Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part IV: Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics makes absolutely no sense. Basically, small particles act differently depending on whether they are being watched, either by a conscious human being or a detector machine (even if the detector is turned on after it has acted). I’m not going to rehash how we know, but the more details you get the more mind blowing it is (Brian Greene’s book The Elegant Universe has the best easy read description of said details). More and more refined experiments continue to close possible loopholes, so it looks like the crazy is true (despite, among other people, Albert Einstein spending the last half of his life trying to prove it false). 

If you said that particles behave this way back before we had evidence for it people would have thought you were nuts which, a priori, should make us more humble about the possibilities in the universe. One of the less sophisticated “atheist bro” arguments points out that our every day life works according to some principle, and some religious belief violates that principle (“how can Mary get pregnant as a virgin? Check mate!”), when on a meta level quantum mechanics teaches us that our everyday operating principles are most certainly not accurate guides for peeling back layers of reality. If quantum mechanics reveals a counterintuitive reality we can measure, how much more counterintive can layers of reality be that we can’t measure? (And yes, I know that quantum mechanics is a highly developed and tested science and virgin births aren’t, but that’s a separate issue).

Additionally, perhaps because the weirdness of quantum mechanics has led to a lot of woo woo, some secularists are often eager to point out that quantum mechanics is just a par for the course scientific mechanistic worldview, but it’s really not.

If it’s atoms all the way down, and my conscious brain or a sophisticated photon detector is also fundamentally just a bunch of atoms in a particular arrangement, there’s no a priori reason why those arrangements should change the present and past actions of a particle without actually touching or otherwise directly influencing them. Quantum mechanics teaches us that abstract, non-physical concepts like “awareness,” whether by us or the detector, are fundamental to the universe, so in a sense we have already scientifically disproven the super physicalist notion that on the most fundamental level there’s nothing more special about one grouping of atoms than another, since we know that certain configurations of atoms can change the nature of reality. Ultimately, I believe quantum mechanics provides us a peek into the reality that is so much richer and capacious with possibility (including religious ones) than anything we could have imagined before.

9 comments for “Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part IV: Quantum Mechanics

  1. Thanks, Stephen. I’ve been listening to a lot of pop cosmology lately (Sagan, Hawking, Tyson, Carroll, Kaku, Musser) and have been having some similar reactions. I’m enjoying your posts.

  2. >Quantum mechanics teaches us that abstract, non-physical concepts like “awareness,” whether by us or the detector.

    I was unaware of any experiments which indicated collapse of the waveform function without any physical interaction.

    Can you point some out

  3. @ jpv:

    All of them. The detector does not physically pressure the photon into one or the other slit, it just “observes” (what “observation” or “awareness” is exactly is obviously a difficult question).

    This point is especially made in the “delayed choice” experiments where the quantum effects operate at faster than the speed of light, indicating that it’s not a matter of physical interaction since those can’t operate faster than the speed of light (

  4. It may be atoms (or quarks or quantum foam) all the way down, but it does not appear to be that way all the way up. In other words, quantum interactions stay at that level from what we have so far observed. Scaling that up to behavior in our reality seems to not have any basis or would require a statistical absurdity.

    I get nervous sometimes when we speculate that because of this phenomenon or that unresolved problem it leads to some kind of likely evidence/proof of the divine. It’s just that these things tend to fall apart upon more detailed examination. All I can draw from what we know (and what I understand of it) is sort of what Moses did: the universe is more complicated than I thought, humankind knows less than we supposed.

  5. It’s not so much proof of the divine, but rather evidence of the incompleteness of the super physicalist perspective I described, and there is certainly space between those two views. Very much agree with its irrelevance in our day-to-day life; I am not, for example, one of those people that thinks that quantum effects affect the operation of our cognition or is the source of our free will. However, this is not so much an “unresolved problem,” as the role of the observer has been clearly demonstrated experimentally, although I very much agree that “the universe is more complicated than I thought, humankind knows less than we supposed.”

  6. Thanks for the insight. I’ve often pondered the concept in the Book of Abraham, where once the gods command, they wait for the elements to obey. Is this an ancient way of saying that observing sub atomic particles influences them?

  7. Perhaps the “lesson to be learned” (if there is such a thing) from quantum mechanics is twofold: 1) what we consider normal and obvious depends rather strongly on the situation. In particular, as our frame of reference changes from macro to micro to nano, the universe becomes different things, with different apparent rules take precedence. 2) there is still a lot that we don’t understand about the universe in all its complexity, and it behooves us to be at least a bit humble about our accomplishments. When I was in grad school, my research advisor likened the situation of a research scientist to a mountain climber. As you climb higher and higher, it’s easy to feel pretty good about all the mountain that you’ve conquered. However, as you look out away from your immediate path, you see farther and farther away the higher you climb. So it is in research: the more you learn, the more you realize there is to be learned, and you’ve only gotten to know a tiny part of what’s out there.

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