Science is too often milked for pseudo-insights into non-science.  How many times a day does someone announce that “Einstein showed everything is relative” even though he didn’t and was in fact annoyed by the popular belief that he had?  Cosmic fine-tuning, the Big Bang, the concept of “energy,” and biological complexity have all been hijacked to support magical or religious beliefs.  Whole books have been written misconstruing quantum physics in support of religious ideas, including Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics.  Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller (a vocal opponent of intelligent-design creationism) once declared quantum indeterminacy “a key feature of the mind of God” (Finding Darwin’s God, p. 213).  But is it?

All efforts to find support for religious beliefs in the physical sciences are, I believe, deeply mistaken, but I admit to having wavered once or twice when it comes to quantum physics and traditional Christian theology. The temptation is, from a certain point of view, severe.  Consider first the deliberately irresolvable assertions of ancient Christian theology: three divine “persons” who are somehow absolutely One, yet also Three, yet also One.  Also the doctrine of the Incarnation, which declares Christ both God and human, dual in nature—yet also single in nature, not a body possessed by a deity.  No wonder some progressive religious moderns have quietly switched to more reasonable beliefs. Thomas Jefferson said it with classic nineteenth-century pith:

It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. If it could be understood it would not answer their purpose. Their security is in their faculty of shedding darkness, like the cuttlefish . . . [Letter to John Adams, 1813, and letter to Van Der Kamp, 1816.]  [1]

In my own communion (Anglican/Episcopalian), the trend toward Jeffersonian reasonableness was (according to my very slight knowledge of the history) set back by the Oxford Movement of the 1830s and 1840s, but seems to have been gaining ground of late.  I have heard of an Episcopal church that does not recite the Nicene Creed, the central trinitarian utterance of Christianity, in order to avoid offending Unitarians (who were originally named for their rejection of the Trinity).  I recently heard a retired Episcopalian professor of theology remark in passing, as if stating a plain fact, that modern science has “ruled out the dual nature of Christ.”


Dual Nature.  (Near Walden Pond, 1998. Photo by author.)

On one side, then, trinitarian Abracadabra.  On the other, a century of quantum physics.  We now know, for example, that all objects are dual in nature, both particle and wave.  (Physicists still debate the deep ontology of the “wave function” and other quantum terms, but I hope I am offering a reasonable paraphrase of certain basics.)  In the famous two-slit experiment, electrons are fired at a card with two slits in it; some hit the card, some pass through the slits.  Beyond the card stands a piece of photographic film to record the impact of individual electrons.  Each electron behaves like a tiny, localized particle when it strikes the photographic film, exposing just a tiny dot.  Yet each electron also behaves like a spread-out wave while it is passing through the slits, for it “interferes” with itself on the far side: picture a wave washing at the same time through two front windows of a half-flooded house and making a complex pattern of ripples in the living room.  This is called an “interference pattern.”  Each single electron must be interfering with itself, like a wave, as it passes through the slitted card, for the dots on the photographic film, if one accumulates enough of them, form an interference pattern.   Each individual dot on the film says that an electron is a particle-like object, but the pattern of dots says that an electron is a wave-like object.   Electrons are, in fact, a mixed, both-at-once something that is not perfectly picturable by the human mind.  To paraphrase Jefferson, two is one, and one is two; and yet the one is not two, and two are not one.  Nor is this doubleness restricted to subatomic particles.  Similar experiments have demonstrated wave-particle duality for individual molecules containing 430 atoms each, millions of times more massive than an electron. [2]  A sufficiently large, sensitive experimental setup could, there is little doubt, measure the duality of you, me, or the Sun. Moreover, the wave aspect of all objects means that there is no such thing as a precise location: probabilistically, everything is everywhere.  In the microelectronic devices known as tunnel diodes, the non-locality of electrons is put to practical use.

We could go on piling up the gee-whizzes of quantum entanglement and other head-bending wonders, but the point is already made: Science shows that certain ubiquitous aspects of physical reality are unpicturable by our minds.  We can do the math that describes those aspects of reality, but are constitutionally incapable of forming complete and accurate mental pictures, the kind one could draw on paper, of the primordial world-stuff that the math is about.  Our imaginations are incurably classical, the world only approximately so.  Yet we cannot do without our images of “particles” and “waves,” even knowing that the reality is not exactly either.

Sound familiar?

