PHYSICS, METAPHYSICS, AND GOD

Introduction

     Most serious scientists spend the good part of their waking hours amidst papers and preprints, equations and equipments, talking about graphs and data, arguing about ideas and theories, and writing grant proposals. But if they browse in bookstores or glance in the book review sections of  journals, they cannot escape a fascinating phenomenon in the scientific landscape: books proclaiming the extra-rational implications of science are proliferating. Religion and mysticism are inching their way back into the arena of hard science whence (some thought) they had been gradually weeded out during the past two centuries.

     Right from the days of Kepler and Galileo, scientists have generally had a religious side to them: after all, except when they encounter faiths of a different shade, religions normally have only civilizing effects on the human heart. Isaac Newton believed in a personal God, explicitly calling himself His servant. Leonard Euler was deeply religious, and so were Augustin Cauchy, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and a great many other minds of significant scientific stature. No reflecting scientist can be untouched by magnificence and  majesty that pervade the world, nor insensitive the deep mystery underlying life and consciousness.

     Experiencing profound religious feelings is an enriching aspect of being fully human. But this is not the same as taking revered texts as treatises on physics or cosmology. If anything, the picture arrived at by extensive inquiries, fortified by countless instruments and carefully erected conceptual tools, has been in awkward contradiction to explanations of how the world began and behaves, or how life emerged, as reported in the holy books of human history.

     A hundred years ago, Andrew Dickson White published an erudite tome, footnotes and all,  entitled,  A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. It was an embarrassingly candid exposure of the dogged obstinacy of the religious establishment in upholding ancient doctrines in the face of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary.

     After a full century, the tables seem to be turning. Today, a plethora of extrapolations of science are cropping up whose goal is to re-establish the worldviews of the pre-Copernican era. Many popular books, TV specials, magazine articles, and conference papers are joyously declaring that the ancients were not as much in the dark as Bacon and company had imagined; that, if anything, they had, through intuition and revelation, pretty much summed up the essence of 20th century physics and cosmology: from the strange physics of vacuums to the daring  view of the Big Bang.  They inform the public that current cosmologists are more or less forced to admit that there is a benign and designing God Who not only drew up the Cosmic blueprint, but worked out the details and dimensions of its  penthouse for His choicest opus: Homo sapiens.  

      In any case, a slow revolution has been occurring in science's  backyard in recent decades, reformulating scientific methodology and epistemology, based not so much on experiments but on extrapolation, inspired more by analogy than analysis; where the purpose of hypotheses is not so much to derive experimentally observed details as to confirm religious visions and to plead for a return to anthropocentric physics.  

          Thus, in the view of some writers (including some practicing scientists of repute),  physics has shown that Hindu mystics were right in picturing the Cosmos as the Dancing Divine;  that Chinese philosophers  were  on target when they spoke of yin and yang  for these referred implicitly to the duality of particle and wave,  of matter and energy;  and that the Book of Genesis formulates the principle of evolution in metaphorical meters. The quantum hypothesis of Plank has been used for propounding a theory of consciousness, and microcosmic indeterminacy has served as a spring-board for a physics-based proof of resurrection. It has been claimed that receding galaxies provide experimental confirmation of what cabalists had already recognized in medieval times, and inklings of the esoteric formulations of quantum physics  (the so-called S-matrix theory) have been detected in Buddhist sutras. 

          Nineteenth century science looked upon mystic mutterings as exotic Eastern confusions. Now, the standard model (the very basis of current fundamental physics) itself has been interpreted in terms of esoteric Sanskrit  aphorisms. Some  have broadened the vision even more: at least one physicist has assured the public that his own theory, based on the solid findings of current physics, is "quite consistent with the afterlife expected in most African societies."   

Whether mainstream professional scientists take note of it or not, whether or not they attach weight to such claims, a significant  fact in the closing decade of the 20th  century is that mysticism and old-time religion are back  in full vigor in public consciousness, not as enriching dimensions of the human spirit, nor as competing modes of knowing or perceiving, but as profound intuitive visions that have at long last been "scientifically proven." A good deal of academic discussion is dedicated either to showing how limited and misleading the intellect is; or  to proving that non-rationally derived insights (convictions?)  have been confirmed by the most recent scientific theories. What is not sometimes realized in such efforts is that the vast majority of the truly faithful neither understand nor need confirmations from superstring theory or the Big Bang model  to believe in an Almighty God; nor do they need the support of  esoteric equations from mathematical physics  to derive inner peace from meditation. The Hindu Vedas, and the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Christian Bible and the Muslim Holy Koran,  and similar time-honored texts  have much to offer to spiritually inclined souls, without  quantum mechanics being injected into them, thank you.

