For the past century physicists have been building a completely new understanding of what we experience as reality. Just as Newton’s laws of motion were a revelation in their day—a window into God’s creation, he believed—so Einstein’s theories of relativity and of space and time’s relationship to mass and energy changed our sense of how the universe operated on the cosmic scale.
On the quantum scale, Einstein also contributed to our understanding of the very, very small. His 1921 Nobel Prize was, in fact, not for relativity but for his discovery of the particle (or quantum) nature of light as the source of the photoelectric effect. That concept is already beyond the reach of most of us, but now consider the fact that light can also act as a wave, a continuous flow of energy. Taking this eerie reality a step further, according to the world of quantum mechanics it is the act of observation and measurement that brings out one characteristic or the other.
So then, what is light?
The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, developed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others in the mid-1920s, theorizes that light is in a condition called superposition: the particle and wave conditions are superimposed so they exist simultaneously. But looking at light “collapses the wave-function” so the experimenter registers either blips of energy (quanta or particles) or an interference pattern of interacting waves.
Welcome to the exceedingly strange world of quantum physics. Here the act of conscious observation turns probability into knowledge. Knowing collapses the wave function from what was a haze of probability: nothing becomes something.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this explanation isn’t universally accepted. But to disagree, as did physicist Victor Stenger, is certainly the minority (if commonsense) position: “The idea that properties are brought into being by the act of their measurement clashes with our intuitive notion that the universe possesses an objective reality independent of the observer.”
But this connection between observation and experimental outcome seems real enough. In an experiment conducted in May 2015, even atoms were shown to exhibit a wave-particle duality, and they appeared to delay the choice as to which role to play until after the fact of their measurement. This and other investigations seem to show that communication can not only move backward in time but faster than the speed of light. One paper notes that the experiment “gives a nearly perfect disproof of Einstein’s world-view, in which ‘nothing travels faster than light’ and ‘God does not play dice.’”
These conclusions seem unacceptable, however; one wants to agree with Stenger, who was also vehemently opposed to faster-than-light interpretations. They are hard ideas to get a hold of, yet they have been supported by experimental evidence many times over the past century. “The weirdness must be faced head-on,” writes physicist Marcelo Gleiser. What Einstein called “spooky actions at a distance” appear really to happen. “Such entangled pairs of particles,” writes Gleiser, “are created and analyzed in many laboratories around the world. Measuring one of the two ‘influences’ the other instantaneously (or at least superluminally) [faster than light], irrespective of how far apart the two are from each other.”
“Is quantum weirdness an unavoidable aspect of Nature, or can we somehow make sense of it?”
But how is this possible if relativity makes light speed the redline? “No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this,” Einstein argued in an often quoted 1935 paper showing that quantum mechanics must be missing something, that it must be incomplete.
And how does all this translate to our world of the macroscopic? Erwin Schrödinger, an important contributor to quantum theory and a contemporary of Einstein, put the problem in perspective with his Cat-in-a-Box thought experiment. He mocked the idea that quantum-level indeterminacy could translate to the world at large; macroscopic objects, such as a cat, cannot exist in two different states (both dead and alive, in this case) at the same time.
One wonders how Schrödinger would view a more modern iteration positing that both outcomes do occur in parallel. In Hugh Everett’s “Many Worlds Theory” of the mid-1950s, all probabilities are believed to exist—as separate universes. Thus every quantum possibility, and by theory they are infinite, is an ever-forking road of observations and decisions. Cosmologist Paul Davies summarizes Everett’s theory: “The universe splits into two copies, one containing a live cat and the other a dead cat. . . . In general, if a quantum system is in a superposition of, say, n quantum states, then, on measurement, the universe will split into n copies.” Extradimensional travel would be a “quantum leap” from one universe to another, even back in time to a different track in history.
If this is true, there is no need to wonder “What happens if . . . ?” because, by virtue of wondering, it already has. The theory does eliminate the wave-function–observation paradox in a single stroke but, short of science fiction, there is no way to test its physical existence or metaphysical meaning. It is not a strange thing that some could lose track of reality when these ideas play forward. Indeed, as physicist Rudolf Peierls says, “I don’t know what reality is.”
Back on Earth
However imaginatively one seeks to explain the problem of superposition, there do remain basic unresolved issues between relativity and quantum theories; while each may successfully describe the universe at large or at the sub-subatomic level, so far the two have resisted reconciliation.
Nevertheless, because it is the popular belief that the world is a real physical thing, a real place composed of real atoms, the quantum equations that describe the small must align somehow with the relativistic rules that govern the large. And in between, Newton’s classical physics still remains useful for sending balls around a billiard table and satellites to space. In sum, however, the observations and abstract mathematics of classical, relativity and quantum physics have not been simply theoretical. Although complex and weird, the insights they have given have allowed us to create our modern world of electronics, computing, surveillance and communication.
