mysteries have a common source. [...] The question of why these processes should give rise to experience is entirely unanswered.”

    That’s about as strong as the case gets. I guess something vaguely analogous applies to the reasoning of a theist who is desperately trying to give quantum physics some religious spin.

    • Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      desperately trying to give quantum physics some religious spin.

      Was the pun intentional? :)

      • orangejuice
        Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Well, it was a poetic byproduct which I was aware of!

  7. Posted March 26, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Tweaking electrons via the left index finger of a deity. It’s a lot of work and only a large, non-local particle finger could do the job.

  8. Werther
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    The God of the Gaps, indeed.

    • Shahin
      Posted October 31, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely not! Quantum non-determinism is NOT a gap in our knowledge, it IS The knowledge. We know that we cannot know the results of Quantum events beforehand and there is nothing in the physical universe that decides these results.

  9. Bubalus
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    I am afraid he is right, he CAN believe in all of those things, problem comes when everyone else requires evidence.

  10. Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Isn’t it incumbent on them to explain why God would act this way instead of on a more macroscopic level?

    Indeed. Especially since Polkinghorne appeals to our intuition that humans aren’t clockwork and yet interact with the universe – and we clearly do act on a macroscopic level. Why can’t God? Is he not all-powerful?

    It also occurs to me that there is another important fact overlooked by Polkinghorne and others who push the same idea. The way I understand the argument is that quantum-indeterminacy is what makes belief in an interacting God possible without God needing to break the laws of physics. But then why isn’t God affected by the same indeterminacy?

    If we accept that there is no way to determine the outcome of a quantum experiment beforehand, how can God know?

    If God doesn’t know, he wouldn’t know how to intervene to change the universe the way he wants to. Besides, it would mean that God is not all-knowing. So that’s not a possibility that helps a believer.

    If God can know, however, then the universe is predetermined after all. That would make God just as useless as he was in the clockwork universe. Alternatively, if the laws of quantum physics don’t apply to God, then God is still breaking the laws of physics.

    Either way, the God of the quantum gaps argument doesn’t do what its supporters want it to do.

    • Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Exactly.

    • Shahin
      Posted October 31, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      QM does not in any way contradict the concept of a God deciding the outcomes of individual quantum events. The only restriction that QM puts on the us, the observers is that we cannot possibly ever discover any mechanism through which WE could know the outcomes in advance. God would only need to make the overall average in accordance with QM because QM only tells us the averages.

  11. Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Who are you to question how the Holy Rabbit operates? :)

    (apologies to Miranda)

    • Tom Cohoe
      Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Funny!

      Ever hear of dialectic? Dialectic is the process whereby exchanges are made between people who want to find the truth. Rhetoric is a similar process in which each contender tries to win.

      Your comment is rhetorical.

      Now have you ever heard of ‘dialectical materialism’? That is a dialectical process (an honest search for truth) in which the materialist assumption (atheism) is made. It is the philosophical method of Marxism.

      Where can we go dialectically from the materialist assumption? Let’s see:

      There is nothing spiritual or supernatural. The universe evolves according to materialist laws of nature. The randomness of quantum mechanics expresses no supernatural intent, allows no free will, it is purposeless randomness. The sense we have free will is therefore just a delusion, we have no choice in our behavior. Since we have no choice in our behavior, we the idea that people deserve punishment or reward is false. Justice is a false idea. Any purpose of punishment, therefore, can only be exemplary, to prevent others from committing the same crime. The person punished, as already demonstrated, deserves punishment no more nor no less than anyone else. Therefore it does not matter if the person punished is the one who actually committed the crime, nor does it matter whether the crime was actually committed.

      Grab anyone, have a show trial, and punish him for a crime which may not even have been committed. This exemplary punishment (the means) serves to inhibit the crime in the population (the end).

      Marx, culturally imbued with Christian ethics, may never have gone there in his ‘science’. Marxist strongmen, on the other hand, always go there.

      All that is required to get there is the atheist assumption and honest reasoning.

  12. LeftBehind
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Maybe the Templeton foundation can fund a study of the effects of prayer on the decay rate of a lump of uranium.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted March 26, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      Of course religious folk are used to doing things ‘double blind’.

    • justsearching
      Posted March 27, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      God already did cause uranium (and a whole bunch of other radioactive isotopes) to decay at rates far quicker than seen today. It’s called the Flood! Lots of pressure and lots of water and lots of heat and lots of God and crazy things can happen at subatomic levels.

  13. ennui
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Quantum Electro Deity theory only carries 1/3 the charge of fine tuning arguments, IMO.

