vol 6: Essays
Physics and theology
Last year on the occasion of the Papal visit the ABC kindly gave me airtime to ridicule some Roman Catholic beliefs and point out the extreme hazard of guiding our lives by ancient books written when life was different from now. The Church that stole God (June 2008)
Rubbishing the old and obsolete is easy. Replacing it is difficult, but it must be done. Marx called religion the opium of the people, and many still believe him, but opium or not religion is a fact of life and cannot be lightly dismissed. The Bureau of Statistics classified religion as a subset of culture, and I will go along with that. Using a computer analogy, I say that religion is the operating system of culture.
Windows is an operating system, as is the Macos and the mother of then all, Unix. Although Windows and Mac are brands, Unix is generic. The operating system basically handles communications between a computer and the rest of the world. For a computer, the rest of the world falls into two parts, the user, often a human, and the network to which it is connected. So the operating system handles the keyboard and monitor, the memories and all the other infrastructure which enables higher level programs in the computer to do their work.
Now and then I feel intensely how far the Catholic Church carried me away from reality. This feeling contrasts with my wonderful new view of reality which leads me to see the Universe as divine. A kindly light. We often see the world as damaged and evil because our minds have been corrupted by a self serving priesthood. As the power of the priesthood wanes, there is a choice for all of us to see that we and the world are divine, and to ponder the consequences.
The 'special creation' approach to humanity establishes a dichotomy within the Universe parallel to the dichotomy between God and the World. We are exiles, strangers in a strange land, sinners in a world damaged by our sin. All this palaver is politically motivated to keep people down and maintain the position and the perquisites of the ruling class.
Last year I spoke here about the way the Catholic Church has laid claim to God, stealing our common property for its own benefit. Now I want to get down to the nitty gritty of religion. First a working definition: religion is the set of tools we use to navigate through life.Navigation has a fascinating history, and one general picture has emerged. To navigate successfully, one needs a frame of reference, a big picture or map, and some means of discovering where one is on the map. On Earth, one can navigate successfully using the fixed stars, a map, an ephemeris and a clock or, these days, a phone.
The question facing religion is: how do we navigate in the much more complex space of human existence? Terrestrial and astronomical navigation is largely based on mathematics. Most people seem to have negative memories of their mathematical education, but there is no doubt that mathematics shines wonderful light on the workings of the world. Your bank account, after all, is really only an embodiment of arithmetic.
In particular mathematics is a foundation of science and engineering. In both disciplines, people dream up things that might be by making mathematical models. These models are then compared to reality to see if they fit. Newton’s mathematical explanation of the behaviour of the solar system is an outstanding example of this approach. With the benefit of hindsight, Einstein did even better, showing us the structure of the whole Universe.
Philosophers will tell you we cannot be sure of anything, but modern science has some pretty solid certainties. The theories of quantum mechanics and relativity, and their child, trickily named quantum field theory, seem to fit the world quite beautifully. We are witnessing an explosion in technology deeply rooted in these findings of physics.
What has this got to do with religion? Science and technology feed off one another. Religion is a technology, a toolkit. The correspoding science is theology the study of God. Traditionally, God and the world have been considered separate, and our only contact with God has been through books allegedly written under his or her inspiration.
I propose that God and the World are identical. I imagine a look of horror on many faces, and I sympathize. It has taken me forty years to transform from a believing Dominican monk to my present 'heresy'.
If the Universe is God, God is not invisible; in fact every human experience becomes experience of the divine, and we can approach God empirically in the same way as we approach physics, making mathematical models and testing them.
Mathematical theology comes from the same stable as mathematical physics. The most famous Christian theologian of all time Thomas Aquinas, began his final treatise with five (now famous) proofs for the existence of God. These proofs all take the same line: the world cannot explain itself. Since it is here, there must be an explanation, which we shall call God.
Is it true that the world cannot explain itself, or is it just a faith based assumption? Are Christians so wary of evolution because it explains how our Universe grew from an undifferentiated point to the magnificent structure we now see? Christians see humanity as outside God, trying to get in. The alternative is that we are inside God, parts of the divinity.
Nice idea but how do we model God mathematically? It might be objected that mathematics is about numbers, and God is far above that sort of thing. Let us see. First, we envisage mathematics not as the hieroglyphics that one finds in mathematics books, but the community of mathematicians, a network of people sharing ideas just like fishers or drug dealers. If we think about it, everything in the world is part of a gigantic network. A natural model for the space of human existence is a computer network.
Our deepest theory of the world is quantum mechanics. It tells us that at the fundamental level the world proceeds in steps. The size of each step is one quantum of action. Because these quanta are so tiny compared to us, we see things as smooth and continuous. But if we listen to a Geiger counter, we get an idea of how the world actually works at the tiniest level.
Why is the world quantized? The reason, it seems to me, is because it is a communication network. The internet and all their modern developments in communication rest squarely on the mathematical theory of communication, which explains to us how we can send messages with almost absolute certainty over error prone communication links.
To me, this theory illuminates the central miracle of existence. Through it we can see how the activities of a vast number of quantum systems can be fashioned into things which (from an atomic point of view) are huge and alive, like ourselves and the Earth.
The first key idea of communication theory is that the greater the distance between different messages, the less likely they are to be confused. The second key idea is that, given efficient coding, as messages grow longer they get further apart. The distance between them grows exponentially with length and the probability of error decreases in proportion. Messages become clearly discrete, that is quantized.
If we model the Universe as a communication network, we can see that it is big and powerful enough to be called God.
Mathematics is the study of maps and its central issue has always been how to make a map of the continuous natural line using numbers. While this might seem simple enough it inspired Georg Cantor to invent set theory and the transfinite numbers that arise by permutation (mapping sets onto themselves).
Although we are accustomed to our maps being much smaller thast the landscape mapped, this is not necessary. The wonders of radio enabled the Goons to carry a full sized map of London around with them on their adventures.
Cantor's transfinite numbers give us the foundations of a map of unbounded size that we can use to find our way around inside God.
The most important role of God is creation. Communication networks have memory. Indeed, from an abstract point of view, a communication network nothing but a set of memories changing one another by exchanging messages.
By looking into the universal memory we see creation in action. What we see is a very complex system which began nearly fourteen billion years ago as an undifferentiated point called the initial singularity. The mathematical definition of this point makes it look very similar to the classical God described by Aristotle and Aquinas. It is perfectly simple, without place, parts or motion, the eternal source of everything.
The natural sciences are continually working toward global unity because the world they are studying is one. Scientific theologians, studying the one divine Universe, will also be moved to unity. Their work might lay a scientific foundation for global religious harmony and peace on earth.
From my point of view, the world we see is God’s body. Every event in space-time reveals more of God’s personality. We learn about each other through body language. Not just touch and gesture, but speech and song, anger and violence. The path to God is the same, not just a few ancient texts, but the activity of whole world.