“Far from being a shortcoming, the elusiveness of the quantum realm is being put to work in the development of revolutionary new technologies, from highly secure bank wirings to ultrasensitive detectors and, potentially, new types of computers.”
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a good example of applied physics. In his theory of special relativity (1905), Einstein explained that time and speed are related, creating a fusion called spacetime. In this relationship the faster one moves, the slower time seems to pass: a clock ticks more slowly in relation to clocks traveling at a different speed (time is relative to the observer and his frame of reference). Of course, this makes no intuitive sense, but it is real; the clocks on GPS satellites orbiting the earth at 14,000 km/hr actually do run a few microseconds slower than ours here at the planet’s surface.
When combining this fact with his general theory of relativity (1916), which connects spacetime to gravity, our GPS engineers must also compensate for the distance the satellites are above us. Gravity warps space, and this causes their clocks to run faster. Einstein would be pleased to see that modern technologists can tally all of this so that your navigation system can tell you just about exactly when to turn, or guide your flight’s autopilot to a safe landing. Eventually your robotic car will be able to navigate without your onboard help using similar, relativity-calculating communication systems.
Believing Impossible Things
Technology is moving quickly: fiction is converted to fact; possible materializes from impossible. GPS is itself a kind of quantum leap, something that past generations would certainly have viewed as science fiction. But as we enjoy the real-time benefits of these myriad technologies, we are also very interested in the future that a still greater mastery and application of our physical theories might create.
Overlapping with these are metaphysical questions. These are as puzzling as the theories themselves: who are we, and what makes us able to discover and then apply and manipulate these bizarre rules of the universe? What will happen next?
Whether time travel through wormholes and the cautionary butterfly effect (that even the smallest event can change the future and remold the present), or warp drive that bends spacetime in order to jump across the universe, we seem very content to suspend our disbelief and accept not only the theories themselves but also the fictionalization of relativity and quantum theory. We want to believe in the positive-thinking mantra of films such as Down the Rabbit Hole, or of books offering to let us in on The Secret. We want to believe in the imagined rescue of dysfunctional humanity by travelers to Tomorrowland or from Interstellar space.
We are willing to do so, for the most part, not because we are physicists, but because we have a deep-seated hope for a better future; as the apostle John wrote nearly two thousand years ago, we all hope that someday “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, English Standard Version).
Because we are not confident in who “He” is, however, we turn to science. “We are meaning-seeking beings,” notes physicist Gleiser, “and science is one offspring of our perennial urge to make sense of existence.”
On this point of meaning and belief, emeritus professor Lewis Wolpert (University College London), has come to an interesting conclusion regarding our motivations. As a researcher in developmental biology, Wolpert was an early contributor to theories of pattern development and tissue formation in early embryos. For the title of his book, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, he drew his inspiration from the White Queen’s conversation with Alice in Through the Looking Glass. At one point, when confronted with the queen’s outrageous claims, Alice responds, “One can’t believe impossible things.”
Although Wolpert does not advise that we take the White Queen’s advice literally—“try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes”—he does argue that we are imbued with a kind of “cognitive imperative” that drives us to believe in something. Thus our brain is a “belief engine,” he says.
“There is a strong motive for explaining any phenomena that affect us in causal terms, an ingrained need to organise the world cognitively—both the external world and the internal world of the individual.” And like possessions, we hold on to beliefs tightly because “they can make us feel good. Even the way we talk about beliefs is like the way we talk about things we own. We ‘hold’, ‘acquire’, ‘inherit’, ‘give up’ beliefs.”
“People rationalise their actions in order to reduce discrepancies in their belief systems. Prior commitment to a belief system and personal sacrifice put up barriers that block the resolution of any conflicting evidence.”
As a scientist, Wolpert takes ownership of scientific beliefs. It’s no surprise that he finds them credible and solid. Because they are public beliefs, vetted and cross-checked, peer-reviewed, so to speak, they have value to him; no one needs to take his word for it when he speaks about tissue organization, because he believes he is conveying a broader truth that has been confirmed by collective experience, not a personal whim.
When we find relativity and quantum rules incredible, impossible, or nonsensical, the conclusion is that we simply do not know enough yet to fill in the gaps in our understanding. Even our best minds are stumped by the wave-particle duality, the role of the observer in the collapse of the wave function, and how gravity warps spacetime, but we have confidence that science will find a way forward. In the meantime we have no trouble weaving and believing impossible stories that incorporate these phenomena to our liking.
