The Quantum Pontiff

I Am a Quantumist: Bring it On!

Tonight I watched NOVA’s Judgement Day: Intelligent Design On Trial. Ah shucks, us quantum physicists never get to have so much fun (err, I mean, experience so much pain and deal with so much silliness) trying to defend our science. It’s not like, you know, there aren’t people who think quantum theory is wrong or that quantum theory is somehow related to the Vedic teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So why is it that quantum theory (which after all is “just a theory” wink, wink, nod, nod) doesn’t illicit courtroom battles of such epic scope as the Dover trial?

I mean, let’s talk about quantum theory. Does quantum theory fundamentally shape the way we think the world works? I certainly think it does! Quantum theory (more rightfully the quantum field theory of the standard model) is, along with general relativity, the basis of our most fundamental understanding of how the universe works. Thus I would think that, yeah, it might be of some importance in shaping our view of the world. But do the masses clamor to attack quantum theory, charging that alternatives to quantum theory be taught in high school science classes and that alternative views of quantum physics be given equal time? No! No! They focus all of their energy on the biologists and their theory of evolution. Bah.

I mean, really biologists, I’d love to help out. Why don’t you send some of your intelligent design friends over here to physics land and we will gladly do our share of defending science.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    November 14, 2007

    The real difference IMO is that quantum woos are more individualistic in their crankery than IDiots. All of them are your garden variety nutjobs who want to be the next Galileo, while creo/ID is more powerful because it has a broader socio-political agenda behind it. You’d never get a major court case over quantum theory a la Dover because of this difference.

    Though quantum mechanics is used by all variety of cranks to (somehow) buttress their preconceived notions, and IDiots are by no means exempt from this.

  2. #2 MartinC
    November 14, 2007

    One of the big differences is that quantum theory is explicitly mathematical – which is generally understood to be a difficult subject to master. Biology, on the other hand is often regarded as ‘easy’ or ‘obvious’ by those not in the field. While hardly any layman would claim to know more than Penrose or Hawking in their respective fields it is quite usual to hear claims from primarily religious non-biologists that those who have dedicated their lives to careful study of evolution or population genetics are ‘stupid’ or making some sort of nursery school error in their basic premise.
    It is infuriating to those of us who have spent years studying, to hear the representations of evolution from creationists and to realize that they know virtually nothing about biology, never mind the details of evolutionary theory. As a quick example I was in a discussion with a creationist recently who assumed that the theory of evolution claims that animals change shape until they reach a specific form (you know, the animation of a fish gradually changing to human shown to illustrate evolution). However the creationist thought that the claim was that this change occurs, timewise, exactly as it is shown in the evolution – in a manner of seconds. It is only after the shape changing has finished that reproduction begins. He thought that this was patently ridiculous and so evolution must be false.
    It was impossible to convince him that this was not actually how evolution occurs – because he thought biology was easy so he knew enough of it already – so why should he listen to a silly evolutionist who believes in a shape shifting fish!

  3. #3 Marc
    November 14, 2007

    I think that the fundamental problem that certain religious people have with evolution is that it basically removes Gods special connection with humanity. I think that if people could find a way to maintain God’s connection to humanity via evolution then they might not be so anti it.

    I also think that it’s a lot easier to cartoon evolution than it is quantum mechanics so that laymen can “understand” it. If you ask the general public what the predictions of evolution are i strongly suspect that you’ll get a lot more answers than if you were to ask the same question about quantum mechanics.

    So although quantum mechanics is based on huge amounts of evidence that requires the bible to be false (like every other branch of science) it doesn’t come under attack in the same manner because it doesn’t question humanities direct relationship to God. Or at least in the eyes of the public.

    So I’d like to throw this out there; is there a prediction of QM that directly contradicts the bible? Certainly the uncertainty principle has something to say on being omnipotent and omniscient.

    As a final thought QM may not be considered to be as settled in the publics mind as evolution. Although they never here about genuine contenders to evolution, a lay person might assume that string theory is going to completely change physics. Some sort of relativity/classical mechanics analogue. In that circumstance it’s hardly worth worrying to much about defending religion against a transient theory.

