looking for gods in the quantum mesh

John Polkinghorne managed to create a version of God that's both truly omnipresent and omniscient, and almost entirely powerless and irrelevant.
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As pointed out a few times on this blog, the realm of quantum mechanics has been used and abused by just about everyone from the woo faithful of the New Age movement, to enthusiastic scientists trying to create a new theory of consciousness, often substituting the word quantum for an actual explanation. And now, there seems to be another trend of quantum physics abuse, this time from religious scientists publicly reconciling their research and knowledge with their personal beliefs in the supernatural.

Starting at first as a flimsy tool of a few creative theologians, the invocation of quantum mechanics as a realm of deities was eventually picked up by Francis Collins, then Ken Miller, and now a priest and former physicist John Polkinghorne, who should really know that the notion of gods playing with the quantum mesh just doesn’t work scientifically or logically.

Now, it’s one thing when theologians try to use this argument because their job is to describe something that should be outside of human perception by its definition and they have to get really creative along the way. It’s kind of like moviemakers dreaming up of an idea for a warp drive to move the plot along and we just suspend our disbelief as is required of us for the story to work, and let them run with it. But scientists answer to a rather different set of standards. Their claims must be empirical and accurate, able to withstand peer-review and the repeated experiments of their colleagues who’ll try to replicate their findings. This is exactly why there’s a very unsettling feeling when a physicist with scientific training and a PhD says things like this…

Quantum theory is something more subtle than [a clockmaker creator]. We can believe a world in which we ourselves interact — we’re not clockwork at all — and we can believe in a world in which God interacts. We can believe in a God who doesn’t just sit and wait for it to happen but is involved in the unfolding of creation.

I did mention that Polkinghorne is a particle physicist, right? So how exactly does one of the people behind the discovery of quarks manage to suddenly cast away all his knowledge on the subject and come up with such a mess of a proposal? Having a deity affect the cosmos through quantum particles is like saying that instead of making yourself a cup of coffee, you should put it together quark by quark and then control the countless highly intricate interactions of particles on every level of your finished product, from the nuclei of atoms, to the heat of the actual liquid and its flow in a planet’s gravitational field.

It’s ridiculously, tediously overcomplicated and we can show exactly how by doing a little math, which yields a daunting 47.7 septillion quarks per a 12 oz. cup of coffee. And that’s not even counting all the electrons, photons, gluons and other bosons needed to impart the necessary forces, charges and bonds onto the drink and its container, or the energy needed to heat it. This is a very rough estimate of course, but we’re just trying to get an idea of the scale of the problem rather than get an accurate count of every quark in a particular object.

If we expand our scope to the entire 4.6% of ordinary matter in the universe, we’ll get 4.21 × 1078 quarks which our deity would need to keep track of, along with several times more electrons and bosons, not to mention the free floating fermions and the dark matter, which occurs in quantities five times greater than the matter we all know. So how and why exactly would a deity keep track of all this mind-numbing complexity rather than just reach out into the macro world and make things happen? And how would it be successful in manipulating the entire universe if the forces of gravity kick in past a certain point and limit the number of quantum states that a particle could achieve?

Our quantum reliant deity would be at the mercy of general and special relativity, so its involvement would have to be on a virtually negligible scale. Quantum effects won’t spread beyond molecules bigger than 60 atoms without chilling those larger molecules to near absolute zero and there are very few places in the universe where it’s even close to being that cold.

Probably the scariest part of all this is that Polkinghorne should be the one detailing the problems with having a quantum deity and someone like me should be taking notes. Instead, he won the annual $1.5 million prize from the Templeton Foundation, recently awarded to Francisco Ayala with help from the National Academy of Sciences, and makes arguments that go completely against his area of professional expertise in a public interview for the sake of cramming religion into science. And this is the kind of stuff for which Templeton pays the really, really big bucks and calls a great accomplishment in science and education.

[ story tip by Jerry Coyne ]

# science // physics / quantum mechanics / religion / templeton foundation


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