February 20, 2019

Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science- Part 2, The Language of Physics, Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers By Andy Walsh

Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science

Part 2, The Language of Physics, Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers

By Andy Walsh

We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh.  Today is Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers.  Walsh begins the chapter with a summary of Ender’s GameEnder’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.  His tactical genius is realizing the Earth-bound framework or coordinates are no longer relevant in space with no gravity plane to orient along, like that of surface of the ocean.  Walsh says:

By providing this new frame of reference, Ender acknowledges two realities.  The first is that he and his classmates were being held back by rules that made sense on Earth but were incoherent in space.  The second and more subtle one is that casting aside those rules for complete freedom wouldn’t be an improvement.  In order for his squad to work together, they would still need a framework in which to operate.  When they found the old framework didn’t match the new context, they didn’t ditch the rules altogether; they found ones that fit the new context.

Walsh notes a similar paradigm shift occurred in physics as a result of studying the world on the scale of the solar system and the galaxy.  By conducting experiments looking for the “aether”, the supposed medium through which light moved, we discovered there was no evidence for the aether and there was no evidence that the speed of light depended on relative motion the way other speeds do.  Ultimately, the observation that the speed of light is both finite and fixed led to a new framework for understanding space, time, and motion called special relativity.  It was originally proposed by Albert Einstein in a paper published in 1905.

In some Christian circles the theory of special (and general) relativity is misconstrued.  Broadening one’s horizons and changing one’s perspective often seems to have a negative association. Some seem to have a concern that one can go broadly into a pluralistic experience as to wind up in pure relativism, which, according to some Christians is a bad thing.  And since special and general relativity have “relativity” in their names and have spread in popular awareness around the same time as post-modernism, these topics in physics make some Christians uneasy, especially when applying them via analogy.  However, while special relativity predicts that the outcome of certain measurements will depend on the context of the measuring, it is also a theory with absolutes.  We are not giving up a more absolute model for a more relative one, we are simply changing which quantities are absolute and which are relative.  And we are doing so because the model better reflects the reality in which we live, which provides an absolute point of reference of a different sort.  Walsh says:

Here’s where I think special relativity comes in.  As I mentioned earlier, in prior theories, space and time were absolute and only infinite speeds were measured the same from all frames of reference.  In special relativity, we trade absolute space and time for an invariant and finite speed of light.  I think these properties and their consequences are useful for understanding the role that Jesus plays in the biblical notion of morality.

Walsh notes that throughout his adult life, as recorded in all four Gospels, various religious and political factions attempt to find something they can use to accuse Jesus.  They ask him all sorts of questions that they think are no-win, Kobayashi Maru scenarios.  Every time Jesus navigates through the rhetorical traps and leaves his accusers with nothing to use against him.

Caesar’s Coin, by Peter Paul Rubens

An example is the pericope from Mark 12 where Jesus is asked whether Jews ought to pay the tribute tax.  The expectation was that if he said “yes”, they could paint him as a Roman sympathizer, costing him credibility with his Jewish followers, and if he said “no” then he would be in trouble with Roman authorities.  Jesus asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”.  Walsh notes:

There’s a lot of common sense there that’s hard to argue with; in fact it borders on tautology.  And yet he doesn’t explicitly affirm the legality of Roman taxes nor endorse a boycott of them; there is also a lot of room for discussion about what actually belongs to either party.  Jesus handles all of these verbal confrontations in a similar manner, thwarting attempts to find substantial grounds to condemn him.

Even in the process of putting him on trial and ultimately putting him to death, his accusers have a hard time finding charges that will stick; their manufactured witnesses can’t keep their stories straight.  Pilate famously washes his hands of the whole business, reportedly because he wants nothing to do with execution of an innocent man.  The impression from the Gospel accounts is that Jesus was condemned without clearly established guilt.  Walsh says:

The explanation for this inability to find fault with him, according to the Bible, is that Jesus did in fact live a sinless life, and was the only person to do so.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that is true.  Is there anything analogous about light?  It turns out that yes, there is—light has no mass.  That is why it can travel at the speed of light.  Anything with mass cannot reach that speed; it’s not just really hard, it’s impossible.  So what happens if we think of being sinful (having committed one or more sins) as having mass and being sinless as equivalent to being massless?

So to continue the metaphor, our “speed” is our righteousness and all the qualities we are trying to maximize as followers of Jesus.  Our “mass” is the sins we have committed.  Our “momentum” is our resistance to change our behavior, a function of both our righteousness and our sin, for after all when we are behaving morally it is easier to continue to do so, and when we behave sinfully it is easier to persist in our sin.  “Energy” is the capacity to do good works.

