Questions About Quantum Mechanics, Apathy, and the Gospels

Questions About Quantum Mechanics, Apathy, and the Gospels

Dr. Craig gives some good advice, as well answers, to listener's questions.

Transcript Questions about Quantum Mechanics, Apathy, and the Gospels

KEVIN HARRIS: We got ‘em! Great questions people from all over the world have sent to Dr. Craig. Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.

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Here’s the first question, Bill. It says,

Hello, Dr. Craig. I have a question about quantum superposition.

We better stop right there.

DR. CRAIG: [laughter] That’s right. What he is talking about would be states of affairs that are not determinate. They are neither one way nor another. A particle is not here or there; it is in an indeterminate state.


Many of my fellow students are atheists. I've been trying to convince them that God exists. One of them, however, is intent on proving me wrong. He brought up this argument after our chemistry teacher did a lesson on quantum mechanics. The argument is as follows:

1. A transcendent agency is all-seeing.

2. Observation collapses quantum superposition.

DR. CRAIG: Maybe we should comment on premise (2). This is the so-called measurement problem in the traditional Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The idea is that these quantum states, as I just said, are in an indeterminate state. They are in a superposition, as it is said, where it is neither one nor the other. It is indeterminate. This idea is illustrated by the famous Schrodinger's Cat which is a cat that is locked inside of a box that is filled with a vial of poison gas that will kill the cat. Whether the vial is broken depends upon the indeterminate decay of a radioactive isotope. The question is: is the cat dead or alive? According to quantum physics, the Copenhagen Interpretation I mean, that question has no determinate answer. The cat is neither dead nor alive. It is in this superposition of states because it is indeterminate whether the radioactive isotope has decayed and broken the vial. What determines whether or not the cat is dead or alive? The Copenhagen Interpretation says whether you make an observation – whether you open the box and look at the cat. That will collapse this indeterminacy to make the cat either dead or alive.

Schrodinger took this as a reductio ad absurdum argument against the Copenhagen Interpretation. A cat is not dead or alive dependent upon my observation of it. That would make reality dependent upon me and my observations. But many adherents to the Copenhagen Interpretation, like apparently this student, believes in it. They think that reality is really indeterminate until there is some observation that collapses the indeterminacy and makes the state determinate. This is the so-called measurement problem in quantum physics.

KEVIN HARRIS: That has been in popular science for a long time. Students tend to repeat it. It is something along the lines of: the very act of observing changes it.


KEVIN HARRIS: And I'm going, that is hard to get your mind around.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, and a good many philosophers of science and physicists are very skeptical of the Copenhagen Interpretation as a result. You will notice in my debate with Sean Carroll a year or so ago he said, This, at least, is one thing on which Craig and I can agree – the Copenhagen Interpretation is nonsense.[1] But here this argument is presupposing it. So let's let him have his go.


1. A transcendent agency is all-seeing.

2. Observation collapses quantum superposition.[2]

3. We observe that quantum superpositions of particles are not collapsed.

4. Therefore an all-seeing entity cannot exist.

How would I go about refuting this argument?

DR. CRAIG: I would say that premise (3) is self-contradictory. We “observe” that quantum superpositions of particles are not collapsed. You cannot observe that! Because the minute you do observe it, you collapse it! You collapse the situation. So it is incoherent to say that we observe that quantum superpositions of particles are not collapsed. That is something you cannot observe. You can't look into Schrodinger's box without collapsing the indeterminacy and making it one way or another.

What is interesting (and I think uncomfortable for the person pressing this objection) is I think this actually implies the existence of God if you adopt this interpretation. Because, you see, the finite observer looking into the box can himself be given a quantum physical description. As a physical object, he can be described by quantum physics. That means he exists in an indeterminate superposition of states unless somebody else observes him. But then the same thing is true of that person, and you get a chain where nobody is collapsed! There is no reality, and yet classical reality obviously exists. Here we are! So what collapses the ultimate indeterminacy of the whole universe? Ultimately it leads to a kind of ultimate observer who collapses the indeterminacy in the universe and therefore is implied by the Copenhagen Interpretation. Otherwise it would never get collapsed and nothing would ever truly exist. So this Copenhagen Interpretation, I think, ultimately implies the existence of such a being which is necessary to collapse the indeterminacy of the universe and halt the infinite regress of measurers. That is the answer to the measurement problem – you halt it with a non-physical observer. Because the observer is non-physical he cannot be described by the equations of quantum mechanics. Therefore that is why the chain of observation stops with the ultimate observer who transcends the physical world and collapses the indeterminacy in the universe.