  4. #4 Joe
    November 14, 2007

    Certainly the uncertainty principle has something to say on being omnipotent and omniscient.

    Actually I’m not sure that it does. If you create a quantum state according to some prescription, then you can in principle know the wavefunction. It’s only if you have to learn about the state through measurement that you are limited in your knowledge of the state (by the Holevo bound). If you know the wave function, then you know all there is to know about that particular system.

    On the other hand, I’d think that astrophysics and cosmology are at least as detrimental to creationism as evolution is. And if you want a quantum flavour to this, than surely CMB anisotropy is the way to go.

  5. #5 Ex-drone
    November 14, 2007

    You should have watched Deepak Chopra on CNN’s 360 last night. Anderson Cooper’s topic was The Power of Prayer. *gags* Chopra described the research being conducted at his Center for Wellbeing that “proves” the effectiveness of prayer through the mechanism of quantum entanglement. *gags* At least you watched something of value.

  6. #6 Alex
    November 14, 2007

    I suspect that the bottom line is that, as most IDers and creationists can’t get to grips with even basic biology, there is no chance whatsoever of them ever, ever, ever understanding either Quantum Theory or its fundamental importance. All they see are cool sounding, scientific phrases that make no sense to them. So they think it’s safe to use these phrases and terms to bolster their gobbledigook because they assume that the folk they seek to impress/bamboozle/convert won’t understand either.

    Excellent blog by the way.


  7. #7 TomS
    November 14, 2007

    Not “quantumist”. “Planckist”, in the style of “Darwinist”. You have to have a person to blame, rather than an abstraction.

  8. #8 Michael J. Biercuk
    November 14, 2007

    To anyone interested in this topic I’d highly recommend a book entitled “The Tower of Babel” by Robert T. Pennock. A similar question to Dave’s is posited – why, if literal interpretation of the Bible suggests that God created all human languages as punishment for attempting to build the Tower of Babel, do religious fundamentalists not take issue with the linguistic notion of language families and language evolution, while they vehemently oppose biological evolution? As a Philosopher, the logic used by the author in the book is impeccable, and the arguments crisp, which is quite refreshing in a discussion about evolution.


    I thought you too had received the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is Untenable” emails in the past. The fact is that QM does conflict with the religious teachings of some, including, apparently, the Falun Gong. At the end of the day, however, this is a religious minority with little political influence (in the US at least)…

  9. #9 tristero
    November 14, 2007

    Be careful what you wish for. As I’m sure you are aware, quantum theory is on the rightwing hit list. These people are very serious, very well-funded, and utterly ruthless.

  10. #10 pete
    November 14, 2007

    Don’t creationist believe the Earth is ~6000 years old? But they don’t seem to get emotive about evidence to the contrary. No off-the-top-of-my-head idea why this should be. There’s just something about evolution that appeals to their inner primate.

  11. #11 Chad
    November 14, 2007

    MartinC stole my answer…

  12. #12 Michael J. Biercuk
    November 14, 2007

    If anyone is ever interested in a really good laugh (and then a good cry), check out the physics department webpage at Bob Jones University. My personal favorite was the researcher who was trying to use theories of inhomogeneous radioactive decay during the creation and the fall to explain the contradiction between radioisotope dating results for the age of the earth and the literal biblical age.

  13. #13 Dave Bacon
    November 14, 2007

    Not “quantumist”. “Planckist”, in the style of “Darwinist”. You have to have a person to blame, rather than an abstraction.

    I thought about that. Actually I’d probably suggest they use “Bohrist” since Planck was more an unwiting participant in the quantum revolution. Plus Planck was a devote Christian (although apparently of very diestic and tolerant form)

  14. #14 Dave Bacon
    November 14, 2007

    Be careful what you wish for. As I’m sure you are aware, quantum theory is on the rightwing hit list.

    I relish the challenge! By opening up a new front on the War on Science(TM) we can splinter the forces of evil, err, I mean anti-science.