In this model, the moral perfection of Jesus is the optimal point of righteousness we are supposed to be reaching, if we choose to follow Jesus.  But this level is impossible to reach for anyone who has sinned, just as traveling at light speed is impossible for any object with mass.  The diminishing returns aspect of trying to reach light speed resonates with biblical accounts of what it is like to in the presence of God and his sinless perfection.  The closer we get, the more aware we are of our burden of sin.  We cry out like Isaiah, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5).

Higgs Boson

Walsh then brings up the Higgs boson. The physics model explaining mass involves the Higgs boson and the Higgs field.  The Higgs field exists everywhere in the universe, and when matter interacts with that field it acquires mass.  The Higgs boson is a particular kind of matter predicted by the Higgs field description of mass.  Walsh says:

What I find interesting about the Higgs story is that, if we extrapolate to our metaphor of sin, it resonates with the idea that sin is relational, arising out of our interactions.  We might wish to think of God as the omnipresent Higgs field, and us as the individual bits of matter.  This might suggest to you that sin only exists because of God, and in a sense I think that is an accurate representation of the biblical teaching.  Sin is only sin with respect to our relationship with God, and by extension other people.  It is not meaningful to talk about sin outside of the context of those relationships.

And that brings me back to Ender Wiggin, no longer floating in the Battle Room but now confronting the Formic beings he has trained his whole life to defeat.  He recognizes that how he interacts with them has moral significance.  And he also starts to appreciate an unintended consequence of the way he was trained.  He was removed from an Earth-bound perspective in order to better understand how Formics see the world.  That understanding is supposed to help him defeat them.  Yet he observes, “When I truly understand my enemy… then in that moment I also love him”.

The Bible offers a similar observation.  Although we chose to be enemies with God, he chose to know us and show us love.  “And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death” (Colossians 1:21-22).  If that is true, and I believe it is, then I think it only reasonable to get to know him in return.

I have to give credit to Andy Walsh for trying.  His attempts to bring out truths of Christianity by analogy with science and physics, while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find worthy of contemplating.  His analogy here of mass and energy to sin and works brings to mind the Orthodox notion of “Divine Energies”.  Father Stephen Freeman in his post on “Providence and the Music of All Creation” said:

God’s being and actions are one.  This is essentially the teaching of the Church on the topic of the Divine Energies. When I read discussions about this – it seems to get lost in the twists and turns of medieval metaphysics or passes into the territory of seeing the “Uncreated Light.” Both approaches are unhelpful for me, and both obscure something that should be far more transparent.

Some of the obscurity comes from the use of the word “energies.” It is the literal Greek term, but it conjures up some pretty problematic images in a post-Einstein world. When I first read about the Divine Energies, my mind wandered over to some vision of God sending out rays and beams of radiating light, etc. The focus on the Uncreated Light in the Transfiguration probably helped nurture that reading. It is also misleading.

Another simple term for “energies” is “actions” or “doings.” The root of the Greek word simply means “doing.” Indeed, it is most often translated as “deed” or “work.” “Workings” would be another accurate way of rendering “energies.” Understanding this points us towards the heart of the Church’s proclamation. Who God is, and what God does, are not two separate things. “God acting” is God. His actions are not a means of hiding Himself – they are the means of His self-revelation. Indeed, this is the heart of the Church’s teaching on the Energies. The Church says that God can be fully known in His energies but cannot be known in His essence.

We cannot pierce beneath the veil and see or comprehend the very essence (ousia) of God. He is God, “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” However, He can be known (and participated in) in His energies, His actions.

Father Freemen says in another post:

We are indeed saved by grace. However, the Protestant meme that interprets this as mere judicial kindness is an egregious error. Grace is the very life of God, the Divine energies, the fire by which we are transformed into the image of Christ. We do not earn it, but we can certainly shield ourselves from its action.

Maybe I’m not doing Walsh justice in my reviews.  His meditations are hard to summarize in the few words of a blog post.  But I’m finding his analogies thought-provoking and useful. His notions that shifts in the frames of reference bring a deeper and more realistic understanding of truths we thought we already knew is similar to what Chaplain Mike is trying to say about our understanding of the Bible.  We are not abandoning the truths we know, we are deepening our understanding of them in our relationships to God and others.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    I found so much wisdom in Father Stephen’s post.

    something missing is in the evangelical world that is ‘prominent’ in our country,
    but I think what is missing DOES exists among those evangelicals who live out the kind of humility that Our Lord called them to. . . . .
    and these people are not ‘known’ or ‘famous’, but resemble more the publican in the temple who prayed ‘God, have mercy upon me, a sinner’. The world sees evangelicals more in the role of the proud Pharisee who ‘knew’ he was ‘better off than that sinner’. . . . and yet the Bible tells us this Pharisee did not leave the temple in the favor of God. . . instead it was the humble man who was blessed by God

    what follows is from Father Stephen’s post, this:

