Saturday, September 28, 2013

Quantum mechanics and the Real Presence--What reality should we believe?

Tantum ergo Sacramentum                 Down in adoration falling
veneremur cernui;                                  Lo! The sacred Host we hail;
et antiquum documentum                     Lo! O'er ancient forms departing
novo cedat ritui;                                       newer rites of grace prevail;
praestet fides supplementum               faith for all defects supplying,
sensuum defectui                                      where the feeble sense fail.


A little over 20 years ago, shortly after I had decided to enter the Church, I was being catechized by a very learned and wise priest (this was before the days of RCIA classes).  As a physicist, I was struggling with the notion of trans-substantiation, that by the action of a priest a wafer could be changed into the body and blood of Our Lord.     Our  pastor first asked whether I believed in the resurrection;  I said I did, and he said if I could believe in that miracle, why not in another one?   He then told me that while one might occasionally have doubts or concerns about a particular Church teaching, one was, nevertheless, required to maintain any article of Dogma as being possible (Fr. McA--forgive the faulty memory of an old man for phrasing this less elegantly than you did.)   Several weeks after this discussion, my doubts about the Real Presence were wiped away: during a 40 Hours procession  the Monstrance was being carried in to the accompaniment of Tantum Ergo;  I remembered enough of my high school Latin to translate the verses as they were sung, and as "praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui" rang out, my heart filled, tears filled my eyes, and I knew without a doubt that the little cracker in that beautiful monstrance contained the body and blood, divinity and humanity, of Jesus Christ.  Amazing Grace!

I was reminded that the Eucharist is a continuing miracle and a mystery, after reading an article by Alicia Colon about a recent eucharistic miracle in Argentina:  a consecrated host changed into human heart tissue, verified by witnesses and by pathological examination of the tissue and DNA (please go to the link for a more detailed account).    There have been other Eucharistic miracles (see the Real Presence website ) confirmed by the same rigorous process the Church uses to confirm miracles for canonization.     Since faith is at the root of our belief in the Real Presence, my point in this blog is not to use such miracles as evidence, but to understand (in the spirit of St. Anselm--"faith seeking understanding") what underlays the continuing miracle of transubstantiation,

In that spirit, to understand what faith had already confirmed, I delved into the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and later theologians, Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner.   (Dear reader:  please be patient--quantum mechanics will rear its ugly head later.)   To this philosophical novitiate, the concept of "substance" was murky;  on the other hand, the term "accidents"--the physical attributes of a thing, as apprehended by the senses either directly or via instrumentation--was clearly defined.  One could proceed all the way down to the properties--the "accidents"--of the sub-atomic constituents of the Host, quarks and all, and find they had not been altered by the act of Consecration.  Then what would be the substance of the Host, before and after Consecration?  It occurred to me that "substance" just told us what a thing is, no matter what its appearance seemed to be and that in the Consecration, transubstantiation corresponded to the change of the "real thing--substance" from bread to Jesus Christ. To illustrate this notion for religion classes I gave to Catholic prisoners (nothing like a captive audience!), I used the following example:  holding up a twenty dollar bill I asked the class if that bill was not issued by the government but by a counterfeiter with the same kinds of paper, ink, etc, would it still be a legitimate twenty?   And of course, they all answered no.  (I've come later to realize that this example comes dangerously close to the heretical notion of the Real Presence coming about through transignification--see the links above.)

How then does quantum mechanics relate to the Real Presence?   This question didn't enter my mind until I read a comment by Prof. Stephen Barr (a physicist whose opinions on science and the Catholic faith I greatly respect) refuting a Jesuit priest's contention that modern physics has made transubstantiation a meaningless notion.   As I interpret his article, Barr argued that what quantum mechanics told us about physical reality was irrelevant to the truth of transubstantiation (a metaphysical reality?):

"In short, one can explain the doctrine of transubstantiation and distinguish it from other beliefs about the Eucharist without any use of the Aristotelian apparatus. I don’t know what quantum mechanics has to do with any of this. If anything, quantum mechanics makes a straightforward connection between what appears empirically and what is “really there” more obscure than it was in Newtonian physics, and to that extent would make it easier rather than harder to affirm the doctrine."