On Science

     In this context, it may be useful to clear about the notions of science and religion, of physics, metaphysics and God.  At its most basic level, science is a response to human wonder­ment. As an intellectual in­quiry into the nature and origin of the physical world, science has existed in practically every culture.  The response of the mind to the perceived world is through logical explanations, for wonder it­self results from the logical component of our brains. Now the logical mode expresses itself at different levels, from the fuzzy to the ex­tremely fine-tuned. Its sharpness is often a function of the sophistication to which mental capacities have been developed. What seems per­fectly logical to one mind may strike another to be too simplistic, even fallacious.

     No doubt, science is also elevating to the human spirit. Like great art, magnificent music and grand literature, and indeed like a moving religious experience, science too enriches the soul. It is certainly not in competition with any of the lofty non-science expressions of the human potential. To equate science with pollution and deforestation is like equating Christianity with the Inquisition. To regard science in terms of smog and  nuclear bombs is like regarding literature as offensive pornography. Science is no more materialism than religion is su­perstition.

Science  is, in principle, a collective, corroborative,  self-cor­rective, and often fruitful intellectual enterprise whose goal is to de­scribe, explain, and understand all the details of the phenomenal world on the basis of careful observation and verifiable information obtained with ingeniously devised instruments and formulated in clearly defined terms and concepts. Its results endow us with a ca­pacity for predicting (statistically or precisely) the course of physical phenomena. Such probing and reflection is what instigates science, the tireless effort to understand and interpret every facet of the universe around, to track down the reason for every perceived phenomenon, to attribute causes to all that we observe and experience. The goal of science is to grasp the world in parts and in its whole, through the modes of logic.

The worldview of Physics

Of the many sciences that investigate the forces and principles giving rise to the phenomenal world, physics thus far has been the most successful and the most fruitful in its results. Thanks to the efforts of physicists during the past four centuries, a very elaborate and sophisticated world view has been erected to describe and account for the perceived world such as it is.

Let me briefly state what this world view is. According to physics:

1. The phenomenal world is ultimately made up of matter and radiant energy, governed by inexorable laws holding exception-less sway throughout the length and breadth of our cosmos.

2. Matter is massive and energy insubstantial, but both have a measurable properties. Because of its massiveness, matter is reducible to minute particles, whereas energy appears but as oscillations of different frequencies, categorized by their varying effects on matter and life. 

3. This matter-energy dichotomy is only on our scale of experience and at the astronomical. Deep down into the heart and core of the physical world, we discover a whole new level of reality which we call the microcosm. Here material particles change to undulations and wavy energy behaves as tiny bullets moving with momentum. The world at its roots reveals itself as a plethora of insubstantial entities called elementary particles, which have been named and classified in picturesque ways, as  electrons and protons, muons and pions, sigma plus and omega minus and so on.  Ultimately, even these arise from simpler classes of particles known as quarks and leptons. All the wondrous complexity of the physical world results from four simple kinds of fundamental interactions among two types of particles.

4. Provoked as much by observations at the grandest scale of galactic behavior, as from our understanding of the basic forces and entities, we have reason to believe that the world probably began as one primordial explosion, modestly described as a Big Bang, perhaps some fifteen billion years ago. All the constituent causes of the universe - the force fields and particles in space and time - emerged during an inconceivably short time span after that  initial eruption.

5. The rest is cosmic history. This history includes the formation of stars and galaxies and heavy elements, planets in orbits, and yes, our earth also.

6. And here, in due course and in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry and under circumstances of enormous randomness and unpredictability, complex molecules arose which fashioned life, leading eventually to man and mind and metaphysics too.

