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Theology and Physics

Rev Alan Sharp BSc. B.D.

This paper came to be as a result of being offered a week’s study leave by the church on condition that a paper was produced at the end of it. A week proved to be rather a short time to contemplate the whole of physics and the whole of theology! However it was a catalyst to bring some of my physics back up to speed – and to get a few thoughts together.

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1. Introduction

  1.1 The New Physics

  1.2 Nature and Theology

   1.3 The Relationship of Science and Religion

  1.4 The Ultra Copernican Revolution and the Global Sitting Room

2. Quantum Mechanics

  2.1 The Theory

  2.2 That Cat

  2.3 Quantum Mechanics - Metaphysics?

  2.4 Who observes the universe?

3. Cosmology

  3.1 The Big Bang Theory

  3.2 How can we know what happened 15 billion years ago?

  3.3 What is the eventual fate of the universe?

  3.4 What was there before the beginning?

  3.5 What evidence is there of design and a creator?

  3.6 Entropy

4 Final Thoughts

  4.1 Physics and the Big Questions of Existence

  4.2 A Change in the Landscape

  4.3 Where does this leave theology?

5. Bibliography

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1 Introduction

1.1 The New Physics

The 20th Century has been revolutionary for the study and understanding of physics, which in turn has had profound implications for contemporary history and society. Quantum mechanics has opened up for us the very strange world of atomic and sub atomic processes – which follow a very peculiar set of rules. Einstein’s relativity theory has given us a new cosmology – a new understanding of gravity and motion.

These are now established theories, supported by a very large number of experiments, and lie behind the design of silicon chips and nuclear reactors. The theories are complex, in many ways they are counter intuitive, and the mathematics (as my aching brain still remembers from my physics course 20 years ago) is just horrendous. The question is what difference, if any, does modern physics make for theology?

We draw our theology, our understanding of God, from a number of different sources: the Bible, the church, our society, history, personal experience of life and personal experience of God, and our experience of the natural world. How we blend these ingredients together and form any kind of consensus is not my topic here. The new physics is of course reaching us through society, history and contemporary life i.e. computers, smart weapons and nuclear devices, and TV. Even now I am typing this on a PC. How does that affect the content? Again this is not my topic here. I am going to restrict myself to the way the new physics changes our understanding of the natural world and by that route affects our theology. Even this is far too big a field so I propose to tackle the following: the general impact of science on theology (the role of nature as a source for theology, the relationship of science and religion, the ultra Copernican revolution), quantum mechanics, cosmology and a few final thoughts.

1.2 Nature and Theology

The psalmist wrote: (ps 19:1) "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech;night after night they display knowledge." and Paul wrote (Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made."

Theologians have of course argued, over the centuries, as to just how much can be known about God from looking at the universe around us. Thomas Aquinas thought it was possible to prove the existence of God using nature and reason. The argument from design, Paley’s watchmaker, still has force. Clearly this knowledge of God is limited compared to the understanding of God’s character, love and purpose that we are given in the life, cross and resurrection of Jesus. But we may still consider that something of God’s existence, power and intelligence is visible in the things that he has made. This is one of the key ideas which spurred the development of modern science – the conviction of Isaac Newton and others that nature was the creation of a rational God and therefore it was worth studying. Newton expected that the whole of nature would function according to divine laws. Newton’s work on gravity and the laws of motion showed that a fairly simple set of assumptions and equations governed not only the motion of objects on Earth (including the proverbial apple falling from the tree) but also objects in the heavens (i.e. the orbit of the planets around the sun).

1.3 The Relationship of Science and Religion

It is also clear historically that theology and science are not separate activities. The reformation was part of the process that led to the rise of modern science; science and theology have collided many times, in the trial of Galileo, the Darwin controversy, and a whole new set of theological questions raised by technologies such as cloning and genetic engineering. As I do science and theology in the same brain I cannot accept that they are entirely separate activities.

(On a personal note my deep antipathy to what is called modern biblical studies is due to my background in physics. Coming from the physics department to the New Testament department I had an expectation of a process of proof, axiom, logic, and rationality, and was offered instead fashion, prejudice and an appeal to the authority of dead Germans. It seemed to me that they never examined their presuppositions, the way that their theology shaped their interpretation of a text; most insulting of all they would speak of this process as scientific study. They were only reading between what they had read between the lines.)

While Galileo was surely right when (quoting Cardinal Baronius) he said: "The intention of the holy ghost (in scripture) is to teach us how one goes to heaven – not the way the heaven goes", it cannot be maintained that theology and science are totally independent – devoted to entirely distinct realms of thought and investigation. Nor can it be argued that they are contradictory - many scientists are religious. Rather, science and religion are complementary – looking at different questions or bringing light from different directions onto the same question and sometimes there is conflict. If there were no conflict that would indicate either that science had restricted itself to a very narrow range of questions, or that theology had retreated to an area so removed from any tangible reality that science would never be able to touch it.

