Sunday, March 24, 2013

Quantum Theology

The Holy Trinity: Three Persons in One God
The early Catholic church taught that there were two paths to discovering the Nature of God--Revelation and the study of nature. Revelation includes the teachings of the church itself which include such mysteries as the Holy Trinity--the notion that God (Deus) was one being consisting of three separate Persons: Father (Pater), Son (Filius) and Holy Spirit (Spiritus). The figure above, which appears in most Catholic catechisms, declares that the Father is not (non est) the Son, and the Son is not (non est) the Spirit. But both the Son and the Father are (est) God. Various analogies have been used to illustrate this Mystery, from the union of three candle flames to Saint Patrick holding up a shamrock. When I went to school I was told that the Trinity was a mystery no human could understand-- an intellectual tactic similar to the popular "shut up and calculate" "explanation" of Quantum Reality.

Revelation also includes the direct experience of God by individual mystics. But this Path was not encouraged by the Church both because it threatened the Church's teaching monopoly and because such personal revelations could be contaminated by human frailties and desires. Although I spent four years studying theology and other topics at a Catholic prep school, we never once discussed the revelations of any mystic. However in the St Charles Borromeo library I discovered the classic mystical text "Dark Night of the Soul" by St John of the Cross. After reading this book cover to cover, I decided that if this was what it meant to be a mystic, then mysticism was not for Nick. Much later in life I experimented with psychedelics--following Blessed Terence McKenna's dictum: "Now even bad people can see God."--and directly experienced many of the paradoxes of consciousness that up till then I had only read about. Not only are the mysteries of Body, Mind and God intellectually complex, I concluded, they are often flat-out terrifying.

The second Path to God is through the study of the world. If God indeed created everything like an artist creates a painting, song or sculpture, then one might hope to learn about the psychology of the artist by looking as deeply as possible at the details of that artist's work--an endeavor called Natural Theology. Albert Einstein when he said: "I am not interested in this phenomenon or that phenomenon. I want to know God's thoughts--the rest are mere details." was speaking as a Natural Theologian.

Today the practice of Natural Theology has taken a peculiar turn. Physicists have discovered the Secret of the Universe. We now possess the equations that accurately predict the results of every phenomenon we are able to observe in the laboratory--equations that are only beginning to change our world through classically-impossible new technologies such as lasers and computer chips. The Secret of the Universe is called Quantum Theory which gives us unprecedented control of the Quantum Facts. However the price physicists pay for this triumph is steep--we must give up Quantum Reality. We are no longer able to tell a plausible story about WHAT IS HAPPENING when a Quantum Fact appears. And the world we see is made of nothing but Quantum Facts. Werner Heisenberg expressed this awkward situation thus: "Our conception of the objective reality of elementary particles has evaporated in a curious way--not into the fog of some new, obscure or not yet understood reality concept but into the transparent clarity of a new mathematics."

When I was eight years old, I was initiated into another way to experience God--by taking Him directly into my body--by swallowing at Mass a piece of bread whose "substance" had been changed by the words of the priest into the substance of God. This Church explained this miracle in terms of a Medieval physics in which all matter consists of an invisible "substance" to which are attached visible and palpable "accidents"--accidents such as "white, thin, two inches around, etc". When the priest says his magic words the bread's accidents remain the same but the bread's invisible substance is changed into the substance of God--hence the term "transubstantiation" that refers to the physics of the Eucharist.

Priest in Philadelphia turning bread into the Body of God

What an odd concept, that God might not dwell in a far-away heaven, but might take residence in a piece of bread. And bending the doctrine a bit, God might not just invisibly inhabit the substance of the consecrated Host, but the substance of all matter, however lowly. God, or some aspect of God, might be invisibly present beneath everything. God, or some foretaste of God, might be teasing us by appearing to physicists as Quantum Reality.

If it's God who's running the quantum theater, He/She certainly behaves like a showoff. Almost every sort of contradiction we can think of, God (or nature) effortlessly combines without anything exploding. The quantum world is both analog and digital, both fully deterministic and utterly random, combines both wave and particle in a single phenomenon. And lately God's showing off Her chops in the hot new arena of quantum entanglement. If you're keen to explore the quantum entanglement chapter of Natural Theology, then get thee to a modern optics lab.
Quantum optics experiment: Can the bizarre behavior of light reveal the hidden nature of God?
One of the most beautiful examples of quantum entanglement is the GHZ experiment--named after three physicists, Goldberger, Horne and Zeilinger. In the GHZ setup three photons A, B, and C are emitted from a common source (labeled GHZ in the picture below). These photons travel in three different directions (oriented somewhat like a Mercedes symbol) to three distant lab stations where Alice, Bob and Charlie are prepared to measure the spin direction of their particular A, B or C photon. This being quantum mechanics, Alice cannot just "measure" the pre-existing spin of her A photon. Alice must chose a direction and the photon will respond with spin pointing entirely along that direction ("spin-up") or entirely opposite that direction ("spin-down"). Although before being measured, Alice's photon could have pointed in any direction on a sphere (an analog quantity), Alice's action forces that photon to make a digital choice. The Quantum Reality dilemma consists of the fact that although we can perfectly predict the results of the GHZ experiment, we are unable to formulate a plausible story about WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING at Alice's photon detector. We are equally ignorant about WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING at all photon detectors anywhere in the Universe including the photon detectors in your eyes that make it possible for you to read this page.

A photon is said to be in a spin "eigenstate" if there is a direction Alice can choose where that photon will register spin-up 100% of the time. When a photon is in a eigenstate, it makes sense to say that photon A is spinning in a definite direction. It is easy to put photons in spin eigenstates. A pair of polarized sunglasses can do the job.