Where does this faith in science come from? Why do we believe the universe is actually explainable in the first place?
More Impossible Things
One incredible answer is that humans are created in the image of God. Sociologist Steve Fuller argues that because we are part of a created universe, we have an intuitive faith that there is an order to the world that can be deciphered. It is this faith in an orderly creation that makes the scientific enterprise possible, even if scientists themselves usually do not acknowledge it. “In short,” Fuller writes, “science’s progressive outlook comes from sublimating—not eliminating—God as the end of the organized enquiry.” This is a process of secularization, he says, where “what changes are the institutional vehicles but not the underlying sentiment… . This faith in the power of scientific enquiry would be arbitrary without a salvationist sensibility imported from theology.”
If this is true, then the Bible, which many find as incomprehensible as physics, may actually be clearer than first perceived. It is a matter of faith to believe God is real and that Scripture is His communication with us (Hebrews 11:1, 6; Psalm 18:30).
“Making the biblical authors into modern, scientifically literate thinkers and writers immediately produces inconsistencies between the Bible and the scientifically determined history of the world. However, when Scripture is read in context, these inconsistencies disappear. We can therefore safely accept Scripture as God’s revealed Word, even though it does not address the specifics of many scientific questions and often refers to the natural world using the understandings of the time in which it was written.”
Because the “impossible things” of the Bible are beyond common sense, even counterintuitive, one would call them miracles. Relativity and quantum physics are in their own way miracles as well. The White Queen may have been prepared to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but we’d have to be ready to believe much more that defies natural, physical explanations. While logical explanations have been put forward to explain the Egyptian plagues and the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 7–11, 14) in terms of unusual winds and various natural phenomena, other incidents are not so easily syncretized with physical laws.
For instance, both Joshua and Hezekiah experienced extended days where the sun “stood still” during a battle (Joshua 10:12–14) and the shadow on the sundial moved backward as a divine sign (2 Kings 20:8–11). Moses claimed that he had been summoned by God via a burning bush (Exodus 3) and that God Himself had etched the Commandments on the tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18).
Other “impossibles” include people living hundreds of years (Genesis 5); a global flood wiping out human civilization (Genesis 7); an incredible explanation of human languages (Genesis 11); centenarians having babies (Genesis 17:17; 21:1–7). The list could go on, of course, with the New Testament bringing the even greater challenges of healing and resurrection.
Leap of Faith
Talk about a “God of gaps.” The distance between what we perceive as possible and these events seems huge, impassable. Is it then simply a matter of suspending one’s disbelief to accept the Bible as credible? Does it require blind belief? Although Sigmund Freud’s psychological work has been widely discredited, was he correct when he said that religion is a “system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but … in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion”?
Sir John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest who has spent decades examining the relationship between religion and science, doesn’t think so. In a 2010 interview with Vision, he remarked: “A belief in God is not a question of shutting our eyes and gritting our teeth and believing impossible things because some unquestionable authority tells us that is what we have to do. There are many measures for religious belief just as there are for scientific belief.”
Polkinghorne went on to say: “We cannot deny that we are materially embodied beings, but we are not merely material. We are in a way amphibians: we are in the physical world but we are also in some sort of mental and spiritual world. We live in mind and in matter. I think that is a real, reliable experience, but it is a difficult experience to explain.”
“The mind of God lies behind the deep order of the world; the order expresses God’s nature.”
In accord with Fuller, Polkinghorne recognizes the relationship between created and Creator. “For example, in exploring the world, we have found that it is wonderfully and beautifully ordered in its fundamental structure. I worked in particle physics in my science days, and one of the things we found is that there is a deep order in the world. This is expressed in beautiful mathematical equations. Science exploits that fact, but it does not explain where that fact comes from. It is such a remarkable fact that we can understand the world in a deep way, and that when we do so we get this experience of wonder.”
Einstein remarked that “Truth is what stands the test of experience.”
Our lives are filled with questions concerning what is real and why things happen as they do. And with these questions we are offered answers from all sides and angles: science, entertainment, Scripture. How we view this variety of sources is filtered through our experiences and prejudices. As Wolpert notes, often what is impossible is what we have already decided is impossible: “A frequent feature of beliefs is that when examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see and conclude what they expect to conclude.”
The physical world has a deep and strange underlying structure, as revealed through strange phenomena, that continues to be investigated. Scripture, too, reveals a heretofore hidden side of reality.
As the parable of the sower and the seed shows by analogy, answers, information and insight come to us in many ways, but whether they ultimately mean anything or make a difference to us is largely in our own hands (Mark 4:2–8). An open mind is like a tilled garden; it often takes a leap of faith to discover the truths that are right in front of us.