Dear Readers and Followers,
For those who have followed some of my writings here in this remote corner of the blogosphere, I want to let you know that I have started a new blog: Kosmophilus, Explorations in Cosmology and Theoretical Physics. The goal of this blog is to communicate important ideas in physics in an intuitive and accessible way, foster an interest and excitement about ongoing progress in our understanding of the universe, and eventually contribute to the conversation on science and theology: how can they interact with each other in a mutually beneficial way? Science is both a central component of society today, and a guide to knowing truth about God's world, so it is important to engage with it and understand it as best we can, if we are to seek after truth, and after God, with both heart and mind.
In the long term, I plan to return to the writing I've begun on this blog, which focuses around the themes described here and here - my attempts to bottle the wind that is the beauty of Christianity. It will be a long road, and for me, engaging with theoretical physics and cosmology (which also shine forth the beauty and elegance of God in unique ways!) is a key part of that journey.
I plan to include some theological ideas on the new blog from time to time. Both there and here, I am eager to hear from anyone in the comments below posts, or via email - please send me a message with your thoughts!
Grace and peace,
Monday, July 28, 2014
Dear Readers and Followers,
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 10:24 PM
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Who are you?
What is your name?
We know You through creation, and your acts and presence therein.
You love, you suffered, you rose, you ascended, united with us.
This is your face to us.
You overflow abundantly: elegance and complexity without end.
A universe from nothing.
Yet you allow the night to be.
The deep One, who descends,
The passionate One, who loves,
The great One, who overcomes the night,
The high One, who ascends.
You love unto death - so costly, you give yourself up, you fall into the earth and die.
A fierce, healing Love, burning through the night.
Love is the fire of your holiness.
Who are you, who come to us and walk with us in the night?
In death, you break from within.
You are the Living One. You were dead, and you live forever and ever.
You hold the keys of Death and Hades.
Firstborn from Death, Lover of the lost people.
Green and gold the banner of Your might in victory, the Son rising.
Red the fire of this romance, Bright Star.
Rich against the shadows of the night, entered and broken.
Our Lord and our God,
Bright Morning Star.
You have Risen.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 4:50 PM
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Christianity claims that God changes and grows - that God does not sit passively and "immutably" outside creation, but rather enters into it, and ties himself to creation to such an extent that the unfolding events in this Story change not only God's experience, but even His identity.
"Heresy!" some may cry. But this, as I understand it, is essential to Christianity. God enters our world in Jesus, a human being, and becomes one of us forever. God does not leave this world and cast off His experience in Jesus as no more than a passing experience. The New Testament denies this. Rather, God unites himself to his people in such a way that the union of marriage is an image or metaphor for the union of God in Christ, and his people (the Church, the body of Christ).
None of this means that God's character or deepest nature - His love, greatness, beauty, depth - fluctuates or can be cast off or changed into something else. God's nature is eternal and universal, foundational to existence and therefore to the unfolding Story.
Whether or not "time" is a fundamental part of the process, there is a direction to reality, and dynamical change in that direction. We may be tempted to insist that God "keep a foot outside of" it all, if he is to remain "transcendent." And this may be true in some sense - God may or may not experience the whole of the unfolding Dance in a different way that is "complete" rather than as we do, moving along linearly and experiencing the flow of the Story from within. (We cannot say, and the words we use are more suggestive and intuitive than well-defined.) But God's greatness is not grounded in detachment from creation, as if emptying Himself and entering it was a weakness. That is against the grain of what the New Testament is getting at. Perhaps it is simply false to say that a perfect thing does not change, or that greatness must be something fixed and constant.
