August 5, 2013
The Quantum Pope
Did the Pope really say that gay atheist priests are going to heaven if they follow him on Twitter? Perhaps modern physics can untangle this mystery.
I love quantum physics and I love popes.
While I was a physics major in college, I created a Facebook group called “Baptists Who Like Catholic Things.” When Pope Francis began making some unusual headlines a few months ago, I did some quick calculations and realized that something quirky was happening in the fabric of Papal spacetime.
First, the Pope preached a homily in which he apparently said that atheists were redeemed – that everyone was redeemed, in fact. Then, headlines began popping up about the Pope’s approval of gay priests. And at some point in all this, I was informed that I had gotten some time knocked off my purgatory sentence by following him on Twitter.
Thankfully, because of my science background, I was prepared for this barrage. I want to tell you how quantum physics put my mind to ease about the Pope.
The Observer Effect [and the atheist homily]
There’s a recurring theme in the reports that follow each of these papal remarks: “Pope Francis is one of us (not one of them).” Like the Jesus of history, people are reading his words and then piecing together an identity for him that always looks curiously close to their own.
Following the Pope’s homily that called atheists brothers, an article in The Huffington Post led with the Pope’s emphasis on doing good as a principle which unites all of humanity, and the article contrasted him with other Christians who believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation. So, you see, the Pope is a humanist with a universal bent, like us.
Fr Thomas Rosica, a Canadian Catholic priest and journalist who works closely with the Holy See Press Office, offered some dogmatic clarity the next day: the Pope was just riffing on Vatican II. God, through Jesus, lets atheists do good works as a way of bringing them closer to knowing Jesus. Saying that atheists are “redeemed” is just Pope-talk for saying that Jesus died for everybody (news flash: the Pope isn’t a 5-point Calvinist), and that some people who are atheists now will ultimately come to Jesus. So, you see, the Pope is a good Catholic, like us.
NPR needed to get a word in at this point, so they said that Fr Rosica’s clarification was just “Vatican spin [that] tried to dampen the media hype” following “another example of this pope reaching out to an audience that goes well beyond the church.” So, you see, the Pope is a media entity reaching diverse audiences, like us.
Why such confusion? Modern physics. One of the more interesting and frustrating aspects of quantum physics is the observer effect.
Here’s how the observer effect works: Imagine you’re doing an experiment on something that’s so small you can’t see it very easily: just one single electron. On top of that, imagine that the only way you could see it was by shining a super powerful flashlight onto it. This flashlight is so powerful that it’s basically a light saber or a photon torpedo or something totally awesome like that. Naturally, such a powerful device messes with the electron you’re trying to study, but you figure it’s better than nothing.
But then you start to get a sneaking suspicion that your flashlight is somehow causing a lot of the cool data you’ve been writing down and that the results you’re getting actually have as much to do with the angle at which you shined the flashlight as with the electron itself. When you wanted to study how wave-like an electron is, and you shined your flashlight accordingly, the electron looked like nothing but a wave. But then, when you conducted the exact same experiment, only you shined your light so as to check that the electron was also acting like a particle, you found nothing but a particle.
Like the Pope’s many commentators, the results of your inquiry seem closely bound to your own intentions, desires, and needs, and you are acting on the system to nudge it into the quantum state you like the best.
Quantized States [and the response to the “gay lobby” question]
While our sensors were still reeling, news outlets bombarded us with more high-energy sound bytes. A little over a month ago, Pope Francis made some remarks about cleaning up Vatican corruption, and among his targets was a “gay lobby.” The term didn’t come with a definition, so speculation abounded, and a reporter finally asked him about it last week. A transcript of the question and his response can be found here.
The Pope’s response was compassionate, nuanced, and he referenced the Church catechism’s statement on homosexuality as the basis of his approach.