So this is actually, I think, a good argument for the existence of God if you embrace this Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics.

KEVIN HARRIS: Saying that God is all-seeing doesn't mean that he looks and sees.

DR. CRAIG: No, we can say all-knowing instead. It is not literally all-seeing.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Another question:

Dr. Craig, thank you for your work as a Christian philosopher and your truly authentic example you set for those pursuing (such as myself) degrees in particular areas and seeing it as a service to Christ. I am noticing an important trend among persons who I have shared the material with, even if only a little of the material. Apathy. There exists simply an apathetic attitude to the fundamental insight into the human condition. My concern is that those who understood the implications of God's non-existence very clearly (like Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Pascal, etc.) will not have their message received effectively. What do you think about this apathetic approach to God's existence and possible ways in which the core insights of perhaps Pascal can be displayed to an apathetic person? As a side question, are you coming to Canada anytime soon?

DR. CRAIG: In answer to the last question – I don't have any Canadian trips planned. But I think this is a huge problem. In fact, there is even a name that has been given to this – “apatheism” is the label. It is not someone who denies the existence of God; he is simply someone who just doesn't care. So he is an apatheist.

What can you do to shake the apathetic person out of his lethargy and get him to think about these things? That was precisely the problem that Pascal faced when he wrote his apology for the truth of the Christian faith – how to reach the libertine French people of his day who just didn't care. My best shot at doing this is my work on the absurdity of life without God where I adopt a kind of Pascalian approach and try to get the apathetic person to see that if God does not exist then his life is ultimately absurd.[3] His life is meaningless, valueless, and purposeless, and it is impossible to live consistently within that kind of a framework. Therefore he needs to think about whether God exists.

I think this is a powerful tool if you can share these arguments with someone, particularly the question of moral values and duties. Everyday we get up we answer by how we treat other people whether we think objective moral values and duties really exist or whether everything is relative. This is the kind of question that is really inescapable for human beings.

That is my best shot. There are people who are so apathetic they don't even care about this – if you show them their life is meaningless, valueless, and purposeless. For that kind of person, all I can recommend is prayer. God may need to shake him with some deep tragedy in his life, or I find that growing up, getting married, and having children, and being faced with the question of what values are you going to teach your children can shake people out of their apathy and make them begin to think again. But my best shot is to try to explain to a person the absurdity of life without God. That doesn't show that God exists, but with Pascal it shows that this is a question of enormous consequence and one that we can't be apathetic about.

DR. CRAIG: Here is a question about the Gospels.

Hello, Dr. Craig. I read On Guard several years ago, and I have to say that it has absolutely changed my life. Thank you so much for your work in making solid Christian apologetics accessible. I have an ongoing discussion on the existence of God and the Christian worldview with a close agnostic friend for a year or so now. I always make a point to allow him to initiate or restart the conversation, which he frequently does. Our debate is respectful, friendly, and appears to be having a profound effect on him. He recently conceded that it is possible that a timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal creator did create the universe, although he is reluctant to call this creator “God.” Since conceding the possibility of a creator of the universe, our conversation has moved on to Christianity. He is stuck on what he perceives to be the unreliable nature of the orally transmitted New Testament documents. I've shared some of your articles on the reliability of the Gospel documents, but he is very stuck on the oral transmission part. Can you address the oral Gospel traditions and explain how or why they are trustworthy?