However the three GHZ photons are not produced in eigenstates but in a state of spin entanglement. "Quantum Entanglement" is impossible to describe in classical terms. The three GHZ photon no longer possess the property "spin" on their own. The only entity that possesses a definite spin is the entire three-photon system all at once. Thus photon A is "not spinning", photon B is "not spinning",
photon C is "not spinning". But the system as a whole has a definite spin. The GHZ arrangement bears a vague resemblance to the mystery of the Holy Trinity--it's completely incomprehensible to the human mind, what nature is doing with these three photons. However the GHZ mystery differs from the mystery of the Trinity in that the GHZ mystery is not just words in a book--it's the sort of thing that ordinary light does every day. Today's physicists are only at the beginning of our exploration of Quantum Reality. Likewise today's natural theologians have only begun to appreciate the handiwork of the Universe's inhumanly eccentric artist.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, our knowledge of matter is deep and sophisticated--our knowledge of mind and of God shallow and primitive. When experiments and theories about mind, when experiments and theories about God begin to match the sophistication of our experiments and theories about matter, only then will we be able to enjoy the fruits of a true quantum theology.


Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jew,
Bacterium, bobcat, skunk, kangaroo,
Photon, electron, spins even and odd
Is what lies under this the Substance of God?

Most old-fashioned concepts of God 

were not so astute--
Story-book Yahwehs and Wotans 

for Richard Dawkins to refute.
Now science has shown us that Nature deep down
Turns human ideas of reason and logic around.

If Quantum Reality gives us glimpse of Divine
Then Her everyday acts defy human design.
Each quantum event in the Universe grand
Hides a magnificent miracle we don't understand.

Holy Trinity is kid's play compared to GHZ
A common ho-hum triple-photon mystery.
If Nature works marvels in stuff deaf and blind
How is She handling the Mystery of Mind?

Perhaps God's not a Goon who holds all the Aces
But a mystery inside our most intimate places.
Maybe Her Mind & yours are as close as a shave
Mad, goofy-entangled--like particle/wave.

The GHZ experiment: Three photons in one entanglement


kfb said...

I like it. And just in time for Easter/Equinox, the annual rebirth of life in spring (on the northern side of this spinning bit of wet rock) that is a mystery into and of itself.

My only comment is to take exception to your statement that things aren't exploding all the time. But they are... just look at all those unstable isotopes, stars going nova, black holes, big bang(s), etc. We're just lucky to be hanging out in a space/time where nothing too big has exploded too close too recently...

I do think it's kind of cute how the human brain (and quantum math) comes up with these cryptic dualities and trialities and then calls them insolvable just because we can't step back (up?) to a higher dimensional space from which we might see them as being linear and logical.

Thanks for the thoughts!

Alice In BondageLand said...

Thanks for another thoughtful poem.

I am falling back in love with the world. :-)

Wes Hansen said...

You know, I like your post and poem but the Trinity mystery isn’t just words in a book! The problem with psychedelics (and I’ve ingested my fair share) is, when improperly utilized, they most often induce a neurotic experience which is nothing even close to the mystic experience. The mystic experience requires spiritual discipline which translates to mental discipline. Why do you think prisons and monasteries share so many similarities?

The Trinity refers to the three bodies: gross, subtle, and super subtle (corpus, animus, spiritus; Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, Dharmakaya). The mystery exists in the realm where these three are united; when an individual unites these three within their own being they become intimate with the mystery. And what is the mystery, really? The mystery is death! Think about it, all folks are knowledgeable about life but generally quite ignorant of death. The key to the whole deal is contained in the Bardo Thodol. You, being a Tantra practitioner, should be well aware of this. How could these monks write a guidebook specifically for the Bardo state if they have never experienced the Bardo state?

Here’s a suggestion, take it or leave it:

Start by reading this paper by Barclay Powers, called Integral Immortality ( If that piques your curiosity check out the rest of his papers ( and watch his movie or read his book ( Check out the Rainbow Body Phenomenon as investigated by the Noetic Institute and Father Francis Tiso (, there’s your true transubstantiation . . .

The Catholic Rituals are metaphors which direct the human consciousness, or sub-consciousness anyway, to what is required to unite the three bodies, and they’re not unique. In the Hindu tradition you have the linga/yoni (; in the Christian the baptismal font and paschal candle ( and in the Easter ritual the font’s water is inseminated with the flame from the candle; in the Native American tradition the bowl and stem of the peace pipe ( White Buffalo Calf Woman in the Lakota Virgin Mother); in the Pagan tradition the wine-filled chalice and the athame (; etc. etc. All of these are the same metaphors pointing towards the union of opposites and transcendence. Mystics have progressed much farther towards understanding “God” than have natural theologians . . . said...

If it's true that the Trinity is a mystery no human can understand, then it follows logically and indisputably that I am a human.
I hope you didn't give up on all mystics just cuz of St. J of the Cross. There are loads of good mystics, living and dead, out there. By the way, Quakerism is based on the possibility of direct experience of God by any individual. All can be mystics. And you don't have to sit on a pillar in the desert for years.
Re Natural Theology: I believe the natural world can teach us about God, but not so much the psychology of the Artist but the gifts of curiosity, awe and joy offered to us. Also, of course, the gifts of our special senses and brains that can appreciate this.
When the girl next door and I were old enough to take Communion and be Confirmed (as Episcopalians), she regularly got nauseated by the evocation of cannibalism. "Substance of God" might be OK, but flesh of Jesus not so much.
I believe God inhabits the substance of all matter, including - in fact especially - me. (I see God as feminine. It took many years of trying, to accomplish this.)
Re the GHZ mystery is "completely incomprehensible to the human mind": It follows logically and indisputably that I am a human.
Thanks for the trip, Nick. I love the poem.