One of the most interesting topics about faith and science to date is quantum physics. First, some background. For the majority of the history of modern science, scientists operated on something called Newtonian physics – based on the work of Isaac Newton. For centuries, physics was understood in broad sweeping terms – big, simple, measurable, systematic, mechanistic, etc. According to Newton’s world, the universe could be measured in large scale equations. And rightfully so. Everything seen with the naked eye looked big and vast, so the physical properties underneath were assumed to be big and simplistic as well. And anything that was worth investigating could be measured using classical methods of science. This is part of the reason that those who embraced the view that science and religion were not compatible had no qualms about dismissing God. He did not easily fit into the classical physics mold.
But then quantum physics was born through the work of Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg. Quantum mechanics describes physical things at an atomic and subatomic level. For example, a quantum is the name for the smallest unit of energy – and it’s tiny. Add to that more particles like quarks, gluons, and hadrons and things change drastically. Rather than try to measure things as we have in the past, Planck came up with a constant that made measuring anything very, very small. Planck’s constant looks like this: 6.626176 x 10-34. The number I want you to notice is the 10-34. That’s an infinitesimal number. To measure our world, we had to stop using kilometers – now we use nanometers. Heisenberg added to this confusion (or revelation) by introducing the uncertainty principle. He said that when you are measuring two physical properties against each other, the accuracy of one eventually restricts the accuracy of another. In other words, the more you can measure one thing at the quantum level and use it as a reference point for another, the more the second object becomes immeasurable. And scientists have also discovered something called superposition – that these particles can jump from place to place – sometimes existing simultaneously in two different places.
So, what does this stuff mean for people attempting to integrate faith and science? It changes everything, actually. Science in continuing to discover more about our world also exploded our previous understanding of how the world works. The stable uniform world we thought we knew for the past several centuries is now a whirling mass of infinitesimal particles that won’t stay still long enough for us to learn anything about them. Furthermore, general relativity and quantum physics are basically incompatible. So, not only do we have a new way of seeing the world, we can’t even reconcile it with previous models that we know also have supporting data. Scientists are presently attempting to reconcile general relativity and quantum physics with something called string theory (which states the world is made of ridiculously small strings that operate not in three or four dimensions, but in nine or ten). But string theory operates on a scale 16 orders of magnitude smaller than anything we can currently measure. As with other areas of science, the more we delve into the complexities of the life, from the universe to the structure of a cell, the more issues are raised for which we have no answer. But I want to point something out to you: string theory is considered a rational scientific field of study. Yet, there’s no empirical evidence for its existence other than a hunch or two derived from our inability to perfect quantum mechanics. So what guides the day to day experiments of physicists working in that area? Faith. Faith in the idea that string theory will be able to reconcile all other physical disciplines.
Here’s something else to notice in all of this. In the area of quantum physics, the unknown or “gray” areas of conceptual thought are considered not only appropriate, but are expected. Yet, when theology is experiencing a “gray” area, it is often dismissed as unscientific. In fact, theology is held to a stricter standard of proof than those investigating string theory or chaos theory, much less some grand unified theory. For science, the unknown gray areas somehow represent progress or hope while for religion, they are conceived as doubt. But they both represent the humanness of our endeavors and should be treated with the same level of respect and care. There’s a great verse that Jesus spoke about removing the beam from your own eye before mentioning the speck in another’s. We don’t do that with science and religion – instead, we parade our experts across the stage to discredit the other. We fire shots across the bow or each other’s ship. But both ships are floating on a sea of philosophical beliefs, assumptions, worldviews, and…well…faith. Faith sends one person to church on Sunday while it sends another to the laboratory. And for many scientists who have accepted faith as part of being human, it sends them to both places in the same week.