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vol 6: Essays

An essay on physical theology

Essay submitted to the Dubai Strategy Forum writing competition, October 2002.


1. Summary
2. Theology
3. Physics
4. Physical Theology
5. Strategy
6. An Initiative

1. Summary

Experience shows that driving with closed eyes invites disaster. Reliable visual knowledge is essential to success in traffic space. More generally, we need reliable knowledge to navigate in the space of life. Our need to see one another and our planetary and cosmic environment is daily becoming more obvious. It seems clear that we need globalisation of knowledge to arrive at a common solution to our global problems.

In every human tradition that I know of, theology, in one form or another, provides the primary guiding light. It shows a big picture in which we can all see where we fit in. This fit provides a guide to action.

Since we evolved in Africa, we may have developed as many theologies as we have languages. A global theology must be one that is common to all languages. To do this for theology, we follow the path of science, which adjoins special technical language to natural language to express its concepts.

The plan here is to to use the technical languages of mathematics and physics to illustrate a network model of the physical world. Then we move beyond physics to the wider space of human spirit. Our move is made possible by the properties of networks. Networks can exist at any scale; networks can be made of networks and be part of other networks. One point may be part of many networks. Networks can imitate one another. On consideration the network model seems as versatile and intuitive as set theory.

Most importantly, we may draw ethical conclusions from the constraints imposed by the layered nature of real world networks. Networks do not work if higher ('softer') layers do not respect the protocols of the lower ('harder') layers upon which they are built. In particular, this potential error illustrates the danger of communities violating the rights of the people upon which they are built. back

2. Theology

In my Christian tradition, science and theology parted company in the days of Galileo (1564 -1642). This partition arose from disagreements about the identification of trustworthy knowledge. In Galileo's world the Church said: 'trust divine revelation, embodied in the Bible and your Church'.

Galileo said: 'let us learn to read the book of nature'. He added that this book appears to be written in mathematical language. Rewriting the book of nature in human language is now called science. Our scientific faith is that ultimately the world makes sense. We can see the sense when we understand how things work. Scientific faith also holds that open, evidence driven inquiry ultimately converges on truth.

Christian theology guarantees the intelligibility of the world by postulating an omnipotent, reasonable and loving god who specially created us to enjoy Him. Nature seems to tell a similar story. We enjoy a Universe that is built from simple beginnings whose intelligibility comes from the way it parts fit together. We read that we depend upon a complex Universe which began to evolve from a simple point about fifteen billion years ago.

Evolution shows that each of us sits somewhere in a tree of life that is rooted in the initial singularity. It gives historical meaning to the structure and relationships of the parts of the world. Although the origin of life remains shrouded in mystery, there seems to be no physical problem with it. Ordered structures (like ourselves) result from the contrast in entropy between the sunlight entering Earth and the cooler radiation leaving it.

Christians say that God is invisible. The alternative view here identifies god and the world. Revelation and experience become connected. The scientific way requires us to find evidence for (or against) our readings of the world. From the scientific point of view, all information is physically encoded. Observability is the foundation of scientific consensus, since we all inhabit the same world and can look at it for ourselves. If god and the world are one, science is part of theology. back

3. Physics

Physics is the archetypal science, with roots in the ancient world. Aristotle (384-322 bc) wrote on physics. His model of the world led him to postulate a first unmoved mover to explain change. Aristotle's teaching entered Christianity through Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224 -1274) and his contemporaries. Aquinas' proofs for the existence of god follow a similar path to Aristotle's argument for an unmoved mover: the visible world cannot explain itself. We must therefore postulate an invisible explanation, commonly called God.

Let us seek a similar path from modern physics to a new model of God. Physics has two foundations: relativity and quantum field theory (QFT). At the heart of relativity is the assumption that the laws of physics (including the speed of light) are the same for every freely moving observer. From this, using an imaginary (and imaginative) system of rods and clocks, Einstein was able to reveal the local structure of spacetime.

Further, he realised that a person falling in a gravitational field would not feel his own weight ('the happiest thought of my life'). Incorporating this idea in a mathematical model, Einstein was able to extrapolate from the local structure of spacetime to the structure of the whole Universe. His insights are supported by modern cosmology. Since the velocity of light is simply the velocity of communication, we see that the large scale structure of spacetime reflects the network of gravitational communication which binds the Universe.

To see how this works in detail, we turn to quantum field theory. QFT arises from the union of special relativity and quantum mechanics. Seen through the eyes of quantum information theory, quantum mechanics describes the processes of the world as a form of computation. Quantum processes communicate by exchanging particles.

