Sunday, June 25, 2006

Quantum Theology

As the 20th century opened, our understanding of the physical universe was poised on the edge of a divide, beyond which it would lose its certainty in a fog of strangeness and counter-intuitive paradox. I'm speaking about, of course, the Theries of Relativity, and Quantum theory. Experiments on matter at microscopic levels produced results not only in conflict with expectations, but in conflict with the very basic foundational truths of science as understood to that point. The "Schrodinger's Cat" paradox is probably the most famous example of these surprising findings, representing a thought experiment to explain how the existence of the results for certain experiments depends on someone actually observing the experiment. Another famous example of the counter-intuitive nature of discoveries in physics during the century was the response from Nobel Laurate phycisist II Rabi, when the discovery of a new subatomic particle in 1947, the muon, upset the previously built consensus on the structure of the atom. When Rabi heard of the discovery, he asked "Who ordered this?".

Over the past two weeks I have been, thanks to an invitation by Adrian Warnock to discuss my rejection of Atonement doctine, immersed in an investigation of the various strains of Christian doctrine. Though not a scholar of theology by any stretch of the imagination, I thought that I had a very good grasp on the general outline of the Christian theological taxonomy, at least at the level of the names of the different competing doctrines. But at one point of my investigation I had my own "who ordered this?" moment and immediately grasped the analogy of Christian theology to Quantum physics. The doctrine in question, the "muon" of my theological investigation, was Monergism.

Now Monergism is not a new doctrine. We can't say that it has been newly "discovered". It is just a discovery to me, prompted by my investigation of Christian theology. It upsets my notion of what constituted the boundaries of settled theory on the nature of the Christian God. It's a new "fundamental particle" of the God debate that I had'nt been aware of to that point. So of what use is this metaphor of theology as Quantum physics?

For one, it illustrates the inaccessibility of the subject matter, and it's inability to pe pinned down to precise, understandable and intuitive explanations. Like an octupus, it squirts out an inky black cloud of paradox and confusion as it makes its escape when we, like a shark, try to devour it. The closer to understanding we think we get, the more unintelligible the object of our quest becomes.

The history of the early Church demonstrated the inherent instability of Christian doctrine. Within the first 300 years after Jesus's death, no less than four major doctrines developed to explain the divine mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection. In addition to the Orthodox doctrine, as expressed by the Council of Nicaea, there were the Marcionite, Ebionite and Gnostic expressions of faith. Even before it could assert what was to become known as the Orthodox expression, the Council of Nicaea had to quash a variation on its own set of doctrines, the docrine of Arianism.

Through the power of the Roman Empire, where it still held sway, and thanks to the rise of Islam where it didn't, the unorthodox heresies were kept in check for another 1200 years. But even the threat of heresy trials could not keep this unstable particle of a doctrine together forever. The Protestant Reformation closed the book forever on a unified theory of the Christian God.

The curious thing about this propensity for doctrinal hair splitting is that it occurs in the face of what all beilevers acknowledge to be a mystery. Acknowledging that the actions of God are a mystery beyond human understanding hasn't stopped generations of scholars from declaring with certainty on the inner workings of the mystery in question. 'Workings' is the operative word here, for most of these doctrines appear to be an attempt to build an engineering blueprint or a process flow diagram of how the various sub-assemblies of the Godhead interact to produce the miraculous behaviors in question. And even more curiously, once such certainty on a given blueprint for the Godhead is decided upon, the profession of this sub-doctrine of the Christian faith is declared to be mandatory for anyone wishing to receive the key benefit of that faith, Salvation. It is as if in order to enjoy the benefits of driving a car a driver had to pass a rigorous engineering exam on every aspect of the workings of a car, from the principles of the internal combustion engine to the mechanics of the transmission and driveshaft and the coefficient of friction of the tires.

It is almost as if Jesus issued a challenge to Mankind as follows: "I have accomplished something with my death that has the power to save you. If you can figure out exactly how I accomplished this feat, then you will be saved.".

