Patterico's Pontifications


Christ, Atheism, Quantum Physics, and the Nature of Reality

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:52 am

I have been listening to Sam Harris’s podcast more lately. (All hail the Intellectual Dark Web!) Harris is an atheist, yet listening to his podcast has had the effect of strengthening my faith — no doubt due to what Harris would call confirmatory bias. On the one hand, the podcast has caused me to think more about how little science actually knows about the nature of reality. On the other, it has given me reasons to find a real truth in Jesus’s Gospel.

In a conversation with Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at CalTech, Harris has a discussion about the paradoxes presented by quantum mechanics. I’ll give you a snippet from 27:41 to 33:13:

Carroll discusses the Copenhagen interpretation, but appears to subscribe to another theory called the Many Worlds interpretation. I’m not a physicist, so I’ll defer to Harris’s description, as confirmed by Carroll — but it appears to be, in effect, a claim that “everything that can happen is happening” in some parallel universe. Harris takes an object and puts it down, and says that if there is a nonzero possibility of him doing that 75 times in a row, to the consternation of the audience, then it is happening somewhere. At 28:40, Harris sounds dumbfounded:

This is supposed to be science, right? But this sounds like the strangest and least believable idea on offer. How is that science, after centuries of being rigorous and parsimonious and hardheaded, finally disgorges a picture of reality which seems to be the least believable thing anyone’s ever thought of?

Carroll’s answer at 29:43 is basically: that’s the best answer science has. “It is the simplest, purest, most parsimonious way of making sense of the data.” He goes into a discussion of quantum mechanics. An electron is spinning in some sense both clockwise and counterclockwise, but when you look at it, it is doing only one. Yet the equation tells you that both were happening. So what happened to the other situation described by the equation? This is where the explanations become unsatisfactory, and the Many Worlds interpretation is currently as mainstream an explanation as any other.

The notion does seem preposterous, if I take the description offered in the podcast at face value — mainly because, as chaotic and unpredictable as our world can seem, there is still a logic to it. Imagining countless universes, where every physical possibility that can happen does happen, means that countless totally illogical things are taking place in the other universes. There is a universe where I have my life as a lawyer and run a political blog, but every third post on the blog is simply the letter A repeated thousands of times. (Some of you might prefer that to every third post saying something unflattering about Donald Trump, but that’s another discussion.) In another universe it is every sixth post where I repeat the letter Z. In another universe, a plane crashes into my back yard in front of my eyes as I type — but I calmly sit and continue to type, without acting the way one does when they witness a tragedy . . . just because it is physically possible for me to do so.

This does seem to be “the least believable thing anyone’s ever thought of.” Clearly, it can’t be a coincidence that we happen to live in one of the relatively few universes where such bizarre things do not routinely happen — where there is at least some coherent logic to the unfolding of events.

And this is hardly the only aspect of reality that is unexplained by particle physics. The discussion touches on at least one more, namely, if one looks at the universe solely from the vantage point of particle physics, from what does consciousness arise? This is a difficult concept to explain solely in terms of subatomic particles.

Clearly, science doesn’t have all the answers — not yet, anyway, and it probably never will have them all.

Meanwhile, noted atheist and scholar of Christianity Bart Ehrman was on Harris’s podcast recently, and I found many of the things he said to be corroborative of things I have found myself in thinking about Christ and the Bible. I just happen to interpret them differently than Ehrman. They talked about the fact that Christ was indeed a historical figure, and that there are certain things that he almost certainly said — because if the story were fictional, it wouldn’t have been told that way. Ehrman calls this the “criterion of dissimilarity” and compares it to what happens in a court case where a witness appears to make an admission against their interest. I have previously thought about the Gospels in this way. There is much that not only rings true, but that you can’t really imagine a storyteller making up in this way. So much of what Jesus says is startling and totally unexpected, and yet perfect. People who constructed that story out of whole cloth would have to be, not only geniuses, but people who wrote the story in ways that nobody would ever expect such a story to be constructed. It makes no sense to say that the story was made up.

Yet Ehrman and Harris seem to forget the analogy to court cases when they discuss contradictions in the Bible and in the Gospels. And there are contradictions. For example, one Gospel writer gives one account of the relationship of Jesus’s crucifixion to Passover, and another gives a different one. One account attributes to Jesus a quote about the destruction of the temple that is attributed to someone else in a different account. Ha ha! Ehrman and Harris conclude. There goes the notion that the Bible is the divine word of God!

But contradictions on details like this happen all the time in court cases. To me, such contradictions make the Gospels seem more like an honest account given by flawed people, who sometimes contradict each other on the minor points, but who get the main details right.

This will sound heretical to some of you, but I can’t subscribe to the commonly held notion that every word of the Bible is the received Word of God, simply because there are some blatant contradictions. But those contradictions make the story seem more real to me. They are like the “criterion of dissimilarity” — they bring a truly transformative story of good news into our reality.

Harris has talked to believers, too, but I think I have learned more from the atheists than I have from the believers. I like to let them make their best case — and it’s not wholly satisfying.

Science doesn’t have all the answers to the nature of reality. There really is something to the notion that Christ truly spoke words, and lived a life, that transformed the world. These are some of the thoughts I have had upon listening to this very smart atheist talking to some of his very smart atheist friends.

[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]

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