The Theological Implications of Quantum Mechanics

When an archaeologist finds an artifact, be it a cave drawing, tool, pottery, or something else, they may try to discern something about the artisan or their community. They can study the artifact in detail and make inferences based on their own knowledge and perspective since they are a hominid as well. Something similar can occur in theology. With God as creator, the artifact is the universe and everything in it. Can theology discern or infer something about God by examining these artifacts? The idea of natural or general revelation says, yes. By studying what is going on in the universe and how it appears to be constituted, the theologian can come up with speculations about God and God’s activity. There can be many resources available for this study but here I want to talk about physics and particularly quantum physics. I’ll focus on some of the main features of quantum mechanics that might have theological implications. However, before we take a look at quantum mechanics, we need to examine some theological presuppositions that affect how and what theological implications could be drawn.

The first presupposition that shapes implications is the theological choice of God’s relationship to how reality is constituted. Unfortunately (in my view) the predominant model both among science-minded individuals and most religious thinkers is that reality gets constituted through laws and chance.  If this model is chosen, then there are two main alternatives for a theology of God and God’s relationship to the world.

First, there is deism. Deism says that God created the world and with it the laws of nature but then has nothing else to do with it.  Then there is what I call a neo-deism where God creates the world and the autonomic process and just sustains them. An analogy could be like a superintendent in an apartment building, keeping the air-conditioning and water working but never getting involved beyond that extent. If this theology is chosen, any theological implications are extremely limited. Essentially it says that God set up the laws of nature and then let them do their thing without further engagement. With this position things like free will, meaning, objective value (morality) and other existential issues are vacuous because reality is essentially an autonomic system, just doing its thing.

Then, of course, there is the overriding supernatural model where God intervenes and overrides the laws at various times for some divine reason. So, things just hum along in their autonomic fashion but at times God chooses to step in and override them. With this, we get “miraculous” events that violate the natural order. This also means that agents with free will also have overriding supernatural abilities to overcome the causal forces of necessity and chance that normally constitute things. This particular model has fallen out of favor with many theologians and for good reason. It presents a messy model that isn’t friendly with scientific empiricism.

With these two models, quantum mechanics isn’t much of an artifact to examine because God isn’t active with them. However, later in the essay, I’ll offer an alternative model (a divine idealism) to these that is science-friendly but also allows for non-overriding features we intuitively hold dear (free will, meaning, objective value, purpose, etc.). In this alternative model, the artifact of quantum mechanics can be a rich resource for theological implications.

First, for those who may not be familiar with quantum mechanics, I’ll offer a brief history and an examination of features in quantum mechanics that could have theological implications.

After Isaac Newton created his formulations about motion and gravity, there was a general consensus that reality is like a clockwork, just doing what it does in a mechanical fashion. There were invariant, autonomic laws that governed everything.

When quantum mechanics enters the picture there was a dramatic departure from that clockwork, deterministic view. It introduced phenomena that are hard to understand and sometimes seem, “weird” but nonetheless confirmed by experiments.

Features that may have theological implications
To be clear, there are many interpretations of quantum mechanics. So, why are there interpretations instead of straightforward empirical theories? One might call this the “rabbit hole” problem. Science deals with observables. The question is how far down the rabbit hole the observables can go such that an answer follows. With quantum mechanics there are limits. The large Hadron collider is an example of trying to probe deeper and deeper with higher energies such that more complete explanations can be postulated. Since there are limitations, if science is to offer explanations or new theories it must turn to interpretations that speculated further down the rabbit hole.

 Also, there is the problem of reductionism. Quantum mechanics originated in the study of very small phenomena like that of photons and electrons. This was necessary because that was where quantum features could be readily investigated.  At larger scales (macroscopic levels), while quantum mechanics still applies, at that level of complexity it is very difficult to study. As systems become more complex with many variables it is difficult to assess what is going on at fundamental levels.  

Now, some interpretations are deterministic like Bohmian mechanics. In others like the strange many-worlds theory, every quantum event creates a new world. I won’t discuss these here.  Instead, I’ll focus on basic, well-established features and their models that could have theological implications.