What this analogy to Quantum physics points out is that theology and science are both materialist endeavors. Both attempt to render an understanding of the universe according to the conventions of material interactions that we are familiar with. Both must, at some point, recognize that those conventions cannot always literally apply, but must be treated as metaphors. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics admits that the verbal descriptions of quantum phenomena cannot be regarded literally, but are merely ways of naming the phenomena that are under investigation. This relationship was described in the Complementary rule:

1. The interpretation of a physical theory has to rely on an experimental practice.
2. The experimental practice presupposes a certain pre-scientific practice of description, which establishes the norm for experimental measurement apparatus, and consequently what counts as scientific experience.
3. Our pre-scientific practice of understanding our environment is an adaptation to the sense experience of separation, orientation, identification and reidentification over time of physical objects.
4. This pre-scientific experience is grasped in terms of common categories like thing's position and change of position, duration and change of duration, and the relation of cause and effect, terms and principles that are now parts of our common language.
5. These common categories yield the preconditions for objective knowledge, and any description of nature has to use these concepts to be objective.
6. The concepts of classical physics are merely exact specifications of the above categories.
7. The classical concepts—and not classical physics itself—are therefore necessary in any description of physical experience in order to understand what we are doing and to be able to communicate our results to others, in particular in the description of quantum phenomena as they present themselves in experiments

Now compare this with a statement from "Together for the Gospel", a conference of evangelical Christian leaders :

Article III
We deny that truth is merely a product of social construction or that the truth of the Gospel can be expressed or grounded in anything less than total confidence in the veracity of the Bible, the historicity of biblical events, and the ability of language to convey understandable truth in sentence form. .

There's no concession to metaphor there. It is not hard to discern from where the inherent instability of Christian docrine originates. It comes from the attempts by many different people across time and cultures to reconcile every statement in the Bible and to place each into a consistent framework of literal, unmetaphorical truth. And to do so while pretending that cultural paradigms do not influence the interpretations of these statements. It can't be done. Where contradictions occur one must affirm one leg of the contradiction and deny the other. Certainty requires the selective use of blinders. One can't say, as the physicist says when stating that light is a wave when measuring one aspect of its effects and a particle when measuring another, that Biblical truths have contingent meanings depending on how they are applied. So you end up choosing one leg, the wave or the particle, and you deny the other.

So you can imagine how a book like the Bible, written by many authors over a span of roughly 1000 years, will offer countless contradictory statements from which forks of interpretation will be presented to the believer. When taking this into account, one is amazed that the multiplications of doctrine have not progressed many orders of magnitude beyond what they have.

One final example of how difficult it is to hold the genie of interpretation in the bottle of orthodoxy, even when allowing for metaphor, is this post from Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost:
When I heard that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had developed an “educational resource” that recommended referring to the Trinity as "Mother, Child, and Womb", I had a similiar reaction: I thought the idea was not only wrong, but utterly wrong. However, after reading the document, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” (PDF), I've changed my opinion. The concept is, as Pauli might say, “not even wrong.” But not necessarily for the reasons I first thought.

Based solely on media reports, it would appear that this document had been produced by church leaders who adhered more to the writings of Dan Brown than to Holy Scripture. But that impression is unfair. In many ways the document is not only orthodox but evangelical in reaffirming the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity. The members of the task force treat the doctrine with due reverence and seriousness: “The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ--it cannot be understood apart from the gospel, and the gospel cannot be fully understood apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.”

They lose their theological footing, however, when they attempt to “speak of God in historically faithful yet freshly imaginative ways.” True, almost all the analogies that they use come directly from scripture. But when linked in groups of three they form conceptual metaphors that can be misleading and muddle our understanding of an already mysterious doctrine.

The document presents eleven triads, eight of which use analogies taken directly from scripture. Some of them are better than others. For the sake of brevity, though, I’ll focus solely on the most controversial one: “…the triune God is Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child, and Life-Giving Womb (Isa 49:15, Mt. 3:17; Isa 46:3).”

This triad is a conceptual metaphor which consists of a source domain and a target domain. For example, in the metaphor “Life is a highway” the target domain (the part we are trying to understand) is “life” while the source domain (the part which we draw upon from our own experience) is “highway.” Because we understand not only what a highway is (a manmade path) but also what occurs on it (travel, adventure, discovery, etc.) we are able to create a conceptual “map” of the source-target pairing in a way that increases our understanding of the target.

Taken by themselves, each of the source domains (mother, child, womb) increases our understanding of the target domain (God). The problem arises when we try to combine the three source domains into one metaphor. One of the guidelines the panel set was that “in each case the terms must have an inner relationship.” Severe difficulties arise when trying to resolve the incongruity between these “inner relationships” and the relationship of the Godhead.

In using these metaphors we not only create a map between the target and domain (God is like a mother) but we create a map between the target and target (the relationship of a mother to her womb). Because the triad form mimics the names of Father/Son/Holy Spirit, we create yet another conceptual map (God/Mother; Son/Child; Womb/Holy Spirit).