1.4 The Ultra Copernican Revolution and the Global Sitting Room.

The ancient view of the cosmos had the earth fixed at its centre with the Sun and the Moon and the planets rotating around it. In the centuries following Copernicus it was gradually accepted that the Earth moved around the Sun; humanity was no longer centre stage but at least we were not far off the centre. But after that it began to be realised that our sun was only one small star amongst all the other stars, the hundred, thousand million stars that make up our galaxy, and that our galaxy is only one of the hundred thousand million galaxies that make up the universe. The size and scale of it all is unimaginable. The distances are measured in light years – the number of years light takes to travel the distance. It is four light years to the nearest star, and light is fast - 186,000 miles per second. Then we find distances between galaxies that are measured in millions of light years, even thousands of millions of light years. So, when we look out on the night sky we are looking not only into the unimaginable depths of space, but we are looking back in time as well, seeing stars as they were years or hundreds of years ago. The light that left the distant galaxies when dinosaurs roamed the earth is only now arriving at our telescopes.

As well as unimaginable distances we have to consider the time scales involved. Archbishop Usher was famously able to calculate that the earth was created in 4004BC but the fossils discovered in the layers of rock indicated that the earth was much much older. Now with the evidence from radioactivity and astronomy, the age of the earth is generally put at 4,500,000,000 years and the age of the universe at about 15,000,000,000 years. These are very long times indeed. In all this time human beings have existed for perhaps 100,000 years. We are reduced to the briefest of moments on the tiniest of scales. Douglas Adams in his "Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy" imagines the construction of a total perspective generator; anyone placed in the machine would see at once exactly how vast and old the universe is and by comparison how tiny and insignificant they are. Those exposed to the machine emerge completely dumbfounded, their egos completely crushed and reduced to a permanent catatonic state.

We have the paradox, though, that all of this new knowledge of the vastness of the universe seems to have had very little effect on the popular psyche. In part it is number fatigue; after the first six zeros the numbers are all equally mind numbing. In part it is because the rest of the universe is much less real to us than our immediate surroundings. I remember being on holiday staying in a small cottage and calling my daughter then age 10 out to see the night sky. It was a clear night and I remember her wonder - she had never clearly seen the night sky, the Milky Way or shooting stars, for they are permanently obscured by the street lights in all our towns. We now live in a much smaller man made universe – we have gone from Marshall McLuhan’s global village to what might be called the global sitting room. We look up at the artex and the stars are Gaza, Leonardo DeCaprio and the Spice Girls.

But as we look at the night sky and try to grasp something of its immensity, we must consider whether it is rational to think that our existence has any meaning. Aren’t we just a short lived organic infection on a speck of dust orbiting one of a billion, billion stars in a vast cosmos that doesn’t care? The question of the psalmist is given a new depth and urgency (Ps 8:1):

"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?"

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2 Quantum Mechanics

2.1 The Theory

Quantum Mechanics, even more than Einstein’s Relativity theory is the most revolutionary scientific theory of the century. Newton gave us a world where everything, from planets to atoms can be regarded as billiard balls moving in precisely determined ways. It is often said that in theory in Newton’s universe, if we have the positions and velocity of every particle in the universe then we can calculate exactly where everything was in the past and where it will all be in the future. Of course in practice very slight perturbations can, in the long term, make a big difference to position and outcomes (the butterfly effect). We would need to know every position with extreme precision and consider the influence of every other particle in the universe so that even in theory it would require an infinite amount of measurement and calculation.

Einstein requires us to modify this. He shows that as the billiard balls move faster they get shorter and heavier, and time moves more slowly for them. The effect is only really noticeable as their speed approaches the speed of light. The objects must be considered as moving not only through space but also through time, added as a fourth dimension to the other 3. As there is no absolute frame of reference from which we can examine the motion of another object, everything is relative. Objects also distort space and time around them. The billiard balls make deep depressions in the green baize and gravity is altered geometry. Despite all this, relativity theory is not too far removed from classical physics; the calculations are more difficult but they can still be done.

It was as physicists began to probe the world of the very small that the classical picture began to break down. To explain the behaviour of atoms, electrons and light a new set of rules had to be formulated and the old certainties were no more. Quantum mechanics requires us to treat waves as particles and particles as waves, to be uncertain about a particle’s position if we know its momentum, and to slay hypothetical cats in fiendish thought experiments. Quantum mechanics also seems to require us to doubt the reality of everything, to recognise the limitations of human knowledge, and to contemplate the possibility of effects without causes.

2.2 That Cat

One of the claims of quantum mechanics is that the exact state of a system is not established until an observation is made. This is the result predicted by Schrodinger’s thought experiment which involves a sealed box, a cat, a vial of cyanide gas, a detector and a radioactive atom which has a 50% chance of decaying in the allotted time. If the atom decays it is detected and the gas is released killing the cat. But according to quantum mechanics we cannot say if the particle has decayed until the observation is made. The atom’s wave state remains in the twilight world of both decayed and not decayed and so by extension the cat is both dead and alive. Only when the box is opened is the wave equation forced into one state or another and fate reaches the cat.

