October 16, 2018

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

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

We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne.  Today we will look at the third 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: (2) Collateral developments.  Further examples considered.  This week we look at:

(3) Tides of fashion. The questions considered significant, and the style of thinking found appropriate to answering them, are influenced by contemporary intellectual and cultural attitudes.

(a) Relativistic quantum theory.   Science, like any human endeavor, is not immune from the tides of fashion.  Being a community of humans, sociological factors are certainly at work, although Polkinghorne asserts that it is a gross exaggeration to suggest they determine the nature of the conclusions eventually reached.  Polkinghorne illustrates these effects in his description of the development of relativistic quantum theory.

In 1928, Paul Dirac, working in his small, cloistered room in St. John’s College in Cambridge, developed quantum field theory and came up with the celebrated equation of the electron (which is engraved on his memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey).

It was soon realized that all relativistic quantum equations needed to be treated as field theories.  In physics, a field is a physical quantity, represented by a number that has a value for each point in space and time.  For example: an electric field can be thought of as a “condition in space” emanating from an electric charge and extending throughout the whole of space. When a test electric charge is placed in this electric field, the particle accelerates due to a force. Physicists have found the notion of a field to be of such practical utility for the analysis of forces that they have come to think of a force as due to a field.

Dirac’s equation was verified experimentally, and this success, coupled with the conceptual clarification of wave/particle duality and also Dirac’s successful prediction of the existence of antimatter, clearly showed that quantum field theorists were on to something.

However, when more refined calculations were attempted, instead of yielding the small corrections that were to be expected, they gave nonsensical results, for the answers turned out to be infinite!  Something was going badly wrong.  As a result, for a while people lost interest and confidence in quantum field theory.

The post-WW2 physicists then found an ingenious, if somewhat sleight-of-hand, way around the problem.  In quantum electrodynamics (the field theory of the interaction of electrons with photons, abbreviated as QED), it was discovered that all the infinities could be isolated in terms that simply contributed to the mass and charge of the electron.  If these formally infinite expressions were replaced by the actual finite values of these constants, the resulting calculations were not only free of infinities, but they also proved to be in stunning agreement with experiment.

Quantum field theory had regained its popularity, but it did not last. When attempts were made to apply the same techniques to interactions related to nuclear forces, they failed to give satisfactory answers.  Physicists began to question the whole field idea again.  It is based on the supposition that one can describe what is happening by means of a formalism (a description of something in formal mathematical or logical terms) expressed in terms of all points of space and all instants of time.  Of course, in a laboratory there is only limited access to what is going on.  The basic technique used is a scattering experiment, described simply in terms of colliding particles coming in and scattered particles coming out.

It was therefore proposed that fields should be replaced by a much leaner account, simply linking “before” to “after” the scattering interaction.  The resulting formalism was called S-matrix theory (S for scattering).  Certain mathematical properties of the S-matrix were known to be implied by relativistic quantum mechanics, and it was hoped that these properties would provide the basis for a new theoretical formulation.  It looked promising, and a good number of theorists devoted themselves to the task.  In the end, however, the theory became so complicated that it simple collapsed under its own weight.

Just about this time, developments began that were to give field theory a new lease on life.  A new class of field theories was identified, called gauge theories, in which interactions were found to become weaker as distances increased.  This meant that some of the old techniques could, after all, be used to discuss nuclear matter in certain circumstances.  Field theory once again became the place where the young and ambitious theorist would want to be.  This phase has continued so far, and all contemporary theories that are favored in elementary particle physics are gauge field theories.

(b) The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.  In the realm of theology, fads and fashions are, as the saying goes, “a target-rich environment” to say the least.  Polkinghorne chooses as his analogy with the fluctuating quantum field theory the “search for the historical Jesus”.  Critical historical study of the gospel material had its origin in the later eighteenth century under the influence of the spirit of the Enlightenment.  It is characterized by an aversion to any suggestion of the miraculous and a commitment to a flat historicism based on the axiom that what usually happens is what always happens.  For example, H.S. Riemarus (1778) suggested in his book that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and concocted a story of his resurrection in order to promote their dead leader as a spiritual redeemer.  They committed this deceitful act, Riemarus believed, to conceal the fact that Jesus had been more concerned with nationalistic issues than religious matters.

