Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Pinterest Connect on Google Plus Connect on LinkedIn

Does Quantum Mechanics Provide an Analogy for the Trinity?

January 19, AD2015 13 Comments


Chelsea - transfiguration


A stumbling block in my conversion process was dealing with the concept of the Holy Trinity–as a Jew, a cornerstone of my minimal religious faith was the Sh’ma Yisrael, that God was One:

“שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד – 

Sh’ma Yisra’el YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Eḥad” Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one. Deut. 6:4-9

The priest who was guiding my catechesis used this illustration to clear up my confusion.

As he explained it, the points of the triangle are distinct–as in three separate persons–but the triangle is one thing, God. That explanation satisfied me, and I used it myself when teaching RCIA and giving catechesis classes to inmates. And to enlighten me more, he used the following analogy: God the Father is God above us; God the Son is God beside us; God the Holy Spirit is God within us.

Arguments from analogy have been criticized as being inductive rather than deductive and lacking substance, but I believe they are a valuable tool for understanding. I’d like to offer one more analog for the Trinity: the quantum mechanical superposed state of God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirt.

I’ll not give here a detailed explanation of the relevant quantum mechanics. That has been discussed in more detail in another article of mine (Free Will and God’s Providence, Part IV) and in references contained therein. Rather, I’d like to explain why I believe there is an analogy, and what the theological import of this might mean.

The Quantum Mechanical Double Slit Experiment and Superposition

Let’s consider very briefly the example given in the link above for quantum mechanical superposition, the famed (to some) double-slit diffraction experiment. A particle going through both slits (call them slit 1 and slit 2) is taken as a superposition of states. The notation is given as
| state > =  | slit 1 >  +  | slit 2 > , that is, the particle is going through BOTH slit 1 and slit 2 at the same time, as if it were a wave*.

If we make a measurement to see if the particle has gone through slit 1, then the state is no longer a superposition but | state > = | slit 1 > ; likewise, if we make a measurement to see if the particle has gone through slit 2, we get | state > = | slit 2 > . Only if we make NO measurements to determine which slit the particle has gone through will we see the particle behave as a wave and give on a detection screen a diffraction pattern (with many particles striking the screen).

The Trinity as Superposition

Taking the analogy of the Trinity as a superposition we have:

| God, the Trinity>  = | God, the Father > + | God, the Son > + | God, the Holy Spirit > .

This is saying there is one God-state, God the Trinity which is the superposition–all three component states simultaneously–of the component states God, the Father, God the Son and God, the Holy Spirit.

Now in quantum mechanics, the superposition is removed on measurement (either by collapse or by transfer to an alternate world/alternate mind–see Free Will and God’s Providence, Part IV) to yield the particular component state which the measurement was designed to detect. If we are to carry the analogy further, what would be the analog of a measurement to detect one of the component God-states?

What do we seek when we seek God, the Father? What do we seek when we seek God, the Son? What do we seek when seek God, the Holy Spirit? Theologians and philosophers will give subtle and complex answers, but I’ll state my own simple-minded view. We seek:

  • God the Father as the author of the Universe, of the laws of nature and mathematics, as Creator of all things, to worship and adore; we seek God in prayer (the “Our Father); we offer up to him the sacrifice of His Son in the Holy Mass.
  • God the Son as our salvation, to help us spread His Word and Message, by speech and deed; we seek the the Son in Intercessions in the Liturgy of the Hours; we take him to ourselves in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; we seek his forgiveness, when in the Sacrament of Reconciliation we ask Him (in the person of a priest) to forgive our sins.
  • God the Holy Spirit to change us, to alter our mind and heart to be better and approach the ideal given in Scripture. we seek the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation; we ask His help when faced with moral dilemmas or avoiding sin.

When we seek God in any of these modes, we reach to God as that person of the Trinity, we “decompose”, collapse the Trinity to the one sought for.

Added Note

When I started to write this article (last April) I thought it was an original idea. Doing a Google search on “the Trinity as a quantum superposition” I find there are many entries. I haven’t read these, in order that only my own fresh thoughts would be in the article.

I’d be grateful for those with deeper theological knowledge to correct me in whatever I’ve said that may be contrary to doctrines or dogma of the Catholic Church.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs at Rational Catholic and adult education classes here to achieve this end.

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.

If you enjoyed this essay, subscribe below to receive a daily digest of all our essays.

Thank you for supporting us!

  • john the lesser

    there are 3 quarks in the proton and they cannot be separated but are distinct nonetheless

  • james

    ” I have come to bring a sword ” Jesus explained. His words (particles) when analyzed (measured)
    destroy the superposition (wave) and truth is bifurcated. For me, a regular at Shabbat, the Sh’ma
    is a way to understand how faith presents as a diffraction pattern.

  • Howard

    Interesting, but as with any analogy, it has its flaws. The failure of the quantum analogy is that it indicates that God the Son is not God, but only a component of God; if observed at all, He would be different than God. This flaw has to be acknowledged to reject any implication of Modalism.