Of course the real result of the experiment is this - at the precise moment the experimenter opens the box and peers in, the particle decays releasing the gas, the startled cat leaps up at the experimenter, dislodging his prudently worn gas mask, the experimenter gasps in surprise inhaling a lethal dose, while the cat leaps to safety with eight of its lives still intact. This is because, as we all know, at its deepest level, the universe is governed by Murphy’s law. The experimenter’s last thought was that at least he would be only half dead until a colleague found him. *

2.3 Quantum Mechanics - Metaphysics?

While the implications of quantum mechanics begin to sound more and more like a strange metaphysics it is very definitely physics. We are able to do experiments that show that the state of the system is not determined until the observation is made. We are able to use quantum mechanics to explain the properties of atoms and sub atomic particles. We can design and build real working devices like lasers, silicon chips and superconductors using quantum mechanics.

One implication for theology is the question of miracles. Newtonian physics encouraged a mechanistic, clockwork view of the universe. God designs the clockwork defines its laws and sets it going. On this view for God to intervene in the universe with a miracle he would have to break His own laws. So the argument goes that in this modern scientific age we can no longer believe in miracles. But this is not modern science, this is 17th century science. Instead of a universe governed by strict laws we have a universe governed by probability equations. We can no longer say what will not happen but only that it is very improbable. Many scientists drew back from this and in the early years some physicists were reluctant to publish. Some of the pioneers felt that they had opened a Pandora’s box. Einstein could never really accept it, even though he contributed a great deal to it. Einstein’s comment on it was, "God does not play dice." He hoped, as some still hope, that quantum mechanics would eventually give way to some more rational theory underneath.

2.4 Who observes the universe?

One of the most peculiar aspects of quantum mechanics is the experimentally verified result that a wave function does not collapse into a particular state until an observation is made. The thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat can be extended by putting an observer in the box (with a gas mask) but he too becomes part of the wave function and the result is still only established when the box is opened. More convincingly, experiments have been performed on two particles formed by the same process; they remain linked as part of a single wave function. Establishing the state of one forces the other into the opposite state. This influence seems to take place instantaneously - they communicate faster than light. This experiment has now been extended to build a quantum teleport, where a pair of linked particles are used to send a photon from one to the other.

There is a difficulty here: suppose someone conducts the experiment with the cat, looks in the box, and then leaves the lab to tell his friend in the corridor. The friend then telephones another friend, who tells the media, who put it on the TV news. At every stage the wave function grows, the alternatives remain unknown and equally valid, until the result is heard. Does this mean that the whole universe remained in a limbo of flux until there evolved an intelligent consciousness to observe it all?

It begins to look like the tree in the quad revisited. A 19th century discussion on what was real was summed up in an exchange of limericks:

I find it exceedingly odd,

As I stand in the midst of the quad,

To know if that tree

Continues to be

When there’s no one around in the quad.

The reply:

Sir, I find your astonishment odd,

For I am always around in the quad

And that’s why that tree

Continues to be.

Signed, yours sincerely, God.

For some physicists the grand observer is not God but any consciousness. This view has been put forward by John Wheeler. According to Wheeler the whole universe is a delayed choice experiment. The act of observing retreating galaxies and cosmic radiation may have created the big bang and the universe in the first place. But this sounds like the cosmic equivalent of the science fiction story in which a man travels backwards in time and becomes his own grandfather – how could such a loop ever come into being – it is the cosmic chicken and the cosmic egg.

An alternative is the many-worlds view of Hugh Everett. Instead of the wave function containing several possible values and collapsing into one state when the measurement is made, each alternative in fact is true in a separate reality. Every quantum process causes the universe to split into two or more completely separate realities. When we make the measurement we simply discover which reality we are in. Parallel universes is a wonderfully imaginative idea; somewhere out there in superspace is a reality where Scotland won the world cup! While some are attracted to this idea there are many problems.

First of all it is very expensive in universes. There are a very large number of particles in the universe each undergoing a very large number of quantum processes every second – each creating a separate universe and then each of these separate universes must also be creating new universes at the same rate as do the other universes. This is taking an infinite number of infinitely large sledgehammers to crack an infinite number of infinitesimally small nuts; indeed it is ultimate example of sledgehammer nut cracking.

Secondly there is no way to communicate between these branching universes so that the theory could never be verified.

Thirdly what does it do for free will if there is a universe where you choose A and a universe where you choose B? Roger Penrose ("The Emperor’s New Mind") comments that freewill is being able to choose tea or coffee not in having to choose tea and coffee.

Fourthly it makes absurd theology - are we to imagine an infinite number of Christs each choosing a different path?

While the participatory universe of John Wheeler and the many worlds picture of Hugh Everett may be regarded as interesting speculations it should be remembered that as a whole quantum mechanics is now a well established theory verified by experiment after experiment. If our innate common-sense views of how things should be break down at the quantum level, how confident can we be about applying them to the Creator?

We must also consider that as yet the whole of human ingenuity has not succeeded in giving a perfect description of something as simple as the hydrogen atom or even its simplest components. The school boy picture of the Bohr atom with the nucleus in the centre and the electron in orbit round it will not do. The Schrodinger wave equation for the hydrogen atom includes fudge factors – empirical corrections to make the numbers fit with observations. When we move beyond the hydrogen with its single proton and single electron to even helium with the complexity of two electrons the maths becomes insoluble. Now attempts are being made to understand the nature of even single particles with superstring theory with its eight dimensions. If human reason struggles to comprehend the tiniest of particles what hope has it of ever comprehending the creator?

