Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"Quantum Flapdoodle"

The phrase comes from physicist Murray Gell-Mann. It is used by psychologist and professional skeptic Michael Shermer to describe Deepak Chopra's abuse of quantum physics as an argument for the existence of God.

We don't know much about Chopra. We have always figured him for the guest-on-Oprah type, Dr. Phil or Marianne Williamson with a veneer of Eastern exoticism. We knew that he was a physician, and that a little bit of science worked its way into his schtick, but we didn't know quite how far he went. Nor do we now, apart from Schermer.

But if Shermer is to be believed, Chopra is one of those people who read The Tao of Physics as a youth, and took it a little too seriously. That is, he does not merely use the natural world as a metaphor for God, but as a guide to God's actual being. God acts in strange ways; so do subatomic particles; ergo -- goes this line of reasoning -- elementary particles reveal God to us.

This confusion of Creator and creation is an old error, and an easy one to commit, but theologically dangerous. It is one thing to say, as we ourselves did in a sermon once, that the Deus absconditus is like dark energy, vast and unknown. It is quite another to say that dark energy is God. That's a crass confusion of spititual and phyisical realities, a bit like the medieval notion that Purgatory was an identifiable geographic place, to which access could be gained by entering certain caverns. (The picture is just that, from the Hours of the Duc de Berry).

The reference to Purgatory touches on Shermer's point, which is that Chopra uses the language of physics to replace the language of medieval Christian theology, while describing a God who is to all intents and purposes the God of the Scholastics. Shermer calls this "God 2.o,"and even has a handy chart:

God 1.0God 2.0

fully man/fully God
leap of faith
Council of Rome
supernatural forces
the Godhead
the Trinity
forgiveness of sin
virgin birth

wave/particle duality
wave-function collapse
quantum leap
Heisenberg uncertainty principle
Copenhagen interpretation
dark energy
dark matter
space/time continuum
quantum entanglement
general relativity
special relativity
quantum erasure
quantum decoherence
virtual reality

We note the presence of the virgin birth but the absence of the Incarnation and atonement, which reminds us of one weakness of this sort of thinking: physics has no language for sin or forgiveness. Without these, the rest of theology is pretty much crap.

Now, the study of the natural world does indeed have a place in theological studies, and a larger one than Protestantism has usually given it. This was clear to the medieval Church, which designed some of its churches as solar observatories, to more precisely date Easter. It was far more clear to the Church during the Renaissance. People often complain that Galileo was put on trial; they usually forget that he was working for the Pope at the time. In fact, the Pope still employs an astronomer, a Jesuit who is an expert on the mathematics of alternate universes (as the joke goes, in case they need to be evangelized).

But the flapdoodle approach, while useful for wowing people who toggle between Oprah and the Discovery Channel, won't hold up to any serious examination, either by theologians or by physicists.

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