Demystifying Quantum Physics: You Need it for Your Faith

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

If my articles are boring to you, it may be that you need to read more of them, as was suggested by John Cage, one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

He (Allah) is the First and the Last, and the Manifest and the Hidden, and He knows every little detail fully well. (Al Quran 57:3/4)

Quantum physics has come to symbolize complexity among other things and most of us try to shy away from it.  But, the fundamental reality is that if we put the mathematics aside and find the right teachers, following arguments in Quantum physics is not any harder than any other scientific, religious, philosophical, logical and political argument.  Often what it means is picking up, which expert is giving a fair and balanced understanding and which one is blinded by his or her ideological concerns.

Napoleon, in one of the most notable conversations in the history of science, asked the French scientist Pierre Simon Laplace about the role of God in his scientific world view. It is said that Laplace had presented Napoleon with a copy of his work, who had heard that the book contained no mention of God. Napoleon, who was fond of imposing embarrassment, received it with the remark, “Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace is said to have replied, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” And so it goes. The apparent so called self-sufficiency of our physical universe has caused many a scientist to move away from the idea of a Creator of the universe or the God Hypothesis. But is it really so?

Laplace is one of the seventy two people to have their names on the Eiffel Tower. So strong was his belief in determinism and the scientific process that he said that given the knowledge of every atomic motion, the entire future of the universe could be mapped out. This was precisely the reason why Einstein did not believe in free will or accountability except for the horrific crimes of the Nazis.  Laplace wrote:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Atheist physicist and philosophers want to continue to read determinism in physics despite the discoveries of Quantum physics, in the twentieth century, to rule out human soul, human free will and Providence of God. Read Carl Sagan as he rightfully sings praises of science, but, implies to rule out prayer and Providence, by bracketing them with quackery and witchcraft:

You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anemia, or you can take vitamin B12. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (leftright, a boy; forward-back, a girl-or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, ninety-nine percent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

If our world is deterministic then the claims of atheist scientists are true.  There is no room for Islam or Christianity or any other religion.  If hard determinism is true then God does not exist and our claims about human soul are no more than those in previous decades about Santa Clause and in previous centuries about witches.  Encyclopedia Britannica tells us about determinism and its implications:

Determinism, in philosophy, theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes. Determinism is usually understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do. The theory holds that the universe is utterly rational because complete knowledge of any given situation assures that unerring knowledge of its future is also possible. Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, in the 18th century framed the classical formulation of this thesis. For him, the present state of the universe is the effect of its previous state and the cause of the state that follows it. If a mind, at any given moment, could know all of the forces operating in nature and the respective positions of all its components, it would thereby know with certainty the future and the past of every entity, large or small. The Persian poet Omar Khayyam expressed a similar deterministic view of the world in the concluding half of one of his quatrains: “And the first Morning of Creation wrote / What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.”[1]

So, if determinism is true there is no need to invoke human soul, human free will and Providence of God.  These three become agents that simply cannot influence our world.  In Wikipedia we can read:

Determinism is a philosophy stating that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. Different versions of this theory depend upon various alleged connections, and interdependencies of things and events, asserting that these hold without exception. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have sprung from diverse motives and considerations, some of which overlap. They can be understood in relation to their historical significance and alternative theories. Some forms of determinism can be tested empirically with ideas stemming from physics and the philosophy of physics. The opposite of determinism is some kind of indeterminism (otherwise called nondeterminism). Determinism is often contrasted with free will.  Determinism is often taken to mean simply causal determinism: an idea known in physics as cause-and-effect. It is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state (of an object or event) is completely determined by prior states. This can be distinguished from other varieties of determinism mentioned below. Other debates often concern the scope of determined systems, with some maintaining that the entire universe (or multiverse) is a single determinate system and others identifying other more limited determinate systems. Within numerous historical debates, many varieties and philosophical positions on the subject of determinism exist. This includes debates concerning human action and free will, where opinions might be sorted as compatibilistic and incompatibilistic.[2]

I as a Muslim believe in free will and deny Hard Determinism.  The Philosophers have created four different combinations of belief or disbelief in free will and determinism.  They have argued that either Determinism is true or Indeterminism is true, but also that Free Will either exists or it does not. This creates four possible positions. Compatibilism refers to the view that free will is, in some sense, compatible with Determinism. The three Incompatibilist positions, on the other hand, deny this possibility. They instead suggest there is a dichotomy between determinism and free will (only one can be true).

To the Incompatibilists, one must choose either free will or Determinism, and maybe even reject both. The result is one of three positions:

According to this classification, I am arguing for Metaphysical Libertarianism; I believe in free will and deny determinism.  I believe that for that to be true, we need proper understanding of Quantum physics, otherwise we cannot argue for it.

