God, Physics, and Salvation: What Are We Supposed to Know?

This Christmas, I was thrilled to receive two books by theoretical physicists: Brian Greene’s “The Hidden Reality” and Stephen Hawking’s “The Grand Design.” As I was unwrapping these lovelies, my father pointed out that they both sound more like books on theology than science.

He’s right. Stephen Hawking noted the same thing on the inside cover of “The Grand Design”: “The most fundamental questions about the origin of the universe and of life itself, once the province of philosophy, now occupy the territory where scientists, philosophers, and theologians meet–if only to disagree.”

And disagree they do. Religious and spiritual writers argue that recent discoveries in quantum physics and cosmology actually prove the truth of a universal, all-knowing consciousness and an intelligent creator who designed the universe to produce life. All the while, the physicists who made these very discoveries say that their equations describe a universe far stranger, one that is decidedly not compatible with conventional religion.

This argument is of great personal interest to me. From toddlerhood onward, devoured every bit of science available to me. For many years I was at once ardently scientific and ardently religious, devouring books on biology, physics, theology, and the lives of the saints side-by-side.

Not until high school did a contradiction become apparent; and this contradiction led to the loss of the faith I was raised with, ultimately driving a wedge between myself and my salvation-oriented family. So whenever I hear these claims of proof–or disproof–of divine intervention, I pay attention.

And physics in recent years is rife with these claims. Quantum physics seems to show that conscious observation has a unique and instantaneous effect on matter; some have even suggested that in order for reality to exist, everything must be under constant observation by some universal consciousness. And cosmology seems to show that either our universe was “fine tuned” to allow our type of life to arise–or that we are part of an inconceivably vast multiverse.

The striking thing about all of this, even more than what has been discovered, is what hasn’t been discovered. The laws of physics practically guarantee that we will never know whether the multiverse theory is true or whether our universe is the only finely-tuned cosmos in existence. The universe seems almost painstakingly designed to keep us in the dark.

This speaks to another religious claim. The salvation religions teach that only believers are assured a pleasant afterlife; they see belief itself as both a gift and an important moral virtue, while unbelief puts one’s immortal soul at risk. Because of this, Christianity and Islam have spread across the world like wildfire, their missionaries believing that spreading faith is the most profound humanitarian work possible.

But if the question of our creation is eternally unsolvable–if divine versus random creation turns out to be impossible to confirm through experimentation–what does that tell us about salvation through faith?

Our circumstances seem to mean that any certainty about God must be based on one of two things: our own personal experience, or the belief in the words of other humans. Such certainty must, in other words, be unscientific. Is there any way it makes sense for unscientific faith to be a virtue?

Now that I’ve posed the questions that have been pressing on me, let’s talk more about physics, and why the truth about Creation seems to be so carefully hidden from us.

In this story, quantum physics is an interesting side note. I won’t talk about it here because quantum physics does not speak to the question of our creation–only, possibly, to other religious teachings like free will and the existence of a universal consciousness.

What does speak directly to the question of our creation is, of course, studies of the beginning of our Universe.

We’ve long since realized that the Universe is billions of years old, that Earth itself didn’t come into existence for billions of years after its creation, and that humans didn’t come into existence for billions of years after that. That doesn’t mean that a God didn’t set the whole thing into motion. We’ve long since concluded that humans did not appear in one day, having been made from scratch by an intelligent designer; that doesn’t mean that “a few billion years of evolution” isn’t a day’s work in the view of an eternal God.

And what physics has discovered in recent years does seem to lead to an almost religious conclusion. As it turns out, there are four fundamental forces (maybe five, if you count the Higgs field) underlying all properties and interactions of matter in this universe. And if any of them were even slightly stronger or weaker, life as we know it could not exist here.

This discovery of the “fine tuning” of our universe for life has led to a revival of the old Watchmaker argument: the fundamental laws of physics of our universe are complex. They’re also seemingly perfectly designed to allow stars to form and biochemistry to happen. The only logical; indeed, the only scientific conclusion, is that the universe was brilliantly designed with the creation of life in mind.