Most people have heard of the Jefferson Bible (although Jefferson never referred to his work as a bible) where he literally (using a razor and glue) excised every reference to the miraculous.  One of the most notable proponents of such an Enlightenment approach was David Friedrich Strauss, whose Life of Jesus (1835) made extensive use of the category of myth in giving explanation of the content of the gospels.  Strauss was willing to attribute any miraculous element to symbolic value only.  The orthodox Christian claim that Polkinghorne defends in this book is that there well may be mythical components to the gospels but (after C.S. Lewis) they are enacted myths, not only true symbolically, but also true historically.

The liberal nineteenth century view of the historical Jesus makes Jesus look remarkably like a nineteenth century liberal, as catholic writer George Tyrrell remarked wittingly about Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack, who was a German Lutheran theologian and prominent church historian, that: “the Christ Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well”.

These fads continue on down through the 20th Century with Rudolf Bultmann, whose opinion is that the gospels need demythologization of the miraculous in order to be acceptable to persons living in a scientific age.  Polkinghorne says:

Yet commitment to a person unanchored in history because so little could reliably learned about him might well prove to be commitment to an illusion.  In my opinion, a positive evaluation of the relationship between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith lies at the heart of a credible Christology.  Christians cannot rest content with a purely symbolic figure.  The religion of the incarnation is inescapably concerned with the issue of the degree of actual enactment that can properly be seen to be involved in the origin of its myth.  Least of all in a scientific age can we be satisfied with less than a careful investigation into the historically embedded motivations for Christian belief about the unique significance of Jesus.  To treat him as a symbolically evocative, but historically unknown, figure is to lose contact with his reality.  It is not surprising that in the second half of the twentieth century, Christological fashion changed again and, in my opinion, changed for the better.  A “new quest” was inaugurated in search of the historical Jesus.  It continues vigorously today, in its contemporary phase laying great and justified emphasis on the need to take full into account the context of first century Judaism within which Jesus’ life was lived.  Just as quantum physics was driven to seek a more detailed, and consequently more illuminating understanding than that afforded by the veiled account of S-matrix theory, so Christology had to return to its foundational roots in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

John is asserting that, just as in the progress in quantum physics that led to a truer and more useful understanding, real progress has been made in our theology of Christ.  We have moved from a naïve and unsophisticated historicism, through a period of rigorous and scathing skepticism, to a nuanced appreciation of the mystery of the incarnation and the reality of “God with us”.  I wonder if such a movement in history is also reflected in the life of a believer as our faith, hopefully, matures and deepens.

Comments

  1. The religion of the incarnation is inescapably concerned with the issue of the degree of actual enactment that can properly be seen to be involved in the origin of its myth.

    Yet it has so far been impossible to nail down that “degree of actual enactment” historically. Any attempt to do so seems to commit one to a literalistic approach to Scripture that tends toward fundamentalism. Is it really not enough to be satisfied with an historical understanding of Jesus that limits itself to saying that he was not a stinker, that he went about doing good and teaching love of neighbor and enemy; as for the rest, why should history be expected to make the affirmations, or do the work, of Christian theology that leads to the Christ of faith?

    • Correction: …..that lead from the Christ of faith?

    • Additionally, it seems to me that if history makes it possible for Christians to responsibly affirm the belief that Jesus was not a stinker, and that he was a good man who went about doing good and preaching love of God, neighbor and enemy, that should be enough correlation between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith to suffice. If history allows the responsible assertion of those bare details about Jesus, that is all we can hope for. Conversely, if a Christian is committed to being open to the truth claims of history, this means that if history were to find reliable evidence that Jesus was in fact a stinker who promulgated violence and hatred, or that he was a wholesale fabrication of the early Christian community, then she would have to surrender her faith out of regard for the truth.

  2. Mike the Geologist says:

    Robert: I think Polkinghorne would answer you by making the analogy with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. There is a limit to what we can know about “the where” of quantum particles. Beyond that limit there is probability only, not certainty. I think analogically the same is true for the historical truth of the resurrection; we cannot know with “certainty”, only with the most likely probable explanation of what happened. Some physicists, like Einstein, who realized the implication of the HUP, thought the idea too “mystical” and not scientific enough. So you are right in the sense that history cannot be expected to solve the uncertainty of the resurrection, it will remain a “mystery”. But that does not mean it wasn’t reality.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      By the way, here is a good explanation of the practical use of quantum theory and an explanation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylkLF2DD2ws At the end, Polkinhorne speculates that the quantum world is not “God playing dice” but God allowing the universes the freedom to be itself.

