Part 1: The Quantum Revolution in a nutshell
Forget Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker and the other high-profile God-denying "clever" boys. It is time for the broader implications of the 20th-century physics revolution, often described as quantum mechanics, to again be debated seriously and out in the "town square," not just the backrooms of academia or in "deferring to the expert" interviews and documentaries.
In this spirit, the best-selling USA novelist, Andrew Klavan, recently penned a novel article for City Journal, in which he defended Christianity and demolished what he called the Enlightenment Narrative. (https://www.city-journal.org/faith-western-civilization)
His argument included many perceptive points, but his observations on science, especially the quantum physics revolution, are the focus here. This is a field of growing interest for me, since I first encountered the vigorous, and very public, philosophical and theological debates, which that science revolution triggered in the years immediately prior to World War II.
So profound were the changes quantum physics wrought in our understanding of the physical world, that they even caused an intellectual crisis in the Soviet Union-Communist world, which was based on a materialistic theory - dialectical materialism - of life and history. We will come back to this problem of "science needing to fit the Marxist political theory" in a future article in this series.
In 2019 this is how Andrew Klavan summarised the implications of these dramatic science developments in the first decades of the 20th century:
And is science still moving away from that Christian outlook, or has its trajectory begun to change? It may have once seemed reasonable to assume that the clockwork world uncovered by Isaac Newton would inexorably lead us to atheism, but those clockwork certainties have themselves dissolved as science advanced. Quantum physics has raised mind-boggling questions about the role of consciousness in the creation of reality. And the virtual impossibility of an accidental universe precisely fine-tuned to the maintenance of life has scientists scrambling for “reasonable” explanations.
Like Pinker, some try to explain these mysteries away. For example, they’ve concocted a wholly unprovable theory that we are in a multiverse. There are infinite universes, they say, and this one just happens to be the one that acts as if it were spoken into being by a gigantic invisible Jew! Others bruit about the idea that we live in a computer simulation—a tacit admission of faith, though it may be faith in a god who looks like the nerd you beat up in high school.
In any case, scientists used to accuse religious people of inventing a “God of the Gaps”—that is, using religion to explain away what science had not yet uncovered. But multiverses and simulations seem very much like a Science of the Gaps, jerry-rigged nothings designed to circumvent the simplest explanation for the reality we know.
The quantum insurrection took place between 1900 and 1930. In the words of one of the revolutionaries, George Gamow, these were the 30 years that shook physics. Doctor Gamow was a Ukrainian-USA physicist and cosmologist, who worked alongside many of the quantum physics rebels in Russia, Germany, Denmark, Great Britain and the USA. He was also a gifted writer and chronicled from the "inside" the theories and adventures of his fellow quantum subversives.
His opening sentence in the preface to his book, “Thirty Years That Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory,” said it perfectly:
Two great revolutionary theories changed the face of physics in the early decades of the twentieth century: the Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Theory.
Doctor Gamow's introduction to this book still contains one of the best summaries of the insurgency's key stages and ideas:
The opening of the twentieth century heralded an unprecedented era of turnover and re-evaluation of the classical theory that had governed Physics since pre-Newtonian times.
To understand the revolution you first have to understand what it was that was being upended. The Ancien Régime under siege was "classical physics," the everyday physics most of us are still familiar with.
Classical physics reigned supreme between 1600 and 1900 (and for the vast majority of people still does) and was based on Isaac Newton's various laws of motion and principles of mechanics. Classical physics is mechanistic, deterministic (cause and effect) and materialistic.
It did a fairly good job of describing physical objects larger than atoms and molecules and it did so in a way that appeared logical and common sense in our day-to-day world. It was a powerful force (excuse the pun) in the development of human knowledge. The ideas and laws underpinning it became popular a few hundred years ago and an influential group of people fell for the arrogant and ridiculous worship of such simple, yet compelling, science as a source of meaning.
For them, and they aggressively tried to get the idea accepted across society, the world was no longer mysterious and wondrous, but instead resembled some kind of neat and tidy machine, like a well-crafted clock. This is what we refer to as the so-called "Enlightenment."
