The discoveries of science today do not cease to astound. For centuries we thought of ourselves as solid, fixed human beings in a stable, fixed universe. Now we must rethink ourselves as disco dancers in a bubble gum universe.
Quantum physics has undermined all the great discoveries of matter, from Aristotle to Newton, and we are now left with the wondrous reality of wave-particle duality. This is not entirely news since quantum physics has been around for about a century; however, we thought quantum physics belonged to the elite group of scientists who study the fundamental levels of matter in dark labs. After all who can possibly decipher this weird world of energy except those who speak the language of complex mathematics?
Now we must face the startling discovery that quantum physics may govern the realms of biological life as well. In an insightful new book entitled Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology authors Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, a molecular geneticist and a theoretical physicist respectively, crack the code (so to speak) on how life in the universe emerged from seemingly dead, inert matter into vital life-generating organisms.
Drawing on recent ground-breaking experiments around the world, Life on the Edge engages the reader in a new understanding of biological life based on quantum mechanics, enabling us to understand, for example, how migrating birds know where to go, how we smell the scent of a rose or how our genes copy themselves with such precision. Rather than mapping out causal connections and intricate pathways, the authors disclose the hidden ingredient of biological life, namely, quantum mechanics. What seems fine-tuned and designed actually flows out of complex energy fluctuations and quantum entanglement.
Almost all levels of biological life exist on the quantum edge, that is, the edge between order and random possibilities. Systems specialist Ed Olson explains that three billion years of natural selection have fine-tuned the evolutionary engineering to drive quantum systems to "dance" with the "noise" in the thermodynamics layer in a rhythm that is "just right" for maintaining life. Underneath the surface of structured existence lie dancing energy fields, giving rise to an array of activity between what we observe in the outer levels of life and what is actually taking place on the fundamental quantum levels. Our living cells harness the molecular "noise" in a middle strata to maintain their connection to the quantum bedrock. What is most amazing is that, as far as we know, there is only a single set of laws that govern the way the world behaves: quantum laws. The familiar statistical laws and Newtonian laws are, ultimately, quantum laws that are filtered through a type of lens or a middle layer of "discernment" that screens out the weird stuff.
In its evolution, nature has learned to create quantum states, that is, efficient, instantaneous, everywhere movement of the particles which can be harnessed at every moment. The emergence of biological life is like a giant Powerball lottery of random possibilities bubbling at every moment with built in choices for optimization. The formation of structures emerges from, and in some ways influences, the ongoing choices of activity. Life thrives on the edge between stability and chaos, order and randomness — which leaves scientists baffled as to how this delicate balance between order and chaos is sustained. Recent research offers a hint that, instead of avoiding molecular storms, life embraces them, rather like the captain of a ship who harnesses turbulent gusts and squalls to maintain his ship upright and on-course. As the physicist Erwin Schrödinger predicted, life navigates a narrow stream between the classical world of order and the quantum world of random energy in such a way that life thrives on the quantum edge.
The discoveries of science today are becoming more and more revelatory of an astonishing world. From a faith perspective, these new and exciting discoveries are rendering the word "being" tired and limp, impelling a new understanding of existence as dazzling energy-fields of dizzying array. If "being" is this mysteriously strange, what is God? Language falters, as the pseudo-Dionysius wrote, as we approach the divine mystery. For God is more and more the ultimate energy of dizzying love, living quite comfortably on the edge between order and chaos.
We constantly pray to God to make order of our chaotic lives, but what if God is the very source of our chaos? What if chaos and disorder are not to be shunned and avoided but attended to and embraced? Nature shows us that life is not meant to be nice, neat and controlled but living on the edge between order and disorder. Perhaps what we need is not planned retreats but, as Sigurd Olsen wrote, unplanned contemplation which can take place anywhere and anytime — the alert mind in a dynamic world.
The New Testament can be seen through the lens of quantum edge catholicity. Jesus himself was a like a strange attractor in the midst of a chaotic culture. His deep interior oneness with God expressed itself in a consciousness of the whole. He was driven by the Spirit of love into radical relationships, dangerous choices, confrontation, and ultimately, the sacrifice of self-gift.
Christian life, if it is a life of making wholes out of partials, requires an incarnational commitment to living on the edge, between the orderly known and the chaotic unknown of unlimited possibilities. Discernment is filtering out the factors impeding new choices amidst random possibilities. Consciousness must be centered on the whole of cosmic life so that randomness and wholeness are not opposites but quantumly entangled.
Our nice, neat doctrinal formulas and Sunday services blind us to reality of life's chaotic edge. We live in the controlled center of sheltered existence. We fear disorder and randomness; death frightens us. We want to maintain what we have and at the same time we want a different world. This is not only impossible; it is unnatural.
The world of nature tells us that the flourishing of biological life rests on the openness of existence to new possibilities in the environment. Biological life does not work as a top-down control system but as a bottoms-up top-down interplay of informational flow, more like tango dancing than building a house.
We can appreciate the new science intellectually and perhaps to some extent spiritually. However, quantum edge biology challenges us to rethink how we organize our lives. But is this not, essentially, the message of the Gospels — to reorganize our lives? The Spirit of God is within you; the reign of God is among you, Jesus said. We are not called to maintain the existing order but to engage disorder as it lingers on the edge of new order. It means living with a certain level of anxiety, uncertainty and darkness but also with faith, trust, hope and surrender. We are called to live with a renewed energy of love, gathering the fragments of life into new wholes and testing the possibilities of life with a sense of spiritual adventure. This is the way of Jesus whose life continues to flow through the Spirit. Baptism quantumly entangles us with the energies of divine love and, if Jesus is the exemplar of love, then we can be assured that each day must engage us in the unlimited possibilities for new life.
The wondrous and exciting discoveries of science render theology and the church rather boring and staid at times. It does not have to be this way nor should God be relegated to boredom. Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart said that, "God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing, and if we are united to God we become new again." Eckhart intuitively grasped the import of a dynamic world with God in the midst of new life. Life on the edge is dwelling in the spaces of the unknown, the unlimited, the unloved and choosing to know, to expand and to love; for this is where God thrives, in between the known and the unknown, between uncertainty and hope, stretching forth into the world as our souls expand with new levels of consciousness. God does not save us from chaos because God is the source of chaos; out of chaos a star is born. We called to be stars shining out from the darkness around us, trusting that engaging the new is engaging God because God is the power of the future.
[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe. Her newest book is Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015).]