Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Physics and the Mind of God

By Aussiegirl

Well, I've been reading the books of Gerald Schroeder -- The "Hidden Face of God", "Genesis and the Big Bang", and "The Science of God". I can't recommend them highly enough.

On a similar subject I can't do better than quote some pertinent paragraphs from Paul Davies' excellent speech upon receiving the Templeton Prize that was featured in a recent edition of "First Things". In a world in which science seems to have explained everything about everything except "why", it is worthwhile for the modern agnostic to consider that rather than pointing away from a spiritual outlook on the world, science may in fact be leading us back to the cause of first things. Or as T.S. Eliot so profoundly wrote in the last of the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Physics and the Mind of God: The Templeton Prize Address

Like all school pupils, I learned science as a set of procedures that would reveal how nature works, but I never questioned why we were able to do this thing called science so successfully. It was only after a long career of research and scholarship that I began to appreciate just how deep scientific knowledge is, and how incredibly privileged we are to be able to unlock the secrets of nature in such a powerful way.

Of course, science did not spring ready-made into the minds of Newton and his colleagues. They were strongly influenced by two longstanding traditions that pervaded European thought. The first was Greek philosophy. Most ancient cultures were aware that the universe is not completely chaotic and capricious: there is a definite order in nature. The Greeks believed that this order could be understood, at least in part, by the application of human reasoning. They maintained that physical existence was not absurd, but rational and logical, and therefore in principle intelligible to us. They discovered that some physical processes had a hidden mathematical basis, and they sought to build a model of reality based on arithmetical and geometrical principles.

The second great tradition was the Judaic worldview, according to which the universe was created by God at some definite moment in the past and ordered according to a fixed set of laws. The Jews taught that the universe unfolds in a unidirectional sequence-what we now call linear time-according to a definite historical process: creation, evolution, and dissolution. This notion of linear time-in which the story of the universe has a beginning, a middle, and an end-stands in marked contrast to the concept of cosmic cyclicity, the pervading mythology of almost all ancient cultures. Cyclic time-the myth of the eternal return-springs from mankind's close association with the cycles and rhythms of nature, and remains a key component in the belief systems of many cultures today. It also lurks just beneath the surface of the Western mind, erupting occasionally to infuse our art, our folklore, and our literature.

A world freely created by God, and ordered in a particular, felicitous way at the origin of a linear time, constitutes a powerful set of beliefs, and was taken up by both Christianity and Islam. An essential element of this belief system is that the universe does not have to be as it is: it could have been otherwise. Einstein once said that the thing that most interested him is whether God had any choice in His creation. According to the Judeo-Islamic-Christian tradition, the answer is a resounding yes.

Although not conventionally religious, Einstein often spoke of God, and expressed a sentiment shared, I believe, by many scientists, including professed atheists. It is a sentiment best described as a reverence for nature and a deep fascination for the natural order of the cosmos. If the universe did not have to be as it is, of necessity-if, to paraphrase Einstein, God did have a choice-then the fact that nature is so fruitful, that the universe is so full of richness, diversity, and novelty, is profoundly significant.

Some scientists have tried to argue that if only we knew enough about the laws of physics, if we were to discover a final theory that united all the fundamental forces and particles of nature into a single mathematical scheme, then we would find that this superlaw, or theory of everything, would describe the only logically consistent world. In other words, the nature of the physical world would be entirely a consequence of logical and mathematical necessity. There would be no choice about it. I think this is demonstrably wrong. There is not a shred of evidence that the universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality.

It was from the intellectual ferment brought about by the merging of Greek philosophy and Judeo-Islamic-Christian thought that modern science emerged, with its unidirectional linear time, its insistence on nature's rationality, and its emphasis on mathematical principles. All the early scientists, like Newton, were religious in one way or another. They saw their science as a means of uncovering traces of God's handiwork in the universe. What we now call the laws of physics they regarded as God's abstract creation: thoughts, so to speak, in the mind of God. So in doing science, they supposed, one might be able to glimpse the mind of God-an exhilarating and audacious claim.

In the ensuing three hundred years, the theological dimension of science has faded. People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature-the laws of physics-are simply accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they come from; at least they do not do so in polite company. However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith that the universe is not absurd, that there is a rational basis to physical existence manifested as a lawlike order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.


At 8:45 AM, Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

Great piece!

I had been arguing with a militant atheist a couple of weeks ago, and could really have used that!

I`m going to link it up at my site.


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