I’ve never been interested in hearing whether one person or another claims to believe in God, or is or is not religious. As Thomas Merton noted, “our idea of God tells us more about us than Him.”1 Neither question seems to offer insight into how a person might face a world in which bouquets and brickbats fall both on those who claim faith and those who deny it. Rather, in search of a central religious-philosophical way of understanding the world, I have always been more interested in these questions: How do you understand the relationship of order and chaos? Do you look at the world and see a universe basically in order, with the occasional challenge or mystery, like an unfilled answer in a crossword puzzle that will eventually all make sense perfectly? Or, alternatively, do you look at the world and see an unpredictable and unknowable chaotic pit, with any semblance of order we might encounter no more than a veneer stretched over a nihilist chasm, a fig leaf over an existential vacuum?
It’s hardly a new way of posing a foundational theological cum philosophical question, but, perhaps surprisingly, its most passionate and articulate respondents are neither professional theologians nor philosophers, but rather particle physicists. In this essay, I want to look at one of the most significant debates in twentieth-century science and suggest some implications for those of us who are struggling to articulate a relationship between order and chaos in our own lives. [End Page 14]
Physics: Cause and Effect
Until the 1900s, physicists believed it would be possible to reach a precise understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. If you dropped a weight from a certain height it would take a certain amount of time to reach the ground—that sort of thing. As long as physicists had enough information about a system, they expected to be able to work out precisely how any part of that system would respond at any given time. The doyen of all modern physicists, Albert Einstein, was an archetypal classical physicist in that he believed in this type of approach. He was a self-defined “determinist,” a passionate believer in strict rules of cause and effect. He didn’t have the arrogance to believe that he understood all these rules—indeed, his humility when confronted by the majesty of the world was the prime source of his special kind of religiosity—but he believed that such rules did exist and that they applied to every element of the universe, “for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.”2
Then came quantum mechanics. The discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s was built on the foundations of Einstein’s own discoveries, but Einstein never fully accepted the single most provocative claim of the field of studies his own work begat—namely, that at its heart the world is nondeterminist and the doctrine of cause and effect, held sacred by classical physics, was ultimately wrong.
It is possible to “charge up” a cloud of atoms by pumping electricity into it. This results in some of the atoms in the gas absorbing energy and emitting photons. As long as one doesn’t wish to look too closely, it is possible to use these emitted photons very precisely—this, after all, is how lasers work. But while an applied physicist might be content working out how to focus a laser beam to perform any particular task, a theoretical physicist (as Einstein was) has to grapple with how this stream of photons is produced. And this is where the science becomes murky.
The problem is that atoms in a gas do not emit photons according to precise laws of cause and effect. There is no way to determine which atoms in a gas will emit a photon at any given time and there is no way to determine in which direction any particular emitted photon will travel. In general terms the...