Not so fast. There are, in fact, two possibilities here: it’s possible that all of creation does, by accident or design, have precisely the right physical laws to allow life as we know it to exist. It’s also possible that many universes exist, each with different physical laws, and ours just happens to have all its laws properly in place to support our kind of life.

The claim of many universes is a bold one. To some, it seems utterly illogical; how much do these physicists want to refute the existence of God, that they’d rather postulate an infinite number of other universes based on precisely zero evidence?

Well, it’s not exactly zero evidence. “Evidence” in the sense of actual experimental findings, yes; we’ve never had a shred of physical evidence ot suggest that other universes do exist. But it turns out that this is precisely the result we’d expect whether other universes exist or not; if they do, almost by definition, they can have no contact with us.

And the math supports their existence. It turns out that multiple theories of physics–almost all of them, in fact–have come to the conclusion that the existence of other universes is quite possible, if not a certainty.

The mathematics of quantum physics suggests that a huge number of parallel universes may exist, each ruled by different outcomes of the probability waves and particle locations we observe here.

The mathematics of inflationary theory suggests that it’s entirely possible that multiple big bangs have happened within an ever-expanding multiverse; if the standard model of physics is right, each inflationary event would give rise to a universe with different laws of physics.

The mathematics of string theory suggests that our own universe’s spacetime may in fact be just one shape in a cosmos of many multidimensional blobs, each with their own laws of physics.

Some theories even suggest that universes could reproduce, and that their laws of physics could be subject to evolution by natural selection–this stems from the mathematics of black holes and their parallels to Big Bang-producing singularities.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of this is it’s entirely possible that all of these types of parallel universes exist. These theories are not incompatible: in fact, they are all part of the same framework, and will all likely be incorporated in the Theory of Everything that seeks to mathematically explain all of the laws of physics. There could be an infinity of infinities of infinities–of course, after the first “infinity,” none of the others make any real difference anyway.

And the most frustrating part is that we may never know if any of these types of parallel universes really exist. The lightspeed limit means we’ll never be able to see far enough from our own neighborhood to confirm or refute the existence of other Big Bangs.

If certain parallel universes turn out to have very particular physical properties, we may be able to deduce their existence from the results of particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider–but it’s also entirely possible that they may exist and be undetectable to our technology.

The idea of parallel universes may seem preposterous and unnecessary–but then, so do many other theories of physics that have been confirmed as true through experimental results.

And this does throw an interesting light on the question of salvation through faith. An intelligent Creator or Universal consciousness may or may not exist. But if He/She/It does, it seems to have gone out of its way to keep us from guessing whether we live in a human-centric universe or an indifferent once, and whether we owe our existence to intelligent design or random chance.

What do you think?

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9 Responses to God, Physics, and Salvation: What Are We Supposed to Know?

  1. shaunphilly says:

    I think, as a skeptic, it is irrational to believe something until there is reason to think it. I have seen no argument (and I have been looking for more than 10 years as a writer and academic in philosophy, atheism, and religion) which supports believing in any gods, deistic or otherwise. Yes, some deistic god may exist, but until I see reason to accept that proposition, I do not. Thus, I’m an atheist (also agnostic, but that’s redundant since everyone is, technically).

    I think that a person who believes in a god, universal consciousness, or any other universal intelligence is believing something for bad reasons, or (more likely) for no actual reason except the cultural tradition of being raised to believe so.

    In any case, it was a fair analysis of the relevant questions.

  2. Page 28 says:

    This was a super-refreshing post to read…especially since I’ve been writing on similar topics. But really, you rarely run into someone who can talk about this stuff without so unabashedly presuming one opinion mighty and the other foolish.

    I’ve been talking about this with my friends recently as well. Our universe does seem to be so absurdly well-designed in such a way that we can not guess as to whether it indeed was designed or not, hah. I think I agree with what you seem to be inferring though. The multiverse idea could certainly throw a nihilistic wrench in any hopes of theology, but without it, ex nihilo creation sounds even crazier. Could you perhaps explain what you’ve read where the math really backs up/necessitates the idea of the multiverse though? I understand the logic, and it seems one of the better propositions to me, but it also seems very much like a logic-equivalent of god for atheists to me. With other universes being completely unexperiencable, this seems much like magic wand , and I for one, am seriously skeptical of magic wands. Physicists may like it because it upholds materialism, but I don’t see why it is any more logically tenable than the less deterministic ideas of quantum.

