The Fifth Horseman 7


“Science can’t explain quantum mechanics.”

This line is tossed out in conversations when all else has failed in a desperate attempt to fortify the fiefdom of faith. As frequently as I’ve heard this, and asked people exactly what they mean, I’m not even sure how this could be a defense of faith. Quantum mechanics is science, discovered through the tools of science, and is verifiable and testable within science.

The attempt to draw fire away from the discussion may be why I’ve never read this defense of faith in peer-reviewed literature. It also doesn’t fall into one of Harris’s categories. It is not another version of the God of the gaps argument, and is not precisely a deepity.

I think this statement may be a way of saying that we can’t really be certain of anything. On one level, this is a feeble attempt to undermine reason by stating that there are some mysteries even our best and brightest can’t grasp—thus giving the faithful license to pretend to know things they don’t know.

On an even more pedestrian level, I’ve often heard this deployed as a justification for miracles. That is, quantum instability leaks into the visible realm—what Dawkins calls the Middle Kingdom, or what British philosopher J. L. Austin termed the realm of “medium-sized dry goods” (Dawkins, 2005)—and could be responsible for a whole host of bizarre occurrences, like the sea parting or people being spontaneously healed.

In the latter case, the response to this is that quantum weirdness does not lend itself to a specific faith tradition. That is, if somehow what was happening in the quantum realm seeped into the Middle Kingdom and caused unexplained phenomena (and there is no evidence it has) this wouldn’t be relegated to a single faith tradition. Quantum weirdness didn’t cause only the alleged miracles in the Koran (or the Bible)—but if someone claimed to know this is how the phenomena manifested, I’d ask how they knew this and to produce the evidence. (For practice, you can also argue that quantum states do manifest, but only in [insert any faith tradition other than your interlocutor’s].)

In the former case, I’m not sure how a lack of understanding about subatomic particles translates into the need for faith. Because we don’t yet and might never entirely understand how the universe is ordered and operates in the realm of the very, very small, this does not translate into needing to use an unreliable epistemology.

VD RESPONSE: How quickly you forget your own definitions! You have been droning on and on about how bad faith is, and how faith is pretending to know what you don’t know, and now that it is pointed out that you don’t understand quantum mechanics or know how the universe is ordered and operates at the finest level of detail, suddenly you abandon all that? Suddenly you can’t figure out how a lack of knowledge about subatomic particles relates to pretending to know something you don’t about the universe?

The existence of quantum mechanics completely undermines your entire epistemology. It undermines your entire pretense that your materialism is any more meaningful, any more indicative of true objective reality, than the pagan who believes the universe is resting on the back of a giant turtle.

Your epistemology is entirely rooted upon the basic assumption that what we can see, touch, feel, and measure is all there is. Quantum mechanics upends that assumption, and thereby delegitimizes the materialist metric by which you have been attempting to pass judgment on the supernatural.

As for how the quantum world potentially relates to various faith traditions, I would direct your attention to a televised lecture by Bryan Cox, the British pop physicist, called A Night with the Stars. At minute 36 of the lecture, Cox explained that the Pauli Exclusion principle is a universal phenomenon and that by heating up a diamond by rubbing it, all the electrons in the entire universe would immediately adjust their energy states so that none of them would precisely match any of those in the diamond.

Now, I don’t know if this is true or not. You don’t know if it is true or not. The electron state of a diamond-sized object orbiting a star in the proto-galaxy UDFy-33436598 is not the sort of thing we can readily observe. But the fact is that the idea of a Creator God, and any other number of observed supernatural concepts, is considerably less ridiculous to nearly everyone than magic universe-transforming trans-galactic diamonds that operate at speeds much faster than light. Quantum mechanics may not lend itself to proving any faith tradition, but it does tend to destroy the effectiveness of conventional Newtonian science as a basis for ridiculing the various faith traditions.

A citation of quantum mechanics is not so much a defense of faith as it is people pointing out to you that you have the very sort of faith in things you cannot prove and things you do not know that you decry in others. As we can easily observe in your next anti-apologetic.


“You have faith in science.”

This is usually a “late game” line, offered after faith has been demolished and exposed as fraudulent. People say this because they want to show some parity in belief: they have faith in X and you have faith in Y. You both have faith, but in different things. I’ve also found that people make this statement because they’re afraid of being seen as stupid or ignorant, so they want to leave the conversation and save face.

Science is the antithesis of faith. Science is a process that contains multiple and redundant checks, balances, and safeguards against human bias. Science has a built-in corrective mechanism—hypothesis testing—that weeds out false claims.

Claims that come about as a result of a scientific process are held as tentatively true by scientists—unlike claims of faith that are held as eternally true. Related to this, claims that come about as the result of a scientific process are falsifiable, that is, there is a way to show the claims are false. This is not the case with most faith claims. For example, there’s no way to falsify the claim that the Norse god Loki was able to assume other forms.

Scientists also try to prove claims false (falsification), unlike faith leaders who unequivocally state that their faith claims are true. Related to the bizarre notion that there’s a vast conspiracy among scientists to suppress certain lines of research, if a scientist can demonstrate that a popular scientific claim is false, she can become famous, get tenure, publish her results, earn more money, and become respected by her peers. Moreover, the more prominent the defeated hypothesis, the greater the reward. If a preacher states that the claims of his faith tradition are false, he’s excommunicated, defrocked, or otherwise forced to abandon his position.

Science is a method of advancing our understanding. It is a process we can use to bring us closer to the truth and to weed out false claims. Science is the best way we’ve currently found to explain and understand how the universe works. It should be jettisoned if something better (more explanatory, more predictive, more parsimonious, etc.) comes along (Schick & Vaughn, 2008).

VD RESPONSE: Your attempted defense only succeeds in proving the charge is true. Let me remind you that you defined faith as “pretending to know what you don’t know”. And while you say that “all faith is blind”, yours is observably blinder than most. Even if the religious faithful are pretending to know something they can’t know to be true, you are pretending to know something we all know to be false. You make fun of people who believe in fairies in the garden, then promptly proclaim your belief in white-coated fairies working in the lab.

The science you describe doesn’t exist. It has never existed. It is the Platonic Form of an ideal Science that exists nowhere but in your imagination and the overheated imaginations of the scientific faithful. Science, as it is actually practiced by scientists on this planet, does not contain “multiple and redundant checks, balances, and safeguards against human bias.” As it is actually practiced, one could make much stronger case for Accounting. You don’t only have faith in science, you have a badly misplaced faith in it.

The fact is that the vast majority of published and peer-reviewed papers are never checked, not even once. The fact is that most published and peer-reviewed papers are littered with basic mathematical and statistical errors that are never discovered because most scientists are mathematically and statistically incompetent. The fact is that modern science is a corrupt big business and most scientists are intellectual mercenaries whose compensation and continued employment depends entirely upon producing results that are in line with their employer’s expectations.

Your declarations are manifestly untrue. Scientists don’t try to prove claims false. They do precisely the opposite. Not only have a statistically significant percentage of published and peer-reviewed papers been confirmed to contain FABRICATED data, but the former editor of the British Medical Journal, Richard Smith has declared: “Most scientific studies are wrong, and they are wrong because scientists
are interested in funding and careers rather than truth.”

I strongly suggest you read the paper, published in PLOS Medicine, entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” to better understand how fundamentally misplaced your naive faith in science is. What you are claiming to be “the best way we’ve currently found to explain and understand how the universe works” observably doesn’t even work as well as a coin toss, and that’s before we even get to Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, Global Warming, Evolution by Natural Selection, and a whole host of other “scientific facts” that are no more currently falsifiable than Loki’s purported shape-shifting