Religion and Science: Wk. 2 Recap and React- Physics and Cosmology
by Jonnie Russell
September 22, 2013
I apologize for the bit of delay getting this weeks discussion forum out. I had some unexpected family travel mid-week.
This week we dove into the micro and the macro of the physics and religion topics: quantum physics and cosmology. This turns out to be quite a natural way in which to start our journey. Physics is regarded as the fundamental ground level of science studies for the most part. From here, we will ‘build up’ to biology (week 3) and beyond.
To start the discussion,
Tripp [Philip] gave us a nice entry into the recent (and dynamic) developments in physics, particularly quantum physics–the very tiniest level of the physical world we’ve been able to explore so far, with the three I’s: Idealism, Indeterminacy, and Interconnectivity. Each in their own way, these terms describe the ways in which the old (500 plus year old) deterministic paradigm of Hobbes, Newton, and others is breaking down, coming apart at the seams. According to this paradigm, the fundamental constituents of the world are cold dead particles in motion, bumping as one determined cause and effect after another through an “atomistic” history. According to this kind of crude materialism, the fundamental bits (atoms) of the world working like baby billiard balls. Nothing to see here down at the bottom, but small-scale substrates (undergirding mechanisms) that make up our more complex (and still determined) big objects–cells, selves, and societies.
Tripp [Philip] seems to mean the way in which what we’re seeing at the fundamental level of quantum mechanics turns our to be a much more illusive, quasi-existent, and almost more mind-like reality: energetic fields rather than bits; electrons that don’t totally “exist” (maybe insist?). At the very least, the billiard ball bits of matter model is proving is much too clean. These very odd bits we’re finding aren’t nearly as static as we might have thought. In this way, it is their indeterminacy, the fundamentally unpredictable nature of their micromovements, that means that we only have probabilistic determinism at best, which in reality, is anything but a true determinism. Most odd of all, the puzzling phenomenon of the mysterious interconnectivity at the fundamental level, where actions affect each other across long distances simultaneously (that’s well faster than the speed of light folks!) is pointing to new ways of understanding the relationality of all that is, that goes well beyond our now seemingly outmoded understandings of how bodies and energies causally effect each other through space and time. Put simply, the world has gotten much weirder, and clean cult pool game analogies turn out to be not just oversimplified, but misleading.
Phillip then fleshed this out by showing just how odd quantum mechanics is. According the Copenhagen interpretation, human observation, in some sense, makes the phenomena what they are. In other words, the observer participates in the creative facts about whether the quantum shows up as particle or wave. Paraphrasing Philip, quantum mechanics are potentials to be observed.
Some, have developed models of divine action based upon this indeterminacy at the quantum level. Citing Robert Russell’s work (we can also include Nancey Murphy from Fuller here), their model [speculates that looking] at the continual indeterminate nature of the quantum level as [a] potential entry point for thinking of God’s action as continually manipulating and effecting the movements of this micro-level, and therefore causally working in the world (able to respond to prayers, etc.) from the bottom up. I’ll say more on this in the react, but quarries about whether (i) this makes God complicit in the evil of the world and, (ii) how exactly we are in relationship, or what mode of existing with this God can we have, on this quantum only, building blocks up, model. At first glance, it seems like a pretty big hit to Christian spirituality.
In terms of cosmology (physics on the majorly macro scale), Philip discussed the fine-tuning vs. multiverse arguments about the universe’s origins. The oft-invoked argument pointing to the unbelievably unlikely balance of conditions needed to produce life as reason to believe in a divinely ordained and created universe has a point regarding just how unlikely the delicate constants needed to produce life are–the equations are astounding. However, the multiverse proponents reply that there might be a virtually infinite number of universes, the vast majority of which are likely totally inhospitable to any forms of life. In short, this universe, once it’s one among a million, looses it’s luster as one in a million. But, as Tripp and Philip note, it is so wildly speculative, and as yet virtually unverifiable or falsifiable–a major weakness for the philosophical validity or believability of a theory–that it risks being pure philosophy and postulation, categorically beyond our experience in way that makes it hard to believe, at least as a scientific hypothesis. The jury is still out, but one thing is true. When we make macro judgments about physics and cosmology it is virtually impossible to distinguish between “physics” and “metaphysics.” This will continue to be an important point in our exploration. It seems we cannot help but collapsing into doing metaphysical work in these explorations, a point the religionist and the scientist should note.
