Guest Post: Believing the Unbelievable?

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Rocky Chang, Flickr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies

 Shakespeare

A common objection to Christianity is that it simply isn’t believable. The virgin birth, the resurrection, the feeding of the five thousand – it’s just all rather improbable isn’t it, if not downright impossible. The question I’m going to consider in this blog post is “Does the truth have to seem believable?”, looking at examples from modern science.

One area I’m interested in is quantum mechanics. Quantum simply means discrete (as opposed to continuous, think dots rather than lines) and mechanics is the branch of physics which deals with motion. Quantum mechanics deals with the behaviour of small particles, and it defies all notions of common sense. Quantum particles can:

  • Seemingly exist in two places at once (the principle of superposition)
  • Have mysterious instantaneous links between them regardless of the distance between them (quantum entanglement)
  • Tunnel straight through barriers instead of needing to go over them (quantum tunnelling)

Quantum predictions can only ever give probabilities, and there is a limit to how well you can know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. Perhaps the strangest thing in quantum mechanics, as if the aforementioned things do not cause enough trouble already, is that the act of observation can change the result of the experiment!When dealing with the quantum world you are no longer simply observing what is there: the very act of observation changes the reality of what is there.

The bizarreness of quantum mechanics is best described by the double slit experiment.  Electrons are fired one at a time at a screen which has two slits in it1. Having passed through (we assume) one of the slits they hit a screen on the other side. The pattern you would expect to see on the screen is a bright line behind each of the slits, corresponding to an electron having passed thought the right or left hand slit respectively.

What appears, however, is a bright line at the centre of the screen BETWEEN the two slits, with less bright lines on either side of it. This is the signature not of particles but of waves. Think of the ripples between the two rings if you drop two pebbles into water2– and the ups and downs that the waves create as they cross over each other. In the double slit experiment it looks as if the electron has behaved like a wave, passing through both slits at the same time. These two electron waves (it seems like there are two waves, but there is only one electron at a time!) interact in the same way that the ripples from the pebbles interact with each other, to give rise to the bright bands between the slits which is known as an interference pattern.

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NekoJaNekoJa, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

You may be wondering, why don’t we just check which slit the electron passed through? You can do this by incorporating two detectors into the experiment, recording which slit an electron passes through. If you do this, however, the interference pattern disappearsand a bright line appears behind each of the slits. Observation has changed the reality.

It is impossible to record which slit an electron goes though without disturbing the electron. We cannot simply be passive observers. The interference pattern only appears when there is no way of us determining which path the electron took. This experiment has not just been done with electrons but even with molecules made up of 810 atoms!3I find it hard to believe that 810 atoms can behave quantum mechanically, seemingly existing in two locations at once, but only when not being observed!

I don’t have space to go into other quantum effects such as tunnelling but for the interested reader I would recommend the videos available here https://toutestquantique.fr/en/101/

So where does all of this leave us? Most of the above does not sound believable, but countless experiments have been done to test the predictions of quantum mechanics, and so far they have turned out to be correct every time.

Quantum mechanics has taught scientists to be humble – the world is far stranger than we ever dared imagine. Things really can seemingly exist in two places at once when not being observed. Believing this feels like believing the unbelievable, but it teaches us an important lesson. Just because we cannot fully understand or imagine how something works, that does not mean that it can’t be true. This has important consequences when it comes to questions of faith.

The Bible teaches that God’s ways are higher than our own, that his thoughts are not our thoughts. It contains confusing ideas such as the Trinity, seemingly impossible happenings such as the resurrection and the question of suffering seems to have no simple answers. Does any of this mean that Christianity can’t be true? No. Christianity may be hard to understand and to imagine, but should we let the limitations of a human brain decide what can and can’t be true? If the study of the natural world has anything to teach us then the answer is no. There are indeed more things on earth than dreamt of in our philosophies – why would there not be more things in heaven too?

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-slit_experiment#/media/File:Double-slit.svg
  2. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rawksteadi/22278391204
  3. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2013/cp/c3cp51500a
Anna
© A Pearson

Anna Pearson is a 3rdyear DPhil student at Oxford University, looking at an experiment to test whether gravity is classical rather than quantum. Her undergraduate degree was in Physics at Royal Holloway University.  When not in the lab she can be found singing in Wadham chapel choir or out walking or cycling in the green spaces around Oxford. She has been involved in the GATBB and LASAR projects for addressing the questions school children have about science and faith. She has also been on the Christians in Science committee, as well as setting up two CiS student groups. During the first year of her DPhil she was a doctoral fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

Book Preview: A Reckless God?