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3 Cosmology

3.1 The big bang Theory

The 19th century gave us, in Darwinism, an explanation of how life and human beings could have developed without the intervention of God. The 20th century has given us an account of how the universe could have come to be with the intervention of God. Yet while atheists may have an alternative explanation of human origins that does not involve God, I would argue that cosmology, far from denying the existence of God, offers fresh evidence of God’s existence.

There has to be a certain skepticism when dealing with theories of evolution and cosmology. Very often these theories are touted as proven scientific facts but when you look at them closely there are gaps, leaps, anomalies and disputes. It is as if a child is claiming to have completed a jigsaw puzzle but when you check you discover that most of the pieces are missing, some of the remaining pieces don’t fit anywhere and some of the pieces have been forced together. Despite this, though, enough has been done to enable us to see what the whole picture might look like – though the possibility remains that in the future we will find more of the missing pieces and a better arrangement and then a new picture will emerge.

The current idea of cosmologists is the big bang theory. According to this idea the universe began about 15 billion years ago with all the matter and energy of the universe compressed together at a single point (it would have fitted on the end of a pin and still have left room for several squadrons of dancing angels). This mass and energy explodes outwards, forming atoms mainly of hydrogen and helium which under gravity come together to form galaxies and stars.

The earliest version of the big bang theory was first put forward in the 1930’s by the priest and astronomer Georges-Henri Lemaitre. He called it "Hypothese de l’atome primitif" – the whole universe born from a single primeval atom or quantum of energy. The idea was resisted by Einstein and others. Fred Hoyle put forward an alternative – the steady state theory (a perpetual universe renewed by the infusion and removal of matter) and the arguments went back and forth.

The main evidence for this theory comes from the current expansion of the universe, the cosmic background radiation, and the relative abundance of the elements. In the 1930’s Hubble showed that the galaxies were moving away from each other and that their speed was roughly proportional to their distance from us. The implication was that in the past they were much, much closer together. Using the Cobe satellite George Smoot and his team were able to investigate the cosmic background radiation, the remains of the flash of the big bang. They discovered fine fluctuations in the background which speak of an initial non-uniformity which eventually, through gravity gave rise to galaxies and stars. As a result of these discoveries the big bang theory is widely held by scientists to be correct.

This answer to the question of the origin of the universe raises the usual raft of questions: how can we know what happened 15 billion years ago? What is the eventual fate of the universe? What was there before the beginning? What evidence is there of design and a creator?

3.2 How can we know what happened 15 billion years ago?

In the book of Job (38:4) the Lord asks: "Where wert thou when I created the heavens and the earth?" Less poetically Steven Weinberg, in his book "The first Three Minutes" admits on pg. 18: "I cannot deny a feeling of unreality in writing about the first three minutes as if we really know what we are talking about." Someone else commented that there is speculation, pure speculation and cosmology. We have to distinguish between observation, experiment, theory, and wishful thinking. Of course even the observations are not necessarily pure facts; for example Hubble, in 1929, after observing the red shift of nearby galaxies drew the conclusion that their velocity is proportional to their distance. Weinberg comments (cited book pg. 35): "Actually a look at Hubble’s data leaves me perplexed how he could reach such a conclusion." Science often proceeds by leaping ahead of the facts -hoping that the facts will catch up!

It does appear though that, at least for the broad outline of the big bang theory, the facts are falling into place but in the last analysis we cannot directly observe the big bang itself, nor can we reproduce it in a test tube. In addition we may not be able to produce rigorous mathematical proofs – it has taken over 200 years to prove Fermat's last theorem, while Godel's incompleteness theorem has shown that there is a limit to what can be proved. The mathematics of cosmology involves a large number of assumptions, and dubious mathematical tricks. The physicists’ grand pronouncements should therefore be taken with a certain amount of salt.

3.3 What is the eventual fate of the universe?

We now observe a universe which is expanding. It has two possible futures. One is that eventually because of gravity the universe will stop expanding and start to contract. In this view, "the big crunch", all the mass of the universe will accelerate under gravity to a single point once more in a gigantic reverse of the big bang; this would be very bad news for any life forms about at the time.

The other possibility is that the universe will continue to expand. As billions of years go by, stars will extinguish as their fuel runs out, more and more of the matter in the universe will be locked up in black holes or spread very thinly as a gas. The temperature of the universe will decrease as its entropy increases. There would be fewer and fewer energy sources for any surviving life forms as the universe becomes increasingly inert. While both these scenarios are billions of years in the future neither is particularly attractive. At present the infinity expansion seems more likely – so it all ends not with a bang but a whimper.

3.4 What was there before the beginning?

The idea of a beginning point when the universe came into being has been resisted by many scientists this century because it indicates that the reason for the universe’s existence will lie beyond science in a divine act of creation. Einstein’s initial equations for his theory of general relativity suggested a universe which would be dynamic, either expanding or contracting. However the astronomers of his day considered the universe, on the large scale, to be static. Einstein therefore added a "cosmological constant" to fix his equations. After Hubble showed the universe to be expanding Einstein referred to the cosmological constant as his greatest mistake. However recent observations of distant galaxies have shown that they are moving much faster than expected and some variant of the cosmological constant may have to be reintroduced into the theory. The idea of a big bang was famously opposed by Fred Hoyle and his Steady State Theory. In this view the universe had always existed with stars being born and dying all the time. The universe would have always existed – it is a brute fact requiring no supernatural creation.

