A few weeks ago, I finished an incredibly long-take home final for one of my favorite classes: the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics with Professor Ned Hall (I highly recommend it, even for people who are terrible at physics like me). Even though the course is now complete, I still have quantum mechanics in my mind and as I was puzzlingly over some theological issues while pouring over my final, I began to see some connections between the two.
Quantum mechanics is the study of how matter behaves at its smallest levels. The problem is that all of our experiments have demonstrated that particles behave in the most peculiar ways. This has allowed for the conjecture of many different (and bizarre) explanations for what’s going on. To figure out which of these interpretations are plausible, we run many thought experiments. One of the most famous is that of Schrödinger’s cat. One way of explaining the bizarre results of the two-path experiment is postulating that particles exist in a state of superposition – that is, they exist in two places at once. (There is a good explanation of this on page 11 of David Albert’s book Quantum Mechanics and Experience) But it only exists in two places until an observer looks at the device and causes the state of superposition to collapse into a definite position. This sounds a little crazy at first, but the problem is that we can’t run any experiment to figure out what the particle is actually doing. We can, however, as philosophers love to do, think about it for a really long time.
So a philosopher decides to rig up a device in which a particle is forced to go either up or down and hit a detection screen. If the particle goes up and hits the top of the detection screen, a heavy weight will be released directly above a poor kitty and the kitty will be promptly killed. If the particle goes down, the weight will not be released and the kitty will survive! Now, the theory states that the particle will exist in a state of superposition until an observer looks at the experiment. So what does that mean for our precious kitty?
Well, the state of the particle at the beginning can be written something like this:
1/√2 |up, 0> + 1/√2 |down, 0>
All that means is that there is a 1/2 chance that the particle will go up and a 1/2 chance that the particle will go down. If this superposition is real, it’s something like half up and half down until we look at the experiment and force it into the either the |up, 0> or |down, 0> state. But because of the way that the experiment is set up, this particle’s state becomes entangled with the states of other objects. If the particle goes up, then a certain state of the detector and the weight and the kitty will necessarily follow. That means that we can write the state as:
1 √ 2 |up, 0> |detector screen top> |weight falls> |kitty dies> +
1 √ 2 |down, 0> |detector screen bottom> |weight stays> |kitty lives!>
Under the superposition interpretation, the kitty is both dead and alive at the same time until someone looks at it. This rather absurd conclusion has lead some people to conclude that this superposition/collapse interpretation is untenable. That is, even though they could accept the initial claim that particles existed in a state of superposition, they could not accept the necessary conclusion from that assertion that cats could be both dead and alive simultaneously. These two conclusions were entangled in such a way that to accept the first, you must accept the second. If you rejected the latter conclusion, you could no longer hold onto the first conclusion.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I’m writing all of this on the Ichthus blog instead of on, say, my philosophy class blog. Here’s the answer: it is very easy to entangle theological positions on Christian doctrine in such a way that it makes the initial claims untenable.
So say we’ve got a claim about Jesus:
|Jesus was the Son of God>
And we know based on His testimony that the scripture is reliable, so the states are entangled and can be rewritten:
|Jesus was the Son of God>|The Scripture is authoritative>
Because the Scripture is reliable, and based on what is written in Genesis, we come to the conclusion:
|Jesus was the Son of God>|The Scripture is authoritative>|Man comes from Adam>
This obviously makes us come to realizations about scientific claims regarding creation, so we have a new state:
|Jesus was the Son of God>|The Scripture is authoritative>|Man comes from Adam>|Evolution is false>
Most people (including myself, despite my last post) find this position to be an untenable one. Yet because these states are (seemingly) entangled, our rejection of the last claim demands our rejection of the first. (In particular, I think that if we keep this chain of entanglement up, we come to the even more troubling conclusion that: |Jesus was the Son of God>|The Scripture is authoritative>|Man comes from Adam>|Evolution is false>|Our very experience deceives us>|God deceives us> But that is besides the point.)
The problem is that these states aren’t necessarily entangled as the ones in the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. For example, there are lots of questions about what it really means when we say that the Bible is authoritative. Does that mean that it is a reliable guide for science? For morality? Does that mean it’s inerrant? Or can it still be full of error? Does every word come from God? Or is it simply that all parts are useful?
On the other hand, it seems like the Scripture’s authority is entangled with some doctrinal beliefs. My question is: how heavily entangled is it? Can we draw clear-cut conclusions about heaven and hell? The role of the church? The role of women?
My answer is that I’m honestly not sure. But I do think that it is easy to overestimate how entangled the claims actually are. We underestimate how doctrinally divided the early church was. There was a high level of tolerance for different theological doctrines, so long as there was still faith in Christ and repentance from sin. In 1 Corinthians, Paul does not suggest ending fellowship with a brother who denied any particular theological doctrine, but with one who has continued in grave sexual immorality. Our very own Nick Nowalk wrote a post last month that about how the early Church did not have our distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy; errors in practice were corrected by proper doctrine in the formula “Do You Not Know?” Yet each example of Christian error involves practice. There is little (if any) correction of doctrine which does not manifest itself in practical differences.
I find this to be very good news. Christianity is not like Quantum Mechanics. In Quantum Mechanics, there is no question of entanglement. The states are so obviously entangled that the false conclusion may lead us to reject the initial hypothesis entirely. In Christianity, the level of entanglement is unclear. False conclusions do not force us to reject the initial claim Jesus is Lord. Instead, they force us to re-evaluate our conclusions on every step of the way, enabling us to get a clearer and clearer image of the Truth.