- For many of us, as non-specialists in the field, taking the weird data in might boil down to a “…wow, ok, I trust that you’ve described it in all it’s weirdness, but what does this mean for religion on the ground?” Tripp and Philip gave some great starting points to conversations relating to what this interconnected energetic as opposed to isolated participles understanding of the universe might mean for spirituality, prayer, etc. I’m curious if that got any additional thoughts or questions going for you all…What might this interconnectedness mean for God’s relationship with other creatures, matter itself?
- Both Tripp and Philip made mention of shortcomings, or potential inadequacies, with the divine action at the quantum level model. Does it shrivel divine action down too small? Does make God complicit in evil God could have prevented with an alternate tweak of this or than collection of quantum material? It’s interesting how these two kinds of critiques represent what’s often described of opposing views of divine causation: it’s either too restrictive of God–relegates God to the literal minutia of life or too enabling–gives God too much ability to stop horrible things and so must be deciding not to. My sense is, the more appealing view for Philip and Tripp will be one which re-conceives God and God’s action not in terms of ‘outside-working-in’ ventures into the quantum (but in some other register or mode) and leans more heavily on God’s inability to prevent evil. We’ll have to wait and see though! Do you all feel similarly forced into rethinking the whole paradigm of does this simultaneously restrictive and enabling model seem promising?
*[changes to this post are most reservedly mine - R.E. Slater]
"The indeterminacy described here (sic, Russell/Murphy) is one of invoking God as manipulating the freedom found in creation on a quantum level rather than on a macro level. This would imply the resurrection of the old (Newtonian) theological argument for materialistic determinism. However this is to misunderstand quantum physics. God does not intrude at the quantum level - as some theologians would speculate - but shows His creation to be fully, and truly, free and undetermined even at the quantum level. Hence, Relevancy22 has promoted this latter understanding and not the former in order to distinguish what materialistic/cosmic freedom either means or doesn't mean. The reader may find these ideas more fully described in my other postings under the "Science and the Universe" sidebars, or in the "Indexes" sidebar, along with a selection of theological arguments under Arminianism, Miracles, Virgin Birth, or "An Open Faith," for instance.
Secondly, questions of miracles, divine sovereignty, prayer, etc, are no less reduced but become part of the divine mystery between the relationship that our Creator God has with His creation and ourselves (as part of His creation). This is most keenly seen in the Holy Spirit's ministry of conviction, illumination, obedience within an individual's life. We offer no solutions nor explanations to these divine works of God except to disavow materialistic determinism at any level - whether via classical physics or quantum physics. Rather, as classic physics shows to us the macro-ordering of God's creation (even in the biologic nature of life: sic, evolution's chemistry for instance), so too has quantum physics shown to us the micro-indeterminacy of God's creation (including the biologic interconnectedness of life: sic, the evolution of the human conscience or psyche). That is, there are established scientific laws we see operative throughout creation including even that of the psychological, sociological, cultural, etc. But to these observations are observed established quantum physic laws whose very outlay and purview resonate with the laws of uncertainty, randomness, and indeterminacy. Which are also outliers to humanity's interrelatedness within our own soul, mind, heart, passions, and social relatedness to one another and this Earth.
What may we conclude from all of this? That each type of physics - whether macro/physics or micro/physics - have their own kind of scientific laws. But, within each world of the large, or the small, we have profoundly discovered a radical reconstitution of our own expectations. Our senses and logic are constantly betrayed by a quantum physics that makes everything seem very curious, and extremely strange. And from these observations one may only conclude that neither God, nor His creation, are as "explainable" or as "understandable" as we once had thought within our realms of classical studies. It leaves room for mystery. For God's divine mystery. And for the mystery of life in its openness and freedom. Its marvel and portend. We are not determined. More importantly, we are indetermined and free to choose, to recreate, to remake upon God's hand of provide. And by His Holy Spirit's empowerment and embrace.
- R.E. Slater
Index to past discussions -