Why Science and Religion are Like Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity

Some people feel that it is impossible to believe in God and to be an honest scientist who understands the scientific method. As a man of faith seeking to have a career as a researcher, I have pondered if this is really true. I would like to explore how I can sympathize with such concerns while disagreeing with the conclusion.

A common criticism against combining science and religion is that believing scientists compartmentalize their life and thinking: for religious and ethical matters they rely on faith while for professional pursuits they employ the principles of science. This is true to some degree of many believing scientists I know. However, I am not convinced that using a variety of tools to understand the world around us is incompatible with the tradition of scientific thinking. In order to limit the scope of the post, I will not discuss the question of why someone would believe in science or in God in the first place. Instead, I will argue that one can be intellectually honest while using different frameworks to make sense of the world around us.

I would like to compare the division of labor between religious belief and the scientific method to two different frameworks within science. There are suitable examples from any discipline from biology to geology. I will focus on quantum mechanics and general relativity, the modern theory of gravity. Both theories have been experimentally verified to an incredibly high accuracy in their respective domains of validity; no credible physicist questions their usefulness in describing nature. Furthermore, most researchers believe that these two theories can be unified into a harmonious and elegant framework which includes both of them as approximations.

The last belief is interesting, since we have no experimental data from a situation that would require the combination of quantum mechanics and general relativity. As far as I can tell, the expectation of their ultimate unification relies on two things: their explanatory power in their respective domains of validity and the conviction that the world can ultimately be explained within a single consistent framework. I trust these arguments and believe in the existence of a quantum theory of gravity. Nevertheless, if one needs to make a practical calculation in the microscopic world, no one seems to object to only considering quantum mechanics. We blithely ignore the complications that would result from attempting to also include the ideas of general relativity. These theories deal with mostly different realms. Although there are areas of overlap, such areas are largely untested and of little significance to most current concerns.

Physicists use either quantum mechanics or general relativity depending on the question at hand. There are many similarities between this approach and the way believing scientists approach different issues through the lens of faith or scientific method depending on the topic. However, I would be deeply unsatisfied if we were forced to draw a clear line between science and religion and always assign every question to only one of these realms. Instead, I have found several areas of overlap where my scientific understanding and religious faith are consistent with each other. For example, I have sometimes received prayer answers that were quite surprising to me and thus most likely from a source outside myself. Yet often guidance received through these answers has proven to be extremely helpful. Such experiences do not prove that God exists but they give support to my belief the same way that experiments can support a scientific theory.  I look forward to a time when it is clear that our currents patches of understanding are imperfect approximations to the glorious reality of the universe.

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10 thoughts on “Why Science and Religion are Like Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity

  1. Casie says:

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  2. Roberto Perez-Franco says:

    Both QM and GR are the produce of science, theories that have withstood thousands of experiments and have been validated by the results. Each one describes reality to an incredible degree of accuracy within their respective scales of space and time. Religion resembles neither.

    Science and religion are like observation and revelation, like skepticism and gullibility, like experimentation and dogma, like water and oil.

  3. Jason says:

    Teppo,

    I agree that some things are not understood about quantum mechanics (although my understanding is that quantum mechanics is considered by most physicists to be well-understood in environments where general relativistic effects are not relevant: http://b.qr.ae/JsJQbl and http://b.qr.ae/JTKqim), but I don’t know what you mean when you say that “quantum mechanics does not preclude the existence of genuine free will.” At least, I don’t see why this statement is any more valid than if the world were classical all the way down and you said, “Classical mechanics does not preclude the existence of genuine free will.” If you mean that moral responsibility is just orthogonal to whether our choices are determined by physical laws, then I agree. If you mean that it is possible that some magic happens in our brain by which our immaterial soul intervenes in the physical world and guides the evolution of the Schrodinger equation or something entirely different, then please elaborate because I don’t see how this could be consistent with what is understood about quantum mechanics.

    Re: your analogy, I understood your original claim to be something like the following: “Quantum mechanics and general relativity conflict in some domains, but most physicists believe these conflicts will be reconciled in a broader theory that incorporates both. Likewise, faith and science seem to conflict in some ways, but I believe they will be reconciled without throwing out one or the other.”