In 1926, Erwin Schrödinger postulated his now famous Schrödinger equation. Since then, it has become a bedrock equation for quantum mechanics.  It describes the evolution of what is called the wavefunction. It is time-independent and deterministic but only represents possible actualities. Superposition means that all these possible states are present simultaneously. To use an electron position as an example, the electron is everywhere (within the wavefunction description) potentially but not actually anywhere yet. It takes what is called a measurement to make something actual. The term often used is the collapse of the wavefunction.

Indeterminacy (Uncertainty):
Around the same time Schrödinger was developing his equation, Werner Heisenberg was working on what became known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It states that “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be predicted from initial conditions, and vice versa.” Essentially this means there is indeterminism. Now except for the hidden variables or the many-worlds interpretations, this indeterminism isn’t due to a lack of knowledge but is intrinsic to how reality is constituted.

While the wavefunction describes the evolution of possible outcomes, it can’t predict what will actually occur with an individual measurement. Only the probability of a certain measurement outcome could be calculated. Unlike with Newton, the present and future are not totally determined by the past. Both the present and the future depend on what gets actualized among possibilities.

The Probability Distribution:
In 1926, Max Born came up with a formulation (the Born Rule) for how to calculate the probabilities in quantum mechanics. Essentially it states there is a probability density of finding a particle at a given point. What this also means is that given enough quantum events being measured, there is a probability distribution that takes the shape of a bell curve. More probable events have a higher probability density (the center of the curve) and less probable events have a lower probability density and reside at the ends of the curve.

A striking feature of quantum mechanics is entanglement. In entanglement, pairs of particles (twins) originating say from a decaying particle seem connected in some way. No matter how far apart they are when a measurement is taken their properties correlate with one another. This was demonstrated by Alain Aspect in his experiments where two (twin) electrons were sent in different directions from each other, and over significant distances, they were in sync regarding their states. The distance was great enough that no local causal influence (speed of light) was possible.  Thus, we get non-local effects in quantum mechanics. This has been verified with many experiments since. Also, this entanglement isn’t just about a few particles but also within aggregates of particles at the macroscopic scale. As physicist Sean Carroll puts it in describing the dynamical-collapse theories:

“All the particles in a large system will be entangled with each other, so that when just one of them localizes in space, the rest are brought along for the ride.”

The great physicist Neils Bohr called this complementarity where distinct parts of a system were really part of a whole and could not be thought of in isolation. He insisted that a particular measurement system had to include the whole measuring system including the observers and even the universe. Other prominent physicists have followed his lead like Hugh Everett, David Bohm, and others, some suggesting there is a universal wave function.

While entanglement doesn’t necessarily violate special relativity, some prominent physicists suggest that space-time itself is not fundamental but the product of a deeper underlying reality where space-time is a result of that underlying reality. Physicist Ruth Kastner (the transactional interpretation) uses the analogy of an iceberg where the reality we observe is like the tip of an iceberg where there is much more going on below the surface.

Quantum Field Theory:
Basic quantum mechanics has its limitations.

“If one thinks of QM (quantum mechanics) as the modern theory of one particle (or, perhaps, very few particles), one can then think of QFT (quantum field theory) as an extension of QM for the analysis of systems with many particles—and therefore with a large number of degrees of freedom.”

Quantum field theory represents quantum mechanics with the idea of fields. It talks about the creation and annihilation of particles and their interactions with fields. In this view, there is no such thing as empty space because quantum fields are present everywhere throughout the universe. However, particles are only present when an excitation of a field reaches a certain level. Here is a depiction of a very small subset of space. The red areas are excitations where a particle becomes actualized. Contrary to the earlier substance model of reality, what quantum field theory says is that the universe is in constant flux where particles come and go. In this model, the field waves are constantly interacting with one another, causing interferences that either reduce or enhance the likelihood of an actualization.

