October 16, 2018

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 3b) – Lessons from History

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 3b) — Lessons from History

We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne.  Today we will look at the second part of Chapter 3- Lessons from History.  John continues his comparative study of science and Christian theology with some additional historical examples of how the discovery of further truth proceeds in these two disciplines.  Last time we looked at: (1) Growing recognition of deeper significance.  This week we look at:

(2) Collateral developments.  Further examples considered.  The search for understanding requires the development of a portfolio of inter-connected concepts to do justice to the richness of experience.

(a) Waves.  The waves that people first thought about were directly perceptible phenomena, such as the waves of the sea and sound waves induced by vibrating strings.  In these examples it was clear that an oscillating material medium served as the carrier of waves.

Therefore when James Clerk Maxwell proposed, based on electromagnetic theory, that light was made up of waves, it was natural to suppose that there was some material substrate serving as the medium to carry those waves.  Hence the famous theory of luminiferous aether or ether.  Contemporary physicists like Lord Kelvin and Maxwell himself puzzled over the supposed strange combination of properties.  The Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887, designed to measure the velocity of the Earth through the aether, yielded a null result.

In 1905, Albert Einstein cut the Gordian knot by his discovery of special relativity, which promptly resulted in a way of thinking that abolished the need for an aether altogether.  Electromagnetic waves were recognized to be just that.  It was the energy present in the electromagnetic fields themselves that did the waving.

In 1926, when the Schrodinger equation was formulated as a new king of wave equation, the question once more arose, waves of what?  The initial inclination was to suggest waves of matter, but it soon became clear that this would imply so diffuse an account of the electron that it would not be compatible with its localization when it was actually experimentally observed.

It was Max Born who found the answer.  The Schrodinger waves are waves of probability, and the corresponding wave function is a representation of the potentialities present in the unpicturable quantum state associated with the electron. Polkinghorne says:

This brief history of the wave idea shows both how indispensable a concept it was in theoretical physics and also how its realistic interpretation moved on from a naïve objectivity to a much more subtle account, without at any time ceasing to function as a means for describing the way in which the physical world was found actually to behave.

Holy Spirit Outpouring by Deborah Brown Mahler

(b) Spirit.  Polkinghorne thinks a somewhat similar history can be traced in the case of the theological idea of spirit.  In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of chaos, or, as can be alternately translated a wind from God is blowing over the water.  There are promises of God pouring out his Spirit as in Joel 2:28-29 and the focused bestowal on the Messiah, the one anointed by God as in Isaiah 61:1.  Spirit in the OT is often conceived of as a gift of power for a specific purpose like Bezalel and Oholiab empowered to construct the ark and the tent of meeting in Exodus 31:1-11.  In the preaching of John the Baptist a new idea was put forth of one who would baptize/immerse with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:7-8), which the early Church identified Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy.  In Acts 1:8 the Holy Spirit bestows the power needed for bold witness to Christ.  In the foundational event of Pentecost, it is the risen and exalted Jesus who pours out the Spirit (Acts 2:33).  In Paul’s writings, the gifts bestowed by the Spirit are diverse and distributed to different believers for different purposes (1 Cor. 12:4-11), but they also yield the single fruit of a Christ-like life (Gal. 5:22-23).  In one verse, Romans 8:9, Paul speaks of the Spirit, the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Christ.  In the gospel of John 16:7-8, Jesus both promises to send the Advocate/Paraclete and also says the Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name.  John says:

Everything is not sorted out neatly in the New Testament, but it is clear that mostly its witness to the Spirit is framed in personal terms.  It took the Church some time to work out how to think about all this.  It was not until the fourth century that the concept of the Holy Spirit as divine, and as being the Third Person of the Trinity, finally emerged with a settled clarity and definiteness in the understanding of the church.  Once again one sees movement from a comparatively naïve reification (an extra ingredient given to Bezalel) to a profoundly subtle account of a deep and unexpected reality.


  1. Christiane says:

    “It was not until the fourth century that the concept of the Holy Spirit as divine, and as being the Third Person of the Trinity, finally emerged with a settled clarity and definiteness in the understanding of the church. ”

    I like to think that there is enough within the Holy Scriptures to help people towards God. But the truth is that there does seem to be ‘confusion’ among evangelicals (and certainly among fundamentalists) about the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. So maybe those people who seem ‘confused’ are in ‘process’ for sorting out from the sacred Scriptures, that is, working it out for themselves concerning the nature of the Holy Trinity???? They missed the writings of the early Church, the Creeds, the Councils, and all the liturgical life from the first centuries . . . . I can at least see how these ‘confused’ people may yet be ‘in process’ if they are seriously affected by the sacred Scriptures in the way of those Scriptures being themselves of a ‘sacramental’ nature. (?) just some thoughts . . . 🙂

    I love the first hymn known to be extant the sacred Scriptures: ‘The Phos Hilaron’ which celebrates the Holy Trinity

    • Christiane says:

      Come to think of it, it probably was the collegiality of the whole Church that led to the understanding of the Trinity, in so far as the Church could frame this great mystery. And likely the Doctrine itself was worded to also combat some of the early heresies that had arisen concerning ‘who Christ was’ and the nature of the God.

      Collegiality. I remember Pope Francis calling people from all denominations together for a conference on marriage and the family. I think he understood about the power of collegiality among all Christian people to generate insights that might turn out to be synergistically greater than would come from each denomination working separately on this mutually important issue, as it were.

  2. Now, more than ever, imagination is critical to our spirituality. . I read a story today about a woman who lost her first love and wanted to find her way back. I wanted to call out to her, “find a new approach to the Lord with your imagination!” Some scientists are light years ahead of us in this seeing the unseeable. What I would call reasoned imagination is still footloose and fancy free but is also laden with intent. It is imagination with purpose and destination. I don’t know what it means to be intimate with God so I imagine myself as a child curled up on his lap. I imagine myself sneaking up from behind and covering his eyes in a child like guess who game. I imagine myself being one molecule in his bloodstream moving through his heart and veins. I imagine myself to be a single particle of his light, bursting forth from his being at millions of miles an hour. It is imagination with an end game or goal. Intimacy. Connection. I am certain that it was something akin to this type of critical imagination, with a scientific bent, that Einstein espoused as essential in life.

    • “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” –Einstein

      There are many times I wish I could exchange knowledge for more imagination…

  3. johnbarry says:

    I imagine that I really understand the works of great minds like Einstein but it is only my imagination.

    Although I have done the “wave” at Dolphin football games and when it was going right you cannot tell where it started or where it ended. After much research I have found the amount of beer consumed was related to the strength and length of the “wave” effect. I called this the Budweiser effect.

    Is Pokinghorne saying that we all receive the “spirit” in a different way, that is a personal relationship. If he is than for one of the rare times I understand the concept and agree with Pokinghorne, which I am sure he is thrilled about.

  4. Michael Bell says:

    Polkinghorne seems to have missed a whole lot that the early church father’s said about the Holy Spirit in the first two centuries of the church. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222011000300020

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I don’t know where you’re getting your illustrations, but they make Herr Doktor Schrodinger look really Mad Scientist creepy.