Not that quantum physics proves a ding-dong thing about Christian theology or eastern mysticism.  But it does show that if anybody harrumphs that a thing cannot be “real” (whatever that means) if it will not stand still and be photographed like a sensible proper object, will not declare that it is either A or B, here or there, one thing or another, because that’s simply how real things must be, they are slap wrong.  I think it fair to say that physics has definitely curtailed, in certain respects, the working domain of what might be called the commonsense style, which Jefferson assumed was the style of reality itself.  The very electrons in your thumb jeer at the notion that something cannot be everywhere at once or two different sorts of thing at once.

Funky deep physics thus provides a sort of serendipitous rhyme for the Trinitarian style.  Inconsistent images of unpicturable realities are now workaday tools, not a monopoly of priestly cuttlefish.  Heisenberg may, in effect, grant some religious people permission to be a little less cognitively tight-ass, less cowed by Jefferson’s demand for a “distinct idea.”  If so, he returns the favor that religious mysticism did for him in the late 1920s, when he met and conversed with Bengali mystic Rabindranath Tagore.  According to Fritjof Capra, Heisenberg said later:

After these conversations with Tagore, some of the ideas [being developed in quantum physics] that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me. [3]

Perhaps, just as mystical religion once helped Heisenberg reconcile his feelings to the weirdness of physical reality, the weirdness of physical reality may open a space of increased plausibility for mystical religion.  If so, fine.  But we must take care.  What is offered in either direction is a sense of permission, a feeling, not a chain of evidence.  Science and religion really are distinguishable.  Science is about coordinating exact mental models with observables, whereas religion (to risk a simple definition) is about being gripped by the transcendent and holy Other.  Creeds are not theories nor theories creeds.  The claim, often voiced by creationists, that “science is also a form of faith” (e.g., because scientists have “faith” in the existence of natural laws) is a shallow play on words, another botched equivalence.  Science is not faithlike in any meaningful sense, nor the reverse.

There are complications, of course.  If by a “religious” statement we mean any claim having religious significance for the person making it, then religious statements not only can conflict with science, but often do: as, for example, when young-Earth creationists assert that Adam and Eve consorted with dinosaurs.  But only religious statements about observables can contradict science, because science has nothing to say about what cannot be observed.  (“Observed” does not here have anything to do with seeing things with our own eyes: everything in the physical world about which we can gather information, directly or indirectly, is an “observable” in the scientific sense, including quantum phenomena that we cannot even visualize.)

A thoughtful religious challenge might be mounted to what I’ve said so far, something like this: Are there really no theological insights to be had from quantum physics, cosmology, information theory, or evolutionary biology?  Is science irrelevant to religion?  Is it even conceivable that Maker and Made reveal nothing about each other?

In some sense, no.  If there is a creating God, then the world must in some sense be the (or a) self-revelation of that God.  But science is not the world itself, that many-splendored Something that springs from Shiva’s dancing feet: it is an intellectual construct erected to describe, in operable, preferably mathematical terms, whatever can be materially observed. Its most powerful, characteristic expressions depend on mathematical symbols empty of qualities: to write v for velocity is to dismiss everything about what is moving (a baby thrown from a window, say) except what can be stated in that form.

But when Christians say that Christ was both “God” and “man,” their symbols are characterized not by algebraic emptiness but by sacred fullness.  They are not minimal but inexhaustible.  Doctrinal statements employing such terms do not offer a testable explanatory model, a theory as in science, but are uttered as part of an encounter with the divine that includes history, worship, doubt, doctrine, scripture, church, art, song, thought, prayer, grief, joy, and indeed the whole self, both private and extended.  So with all theological statements.  In particular, the “three” of trinitarian theology is not a counting number, the integer that follows 2 and precedes 4, for that would make it a sort of measurement or data point; but God, as most believers have asserted, is not a thing and therefore not measurable.  The built-in contradictions of trinitarian theology are constructed precisely to preserve the sacredly full, non-numerical quality of the Christian “three” and “one”: to preserve us from the disaster of imagining that we have seen God’s face and lived.  Or measured it.

A successful scientific statement gives us a better grip on observable reality.  A successful religious statement gives the Holy a better grip on us.  Certain statements of one class may sometimes offer to certain statements of the other a sort of stylistic permission (or, conversely, discouragement) to exist; but no more.  A great deal of well-meaning but unhelpful religious writing has been based on the belief that one can use statements of one class to support or generate statements of the other.  But one can’t.





[1] .   I have not verified these quotations from full texts.


[3]  Fritjof Capra, Conversations with Remarkable People, Simon and Schuster, 1988, p. 43.