After a year of total dormancy, the Templeton Foundation has resurrected its Big Questions Online site, so we can expect it to disgorge gobs of fuzzy accommodationism until the End Times arrive.
One of the latest is a piece called “Does quantum physics make it easier to believe in God?” It’s by Stephen M. Barr, a professor of physics at the University of Delaware who writes frequently on science and religion. His Wikipedia bio notes that “In 2007, he was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI. In 2010, he was elected a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology.” We can presume, then, that Barr is a Catholic.
So it’s not surprising that the answer to his question is “Yes, quantum physics does make it easier to believe in God.” (Would you expect any other answer on a Templeton site?) It boils down to the fact that, according to Barr, quantum mechanics (QM) shows that the human mind is independent of pure materialism, which he calls an “atheistic philosophy”:
Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities — if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”
Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things. No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism — at least with regard to the human mind — is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being … including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.”
Now bear with me since this isn’t my area of expertise, but the whole woo-ish conclusion of Barr’s piece rests on the “observer effect” in QM made famous by Schrödinger’s cat. I had thought that this didn’t need to involve a human mind: that a machine could also be the observer that collapses a wave function, but Barr says that this ain’t so:
Thus, the traditional view is that the probabilities in quantum mechanics — and hence the “wavefunction” that encodes them — refer to the state of knowledge of some “observer”. (In the words of the famous physicist Sir James Jeans, wavefunctions are “knowledge waves.”) An observer’s knowledge — and hence the wavefunction that encodes it — makes a discontinuous jump when he/she comes to know the outcome of a measurement (the famous “quantum jump”, traditionally called the “collapse of the wave function”). But the Schrödinger equations that describe any physical process do not give such jumps! So something must be involved when knowledge changes besides physical processes.
An obvious question is why one needs to talk about knowledge and minds at all. Couldn’t an inanimate physical device (say, a Geiger counter) carry out a “measurement”? That would run into the very problem pointed out by von Neumann: If the “observer” were just a purely physical entity, such as a Geiger counter, one could in principle write down a bigger wavefunction that described not only the thing being measured but also the observer. And, when calculated with the Schrödinger equation, that bigger wave function would not jump! Again: as long as only purely physical entities are involved, they are governed by an equation that says that the probabilities don’t jump.
But what if one refuses to accept this conclusion, and maintains that only physical entities exist and that all observers and their minds are entirely describable by the equations of physics? Then the quantum probabilities remain in limbo, not 0 and 100% (in general) but hovering somewhere in between. They never get resolved into unique and definite outcomes, but somehow all possibilities remain always in play. One would thus be forced into what is called the “Many Worlds Interpretation” (MWI) of quantum mechanics.
Barr reaches a bold conclusion: unless you acccept the MWI (under which wave functions don’t collapse, so observers aren’t required, but every quantum event creates a new universe, yielding elebenty gazillion of them), you’re forced to the ineluctable conclusion that there is dualism: the mind is independent of matter and can influence matter. Right up Templeton’s alley!:
The upshot is this: If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.
If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws. It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?
Now I’m no physicist, but this sounded pretty strange to me. For one thing, dualism doesn’t imply an ultimate Mind, much less one that decrees that a cracker turns into Jesus on Sunday and that homosexual behavior is a “grave disorder.” So I wrote to Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance fame—my go-to physicist on claims like this—and he gave me permission to reproduce his emailed answer. As you might expect, he wasn’t wild about Barr’s piece:
I hadn’t heard this specific argument before, but it’s a natural one to make, in a God-of-the-gaps fashion: quantum mechanics is hard to make sense of, therefore maybe God. The only thing raising it above the level of that would be the specific suggestion that somehow conscious minds play an important role in QM. This is indeed something that some of the pioneers considered, but that has largely fallen out of favor since then (not that it was ever very favorable). Note that Barr is not quoting modern researchers in the foundations of QM, but a litany of dead physicists (Wigner, Peierls, von Neumann, Jeans). Great men all, but we know more now than we did then. In particular, we understand what makes wave functions seem to “collapse”—the process of decoherence, by which detailed information in the wave function is lost through interactions with a complex environment. A conscious mind would count as a complex environment, but so would the air in your room. As usual in this game, as we understand things better the apparent need for a divine assist disappears. That’s not to say we completely understand the measurement problem, but the “God interpretation” of QM is not a leading contender among modern thinkers.
As far as ontological commitments of the Many-Worlds Interpretation are concerned, I wrote about that mistake here. Shorter version: it’s not a proliferation of objects (including universes) that should count as uneconomical, but a proliferation of concepts, especially vague ones. Near the end of my post I used the example of theologian Richard Swinburne:
“The most egregious version of this mistake has to belong to Richard Swinburne, an Oxford theologian and leading figure in natural theology, who makes fun of the many-worlds interpretation but is happy to accept a completely separate, unobservable, ill-defined metaphysical category into his ontology.”
It would appear that Barr’s version is equally egregious.
Thanks to Sean for dissecting the piece. As I suspected, it’s the usual Templetonian pablum about how science gives evidence for God. Stay tuned for more of the same from Big Questions Online.