Sunday, January 19, 2014

Quantum Divine Action via God, the Berkeleyan Observer: the Delayed Choice Experiment

Young's Double Slit Experiment,
"There was a young man who said, 'God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad.'
'Dear Sir:
Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
GOD.' "
 Msgr. Ronald Knox, commenting on Berkeleyan idealism.

"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."
Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize winner for work in quantum electrodynamics), The Character of Physical Law

"I am a Quantum Engineer, but on Sundays I Have Principles."
John Stewart Bell (of The Bell's Theorem) as quoted in Quantum [un]speakables: from Bell to quantum information.

Many articles and books have been written about possible mechanisms for God's action in the world by means of a quantum mechanical agency.   I can't possibly in this brief post even summarize all of them, but references are posted below.  Rather, I'll focus on a particular experiment, the delayed choice experiment first proposed by the great American physicist, John Wheeler.  (See also Aspect's delightful lecture about his experimental test of the idea.)   Before discussing the delayed choice experiment, we should try to explain the quantum double-slit experiment on which it is based.    (I'm going to trust that the reader will hit the linked sources to get background material on quantum mechanics.)

If you pass a wave, be it light, water or particles showing their wavelike nature, through two parallel slits you'll see a diffraction pattern, alternating intense and dark bands, as depicted in the diagram above.    Waves will have a positive amplitude at a peak, and a negative amplitude at a trough, so that when two waves meet at points with both peaks, there will be a bigger peak, and at points with a peak and a trough, they will cancel to give zero, showing the interference pattern.     Now the fascinating quantum behavior of particles is that a single particle will seem to go through both slits simultaneously, interfering with itself until it hits the screen, at which point the wave collapses and the particle is at a single point.    As the linked animation shows, when many particles go through, the pattern shown on the screen is one of interference fringes, just as produced by waves.    If you try to detect through which slit a particle goes (i.e. use the camera in the animation), then you perturb the situation and the particle loses its wavelike character, so that the screen pattern becomes that for classical particles going through the two slits, a scattering without the interference fringes.

Here's Wheeler's gedanken delayed slit experiment in essence.  When does the quantum entity decide to behave like a particle or like a wave?  Is it just as it goes through the slit?  Is it after it goes through the slit?  Or???
Wheeler's Delayed Choice Experiment
 What happens if you try to change the type of measurement after it has gone through  the slit?  If, instead of a screen, you use two telescopes oriented and at a distance such that they will determine which slit the particle has gone through, will you detect particle- or wave-like behavior?   Layer 4 in the diagram (4r) shows the detecting screen with a diffraction pattern (wave behavior).   Layer 5 in the diagram shows the two telescopes, collimated and oriented to detect the slit origin, and 5r, the pattern with no diffraction (particle behavior).    Wheeler proposed an astronomical version of the experiment, using gravitational lensing to provide the two different pathways/slits.   If images from two spatially separated telescopes were looked at separately (as in layer 5 in the diagram), no interference would result;  if the images from the two telescopes were combined and looked at together, phase interference would occur with a pattern of interference fringes.   There's an interesting and significant corollary to this experiment.    The light source--some distantgalaxy--is millions or billions of years in the past--but you're affecting it by the present day measurement.   From which corollary Wheeler derived his notion of the participatory universe, created by observation, both in the present and the past.  (And, one might ask, what happens if you go far enough back in the past that no observer was present--but more of that below.)

The delayed choice experiment has been realized experimentally.  Rather than using two slits, half-silvered mirrors provide the two paths--reflection and transmission, and a technique called quantum erasure provides the delayed choice of measurement type.   The results are as Wheeler predicted in his gedanken experiment.   The observer controls the choice of quantum entity behavior  by his choice of measurement technique, even if the decision point for the observer is after the decision point for the quantum entity.