    “It is said that humility is like a magnet with regard to grace. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). And in a similar manner, “He guides the meek in judgment, and teaches the meek His ways” (Psalm 25:9).
    How do we live with such realities? For one, it requires an ethos of meekness. . . . . .
    Virtually none of the measures that hold value in our American culture belong to the virtues of grace. I have said in a previous post that we are in great need of monasteries and monastics. I would broaden that and say that we are in need of the prayers of the humble and the wisdom of the meek. They alone understand that cause and effect does not belong to the Kingdom of God.
    We worship the God who causelessly causes and Himself reigns in humility. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the humble and meek.”
    (Father Stephen)
    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/12/31/rest-for-your-soul/

    So,
    if we want to understand the ‘Christian’ core of evangelicalism, we shouldn’t seek to find it in the famous preachers on television or among the evangelical authors of note;
    but rather in the faith of those who serve selflessly, especially among those outcasts for whom the famous often judge and find contemptible . . .

    these evangelicals seek no fame or notariety, but count their lives out in hours of service freely given in expectation for nothing in return, and no mistake, these evangelicals ARE OUT THERE, and for all of the ‘walking away’ from evangelicalism that many do, I think that such folks are rejecting the ‘popular’ view of evangelicals as ‘proud Pharisees’ who judge and point the finger, and throw stones down on those they find contemptible. Even God would not bless these ‘Pharisees’, no.

    Among the evangelical faith community, there remains thousands of the humble workers who took to heart the words of Christ. They are the strength of their denomination, not in the earthly sense, but in the ‘kingdom’ sense. They are the humble ones blessed by God with ‘grace’ and they are very much a part of the Body of Christ and, as such, are much needed and should never be discounted.

    • Burro (Mule) says:

      A few unconnected thoughts:

      Pharisaism is not a disorder of Evangelicalism alone, but if we were prutally honest, is a noisome flower that grows gleefully in the untended corner of any human heart.

      Most often the ‘outcasts’ are not so much ‘contemptible’ but just hard to fit into our tidy daily routines. If we went out of our way to accommodate them regularly all hell would break loose; important appointments would be missed, deadlines would pass, sofas and carpets would be stained, food and money wasted for no apparent purpose

      There is in my acquaintance a whole congregation of just this sort of Evangelical, very much social-ministry centered, who bought property in what was once a very rough and tumble neighborhood. They are increasingly frustrated about the gentrification of that neighborhood mostly because it drives out their target audience, drives up the cost of doing business in the area, and is beginning to sprout trendy ‘worship centers’ which cater to the new clientele, Their own buildings and style remain urban-scruffy and draw complaints from the lofters. They view the antics of the newcomers and the Pharisee/Evangelical churches that cater to them as part of their cross to bear.

    • Agree with you 100 percent, Christiane. (And that Pharisaism isn’t a function only of one group of Christian.) I have these kind of people in my life, and they are better Christians than I.

      Dana

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    “””Some seem to have a concern that one can go broadly into a pluralistic experience as to wind up in pure relativism, which, according to some Christians is a bad thing. And since special and general relativity have “relativity” in their names and have spread in popular awareness around the same time as post-modernism,”””

    This! It does finally seem to be dying off, or just as possibly I am finally far enough from those circles, but the hand-wringing about “relativism” has always been absurd and ignorant. I did recently hear someone haranguing about Relativism AND “Virtue Signaling” in the very same rant; that was entertaining [I just kept sipping my latte].

    I’ve read books . . . and I am still not clear as to what “post-modernism” is; much like “neoliberalism”. At least not relative [see what I did there! 🙂 ] to how I ever hear it used. Human language is gordian knot.

    • I’m sure you know that post-modernism started as literary theory in the wake of all the horrors of WW 2. It helps me a lot when I think about its original sense: that everything written has behind it the agenda of the author. What determines the meaning isn’t the words written, but rather the agenda of the writer. Find the agenda, you find the meaning. That’s how the term got thrown into the territory of “relativism”-different agendas, and differences between the agenda and the written expression. This also breeds skepticism and suspicion.

      Dana

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > I’m sure you know that post-modernism started as literary theory

        I do.

        > that everything written has behind it the agenda of the author.

        Honestly, what puzzled me so much about all the to-do about Post-Modernism is the gut response of “Well,… duh?”. Everyone who has dealt with a salesperson knows this.

        > What determines the meaning isn’t the words written, but rather the agenda of the writer

        And those who harsh Post-Modernism – just wait for it – they will in turn critique the either the rhetoric or arguments of their opponents using that very premise. Isn’t Post-Modernism, unless taken to ludicrous degree, merely the analysis of a phenomenon literate people have recognized since the first literate people had a disagreement? Once the modern world began to demonstrate it AT SCALE the academy took it up as a “movement” [all the academies love their movements, usually with legitimate beginnings, and which eventually devolve into over-wrought fads].

