Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine January – February 2012

A Spiritual Atheist

A recent online article by Adam Frank - an astronomer from the University of Rochester in New York state - waded into the huge current debate over the "new atheism" espoused with "evangelical fervour" by such advocates as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens etc. In his regular column on the "13.7" blog (which number refers to the estimated age of the universe in billions of years), Frank describes his own response to the wonders of nature, the physical world, and of just "being human". Whilst not himself holding to a religious faith he argues against despising the "mystery" that is human life.

In "The Mystery I'm Thankful For" (22 November) he describes himself as "an atheist with sympathies for the sacred character of human experience". He once was involved in a public debate with another scientist, a professed atheist. Frank writes:

"At one point in the discussion I tried to convince him that inclinations to 'spirituality' or a sense of 'sacredness' (with or without an institutional religion) were a response to the essential mystery that came with being human. He paused for long moment and then replied, There is no mystery'."

Frank argues that that is just untenable. However one interprets the "mystery" of existence, the mystery of being, and of being human, there is palpably a real mystery. He goes on to describe the effect that it has on him, when he comes to reflect on it: "We just find ourselves here. With our individual birth we just 'wake up' and discover ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary world of beauty and sorrow. All around us we see exquisite and exquisitely subtle orders played out effortlessly. From the lazy descent of fall leaves to the slow unfolding of cloudscapes in empty blue skies, it is all just here and we are just here to see it."

At the point where anyone of religious faith would then attribute the goodness and power of creation to an omnipotent and loving God, Frank chooses to step back from that conclusion, and just revel in "the mystery", and bemoan its sudden passing when we die. Yet given that the world with its wonder of human experience needs explaining, it is surely rational for a scientist to continue to use his powers of intelligence and deduction to interpret the world as a whole and man's place in it. Given the meaningfulness of the mystery we regularly wake up to it is not a much bigger step to acknowledge its completeness in the mystery of an always wake-ful, self-explanatory being.

The Ongoing Quantum Problem

Linked from the same "13.7" blog hosted by "", again noted by Adam Frank, is a fascinating paper on the ongoing problem of the interpretation of quantum mechanics (QM). The paper itself is by Christopher Fuchs, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. He begins by noting an aspect of the immense problem of interpretation in QM:

In the history of physics, there has never been a healthier body than quantum theory; no theory has ever been more all-encompassing or more powerful. Its calculations are relevant at every scale of physical experience, from sub-nuclear particles, to table-top lasers, to the cores of neutron stars and even the first three minutes of the universe. Yet since its founding days, many physicists have feared that quantum theory's common annoyance - the continuing feeling that something at the bottom of it does not make sense - may one day turn out to be the symptom of something fatal.

There is something about quantum theory that is different in character from any physical theory posed before. To put a finger on it, the issue is this: the basic statement of the theory - the one we have all learned from our textbooks - seems to rely on terms our intuitions baulk at as having any place in a fundamental description of reality. The notions of "observer" and "measurement" are taken as primitive, the very starting point of the theory. This is an unsettling situation! Shouldn't physics be talking about what is before it starts talking about what will be seen and who will see it? Perhaps no one has put the point more forcefully than John Stewart Bell:

"What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of 'measurer'? Was the wave function of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system ...with a PhD?"

One sometimes gets the feeling -and this is what unifies many a diverse quantum foundations researcher - that until this issue is settled, fundamental physical theory has no right to move on. Worse yet, that to the extent it does move on, it does so only as the carrier of something insidious, something that will eventually cause the whole organism to stop in its tracks.

Fuchs goes on in his paper to discuss some possible models of taking forward our thinking on the "reality" of the probabilities in QM. The complete paper can be viewed on the website.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2012