The Universe as a whole is held together and shaped by the exchange of gravitons. The quarks in a proton are bound by exchanging gluons. Own own physical structure is communicated by photons. The structuring effects of communication are everywhere to be seen. back

4. Physical Theology

QFT is now the 'standard model' of the world. We have pictured the world of QFT as a network. The reason for choosing networks as an explanatory tool is that they are both intuitively familiar and mathematically as powerful as can be. Network structure has been used in theology before, in the theory of the Trinity published by Aquinas.

In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas first established that God exists. Then he studied properties of God which follow from observations and reasonable assumptions. Among these properties are simplicity and unity. Next he turned to the Trinity, a feature of God revealed in Christian tradition. As the Apostle's Creed says: 'I believe in God, The Father Almighty, . . . in Jesus Christ his only Son, . . . in the Holy Spirit, . . . . How can three distinct personalities be reconciled with the simplicity and unity of God?

Earlier, in his discussion of simplicity, Aquinas noted that God is so great that we can only speak of Him negatively, removing incompatible features. The task, then, is to devise a logically consistent model of the Trinity which fits all the revealed and observed evidence.

The model that Aquinas proposed arises from notions of generation and relationship. The Son is generated from the Father rather as a mental word is generated from the mind. The act of generation establishes the relationships of fatherhood and sonship which distinguish Father from Son without compromising divine unity. The mutual love of Father and Son generates the Holy Spirit.

We may envisage the Trinity so conceived as a network with persons for nodes and relationships for links. In conformity with Christian doctrine, Aquinas restricted the number of persons in the Trinity to three. A larger network operating on similar principles of generation and relationship could be conceived to embrace every 'personality' in the Universe from quark to galaxy and beyond.

The passage from physics to theology follows this important symmetry of networks: their basic structure is independent of their complexity. Networks may be nested and mapped to one another like the sets of set theory. We suggest that just as all of mathematics can be developed from set theory, so an understanding of the whole world can be developed from the the theory of communication networks. back

5. Strategy

When we learn to read, we learn to discern meaning in lines of physical symbols. Not just writing, but every physical structure can be read for its meaning. When we learn to write we learn to assemble written symbols for ourselves. When we learn to act (which comes long before writing) we learn to make physical assemblies, like games, meals or houses

Theology, like all science, has a practical purpose. Each theology provides a story of the world that serves to guide our behaviour. Christianity tells us that we are made in the image of God. We can readily agree with this proposition. The network model of God can be realised as a mathematical structure. Human networks find a place in this structure. In the light of physical theology, the basic developmental challenge facing the world today is to make sure that everybody is adequately connected into the networks of human life.

This leads to a grand strategy: we must make our networks so attractive that people will want to use them, thus enriching them and contributing to their growth. On the other hand, in the interests of justice, we must make it possible for people to leave failing networks in favour of those that are succeeding. The idea might be summed up in the phrase 'freedom of connection'.

One can only connect to a network if one can obey its protocols. A key to freedom of connection, then is 'community of protocols'. The recognition of a network theology is a step toward such community.

Perhaps it could become a principle of social symmetry that the wealth expended in trying to restrain dissident entities by force be matched by equal expenditure to embrace such entities by extending our networks. back

6. An Initiative

Theology explains and informs religion. Tithing is an ancient religious practice contributing to the welfare of a whole community. We are all by right peers in human networks. Every network user needs access to hardware. Right without power is worthless. In the modern world, this means that everybody needs income, To share money, therefore, is to share the power to be.

Let us imagine a system with the following features. A global fund is established with a life of (say) one month into which everyone may pay their tithe. At the end of every month, the sum of the fund (less certain costs) is disributed equally to all contributors. The effect of this (if people give in proportion to their income) will be to transfer money from rich to poor. With suitable means of personal identification and encryption, the operation of the fund may be secret and anonymous, enabling us to share our wealth privately.

You may feel that people will cheat. Some will pay their tithe and others won't. Maybe. But maybe, when we understand the enriching effect of expanding networks, we will find that the tithing fund is not only good for our souls, but good for business and the environment too. It seems obvious that a unit gain of wealth improves the lot of a poor person more than the loss of that same unit reduces the happiness of someone wealthy. The net human welfare is thus increased, and with it the value of our community to each of us. Finally, the failure tolerant nature of networks may guide us in the construction of societies that can survive hatred, violence, disease, deprivation and all the other evils we encounter in life. back


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