This world view and the associated intellectual arrogance was blown to smithereens in the first few decades of the 20th century. Classical physics is basically dead, except in so far as it is useful for things like engineering and in the minds of most people whose mental processes are stuck at the five senses, macro-physical level
Quantum physics, with some help from Einstein’s Relativity, changed everything. It shattered the mechanical world view. The so-called "Enlightenment" was a house of cards. It was indeed a full-scale scientific revolution, the likes of which we had never seen before - not even during Newton's time.
It all began to unravel as the 19th century drew to a close and various physicists realised that, at the atomic and sub-atomic level, the laws of classical physics were struggling and generally did not provide an accurate description of nature. Enter quantum physics or mechanics, which started to provide a theory of the world of the atoms. It also required a profound change in our understanding of how nature operates. Things were not what they appeared to be.
As stated above, George Gamow, has provided one of the best summaries of the key stages and ideas in this initial quantum era. The Quantum Theory:
...is the result of the creative work of several great scientists starting with Max Planck, who was the first to introduce into physics the notion of a quantum of energy. The theory went through many evolutionary stages and gives us today a deep insight into the structure of atoms and atomic nuclei as well as that of bodies of the sizes familiar to our everyday experience. (Preface.)
In his introduction Dr Gamow goes on to describe those stages:
Speaking on December 14, 1900, at the meeting of the German Physical Society, Max Planck stated that paradoxes pestering the classical theory of the emission and absorption of light by material bodies could be removed if one assumed that radiant energy can exist only in the form of discrete packages. Planck called these packages light quanta.
Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was part of Germany's scientific establishment and an unlikely revolutionary, but a revolution he had indeed just started. With Max Planck now rightly positioned at the head of the rebel army, Dr Gamow continued his description of its mobilisation over the next 30 years:
Five years later, Albert Einstein successfully applied the idea of light quanta to explain the empirical laws of photoelectric effect.
Still later, Arthur Compton performed his classical experiment, which showed that the scattering of x-rays by free electrons followed the same law as the collision between two elastic spheres. Thus, within a few years the novel idea of quantization of radiant energy firmly established itself in both theoretical and experimental physics.
In the year 1913, a Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, extended Planck's idea of quantization of radiant energy to the description of mechanical energy of electrons within an atom.
In 1925, a French physicist, Louis de Broglie, published a paper in which he gave a quite unexpected interpretation of Bohr quantum orbits.
One year after their publication, de Broglie's ideas were extended and brought into more exact mathematical form by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, whose theory became known as Wave Mechanics.
Simultaneously with Schrodinger's paper on wave mechanics, there appeared a paper of a young German physicist, W. Heisenberg, who developed the treatment of quantum problems by using the so-called "non-commutative algebra," a mathematical discipline in which a X b is not necessarily equal to b x a.
Many unsuccessful attempts had been made to unite the Theory of Relativity with the Theory of Quanta until finally, in 1929, a British physicist, P. A. M. Dirac, wrote his famous Relativistic Wave Equation.
Thus, by 1930, only three decades after Planck's momentous announcement, the Quantum Theory took the final shape with which we are now familiar.
Do not let the complex scientific detail and jargon intimidate you here. (Even Einstein struggled with quantum physics.) The point is, things had clearly moved beyond the idea of the world as a giant clock-like mechanism or gear box. The wider implications of these discoveries quickly became apparent outside the science and mathematics laboratories.
Many, including the quantum physicists themselves, understood the profound, potential cultural implications of quantum physics during the 1920s and 1930s and the general public were regularly reading about it in their daily newspapers. Philosophy and religion were back in play.
Unfortunately, the 20th century was then so disrupted by economic trauma and war, and the quantum ideas and discoveries were so counter-intuitive, that their true import for wider culture was largely buried.
