Toward a quantum theology

For presentation to the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church

2007 November 9


Typology and context


I will begin by outlining an alliterative three-part typology for the dialog between theology and science.  Such dialog may consist of conflict, conversation, or construction, which represent three markers along a continuum, rather than rigid types.  In conflict, the two are essentially claiming that no meaningful communication is either possible or useful.  In conversation, theology and science recognize themselves as independent and non-overlapping arenas of authority.  It is in construction that science and theology recognize legitimate overlap in concepts, and seek to use the tools and language of both to explore the nature of reality.  (Polkinghorne and Peacocke call this approach consonance.  I prefer construction because I believe that it will take serious work to overcome language and methodological differences between science and theology.) 


Three potentially fruitful areas for construction are:


·         The overlap between the study of quantum phenomena and process theology

·         The question of creation/origins

·         The nature of consciousness and “top down causation.” 


I will focus on the first of these, but will pay some attention to the second.  I will also suggest that answering the third is essential if we are fully to understand the first two. In doing the work of construction, we must take care to avoid arguing from nature to theology – an argument from design convinces only those who already believe.  We must also guard against setting up for ourselves a “god of the gaps” – that which is unexplained today may well find explanation tomorrow.


Process and quantum mechanics


Process thinking traces its roots to the work of philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead and to theologian Charles Hartshorne. Rather than viewing reality as a series of interactions between enduring discrete objects, it places primacy in the interactions themselves, positing a universe of becoming rather than one of being.  A particular event is influenced by its predecessor and adjacent events – in the language of process, the actual event is said to prehend those other events which contribute to its occurrence. We could trace an ever widening chain of influence into the distant past, as well as forward into the distant future. Further, the way to understand reality is holistic rather than reductionist.

Past events





Physicists will recognize a schematic representation of this notion as the ubiquitous Minkowski diagrams of special relativity, or their close cousins, the Feynman diagrams of quantum physics. Thus, all events are potentially interrelated, and the world is to be viewed holistically rather than by focusing on isolated objects. 


In Whitehead’s development of these ideas, God is seen as the ultimate event, interacting at all levels with all of creation, participating in all emergent becoming.  Notice that this is a picture of God arrived at by starting with metaphysics, rather than a God revealed.  This God is the divine persuader rather than cosmic conjuror.


In quantum mechanics, what we can know is carried by a spatially distributed and temporally evolving wave function, usually designated as Y.  While the wave function can in principle be determined exactly, the information it carries is the probability of a particular event rather than the event itself.  In a certain sense, the events have no existence until an observer forces the collapse of the wave function.  And, because of the distributed nature of Y, the outcome of a particular measurement or observation can only be determined within some range.  Pairs of possible measurements turn out to be canonically related so that it is impossible to simultaneously know both with precision.  This so called Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle limits our simultaneous knowledge of position and momentum, energy and duration, angular momentum and orientation, etc.  Originally proposed as a limit on our capacity for experimental precision, it now seems that this is a fundamental limitation on nature itself.  At the quantum level, the world is intrinsically fuzzy.  Invoking the language of Minkowski diagrams, the forward and backward light cones cannot cross at a point in space-time; rather, they overlap in a finite region, whose shape and size depend on what is being measured. 






Notice that this suggests a weakness in the process approach, i.e. that Whitehead’s discrete actual events appear to have little or no meaning when we examine the underlying physical reality.  If they exist, they are “fuzzy” – i.e. distributed over both space and time.  Further, since there doesn’t appear to be anything like a quantum of either time or space, the whole notion of a discrete event seems to evaporate.


Yet, in another sense, the evolving wave function fits right in with the notion of process, not in its details but certainly in the priority of becoming over being, so that it is tempting to draw a connection between Whitehead’s act of prehension and quantum theory’s act of observation or measurement.  In process models, each concrete event is given existence only by being influenced by other concrete events.  In quantum mechanics, it is the process of observing which gives events their reality.   


The “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics tells us that the observation “collapses the wave function” to its measured outcome.  However, since the wave function is extended over space and time, this collapse would have to take place instantaneously lest we get the impossible result of observing simultaneously a particle in two distinctly different states.  Yet, according to well tested results from relativity, no information can travel at greater than the speed of light. (Formally, this limitation applies to the group velocity of Y, not its phase velocity.)  The Copenhagen interpretation has become, uncomfortably to be sure, the majority viewpoint.  Thought experiments proposed to falsify this notion (e.g. Schroedinger’s cat, or the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox), have led to real experiments, which have shown that the wave function indeed has the ascribed “spooky action at a distance” character which so disturbed Einstein.


But, who or what is doing the measurement?  Some have taken the almost postmodern position that reality is constructed by each observer; the ultimate in solipsism!  Whitehead ascribes “feeling” even at the level of individual electrons, giving all of reality both a physical and a mental pole.  At the least, this interpretation seems to require the existence of a conscious observer somewhere (and “some when”) in the universe for that universe to exist at all, at least in the quantum sense.  Notice here, that the meaning of to observe is not the same as to see.  The limiting speed of light means that what we see is not a simultaneous cross-section of the universe (the eye, or camera, or telescope, or Whitehead’s actual event) records what happens at its own location.  We must extrapolate back in time (into the light cone) to determine the state of the world at a particular time.  And, that determination is frame dependent – since time is relative, the state of the world at a given moment will depend on the observer’s location and motion relative to the rest of the universe.