We how have in the big bang an apparent moment of creation; one moment there is nothing – no mass, energy, space or time, then flash every thing comes to be. Physicists are well aware that the ultimate question of where it all came from may be beyond scientific explanation. The astrophysicist Robert Jarrow, in his book "God and the Astronomers" describes his final nightmare like this:

"The scientist has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries." (Quoted in Smoot’s Wrinkles in Time, page 293). Scientists are making ingenious attempts to explain how the universe could come into being without bringing God into it.

Stephen Hawking argues that there was no beginning point. Hawking is not so much trying to avoid a starting point as a singularity at the beginning. If at the beginning all the mass / energy of the universe is somehow compressed at a single point in space time, then all the mathematics that we use to describe this physical state breaks down in a cascade of infinities. Hawking invokes a concept called imaginary time. He argues that at the beginning the density of matter would warp space and time together – so that there is no longer a zero time.

One way of visualising this is to represent the volume of the universe as a circle, with time as a vertical axis. As we move back in time (the direction of the arrow) the volume of the universe shrinks tracing out the cone above until we reach the very beginning represented by the apex of the cone. Hawking, however, says that under the extreme conditions at the very beginning, the whole geometry of space time gets squished (squished is an advanced mathematical word). Add into this some quantum uncertainty and we are most certainly in a strange realm where time loses its meaning. But all of this applies to an incredibly small fraction of a second at the start of the big bang. Nor is there any reason to suppose that this imaginary time is somehow more basic than normal time; indeed time is one of the most basic aspects of our experience.

It has also been argued by Alan Guth and others that the universe is the ultimate free lunch. Mass and energy are brought into an empty vacuum by a quantum fluctuation. The positive energy of the mass of the particles is offset by the negative energy of their gravitational attraction. The argument is essentially an extension of quantum mechanics which does support the creation of pairs of virtual particles. It is, though, quite a leap from the creation of elementary particles to the spontaneous creation of a whole universe of mass and energy.

We should beware of course of "God of the gaps", that is, introducing God as a divine explanation of something that is beyond scientific explanation at the time. This "God of the gaps" is diminished every time a scientific discovery is made. The question of the beginning has a psychological appeal as being something absolute and fundamental and demanding divine explanation but it could just be another gap.

(There is of course "science of the gaps" – just as nature abhors a vacuum so someone will rush in with theories to explain every circumstance. Sometimes theories which owe a great deal to feverish imagination and a certain over-ingenuity are defended and propagated with evangelical zeal until they become the orthodox faith of part of the science community.)

It may well be however that because the beginning involves a unique singularity it will always be beyond scientific explanation. But even if it can be shown that the laws of physics make the spontaneous creation of the universe possible or even likely, we would still then face an even bigger and more fundamental question: where do the laws of physics come from?

3.5 What evidence is there of design and a creator?

The most famous argument from design is Paley’s watchmaker. Paley argued that if we walk along the beach and we pick up a pebble then we would recognise that it had been shaped by natural forces: broken from a rock by erosion, rounded by the action of sea and waves. But Paley argues: suppose instead of picking up a pebble we chance upon a watch; even if we had never seen a watch before we would deduce from its perfect form, and its intricate mechanism that it was the product of an intelligent designer. Now, says Paley, consider say the human hand with its complexity, should we not conclude that there is a divine watchmaker who designed and formed us?

Of course these days you would probably find a digital watch, designed by a computer and produced by a robot. Somehow moving from this to God as the ultimate robotic computer hasn’t the same appeal.

There are of course more serious objections. Many would argue that the human body is not the result of design but that it is the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. Evolution is the blind watchmaker – there is no intelligence merely a process.

Below is a picture taken from the Mandlebrot set. It is quite possible that someone who wasn’t familiar with it would assume that it was the work of an artist. In fact it is computer generated from a fairly simple formula which gives rise to a complex fractal pattern.

Yet even in the picture of the Mandlebrot set there is design. We choose to investigate this particular equation because it gives rise to nice pictures.

The physical laws and the physical constants make possible the rich universe that we observe with galaxies, stars, planets and people. It is possible to show that even very slight changes in the values of physical laws would make all of this impossible. Freeman Dyson has shown that if the strong nuclear force were only a few percent weaker or stronger there would be dire consequences for the basic nuclear chemistry of hydrogen and helium which supplies the energy to make the stars shine. Dyson is quoted as saying "The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have know that we were coming." (Quoted in George Smoot: Wrinkles in time pg 293) Smoot also points out (same book same page) that slight variation in the excess of protons over antiprotons – one billion to one billion and one – might have produced a universe with no baryonic matter (i.e. no atoms) or a cataclysmic plentitude of it. Had the expansion rate of the universe one second after the big bang been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand trillion, the universe would have recollapsed long ago. An expansion more rapid by one part in a million would have excluded the formation of stars and planets.