All-consuming distractions like World War II basically brought the wider public discussion, which was so lively in the pre-war years, to an end for much of the post-war period. It is also true that most people struggle to grasp its complexity. As the United States quantum physics expert, Leonard Susskind, has said (Is the Universe a Hologram, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNgIl-qIklU):
It is hard to understand. Our neural wiring was not built for quantum mechanics. It was not built for higher dimensions. It was not built for thinking about curved space-time. It was built for classical physics. It was built for rocks and stones and all the ordinary objects and it was built for three-dimensional space. And that’s not quite good enough for us to be able to visualize and internalize the ideas of quantum mechanics and general relativity and so forth. …that can be extremely frustrating when trying to explain to the outside world. The outside world, by and large, has not had that experience of going through the rewiring process of converting their minds into something that can deal with five dimensions, 10 dimensions, or the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle or whatever it happens to be. And so the best we can do is to use analogies, metaphors.
Metaphor? So quantum physics has brought science full circle, back to the world of religion and the story telling methods of Jesus Christ and other religious figures.
Where quantum physics challenges everything, including those who arrogantly dismiss things like spirituality, is that it basically tells us two things:
1. There might not be such a thing as an objective material object; and
2. Consciousness has to be fundamental.
Now, let’s be clear. This new science does not prove the existence of God or anything else of that nature. But, it does shatter the arrogant certainty of those who think science is all you need and has killed off the spiritual. Through quantum physics we were again reminded of just how much we don’t know, especially about the mystery of the universe and the atomic world. In fact, we were not even close. This new quantum world was nothing like what scientists had envisaged prior to its discovery.
In the world with “spooky” features and interactions (to paraphrase Einstein on quantum theory) now being discovered by the quantum physicists, even ideas such as the resurrection of Jesus are no big deal. Neither are the Christian "multiverses" called heaven, hell and purgatory. In an article foreshadowing Andrew Klavan's 2019 claims above, this was well summarised for a fascinated public, by one Congregational minister 80 years earlier, on the other side of the world in Queensland, Australia (Percival Watson, Brisbane Sunday Mail, 9 April 1939, p.6):
When Jesus was stretched upon the Cross men said, 'That is the end of Him.' But it was not. It was his true beginning. Had he not conquered death he would have been forgotten with the thousands of other nameless victims who were crucified in those times. Had he not manifested his resurrection body to his frightened disciples, who had forsaken him and fled, they would never have returned to become the fearless preachers and martyrs of the Christian faith. The Christian Church would never have come into being, nor would the sign of the Cross ever have eclipsed the glory of the Roman Eagles. The resurrection of Christ from the dead has become the central fact of human history, and the symbol of that fact is an empty tomb. The miraculous element is of course a stumbling-block to many. But objectors to this cannot be as dogmatic to-day as they used to be. The new physics has reset all our ideas about the inviolability of natural laws. Professor Whitehead (Alfred North Whitehead, British mathematician and philosopher), no mean authority, asserts that much of the past emphasis of science on such so-called laws was 'pure bluff.' And he goes on to say, 'Heaven only knows what nonsense may not to-morrow be demonstrated as truth.' Students of Relativity and the Quantum theory may well believe him.
This was typical of a lot that was being written and discussed at the time. The quantum and relativity revolution also restored respect for imagination, intuition and other forms of human knowledge and experience. For those who truly understood it, it brought science back to a closer relationship with religion and spirituality.
As quantum physicist and renowned science writer, Lee Smolin, observed in 2006 (The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next):
Whatever they have been called, there has never been a human society without science, politics, art, and religion.
At the individual level it is true that most people involved in the quantum revolution and the ongoing research since had their world views profoundly challenged. Many were and are religious believers. As for the man who started it all, in the late 1940s reports emerged that the father of quantum physics, Max Planck, had became a Catholic. In 1937, though not a Catholic at the time, he also accepted a position on the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science.
Others, as Andrew Klavan points out, ended up speculating, in their own quasi-religious or philosophical way, about all sorts of alternative, unprovable ideas such as multiverses.
In the next article we will look more closely at the worldwide debate about science, philosophy and religion, which erupted in the 1920s and 1930s as a result of the quantum revolution.