Here we need to get a clearer picture of what we mean by time and simultaneity.  In the Minkowski diagram - reduced to a single spatial dimension and time - for a given reference frame, simultaneous events are found located on lines parallel to the spatial axis.  Similarly, lines parallel to the time axis (expressed in spatial units to simplify the diagram) represent the trajectories in spacetime of objects which are at rest.  Light travels along diagonals, at 45º to both axes.  A moving clock which passes the origin at t = 0 will have a world line within the forward light cone, and the requirement that the speed of light be the same for all observers requires that simultaneous events for that observer form a locus which is outside the light cone, but making the same angle with its envelope as our moving clock’s world line.








Events within the light cone can be causally connected to the origin.  Events outside the light cone cannot.  Further, for those events outside the light cone, not only is simultaneity not absolutely determined without reference to a particular observer, even the ordering in time of those events is not preserved.




Creation and origins


In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking proposes a seemingly self-contained universe in which there is no truly temporal beginning, his so-called “no boundary condition.”  He then asks, rhetorically, “What need for a creator?” 


Now, theologians divide the doctrine of creation into two forms, that of God’s initial creation of the universe (creatio originans), and the continuing sustenance of the universe (creatio continuans).  In the first form we seek to construct theories of the Big Bang which are consonant with theology.  It is the second form in which we seek to address with process thought and quantum mechanics.  It is clear that Hawking was referring only to the first form, i.e. the question of origins. 


What is the Big Bang?  Einstein’s general theory of relativity tells us that the universe cannot be static.  Observational evidence accumulated since the 1920s tells us that the universe is actually expanding.  If we extrapolate that expansion back in time, we come to the conclusion that it had a beginning as a singularity of spacetime, imperfectly described as a single point.


Returning to the need for an observer some where and some when in order for the physical world as described by quantum mechanics, we ask again … who or what is the observer?  I suggest that it would be hubris to assume that we are the observer, i.e. that the universe exists because we are here.  (This begs the question of what the universe was doing before we evolved!)  Rather, that it is God’s presence and participation in every event that makes God both the Ultimate Observer and the omnipresent, continuous Creator.  This God is simultaneous with every event, but that simultaneity expresses itself neither as some universal instant of time, nor as a “block universe” in which past and present are no different than future.  Unlike Augustine’s transcendent God who stands outside of time, this God is immanent and intimate.  As the universe of events unfolds, this God “calls” it into becoming at each point of spacetime.


How are we to understand this divine omnipresence?  Recall two pictures:  All that can influence (participate in) any event lies in its backward light cone.  All that can be influenced by a given event lies in its forward light cone.


From the singularity of the Big Bang, there is only a forward light cone.  God’s participation in that act of creation alone places God in the backward light cone of the entire universe.  God’s ongoing participation in process gives reality to the world of observation.  Even if Hawking is right about the no boundary condition, the concept of creatio continua is preserved.


Divine Action


I have touched on the first and second of the questions raised at the beginning of this talk.  Process has led us to both original and continuing creation (what we might call God the Creator, and God the Sustainer).  Quantum mechanics leads us to picture that creation as God’s participation in and observation of events, collapsing the wave function into what we see as becoming reality. 


We have not addressed the mechanism – how does God interact with the world?  This is a question beyond the scope of this talk, but let me suggest some analogies with the so called mind-body problem.  The emergence of higher levels of order from complex systems, especially those which are far from equilibrium, is not uncommon in physics.  For example, a differentially heated layer of fluid can self-organize into hexagonal convection cells.  Life itself is seen to emerge from chemistry, which is emergent from atomic physics, which emerges from quantum mechanics applied to electrons and nuclei, and so on to the level of quarks.  Some neuroscientists have taken a purely reductionist stance, claiming that the mind is nothing more than an emergent phenomenon of the brain.  Free will, they will claim citing a causal chain from the micro level to emergent awareness, is an illusion.  Yet, what causal chain explains my choice to act in a particular way, or to have creative thoughts?  Somehow, this “emergent” phenomenon is exerting influence back down the chain!  I suggest that emergence is just another label for process.  We have seen that events interact and, in a sense, make each other.  Events of mind and body must be viewed holistically – a person is a psychosomatic whole rather than a duality of matter and spirit. Similarly, the created order must be seen as holistically emergent from God.


George Spagna

Randolph-Macon College

Suggested further readings:


      Religion in an Age of Science”

                              Ian Barbour, 1990

      “The Fire in the Equations”

Kitty Ferguson, 1994

      “Belief in God in an Age of Science”

                              John Polkinghorne, 1998

      “God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics”

                                    Mark William Worthing, 1996

      “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life”

                              Stephen Jay Gould, 1999

      “Paths from Science Towards God”

                              Arthur Peacocke, 2001

      “Concepts of Simultaneity”

                              Max Jammer, 2006

      “Quantum Physics and Theology”

                              John Polkinghorne, 2007