A Quantum Christmas?

It is argued that quantum mechanics is the most well verified theory we have in science. Quantum mechanics has a number of applications which affect our everyday lives. These include things like MRI machines, lasers (think about scanning bar codes), your LED lights, GPS devices and smartphones. A lot of attention has recently been given to quantum computing which promises to outstrip the speed of our fastest super computers.

Because of their influence on molecular bonds, quantum effects have been helpful in explaining a large number of physical and biological phenomenon. Philosophers of science have also undertaken the task of considering the significance of quantum mechanics in explaining our overall understanding of the nature of reality (metaphysics) – more particularly, how it pertains to things like moral responsibility.

The aspect of quantum mechanics most central to the philosopher is the uncertainty principle. There are things which happen down at the atomic level which defy our ability to make predictions. Rather than certainties, we are left only with probabilities. For instance, we cannot know simultaneously the position and velocity of an electron – we can determine one, but not the other.

So, could it be that Christmas is influenced by quantum effects? After all, Christmas has several elements of uncertainty: What is in that big box under the tree? What will be in my stocking? Will it be another lump of coal this year or something better? In this year which has been overshadowed by a pandemic mixed with civil and political unrest, the uncertainties are even greater: Who will we be able to visit this year? What traditions will have to be put on hold? Will we even be able to have a Christmas dinner or presents under the tree?

To see whether quantum effects can help explain things in Christmas, it will be helpful to explore how quantum effects have been judged to be involved with human existence in general. Stick with me here, there is a connection…

Those prone to determinism have thought that, owing to Newtonian mechanics, everything which happens in the universe occurs because of clockwork precision. If we had enough data about each atom, we would be able to predict everything which happens in the world including the weather and what you will decide to have for breakfast. Everything happens as a result of molecular cause and effect. Consequently, it is thought, there is no reason to hold people accountable – they really are not in control of their actions – it is just an outworking of cause and effect.

But along comes the uncertainty associated with quantum mechanics and it seems to throw a monkey wrench into anyone’s ideas about determinism. If things are not as predictable as we thought, then maybe we are morally responsible after all. Oddly, the advent of quantum indeterminacy did not alter the picture. Philosopher, Alex Rosenberg writes,

 “For if the fundamental sub-atomic interactions that constitute our brain processes are not determined by anything at all…then there is even less room for moral responsibility in our actions. For actions will then stem from events that have no causes themselves, no reason at all for their occurrence.”[1]

And yet, quantum indeterminacy does not move all the way up the line. For example, it is unpredictable when a particular radioactive atom will decay, but with a handful of that same atom, it can be predicted when half of them will decay. This has left some to wonder: if determinacy can emerge from indeterminacy, can indeterminacy emerge yet again from determinacy thereby opening the door for things like free will and moral responsibility.

So which way is it? Are things like free will and human consciousness artifacts of molecular behavior (i.e., a false impression) or is it real? Rosenberg also notes that “If the mind is indeed not a physical thing, this may exempt humans and human action from the natural laws that science uncovers or even from scientific study itself[2] We really should not be perplexed by this question.

If a man is walking through the mountains, and a rock breaks loose, falls upon his head and kills him, we would call that an unfortunate accident. But if instead it was I who raised that rock and brought it down on the head of the hiker, we would look at it in an entirely different light. Nobody would seriously entertain the idea that both instances were simply an outworking of cause and effect – that I would be free from moral responsibility in this event.

Matter does not offend matter. There is something which exists beyond matter – something immaterial which causes the offense. The intelligent agent has moved something from being highly improbable to a certainty. Christian theology tells us that man is made in the image of God, and possesses a spirit nature which resides alongside the physical nature which explains things like agent causation and free will. Humans are morally culpable because we have offended the God who made us. Our moral responsibility is not tied to material cause and effect, it is tied to persons which are immaterial.

So, what might we say then about the uncertainty of Christmas? Does Christmas suffer from quantum effects? The famous story of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas gives us a hint as to the answer for that question. After robbing the Whos in Whoville of all their trappings of Christmas, the Grinch is perplexed when the Whos emerge from their homes and begin singing. From the top of Mount Crumpit, the Grinch ponders:

"It came without ribbons! It came without tags!"
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store."
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"[3]

Yes, it is something more. Christmas does not just emerge out of our material existence. It is not a property of matter acting in response to natural laws. It does not occur everywhere, and when it does occur, it does not happen at the same time in every place. Christmas happens because of an interaction between people – it is an immaterial phenomenon.

More importantly, the event which inspires Christmas was an immaterial phenomenon as well. It was a divine invasion of our planet designed to rescue us from the consequence of our sin. The baby that was born in a manger did not stay a baby. The humiliation and suffering of Jesus which began in the womb of Mary culminated on a cross at Calvary.

I think it is safe to say that because of its immaterial nature, Christmas is free from any quantum entanglements – there is no such thing as a quantum Christmas. While quantum indeterminacy fails to absolve us of moral responsibility, the good news found in Christmas provides us with a cure for the sin which does entangle us. Despite any uncertainties we might experience with Christmas (and life in general), there are some certainties which remain – certainties that do not emerge from material cause and effect.

Free will does exist, and has gotten all of us in trouble. But, because of what resides as the foundation of Christmas, we can be free from sin and death. Jesus, the one born in the manger said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)


[1] Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 27.

[2] Rosenberg, 27.

[3] Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (New York, NY: Random House, 1957)

3 thoughts on “A Quantum Christmas?

  1. Wow, Carl! You have brought quantum mechanics to the manger! I love it! Yes, there is free will to choose to follow the star and seek the Saviour or to kill the babies and seek personal gain.

    Like

  2. Merry Christmas Carl! Nice post!
    William Lane Craig remarks that because “the greatest and most important realities in life are immaterial or spiritual,”[1] we should live life with a spiritual, not material, focus. I like it that you highlighted the immaterial as real and meaningful. Thoughts, relationships, memories, free-will choices, and even the coded information used to construct and maintain our physical bodies, are all non-physical realities.

    [1] https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-1/s1-the-doctrine-of-god/the-doctrine-of-god-part-6/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This post is MASTERFUL. Proud to know you.

    Liked by 2 people

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