The principle of free will has religious, ethical, and scientific implications. For example, in the religious realm, free will implies that individual will and choices can coexist with an omnipotent divinity. In ethics, it may hold implications for whether individuals can be held morally accountable for their actions.

Like dominoes fall in a deterministic fashion, if Laplace or causal determinism is true then our choices are predetermined and we are not free to make them and hence do not have free will.  But, I believe that the twentieth century physics, as opposed to earlier physics has shown us that our world is indeterministic.  Quantum physics developed in the first 3-4 decades of twentieth century provides explanation and avenue not only for our free will but also for God’s Providence.

The Miracle of Light – An Every Day Metaphor to Appreciate Quantum Physics

God said let there be light and there was the Holy Quran!  The Quran describes Allah as Manifest as well as Transcendent and Hidden at the same time, in the verse quoted in the beginning.  It is in this duality that the relationship of religion and science is to be understood.  If Laplace had been right in predicting the future accurately, not only there would have been no Personal God but also no ‘free will’ for mankind.  But something beautiful yet common place, namely, each and every ray of light, defies the tall claims of Laplace.

The scientific conflict between particle and wave models of light has permeated the history of science for several centuries.  The issue dates back to at least Newton.  His careful investigations into the properties of light in the 1660s led to his discovery that white light consists of a mixture of colors. He struggled with a formulation of the nature of light, ultimately asserting in Opticks (1704) that light consists of a stream of ‘corpuscles,’ or particles.  The wave model explains certain observed phenomena but the photoelectric phenomena are best explained by ‘corpuscle’ nature of light.

If you have ever held a metal wire over a gas flame, you have borne wit­ness to one of the great secrets of the universe. As the wire gets hotter, it begins to glow, to give off light. And the color of that light changes with temperature. A cooler wire gives off a reddish glow, while the hottest wires shine with a blue-white brilliance. What you are watching, as any high school physics student can tell you, is the transformation of one kind of energy (heat) into another (light). As the wire gets hotter and hotter, it gets brighter. That’s because if there is more heat energy avail­able, more light energy can be given off, which makes sense.

Why does the color of that light change with temperature? Throughout the nineteenth century, that deceptively simple question baffled the best minds of classical physics. As the wire gets hotter and hotter, the atoms within it move more rapidly. Maybe that causes the color (the wavelength) of the light to change? Well, that’s true, but there’s more to it. Every time classical physicists used their understanding of matter and energy to try to predict exactly which wavelengths of light should be given off by a hot wire, they got it wrong. At high temperatures, those classical predictions were dramatically wrong. Something didn’t make sense.

Max Planck, a German physicist, found a way to solve the problem. Physicists had always assumed that light, being a wave, could be emitted from an object at any wavelength and in any amount. Planck realized that for this phenomenon the particulate nature as suggested by Newton was the key. He proposed that light could only be released in little packets containing a precise amount of energy. He called these packets or ‘corpuscles’ of Newton as ‘quanta.’  All of a sudden, everything fell into place.

It was known that when some solids were struck by light, they emitted electrons.  This phenomenon is called the photoelectric effect.   Albert Einstein offered the best explanation of the photoelectric effect in a brilliant paper that eventually won him his Nobel Prize.   He seized on the dual nature of light.  Light was not only a waveform but is composed of individual quanta later called photons.  This understanding of the dual nature of light was needed to explain some of the phenomena that had been observed in study of light.  The wave theory of light did not explain the photoelectric effect but conceptualizing the light to be also particle, beautifully solved this riddle.  Einstein proposed that the energy to eject a single electron from the plate came from a single quantum of light. That’s why a more intense light (more quanta) just ejects more electrons. But the energy in each of those packets, the quantum wallop if you will, is determined by the wavelength, the color, of the light. With one stroke, of genius, Einstein had shown that Planck’s quanta were not just theoretical constructs. Light really could behave as if it were made of a stream of particles, today known as photons.  He was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics for this work.

Prof. Kenneth R Miller wrote in his popular book, Finding Darwin’s God:

All of this might have been sensible and comforting were it not for the fact that light was already known to behave as if it were a wave! So many experiments already had shown that light could be diffracted, that light had a frequency and a wavelength, that light spread out like a wave on the surface of a pond. Could all those experiments be wrong? No, they were not. All of those experiments were right. Light was both a particle and a wave. It was both a continuous stream and a shower of discrete quantum packets. And that nonsensical result was just the beginning.

