Saturday, January 23, 2010

Quantum Physics and Theology

Saturday after Epiphany 2
January 23, 2010

The Lord be with you

“All truth is God’s truth” is a sentiment Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne must certainly agree with. For the first twenty-five years of his adult life he made his living as a theoretical physicist working on theories of elementary particles and he played a significant role in the discovery of the quark. He then left that field of study and turned his focus to theology, becoming a priest in the Church of England. He excelled there also, eventually becoming president of Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has written numerous books and articles, received numerous awards, and been involved in numerous organizations, especially those that deal with the relationship between religion and science.

I have recently finished his book Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. His goal in this book is to encourage scientists who have discounted theology to take a second look at what theology has to say, and to encourage theologians who have discounted science to take a second look at what science has to say. As I do not fall into either of these categories, it is hard for me to say if the book accomplishes its goal (I am a theologian that feels science is a great blessing as it seeks to understand the created universe our God has placed us in.) You might say, for me, Polkinghorne was “preaching to the choir.”

I did, however, find the book fascinating. Polkinghorne was able to explain his scientific points in a way that a person unfamiliar with the intricacies of the mathematics of quantum physics could understand. The parallels between the truth seeking efforts of science and theology were well thought out. The possible theological implications of quantum physics could have been fleshed out more, but perhaps the scientists reading the book would not be quite ready for that. Then again a quantum physicist might feel the say same way about his field and theologians.

One thing that scientists often search for is some unified theory that explains everything, something like the underpinnings of all reality. Polkinghorne ends his book with the statement, “I believe that ultimately the cousinly relationships that we have investigated in this book find their most profound understanding in terms of that true Theory of Everything which is Trinitarian theology.” Though I do not agree with all his conclusions, to that one I give a big “Amen!”

This is a short book (just over 100 pages), and well written. However I do think that most people would need some college to really follow what he is saying. This is not Polkinghorne’s fault. It is the fault of the subject matter. For those of you who are members of Lamb of God Lutheran (LCMS), you can expect an insight or two that I’ve gleaned from this book to surface in my sermons from time to time.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert


  1. Ever since I learned what quantum physics was/were, astronomers and physicists have sought the GUT -- the Grand Unifying Theory. It's the grail of science, and they thought they were close in 1905, when Einstein came up with the Special Theory of Relativity. Last time I checked, "String Theory" was leading the way, and we were up to eleven, count 'em, ELEVEN parallel universes.
    "Here is wisdom." ;-)

  2. A new Enterprise, First Line Wellness, has published its original research into Quantum Biophysics - 5 years in the making. Go to ; and access the button at the top that says "Our Technology Explained." It's extensive and obviously written by the folks who developed the knowledge; however, their take is extraordinary and where their research leads one is nothing less than astonishing.

  3. As you would guess of someone who has made a living as a theoretical physicist and been instrumental in discovering some aspects of the sub-atomic world, Polkinghorne is not ignorant of superstring theory. The following three quotes from his book reveal some of the challenges those who work in this field are facing.

    “Today, many particle theorists are concentrating on efforts to consolidate and elucidate string theory, and its still somewhat elusive generalisation, M-theory. The fundamental basis for this activity lies in the mathematical exploration of relativistic quantum theory when it is formulated in terms of entities of higher dimensions rather than simple points. Since the combination of relativity and quantum theory is known to yield a synthesis with a depth and fruitfulness that exceeds the mere sum of its component parts, there is good general motivation for such a line of investigation, though there is also such a degree of free creation involved in formulating string theory that it is by no means clear that it will necessarily prove to be the actual description of a new level in the structure of the physical world. At present it lacks the discipline of engagement with new experimental predictions and results. History suggests that quite severe limits should be set on any expectation of human ability to second-guess nature in regimes lying far beyond current experimental access.” (page 27)

    “The two great twentieth-century discoveries in fundamental physics were quantum theory and general relativity. Straightforward efforts to combine the two yielded nonsensical results. The current attempt at remedy is superstring theory. Its ideas are ingenious, but the approach depends upon trying to guess the form of physics in regimes whose scale is more than sixteen orders of magnitude smaller than those of which we have actual experimental knowledge. Many doubt the feasibility of so ambitious a project.” (page 69)

    “Such a Grand Unified Theory, or GUT for short, has so far proved difficult to achieve and the attempts to find it have been controversial and not wholly convincing. The present favoured candidate is superstring theory, but accepting its ideas depends upon believing that theorists, on the basis of mathematical considerations alone, can second-guess the character of nature at a level of detail more than ten thousand million million times smaller than anything of which we have direct empirical experience. The lessons of history are not encouraging to such a bold venture. Usually nature has something up her sleeve that only empirical pressure will cause the theorists to think of.” (page 99)