Where is this Story going? We do not know, but the portion we do know may be just the first chapter. The marriage of Christ and His Bride, of God and creation, of heaven and earth (all suggestive language pointing towards the same reality) lies on the horizon. From that marriage may be born something utterly new and unprecedented, hitherto unspoken of by God (just as His entering into this world was hidden until it happened). And that may be only setting the stage for the beginning of all things, as C. S. Lewis suggested in Perelandra. It is God's Story as much as ours - God's Story not only as the author, but the central character.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 1:43 PM
Sunday, September 1, 2013
The astonishing thing about the universe is that such enormous complexity - so many widely varied and intricately interrelated diverse emergent phenomena - are generated by such bare elemental simplicity in the fundamental physical structure. Consciousness, and giraffes, and the internet, come out of quantum fields interacting in (and with) spacetime. In a sense, it is like something coming from nothing. It is counterintuitive to us, but empty expanding space can generate vast numbers of particles, and a uniform sea of particles can self-organize gravitationally into stars and planets, and simple combinations of particles in the right environment can duplicate and produce very peculiar, animate complex objects, "life," and so on. We can reproduce some of it with numerical simulations before our very eyes, and we can understand each step, but there's still the baffling sense that an incomprehensible miracle just happened.
The very deep and mysterious reality is that the potential for all this complexity is there - really there - in the laws of physics, just like the information of a tree is present in a seed. And that hidden potential for everything from death to sexuality (and much more beyond the human experience) is part of what it means for the laws of physics to be what they are. To fully understand those laws at a fundamental level (say, string theory), you would really need to understand everything that can come out of string theory. Only then could you understand what that "seed" really is.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 1:58 PM
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Christian apologists are fond of using the cosmological argument to support the existence of God. It goes like this:
1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause (and the cause is God).
There are problems in this argument at each step (despite the fact that the conclusion is correct - see last paragraph):
1. The idea of a "beginning" in time is taken for granted, but this is not a well-defined idea.
Our experience of time gives us the impression that time "flows" forward, and that the past is more "original" than the future, in that past events "cause" future events rather than vice versa. But notice how hard it is to define what these words mean in a precise way - in the language of physics. (Time is, after all, a physical reality.) The forward flowing of time is our experience, but there need not be anything in the fundamental physical structure that corresponds to this. Likewise, "causation" is a useful concept for us, as events at one time determine or at least correlate to events at other times, but there is no "causation" ingredient in the laws of physics.
We cannot define "beginning" as "first moment of existence in time" because time itself may break down as we approach the Big Bang. If instead we mean that the universe has a finite past, it does not follow simply from that that we need something else to explain it (as is meant by "cause") any more than we would if it was past-eternal. As we approach the Big Bang, time itself may break down, or it may become like space in such a way that there is no boundary or original moment in time. In short, we have to rethink our intuition of time and causation when we are pushing these concepts beyond the regime where we know they are reliable. "Earlier" cannot necessarily mean "more original/fundamental" if in fact "earlier" ceases to mean anything at all. And if that is the case, past events are in no more need of an explanation than later events (what may need an explanation is the universe as a whole, with its particular physical structure, rather than any "beginning.")
2. The universe may or may not have a beginning, in the sense of having a finite past. Some physicists say yes, others no. There is no consensus on this question.
3. If the first two steps were valid, they would indeed imply that the universe has a cause. But what kind of cause? What grounds is there for identifying this cause with anything like the God of Christianity? I could elaborate if there were more grounds for discussion from the first two steps, which is doubtful.
God is real, and Christianity is true. And the universe does need an explanation beyond itself - it is not self-explanatory. But misusing physics and cosmology with unclear, ill-defined language in an attempt to support that truth does it a disservice, and unnecessarily discredits belief in God. What cries out for a deeper explanation is not the dynamics of the early universe or physical structure of "time" at the Big Bang (in principle, physics is a perfectly sufficient tool to describe this), but our perception of the world on quite a different level.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 2:31 PM
Saturday, August 24, 2013
The goal of physics is to find a complete description of physical reality - to identify the laws or structure of the physical world that can account for all the phenomena we observe, from galaxy formation to wind patterns to ant colonies. Once the initial conditions of the universe are specified at some early time, the laws of physics completely govern the future evolution of the universe. (There are of course quantum mechanical events in which the state of the universe, or some subsystem of it such as a collection of particles, "collapses" to one among many possibilities in an unpredictable way. But these events are governed by very precise and definite rules of probability.)