Classical physics had prepared everyone to think of physical events as governed by fixed laws, but the quantum revolution quickly destroyed this Newtonian certainty. An object as simple as a mirror can show us why. A household mirror reflects about ninety-five percent of light hitting it. The other five percent passes right through. As long as we think of light as a Wave, a continuous stream of energy, it’s easy to visualize ninety-five per­cent reflection. But photons are indivisible-each individual photon must either be reflected or pass through the surface of the mirror. That means that for one hundred photons fired at the surface, ninety-five will bounce off but five will pass right through.

If we fire a series of one hundred photons at the mirror, can we tell in advance which will be the five that are going to pass through? Absolutely not. All photons of a particular wavelength are identical; there is nothing to distinguish one from the other. If we rig up an experiment in which we fire a single photon at our mirror, we cannot predict in advance what will happen, no matter how precise our knowledge of the system might be. Most of the time, that photon is going to come bouncing off; but one time out of twenty, on average, it’s going to go right through the mirror. There is nothing we can do, not even in principle, to figure out when that one chance in twenty is going to come up. It means that the outcome of each individual experiment is unpredictable in principle.”[2]

Any hopes that the strange uncertainty of quantum behavior would be confined to light were quickly destroyed when it became clear that the quantum theory had to be applied to explain the behavior of electrons also. Their behavior in any individual encounter, just like the photon fired at the mirror, cannot be predicted, not even in principle.  The photo electric effect was leading the physics community to quantum mechanics.

Just as the invention of the telescope dramatically broadened exploration of the Cosmos, so too the invention of the microscope opened the intricate world of the cell. The analysis of the frequencies of light emitted and absorbed by atoms was a principal impetus for the development of quantum mechanics.  What had begun as a tiny loose end, a strange little problem in the rela­tionship between heat and light, now is understood to mean that nothing is quite the way it had once seemed. The unfolding of quantum mechanics was and still is a drama of high suspense, as Heisenberg himself wrote:

I remember discussions with Bohr (in 1927) which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair, and when at the end of the dis­cussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park, I repeated to myself again and again the question: ‘Can nature possibly be absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?’[3]

One hundred years after the discovery of the quantum, we can say that the answer is yes, that is exactly what nature is like. Just because science can explain so many unknowns doesn’t mean that it can explain everything, or that it can vanquish the unknowable.  At its very core, in the midst of the ultimate constituents of matter and energy, the predictable causality that once formed the heart of classical physics breaks down. Deep down the nature is unknowable as the Transcendent God is Unknowable.  It may be, this is where the finite meets the Infinite, and by the very nature of the meeting point, it is hidden in mystery and awe, an enigma or a riddle never to be solved!

Double slit experiment: An easy way to appreciate the mysteries of the Quantum world

The double-slit experiment, sometimes called Young’s experiment (after Young’s interference experiment), is a demonstration that matter and energy can display characteristics of both waves and particles, and demonstrates the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena.

In the basic version of the experiment, a coherent light source such as a laser beam illuminates a thin plate pierced by two parallel slits, and the light passing through the slits is observed on a screen behind the plate. The wave nature of light causes the light waves passing through the two slits to interfere, producing bright and dark bands on the screen — a result that would not be expected if light consisted strictly of particles. However, on the screen, the light is always found to be absorbed as though it were composed of discrete particles or photons.[1][2]

This result establishes the principle known as wave–particle duality. Additionally, the detection of individual photons is observed to be inherently probabilistic, which is inexplicable using classical mechanics.[3]

The following short video, in a very easy manner, not only explains the double split experiment, but, its implications on the indeterminacy of our quantum world.  After all there are limits to what humans can know and those limits will not go away with technological advances, Double Slit Experiment explained! by Jim Al-Khalili:

You can read the same details in the first chapter of a book, by Prof. James Al-Khalili, who is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Quantum Physics and Uncertainty Principle

Lot of time the complexity that Quantum physicist have to deal with is calculations for each electron based on Schrödinger equation, which gives the first time derivative of the quantum state. That is, it explicitly and uniquely predicts the development of the wave function with time.

ihbarfrac{partialpsi(x,t)}{partial t} = - frac{hbar^2}{2m} frac{partial^2psi(x,t)}{partial x^2}+V(x)psi

The complexity of the equation is obvious at the first glance, but if we can bypass this then life is not too tough to bear.

At one time, it was assumed in the physical sciences that if the behavior observed in a system cannot be predicted, the problem is due to lack of fine-grained information, so that a sufficiently detailed investigation would eventually result in a deterministic theory (“If you knew exactly all the forces acting on the dice, you would be able to predict which number comes up”).

