Cliff's Edge

My Misguided Search for Fundamental Reality

Merle Poirier
My Misguided Search for Fundamental Reality

When it hit me, in my early 20s, that truth, as in the Truth, had to exist (To quote my favorite atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel: “What we cannot avoid is the idea that something is the case . . ..”),1I—passionately, even painfully—wanted to know, if possible, what “the case” was.

Voila! Here I am, a Seventh-day Adventist, not exactly what I had in mind in that search, however. I was, instead, seeking the Truth, and still am (but now within the parameters of my faith), at a much more metaphysical level. Though this a Greek rather than a Hebrew thought, I wanted to know “the ultimate reality into which all else can be resolved and which itself cannot be resolved into anything beyond, that in terms of which all else can be expressed and which cannot itself be expressed in terms of anything outside itself.”2 Wow. This stuff—as opposed to the fluff (ethics, language, aesthetics, etc.)—makes my neurons sizzle. 

Wrong Direction?

Which is why I am helplessly drawn to physics, the little that I know (which, without the math, ain’t much), and its attempt to describe, as opposed to explain (explanation in science is pretty tricky stuff) fundamental reality, at least as it appears to our senses after being filtered by whatever theory-laden devices attempt to grasp it.

Or, perhaps, this is all wrongheaded, me snookered by the very cultural/philosophical assumptions that I’ve scorned in this column for decades? Perhaps the deeper down we probe the natural world in order to find its lining, the farther in the wrong direction we go. To seek the fundamental nature of reality by tunnelling deeper and deeper into the natural world is to assume the axiom of our era, which is that reality, the sum total of all that was, is, or will be, exists only as a material closed system, “the ultimate reality into which all else can be resolved and which itself cannot be resolved into anything beyond, that in terms of which all else can be expressed and which cannot itself be expressed in terms of anything outside itself.”

That, of course, cannot be right. The physical universe (time, space, matter and energy) no more arose from itself than a game of chess in that physical universe arose from itself. Something transcendent to time, space, matter and energy, prior to time, space, matter and energy, and outside of time, space, matter and energy created time, space, matter and energy. As the amazing David Bentley Hart (only those who know his work will understand the adjective) explains it, naturalism—”the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural—is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking. The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature . . .. Naturalism, therefore, can never be anything more than a guiding prejudice, an established principle only in the sense that it must be indefensibly presumed for the sake of some larger view of reality; it functions as a purely formal rule that, like the restriction of the king in chess to moves of one square only, permits the game to be played one way rather than another.”3           

The Nature of Nature

Looking at the issue from other perspectives, The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science,4 edited by Bruce Gordon and William Dembski, presents numerous scholars, from one end of the spectrum to the other, on naturalism as the metaphysical paradigm upon which science rests—the inviolable man-made boundary beyond which no mortal (who doesn’t want to commit professional seppuku) dare transgress. 

Though I’ve read, so far, only early chapters, some of the later contributing authors listed (Michael Shermer, Steven Weinberg, Francis Crick, Michael Ruse) read like a who’s who of anti-creationism. In contrast, the early chapter authors—though not creationist fundies like me—do come out swinging against the presumptive naturalism sledgehammered into modern science. 

In the book’s Forward, Steve Fuller, a self-proclaimed “secular humanist” who does not believe in intelligent design (but has the audacity to argue that it should be given a fair hearing, for which he has been castigated by the scientific establishment), wrote: “However one ultimately stands on the various issues at stake, it is clear that we have moved a long way from the idea that nature can be understood as if it were the product of no intelligence at all.”5 Wow! That’s the kind of “heresy” the modern scientific establishment suppresses, and they tried here, too.6

Along this line, that of questioning naturalism, Gordon and Dembski early on ask: “A central issue in this interplay between presuppositions and conclusions, one made all the more pressing by recent scientific advances, is whether the universe is self-existent, self-sufficient, and self-organizing, or whether instead it is grounded in a reality that transcends space, time, matter, and energy. More pointedly, does our universe find its ultimate explanatory principle in matter or mind?”7  This is the heretical question that the book looks at.