Brandon Carter has show that if the force of gravity altered by one part in 1040 then the balance of forces inside stars would alter drastically. Nice yellow stars like ours would not exist – stars would all be either blue giants or red dwarfs. (Both of these examples are quoted in Paul Davies: God and the New Physics, pg. 187,188)

The big bang produced only the two lightest elements hydrogen and helium. The other elements (oxygen, carbon, calcium, iron etc) that make up our bodies can only be produced in the heart of stars. Fred’s Hoyle’s work in the 50’s, on the nuclear alchemy that takes place in the heart of stars, showed that the key to producing these heavier elements was the very precise properties of isotopes such as beryllium 8, carbon 12 and oxygen 16 which act as stepping stones to the heavier elements. If the energy states of these particular nuclei were not just as they are then the process would not be possible. (Detailed in article by Marchus Chown, New Scientist 6th June 1998, pg. 28.) Recently Fred Holye commented: "The universe is an obvious fix, there are too many things which look accidental which are not." (quoted in John Horgan: The End of Science pg. 109).

The mystery is not why the planet earth is at just the right distance from the sun with just the right conditions to form life. It can always be argued that given billions of billions of stars and planets there must be a good chance of there being at least one which is just right. The real mystery is why there should be any planets or stars at all. It is very tempting to conclude that the universe is thus proved to be designed and that therefore there is a designer, and so we prove the existence of God. But there are two other possibilities (at least). One is that when we actually manage to unify the whole of physics we will then see in the mathematics that there is only one solution possible, one set of physical constants. But would that remove the wonder or add to it? For we would then have the precise values required for life also forming one set of elegant mathematics. The other possibility is that an infinite number of universes exist, exploring all the possible values of physical constants and indeed all conceivable mathematical structures. This is the view put forward by Max Tegmark. But how could we verify that these others universes exist, and what mechanism could possibly be spawning them. (Article in New Scientist previously cited).

3.6 Entropy

We first encounter the concept of entropy in a nursery rhyme:

"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again."

It is simple to break an egg and whisk together the white and the yolk, but if you were asked then to separate the white from the yolk and to put it back in its shell you would have some difficulty, even though you still have all the bits of the egg. What has been lost is the order.

The concept of entropy is tied up with the order and disorder of the universe. It is there in the second law of thermodynamics which states that the amount of energy available for work is always decreasing. It is tied up with the direction of time. On seeing a china vase fall off the mantelpiece and shattered into a million pieces, a normal human being would say "My Ming vase!" but a physicist would say "Entropy has increased". But we do not see the pieces of vase jumping back together, reforming the vase and leaping back onto the mantle piece. It is summed up in the line of the hymn "Change and decay in all around I see."

Some have tried to use the concept of entropy to show that because entropy tends to increase, the process of evolution is impossible. Order tends to decrease so we cannot go from a soup of organic chemicals to one cell life, and then to apes and men. But it is quite possible to have a local decrease in entropy, provided there is an increase somewhere else. So we can plant an acorn and a highly complex tree grows. The energy to do this has come from the sunlight. In the sun nuclear fuel has been used up, hydrogen has been fused to helium, so the overall entropy of the system has still increased.

There is however a difficulty. In 1953 Stanley Millar sought to reproduce the conditions on the early Earth, bringing water, nitrogen and methane together with an electrical discharge to mimic lightning. This produced amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. It is however a considerable jump from amino acid to DNA. The DNA of even a simple bacteria when written as a sequence will fill a bible with its letters. Even with billions of gallons of sea water and millions of years the odds against forming such a molecule by chance are astronomical. Even then DNA cannot reproduce without the help of enzymes, and a cell wall to hold it all together.

Fred Hoyle has commented that the spontaneous generation of life on earth, would have been as likely as the assemblage of a 747 aircraft by a tornado passing through a junkyard. (Quoted in Horgan: The End of Science pg. 106). There are ideas and theories out there of course, including Hoyle’s suggestion that life floated in from outer space. Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA wrote: "The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle so many are the conditions which would have to be required to get it going." The origin of life is the Achilles heel of evolutionary theory. However if we jump in to point to God as explanation we risk the gap being filled by the discovery of some chemical with an ability to reproduce, evolve and form longer chains. But even if this gap is never filled many will prefer an explanation in terms of some wildly improbable fluke to an explanation in terms of design and God.

Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind) sets out to calculate the entropy of the universe and the entropy of its starting point in the big bang. Because the entropy of the universe is constantly increasing then the big bang is the point of lowest entropy in the history of the universe. Far from being some kind of highly disordered explosive state, the initial state is highly ordered with all the matter of the universe at a single point. Penrose calculates that the initial conditions were precise to one part in ten to the power ten to the power one hundred and twenty three. This is the biggest number that you are ever likely to come across – if you were to write it down on the back of an envelope as a one followed by zeros then you would need enough envelopes to fill the galaxy if not the whole universe. Penrose is comfortable speaking about the precise aim of the Creator. Does this mean that we have now shown that there is virtually zero probability of the big bang being a random event? No, because the alternative conclusion can be drawn that there is a constraint on initial singularity. It is also quite possible to argue that the universe did not begin in any special state, rather negative entropy was supplied by its expansion and by gravity.