CNN’s religion blog ran with this headline, “Pope Francis on gays: ‘Who am I to judge?’”, and opened with this sentence “Pope Francis said Monday that he will not ‘judge’ gays and lesbians, including gay priests…another sign that the new pope is committed to changing the church's approach to historically marginalized groups.”
Many others took the same general point from the Pope’s comments, contrasting him with Benedict XVI. An officer with the National Union of Gay Italians said, “I wish all Catholics would follow his lead.”
And that was when it occurred to me that Pope Francis might be blowing all of our minds with quantum mechanics.
Let’s go back to that electron we were studying before. Every time you shine your flashlight on it, you nudge it into a definite quantum state. Flashlight goes on, and boom, you see a particle. Or, flashlight goes on, and zing, you see a wave. What never happens, though, is flashlight goes on, and boomedy-zing, you see a partically-wavy-thingy. That doesn’t happen because when an electron is in an observable state, (in this case either a particle state or a wave state) that state is discrete, meaning that there is no observable middle ground between it and the other state. It’s either all particle or all wave.
But, remember, I said that we nudged our little electron when we turned on the powerful flashlight into an observable quantum state. Before that, it wasn’t in one of those tidy little states. So what state was it in before the light flicked on? The answer is that the electron was in what’s called a quantum superposition. The trouble is that quantum superpositions are difficult to talk about. They require understanding the math of complex numbers, complex vector spaces, linear algebra, and some calculus. Understanding superpositions requires time, investment, and study, and even then you may only grasp them as mathematical abstractions. That’s why it’s just a lot easier to blog about the quantum states we can see with our flashlight.
Pope Francis spoke about a topic that our culture seems to observe in only two discrete states: all-permissive and all-judging. The first state is about love and freedom, and the second state is about hatred and judgment. It’s much more difficult to deal with the complex superposition in which one can speak lovingly and without judgment on this topic, yet also affirm a traditional moral system like the one found in the Catholic Church’s catechism.
I would like to think that I and many others in my own church embody such a complex reality in our response to this issue as well, but the media’s response to Pope Francis seems to tell me that such an approach is really so rare that our culture lacks categories for it. Rather than living out that complexity, I, like many others, am probably slipping into the easy, tidy quantum states.
The Uncertainty Principle [and indulgences for Twitter followers]
Even when we are open to grappling with the complexity of a situation, there will always be some aspect of it that remains inscrutable. When it comes to Pope Francis headlines, the thing I can’t quite get my head around are the indulgences for people who followed him on Twitter during the World Youth Day event. I’d chalk my bemusement up to being an evangelical protestant (yes, despite my love for popes, I’m still a born-again schismatic), except that even some of his Jesuit brothers are scratching their heads a bit, according to an article appearing on The Atlantic’s website: “This Twitter stuff, I have to admit, all sounds very strange to me.” They go on to speculate as to whether or not the decree had actually come from Pope Francis since it seems so contrary to his general view of grace.
Being unable to fully comprehend and applaud everything this wonderful man does isn’t a problem, if we can continue to take quantum physics as an analogy. That’s because there is a certain degree of uncertainty concerning the properties of every quantum system. It’s what’s famously known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg mathematically demonstrated that being uncertain about certain things like an electron’s momentum and its position wasn’t our fault. It’s not that we’re bad quantum physicists and if we just tried harder we could know it all. The uncertainty – the mystery – is inherent in the system.
A deeper picture of our world
I’m mostly thankful for the things Pope Francis has done and said. I’m thankful that I really have to think about his words before I know how to respond to them. When modern physics began to be established in the early 20th century, it didn’t overturn classical physics: projectiles still travel in parabolas, and objects at rest still remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. Instead, modern physics began to give us a deeper picture of our world by responding to the questions of the 20th century with a subtle, precise language that could sound a little weird to outsiders. I think this Pope is doing the same thing, and I can’t wait to hear what’s next.
John Raines ended up studying Physical Chemistry instead of Physics in college and went on to pursue his scientific education at iTunesU. He mostly does ministry now.