So What?
As I mentioned earlier, basic quantum mechanics talks about what happens at very small scales. But since quantum mechanics is occurring at every scale, do its features affect what happens at larger scales? The answer is yes but how it does and to what extent is still controversial. If we are interested in macroscopic scales (organisms), some might say about quantum mechanics, “So what?” This comes from the idea that certain quantum features all get averaged out in the macroscopic world, so they aren’t important for what eventually happens. Well, there is increasing evidence that some quantum features may have significant effects at the macroscopic level. Why might this be important? Certain features like superposition, entanglement, and quantum tunneling can offer advantages at larger scales.  For example, the features of superposition and entanglement are essential for quantum computing. The idea is that with superposition and entanglement much more information can be processed extremely quickly. Now, at least at this point, quantum computers require very low temperatures to maintain the “quantum weirdness”.  If that is the only domain where these advantages can be utilized, they wouldn’t be available at normal environmental temperatures. Is that the case?

While some quantum features have been demonstrated at macroscopic scales at extremely low temperatures, there is also evidence that suggests they may also occur at environmental temperatures. It’s still in the early stage of empirical study but examples of quantum events and interference coherence at room temperature may be in effect in things like photosynthesis, bird navigation, olfactory systems, enzyme dynamics, and perhaps including brain activity. 

A lot of research is going on in this area because if quantumness can be utilized at environmental temperatures this can offer great advantages. For instance, photosynthesis has a remarkable efficiency (90%) in converting incoming light into sugars. That efficiency doesn’t seem possible with classical mechanics. If this can be duplicated in solar cells it can be a game-changer for them. 

Another interesting area in quantum biology is in neural systems. Brain processes are inherently non-linear where very small changes could be greatly amplified via chaos dynamics creating significant effects. This could mean that the advantages offered by superposition and entanglement are major factors in brain processes and perhaps even consciousness. This would be particularly true with entanglements where many particles across significant neural distances could be working in concert with one another. For more on this here is an interesting paper.

Only time will tell if any of this turns out to be true, but wouldn’t it seem strange that the remarkable features of quantum mechanics are irrelevant for the living world?

♦ Theological Implications
Now, a fair question would be what has any of this to do with theology? As I mentioned earlier, a lot depends on the presuppositions employed. With those models that accept the law-and-chance model of how reality is constituted (deism and overriding supernaturalism), any theological implications are minimal at best. These positions have many, many theological problems both theologically and existentially. For them, quantum mechanics isn’t relevant because there is no intention involved.  I won’t go into those theological problems here. Instead, I’ll talk about an alternative worldview where quantum mechanics is a valuable artifact to be examined.

An Alternative Worldview
What if there are no laws and no chance? What if every event in the universe is intentional — there is a teleology (purpose and goals) at work? This is the case with the divine idealism and aspect monism ontology I have proposed on this website. A divine idealism says that everything is intentional in the mind of God. If that is the case, then quantum mechanics (an artifact) might say something about how God (the artisan) is constituting reality.

However, before implications can be drawn, something about the context of those implications needs to be addressed. I’ve talked about this throughout the website so I’ll just summarize a bit here. Here are a couple of Venn diagrams to illustrate the ontology.

What you’ll see here is that there is a particular divine life in the mind of God (divine idealism). This reality is one of them (God-as-living). There could be others. Also, you’ll see that this ontology is monistic. There is only the One (God) so everything is part of God. There is no ontological divide but there are distinctions to be made. That distinction is between God-as-transcendent and God-as-living.  The first context of implications is that God chose to live — to accept the limitations of finite being and live constrained lives. This has been described in theology as kenosis (self-emptying).  

With physics as an artifact, what this further means is that God chose to live a certain type of life. God creates a divine life a certain specific way for a divine purpose. To illustrate this, I suggest a metaphor of Author/Story where the author creates a world in her mind and “lives” each life according to what the author hopes to achieve with the narrative. It could be a realistic depiction, sci-fi, or a fantasy. It depends on what the author is going for. So, with a certain divine life, like the author, God makes a commitment to live a certain way.  A divine life is not some willy-nilly creation but one with a purpose in mind. I’ve speculated about these goals a bit here. The key point is God’s commitment to a way that divine life is constituted. Here we can think of the fine-tuning of the universe. With fine-tuning, there is a very specific commitment by God to the way reality is shaped.

With a divine idealism, God is continually and intentionally constituting reality in every event down to the smallest scales. Now, as I’ve talked about in the free-will essay, this does not mean God-as-transcendent is brute-forcing reality. As indeterminism implies, God-as-living has some level of freedom to contribute to that constitution. The point is that the context within which implications can be drawn is that there is a divine commitment to a certain type of life. With that in tow, what might be some theological implications of quantum mechanics?