It would be rather nice to use entropy to argue that the universe must have started in a state of extreme order which could only be supplied by one of infinitely higher order whom we call God. But we cannot do this. The second law of thermodynamics does allow for entropy to decrease locally as long as it is compensated elsewhere, so evolution can occur. In the presence of gravity gas will tend to clump together to form stars and galaxies which actually have a higher entropy (are less ordered) than a uniform dispersion of gas. We should also beware of the connotations of language; words like order and ordered are metaphors for low entropy, they do not mean organised and imply an organiser. So we can describe the initial condition of the big bang as being highly ordered and even put a value on it, or we can describe it as a very simple condition which degenerates as entropy increases into the universe we now see.

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4 Final Thoughts

4.1 Physics and the Big Questions of Existence.

It is possible to be cynical about the interest of physicists in what might be considered religious questions – have they discovered that they can double their book sales by putting the word "God" in the title? Are they using religious terms as connotation words to make their ideas seem grander than they are, as when Hawking concludes his "Brief History of Time" by saying "then we would know the mind of God" when he just means have a complete set of the universe’s physical rules?

To be fair many people are attracted towards science because they want to know the answers, and it is a natural, unavoidable progression to move from how things work to working at why there are things. But is physics actually capable of answering these questions? It seems to me that there is a limit to what we can verify by observation. We may in the future understand the exact physics of the big bang theory, but still not know why the initial singularity occurred. We may discover more and more about the brain but be no closer to understanding consciousness. We may discover more and more exotic particles and be able to number their interactions but still not be able to say what reality is. The complete set of physical laws maybe uncovered but we may still not know why physics should obey these particular laws.

John Horgan, in his book "The End of Science" argues that scientists are running out of things to discover and so some are now engaged on a quest to reinterpret or find deeper meanings or answer unanswerable questions. He writes of scientists: "(they) are seeking to misread and therefore to transcend quantum mechanics or the big bang theory or Darwinian evolution". Horgan calls this new quest after The Truth "ironic science". He writes: "Ironic science resembles literary criticism in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best interesting, which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth. It cannot achieve empirically verifiable surprises that force scientists to make substantial revisions in their basic description of reality."

In addition physicists have their own philosophical and religious baggage which may be as big an influence on their conclusions as their physics. For example Smoot and Weinberg hold very similar views on cosmology, they write very similar books and indeed Smoot was a student of Weinberg. Yet Weinberg concludes his book on a note of near despair, while Smoot ends on a note of wonder. Smoot quotes Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless," but Smoot continues: "I must disagree with my old teacher. To me the universe seems quite the opposite of pointless. It seems that the more we learn, the more we see how it all fits together – how there is an underlying unity to the sea of matter and stars and galaxies that surround us."

There is also a tendency to pull rabbits out of a hat. The technique might be to soften us up, by bombarding with mathematics and strange concepts, and then somehow a jump is made – a metaphor, a word is extended, and we have an explanation or a spiritual insight. After reading Penrose I am not sure if the Emperor’s new mind is any better than the Emperor’s new clothes – what new quality can really be given to human consciousness by focusing on the quantum mechanical in the synaptic junctions? Paul Davies creates his own special brew by mixing the new physics with classical arguments of the philosophy of religion.

4.2 A Change in the Landscape.

Paul Davies writes: "It would be foolish to deny that many of the traditional religious ideas about God, man and the nature of the universe have been swept away by the new physics." (God and the New Physics pg.229). This is an astonishing statement because I am not aware, for example, of a single line in the Nicene creed which is affected by quantum mechanics – unless we were to use the metaphor of how light can be both a wave and a particle as a contemporary illustration of how Jesus can be truly human and truly God. I cannot think of a single verse in the Bible which is swept away by relativity theory.

It is fairly easy to over state the impact of the new physics. Yet Augustine of Hippo writing around 420AD can consider that space and time came into being at the beginning when the world was created. For him God exists outside of space and time and is not bound by them, he can even speak of this world (meaning universe) as being finite and bound by its own space – 1500 years before Einstein. (City of God, book 11, chapter 5). He is also quite happy to dispense with the idea of the six days of creation as being literal 24 hour days; rather, each of these days marks an extension of the knowledge of God. However his allegorical method of interpreting scripture may seem a bit fanciful to modern readers, and he also considers that human beings were created no more than 6000 years previously on the basis of all the history known to him. (Augustine is also very scientific in his approach to contemporary miracles - see the healing of Innocentia and his description of breast cancer (City of God, book 22, Chapter 8).)

4.3 Where does this leave theology?

4.3.1 Creationism.

Creationism is based on one particular way of reading the first chapters of Genesis as literal truth, giving a factual account of how the world was made. In this view the earth and the universe were created in seven days about 6000 years ago. The fossils and the mass extinctions were caused by the great flood of Noah. While there may be massive gaps, unproven assumptions, contradictions, inconsistencies, special pleading and controversies in cosmology and evolutionary biology, one thing that they are definitely telling us is that the earth and the universe are billions of years old. There are several problems with creationism.