The Quantum Factor

One chapter really hit me, Bruce Gordon’s “A Quantum-Theoretic Argument Against Naturalism.” Now, if my Mickey Mouse math skills drown with classical physics, what about at the “Quantum-Theoretic” level? (My only consolation is quantum theorist Richard Feynman’s famous quip, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”) Nevertheless, having read numerous popular books (often more than once) and listened to popular lectures (often more than once) on Quantum theory, I found the chapter fascinating, at least to the degree that I understand it.

I used to preach a sermon called “Quantum Physics and Christian Faith.” My point? Nothing that my biblical faith asks me to believe, even the harder stuff (i.e., Christ as fully divine, fully human; free will and God’s foreknowledge; one God, three Persons, and so forth), strains credulity and common sense anywhere near as much as does nature at the most fundamental level (so far, anyway), the quantum level. What happens, or appears to us to happen, down there, defies everything that happens, or appear to us to happen, up here.

For example, quantum theory teaches that nature is one way before we look at it, and another after.  Before being observed, a particle exists as a wave function, perhaps only a mathematical description of where the particle might be found if observed or measured; if observed or measured, the wave function “collapses” into a particle, which is how reality shows its face to us (we never see the wave function). The subject-object distinction, deemed basic since time immemorial (after all, the subject [you], looking at an object [a rose], doesn’t change the rose, does it?)—crashes and burns at the quantum level (or surely seems to). 

Then there’s the famous “Double-Slit Experiment,” where waves turn into particles, or particles into waves—all depending on whether you open or close a slit. Imagine firing light waves at a wall with two slits next to each other. If you close one of the two slits, the waves  “know” and turn into photons (particles); if you re-open the slit, the particles “know” and turn back into waves. Unless a particle detector at one of the slits is turned on, which then causes the wave to revert back into particles (after all, it is being observed). In some versions of that experiment, the particles/waves “know”—even before the experimenter does—if the detector will be on or off, and then behave accordingly. 

Or there’s the “Delayed-Choice Quantum Eraser Experiment” (I humbly suggest you read about the “Double-Slit Experiment first), which shows (though some challenge it) that, in the quantum realm, a choice made in the experiment impacts a measurement, even if the choice is made after the measurement. It would be as if a package arriving at your door, at noon today, had caused you, the day before, to order it online. That is, the future (the measurement) impacted the past (the choice), not how we generally perceive reality to work. 

Spooky Action at a Distance

And then, perhaps the most confounding of quantum phenomena, one that drove Albert Einstein (a quantum pioneer) bananas, is Entanglement. Two particles in a quantum system are “entangled,” which means that what happens to one particle instantly, at a speed faster than light, impacts the other—no matter how far apart. It’s as if space and time in the quantum realm don’t exist, a phenomenon known as “nonlocality” (Einstein dubbed it “spooky action at a distance”), and at first brush it appears to defy his Special Theory of Relatively, which teaches that nothing, not even information, can move faster than light. 

Certain that nonlocality could not be correct, in 1935 Einstein, along with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky, proposed a thought experiment, called the EPR Paradox (after their names), in order to show how there must be some hidden variables within the particles themselves, physical factors that caused the entanglement, as opposed to nonlocal immaterial forces working at superluminal speeds. However, in 1963, an Irish physicist, John Bell, came up with a theorem which showed that no local hidden variable theory can reproduce quantum mechanical predictions. Since then, decade after decade of increasingly sophisticated experiments have shown that Bell was right and Einstein wrong. Entangled particles can communicate with each other faster than light, no matter the distance between them. Though the earliest experiments were done with entangled particles just meters apart, over time the distances were increased.  In 2017, Jian-Wei Pan, of the University of Science and Technology of China, widened the entanglement distance to over 1000 km—using orbiting satellites!8