What room could this leave for God to interact with the world, or with us? Usually when cosmologists talk about the universe (or perhaps multiverse), they don't consider anything "outside" it that might influence it. That is, it is thought of as a closed system. And indeed, it is hard to imagine how anything outside the universe could affect it in a way that respects the laws of physics, which are very rigid and tightly constrained. In order to answer scientific questions, there's no use to introducing new entities outside the universe unless they can be described with physics and interact with the universe in a way that explains some unexplained phenomenon or observation.
Christianity, however, takes the universe as we know it to be part of a larger reality, which originates with God. God interacts with our world in detailed ways - responding to our prayers, working through specific events in peoples' lives, and most importantly, entering the world in human form in Jesus.
All of these claims seem problematic on the level of physics. For example, how are our prayers accessible to God, and how could God set things up in such a staggeringly precise way that specific events in individual human lives could all be encoded in an earlier state of the universe? We cannot say anything as wishy-washy as "God is all-knowing and all-powerful, so God simply must be able to interact with the world in this detailed way." That is a cop-out, and fails to grasp that it is a scientific question. Although such theological language may carry truth, it is not helpful here, because it forces the issue onto a different playing field, when in fact the playing field of physics is not only legitimate, but essential. We are concerned with God's interaction with a physical world described and constrained by physical laws, which cannot simply be "broken" by God anymore than 1+1 made equal to 3: it is inconsistent with His very nature, and therefore impossible.
We might consider various speculative possibilities. Is the initial state of the universe determined in a very precise way so that the evolution of the universe involves the desired specific events? This might work for a completely deterministic universe, but one might object that it seems ad hoc and inelegant. Is there "room" for God to act through the indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics? It's difficult to see how, without messing with the quantum mechanical rules of probability. But perhaps those probabilities describe the vast array of potential histories of the universe (or actual histories, in the many-worlds interpretation), and the realization of just one of those histories is a separate issue. Perhaps, both in the particular realization of the initial conditions of the universe and the particular realizations of quantum mechanical events, a single history is selected from an infinite number of possible histories. How much "fine-tuning," one might wonder, would this require, in order to sync everything together so that events in human lives work out in a very detailed way?
We cannot say. There is certainly no compelling physical theory of how God may interact with the world, but there is much we do not know of the extent of physical reality, and the origin of our universe. So we would be wise not to hastily rule out the possibility that perhaps the universe is not as closed as it seems.
Whatever the case may be, the sum total of reality - including God, our universe, and perhaps many other realms - is by definition a closed system. And perhaps God's interactions with us should be thought of as in some sense interactions taking place within a physical system, as God too may be physical.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 4:28 PM
Saturday, January 5, 2013
-Science has the potential, in principle, to describe the physical world completely; quantum field theory already gives a complete description of the world of our everyday experience. The explanatory power of science is enormous.
-Modern science gives too complete a description of the physical world for the hypothesis of God to be scientifically well-motivated. Efforts to prove God from science have serious problems, eg.:
-biology: intelligent design, evolutionary arguments for theism (Plantinga, C. S. Lewis)
-physics/cosmology: first cause (eg. W. L. Craig), fine-tuning arguments
-But as humans we are moved by the beauty of mathematics, physics, music, nature, people, etc. We can perceive truth emotionally as well as rationally. Beauty points the way. We must ask the eternal questions: why do we exist, love, suffer, die?
-The beauty, morality, meaning, etc. that we perceive are better understood as being derived from “God,” than merely as biological phenomena, although they are that as well. By “God” I mean an ultimate Being as the source and foundation of reality (a flexible but meaningful definition).
-Mystery, wonder, awe: In mathematics and physics we perceive a deep and old beauty, coming from the roots of reality. In the stars, the trees, the sea, in stories, in music, we perceive a high beauty, from above.
-The world we know is full of light and darkness, beauty and suffering. It is broken, a beauty marred, but there is a deep purpose at work. Suffering must be healed, good must overcome evil in the end. Death is not the final word, for humanity or for the universe. Hope points us towards something greater. We hear the great Music, we feel the truth that our story ends in joy. No evil can quench this spirit.
-When we look for the realization of this intuitive hope in known events in our world, we find it in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. In the story told by Christianity we find the same admission of a fallen world and fallen humanity, and the same hope for healing and redemption, that we know intuitively.