Whether thinkers and commentators beyond the practicing physics establishment accept or reject this world view, this much cannot be denied: an impressive variety of items of perceived reality have been recognized and explained in terms of this world picture far more cogently, effectively, and reasonably than any other mode that has been tried thus far in all of human history. No system of thought prior to the rise of modern physics was even remotely as successful as current physics in accounting for such commonly observed phenomena as rainbows and comets, icebergs and seasonal changes, and a million other occurring, let alone reckon on the basis of data the time or the mode of origin of the world at large.

No less significant is the fact that through the modes and mathematics of physics, an incredible range of knowledge and information about the not directly perceived aspects of the world has been brought within the scope of human understanding. This includes distant objects like Neptune and double starts of the 8th magnitude, and inconceivably minute entities like microbes and molecules, all invisible to the naked eye; as also many not directly perceptible entities like gamma radiation and argon gas. Then again, a great many gadgets, instruments, appliances and tools whose proper functioning we take for granted as we live and interact in our technological civilization, depend for their development and existence on the laws and principles governing the physical universe such as have been discovered or formulated by physicists.

Given all this, one might find it surprising that not everyone has embraced the methodology of modern science as the right route to Truth. In earlier centuries, regretting that older poetic visions of the world were fast fading away under the powerful impact of successful science, some thinkers erected a more romantic view of reality, decrying the potency of cold rationality which seemed to rob us of our aesthetic experiences by "unweaving the rainbow." But science and physics triumphantly marched on, exploring and explaining with ever widening conquests. 

Rather than recognize the uniqueness of science as an explanatory enterprise, some  have argued that  knowledge about the physical world gained through science is only one of several other assertions about physical reality which are made on quite different criteria for truth-content. Most practicing scientists, however, find it difficult, in the context of explanations of natural phenomena,  to adopt what may be called a United Nations attitude by which every approach and point of view must be given equal weight and respect. Not all knowledge can be equivalent, but it would be stifling to regard knowledge as the sole goal and relevance for the human experience.

Metaphysics

Let us now consider some of the criticisms that have been leveled against scientific hegemony in the competition for truth-seeking.

To begin with, the validity of scientific explanations is never permanent: It is there only as long the explanations tally with every minute detail of observed facts. But at no time in history can we say categorically that every single fact pertaining to a phenomenon, let alone the world, has come within our ken. The situation is equivalent to the following: If, on a graph paper we denote by points the various observed facts pertaining to a phenomenon, then any curve drawn through the dots would correspond to a scientific explanation (theory). However, in principle, many such curves may be drawn, since the set of observed facts pertaining to a phenomenon seldom forms a continuum. Scientific explanation is the smoothest and best fitting curve possible. But there is no  guarantee that a new dot not lying on the curve will not be discovered at some future date. Thus, there is no logical finality to a scientific explanation: only a temporal rational consistency with respect to currently known facts.

Then there is the claim of objectivity which is regarded as one of the greatest virtues of science. Scientific propositions may be corroborated by individuals from every race and creed and nationality. Unlike religious truths and poetic descriptions, unlike mythologies and mystic visions, the validity of scientific truths does not depend on prophetic assurance, scriptural authority, cultural upbringing or linguistic syntax. Scientific truths are as universal as mathematical concepts and relationships.

With all its commitment to objectivity, science is a human enterprise. Irrespective of whether or how the world exists in the absence of the human brain, there can be no science without that brain. Science is not the external, objective world, but the human understanding and interpretation of whatever that world is or seems to be. That understanding occurs in the human brain. The elephant and the crocodile also have brains. But the impression of the world that they receive and their interpretations thereof are matters about which we humans can never know anything. Like  a religious sacrament whose underlying significance means something only to those who profess the faith, all our so-called objective descriptions and analyses are relevant only to those creatures which have this particular neural-cerebral constitution. Scientific objectivity is essentially the collective subjectivity of our species.

Given this, it is perfectly legitimate to ask on what basis one can make the claim that the scientific world view is the only objective one. In fact, if one were to grant that the scientific world view is a consequence of our brain chemistry, and concede collective subjectivity as defining objectivity, then we must allow that the world view of those who are vehemently opposed to accepting scientific knowledge as the sole source of all correct knowledge, is also conditioned by the same kind of neural networks. In other words, once we grant that the so-called objective world is a function of brain chemistry, we are compelled to agree with the conclusions of other brains which cannot help entertaining  very different positions.