Enter Bruce Gordon’s “A Quantum-Theoretic Argument Against Naturalism,” where he builds the following argument. First, naturalism claims that all existence is “exhausted by physical objects and processes.” Second, the “explanatory resources of naturalism are therefore restricted to material objects, causes, events and processes.” Third, quantum nonlocality cannot be explained “if the explanatory constraints of naturalism are persevered.” In other word, natural processes cannot produce quantum nonlocality. Finally, because these quantum phenomena require an explanation—”naturalism (materialism, physicalism) is irremediably deficient as a worldview, and consequently should be rejected not just as inadequate, but as fundamentally false.”9

In short, naturalism demands only material causes for all effects; quantum entanglement reveals non-material causes for quantum effects; therefore, naturalism cannot be true.

“I want to argue,” Gordon’s concluding sentences read, “that the phenomena of quantum theory pose an insuperable problem because they show that materialistic tenets, at root, are false, and that attempts at retrenchment are, at best, an exercise in self-deception. The argument that has guided our discussion from the start has been vindicated.”10

My Misguided Search

Lost in Gordon’s math, nor having particularly much to say about the “alternative ‘Newton-Wigner’ localization scheme in algebraic quantum field theory,” or “The Kronz-Tiehen Taxonomy for Quantum Mereology” or “the Fock Space Hamiltonian Operator H,”11I can’t claim, based on the chapter, that his argument has been vindicated. But having slogged over the years through popular books on quantum theory, I can claim that time, space, matter and energy, that is, physical reality, seem to represent only part, probably a very narrow part, of what’s really out there because what’s really out there, at least at the quantum level, does a standup comedic roast on everything that we think we know about our natural world. 

The closest parallel that I can think of was the only time, in my 39 years at the General Conference, that I got involved in an exorcism, an experience that I came away from, besides having been choked (I mean, yes, a hand violently around my throat), realizing that the spiritual realm operates in ways that renders our commonsense Newtonian day-by-day grasp of the natural world useless. The spiritual realm functions in a whole other dimension–and, if it’s a physical dimension, it is not like anything physical that I’ve ever experienced before, and that’s for sure.

How ironic: my misguided quest for fundamental reality, “the ultimate reality into which all else can be resolved, and which itself cannot be resolved into anything beyond  . . .” (you know the drill) took me to the quantum realm, about as far down as humans have yet gone. But quantum phenomena have shown me, with help from Bruce Gordon, that the natural world itself isn’t the right place to find the deepest answers to existence any more than studying the atomic structure of serotonin and dopamine is the right place to find the origins, purposes, and means of human thought.

The natural realm is, obviously, here. It just didn’t cause itself, and does not encompass all reality, either. On the contrary, if, as nonlocality seems to show—the quantum realm, the realm of nature at the smallest level, functions with non-natural factors, what else does as well, and at what other levels of reality, too? (I’m not like a friend who believes that the quantum realm is the interface between our world and the spiritual one, an idea that I find über-kooky, even if I can understand why he would think it.) 

Jesus said that “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”(John 4:24). I don’t grasp the first part of His words any more than I grasp how two subatomic particles can send signals to each other, much less at speeds faster than light, or can be non-locally connected, no matter how far apart they are, either. I just know from revelation, logic, and quantum physics that the modern world’s dogmatic adherence to naturalism is like looking out a peephole and declaring it the whole picture.

1 Nagel, Thomas. The Last Word (p. 81). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

2 Quoted in Mary Calkins, The Persistent Problems of Philosophy (Macmillan New York, 1929) p. 4.

3 Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God (p. 17). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

4 Gordon, Bruce; Dembski, William. The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ORD). Kindle Edition.

5 Ibid. 

6 One can read in the Introduction by Gordon and Dembski about the open-minded scientific community at Baylor University—where a conference was held, titled “The Nature of Nature,” at the Michael Polanyi Center for Complexity, Information and Design (and “the genesis of this compendium”)—who had shut down the center after the conference.  Obviously, to even question naturalist presuppositions or to point out their weaknesses was too much for some people.

7  Op. cit. 4.


9 Op. cit. 4.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

Merle Poirier