The Possible to the Actual
Superposition means there are potentials or possibilities that are available for what will be actualized. These potentials “exist” all at the same time. However, at some point (a “measurement” in physics) one of these potentials gets actualized. What gets actualized is not determined ahead of time.

Theologically this would mean that God created a world where there are real, open possibilities for what can occur. The future is not set. Now, since every event is intentional and the future is open, this means choices are made. Choices mean there are live options, which further entails freedom. As I talk about elsewhere, those choices include the free choices of both God-as-transcendent with ultimate freedom as well as God-as-living with each aspect making free choices within their limitations, situation, and motivations.

The key point is that the future is open and each actualizing event is intentional. There is a transition from the possible to the actual. God chose to create a world that is dynamic and unpredictable — teeming with possibilities that may or may not become actual.

Stability and Change
As I said, since everything is intentional and there is indeterminism (openness) in what gets actualized from possibilities, that means intentional decisions are made. Since this is a monistic system and there is one mind (the Mind of God), these decisions occur within a partnership of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. However, these decisions are not without constraints. Remember, God has made a commitment to a certain type of Divine Life. As the Born Rule shows there is a distribution of what can become actualized. Not just anything goes. Whatever gets actualized can be found in this distribution.

Theologically this means that God chose to create a universe that gets constituted within certain constraints. Those constraints create a stability where life can exist but within those constraints, there is an openness to what will occur. In other words, choices are limited. They can occur but only within the confines of a stable system. Since the Born rule still applies even as systems grow in size, this would mean that God is committed to constituting the whole of reality in this way.  The next question is how can the Born rule continue to apply as systems grow in size?

From our everyday experiences, connectedness seems primarily local. We witness events that have consequences within our local sense of things but don’t seem to go much beyond that. For instance, if we do something, we can see the effects of this upon others close to us or how they affect other local events that occur later.  Here the connectedness seems very limited.  We might tend to dismiss local actions as being important beyond our local sphere. As we know now, this is wrong.

Seemingly isolated events combine with many others to create collective effects as well. Climate change is an example of this or the general trajectory of cultures. Still, these are hard to discern so it can be tempting to disregard the importance of any particular local events. Could there be more? The answer is yes. Here are some examples.

If we just consider classical mechanics, in chaos theory small local events can have far-reaching dramatic effects. This has been called colloquially “the butterfly effect”. In chaos theory, a small localized event can be greatly amplified and rapidly create far-reaching effects. In this case, the results are thought to be deterministic being guided by what are called “strange attractors”. Those attractors shape what follows. So, in this case, the connectedness becomes broader in scope.

However, if we consider quantum mechanics, things change quite a bit. For instance, in quantum field theory, reality is fundamentally constituted by fields with a wavelike nature. As a limited analogy, here we can picture what we have actually seen with waves in a pond or ocean.  We see waves rise and fall but they also interact with one another. As waves interact sometimes they get reinforced by other waves and sometimes they get diminished. In physics, this is called interference. The other thing to recognize is that the influences of wave interactions are not just some isolated local process but one where waves can have some farther-reaching consequences. It depends on the intensity of events. A tsunami is an example of this. Still, this simplistic picture seems to also minimize any far-reaching consequences. This is also wrong.

Two things to consider are the Born rule probability distribution and quantum entanglement. The Born rule says that given enough events, a bell-shaped distribution will emerge. Why would this be? First, this comes from the mathematics of wavefunctions. But that begs the question of why reality is constituted such that the Born rule applies. Since it does apply even as scales increase this seems to imply some guiding principle where prior events shape what can follow. In other words, every event seems to constrain what can follow. If we expand the Born rule to the entire universe, every event has far-reaching consequences on what possibilities for subsequent events are present. Since this occurs very rapidly this implies non-local effects.  

What might account for these Born rule constraints?  Entanglement might give us a clue. Events don’t occur in isolation.  When an event occurs and there is entanglement (like the particle twins) that means a localized event has far-reaching consequences. If this entanglement is projected (as some have said) to the universe as a whole, then there is a universal connectedness where every event has some effect on everything else. In other words, how reality is constituted must be viewed holistically. Any local choice creates a constraint on the rest of the universe.  This might suggest there is a realm outside space and time at work in how reality becomes constituted? A transcendent realm.