    • I go along with all of that, but in addition I can lose a lot of trust in the probability of the historical accuracy of many of the details in the New Testament (and Old, of course) without losing my faith. Indeed, I already have lost trust in the likelihood that many of the details of the New Testament are historically accurate. But as long as history leaves open the likelihood that Jesus existed, that he was not a stinker, and that he was a good man who preached and did good in God’s name, I can afford to be uncertain of many of the other details (even, however, where they are not likely to be historically accurate, or there is uncertainty of the likelihood, they may be kerygmatically valuable and true as a confession of the Christ of faith, so I continue to value them as holy Scripture).

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > I wonder if such a movement in history is also reflected in the life of a believer as our faith,
    > hopefully, matures and deepens.

    C.S. Lewis talks about this in his, much under appreciated IMNSHO, essay “Talking About Bicycles”.

    In short, I doubt anyone can love anyone or anything for very long without, on occasion also hating them or it.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      Ah, yes, Unenchantment, Enchantment, Disenchantment, and Re-enchantment. I had forgotten about that essay. Very profound, Adam, and very germane.

    • Pellicano Solitudinis says:

      I have to go and read that based on the title alone.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Do, its great. I feel it needs some editing, but I think about that essay All-The-Time.
        He nails it, in true Lewisian fashion.

  4. “God allowing the universe to be itself”
    Some events at the quantum level are in principle unpredictable (and therefore random). And according to Prigogine the more we know about the universe, the more difficult it is to believe in determinism. However, it is totally recognizable that a person can have no more control over a purely random act than one has over an act that is inevitable. If the ability to do otherwise is not necessarily true, then what is? Pertinent information. A person might become less angry with another who has run over their cat ( named Schrodinger) if one discovers the perpetrator was rushing to the hospital to care for a sick child. In the end, the important question may not be whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic. It is more important to accept a definition of human free will that is much weaker than intuition demands. This is important because it is at the heart of the issue of who creates. It is either you or it is not you. It is possible that God allowing the universe to be itself and determining its future are compatible. It is possible that being created in the image of God and playing God are not compatible.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > “unpredictable (and therefore random)”
      .
      No, probabilistic does not equal Random.
      Nondeterministic does not equal Random.

      >. It is more important to accept a definition of human free will that is much weaker
      > than intuition demands

      I am not certain what you mean. But my intuition is that any given human – myself included – is deeply habitual, and not in any general sense all that “Free”. Learning someone’s probability matrix on a given axis is not all that difficult – ask anyone who is either in marketing or works on political campaigns. Ever been in a debate with someone and been able to steer them down the path to publicly destroying their own argument? [The “problematic” people are the one’s who have become self-aware of their prejudices and proclivities].

      > It is possible that God allowing the universe to be itself and determining its future are compatible

      Agree, I have never managed to find the problem with that notion.

  5. Clay Crouch says:

    I wonder how this reflects on the short discussion about the nature of facts/truth/reality in yesterday’s post. My son has written two science fiction/love story novels that revolve around these issues.

  6. Christiane says:

    “We have moved from a naïve and unsophisticated historicism, through a period of rigorous and scathing skepticism, to a nuanced appreciation of the mystery of the incarnation and the reality of “God with us”. I wonder if such a movement in history is also reflected in the life of a believer as our faith, hopefully, matures and deepens.”

    maybe an adult appreciation of the ‘mystery’ surrounding Christ is a re-awakening of the inner child’s wonder felt at seeing a manger scene . . . . a wonder that got repressed for a time . . . . a wonder that needed no ‘explanation’ but simply ‘was’ for its own sake a blessing

  7. Norma Cenva says:

    These thoughts from Nikola Tesla:

    “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality. “

    and:

    “The scientists from Franklin to Morse were clear thinkers and did not produce erroneous theories. The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”

    Sorry, but I couldn’t resist.

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