Quantum physics and philosophy 

Berkeley, a philosopher from the 18th century, was an idealist – the direct opposite of materialism. He believed that matter is really mind, that nothing exists unless it is being observed and that everything remains in existence because it is being observed by one Mind.

Scoff you might, as have many others; yet 200 years later in the 20th century, quantum physics told us that on the most basic level we know of, all physical things depend on a measurement by an observer.

To explain change, 2300 years ago Aristotle posited the idea of potentialities as a kind of halfway house between existence and non-existence.

Halfway between existence and non-existence? Yeah right, Aristotle . Except that quantum physics ultimately describes material things as being probability functions. 

Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, describes things this way in his book “Physics and Philosophy”:

The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Slater… was a quantitative version of the old concept of “potentia” in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.

A few caveats are in order here. Philosophy and science ask very different types of questions and it is a mistake to let one overly bias the other. Philosophical positions such as idealism and Aristotelian dualism are supposed to work regardless of the underlying empirical details. Not to mention that idealism and Aristotelian dualism are very different ways of thinking; they can’t both be true.

Nevertheless is is clear how quantum physics could bias people towards a non-materialist philosophy, in the same way that classical physics might bias people towards materialism. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how science could give a bigger free kick to non-materialist philosophy than quantum physics.

The main lesson to learn from quantum physics is this: science is not going to support anyone’s worldview in any straightforward sense. Nature is too strange for that.

How to talk about God and science

How should we talk about God and science? Can science tell us anything about whether or not God exists? To answer this question I will look at two areas of science; one is commonly linked with atheism while the other is often taken as evidence for God.

Evolution

It’s hard to overstate the hold that the theory of evolution has on the Western mind. For Christians and atheists alike, think science and you think evolution; think evolution and you think atheism. It’s almost a Pavlovian response. But the theory of evolution is about species evolving from a common ancestor, not about God or atheism. So what is the link between the two?

If it is that we can’t specifically see God in the evolution of giraffes (or whatever), this is no different from saying there is no God because when we drop something on the ground it’s gravity. 

Is it that science has filled a “gap” and it’s only a matter of time before the other gaps are filled? This either/or approach to God and science is a recent invention, and would have seemed bizarre to religious scholars, philosophers and ordinary believers alike outside the modern West. Not to mention that it assumes a limitless science; unconstrained by technological limitations or human brainpower.

Is it that evolution disproves creationism – in other words, it disproves one interpretation of one chapter of one document of one holy book held by some of the followers of one religion? But that is far from disproving God overall. There are concepts of God that are far different than that of the creationist. There could be a religion somewhere with evolution baked into it from the start. Does that mean the god of that religion exists? Surely not.

So it is clear that if you think, like Richard Dawkins, that evolution enables you to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”, it is not evolution doing the work here, but the preconceived ideas that you bring to the theory.

Fine-tuning

Let’s look at another example: fine-tuning. This is the idea that the constants of physics are highly precise, such that if they changed very slightly, life would not be possible. For example, if the strength of gravity was even a tiny bit different, the stars and planets could not have formed. The science behind this seems solid, leading some to posit God as the explanation for fine-tuning.

But why God, specifically? Why not Reincarnated Steve Jobs [1] or Five-Dimensional Goldfish On Mars? It is because you think God is plausible for other reasons, while Reincarnated Steve Jobs isn’t. So again, we see that it’s not the science of fine-tuning doing the work, but your preconceived ideas doing the work.

Can science tell us about God? Remember, science is not a thing; rather, it is a term of convenience for a diverse range of fields. So let’s break it down. Can geology tell us about God? No, because God is not a rock. Can biology tell us about God? No, because God is not an animal or plant. Can astronomy tell us about God? No, because God is not a star or planet. So it goes for the other sciences.

This is not to say that science should never be used to support a non-scientific position, just that science by itself cannot do so. If you do want to use science as evidence for God or for atheism, be very clear about what the science is telling you versus what your preconceived ideas are telling you, or you will end up with a simplistic position that misinterprets the science.

***

[1] Reincarnated Steve Jobs is a real thing. I hadn’t realised.