    This raises the question: under what circumstances should we modify a theory rather than discard it completely if it seems to get some things wrong? In other words – is your religion more like general relativity or astrology? To me the relevant difference between GR and astrology is that the former parsimoniously synthesizes existing frameworks while also making new and precise predictions which were subsequently verified. So the lesson of your example seems to me to be exactly opposite from the one that you draw. The presumed compatibility of general relativity and quantum mechanics doesn’t show that different standards can both arrive at the truth; on the contrary, both are affirmed by the same standards! (parsimony, explanatory power, predictive power). So the lesson seems to be that theories supported by those standards are likely to be part of a true picture of the world while theories not supported by those standards (such as astrology or homeopathy) should be dismissed.

  4. Teppo says:

    Cyrus: I love your insight about how most people feel that professional decisions should be based on reason. Yet I think there is a lot of evidence that many highly successful professionals base their decision a lot more on intuition. Acknowledging this is different (less scary?) than a reliance on faith and yet few would admit that they use intuition in addition to or instead of logical reasoning.

    Brigham: As I see it, the question of quantum indeterminacy is solidly in the category of unsolved questions. Hence, there is a lot of room for all kinds of interpretations. I don’t think the current state of affairs provides support for the existence of God but neither does it preclude the existence of genuine free will.

    Jason: I agree that your formulation on point 1) is more accurate than my short version. Given your statement, I would argue that demanding a common set of standards is same as demanding a compatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity. I definitely do not believe that any set of standards will do. However, I think there can be several reliable, verifiable sets of standards to discover truth.

  5. Jason says:

    Teppo, a few thoughts:

    1) For those who believe there is a conflict between science and religion (as I do), the claim about compartmentalization is that if religious scientists applied the same standards of evidence to religious claims as they do in their own fields then they would find these claims lacking support. So the claim isn’t that you can’t use multiple models to study the world: the claim is (whether you agree with it or not) that a common set of standards should be used to evaluate models in disparate fields and that only modes of reasoning committed to these standards have any hope of uncovering the truth. This is what separates sciences like physics and astronomy from pseudosciences like fortune telling or astrology.

    2) Receiving surprising prayer answers != “most likely from a source outside yourself” – there is a lot of computation going on in your brain which you are not consciously aware of. It would be evidence of a source outside yourself if it were not merely surprising to your conscious self, but something your brain could not possibly know: e.g. the 9 digit number I am thinking of or the full name of the next 5 strangers you pass on the street, or the flight numbers of airline flights which will crash in the next five years so you can warn your loved ones to avoid them.

    Brigham:

    Of course Teppo is welcome to add his thoughts, but I would think a neuroscientist would actually be better qualified to assess this question than a physicist. I doubt you need resolution at the level of quantum mechanics to predict the outcome of “free choices” before they consciously occur (I don’t think this poses a problem for “free will” as I understand it, but I can see how it would pose a problem for the dualist conception common to many religions). Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff – a very prominent physicist and well-regarded biologist – proposed a theory of consciousness where quantum mechanics figures prominently, but I think it is almost uniformly rejected by their colleagues. Anyway, I’d advise asking a neurologist (or better, ask several, since any one might have idiosyncratic beliefs ;) ).

  6. Brigham says:

    I always wondered if the indeterminacy at the quantum level leaves room for free will and God that seems to be precluded by deterministic models like general relativity. Somebody who knows a lot more about physics was arguing to me that it doesn’t, but I wasn’t quite convinced. What do you think?

  7. Austin says:

    Thanks for writing, Teppo, this is really great stuff!

  8. Cyrus larson says:

    Few thoughts:
    I wonder if scientists begin to lose faith because they are in the business of explaining how things work? The mystery behind God is being revealed and scientist no longer see reason for faith.
    In a professional realm it becomes dangerous and detrimental to your credibility to believe something on faith alone. All things must be documented or proven to be true. For a professional, taking a risk on word alone can be a financial or legal risk. Whereas in religion, it is only through action on our faith that we come to know truth.
    Yet, both science and religion build off of theories. In science, hypothesis must be proved. In religion, faith must be tried. Both realms of thought start with a basic principle or hypothesis which is tried and tested in its own way.

  9. Jarkko says:

    I think it’s quite narrow-minded to think God and science couldn’t co-exist. As a simple analogy, God could exist in a higher dimension and influence our world as He pleases, just like you can influence the 2D world by putting a pen on paper, while the 2D world inhabitants are completely oblivious of your existence. Also, just like in religion, there’s a lot of believing in theoretical physics, and several conflicting theories.

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