        > This also breeds skepticism and suspicion.

        Overhearing the conversation I was tempted to step in; with the role of That-Progressive, who turns every conversation into a “Well, actually….” history lesson. 🙂 But I’m too old for that now; they’ll figure it out eventually, or not; the coffee is really good there.

        • Dana Ames says:

          “Well…Duh!”

          Well, it takes some people longer to figure it out, especially if you were educated to believe in the objectivity of a writer of non-fiction. “Modernists” and everyone swimming the intellectual stream of the Enlightenment (all of us in the West) were so educated – at least in our early years. It’s an unpleasant surprise for some, especially if you tend toward idealism.

          D.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > I have to give credit to Andy Walsh for trying.

    +1

    > His attempts to bring out truths of Christianity by analogy with science and physics,
    > while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find worthy of contemplating.

    It is fun, which is a merit too often disregarded **especially by many a preacher man**.

  4. Theology is the art of recognizing useful analogies when speaking of that we cannot see.

  5. (Just slightly off topic) Scientists have recently conducted tests from the Canary Islands to prove that stimulating a particle at one point in the universe can be met with an instantaneous response by another particle further away than can be accounted for by the speed of light. This might imply that there is an imperceptible connection between particles seemingly seperated by light years in space. This calls into question the whole concept of space-time. Very interesting indeed. I love what science is investigating these days and appreciate the analogies you bring up here.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      I think you meant to say “cannot be accounted for by the speed of light”. You are referring to quantum entanglement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_entanglement) which Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance”. Since faster-than-light signaling is impossible according to the special theory of relativity, it does indeed call into question the Einsteinian notions of space-time.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > you are referring to quantum entanglement

        Yep. And as a technology this is advancing rapidly; which could very much make and Internet 2.0. IBM has a research division for this topic, and they have already stuffed data through a Quantum Entanglement connection. The question is how to make this stable enough for commercial use.

        The key, according to those people, is not to think about it as a connection. Matter cannot reach the speed of light. Energy is limited to the speed of light. But Information is encumbered by neither. Information is neither Mass nor Energy. If Information is Information is does not necessarily break Special Relativity; not unless Information is somehow spatial [and much about Quantum Mechanics calls our notion of spatialness into question already].

      • Yes exactly!

      • Mike the G, Is there a plausible possibility of connection between the ideas of quantum entanglement and Jungian synchronicity?

    • Whatever accounts for it, this is an explanation via physics as to “how”we can be at Golgotha with Jesus, participating in the experience of the Crucifixion – the one and only sacrifice of Christ – and yet also able to offer ourselves as well, during every Divine Liturgy.

      Dana

  6. “We might wish to think of God as the omnipresent Higgs field”

    Well now I’ll never be able to look at the Higgs field the same way…oh Andy lol

  7. “Anything with mass cannot reach that speed; it’s not just really hard, it’s impossible”
    “Our “mass” is the sins we have committed.”

    And one day, we shall collide with our anti-self particle and annihilate into pure light/energy with 0 mass…

    Okay, maybe that’s where the analogy breaks down.

  8. Mike the G,

    You know how tickled I am that you consult Fr Stephen! This post is the clearest one of the series for me. Thanks.

    To put it in terms of Eastern Christianity,
    Speed would be living as the human being God created us to be, consistent with the human nature he gave us, which at its deepest desires both the ability to do good, and union with The Good.

    Mass would be Death, which cuts off those possibilities and so much more.

    Momentum would be the fear of death/non-existence that compels us to forsake love and the Good, and act against our nature by doing whatever we think will preserve our life, even to the detriment of others. Of course sin is relational – as Persons that is how we exist. We are all connected in the deepest way.

    Energy would be the capacity to live in the mode of self-giving love, just like God does (cf Fr Stephen’s excerpt).

    Light would be our participation – as fully human beings – in the divine Nature. This is what we were made for.

    We must get away from seeing this stuff in terms of bare morality, and move into a truly relational understanding. As we are healed from the fear of death by entering into the reality of Pascha, and as we realize the meaning of the Incarnation, living a one-storey, sacramental life of continual turning to God (repentance) made possible by it, we will be able, little by little, to act according to our nature in humility and love. This is our immediate hope. Some folks are able to do this even if they don’t understand the theology… they are those we call Saints… and most of them are hidden. Some folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t want to have anything to do with liturgical life are there because they just love and trust Jesus so much that they live “above” their received theology (cf Christine’s comment above).

    (Commenting from my phone today; takes me extra time to deal with the tiny keyboard…)

    Dana