Providence and the Scientific Method

In the previous blog, I argued that the orderliness and consistency of our physical universe, as seen through the fine tuning of the four fundamental field interactions, provides clear evidence of God’s handiwork. This regularity is not simply the result of unguided, impersonal physical laws, but rather it is due to the faithfulness of God. In other words, the evidence of God in our physical world is seen by His acts of creation and providence. Chapter 5, Paragraph 1 of the 1689 LBCF states it in this way

God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable.

This classic statement on the providence of God explains why being a scientist is an honorable vocation and why the scientific method (when used properly within its constrained limits) does correspond to our reality. When we affirm these basic truths concerning God’s providence with the regularity of our physical world, we will develop a more robust, holistic view of the physical world. Unfortunately, many Christians have inherited a worldview in which the governing physical principles of the natural world are divorced from God’s works of providence. This worldview is not only unbiblical, but it’s also contrary to the worldview of the men who pioneered the modern scientific age. When Isaac Newton published his treatise of classical mechanics, entitled The Principia, he discusses the motivations for his study. He writes:

I had an eye upon such principles as might work, with considering men, for the belief of a deity… this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these being formed by the like wise counsels, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun, and from every system light passes into all other systems: and lest the systems of the fixed stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those systems at immense distances one from another. This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all … All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing.

From the depths of his own soul, Newton came to know God through the Word, but through his study of the design of the physical universe, his belief was reaffirmed. Thus, the diligent student of science and the earnest seeker of truth will learn, as Newton did, that all science and all truth are one which has its beginning and its end in the knowledge of Him whose glory the heavens declare and whose handiwork the firmament shows forth (cf. Psalm 19). Of course, this blog series is being written because many no longer hold on to this worldview. Apart from evolutionary biology, it is my belief that quantum theory militates most strongly against this worldview. In this blog, I want to discuss what happens when we divorce God’s providence from the study of the natural world.

The Leap of Quantum Theory

It is well-known that the two irreconcilable fields in theoretical physics are quantum theory and general relativity. Theorists hope these fields can be reconciled so that a unified field theory can be developed. Undergraduate students tend to ask me whether I believe these fields will be reconciled and my answer has always been in the negative because the interpretations and implications of quantum theory appear to be irrational.

Quantum theory traces its origin to the work of Max Planck, who presented in 1900, the hypothesis that energy comes in discrete units called “quanta”. The watershed moment for quantum theory came in 1927 with the uncertainty principle by German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg found that one can learn either the exact position of a given particle or its exact trajectory, but not both simultaneously. This is contrary to the classical physics which states that the location and trajectory of any particle can be determined, in principle, at some point in the future.  This means that classical physics is philosophically built on determinism.

Heisenberg’s experiments showed that this assumption was false – that we can never know everything about the behavior of even one particle and, therefore, can never make predictions about the future that will be completely accurate in every detail. This marked a fundamental change in the worldview of physics and lead to famous debates in the early half of the 20th century. Those who held to classical physics (such as Einstein) believed that the observed randomness is a reflection of our ignorance of some fundamental property of reality, whereas proponents of quantum theory believed that the physical world is fundamentally built on uncertainty and probability.

The interpretation of the mathematical postulates of quantum theory led to a number of implications. The most fundamental interpretation of quantum mechanics asserts that the natural change of any quantum system is by way of indeterministic physically discontinuous transitions between stationary states. For a classical example of this postulate, consider the description of the subatomic world as described by Timothy Ferris in his book Coming of Age in the Milky Way

The more closely physicists examined the subatomic world, the larger indeterminacy loomed. When a photon strikes an atom, boosting an electron into a higher orbit, the electron moves from the lower to the upper orbit instantaneously without having traversed the intervening space. The orbital radii themselves are quantized, and the electron simply ceases to exist at one point, simultaneously appearing at another. This is the famously confounding “quantum leap” and it is no mere philosophical poser; unless it is taken seriously, the behavior of atoms cannot be predicted accurately.

Thus, if this explanation is an accurate description of the subatomic world, then quantum mechanics has revived the concept of change and self-creation as a tool to explain the physical world. If the “quantum leap” is literally simultaneous, then we have a clear violation of the law of non-contradiction since the electron is in an orbit and not in an orbit at the same exact time and in the same relationship. However, a more serious problem with the explanation is that it introduces the tacit assertion that effects can exist without causes. The popular interpretation of quantum theory suggests that quantum leaps occur by “chance” (since probability distributions are the irreducible physical concept) and this justifies the hypothesis that nothing causes the behavior of subatomic particles. To be free of casuality is to be free of logic, and license is given for making nonsense statements with impunity.

Ultimately, we must come to the conclusion that quantum theory and general relativity cannot both be correct. While general relativity allows for (and predicts) a perfect point-like singularity at the beginning of time, quantum mechanics does not, for it prohibits defining at the same time the precise location, velocity, and size of any single particle or singularity. Furthermore, quantum mechanics seems to suggest that the sub-atomic world – and even the world beyond the atom – has no independent structure until it is defined by the human intellect. We can say that quantum theory has great explanative power for many phenomena, but for the reasons given above, it cannot be a full and accurate description of reality.

The Conclusion of the Matter

So what are the conclusions that we should draw from this? First, we should recognize that the behavior of the natural world cannot be fully explained within itself. When we attempt to explain the nature of this world without a consistent natural theology, we end up with inconsistencies and absurdities. No one disputes the appearance of quantum behavior on the subatomic scale, but the interpretation of this behavior leads to absurdities. Second, we are meant to use general and special revelation to understand this world. Human knowledge is limited not only by our sin and our intellect, but it’s also limited by our finitude. Thus, we need special revelation to inform our observations of the natural world.

Third, it’s important to note that no scientific theory develops in a vacuum. Our worldview affects how we interpret the natural world. It is not an accident that many Christian scientists gravitate towards general relativity since this theory is the culmination of classical physics, which is built off of ultimate causation. Conversely, it’s not an accident that quantum theory is appealing to those who gravitate toward Eastern religion and philosophy since its predictions has many similarities to Eastern mysticism. Ultimately, this means that a discussion on the existence of God and science boils down to a question of worldviews. The fundamental Christian claim states that the universe, being made by the all-wise, all-knowing God, is internally self-consistent because it reflects His wisdom and knowledge. Thus, we do not have a universe in which contradictions abound, but one in which Christ upholds all things by the Word of His power. In the next blog, I will conclude this mini-series by discussing two of the strongest unifying concepts in physics, energy and entropy.


One thought on “Providence and the Scientific Method

  1. Pingback: The Ultimate Fate of the Universe | CredoCovenant

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