    • Howard, thank you for your comment. Your quotation is apt, but I’m not sure you understand the notion of superposition. If the superposition analogy fails, so does the triangle analogy (see the link). And “person” is equivalent to component, as far as I can see. That is to say, superposition is one entity, as is God the Trinity; each of the components in the superposition is God, as is each person in the Trinity.

    • HowardRichards

      Yes, the triangle analogy also has the same flaw, but because most people know what a triangle is and have no idea about quantum mechanics, the problem is somewhat less dangerous there.

      I’m afraid I do understand superposition, though. We are both physicists, so you know that if I have an electron that is spin up along the z-axis, |+,z>, I can write that as a superposition of the spin-up, |+,x>, and spin-down, |-,x>, states along the x-direction. Likewise, |+,x> can be written in terms of |+,z> and |-,z>. |+,x> is a state that can be viewed as a component of |+,z>, but it is a different state. This all becomes a huge mess when we try to apply it to the Holy Trinity.

    • My apologies Howard for being skeptical about your credentials. But I don’t understand why you think the analogy (and it is only an analogy, not a model) becomes a huge mess, when applied to the Holy Trinity. Could you please elaborate on that, and I might agree with you. (As I said in the post, arguments by analogy have a number of critics, particularly as bases for proof; on the other hand, I do believe they are an aid to understanding.) One last point, ultimately the Trinity at bottom the Holy Trinity is a mystery. St. Thomas did not regard it as something that could be proved rationally, but something that was an article of faith.

    • Howard

      OK. I suppose first of all I should point what is right about your analogy, which is that reality is beautiful, different than we would have expected, and often different than we can fully comprehend.

      Here are some problems, though.
      1. If we assume a state |God> and perform an observation, the result will be random. Not assigned by fittingness or any kind of a plan: random.
      2. When we observe a state, we force it into an eigenstate. We cannot be said in any way to force God.
      3. When we observe |+,z> and find the eigenstate |+,x>, the |+,z> state in the system is destroyed. We do not observe that |+,x> is a “part” of |+,z>; |+,x> is there now, and |+,z> is gone. God does not go away when we see Jesus.
      4. If |God> = |Father> + |Son> + |Holy Spirit>, then |Holy Spirit> = |God> + |Something Else 1> + |Something Else 2> (not worrying about the coefficients here). I chose |Holy Spirit> because if I said |Son> you might be tempted to say |Son> = |God> + |Man> + |?>, but even that would not solve the problem here.

    • Thanks for elaborating on your objections to the analogy Howard. Now you’re taking the collapse interpretation of quantum mechanics, and in that interpretation you’re objections seem quite reasonable. There are other interpretations–see “Free Will and God’s Providence, Part IV…”

      and references therein, which discusses the Many Worlds/ Many Minds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the non-measured component of the superposed state is not eliminated. In the collapse interpretation, the analogy is maybe not a good one.

    • Howard

      Well, the Copenhagen Interpretation is the standard, for all its warts. The Many Worlds Interpretation has its own deep problem, at least if we do like most of its adherents and say that anything that is physically possible happens in some “world”. So in one “world” I have assassinated a Pope; in another I am the Pope. Such an interpretation gets rid of the moral significance of our choices (e.g,, I may be a monster in this world, but I’m a great saint in another).

      Some of the objections really can’t be avoided by changing interpretations. If you don’t have simply |God> = |Holy Spirit>, you can’t simply have |Holy Spirit> = |God>. I think a Thomist would say that you can’t get away with an equation that says Substance = Person + Person + Person, because Substance and Person are different kinds of things — unlike your ket equation, in which all the kets are states in the same space.

      Like I said, though, the mystery we encounter in QM should prepare us for surprises that challenge our arrogance.

  • Myshkin

    As a physician, I’d suppose that I am well versed in at least some of the grammar of the different sciences; and often have I had similar thoughts. Nice to know that I am not the only one, and possibly “crazy” for it!

    Augustine of Hippo comes to mind:

    “If you understand it, it is not God”

    “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.”

    Ironic, isn’t it, that scientists who claim “understanding”, in fact have none; and also simultaneously deride Christians for our supposedly “magical” beliefs? Tell me, now, a physicist who thinks that he/she understands, and I will show you someone who doesn’t know anything.

    I have a saying about physicists (no offense intended): “The more they know, the less they know!”

    • Howard

      Stick to quoting Augustine.

    • Myshkin, thank you for your comment, but I don’t understand how it relates to the point of the post. Many physicists (including myself) adhere to Bernard d’Espagnat’s opinion that there is a “veiled reality” underlying quantum mechanics. (d’Espagnat is a French physicist / philosopher who participated in the Aspect experiments disproving Bell’s Theorem.)

  • Pingback: Top 5 Highlights of Pope Francis in Philippines -