[NB I often reblog my older articles—those worth a read—from my previous, fleeting weblog addresses. Today I give you one of my most controversial articles addressing the issues of the belief in a higher presence: scientists, theism and atheism. I, for one, am quite the atheist although they are, where I live, the persona non grata!]
We have seen, and not rarely at that, that the sensitive question of the presence of god has been openly debated by physicists. And, unlike it may appear at first, not all have debated against it. Indeed we have had a good number of them who have been firm believers in a God.
From Newton, who was an ardent believer in a supreme deity (in fact this belief in the unseen was what made Newton fall so easily for an unseen force in nature he called gravity,) to Einstein, who often referred to God as the old man in his writings, some of the greatest minds in physics have been ardent believers in the existence of God.
Perhaps we have not seen them speak very often or be carried away by His existence, but this is not the only reason why people often picture physicists almost as atheists. The actual reason, as physicist Michio Kaku points out, is a slight misunderstanding. It is because, when physicists speak of a God, they speak of a God of a kind dramatically different from that which the common man refers to.
“Because the hyperspace theory has opened up new, profound links between physics and abstract mathematics, some people have accused scientists of creating a new theology based on mathematics.”
–Michio Kaku, in his book, Hyperspace
I find it rather surprising that I only recently read Hyperspace. But, in my defense, I was perhaps a little over one-year of age when the book was first written.
What particularly struck me about the book was its intense examination of science, society and religion towards the concluding end of the book.
‘We have rejected the mythology of religion,’ Kaku says, masterfully putting what I, myself, often tell many people, ‘only to embrace an even stranger religion based on curved space-time, particle symmetries and cosmic expansions.’
This is indeed true for it is not the first, and certainly will not be the last, time that any student of physics viewed his subject as his religion. While it may appear interesting to some to point out, at this juncture, at figures like Newton, we must understand that, while these physics giants did have extremely strong religious views and beliefs, they also studied physics with equal intensity.
I have brushed upon the question of physics replacing a Godly figure once before, in my earlier weblog, when I had commented on Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design (you can still read the article here.)
When I wrote that post there was a verbal cold war raging between Hawking and various factions siding with what I thought were extremist views of religion. The misquote (or perhaps misunderstanding, for that is one of the subtler talents of our media) of Hawking’s statement that the need for a supreme being has been replaced by physics, to mean physics has disproved the existence of God, kept fanatics of religion occupied for a good thirty days.
By the time the debate subsided (I would not say ended for nobody really knows which side won) Hawking’s book had shot to fame, I had read it, recommended it and reviewed it enough to know that what these two physicists had spoken of was really the unanimously approved idea among physics circles.
I had struggled with a good explanation for the concept because it was the kind that, while really being clear to us, was not something we could explain. But my struggle (not a literal one!) ended in rather a shock when I realised that the book that held a remarkable means of explanation of this idea had actually been written years ago. (This, in fact, reminded me of Veneziano’s and Suzuki’s stumbling upon mathematics that was decades old to explain a very modern problem–the string theory.)
Physicist Kaku’s idea, as he explains in his book, Hyperspace, is to create a distinction between the picture of God that scientists have in mind and the common man has in mind when debating this issue. He believes we can fork the word God as (i.e. to mean) either aGod of Miracles or a God of Order.
The common man’s idea of a God is of the God of Miracles. But, as is well-known, miracles being hardly periodic, or even repetitive for that matter, are out-of-bounds of the explanation of science. In science we only explain things that are periodic, or at least repetitive, simply because only such phenomena really aid our technique of questioning, observation, theorising, prediction and experimentation.
The God of Miracles is what is supposed to correct unfavourable situations out of the blue, is supposed to take care of things you have disregarded yourself and is supposed to help you get rid of reaping the rotten harvest you sowed. I trust I have made my point.
Now the God of Order is the God most scientists refer to when debating such matters and it is the God they believe the common man has in mind too.
Let me explain this with an example: Einstein was a firm believer, unto death, that there was a certain divine order in the universe; that there was a subtle principle governing the universe. He likened the universe, therefore, to marble. He said that what we ought to do is clear out what is existent on the surface and uncover this underlying order.
This strikes me to be somewhat along the same lines as the freemasonry belief of ordo ab chao, meaning order from chaos.
The God of Order, thus, is that divine being (if such a being does, indeed, exist) who is responsible for the order in the universe.
The pivotal aspect here is not in the type or the classification of a God, which might even seem blasphemous to some, but is in the fact that, while the God of Miracles cannot be explained by science–and indeed we do not even attempt to do so–the God of Order is what we have been trying to understand in all the thousands of years of studying physics.
The God of Order is synonymous to order in the universe, the laws, the concepts and the ideologies that exist in physics; and this is our attempt at understanding how this being (if, I repeat, indeed there is such a being) works–and it is possible merely because, within our known, visible universe, this God of Order has a remarkably constant manner of functioning.
Our exploits, be it classical physics, relativistic physics or string theory, all are attempts (I daresay they are quite successful ones) at understanding how things work.
Some have asked me why we even need to do that; why can we not just let things work as they do? Why bother taking the trouble to understand them?
This question, it turns out, is not a new one. In fact the astronomer Johannes Kepler had answered this question finely back in the 16th century.
He likened the human mind to birds. His words, as best as I recall them, are these:
“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens.”
Returning to our present day (still ensuing) debate, I expect that this distinction (while some may detest it) will no doubt help reduce our misunderstandings; and also our problems with regard to blasphemous physicists trying to oust God from his omnipotent seat in some place as unknown to us as the underlying principles that the universe operates on.
What are your views?