Thursday, September 01, 2016

same old same old: quantum physics and questions

Image result for quantum physics meme
Image from physicsworld.com
Last night I attended a lecture entitled, "Quantum Physics and Christianity." I know, who could resist a topic like that? Quantum is the Latin word for "amount" and in physics, it refers to the very small increments into which energy, such as light, is subdivided. The lecturer was Dr. Arnold Sikkema, a professor of Physics from Trinity Western University. There was a lot of talk about electrons and particles and how physics is increasingly verisimilitudinous (we are always learning more about how things work), and even mention of a cat, though not in a very pleasant way (what do you have against cats, Schrodinger?). It is common to associate science with certainty, precision, and verifiable predictability, but in reality, the more scientists discover, the less they speak in terms of certainty.

Dr. Sikkema mentioned that in the last hundred years or so, worldviews in science (and much of culture as well) have shifted from certainty to uncertainty, from dualism (either/or) to duality (both/and), from predictability to probability, from determinism to indeterminism, from believing we can be objective observers to realising we are subjective participants, and from reductionist tendencies to a more holistic outlook. All of these shifts are marks of progress, not because uncertainty has more value than certainty, but because these outlooks more accurately reflect reality. We are naive to think we have it all figured out or that we know how things will turn out.

My favourite part of the talk had to do with epistemology (how we know things). In quantum physics, it has been found that the questions you ask affect the answers. For instance, if you ask, "Does light behave as a wave?" it will give you wave properties. If you ask, "Is light a particle?" it will give you particle results. It is now believed that light is both a wave and a particle (dualism shifted to duality). There is an important principle to be noted here: the best way to know something about a subject is to let the subject inform the type of questions we ask. For example, if I want to know something about a piece of furniture, I hope I would ask different questions than if I want to get to know a person. If I want to know something about electrons, I would ask different questions than if I want to know something about key lime pie (don't you want a piece right now?). The object of our inquiry actually tells us, or at least gives us clues to, what the pertinent, important questions are, if we are willing to listen and watch and learn.

Basically, the art of asking good questions is closely tied to revelation. The object of our study will reveal itself to us over time if we are patient and attentive, but we must also be responsive to what is revealed. If we insist on foisting our own questions on the object, paying no heed to what it tells us or shows us, that revelation will be obscured or blocked.

Always asking the same questions doesn't get us anywhere, not in quantum physics, not in philosophy, not in theology, not in relationships, not in art, not in life. The basic questions are more or less constant (who? what? when? where? why? how?) and we flesh them out to apply to different situations. Sometimes, our questions get stuck in a rut and as a result, the answers are rather unsatisfying. If I go to a party and ask everyone the same two questions (What's your name? What do you do?) I will end up knowing less about the people there than if I ask a variety of questions (What is satisfying/challenging about your work? Where would you like to travel? Who inspires you?).

I have been revisiting the book of Job this week as I edit one of my dissertation chapters for possible publication. Job is full of questions for God, good questions that deserve answers, or so he thinks. But they are always the same questions. Why are you silent, God? Why are you picking on me? Why don't you defend me or help me or even kill me? When God responds, he doesn't answer Job's questions. He speaks of glory and creation instead of suffering and injustice. The questions that Job was asking were not the questions that God was answering. Revelation usually happens when we are willing to change our questions or set them aside.

Quantum physics teaches us that if we want fruitful research, the object of our inquiry must inform the questions we ask. I believe life, especially the life of faith, teaches us the same. What questions have you been asking lately? Are they the same ones you have been asking for years? Perhaps it is time we stop and listen, stop and look, and interact with the object of our attention instead of interrogating it. Perhaps we don't need answers to our particular questions. Perhaps we need a bit more revelation.

1 comment:

the other Martha said...

I believe that it is important to be honest with God and ask the questions that are on our heart. For years I asked the same question and didn't give up. It was in God's time and place to give the answer. He is not condemning us for the questions we ask.