However, the advent of quantum mechanics removed the underpinning from that approach, with the claim that (at least according to the Copenhagen interpretation) the most basic constituents of matter at times behave indeterministically.
In fact there are two sources of quantum indeterminism:

  1. the Heisenberg uncertainty principle prevents the simultaneous accurate measurement of all a particle’s properties; and
  2. the collapse of the wave function, in which the state of a system upon measurement cannot be predicted.

The latter kind of indeterminism is not only a feature of the Copenhagen interpretation, with its observer-dependence, but also of objective collapse theories.

Opponents of quantum indeterminism suggested that determinism could be restored by formulating a new theory in which additional information, so-called hidden variables ,[28] would allow definite outcomes to be determined. For instance, in 1935, Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen wrote a paper titled Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? arguing that such a theory was in fact necessary.

The double-slit experiment (and its variations), conducted with individual particles, has become a classic thought experiment for its clarity in expressing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics. Because it demonstrates the fundamental limitation of the observer to predict experimental results, Richard Feynman called it “a phenomenon which is impossible … to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery [of quantum mechanics].”[3], and was fond of saying that all of quantum mechanics can be gleaned from carefully thinking through the implications of this single experiment[4]. Časlav Brukner and Anton Zeilinger have succinctly expressed this limitation as follows:

[T]he observer can decide whether or not to put detectors into the interfering path. That way, by deciding whether or not to determine the path through the two-slit experiment, he/she can decide which property can become reality. If he/she chooses not to put the detectors there, then the interference pattern will become reality; if he/she does put the detectors there, then the beam path will become reality. Yet, most importantly, the observer has no influence on the specific element of the world that becomes reality. Specifically, if he/she chooses to determine the path, then he/she has no influence whatsoever over which of the two paths, the left one or the right one, nature will tell him/her is the one in which the particle is found. Likewise, if he/she chooses to observe the interference pattern, then he/she has no influence whatsoever over where in the observation plane he/she will observe a specific particle. Both outcomes are completely random.[5]

Epilogue

In the three great monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, God is viewed as a supreme, transcendent being, beyond matter space and time, and yet the foundation of all that meets our senses that is described in terms of matter, space, and time. That is the Al Batin or the Hidden God of monotheism.  Furthermore, this God is not the god of deism, who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all of existence. The Islamic and the Judeo-Christian God is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in every cubic nanometer of the universe.  He has full knowledge of all things.  God listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe.  The Holy Quran declares:

Allah’s is the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth; and to Allah are all affairs returned for final judgment. (Al Quran 57:6)

Whereas the nineteenth century physics was about to frame God out of physical understanding of the universe, the twentieth century physics has turned the tables in favor of Monotheism.

To the atheists design in the universe is apparent but not real. For the theists, enlightened in science, the converse is true, the self sufficiency of the universe based on the laws of nature is apparent and perceived only and is not real. God is the Law Giver and sustainer of the universe. Both positions may be argued to some degree from modern science. However, only theism can offer a holistic approach, not only explaining our universe, but also human morality and ethics, our history and personal experience.

When we approach science from this theistic perspective we find that our religion and science become one and our psyche finds unification.

If there is a ‘Personal God’ that hears human prayers then there has to be a way for the Deity to influence the physical world without breaking the laws of nature and making the study of science futile.  Quantum physics may be the magical wand, whereby ‘Personal God’ can influence our world, without breaking the laws of nature.  In His infinite wisdom, the Omniscient God provided for infinite means, at the quantum level, to maintain His divinity!  He says in the Holy Quran, in Sura Hadid:

He (Allah) is the First and the Last, and the Manifest and the Hidden, and He knows every little detail fully well. (Al Quran 57:4)

Quantum physics is the magical wand, by which Allah has established His divinity on each and every quark, photon and boson.  In so doing He has not only provided for His Providence but also for our free will, while ensuring predictability and reign of laws of nature at macroscopic level.  If Laplace had been right, he would have not only ruled out God, but, also our free will and personal responsibility.

References

1. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/159526/determinism

[2] Kenneth R Miller.  Finding Darwin’s God.  Cliff Street Books (Harper Collins), paper back edition 2000, p. 199-200.

[3] David Pepper, Frank Webster and George Revill.  Environmentalism: Critical Concepts. Routledge, 2003.  Page 148.

Additional Reading and Viewing

Video: Biologist Kenneth Miller on Free Will and Quantum Physics

Quantum Theory – Sign of a Personal God

Human Soul: The Final Frontier?

6 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I am currently reading Descartes works and his ideal of Dualism and correlation of body and mind combined with our modern quantum sciences really makes God inevitable. It is an amazing wonder and would really shake anybody’s understanding of their own existence to the acknowledgment that we are in no possible way simple physical mechanisms part of a completely deterministic world. SubhanAllah!

    Jazakallah for this beautiful article. May Allah reward you amply!

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