DR. CRAIG: He doesn't explain the reason for his friend's skepticism about the oral transmission of the Gospel traditions. I suspect it is because he is thinking of it in comparison with the child's game of Telephone where one child whispers something in the ear of another and then they pass on the message. The fun of the game is that by the time you get to the end it is so totally garbled that it is utterly unlike what was initially said. That is an anachronistic and inappropriate model to use for understanding the Jewish transmission of traditions, particularly sacred traditions. In an oral culture, the ability to memorize and to pass on accurately and faithfully large tracts of tradition is a highly developed and highly prized skill – one that we in a literary culture have largely lost, quite honestly.

KEVIN HARRIS: Oh yeah. I even heard how it is becoming more difficult to remember telephone numbers because we have them assigned to one button or to a name.

DR. CRAIG: Isn't that interesting?

KEVIN HARRIS: That is an illustration.

DR. CRAIG: And it is inconceivable to us that people at that time could have had whole books memorized and speeches memorized. Because in an oral culture, this skill is highly developed. Particularly in a Jewish world, in the synagogue, in the home, and in schools, children were trained on the skill of memorizing and transmitting faithfully large blocks of oral tradition.

Moreover, when you get to the Gospels, the phase of oral transmission is so early that it is still in contact with the eyewitnesses. So some people have said this is not really oral tradition, this is oral history because the eyewitnesses are still around to correct someone who might depart from an accurate transmission of the traditions about Jesus.[4]

When you are able to drive back behind the Gospels and behind the letters of Paul to this oral phase, rather than diminishing the historical credibility of what you are reading, it actually increases it because it is driving it back so early that legend and inaccuracy will not have had adequate time, frankly, to develop and to destroy the testimony of the eyewitnesses and the living memory of those who accompanied and knew Jesus.

I think when you look at the Gospels you can tell that they do faithfully recount the traditions about Jesus because you can compare them with one another to see how these sources are transmitted. One of the most important features of Gospel criticism today is to identify within the Gospels independent traditions narrating the same event. When you do this you will find that there are differences in the way the story is told but typically the core of the story and the point of the story will be accurately transmitted. So, for example, compare Mark's account of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem with John's account of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. These are independent traditions and yet they coincide in the essentials even though there may be differences in the way the oral tradition is transmitted.

As I say, in our culture we don't have something really parallel to this. About the closest that would come to it would be the telling of a joke where, as different people tell the same joke, they may vary the details a little bit here and there, but typically the punchline will be memorized accurately and will be the same. I actually experienced this some time ago. I remember when I was in seminary. My professor related a joke to us. He said, “What did the Calvinist say when he fell down the elevator shaft?” The answer was, “He got up, dusted himself off, and say 'Phew! Am I glad that is over!'” Well, it was a great joke about predestination and so forth. But twenty years later (twenty years later!) I heard someone else say to me, “What did the Calvinist say when he fell down the stairs?” I immediately recognized – this is a different version of the same joke. I said, “What?” He said, “He got up, dusted off his clothes, and said, 'Phew! Am I glad that is over!'” It was the same punchline within a story that varied the details a little bit. This is what you find in the Gospels. You find freedom to tell the story in different ways with regard to the secondary details, but the core of the story will be the same.

I think we have very good grounds for thinking that the Gospel traditions have been faithfully transmitted, especially when you have multiple independent attestation of the same event. Then you can be sure that you are on historical bedrock. As I show in the book On Guard, which this reader is familiar with, the Gospel traditions with respect to things like the burial, the discovery of the empty tomb of Jesus, are multiply and independently attested in such a way that we have real confidence that we are getting here the historical core of the story accurately related.

KEVIN HARRIS: More questions, and more advice, from Dr. Craig on the next podcast. We'll see you then.[5]

[1] See the Craig-Carroll debate transcript here: . Dr. Carroll's exact statement was, “I'm glad we found another very important area of agreement between Dr. Craig and myself. The Copenhagen interpretation is basically nonsense. No thoughtful person still holds to it, and yet we teach it to all of our undergraduates—that's kind of a scandal.” This can be seen in the debate video at the 1 hour, 50 minute, 26 second mark here:

[2] 5:00

[3] 10:15

[4] 15:17

[5] Total Running Time: 19:46 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)