Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #12 - The Quantum Manger — A Christmas Eve Meditation - A thought for the day

December 21, 2023 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 12
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #12 - The Quantum Manger — A Christmas Eve Meditation - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation

Back in March [2023] I listened to a Financial Times podcast on the subject of quantum computing because I was interested in understanding, as much as a non-mathematician and physicist can, what the basic difference is between a classical computer and a quantum computer. To help people like me, Madhumita Murgia, who leads the FT’s coverage about artificial intelligence and writes on data and emerging technologies, interviewed the theoretical physicist and philosopher, Sean Carroll, who specializes in quantum mechanics, cosmology, and philosophy of science, and is currently the Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.

Obviously, I can’t précis the whole programme for you here, and so, should you be interested in listening to it, you can find a link to it on my blog. But one thing in the podcast struck me as saying something about how the world is, that I found very helpful also to think about in relationship to human myths and, in particular, to the myth of Christmas, and it’s something to do with “bits.”

So, Carroll reminds us that:

“[I]n classical computers, you start with a set of bits. A bit is just some register in your computer that is either 0 or 1, and you can use a string of bits to make a binary number and represent anything that you'd like.”

Now, all the computers we use in our daily lives encode their information in bits. But, in the quantum world, where, physicists have revealed that things can be in more than one state at the same time, it began to become possible to consider the idea that perhaps bits didn’t need only to be 0s and 1s. And so came into being the idea of the “quantum bit” or “qubit.” Murgia then continues:

“One way to imagine this is that the bits in a classical computer are coins that are either heads or tails. But a qubit in a quantum computer is a spinning coin. It’s kind of heads and tails at the same time. That means the computer isn’t limited to representing just one string of 1s and 0s. It can represent lots of combinations of 1s and 0s simultaneously. That gives it the potential for much more computing power.”

And when she speaks about potentially a lot more computing power, that means a lot, lot, lot more computing power, and the task of those currently exploring quantum computing is to turn this insight into how the world works at a subatomic level into an actual, working quantum computer. In the rest of the podcast, Murgia and Carroll give a few indications about how that is project is unfolding.

But, at this point, I leave their fascinating conversation to begin to return to the world of human myth and, today, specifically to the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke which, together, form the myth of Christmas.

Now, I am grateful, almost beyond measure, to have received my theological education in a liberal Protestant tradition that was committed to what is known as historical criticism. The historical-critical method it used is one concerned to understand the origin of the Biblical, and indeed all other, texts by attempting to understand the historical context that lay behind the text. Historical criticism begins in the 17th century, and over the next three centuries it becomes the central way the liberal Protestant tradition engaged with the Biblical texts, developing, along the way, three additional, related methods. Firstly, there came into being “source criticism,” which attempts to seek out the original sources, written and/or aural, which lie behind a given biblical text. Secondly, there came into being “form criticism,” which divides the texts into discrete sections and then further categorizes them by genres (prose, poetry, letters, laws, etc.). Form criticism also asks about the text’s original “Sitz im Leben” (or “setting in life”) in which it was composed and first used. And, thirdly, there came into being “redaction criticism,” in which is studied the collection, arrangement, editing and re-writing of sources. So, in short, at university I was taught always to be asking where, when and by whom the texts were written, and then, by extension, to go on to ask how they were then understood and received throughout the centuries. This latter study is called “reception theory” or  “reader-response criticism.”

It is a fascinating study, and I cannot over-emphasise how important this work has been because it has ensured that our liberal, creative, free spiritual tradition is no longer bound to literal interpretations of the Bible or, indeed, any other religious text. It has helped us become acutely aware that all religious texts are human constructs through and through, which have originated in historical contexts often very, very different from our own. Now, in turn, at its best, this historical critical perspective frees us to make appropriate attempts to draw from these texts fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight, and to gather them up for the precious gifts that they are and, renewed by their grace, begin to walk a path that is safer than the known way. In this method is our freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today. It’s important to see that the historical-critical process also helps us keep in view and know about things in which we now no longer believe or can accept as appropriate ways of being in the world. This, too, is a precious gift, keeping us from falling back into bad ways of being and clearly false beliefs.

Not surprisingly, the application of the historical-critical method necessarily raised, again and again, the question of whether the events the authors of the texts wrote about were historically true or not; in other words, whether they were fact or fiction. Of course, this is a vitally important thing to know, but in the hands of the over-zealous and insensitive, the method has, alas, occasionally delivered up a version of the classical computer “bit” in the form of a belief that a story is either historical fact or an imaginary fiction, a kind of 1 or 0, and a situation can develop where true stories (that is to say, historical fact) are allowed to be kept, and all fictional stories (that is to say stories which are not historical true) are to be abandoned as false. But, as we most of us intuitively know, many of the greatest truths — those fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity and brief moments of insight we seek to gather up as precious gifts — have come to us through fictional stories, poetry and myth.

But the problem at Christmas is that today we know — and make no mistake about it, we really do know this — we know that the events recounted in the myth of Christmas, did not occur. These are fictional accounts with very little basis in history. So, when viewed solely through the eyes of the historical-critical scholar, the manger in Bethlehem is always and only empty, to the point, almost, of vanishing. And I have always felt that the great poet, R. S. Thomas, must surely have had just such a scholar in mind when he wrote “Lost Christmas”:

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road. The manger is empty.

However, when viewed through the mytho-poetic eyes of the creative storyteller or poet, the manger in Bethlehem is always capable of being found full to the point of overflowing. And my favourite poem expressing this was written by Juan Ramón Jiménez and is called, “The Lamb Baaed Gently”:

The lamb baaed gently.
The tender donkey showed its joy
in lusty bray.
The dog barked playfully
almost talking to the stars.

I could not sleep, I went outdoors
and saw heavenly tracks upon the ground
all flower-decked
like a sky
turned upside down.

A warm and fragrant mist
hovered over the grove,
the moon was sinking low
in a soft golden west
of divine orbit.

My breast beat without a pause,
as if my heart had wined . . .

I opened wide the stable door to see
if He were there.

He was!

As each new Christmas comes around, it strikes me more and more forcibly, that we in this liberal, creative, free spiritual community need to learn to develop what I am tempted to call a Quantum Manger, a manger which will never finally and definitely show up to us either as heads (empty), or tails (full), but one which always-already continues to spin creatively and which allows us, with a clean heart, to stand before a manger that is always-already empty, always-already full, and in all possible states in-between. Think of the creative possibilities this might help to release into our world that is being so damaged by the imposition of simplistic binaries upon a reality; a reality that, to paraphrase Werner Heisenberg, who was one of the main pioneers of the theory of quantum mechanics, is not only more complex and creative than we think, but more complex and creative than we can think.