Physics and the Idea of God
“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17
We often invoke the idea of God to deal with questions we cannot answer in any other way, questions such as why there is something rather than nothing, or why things happen the way they do.1 But in an age when science explains so much of what happens without supernatural intervention, where is the evidence for a transcendent God with a plan? What powers can God have to act on that plan, other than those governed by the natural laws? Surprisingly, the way physics describes the deep universal interactions of matter and energy may provide a clue as to how God can act in and through the ordinary objects of this world – both in ways that we partially understand and in other ways for which we have only religious intuitions.
Long ago, many people imagined that the way things happened involved supernatural agents – much like humans, but more powerful – calling the shots in the areas under their control, whether wind or fire, love or war. An overall god-in-charge, God with a capital G, created and ruled over everything through lesser gods in a great chain of being. Humans occupied a place somewhere between the immortal gods and the rest of the transitory created world. As the recipients of whatever good or evil trickled down according to the whims of those above them in the hierarchy, humans were careful to placate the gods, while at the same time lording it over everything else. Gradually, however, physics and the other sciences have discovered natural explanations for things originally thought to be the work of God or lesser gods. For example, thunder is no longer thought to be the sound of gods bowling in heaven. Things fall to the earth as they do because their vertical speed always changes at approximately the same constant rate. An arrow finds its target by ways that can be understood mathematically, if not always very precisely, not because some god has it in for some unfortunate warrior. Many of the lesser gods have simply disappeared, remaining only as metaphors in stories, leaving God with very little to do on a day-to-day basis.
Indeed, as physicist Paul Davies has pointed out, natural laws now seem to be invested with the qualities once ascribed to God: absolute, universal, infinite, eternal, and omniscient.2 Some choose to abandon the idea of God altogether. Others think of God as having created our universe and its natural laws but now being essentially absent. Perhaps we can instead think of God as continuing to work in ways resembling the ways in which we currently think the natural laws work.
What sort of thing is a natural law? Take gravity. It is not a “thing” at all. It has no mass or energy of its own, yet it directs the behavior of objects that possess mass and energy. The result is that the velocities of things change as if pushed by forces. For example, in an elevator accelerating upward, you feel a strong downward force, but without looking out a window you cannot tell whether the force of gravity has grown stronger or simply that the elevator is accelerating upward. In the extreme case of free fall, you feel “weightless.” Indeed, the principle that the effects of gravity are indistinguishable from acceleration lies at the heart of Einstein’s theory of gravity. It is as if every concentration of matter is constrained to accelerate towards every other concentration of matter. This description, which has so far passed every experimental test, is absolute in that it does not depend on who is looking. It is universal in that it applies in all situations, with a few extreme exceptions. It is infinite in that it applies everywhere, or almost everywhere. It is eternal in the sense of not varying at all with time, and it is omniscient in the sense that nothing can escape its grasp. Gravity is also creative. On a large scale, it draws matter together into galaxies. In galaxies it pulls matter into stars, holding the stars together as they cook up the heavy elements needed for carbon-based life and radiate energy to drive the processes that develop on planets.
The description provided by Einstein’s theory of gravity is enormously useful in describing what gravity does, but it cannot be trusted at very short distances because it is inconsistent with the quantum theory of how things behave at very short distances. Like most of our theories, our theory of gravity is tentative and approximate, but nonetheless trustworthy in describing a wide range of behaviors. For example, we believe that gravity plays a role in the signaling within the cells of our bodies. It is only our current understanding of gravity that seems unreliable at the very short distances at which the tiniest particles combine and are held together to form the atoms and molecules of ordinary matter. At those distances, a theory of “strong interactions” describes the way particles called quarks are combined and held together to make the heavier elementary particles, while a theory of “electroweak interactions” describes the interactions of light with the lighter elementary particles. On the larger scale of atoms and molecules, these theories themselves give way to ordinary quantum mechanics. On an even larger scale, and as more and more atoms and molecules are involved, other ordering principles come into play. One of the most striking of these larger scale ordering principles describes the relationships that persist among atomic particles long after they seem to have separated from each other. A common thread throughout all these descriptions is the suggestion that at one level or another, everything seems to be related to everything else.