Firstly it is by no means clear that Genesis 1 and 2 are written to give factual accounts of how the world was made. Genesis chapter 1 is in the form of Hebrew poetry. The repetition of phrases "there was evening and there was morning" is a typical Hebrew poetic device. Genesis chapter 2 is in the form of a fable, as is evident from details like talking serpents, God walking in the garden, God having to ask where Adam is, and the sowing of fig leaves. Yet I would also argue that these chapters are profoundly true. They speak of: an Almighty Creator God, forming the universe by His word, of humanity created out of dust but made in the image of God, of temptation, fall and the coming of sin, pain and death into the world, These are the elements which are picked up in the New Testament.

Secondly, the evidence for an old universe is overwhelming. Sooner or later creationists are forced to argue that God created the dinosaur bones and buried them in order to confuse scientists - but what would that say about the character of God?

Thirdly there is scope for intellectual anarchists to have a go at the sweeping statements of evolutionists and cosmologists, but when the creationists try to put forward their own theories as science they are even more vulnerable to attack – it is very bad science.

4.3.2: Proofs of the Existence of God?

I do not believe that there is any proof for the existence of God in the sense that there is an argument so compelling that a typical atheist exposed to it will be forced to concede that there is in fact a God. However I would argue that there is evidence in nature for the existence of God. There is the question of the beginning; even if we push back to earlier and earlier states it does not answer the question of why the universe should be. There is the question of design raised by the fine tuning of the physical constants. Why should we have these laws of physics and these very particular values for physical constants? There are also questions raised by considerations of entropy and the origin of life. However all of this, like the classical proofs of Thomas Aquinas, points only to the existence of an intelligent, powerful creator God; we would want to say much more about God than that.

4.3.3 Strong Theories and Speculation

Penrose, in "The Emperor’s New Mind" distinguishes between strong theories and speculation. Strong theories are those which have stood the test of time, and are in everyday use, with a mass of evidence supporting them. These theories typically make predictions which are capable of experimental verification. Newton’s laws, Einstein’s relativity, the rules of quantum mechanics are thus strong theories. Other theories are much more speculative and tentative; some of them may end up being verified experimentally and be accepted as strong theories, but the majority will be shot down and discarded. Superstrings, multi-universes and imaginary time are examples of speculative theories. It is very important not to over react to some new theory, which may even be trumpeted as removing the need for a creator. The chances are that the new theory will either be shown to be false (either by mathematical scrutiny or inconsistency with observation) or it will be incapable of experimental verification.

There is also a parallel with theology. We have strong theology which has been in use by the church for centuries and flavour of the month theologies many of which never even make it out of academia, which will be discarded. Strong theories would include, the trinity, the creeds, the kerygma, the pentecostal, charismatic theology which is now the theology of most of the protestant church and much of the catholic church. Speculative theories would include Luther’s "Bondage of the will"and Calvin’s "Double predestination", as well as a good deal of modern theology.

In physics we discover that theory can build wonderful pictures supported by good arguments and complex maths and be completely wrong. We discover that our common sense ideas that we take from the everyday world do not apply in the quantum world. We discover that a complete understanding of a single particle is beyond us. In theology too there must be a realisation that the wonderful structures built to encompass God may be no more than a latter day tower of Babel; that our common-sense ideas drawn from our understanding of this world may not be valid in heaven. In the end God is by definition beyond human understanding.

In physics we constantly return to observation and experiment as a reality check. In the same way theology needs constantly to be checked against the scriptures, against nature and science, and against human experience. The best theology will not be very high but fairly low and broadly based. The best theology will also be the theology that enables churches to grow.

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George Smoot: Wrinkles in Time.

Very readable account of the development of the big bang theory and the investigation of the cosmic background radiation.

Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes.

Compact, readable book on Cosmology.

Roger Penrose: The Emperor’s New Mind.

A very dense book – at times reading it was like trying to dig through a concrete floor with a plastic shovel. It is a good tour of modern mathematics and physics, though very little of the book is directly concerned with the nature of the mind.

John Horgan: The End of Science.

Very readable account of where we are at in various scientific fields – makes the disturbing claim that the age of great discoveries may be over and science may be reduced to filling in the details. This is fleshed out with interviews of many of the big names in science.

Peter Coventry and Roger Highfield: The Arrow of Time

This is fairly readable and covers a wide range of physics, chemistry and biology.

Paul Davies: God and the New Physics

"Science can offer a surer path to God than can religion" - so says the back cover but not on the evidence of the book. The science is very readable but I suspect the conclusions come from his own personal set of religious prejudices – just like the rest of us!

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time.

A while since I read this, it is the best known recent book on physics but it is fairly dense.

R.Hooykaas: Religion and the Rise of Modern Science.

Good answer to those who argue that religion has only blocked and held back science – Hooykaas argues that modern science developed from Judaeo-Christian thought.

Article, New Scientist 6th June 1998, Anything Goes by Marcus Chown.

Readable account of the all possible universes theory of Max Tegmark.

Paper, Max Tegmark: Is the "theory of everything" merely the ultimate ensemble theory?


Unreadable account of the all possible universes theory of Max Tegmark. (That’s not fair but it assumes a good physics knowledge.)