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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Physics and God - the "Theory of Everything"

In the interdisciplinary course that I'm teaching we're doing a unit on theoretical physics & string theory. A student raised the question of whether there is a religious dimension to physicists' search for a "theory of everything." And it got me thinking about what people mean when they suggest that theoretical physics is somehow bringing us to greater knowledge of "God." So here are some theological musings about that.

I've often noticed that there are similar patterns of thought, especially on the intuitive side, between theoretical physics and theology. Stephen Hawking famously said that if we could arrive at a "theory of everything" -- i.e. a theory that unified the equations of quantum physics and general relativity and made sense of the four forces in nature, we would "know the mind of God" The idea of God as the ultimate explanation for everything, the reality beyond what we understand that "makes sense" of things seems to be what Hawking is assuming. This is an idea of God that comes largely from Greek philosophy, and actually has been associated, in
classical thinking, with the mathematical order of things. It is not the "personal" Creator-God that we meet in Biblical tradition (see my post in January under "What I Believe" for more on this) and I think we get confused when we try to conflate the two. It's interesting that Einstein seemed to be pretty committed to an idea of God that predicted ultimate order in the universe -- that was why he struggled over quantum theory and uncertainty ("God does not throw dice," I think he was quoted as saying).

But most often when we get into discussions of God in the "Science and Religion" area we are talking about "The God of the gaps" -- God understood as the explanation for the things
for which we don't have other explanations based on observable "fact". The problem with the "God of the gaps," for a believer as much as for anyone, is that it suggests that the more we learn about nature the less we will need a concept of God. That leads to what I see as a rather dangerous argument about whether it's somehow faithless to pursue knowledge because if we find out too much we won't need God any more, and it also strikes me as a somewhat limited idea of God if you're also looking at the long traditions of human religious experience and Biblical theology. But it is an idea of God that's been out there throughout the modern period.
(The link above takes you to a good article about the "God of the Gaps" and intelligent design by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC).

When Hawking talks about "knowing the mind of God" by unifying all the theories, it seems to me it's "God" in the sense of "the dimension of reality that makes sense of everything." It's almost a Platonic idea -- or perhaps Aristotelian. There's a sense of wonder and appreciation of order that goes with this idea of God -- and it is connected to enlightenment theologies: Deism: the idea of God as the "divine watchmaker" who sets the world in motion and then withdraws, or the idea of an "intelligent designer" of the universe-- which is a theological, not in any way I can discern a "scientific" idea. What's missing from these ideas of God is any kind of moral dimension or sense of relationship or accountability between the divine and the
human. It's God as a philosophical concept, but not connected with human communities or religious experience or scriptural story.

It is interesting, though, that Muslim scientists in the middle ages, who also were reading Greek philosophy, saw mathematics as a way of understanding and contemplating the ultimate order of God's Creation - so they did make that relational connection with God through mathematics. I think modern western science is so focused on human control of nature that that idea -- of mathematics as a kind of means of mystical contemplation -- is pretty alien to western thinking. (Karen Armstrong''s chapters on "The God of the Philosophers" and "The
God of the Mystics" in A History of God are pretty interesting on this, especially her discussion of the philosopher-mystic Al Ghazali).

Some of the religious wonder that comes with the Enlightenment/Greek idea of God as ultimate order shows in a poem, "The Spacious Firmament on High", written by Addison & Steele in the 18th century. I use this stanza as a way of reminding myself of the experiential dimension of this Enlightenment idea of a God who is behind the order of nature, but not particularly connected with human conduct, morality or experience. The last stanza, speaking of the stars and the moon (and taking an oddly non-Copernican view of the universe, since the image is of the planets orbiting the earth) - particularly helps with this:
The poem goes

"What though in solemn silence, all move round this dark terrestrial ball
What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found,
In Reason's ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is Divine."

You could conceivably extend that theology to string theory, if indeed it is the "theory of evertything" (which is of course widely debated and debatable) -- and if you did you'd be right in tune with this "Modern" i.e. "Enlightenment" theology, which seems to me to rest more on Plato and Aristotle rather than Biblical religion. I think we would have less of a problem with
fundamentalism if we sorted this out better, but that's another topic.

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