This has important theological implications.  It means that what seems to be just happening locally is not. Anything that happens locally occurs within the context of how God wants the whole of reality to be constituted. Every event changes what can potentially happen cosmically and “changes God’s mind” about how to constitute reality going forward. Here again, how reality gets constituted is within a partnership of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. There is input both from God-as-transcendent, like how the author in the metaphor shapes the narrative as it unfolds. And God-as-living contributes to what gets actualized as aspects of the Divine Life make free choices.

The takeaway from this cosmic and transcendent connectedness is that what happens does not occur in isolation, no matter how localized it may seem.  Every individual impacts the whole. The trajectory of the Divine Life depends on what happens in every event. Even small, seemingly localized actions are important and can have far-reaching effects.

Practical Implications
If overriding supernaturalism isn’t compelling, then reality is constituted within certain intentional constraints. The stability characterized in the Born rule distribution is honored but within that distribution, there is leeway for novelty and active teleology. Accordingly, this has powerful implications for things like the problem of evil, free will, meaning, morality, prayer, and so on.

Essentially it means that radical departures from regularities shouldn’t be expected. God has made a commitment to a holistic teleology. A radical departure at some localized position could have far-reaching negative effects elsewhere. However, that does not mean that there is no direction and purpose involved. The narrative proceeds according to God’s purposes. While these cannot be thwarted, there is still risk involved. The freedom inherent in the Divine Life means that certain divine goals may not be achieved, at least for the moment. Still, the Divine Life narrative proceeds and every stage has the opportunity to embrace those goals and make life more good and beautiful.

Here’s an example from prayer. Say someone is planning a picnic and prays for sunshine instead of rain. If God complies with that request, what happens elsewhere? What if farmers in that area are in desperate need of rain? For God, with a big picture in mind granting that request would compromise God’s holistic purposes.

Now, does that mean there can be no remarkable sets of events? No. I’ve talked about this concerning prayers of supplication here. Essentially, it says that if answering a prayer in the affirmative still fits in with the overall cosmic, big picture that God has in mind, it may happen. As we pray, we should accept this cosmic connectedness and trust God that whatever happens is for the good for us and the entire communion within the Divine Life. Still, this should not dissuade us from asking for much, particularly if we are honoring God’s commitment to the whole. Sometimes there are kairotic moments (the right time for something to happen) where a small change can make a huge difference. Who hasn’t experienced key moments in their life where there is a major turning point (a tipping point).

Another practical implication is that we should not expect or long for a utopian reality. God has a purpose for this reality. Something didn’t go wrong somehow along the way. The world is just as God planned. Accordingly, the universe, just as it is, should be affirmed. World rejection is a common thread in many traditional religious systems. This world rejection leads to all sorts of problems both with the attitude towards life and a naive longing for a life without all the struggles inherent in finite being. This attitude can be demotivating. It can thwart an active and aggressive stance to create the good and beautiful and oppose the bad and destructive. If thought about in-depth, a utopian vision wouldn’t actually be what people would want.

Quantum mechanics tells us that the future is open within certain constraints. In the theology offered here, what gets actualized depends on not only on what God-as-transcendent wants for this reality but what God-as-living chooses to actualize as well. There is a partnership where freedom to choose is a real option. This means that everything in this reality shapes whether or not the good and beautiful become real or not. In this monistic system, everything has a divine transcendent depth that calls us to actualize divine hopes. If we listen to that divine depth and act upon it, the good and beautiful can contribute to how reality proceeds. This is not toward some utopia but rather a reality that continually, and eternally engages in a profound, creative narrative of what it means to live a Divine Life.  

This profound meaningfulness of life comes exactly from a full engagement of life, as it is. The joys and sorrows, the successes and failures all create this meaning.  This world is just as it should be where certain values that God seeks for a Divine Life can be possible. These are things like love, courage, meaning, morality, beauty, grit, faith, and all those other things we admire so much. Whether or not we embrace the divine call toward these noble goals is up to us.

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