“It’s open to interpretation.”
We’ve all heard that line before. And when it comes to understanding Scripture, it’s often true—sometimes frustratingly so. What is this passage really saying?
That’s why pastors rely on trusted translations and scholarly interpretations to help guide us. That’s why many of us took Hebrew and Greek in seminary, to better understand the original languages.
To some science nerds, Einstein’s words are almost “biblical.” They hang on his every saying and discovery as if it were gospel truth. But even Einstein’s quotes are open to interpretation—like his famous quote that “God does not play dice with the universe.” Turns out that quote is inaccurate, and that it really goes more like this: “Quantum mechanics … delivers much, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice.” The German phrase translated “Old One,” Der Alte, may not refer to God, but to Nature.
In any case, Einstein is clearly saying that the laws of nature—including quantum mechanics—are not at the behest of a roll of the dice. And yet, such laws are open to interpretation.
So, how do we make sense this mysterious world?
A Variety of Interpretations
Rather than unpack dozens of interpretations of quantum mechanics, let’s look at some broad categories for those interpretations—starting with that “roll of the dice.”
Is the world fundamentally determined or undetermined? Remember, quantum mechanics uses probabilities to describe microscopic phenomena. To some physicists, those probabilities suggest that the microscopic world does not obey deterministic rules—like Newton’s laws of motion—that work so well to describe “everyday physics.” To them, it’s meaningless to talk about where a particle was prior to being observed, because in the quantum world, the system is not deterministic. This leads many to just “shut up and calculate.” For others, it supports the most common interpretation of quantum mechanics, the so-called Copenhagen interpretation. Wikipedia explains it pretty well: “According to the Copenhagen interpretation, physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured, and quantum mechanics can only predict the probability distribution of a given measurement’s possible results. The act of measurement affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after measurement.”
Others align with Einstein and believe the world is not fundamentally indeterminate but is governed by “hidden variables.” That is to say, underneath all those apparent possibilities, there is a real path for each particle. The determinism we see with billiard balls and baseballs is there, but somehow hidden from us.
A third approach, perhaps the most mind-boggling, is the many-worlds interpretation—which supposes that for any quantum event, the universe splits to accommodate every possible state. Interestingly, quantum physics is just one of several areas in physics that postulate multiple universes. Remember Schrödinger’s cat, and that 50% chance of finding it either alive or dead? Many-worlds theory suggests there is a separate universe for each possibility.
More could be said, but we’ll leave it at that.
- A pretty good primer on interpretations of quantum mechanics.
- Copenhagen? Bohmian? Decoherence? A list of quantum interpretations.
- PBS Space Time unpacks Einstein’s discomfort with the Copenhagen interpretation.
- A physicist considers Einstein and hidden variables.
- The quantum world may not be as strange as advertised.
- Bernard d’Espagnat’s obituary includes a brief explanation of his “mysticism.”
- d’Espagnat was “the scientist who leaves room for spirituality.”
“A Veiled Reality”
All of these possible interpretations point to the enigma of the way the world really is. Does God play dice? Is there a reality to things before we observe them? Are there many worlds? Are there hidden variables that still elude us nearly a century after Einstein postulated them?
For my thesis in seminary, I tried to connect theology and quantum physics. I was struck by the ideas of French physicist and philosopher—and 2009 Templeton Prize winner—Bernard d’Espagnat, who spoke of a “veiled reality”—that underneath it all, there was an unknowable ultimate reality. I liked that his interpretation embraced the mystery, rather than attempting to explain it away. More importantly, it held room for a spiritual dimension as part of that ultimate reality.
But was d’Espagnat right? He denies a certain level of realism, and his views are not widely accepted in the quantum community. Still, his notion of a veiled reality aligns with my spiritual journey—of a God who is so often hidden, beyond our empirical grasp, counterintuitive, yet so often seems to be the source of that “spooky action at a distance” that we call miracles.
Paul’s words make me think of this veiled sense of reality as it applies to God: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
But does a verse like that apply to the microscopic world of quantum mechanics? Well, let’s put it this way: It’s open to interpretation.