This leads to a serious logical problem in the notion of objective truth.  For it would seem that ultimately, the scientific interpretation of the world is no more than the imprint of a certain type of mapping of a reality on the physico-chemical substratum of the human brain. That makes science essentially anthropo-cerebrally subjective.

God

Now I come to the third part of the title of this talk: God. Any serious public discussion of God  is bound to be both hazardous and safe: hazardous because there is the likelihood that one might offend, however unwittingly, the views and deep convictions of some individuals or groups on the nature, existence, or representatives of God as cherished by them. It is safe because no matter what one may profess, proclaim or plead for as proofs in these matters, there can never be, as there never has been, any unanimity on the question, if only because there is no universally accepted or acceptable definition of the word itself.

First consider some views of the God of the scientist, often of the physicist. Many physicists hold the view that God is the cosmic order, the laws governing the universe, the mathematics underlying physical world, etc. In the twentieth century Sir James Jeans and Arthur Eddington gave eloquent expression to such views. It is difficult to state which aspects of mathematics are intrinsic to the physical world, and which have a reality only in the human mind.

     There are no doubt many mathematical relationships and processes in the physical world which human beings discover. But there is also a lot of pure mathematics which the human mind invents. Thus, mathematics is not only the recognition and exploration of order in the external world and but  also the formulation and exploration of postulates enunciated by the human. Banach spaces, non-Euclidean geometry, measure theory, (some) transcendental numbers, mathematical models, transfinite numbers, are all instances of this. If these too are part of God, being part of mathematics, then we are inventing that God. In other words, to equate mathematics with God is also to make God a creation of the logical potential or propensity of the human mind.     Then again, if we relegate God to the mathematical order in Nature, then aside from the fact that it is a shorter word, there is no need to invent this notion of God. One might as well abbreviate it to MON (Mathematical Order in Nature). It really doesn't make too much sense to be building churches and temples, singing glorious music, and praying in moments of sorrow or bereavement, if God is no more than the order and rationality of mathematics.

     Another approach would be to consider God as some entity that is to be recognized, not so much with the head, but also in the heart.

     A serious objection that is sometimes raised to this view is that this too makes God anthropo-dependent, because God becomes a element of human experience. But this need not necessarily be so. It could also mean that we are all infinitesimal sparks of a transcendental cosmic principle which is why we are able to become aware of this subtle aspect of the cosmos. 

     Some have argued that if God is taken as transcending space and time, then one cannot experience God. I do not see why this should be so.  Anything that cannot be given a space-time coordinate in Minkowski space transcends space and time. There are any number of entities which belong to this category: beauty, truth, justice, love, to give a few examples. To say that something transcends space and time is not equivalent to saying that it cannot be experienced.

Then there is the notion of God as a purposeful Creator of the universe. During the past twenty-years, basing themselves on certain intriguing coincidences in the values of the parameters determining the course and features of the world, some astrophysicists and cosmologists have wondered aloud about the possibility of an intelligent and intentional fine-tuning that might have occurred at the very dawn of cosmic birth one of whose long-range consequence is carbon-based life and ultimately the thinking mind. If the consequence was intended, then we are back to the grand purpose again. This, in essence, is the thesis of what has come to be known as the anthropic principle on which a good deal has been said and written ever since its provocative formulation a quarter of a century ago.

 At the same time, locally, that is to say at our own planetary level, one can see how a great many things and processes serve the interests of physical life. Whether it is carbon or oxygen or iron, photosynthesis, osmosis or transpiration, countless features in our planetary framework are conducive to the sustenance of life on earth for impressive stretches of time. Indeed, one cannot but be struck by, not to say thankful for, the persistence for eons of the very narrow range of temperature, the relative abundance of appropriate elements and gases, the extremely infrequent intrusion of massive asteroids, and countless other factors which make life on earth generally, and human life particularly, not just possible, but prolonged also.

On the one hand,  one may exclaim, "Wow! Isn't that fantastic, and doesn't this establish beyond a reasonable doubt that things had been subtly and delicately arranged so that microbes and man might some day emerge!" This exuberant and enthusiastic response often arises from an eagerness to find scientific confirmation of long-held and religion-based world views which have been eroded by the overpowering onslaughts of the physical sciences.