  14. Jonn Mero
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes, there are times when, in comparison, earthworms look like major contributors to knowledge and understanding, and this was such a one.
    No offence intended, earthworms.

  15. Andrew
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Bubalus said…

    “I am afraid he is right, he CAN believe in all of those things, problem comes when everyone else requires evidence.”

    This is exactly the right point. Polkinghorne and his ilk are content with endlessly speculating about what could be. Speculation is a means to an end, not an end itself. Theists don’t seem to get that.

  16. Greg
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    While it was mentioned previously, your wording is far too generous- they aren’t looking for evidence, they’re looking for gaps into which evidence could conceivably fit. This is then transmuted into evidence.

    As someone not strictly (but somewhat self-)educated in the philosophy of science, I am consistently amazed at what some scientists allow themselves to believe is ‘scientific’.

  17. Posted March 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    You know, the nice thing about Quantum Theology is that it finally provides a satisfying answer to Schrodinger’s Cat: If the cat was gay, it’s dead.

  18. oldfuzz
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    To quote Joe Biden, “This is a big F’n deal.”

    Could it be that the proof of a theistic god suggests there is a non-theistic god?

    • Hempenstein
      Posted March 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, now that it’s been divined that S/He’s meddling in physics, there must be an equal and opposite God.

  19. bigjohn756
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank God for quantum mechanics! It’s the answer to a Christian’s prayers.

  20. Peter Karim
    Posted March 27, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    There is quite a leap from the god of the quantum gaps to the one that rewards and punishes after death, abhors female sexuality while impregnating virgins… and so on. A leap of faith or a quantum leap I do not know, but one that Polkinghorne / Miller / Collins are yet to address.

  21. Jonn Mero
    Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Sure it isn’t ‘god of the gabs‘?

  22. Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    If God can intervene during quantum events then either quantum mechanics isn’t true or God is indistinguishable from pure randomness. For example, in the classic two slit experiment either God can intervene to make any interference pattern he likes, in which case the statistical outcomes predicted by the theory are false. Alternately God is constrained by the need for his interference to look completely random, with each outcome needing to appear to have a specific probability, as the quantum theory requires.

    • Neil
      Posted March 28, 2010 at 12:26 am | Permalink

      God might act randomly. In game theory it is called a mixed strategy and it is sometimes optimal.

    • Shahin
      Posted October 31, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Results of individual Quantum measurements ARE purely random and thats the whole theistic argument. In any quantum measurement the outcome is always ONE from a set of all the possible outcomes. But a decision IS made as to WHAT that outcome is in every individual measurement and because QM rules out the possibility of anything physical making this decision, there is something non-physical (i.e a theistic God), making these decisions.

  23. Duncan
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    I remember Polkinghorne coming to a meeting of the Cambridge Atheist and Agnostic Society; I was naturally quite excited – I like meeting intelligent and reasonable people who disagree with me, kinda makes life more interesting.

    It was a bit of a disappointment then when he ran the following two arguments; 1) we have reason to believe that there’s an intelligent creator in that the universe is such that we can understand it and make sense of it. The Likelihood that our minds having evolved to make sense of life here on Earth would be able to make sense of cosmology and quantum physics is unlikely unless the universe was designed with such appreciative comprehension in mind. 2) The universe is such that we cannot understand certain things about it – love, beauty, music – and only a superior being can account for these wonderful mysteries.

    On it’s own either of these arguments is decent, if a bit ‘meh’. But run them both together and it leaves the clear impression you can’t think your way out of a paper bag. I lost all respect for the man.

  24. Shahin
    Posted October 31, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thats amazing really I mean why dont you try give a scientific rebuttal to this priest/physicist’s claim instead of just plain rhetoric. If there is a God who just plays with subatomic particles then that God would also be as powerful and influential as any judeo-christian God. Besides, why do you forget that everything is made up of these same particles and QM IS valid for macroscopic bodies too. Its called the “Correspondence Principle”, i.e QM should give the same results as classical mechanics in cases where CM can be correctly applied.

    • TK401
      Posted August 1, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. Well said.

  25. Ray
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Such an intelligent, non dogmatic and impartially written article !
    My first thought was “what is the writer’s problem” ?


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  1. [...] Is your deity so wimpy that it has to work through quantum phenomena? [...]

  2. [...] Quantum physics again proves a theistic God Priest and accommodationist John Polkinghorne, previously a physicist at Cambridge University, and author of some of the most muddled apologetics I’ve ever read, gets interviewed by In Character. [...]

  3. [...] You can have the really bad arguments, like the one from personal experience or something involving quantum mechanics. Or you can have some good arguments that discuss the various proofs or lack thereof. Or you can [...]

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