-The claim of Jesus’ resurrection is also historically credible (N. T. Wright), but that is secondary in importance to the beauty of the story.
-The Story, though sorrowful, is supremely beautiful; when we perceive this, we know that it is true and real. It bears witness to itself, having “the very taste of primary truth” (Tolkien).
-Creation is young. This world is a womb, a seed; we await its true birth and flowering in the new creation, and already in Christ’s resurrection we see the firstfruits. But we know only the first page of the Story of Reality. The seed planted through Christ’s death will bear fruit in new ways forever (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra).
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 12:34 PM
Thursday, December 6, 2012
In every earthly pleasure - a beautiful sunset or piece of music, moments with people we love, etc. - our desires are almost but never quite satisfied. They seem to point to something we cannot reach in this world. For C. S. Lewis, that something was God. So also for Augustine, who wrote that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” Our desire for God will never be filled in this life, but if it will be in heaven, then we must live in light of that. This is how C. S. Lewis puts it in “The Weight of Glory”:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.Read More...
We remain conscious of a desire...still wandering and uncertain of its object...which no natural happiness will satisfy...The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing...For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited...The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words - to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves.
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door...But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. We shall get in...It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 9:27 AM
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 12:57 PM
Sunday, November 18, 2012
When we stand in a country field at night and look at the stars filling the sky above, we see with our eyes many points of light in a dark hemisphere. But we also perceive a certain majesty and greatness, an other-worldliness and a particular beauty in the stars - there is a distance that awakens awe. This beauty is perceived with the help of our eyes, but it is not itself seen visually, and it is this beauty that is the beauty of God himself. Now one might say "the beauty belongs to the stars, and not to God." It is true that the beauty belongs to the stars, but fundamentally, it does not come from the stars. Like reflected sunlight, the beauty comes from God and shines to us through the stars.
Maybe it is something other than the stars that affects you most strongly. It could be something else in nature - the sea, or mountains. Or music - God, of course, is the composer of all music. He set the world in motion in precisely the right way so as to produce the mind of Mozart, not only foreknowing but in effect composing Mozart's music. Or there is the beauty of a story - that one movie or book that stands out from the rest. After all, a story is what Christianity is.
Whatever it is, consider letting it shape your understanding of who God is. When "God" is mentioned, let that experience or perception come to mind, and whatever it was that you saw to be good or right or true, consider the idea that God is the source of that, and that the light you saw is His light. His music, his story, his face. Him.
But we see the most veiled reflection - through a glass darkly and not face to face. In fact, we cannot see “till we have faces,” until we are remade, redeemed. What must He really be like? If God is an unexplored continent, we are only in the farthest borderlands. No, we can hardly even see the shore on the horizon yet. What must that great country be like? How far into it can we ever hope to go? Never far compared to how much further there is still to go. But let us all the more take up the Narnian cry, “further up and further in!”
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 9:33 AM
Saturday, September 1, 2012
Christian apologists regularly invoke the fine-tuning argument for God, but this line of reasoning doesn’t hold water. God may be real, but this is not where we ought to look for God.
Let me begin with an analogy. One might point to the radius of the earth's orbit around the sun and say "ah, if the earth were slightly farther from or nearer to the sun, life would be impossible; this suggests a transcendent intelligence or designer." But in fact, we can understand this observation perfectly well with astronomy: we've observed vast numbers of stars and planets in the universe, so many so that we expect statistically that even the tiny fraction that are the right distance from their stars for life to form will be a huge number of planets. If intelligent life forms arise on those planets, they should not be surprised to find their planets’ radii of orbit in the narrow range necessary for life. God may have brought life into being in this way, but you wouldn't be able to detect God's involvement by doing astronomy. Appealing to a designer doesn't explain anything that can't be explained scientifically.
Apologists like to argue that constants of nature like the cosmological constant or fine structure constant must be designed to have the right values, because if they were slightly off, life couldn't exist. But these constants may be exactly like the radius of the earth's orbit. Of course, we don't yet know how there could be other regions of the universe with different values of those constants; we don't have a complete, successful theory that predicts this, and we certainly can't observe such distant regions or universes as we can distant solar systems. But then, 500 years ago astronomers had no idea there were other solar systems.