The “mother, child, womb” metaphor then becomes a jumble where we draw illegitimate concepts about the Trinity. For example, the metaphor causes us to draw the analogy “Jesus is to the Holy Spirit as a child is to a womb.” Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Bible already contains a more fitting relationship of mother/child/womb: the virgin Mary, who sheltered the Christ-child, in her womb (“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Luke 1:42 KJV).

We must also keep in mind that when we say “Jesus is the Son” it appears as if we are using a metaphor that helps us understand God by reference to a human relationship. While in some respects this is true, we must keep in mind that the human father-son pattern is merely a metaphor for the eternally existing father-son relationship in the Godhead.

When we try to find a triad that matches Father/Son/Holy Spirit we risk turning these terms into metaphors, rather than names for members of the Godhead. Although well-intentioned, attempting to develop “freshly imaginative ways” of speaking of the triune God is fraught with peril. Instead of creating clever ways in which we might speak of the Trinity we might consider spending our time reflecting on this magnificent doctrine in holy silence.

One must take pity on the orthodox believer of today. Without access to a legal mechanism for suppressing heresy, he is left only with the devices of his own rhetoric to try to scare the wayward away from paths that are "fraught with peril".


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

In other words, you're saying that adhering to Revelation amounts to an endless effort to square a circle. True enough.

I depart a bit, though, in comparing this morass of contradictions to modern physics.

The nice thing about being a strict materialist is that I don't have to worry about Schrodinger's cat: the outcome of unperformable experiments is of no interest to me.

The conception of unperformable experiments, on the other hand, is very important, because that is how we test our discoveries.

Theology is unlike physics in many ways. No experiments. No predictions. No exclusionary results (as applied, most strikingly, to praying for results).

I was startled and at first inclined to doubt your assertion that both theology and physics have the same program. But, in the framework where you set it, I can buy that.

June 25, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


I'm not trying to state an equivalence between the two. Mataphors, or analogies, have limited usefulness. They are generally good when limited to a few points of similarity, but you can't use the metaphor to model the behavior of the alluded to thing or phenomenon in its entirety.

Christian doctrines do make predictions that can be tested, though the results of the test cannot be known to one in this world. The predictions are about what particular combination of mental states, known as beliefs, have the power to get one's soul into Heaven. The problem is that once the evidence is available it is too late to change your answers.

June 25, 2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The curious thing about this propensity for doctrinal hair splitting is that it occurs in the face of what all beilevers acknowledge to be a mystery.

Thereby providing a glaringly obvious example of irony, for those having trouble with the concept.

Christian doctrines do make predictions that can be tested, though the results of the test cannot be known to one in this world.

All of these doctrines are wrapped around one fundamental assertion about God (see glaring irony, above): fealty matters.

For if it doesn't (and, to distinguish the evil from the moral, it would seem the last six commandments should suffice), then the whole edifice crashes to the ground.

Asserting fealty matters leads inevitably to faulty fealty. There is quite a butcher's bill attached to faulty fealty.

Think how pathetic much of history would become on discovering God couldn't care less.

June 25, 2006 1:12 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Christian doctrines do make predictions that can be tested'

See above under Cats, Schrodinger's

June 25, 2006 5:08 PM  
Blogger Exist~Dissolve said...


This is an interesting post, and I appreciate the correlations you seek to identify in re: methodologies and conclusions.

I would, however, offer a few caveats to what you have said.

1.) To begin, I don't know that your characterization of the early creedal and dogmatic development of the Christian church is entirely accurate. While there are some very precise definitions (esp. Trintarian and Christological statements), given the scope of Christian theology, there is very little that has been affirmatively codified as "orthodoxy" and there is immense room for "mystery." As I have come to understand it, the creeds of the church--as opposed to precisely defining the content and form of belief--have simply provided parameters in which that which is consonant with the historic belief of the church can be maintained within contemporary theologizing. After all, Christian belief and faith is, primarily, an historically centered faith. Without correlations to the historical teaching of the apostles, one is left with the possibility of Christian belief morphing into something completely anti-historical, which is precisely what occurs within Protestantism and sola Scriptura, IMO.

2. I have noticed that in your posts you seem to focus your critiques primarily, if not exclusively, against Protestantism, especially the evangelical kind. While there is much there to critique, I would be disappointed if your only characterization of Christian faith is what you glean from observations of this tradition. The "mystery" which you rightly note is lacking in evangelical Protestant theology is actually the cornerstone of theological methodology in other traditions of the church, particularly the Orthodox. While I am not myself an Orthodox (with a captial O) Christian, I do find much refreshing and helpful reflections within the church's thinking that has been quite formative for my own theological investigation.