There are other examples from physics suggesting a profound unity underlying the organization and behavior of all matter and energy. The patterns of wavelengths in the light from distant stars indicate that all ordinary matter is made of the same elements obeying the same force laws. We believe that the light from distant stars has traveled for billions of years before reaching us, so we seem to find precisely the same material and natural laws throughout all the space and time accessible to us. The strengths of the different kinds of interactions among elementary particles seem to be intricately related to each other. For example, if the strength of the strong interactions had differed by the minutest amount, less than a billionth of a percent, relative to the strength of the electroweak interactions, stars would produce far too little carbon to support life as we know it. Even such disparate quantities as the strength of gravity and the original rate of expansion of the universe seem to be delicately balanced. Had gravity been just a
little weaker, the stuff of the early universe would have blown apart without creating galaxies; a little stronger and the universe would have collapsed back on itself well before life could have developed. Moreover, there is a mysterious similarity in the deep mathematical structure of the elementary particle and gravity theories as we understand them. It seems that everything is related to everything else and holds together for our benefit in ways that we do not yet fully understand, as if there is indeed an underlying unity in some way responsible for the fruitfulness of our universe.
That could be just good luck. There might be an infinite number of ways it could have been otherwise, but in our universe, everything happened to turn out just right. We drew the winning lottery ticket. But from a religious point of view the underlying unity and fruitfulness of our universe could reflect the will and work of God. In that case, the way in which we think the natural laws work suggests a new way of thinking about God and how God may act in the world: energizing, guiding, and holding all things together. Notice that the interactions we have been discussing work from within. If they represent ways in which God is working, they are not top-down from “outside,” but bottom-up from within, intricately involved in every earthly process. As we have said already about gravity, these interactions are not “things.” The descriptions are like information that is active, words with consequences. It is as if the word of God breaks in from another dimension, creating and holding things together.
Notice also that our current understanding of the interactions we have been discussing does not tell it all. There are inconsistencies. There is order and behavior we do not yet understand. If we think of what we know as describing what God does, it is as if we know a few of the ways God breaks into our world, a few names for what God does. There may be many other ways in which God works that we do not yet understand.
This way of thinking is not intended as an argument for the existence of God. Nor is it intended to put God in some kind of box defined by our current understanding of physics. It is intended only as a way of thinking about how God may work in the world, if there is a God working in the world, that seems to be consistent with current physics. It may also have something to say about how God may be involved in other areas for which we have religious ideas but do not yet have scientific descriptions.
Consider, for example, the efficacy of prayer. Spending a few selfless moments praying for others is surely beneficial in helping the person praying to express deep concerns. There is also a chance that when you pray for someone, you may find something that you or someone else can do for that person, be it only to write a note of encouragement. But beyond that individualistic way of thinking about prayer, consider how everything is related to everything else. Everything you do, even what you are thinking, is part of the whole, and what is the whole but the interactions of parts in a mix greater than their sum? If God underlies everything – guiding, activating and holding everything together – perhaps we can think, in anthropomorphic terms, of God hearing and acting on what we pray.
What about judgment and the afterlife? If everything is somehow related to everything else, then nothing that is done is ever lost. What we do affects everything that happens next. What we do may not completely determine what happens next, but it sets parameters and has consequences. Once done, what we do cannot be undone. Our actions pass outside of time, becoming eternal. In a sense then, you become what you are eternally by what you do in your relationships with others and with the universe as a whole, for better or for worse, with the plan or against it.
Plan? Life on our planet does seem to be developing towards greater complexity and consciousness. Some think of that as inevitable progress, drawing us forward to some kind of perfection. Yet, astronomy and physics suggest that the kind of life in play now cannot persist forever in this universe. If our universe does not eventually collapse back on itself and disappear in a big crunch, its energy will eventually cool to temperatures too low to support life as we know it. If we are being drawn forward, it is not to an existence like this one only better. If there is eternal significance to what we are and what we do, it will follow from what we contribute to the well-being of the world as we find it. If so, we would do well to pay attention to the rules of fruitful engagement as revealed by intuitions of God’s will that are consistent with science.
1This essay is based on an interview with Charles W. Fox at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown on Sunday, November 21, 2010.
2Paul Davies, The Mind of God, New York: Orion Publications, 1992, p.82.
Stuart Crampton ’58 attended Oxford University on a Williams fellowship and earned his Ph.D at Harvard before coming here in 1965 to teach Physics. He and Chaplain Rick Spalding direct the North Berkshire Center for Religion and Science.Tags: Christian, Einstein, evil, God, gravity, paradox, physics, prayer, professor, religion, science, Stuart Crampton, Williams College