Sunday, July 12, 2009

God Out of Bounds: Physical Science

Let's pick this series up again, dust if off, and see where it goes. Next, I've moved down the list a bit and have selected physical science. This feels like an interesting choice - the most often comments we hear in our society from religious folks are basically anti-science, or at the very least deeply suspicious of science. Then we have the more progressive religious minority whispering "But I think science is ok..."

I don't just think that science is OK, I think that science can show us things about God, lead to experiences of transcendence and awe - all whether you are a religious person or not.

The Basics: Physics
Physics on the macro level - you know, the Newtonian world of gravity and electromagnetism and thermodynamics - seems pretty straightforward. Planes fly, microwaves make my dinner and I always throw a baseball in a parabolic arc. You could confuse the world with a huge clock-like machine (and until modern times it was very easy to do so).

If you look closer, though, things are totally insane. Particles teleport around, appear and disappear, and affect each other across distances in ways that allow information to travel faster than the speed of light. At places like CERN, they smash tiny things together at obnoxious speeds and even tinier things break off, surviving for fragments of a second, that only the most sensitive machines we have available can detect.

So when things get really small - when you look very, very closely, not only are the rules broken - the rules don't even mean anything anymore. You're down a rabbit-hole.

What does it mean that so many think God the creator is primarily concerned with rules and their enforcement when we can't even find and understand all the rules that govern physical matter?

Life and its Origins
When we think of God "making" the cosmos, we use metaphorical language based on the best understanding we have of what it means to "make". In Genesis, God "makes" in a way that is described with words referring to metallurgy and blacksmithing, for example, which was the most complicated thing that bronze-age thinkers could conceive of.

Now, when we think about God "making", we have a much wider, more spectacular number of metaphors to utilize. We can go to the limits of our understanding of the age of the Earth and physical life processes and talk about the creation of life in ways never before conceiveable. This is not a threat - it is amazing. This also does not nullify, somehow, the metaphors of the past, like metallurgy or sculpting out of clay. We still do these things too.

Sometimes I sit down and actually try to think backwards through what I understand of the history of life on Earth. Try it - it is impossible, but very moving. Imagine, starting from the beginning moving forward or the preesnt moving back, in a time-lapse montage style, the development of live as you understand it. Back to a time before mammals, to a time before trees, to a time before flowering plants, to a time before bony fish, before sexual reproduction, to a time before multicellular is staggering, and for me, a source of intense awe and amazement.

The Universe at Large
We live in the heart of a miracle of scale. The sun's light reaches us in about eight seconds, and knowing that, we have already shattered our normal means of understanding scale.

Turtles All the Way Down
There are things we are struggling to understand. For example, the cosmos may be a web of vibrating, interacting 10-dimensional strings. It may be holographic, projected from a distant limit which contains only pure information. It may be enfolded 11-dimensional membranes. It may be one of infinite universes, each displaying slightly different physical laws, and we are in the only one that could have given rise to us.

In short, we do not definitively know what stuff is made of, or why it is here, or how it came to be. Not at a fundamental level. Maybe this will always be a mystery. I've read the theory that it is impossible to understand the nature of the universe using methods and tools bounded by the rules of the universe. This could be, but the search is sure a lot of fun to follow along with (as much as I can understand it, which isn't much).

This matches my own experience, which is that in order to make sense of my life and my place in the world, I need primarily to have trust. I tire of the current conservative Christian obsession with objectivity, which by definition precludes trust or faith or hope, because it implies certainty.

I don't live in a universe of certainty.

Physical Science as Alien, then Threat, Then Engine for Theology
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. -Gandhi

At first, theology and physical science were odd bedfellows, but bedfellows all the same. You couldn't account for physical phenominae without making reference to the gods, spirits, or primal spiritual forces which existed in the world.

Over time these two cousins split apart, and at various points in various cultures, they seem to have had a real bloody falling-out. They stopped talking to each other.

This led to them becoming outright enemies. There wasn't enough room in the playground for both of them to play.

Let's be honest - in time, physical science won, and the result is a demystified, demogoguish, mechanized, "expert"-driven culture which is totally bereft of meaning, purpose, beauty or awe. That's oversimplifying, but who the heck wants to live in a world of pundits and advertisements and consumption?

Shoot me now. Make it quick.

What I want is for physical science to become an engine for theological inquiry and meaning-making. This is already happening at the fringes, so to speak, but not in the center. In the center, you seem to have a "God of the gaps", ever shrinking, an ostrich method of burying heads in the sand, or a continuation of the pointless animosity between physical science and religion.

My questions for this post are: What resources have you found which connect theology and meaning-making with physical science? What is the most amazing thing you ever learned about the physical world?


Fergie said...

Hi, I'm visiting from Sam's Crying in the Night Blog. As a Christian, and a Scientist, (ooooh, scary), I'd like to thank you for your post.

Yup, it's a mixed up whacky amazing world we have.. and the more I learn in my work, or in general observations (because for me, scientist is not a job, but a type of personality), the more I realize that God is so much bigger and unknowable than we could ever understand. Who better to have my little life in his hands?


Jodie said...

"What is the most amazing thing you ever learned about the physical world?"

That through us, our eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings, the Universe can see itself in the mirror, and be aware of itself.

Jodie said...

"What resources have you found which connect theology and meaning-making with physical science?"

The art and practice of critical reasoning.