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 14, 2007

    “is there a prediction of QM that directly contradicts the bible?”

    Well, if we know that the universe was created in EXACTLY 6 days, then, by Heiseberg uncertainty, and/or Bohr Complementarity, doesn’t that mean that we don’t know exactly WHERE the universe is?

    If God started the ball rolling by intoning through his long white beard “Let there be light!” — what was the distribution of photon energies? And when did he make the neutrinos? The gravity waves? And, what they hey, why doesn’t Genesis explicitly mention Dark Matter and Dark Energy? Is it (gasp) not a COMPLETE theory?


    Job (38: 4-7): “Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth? declare, if thou has understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

    Measures — in Planck lengths and Planck times? “stretched the line” — as General Relativity’s geodesics? “corner stone” — absolute space? Or could it be, you know, METAPHOR?

  16. #16 Peter Morgan
    November 14, 2007

    QM is quite different in its relation to religion than evolution. Religious people often see QM as quite friendly to religion, perhaps because of Bohr’s strictures on the limits of quantum theory — QM restricts what can be measured, which can be seen as leaving room for God. There’s also the more extreme “QM is spooky” stuff, which can be taken to suggest that God must have made the world beyond human understanding, that science is limited, etc.
    Marxist and other materialist philosophies have more of a problem with QM, again perhaps because of the restriction on materialist thinking.
    Now that someone has mentioned “Falun Gong” on your pages, I expect you will get a response once the search engines start returning this post for that search term.

  17. #17 Blake Stacey
    November 14, 2007

    How many of these medical institutions do you think use the word “quantum” as a mantra to justify their woo?

  18. #18 Dave Bacon
    November 14, 2007

    Oh man, Blake, I really don’t want to hop down that rabbit hoe, do I… Oh shoot, here I go…

  19. #19 jess
    November 16, 2007

    Just a thought here. QM — and a lot of other basic physical theories — may not step on the toes of religious fundamentalists for a couple of reasons not outlined here.

    First, they are explicitly provable, with real-world examples that people run into every single day. Evolution can be proven as well, but it isn’t as in your face as QM or relativity.

    Specifically, QM is the reason that semiconductors work the way they do, and lasers make no sense whatsoever without it. (OK, I am speaking as a layman who went through three semesters of physics so if I am mislabeling stuff please tell me). Anyhow, the point is that you can say “Here’s a computer” and “Here’s a GPS dvice” and “Here’s a rocket to Jupiter proving the Earth goes ’round the sun” and suchlike.

    Evolution is a historical theory (a bit ike economics in that respect). That is, it makes claims to things that people did not personally witness. So it’s easier to try and “debunk” it because nobody was around for dinosaurs. I can darned well demonstrate a laser beam or an LED in a lab.

    And biology doesn’t lend itself to everyday-use technologies that are easy to see. (If anything, I think in some ways biology is the tougher science to explain, as it assumes a basic knowledge of chemistry and physics). Yes, there are huge medical advances possible because of the theory of evolution, but it isn’t like you can say “this pill you take was invented becuase evolution says X”. Whereas, I *can* make a case for that about the invention of the laser and QM.

    So you have a science that deals with things people don’t see all the time that says something about our relationship to the world that is directly contradicted by thousands of year of not only Biblical tradition, but loads of Western philosophy as well (Plato for starters).

    I mean, even our very basic understanding of self has a body/soul/mind dichotomy (trichotomy?) whether we like to admit it or not.

    Since QM doesn’t explicitly make any claims about human origins, it doesn’t step on the toes of the Bible, at least not directly. Same with Relativity or mechanics.

    Also, remember that religious fundamentalism of the kind we see from Creationists is relatively modern, Great Awakening notwithstanding. It isn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th that you get anything recognizeable as the religious right and not really until the 60s that it becomes the kind of force in politics we see today. If anything I could argue that modernity is a *precondition* for this kind of thing.

  20. #20 Ilya
    November 16, 2007

    I think that Joe is on the right track. Also, the run of the mill Christian lumps astrology/cosmology in with evolution.

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