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The claim of biblical theism is that the world in which we find ourselves is not eternally self-sufficient: it has a maker, on whom it depends not just for some initial impulse long ago, but for its daily continuance now.

This is strange language to modern ears. The world we know seems very stable, reasonably law-abiding (in the non-human domain at least) and not at all obviously in need of any divine power to keep it going. Over the past 200 years and more, we have become accustomed to thinking of it as a mechanism, intricate perhaps beyond the grasp of human understanding, but still something self-running and self-contained. Continue reading

Guest Post: Being a Christian in Science

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For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed finding out how things worked and exploring the world of nature. An avid reader of science books even at primary school, I rapidly progressed to experimenting with my chemistry set in the cellar of my parents’ house and even made my own fireworks!  As I went on to study science for my A levels and then at University, I never felt a conflict between the world of science and my Christian faith; rather I found my wonder of God as creator increasing the more my scientific studies revealed.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a church fellowship that supported and encouraged me in my developing scientific career and enabled me to flourish both as a Christian and as a scientist. But not all Christian scientists have been so fortunate, and I have known several lose their faith because living as a Christian in the scientific workplace can be tough.  Others have found it hard to admit to their colleagues that they are a follower of Jesus.  My reason for writing this blog is not to pass judgement but to explore the reasons for this. I will stress the importance of the support and encouragement of the church in helping Christian scientists be open about their faith in the workplace and suggest some practical advice gleaned from my own experience. Continue reading

Book Preview: Feel the sun on your face

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There may be sunny days in the winter, but the sun’s rays are weak, spread over a larger area. As our half of the earth is tilted away, so we see the sun at a lower angle. As the angle of our planet shifts, and we begin to tilt back towards the sun, the sun’s rays intensify, giving them more power over a smaller area, and the sun climbs higher in the sky.

There comes a day in the spring when the sun is out and you feel it warming your face, or soaking through your sleeves. You suddenly remember feeling this before, after the winter has almost erased all memory of a warm sun. Continue reading

Humility, Hope and Holiness: A Christian psychologist explores character strengths

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When Roger Bretherton worked as a clinical psychologist he would ask the question, “What skill is missing here?” What does this patient need to develop so they can, for example, be kinder to themselves – or to other people? These character strengths and virtues are now his chosen field now that he is a Principal Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln.

Roger is interested in three main areas. He spends time exploring the methodologies and measurements that help a psychologist understand people at a human level. He is also engaged at a theological level, and trained as an existential psychotherapist. This combination of theology and psychology is a growing trend, especially in the US, where a number of educational institutions will encourage students to pursue studies in both and teach them how to integrate the two (for example, at Fuller Theological Seminary where the regular Faraday speaker Justin Barret is based). Finally, he is interested in the pragmatic – what works, or is useful to people. Continue reading

Guest Post: The Great Divide? Science, faith, and the humanities

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Over the last few years, I’ve become interested in the Great Divide (which I don’t believe in) between science and religion, and I have tried to do my bit as a bishop in building some better bridges in the churches for which I’ve had responsibility. The Faraday Institute in Cambridge and the Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science based at Durham have both been really helpful partners in the task, and this blog gives me the chance to say hooray and thank you to them both – and mention a great hero of mine.

Speaking at a recent Faraday event for local church leaders, I was struck though by another Divide. When I asked for a show of hands, I found that nearly half the participants had a further degree in science, and a those who had stopped studying science after GC(S)E’s like me were much in the minority. On reflection, the activists in both the Cambridge and Durham groups tend to be scientists too.

So where are all the humanities folk like me? Were they like me expected to “drop” science after their GC(S)Es? Have they been warned off by all the popular rhetoric of conflict? Do they lack confidence in the face of often technical subjects? Or is it easier just to leave science in its box and get on with life in ours? Continue reading

Can Science Explain Everything?

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A mathematician, a judge and an ambassador walked onto a train. It sounds like the beginning of a joke but the mathematician was John Lennox, who is well-known for his lectures about Christianity, and his new friends were completely serious about their investigation of his beliefs. We don’t know what happened in the end, but all three of them clearly recognised the significance of the conversation. Continue reading