Quantum physics — making God more likely?

Big Questions Online (BQO) is a web production of the religion-promoting Templeton Foundation, and as such the site is prone to taking seriously some pretty silly ideas.

The latest example is the provocatively — and misleadingly — titled recent article,  “Does Quantum Physics Make It Easier to Believe in God?”

The article starts with “No,” then proceeds to a long summary of some of the major characteristics of quantum physics. It ends with the argument — and here’s where the silly comes in — that since concrete materialism is apparently undermined by quantum physics, all bets are off, and belief in God is more reasonable.

What makes this so silly, of course, is that even if the assertion that quantum physics disproves materialism were true, that would have absolutely no effect on the reasonableness of belief in God, or gods.

Let’s say that you believe that every moonless midnight there’s a unicorn in your garden. Your friend thinks that it’s likely just a deer. When the local expert informs you that there are no deer in your area, you smile broadly and exult, “See! It could be a unicorn!”

That’s just really silly. And so is the BQO argument. In effect, it’s saying that if what I believe is less likely, then what you believe is more likely. Unless we’re dealing with a true restricted choice situation (e.g., Stevie is or is not a girl), showing that one thing is not true (Stevie is not a ventriloquist) has no impact on another, unrelated thing.

Now, the BQO article does attempt to zero in a little more reasonably on the issue by making the case that, in some versions of quantum physics, all observations (measurements, events, etc.) require an observer outside the system being observed. The argument goes that if the human mind were entirely material, it would remain part of the material system in which it operates, meaning that we could never truly make any precise observation of anything really real. Therefore, there must be something about the human mind that is non- or other than material. And if the human mind is not just material, then why not an “ultimate observer,” called God?

There are several silly holes in this argument. Even if we accept the argument entirely, if there were an “ultimate observer” completely outside the physical system in which we exist, that observer would not interact with us in any way. As soon as that version of God became knowable to us, it would become part of the same physical system in which we exist, and it would instantly cease to be the “ultimate observer.” In other words, either we can have no interaction of any kind with God, or God isn’t really a god. Not very satisfying either way, I’m sure that most believers would agree.

Another major problem with the argument is a set of assumptions that contradict Hawking’s “model dependent reality.” Oversimplifying, Hawking argues that our physical theories don’t describe reality so much as they account consistently for the presently known data. There may be any number of contextually appropriate representations of physical forces, so long as they do not contradict what we know and have measured.

So when BQO claims that the human mind must be non-physical because Feynman’s equations never “resolve” in an entirely physical system, it makes an assumption that Feynman never made, that there is something entirely outside the physical universe, something without whose observations the physical universe could not be observed. It’s really just a silly version of the claim that because what you know doesn’t explain everything, then anything is reasonable.

Again, momentarily concede the claim that there must be an observer outside the physical system in which we live. What’s to say that this system is the end of systems? For millennia, we thought that the Earth and a few crystalline spheres were the universe. For centuries, we thought that the solar system was the universe. For decades, we thought that the Milky Way was the universe. For a few more decades, we’ve thought that the universe is all that there is. Now, some versions of physics and cosmology propose a multiverse. Soon, there may be a theory of multiverses, in which each multiverse is but an infinitely small part of an infinite series of megaverses. And after that?

One of the arguments in the BQO article is that we should accept their version of a single quantum universe, the one that allows for an “ultimate observer,” because the multiverse idea requires too many unproved assumptions to accept.

I hope that I don’t have to point out to anyone how ironic that claim is!

It’s no more silly to think this way than it is to think about an “ultimate observer” who made the universe for us. In fact, it’s a whole lot less silly, since the multiverse idea at least starts with the currently-available empirical data.

What if it’s turtles, all the way up?

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