    I also can imagine reasons why some sort of god would hide himself, and indeed, I think either by definition of his nature or by conscious intention, it is clear that this is so on a basic scale. Whether there is a god or this is no god, it is a complex question, and I wish more people realized just how much logic asks us to sit on the fence while but a slight breeze could push us to either side.

    • kagmi says:

      So nice to hear you enjoyed this post! I look forward to reading some of yours. I’m always eager to hear more perspectives on these questions.

      Unfortunately, in my reading I haven’t been able to figure out the true reason physicists propose these parallel universes. Because I have no concept of the underlying mathematics, I’m hesitant to call a foul, but I do sometimes get the sense from reading their explanations that these ideas might really come from a strong effort to avoid divine explanations–physicists hate not being able to explain why something does or does not happen with pure math and random chance, so their very way of thinking seems to preclude any divine explanations from entering in.

      The logic behind the quantum parallel universes, for example, seems to be just that there’s no mathematical reason for one outcome of a particles’ wavefunction to be chosen over another, no reason mathematical reason to say one thing happens and another doesn’t. So the explanation they offer is that every possible outcome does in fact happen–in a different parallel universe. I do get a distinct vibe of “we don’t want to say anything that could be construed as talking about divine intervention” when I read these explanations.

      Again, though, I don’t feel I can really speak to how firmly-grounded these theories are without understanding the math behind them. And I must say, we’ve discovered enough seemingly-bizarre things in physics to make me question my ability to judge what’s “normal” from the universe’s perspective. If space in our own universe is potentially infinite, and we inhabit only a tiny corner of it, what’s to say a larger multiverse is any more unlikely?

      Another thing I find important to muse about is the nature of any possible “God.” Many people seem to dismiss the possibility of a universal consciousness or a conscious creator because they instantly associate it with the anthropomorphic versions of God put forth by the salvation religions. Start talking about a Creator or Universal Consciousness that is not human-like and who does not place great importance on us believing in it, and your average atheist becomes much more comfortable.

  3. Page 28 says:

    Also a quick response to shaunphilly, as I see that statement crop up often. It is very easy to say “There is simply no reason to believe in it” and thus by neutrality, not doing so. However, I believe that premise is pretty subjective. To you there may be little reason, but for some (myself included), it is difficult to describe the universe as is without a god (not impossible…but I do admit its difficulty). That itself is a reason, or better said a “suggestion.” Secondly, I recognize the many psychological reasons that people could conjure up false supernatural experiences, but even not having had one myself, I can not be so arrogant to believe that every single person on this earth who has had one was either fooled, deluded, or crazy. That is another suggestion.

    What it really amounts to is how suggestive this suggestions are to you, hah, but I think presuming others to believe in god for bad, cultural, or no reason doesn’t paint the picture of reality very well.

  4. Page 28 says:

    Agreed on many accounts. It is indeed hard to avoid the mental trap of “this seems silly so surely it mustn’t be so.” Much of the crazy stuff though still seems logical to me, but conditioning and raising…heh, who can speak with utmost confidence against these? All the same, I just don’t get how the parallel universes are the mathematically logical solution. How can we describe only from data within our world a system that is outside our own and has no interaction whatso-freaking-ever with ours? How do you mathematically define a universe when we do not have enough knowledge to so appropriately do so to ours? Wouldn’t it require a sufficient definition in order to say “the math falls that from our equation of a ‘beginning’ that multiple results would come out”? I’m not astrophysicist, so maybe this is just beyond me and I should cede to their wisdom, but I can’t rule common sense out of the picture completely. I’ve also always heard it said that the burden of proof is on the theist. I understand this when you are taking a position of simply not knowing, but when it comes down to god vs multiple universes, I think the burden of proof is on both.

    And yeah, as far as a nonanthropomorphic god…heh, I can not imagine “it” any other way. Maybe it has somehow evolved in part to what we would view more anthropomorphically, but god as a force or even more kind of an objective makes more sense to me given the world we currently experience. After all, the only way for me to suppose that god is indeed an entity is for me to see “him” act like one. I’m just not convinced on this yet. Maybe one day though.