Now, there's been a fair bit of physics (mostly hand-waving) up to now, but no theology or philosophy.   What are the philosophical/theological implications of the delayed choice experiment?   I believe this has been best expressed by the American physicist Raymond Chiao, in his article "Quantum Non-Localities: Experimental Evidence" in Quantum Mechanics--Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, V.5  (publ: Vatican Observatory and Center for Theology and Natural Science;  see below for link).
"I shall assume as a basic principle that the universe we live in bears witness to the Creator who created it  (emphasis added)...let us generalize Berkeley's philosophical principle to a 'neo-Berkeleyan point of view' in which God is the Observer of the universe, in the quantum sense of 'observer'This generalization starts from small which an observer created reality is seen to occur upon every elementary act of observation, and ends up with large systems--in particular with the entire universe.   In this viewpoint, every elementary, individual quantum a result of a creative act of the universal Observer, in which all properties of all particles come into existence on their observation, in continual acts of creatio ex nihilo, which constitutes a kind of creatio continua  occurring everywhere at once.   Thus the existence of the universe itself is contingent upon the continual observations of the Creator.   The idea of contingency of existence, in the sense of the utter dependency of the universe for its properties and existence at each moment upon its Creator, is thereby introduced via quantum physics into philosophy and theology ...Furthermore, this viewpoint suggests a new meaning of the immanence  of the Creator with respect to creation, since God is acting everywhere at once in the universe.   Thus God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent...The neo-Berkeleyan viewpoint introduced here suggests not only a continual creatio ex nihilo qua creatio continua by an immanent Creator, but also a singular creatio ex nihilo by a transcendent Creator.   Moreover, the above Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen effects imply a quantum non-separability, which ties together the universe non-locally as a whole.  This reminds one of the words of the Apostle John,'All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being that has being.'  (John I:3)and of the words of the Apostle Paul,'All things have been created through him and for him...and to him all things hold together.' (Colossians I:16,17)...We infer that 'all things' refers to the universe.  Not only are all distant parts the universe woven together throughout space, but also its future and its past are entangled throughout time, as if the universe were one seamless garment."
I'll await comments from readers, and add several of my own: 1) quantum effects are not generally observed macroscopically because of decoherence effects, that is to say Schrodinger's Cat would exist only on an atomic scale; 2) the notion of creatio continua is, I believe, consistent with Catholic doctrine, and was proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas; 3) Does Chiao's last sentence imply the universe is deterministic, a block universe,  and that there is no such thing as Free Will?  (A subject for another blog?)

Robert J. Brecha, Schrodinger's Cat and Divine Action
Nicholas T. Saunders, Does God Cheat at Dice? Divine Action and Quantum Possibilities  (note: you can upload the pdf file)
Richard Feynman, Quantum Mechanical View of Reality, Part 1; Quantum Mechanical View of Reality, Part 2.
Quantum Mechanics--Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, (Eds: Robert John Russell, Philip Clayton, Kirk Wegter-McNelly, John Polkinghorne), Notre Dame University Press (Note: click on the violet icon for the book Quantum Mechanics and chapters to link will appear.)
Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, Quantum Enigma

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On avoiding the occasion of the sin of anger; why I won't respond to comments by evangelical atheists

"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires."  First letter of James, 1:19-20
"Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools." Eccl 7:9

 As a cranky old physicist, one of my many great failings--both moral and intellectual--is the inability to suffer fools gladly.    I gave up a spot as moderator for the Magis Facebook page (and left Facebook) and stopped visiting Catholic Answers Forum because I would become stressed and angry by the irrational, illogical assertions of the evangelical atheists trolling these sites for "fresh meat" (as one atheism website put it).   Here's one example of the irrational, illogical assertions that one can't really debate:  "the use of example doesn't prove that something is neither necessary nor sufficient."  If you assert that it is a necessary condition that a scientist be an atheist to be a good scientist, and you produce one example of a good scientist who is not an atheist you have shown the not necessary condition.   If you produce one example of an atheist who is not a good scientist, then you have shown that it is not a sufficient condition.     Now, I should add that discussions with some of the atheists/agnostics commenting on these sites was enjoyable and fruitful; the debate was civilized, no assertions were made as fact or truth that were not supported by logic or evidence.

Nevertheless, my response to those who didn't follow the path of rational discourse was much like that of Charlie Brown's to Lucy's non-sequiturs--my stomach began to ache and stress bollixed all the vital signs.   Reading Dr. Andrew Newburg's book, How God Changes Your Brain, I find that stress and anger also damage the neural circuitry in the brain.   Since I am already on the entrance ramp to the senile dementia thruway, I can't afford to lose any more neurons, and therefore will avoid the occasion of sin.  In the future I will not look at comments to my blogs (and therefore won't respond to any).     Since the evangelical atheists making snarky comments will not, for the most part, engage in rational discourse, and since most readers can see through their assertions, not much will be lost to evangelization by this neglect.  