Or, one might simply shrug one's shoulders and say, "So what! It is mere tautology to say that life has been possible because the external conditions have made life possible." Rainbows are formed because of the refraction of light in raindrops in the atmosphere. It does not follow that they occur so that Dorothy of Kansas could sing a song. This passionless, cold-blooded, calm and uninspired reaction is provoked as much by an honest attempt to maintain scientific objectivity and anthropic aloofness in the universe as by a sneaking fear that to react otherwise would yield to the pressures of those who wish to reinstate medieval religious mind-set. 

The question of purpose in the universe may never be answered one way or the other by rational arguments or by applying scientific methodology. The reason for this is the following: Purpose implies not just intelligence, but conscious intelligence. Even if one grants that there is intelligence in the universe in the sense that natural phenomena occur in accordance with well-defined and mathematically precise laws which could be interpreted as logical behavior, consciousness is a very different matter. It involves self-awareness, the weighing of alternatives, and the process of decision. Consciousness also enables one to look into the past and into the future, and this ability is essential for purposeful behavior. When a dog follows a master who is carrying some food, a bee halts on a flower with nectar in it, and a squirrel stores nuts for the colder season, these may seem to be purposeful behavior. But these could also be instinctive or genetically programmed modes of operation. In any event, it is only the entity in question which can know if it is conscious or not, and it alone can be aware of purposeful action. Others can at best describe and infer whether or not there is an intrinsic purpose, and this can never be a proof.

Extending this to the universe at large, to say that the universe formulated its laws so as to bring about certain events is to say that the universe has a consciousness entity. Whether this is true or not can only be inferred. Physicists have traditionally rejected such a notion, some have inferred on the basis of certain phenomena and course of events that the universe acts consciously, but no one has been able to, nor I suspect ever can, establish this incontrovertibly, if only because consciousness is the most intensely internal and logically underivable property of an observed entity. This has not prevented a number of thinkers from speculating, arguing, and propounding theories about cosmic consciousness. Indeed, consciousness physics is becoming a growing scholarship-industry which draws from such scientific disciplines as computer science and quantum physics, as also from such time-honored texts as the Upanishads and Yogasutras.

     This is not to say that the universe could not have arisen from the Mind of an omnipotent principle. But to trace this First Cause through the  Einstein's equations, the subnuclear particles, or the expansion of the universe may be a  hasty mixing of metaphor and mathematics. In fact, one may indulge in this game equally well with Keplerian orbits and gravitation also.  People who try to establish God on a quod erat demonstrandum basis seem to overlook the fact that God is a supremely sublime personal experience, not an entity hiding behind particles called Higgs bosons, waiting to be spotted like an Easter egg by theoretical physicists.

Given all  this,  it is clear that one will have to start with some more precise definition of the notion of God in any discussion. I will consider two different definitions.

     First,  God is the abstract, incomprehensible, cosmic principle whose existence can never be proved beyond a reasonable doubt through the logical-rational-analytical- experimental capabilities to an unbeliever’s satisfaction, but of whose existence the believer can be at least as certain as of his or her own conscious self.

     Secondly, God is an entity I need to envisage so that there will be  someone/something to whom/which I can express my gratitude for this span of experience (however brief) that is my life. More specifically, the position of the person of faith is simply this: There are beliefs we hold on the basis of logical proofs, experimental data, and demonstrable verifications. But there are also beliefs we cherish which are not based on these criteria.  these latter are what we call faith which may persist even when there is proof to the contrary. Belief in God is such a matter. I have as much logical proof as you can furnish me (perhaps more) to the effect that there is no such entity called God. But I still hold on to that faith: result of early indoctrination, capacity for irrationality, innate stupidity, whatever. But I have never tried to prove to anyone, nor ever will, that God of any kind exists or does not exist.

         God is there in the atom’s core
And in galactic stretches too.
More ancient than the Cosmic Bang,
Yet, ever fresh and new.
 
Some prove a God, others disprove,
With logic as their start.
But no one can or ever will move
God from the faithful’s heart.
 
Let mockers mock and donkeys bray;
Let scholars take a side.
The God to whom people pray,
Isn’t proved, but felt inside.