Before exploring this implied distinction between the knowledge of reality from science and from philosophy/theology, I'd like do a brief horsies-and-duckies discourse on quantum mechanics. (See the reference below * for a more complete account.)  First, quantum mechanics is itself a mystery: as the great physicist Richard Feynman remarked, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."    The theory gives probabilities for alternative results of experiments, probabilities that are confirmed to a high degree of accuracy (much like actuarial results--one may not know when any given person may die, but one does know that among a large number of 70 year old men, a well-defined percentage will die in the coming year).   Even though quantum mechanics is deterministic in a statistical sense, this probabilistic character bothers many physicists: Einstein himself opposed the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, insisting that "God does not play dice with the universe".

Second, from the beginning of quantum mechanics, scientists have posited a connection between the conscious mind and the role of the observer in determining quantum mechanical outcomes in experiments.  As d'Espagnat puts it, "The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment."   The conscious mind of the observer plays a role in making a choice of experiments and what is to be observed.  One interpretation of quantum mechanics,  proposed by John Wheeler and Raymond Chiao,  has it that the observer creates reality by the act of choice in doing the experiment.   Since Chiao's  article on this in the collection of papers on the Vatican sponsored conference, "Quantum Mechanics--Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican Observatory Publications, 2001) is hard to access on the internet, I'll quote from a Counterbalance review of the article:

"He (Chiao) supports a “neo-Berkeleyan” point of view in which the free choices of observers lead to nonlocal correlations of properties of quantum systems in time as well as in space, giving Berkeley’s dictum, esse est percipi, temporal as well as spatial significance. Theologically he uses this generalized Berkeleyan point of view to depict God as the Observer of the universe. Here God creates the universe as a whole (ex nihilo) and every event in time (creatio continua). The quantum nonseparability of the universe is suggestive of the New Testament’s view of the unity of creation."

So, where does this lead us in understanding how quantum mechanics explains the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist? I'm not sure. I reject those mystical interpretations of quantum mechanics exemplified in "What the Bleep" and other works entangling Eastern mysticism with quantum mechanics--whatever the truths of their insights into Buddhism or other Eastern religions, they have no clue as to what quantum mechanics is about. On the other hand, as the French physicist/philosopher Bernard d'Espagnat has suggested, there is a "veiled reality" underlaying the mysteries of quantum mechanics, a reality which suggests the existence of God. But because there is also a mystery in the Eucharist, it does not mean that this mystery, the Real Presence, is explained by a quantum mechanical veiled reality. It may be that the perceived, but yet unknown relation between consciousness and quantum mechanics is that which will enlighten us, tell us how the metaphysical reality of transubstantiation is totally confirmed in physical reality, a physical reality that the Patristic Fathers acknowledged but did not bother to explain. And, finally, as my wife put it: "Aquinas said that God is rational; what we don't understand is not because it's beyond reason, but beyond our rational capacity."

*The best reference for a lay person on the quantum mechanical mystery is a fine book by Rosenblum and Kuttner, "Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness".

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Let's Hear it for St. Augustine--a Theologian for Our Times

Happy those who feast on wisdom and savor her knowledge,
She will nourish and refresh them.”
Happy Those Who Feast on Wisdom, Hymn for the Office of Readings, 28th August.

Who is your favorite saint? Mine is St. Augustine (Hippo), whose feast day was last Wednesday, August the 28th . Rather than giving his biography and conversion story (which most of you reading this blog would already know), I thought it would be worthwhile to demonstrate how relevant for us today are his words, particularly those dealing with the philosophy and theology of Creation.

