I’m going to start with a quote from one of the most notable figures in Christian theology, the fifth century Bishop, Saint Augustine of Hippo.
“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision … we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to our own.”
This exceedingly insightful comment is from his commentary on Genesis, in which he exhorts the Christians of his day to not conflate their foolish opinions with scripture, so that they might avoid non-Christians mistaking their foolishness with what scripture actually affirms. There are countless examples from history, and even in the present day, of Christians conflating bad science with the Bible. Take the geocentric model of universe, in which everything revolves around planet earth, or the belief that human beings did not evolve, but rather were created, or that the age of universe is less than 10,000 years old, as a literal reading of the Bible might suggest.
It seems that leaps in scientific knowledge are always accompanied by new and wacky pseudoscientific ideas. And the latest iteration of this has accompanied the emergent field of quantum mechanics. There are people who advocate that in some way quantum mechanics makes sense of some underlying spiritual reality. I have come across this idea amongst Christians of various stripes, and (probably where it is more prominent) amongst exponents of New Age type spirituality.
Arguments in favour of some interplay between spirituality and quantum mechanics often sounds quite sophisticated; they use words like “quantum field”, “field of non-locality”, and “quantum entanglement”, sprinkled with some new age type words to justify a whole host of religious ideas - that we are all part of one interconnected whole, part of a universal spirit and so on…
At the quantum level some pretty strange phenomena have been observed, such as particles responding to each other simultaneously, somehow being entangled with each other despite being in totally different locations. Or, the famous double slit experiment, where electrons do not act as particles should but rather act as waves, apparently existing simultaneously in different locations. These are remarkable effects which are not understood. The fallacy comes in when people start to suggest that these quantum effects can somehow be scaled up to the macroscopic world, the world that can be seen by the naked eye.
The process often looks something like this: I want to believe in: magic, the interconnectedness of all things, the miraculous, heaven, or the fairies at the bottom of my garden. I don’t understand quantum, therefore, quantum could mean that my pet belief does exist.
We had an example of this read to us from one of the key new age proponents, Deepak Chopra, who argues that unexpected healing in our body, like the unexpected remission of cancer for example, or any of the other countless anecdotes I’m sure we have all heard before of seemingly miraculous healings, can be understood through the quantum. Metal quantum techniques which spontaneously correct mistakes in the body.
Now undoubtedly there is obviously a mind-body connection; the happy person is less likely to get sick; the optimistic person gets better quicker. But this has nothing to do with Quantum mechanics. So that is one example of Quantum Woo Woo.
Quantum Woo Woo is basically a modern day God of the gaps fallacy. Such and such a phenomena cannot be explained by science, therefore it must be God, or it must be some yet undiscovered property of Quantum mechanics.
Okay, now I’m going to change approach a bit, and think a little about this phenomena that cannot be explained.
The world shows up to us in certain ways. To some their experience of this world makes the presence of God a fact of life, and to some it does not. To some their experience of this world, makes them certain of a divine undercurrent to reality, and to some it does not. And yet it seems to me that, broadly speaking, the world is showing up to us all in similar ways.
We all experience subjectively strange phenomena, and yet we do not all invoke religious language to explain that phenomena. Intuition is a good example of this. In my own life when I have come to one of those big life decisions – the big junction that will change everything thereafter – the right course of action has often come to me well before I am able to defend it rationally.
This world can show up to us in baffling ways, and sometimes the most natural response in the face of the inexplicable is to frame those experiences in spiritual or religious terms. As I say this I can hear the Richard Dawkinses of this world protesting – how can I evoke God in the face of my own ignorance? And I am so sympathetic to that point of view. I disagree though because unlike the pseudoscientists who fill the gaps with garbage, I am not attempting to plug any gaps. Quite the opposite.
The language of Theology, or God-talk, should at best be a way of expressing our experience of the numinous when everyday words fail us, very much like an artist’s paintbrush as he attempts to capture beauty as he perceives it. Theology is not attempting to plug gaps in scientific knowledge, rather it is providing the tools by which we as human beings orientate ourselves in this world.
The danger comes, as Saint Augustine intimates, when we attempt to conflate our spiritual intuitive sense of things with bad, cobbled together science to lend gravitas to our pet theories. For when the pseudoscientific stumbles, we will be shown up as the fools that we are.
If there are places where bad science can be used to prop up subjectively perceived spiritual truths, we can also surely point to examples where spiritual truths that tend to be held in common amongst Unitarians are held up by good science. Such as, increasing our circle of compassion to encompass all life; this is surely echoed in the fact that all life (at least on this planet) has a common origin. Or the fact that greater collaboration and altruism is an emergent property of Darwinian Evolution.
God of mystery and wonder
Who encompasses the breadth of our warring selves – bring us into peace and harmony with all around us, and this world – in all its wonders and its vast diversity.
Help us to be a force for good on this planet, advocates of peace and love, and visionaries of a world where there is neither hunger nor segregation.
God of mystery and wonder – bring us together into a tapestry so beautiful and fascinating: that in its diversity and depths we might hold and embrace the lost, and the dispossessed.