Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Theology and quantum physics

John Polkinghorne’s latest book looks promising: Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (Yale UP, 2008).

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief also includes an article which I co-wrote with the physicist Ross McKenzie: “Dialectical Critical Realism in Science and Theology: Quantum Physics and Karl Barth,” Science and Christian Belief 20:1 (2008), 49-66. Here’s an excerpt:

“Quantum physics gives an example of a reality which is concrete and describable but also enigmatic, and which must be interpreted on its own terms. The paradoxes and counter-intuitive nature of quantum theory do not lead physicists to abandon realism; rather the dialectical nature of our knowledge compels physicists to adopt a more critical realism. So too, in theology, the enigmatic character of the object of study should lead not to epistemological relativism but to a recognition of the dialectical and critical character of all theoretical formulations.”


Shane said...


Could you please define 'realism' and 'dialectical, critical realism' and explain a bit how QM moved physicists from the one to the other? How is it that you think our knowledge of physics is 'dialectical' precisely?

It sounds to me as if you are trying to advance McCormack's interpretation of Barth's theological epistemology as a general epistemology. Is that right?

Andrew said...

well i take it that a critical realism is one that still holds things are real but doesn't take them at face value. This is set opposite a more naive realism that merely accepts what it sees as reality. What makes it dialectical is the interaction between the real and our concept of the real -- the two inform each other in the same way as new scientific theories allow for new experiments which inform the theories that understand them.

A separate issue that I would raise beyond the critique of the extension of Barth however is the question of why this would (1) apply to theology and (2) what that would look like. Where are the corresponding experiments and theories? Theology seems instead to be of a more monolithic character than dialectical.

unpresentable said...

For an exciting adventure, check out Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore.

Jon said...

I wonder if Barth himself would be au fait with such a monistic epistemology. Seems to me on my reading of him (and also Jungel - God's Being is in Becoming) that he is very much concerned that God isn't known in the same way as other objects of knowledge. Thus, I think I would echo Shane:

"It sounds to me as if you are trying to advance McCormack's interpretation of Barth's theological epistemology as a general epistemology. Is that right?"

In which case, is it not contradictory to posit a monistic critically realistic dialectic epistemology?

In other words, what is the real drive behind this paper? Is it a desire to extend Barth? To link theological and scientific epistemology? To argue that theology is continuous with other academic endeavours?

In which case, can such a desire be achieved in this way i.e. an explicitly Barthian way? Or should Barth be left behind as his epistemology and quixotically Kantian approach to the problem of the knowledge of God is moved beyond?

Shane said...

I think Ben can't take advantage of Andrew's sense in which science can be said to be 'dialectical' (theory/data dialectic) for just the reasons Andrew points out--what is the theory and what is the data? Is the theology the theory and the Bible the data? Maybe that would work, but the sense of 'dialectical' at work in Barth seems more closely related to Hegel's 'aufhebung' than Andrew's sense. And Ben surely isn't advancing the claim that science is Hegelian.

In other words, it seems to me there's an ambiguity on the word 'dialectical'. There's probably also an ambiguity on the word 'realism'. In philosophy of science, 'realism' has a slightly different meaning that in the 'critical realism' v. 'naive realism' debate.

Also it would make no sense at all to me to call pre-quantum mechanical scientific theories 'naively realist'.

Shane said...


Is the thing you like about QM and Barth's theology that they both seem to deny the principle of non-contradiction?

"p is a wave and not a wave." ::
"faith is possible and impossible."

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these very interesting and thoughtful comments. To respond to a couple of queries: no, the drive behind the paper definitely wasn't to "extend Barth". The paper just emerged from lunch-time conversations between myself and a physics colleague. Essentially, the paper was an experimental attempt to bring Barth into conversation with contemporary quantum physics: I don't think we had a clear agenda, but we were interested to see what such a conversation might look like.

And I certainly don't think we set out to establish any general or "monistic" epistemological principle. In fact, we were really interested in the exact opposite: i.e., the fact that there's really no stable object for quantum physics, and no specific method that can be prescribed. As we write in the paper: "We can agree with Feyerabend that there is no single scientific method. 'Anything goes' — scientists simply use whatever is effective and productive."

So we were trying to ask whether there might be a parallel here to Barth's view of theology as a discipline that lacks a stable object or a definite set of methods. To quote the paper again: "Theology’s transcendent object is always living and active, always encountering us as a genuine Other, as a personal agent whom we cannot grasp or control. Our knowledge of this object is therefore at best a knowledge in crisis: it is precarious and unstable, 'set on the edge of a knife'."

In other words, I think we were really interested in the fact that there can never be any monistic epistemology, etc.

But I'll be the first to admit that the paper wasn't wholly successful. It's a funny thing about this kind of dialogue (the same thing happens in so much Barthian engagement with science, e.g. Torrance and McGrath): you start out trying to say that there is no fixed methodology; and you end up sounding as though this lack-of-methodology is itself a new and superior meta-methodology! If we do give this impression in the paper, perhaps it's just because we were trying too hard to create an interesting connection between Barth and science, and thus pressing theology too far towards method? I'm not sure... But in any case, that wasn't our intention.

So anyway, this is just a long-winded way of saying that I agree with the criticisms you've raised!

John C. Poirier said...


In an article I co-wrote with Scott Lewis, I spend about five pages discussing the bogus claim that quantum physics supports a postmodernist worldview. (The article can be found here: See pp. 6-11.) Overall, I think I agree with what you're saying about critical realism, but, of course, I should read your whole article.

jprapp said...

Ben - are you really saying that QM needs interpretation?

Feyerabend? - "We can agree with Feyerabend that there is no single scientific method. 'Anything goes' — scientists simply use whatever is effective and productive.”


Why not go back to the state of QM prior to when the unitary equations renormalized the whole shooting match – so you can get infinite results?

If Quine’s happy sarcasm about the philosophy of science (no less speculative theology) working in “the ontological slums” ever was a variable, then Feyerabend is the value of that variable (pun intended).

I’d think that Popper would be your better friend. He at least admitted that any properly formulated metaphysic could never be falsified.

Why rush (to Feyerabend)? - unless you agree with him because he yields your favorite results? -- ever heard of the editors of Social Text?

Why not wait and see?

I’d stake my lunch on the Higgs before Feyerabend. Though I doubt that God will take the dock at CERN.

If you really want to stick with your friend, Paul, then I’d think that something like Eliade’s encyclopedism of hierophanies would suit that sort of spectrum. But, that's as far as you're going to get. My two-cents.

It’s an infinite divide, really, from Feyerabend to what feels to me like your use of apologetics - the naturalistic divide for starters, and anything-goes won't go at the bench. You're preaching to the choir. Like Paul Davies recently discovered.

Polkinghorne’s poetry is dicta.

Grand, but dicta.


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