  5. Page 28 says:

    All in all actually, I think we might could have a “suggestive” answer if somehow we were able to really interpret a couple of things: one being the real meaning of quantum and the other being the size of our universe. Personally I think these have huge amounts of philosophical weight. For instance, if QM really did infer the importance of a conscious observer, then the lines for nonmaterialistic thinking (a la god) are quite open. If the “many-world” interpretation holds true (geeze, how would we prove this), then it seems to me that all is nihilism hah. Also, if we could definitively say that the universe is finite in mass, then logically we would search for a reason for this specificity (it doesn’t need be god per say, but I think it wouldn’t harm the argument). On the other hand, if the universe is infinite (how would we measure this?), then we would at least have our own example of infinite worlds that might make us more prone to believe in the multiverese as well.

    Conversely, it could turn out that logic is just completely futile, the universe makes no sense, and there’s no point in all this philosophy. Or it could even be that god did indeed exist but he made an infinite number of universes (he’s infinite right?) and so it will look to us that he isn’t so.

    And then we’ll never know.
    I think most people fail to appreciate how freaking crazy our situation is, and I really do have to wonder if indeed it is set up in such that we just can’t know.

    That damn faith thing though, hah, I’m still too stubborn for it. 🙂

    • kagmi says:

      Agreed. All of these questions are so thorny. It seems that most of the kinds of parallel universes come out of assuming that our Universe is not unique–that if a Big Bang followed by inflation happened once, it could easily do so again. That if one quantum probability is realized here, another might be elsewhere. That if the our Universe has X cosmological constant, another universe may have a different one.

      I suppose I mean “anthropomorphic” as a relative term. I certainly can’t conceive of an utterly different consciousness. But the way many religions attribute strictly human evolved responses like jealousy to God–I think evidence suggests that any God that does exist is probably not jealous. I do like playing with the question of what exactly consciousness consists of…do you need drives and desires to be conscious?

      I really need to get a better answer about the quantum observer question. I had one physicist tell me once that using it to infer anything about consciousness or free will was a gross misuse of the equations and “the reason quantum physics should only be published in Latin,” but he never really explained why that was the case. I keep saying I’m going to hunt down a physicist and make him explain, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

  6. Page 28 says:

    I took a class on QM (ok, really it was biophysical chemistry, but our professor was QM obsessed and just left the whole biology side out hah), so I feel at least confident enough to say that what that physicist told you was BS. Doesn’t it sound all too much like the good ol Catholic empiricism over spiritual knowledge back in history? I think what he should have said is that to pose an answer for the observer question at this time is but speculation. The fact that the observer question exists, however, is something that I believe everyone should be shown.

    Now on the other hand, maybe I’m wrong, as I’ve heard physicists who claim there’s nothing nondeterministic or nonmaterialistic about the observer deal who simultaneously don’t buy into the many-world’s theory. I also haven’t heard any of such physicist be able to explain why to me with any satisfaction. The best I’ve heard are attempts at what sounds like they’re trying to say that the superposition interacts with the observing apparatus and therefore causes it to pick that possibility, presumably because the information of that “picking” is contradictory to the superposition (and thus necessitates the decoherence). I think this view is naive, anthropomorphic, and simply unwilling to look at the whole situation. For instance, the wave could also interact with any other matter in the system (say the particle gun or the slit itself in the double-slit experiment). Why is the interaction with the observation device special? Is it because the “information?” That’s only information to us. The wave interacting with the matter of the walls of the chamber is also contradictory to, say, the interference pattern of the double-slit experiment. Thus it’s no wonder to me that, despite how crazy it may sound, the many-world interpretation seems to be gaining in popularity.

    But I feel you on the anthropomorphic god. The question of what consciousness consists of is obviously super interesting to me if you read my last post. Suffice it to say, however, I think we should look at god with as few preconceptions as possible.

  7. Page 28 says:

    (I’ll admit I’m being unfair and hypocritical in calling that view naive…simply unwilling… hah. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves : / )

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