One final point.   What I find most distressing about the evangelical atheists is their unwillingness to engage in any study that conflicts with their preconceptions.   This closing of the "Scientific Mind" (so-called) has been thoughtfully explored in a fine article by William Briggs .   There are atheists/agnostic (Thomas Nagle, Christopher Hitchens) whom I enjoy reading, even though I disagree with some or most of their views.   I wonder how many works by Keith Ward, Peter Kreeft, or Edward Feser have been read by the evangelical atheists trolling religious sites?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Are All Great Scientists Atheists?

Isaac Newton, Portrait by Godfrey Keller
"The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics."  Galileo Galilei
"Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order...This firm belief, a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God." Albert Einstein, as quoted in Cosmos, Bios and Theos.
"There can never be any real conflict between religion and science for the one is the complement of the other." Max Planck, ibid.
Reflecting on a snarky comment to one of my recent blogs ("the Catholic church seems to know with some certainty that we have souls (a nonsensical concept provided (sic) what we now know about neuroscience"), I can only conclude that evangelical atheists (including Richard Dawkins) learn about science from the popular media rather than from research--their own and that of others. From the comments of these evangelical atheists on Facebook and other blogs, I also conclude that they know little of the history and philosophy of science. The corollary to this ignorance is their opinion that you cannot be a good scientist if you are deluded by religious faith.

Let's put the kibosh to that opinion by relating the religious beliefs of eminent scientists.    In the early history of science, great scientists--Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal--all had a deep religious faith.   But suppose the atheist responds, "That was then, this is now; we know more now to justify that believing in God is a delusion."   My response to this canard is to cite the theistic credo of present day eminent scientists, many of them Nobel Prize winners.     Most of these seem to be in the "hard" sciences, physics and chemistry, rather than in biology or medical sciences.   If any of you readers have ideas about the reason  why physicists are more likely to be theists than are biologists,  I'd like to hear them.

Most of the information given below is drawn from Cosmos, Bios and Theos, by Henry Margenau, Yale mathematical physicist* (the * denotes member, National Academy of Science, ** Member. Research Council of Europe, ***, Fellow, Royal Society UK--see below) and Roy Varghese.   I'll give a pertinent quotation and minimum background material for each scientist.   Not all of the scientists listed in the book believe in some specific religion, or even a personal God.   Many are deistic, believing in a Creator, but not necessarily  a God immanent in the universe.  Because of space limitations, not all of those interviewed will be listed here.