I would simply encourage you to expand your vision of Christian faith beyond what is often and easy target, from within the Church and without.

June 26, 2006 5:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Abandon the easy targets? Gee, you really want to take the fun out of this, don't you? ;-)

Yes, I've focused on the evangelical protestant strains lately as I've been engaging them in debate over the atonement controversy. As I've mentioned at some point, I'm a former Catholic, and I have posted on the Catholic church on several occasions, notably here. I think that much of this hair-splitting applies to the Catholic church as well, although since Vatican II they've been more open to metaphorical interpretations, while still trying to maintain the facade that they've been inbfallible and consistent on everything that matters from day one. That takes true rhetorical skill.

June 26, 2006 6:05 AM  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Duck. What you are saying about descriptions which "cannot be regarded literally, but are merely ways of naming the phenomena that are under investigation" corresponds quite closely to what I wrote about Models of the Atonement.

I am not one of those Christians who claim that "the profession of this sub-doctrine of the Christian faith is declared to be mandatory for anyone wishing to receive the key benefit of that faith, Salvation". I know you have come across some who seem to believe this. Ironically, these people (the ones I have in mind from recent exchanges) also tend to monergism, which is completely contradicted by this concept of salvation by theology. Well, I suppose they would say that right theology is a sign of being elect and wrong theology is a sign of being reprobate, thus taking away from humans even the free will to choose their own theology!

Harry, what is unperformable about Schrodinger's cat? It would actually be quite easy (although cruel to cats) to set up this apparatus. It would be impossible to observe the state of the cat until the box is opened, but that is the whole point of the experiment.

Similarly, it is in fact possible to set up theological experiments e.g. on whether prayer works. Of course that would be experimenting on a person, God, and would require his cooperation! So, if he chose to to give results no better than random to avoid giving proof of his own existence, he would be entitled to do so, and this would certainly be no proof of his non-existence.

Skipper, fealty or fidelity matters if those who show it are rewarded, and/or those who don't are punished. There is a lot more to the Christian faith than that, but that is part of it.

June 26, 2006 7:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter Kirk, using an actual cat trivializes Schrodinger's problem, which is perhaps more easily understood by a physics conundrum that arose after him: conservation of spin.

If two particles are created and zoom off in opposite directions at close to the speed of light, they have unmeasured spin. According to Schrodinger's conundrum, the spin is established by measuring it, which, the theory suggests, causes the other particle at that instant to determine its own (and opposite) spin -- mimicking communication at beyond the speed of light.

This is an unperformable experiment, so far, and may be unperformable in principle, because the insertion of outside information distorts the system beyond analysis.

(This is not an original idea of mine, it's borrowed from Heinz Pagels's critique of Maxwell's Demon in 'The Cosmic Code.')


The objection that god can interfere with the controls of any experiment on the power of prayer makes that an unperformable experiment, too.

June 26, 2006 10:15 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

More about prayer experiments.

You could, like F. Darwin, do a retrospective experiment.

However, if god is all-knowing, he could see F. Darwin coming and respond accordingly, adjusting results.

Of course, this raises the question of god's free will. Does he have to let the little kid die of cancer, even though everyone is praying for him, in order to confound the skeptics? What sort of god would that be?

On an unscientific level, we can assess in our own lives how well prayer works or doesn't. Not probative, but enough to draw practical conclusions.

Even religious believers buy wind insurance. Or should.

June 26, 2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Harry, not all believers buy insurance to protect themselves, although probably most do. Some believe that God will protect them from all harm; others that if they come to harm that is God's will for them and they should not attempt to mitigate the consequences.

As for the experiment on quantum communication you describe, this is a fascinating subject but not really Schrodinger's Cat. As I understand it such experiments are performable in principle, and people are working on putting this into practice although it is perhaps a little beyond current technology, or at least beyond realistic research budgets. An experiment which requires multiple space missions to perform is not impossible, just too expensive!

Thinking about such experiments raises all kinds of questions about predestination and free will. In fact I even wonder if the results of them, if they are ever performed, will help to settle some of our theological questions - although I doubt if many people will accept that they have been settled.

June 27, 2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It's a good thing that people who are smarter than me think in those terms, because it leads to novel questions and tests, and new knowledge and deeper understandings.

However, the beauty of being a materialist is that until those tests are devised and performed, I don't have to worry about the hypothesized outcomes. The Einstein-Podolski-Rosen Paradox is of no more concern to me than the question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

June 27, 2006 12:31 PM  

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