In Book 11 of “Confessions” Augustine considered how God (and Heaven and the Word) could be eternal and yet create the universe at an instant in time.
How, then, shall I respond to him who asks, 'What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?' I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of the question). 'He was preparing hell,' he said, 'for those who pry too deep'. (Chapter XII, 14).
And further:
“ There was no time, therefore, when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself. (emphasis added) And there are no times that are coeternal with thee, because thou dost abide forever; but if times should abide, they would not be times.For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who can even comprehend it in thought or put the answer into words? Yet is it not true that in conversation we refer to nothing more familiarly or knowingly than time? And surely we understand it when we speak of it; we understand it also when we hear another speak of it.What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time. (Chapter XIV, 17)
The last statement resonates with contemporary cosmology, that time began with the Big Bang—as general relativity would have it, the four-dimensional manifold of space-time began at the singularity of creation. And St. Augustine's perplexed wondering about the nature of time is altogether in accord with our present-day confusion. In physics, time is a parameter, t, and the fundamental laws of physics are symmetric under the operation t → -t (going back into the past is equivalent to going into the future.) On the other hand, we know that the real world is irreversible, that there is an arrow of time, entropy: the dropped egg does not spontaneously reassemble back into one's hand, the movie camera doesn't run backwards except in science-fiction. Great minds--Boltzmann, Poincare, Prigogine--have engaged this conundrum, but there is no universally accepted answer.

St. Augustine held that God created the universe from nothing. Two fundamental (and surprisingly modern) notions were introduced by Augustine: first, Creation was instantaneous (from the Old Testament teachings of Sirach, he argued that six days was a metaphorical device); second, not all animal forms were present initially at creation—for some, the potential or seed to develop later in a different form was given initially (justifying evolution and the descent of species?). He also stressed that one should not use Scripture to contradict what reason and experience ("Science") tells us about the world:
"Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,... and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn."(De Genesi ad litteram; the Literal Meaning of Genesis, an unfinished work.)
Below are quotes revealing how Augustine reveled in the beauty of God's Creation, presenting arguments for a Creator that to me are even more powerful than the evidence of the red shift and the microwave background radiation.
Look around; there are the heaven and the earth. They cry aloud that they were made, for they change and vary. Whatever there is that has not been made, and yet has being, has nothing in it that was not there before. This having something not already existent is what it means to be changed and varied. Heaven and earth thus speak plainly that they did not make themselves: 'We are, because we have been made; we did not exist before we came to be so that we could have made ourselves!' And the voice with which they speak is simply their visible presence. It was thou, O Lord, who madest these things. Thou art beautiful; thus they are beautiful. Thou art good, thus they are good. Thou art; thus they are. But they are not as beautiful, nor as good, nor as truly real as thou their Creator art. (emphasis added). Compared with thee, they are neither beautiful nor good, nor do they even exist. These things we know, thanks be to thee. Yet our knowledge is ignorance when it is compared with thy knowledge. (Confessions, Book 11, Chapter IV.)
Now may our God be our hope. He Who made all things is better than all things. He Who made all beautiful things is more beautiful than all of them. He Who made all mighty things is more mighty than all of them. He Who made all great things is greater than all of them. Learn to love the Creator in His Creatures and the maker in what He has made.” (Commentary on Psalm 39, 9)


Although the thrust of this blog has been on St. Augustine's insights into a Creating God, he also had much to say on prayer, grace, God's goodness in sending us his only begotten Son, Christ, salvation, and generally, how to live as a Christian. Many of these words of wisdom are collected in “Augustine Day by Day”, a small leather-bound book that I read every evening at bedtime (compiled by John E. Rotelle, OSA and published by Catholic Book Publishing Co, New York). I'll quote just two of these.

Do you wish to receive? Then give! Do you wish to be forgiven? Then forgive! This is just a brief summary, Hear Christ say in another place 'Forgive and you shall be forgiven'. Forgive, give. And you shall be given what you desire—eternal life.” (Sermon 64-5; May 1st).

Bad times! Troublesome times! This is what people are saying. Let our lives be good and the times will be good. For we make our own times. Such as we are, such are the times. What can we do? Maybe we cannot convert masses of people to a good life. But let the few who do hear live well. Let the few who live well endure the many who live badly.” (Sermon 30-8; July 4th).

St. Augustine died as the Vandals were sacking Hippo, at the fall of the Roman Empire. Will we be able to be as strong as he when the barbarians of the 21st century are trying to destroy Western civilization?