  • Professor Christian Anfinsen* (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, biochemistry of RNA, Johns Hopkins University): "I think that only an idiot can be an atheist!  We must admit that there exists and incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place."
  • Professor Werner Archer (Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine, restriction enzymes and molecular genetics, University of Basel): "I do not think our civilization has succeeded in discovering and explaining all the principles acting in the universe.  I include the concept of God among these principles.   I am happy to accept the concept without trying to define it precisely.   I know that the concept of God helped me to master many questions in life; it guides me in critical situations and I see it confirmed in many deep insights into the beauty of the functioning of the living world."
  • Professor D.H.R. Barton*** (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, conformational analysis in organic chemistry, Texas A&M University): "God is Truth.  There is no incompatibility between science and religion.  Both are seeking the same truth"
  • Professor Ulrich Becker** (High energy particle physics, MIT): "How can I exist without a creator? I am not aware of any answer ever given."
  • Professor Steven Bernasek (Solid state chemistry, Princeton University): "I believe in the existence of God.   His existence is apparent to me in everything around me, especially in my work as a scientist.   On the other hand I cannot prove the existence of God the way I might prove or disprove a (scientific) hypothesis."
  • Dr. Francis Collins* (Medicine, former Director of the Human Genome Project, Director, National Institutes of Health, author The Language of God ):"Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates.” 
  • Professor Freeman Dyson *   *** (Theoretical physics, Princeton Institute for Advanced Study):"I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind." Taken from the Templeton Prize Award address, 2000.
  • Sir John Eccles*** (Nobel Prize, neurochemistry):"If I consider reality as I experience it, the primary experience I have is of my own existence as a self-conscious being, which I believe is God created."
  • Professor Manfred Eigen (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, fast reaction kinetics, Director Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Gottingen): "...religion and science neither exclude nor prove one another."
  • Professor John Fornaess* (Mathematics, Princeton Univ.):"I believe that there is a God and that God brings structure to the universe at all levels from elementary particles to human being to superclusters of galaxies."
  • Professor P.C.C. Garnham*** (Medical protozoology, University of London): "God originated the universe or universes...At some stage in evolution  when proto-humans were sufficiently advanced, God created the human soul...By faith and by appreciation of scientific necessity, God must exist."
  • Professor Conyers Herring* (Solid state physics, Princeton University): "We live in a hard, real universe, to which we have to adapt. God is a characteristic of that universe--indeed a miraculous characteristic--that makes that adaption possible. Things such as truth, goodness, even happiness, are achievable, by virtue of a force that is always present, in the here and now and available to me personally."
  • Professor Vera Kistiakowsky* (Experimental Nuclear Physics, MIT and Mount Holyoke College):"I am satisfied with the existence of an unknowable source of divine order and purpose and do not find this in conflict with being a practicing Christian."
  • Professor Sir Neville Mott*** (Nobel Prize for physics, solid state physics, Cambridge University): "...we can and must ask God which way we ought to go, what we ought to do, how we ought to behave."
  • Professor Robert Neumann* (nuclear and isotope chemistry and physics, Princeton University): "The existence of the universe requires me to conclude that God exists."
  • Professor Edward Nelson* (Mathematics, Princeton University): "I believe in, pray to, and worship God."
  • Dr. Arno Penzias* (Nobel Prize for physics for first observation of the universal microwave background radiation, Vice-President for Research, AT&T Bell Laboratories): "... by looking at the order in the world, we can infer purpose and from purpose we begin to get some knowledge of the Creator, the Planner of all this. This is, then, how I look at God. I look at God through the works of God’s hands and from those works imply intentions. From these intentions, I receive an impression of the Almighty.” (as cited in The God I Believe in)
  • Rev. Professor John Polkinghorne*** (Theoretical elementary particle physics,  President, Queens College, Cambridge University):  "I take God very seriously indeed.   I am a Christian believer (indeed, an ordained Anglican priest), and I believe that God exists and has made Himself known in Jesus Christ."
  • Professor Abdus Salam*** (Nobel Prize for physics (elementary particle theory), Director, International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste): "Now this sense of wonder leads most scientists to a Superior Being--der Alte, the Old One, as Einstein affectionately called the Deity--a Superior Intelligence, the Lord of all Creation and Natural Law."
  • Professor Arthur Schawlow* (Nobel Prize for Physics [laser physics], Stanford University): "It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life one must ask why and not just how.   The only possible answers are religious... I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life."
  • Professor Wolfgang Smith (Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics--theoretical work provided the key for solving the re-entry problem in space flight, Oregon State University): "If the physics of the last century prompted atheism, the physics of today is inciting at least the most thoughtful of its votaries to re-examine 'the question of God'"
  • Professor Charles Townes* (Nobel Prize for physics, development of the MASER/LASER, University of California, Berkeley): "I believe in the concept of God and in His existence."
  • Professor Eugene Wigner* (Nobel Prize for physics, applications of symmetry principles--group theory--to quantum mechanics, Princeton University): "The concept of God is a wonderful one--it also helps us makes decisions in the right direction.   We would be very different, I fear, if we did not have that concept."
A few remarks are in order to put this list in an  appropriate context.   First, only a small fraction of the listed scientists  are practicing Christians, and of these, a smaller proportion are Catholic.  Most are deists who believe in a Creator God, but not a personal God.     Second, it is quite likely that the majority of scientists, including great ones, are atheists or agnostics (Steven Weinberg comes to mind as the most vocal of these).   Nevertheless, if only a small proportion of scientists are believers, that shows that faith in atheism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a good scientist.   Third, if one looks at birth-dates (not included here) the majority are old--and in fact may be dead--Cosmos, Bios and Theos was published in 1993.    I can offer two explanations here:   these older scientists matured in an age that was not as anti-religious as the present one and/or scientists gain a reputation only after a life-time of work (neglecting boy geniuses, theoretical physicists and mathematicians).   Fourth, and this is puzzling, a significant plurality of the listed scientists are from Princeton University.   Maybe this represents a selection bias on the part of the authors or is an indicator of more religious freedom at Princeton.  Fifth, I'm sure I've omitted several eminent believers--two immediately come to mind, John von Neumann and Kurt Goedel, both formerly at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (what is in the air at Princeton?).

Finally, I will say that I find most of the remarks inspiring.   And it shows me that faith is not ultimately an act of intellectual discernment, but grace given to us by the Holy Spirit.  It is a gift, and we should not be scornful of those who have not received the gift.
*Member, National Academy of Sciences
**Member, Research Council of Europe
***Fellow,  Royal Society UK

About Me

My photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.