Faith as Quantum Superposition

For many Christians, faith is a simple binary, an either/or. You either believe X or you don't believe X. You either have faith or you don't have faith.

But for people who struggle with doubts--the sick souls and Winter Christians I describe in The Authenticity of Faith--faith doesn't feel like that at all. Faith is not a solid yes or a solid no. Faith feels indeterminate. Like a yes and a no, going back and forth, back and forth. Faith is a yes always shadowed by that inner voice: "but on the other hand...". Sometimes faith is a yes and no at the same time.

Basically, for many of us faith feels like quantum superposition.

If you are not aware of quantum superposition it's a part of the weirdness regarding the behavior of the elementary particles of the cosmos, things like photons and electrons. Specifically, according to quantum mechanics, the reigning theory for how these particles behave, the exact location and momentum of these particles cannot be precisely specified. These features of a particle can only be known probabilistically. This is the famous Uncertainty Principle.

But it's weirder than that. It's not just that the exact location and momentum of these particles cannot be known with certainty. It's not simply that the particle has a 25% chance of being Here versus a 75% chance of being There. It's more like the particle's existence is both Here and There, at the same time, albeit with different probabilities.

Now, if that's hard to wrap your head around you're in good company. As the physicist Richard Feynman once quipped, "Anyone who says that they understand Quantum Mechanics does not understand Quantum Mechanics."

The notion that a particle can be both Here and There, at the same time, is called quantum superposition and it sits behind some of the stranger features of the quantum world, things like quantum entanglement. The Wikipedia definition of quantum superposition (emphasis added):
Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics that holds that a physical system—such as an electron—exists partly in all its particular theoretically possible states simultaneously; but when measured or observed, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configuration.
When measured, the wave-function of a particle (those probability estimates) collapses and we see the particle either Here or There. But prior to the observation the particle is, in a very real but weird way, both Here and There. And while it is true that any big object can't be both Here and There at the same time, it does appear that elementary particles can be in two places at the same time. That is quantum superposition.

And that is what I'm saying faith often feels like, like a quantum superposition.

True, at any given moment if I were to verbalize my beliefs, like taking the measurement of an elementary particle, "collapsing the wave-function of faith," my faith might be Here or There.

But in reality, in my moment to moment experiencing of faith, prior to any verbal description my faith feels like a quantum superposition--it's always both Yes and No, believing and doubting.

Both possible states--Here and There--simultaneously.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

17 thoughts on “Faith as Quantum Superposition”

  1. I do appreciate this post, more than I can express. In the arduous journey from legalist to progressive there is that one shackle that is so difficult to break; and that one is the need for certainty. For too many years I could embrace another person's "yes and no", "I don't know", or "maybe so", better than I could my own. Baggage is so difficult to drop and simply leave behind. But when "yes and no" is accepted as an integral part of being human, it creates a spirit of being alive that was before a blanket of shame; it allows me to see Jesus' words, "My God, why have you forsaken me" as a response from being fully human, rather than lines from a religious script.

  2. So, imagine a church full of doubters that has a sanctuary that's accessed through a pair of narrow doors...

  3. If I never look at the screen is it both?!? Or maybe the hearing forces the songs to turn into only one song.

  4. I relate well to this idea ... there are so many elements of my faith where the answer is both Yes and No simultaneously. This post immediately caught my eye because several years ago I became interested in a connection between Quantum Physics and Faith after reading an essay by Barbara Brown Taylor. I even wrote a bit about it in a blog post called "Dreaming Quantum Dreams" http://gracerules.wordpress.com/2009/01/05/dreaming-quantum-dreams/

  5. From one Church-of-Christ-sometimes-doubter to another: was the Hebrew writer just in a season of 75% when he/she/they wrote chapter 11? If he/she/they had written that letter a few months before or after, might chapter 11 have come out differently? Or is there another way of approaching the tension between your post and chapter 11?

  6. Me neither! Ad rem, here's a "doodling" I did at "Faith and Theology" in July 2012:



    "As a lover of felines, I much prefer analytical philosophers to quantum physicists. The former quietly observe cats on mats, the latter lock them in steel boxes with a 50:50 chance of a cruel death from hydrocyanic acid. Of course, I appreciate that the famous thought-experiment requires an animal of intelligence: with no uncertainty, Schrödinger’s dog would leap into the box, roll over, and then wolf down the poison capsule witha drink from a portaloo."

  7. Do we know that big objects can't be here and there at the same time? The multiverse at least ought to offer us a few advantages! As to faith, I don't see how in honesty it doesn't include doubt, otherwise it would be knowledge and not faith.

  8. Maybe God isn't really big, he is really really small. How ironic would that be if the Higgs boson was the essence of God. Maybe the D-wave quantum computer is just a very complicated way of asking God a question :)

    More importantly though, someone has to paraphrase Feynman with "Anyone who says that they understand God does not understand God."

  9. Quantum Mechanics! The applications are endless! Take, for example, the post your post inspired me to write, about story-telling: http://www.joshbarkey.com/2014/10/make-it-love-story.html

  10. I've been thinking about faith a lot lately, so this post was timely. I scratched out these words in my journal today:

    That moment


    When you finally comprehend
    that God _may_ not exist,
    that this one "wild and precious" life
    _may_ be all that you get,


    and that's okay.
    You have peace about it.
    You don't desire that one or the other is true.
    At that moment you are finally free,
    free to believe,
    or not.
    At that moment, and not before,
    faith is born.


    Whatever passes for faith before then
    is a stunted, grotesque, fearful thing.
    Fearful because it lives in constant fear,
    and fearful because it incites fear
    in everything around it.


    Up to that moment,
    you weren't free to believe.
    You _had_ to believe because God _had_ to exist.
    Because there _had_ to be more than this life.


    Once you realize things don't _have_ to be that way,
    That you have a choice,
    That one belief is as reasonable as the other,
    That God is under no obligation to you to exist,
    Then you're free to have faith
    In whatever you have faith in.


    God, maybe.
    Or people.
    Or love.
    Or reason.
    Or all of the above.
    Or nothing at all.

  11. Dr. Beck,

    If you have not read John Polkinghorne's Quantum Physics and Theology, I encourage you to do so. Many wonderful parallels between quantum mechanics and theology are found in this very approachable work.

Leave a Reply