Even if we don't yet know how it might be realized, there are in fact well-motivated theories in physics that may (if we understood them well enough) predict a multiverse, in which there are patches where any and all values of the constants are realized, just as there are billions of solar systems where any and all planetary orbits are realized. (We may not observe the multiverse, but we have to take it seriously if it is the prediction of a theory that we are led to by the physics we do know.) So, we don't yet know what is behind this apparent fine-tuning, but we have every reason to believe that a scientific explanation exists.
The values of the constants may, like the laws of physics in general, reveal the rational and intelligible nature of the physical world, and thus reflect the order and perfection of God’s nature, from which our nature has its being. We can recognize God's beauty and depth in this "fine-tuning," but we can't use it to construct an argument for "design." The elegance of the anthropic principle, despite the fact that it is often used by atheists to counter fine-tuning arguments, reflects the elegance and beauty of God.
Science reveals God’s nature via the nature of creation, but it does not prove the existence of God. That truth is perceived with the heart, through experience of the world on an emotional as well as intellectual level. This should be the grounds of one’s confidence in God’s being; Christians should not feel as if they must find scientific evidence for God. By grasping in vain at “design arguments” one arrives, at best, at a divine knob twiddling intelligence. If on the other hand, we search more deeply into the structure of physical reality that allows for and perhaps even “selects and enlarges”* life-bearing realms in the cosmos, we will ultimately be led to a more rich and beautiful view of nature, and of God.
*Perhaps complexity is self-reproducing, whereas simplicity (a stagnant simplicity that does not generate complexity) is sterile. If so, physical reality may be dominated by rich complex worlds, and where complexity increases without bound, life will emerge.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 3:46 PM
Saturday, June 9, 2012
A thought that occurred to me today, in rough form:
If you were a being that could know the laws of nature completely, the deep mathematical structure of reality, M theory or whatever is deeper and more all-encompassing, or to be specific, say, the laws of our universe...if you knew that, maybe you still couldn’t look at those laws and see everything that would come from them, the limitless unbounded glorious complexity, the worlds, the stories, the beauties hidden there, because those emergent phenomena look so different...but maybe it only seems one could not anticipate them because we imagine they must be seen from the middle world, as we see our world...one day the veil may fall, we will see more and more with the eyes of the One...we will see everything, not just the middle world, we will see the seed and the tree united, each in the other, we will see the mathematical structure as it truly is, and hence see the worlds and “trees” hidden so deeply within it, and we will see in the high and intricate and complex branches of reality, the same seed, the same structure, the same theme underlying all, and that is from the One, and through the One, and to the One, who utters Himself in the seed and the tree and sees all things, all things, all reality, the One and creation, and what proceeds from Him is himself, in the seed and the tree...all things will be seen, all will be known, everything connected to everything, and even if it is not known to us, and it never will be fully, it is seen and known and realized in the One, blessed be He.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 8:39 PM
Sunday, April 1, 2012
My favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings:
“They spoke no more of the small news of the Shire far away, nor of the dark shadows and perils that encompassed them, but of the fair things they had seen in the world together, of the Elves, of the stars, of trees, and the gentle fall of the bright year in the woods.”
“It seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world…on the land of Lórien no shadow lay.”
Sam's Journey at the End:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”
“And then softly, to his own surprise, there at the vain end of his long journey and his grief, moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell, Sam began to sing. And then suddenly new strength rose in him, and his voice rang out, while words of his own came unbidden to fit the simple tune:
In western lands beneath the Sun the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run, the merry finches sing.
Or maybe ’tis cloudless night and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white amid their branching hair.
Though here at journey’s end I lie in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high, beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun and Stars forever dwell:
I will not say the day is done or bid the stars farewell.”
“In this phial is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” – Galadriel
“He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.”
“They cannot conquer forever.”
“O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!” – Sam; from one of the best chapters of the trilogy, "The Field of Cormallen"
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – Haldir
"Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?" - Sam
Gandalf's resurrection: "His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear, they found no words to say."
"And this I also say: you are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine: But we have One, mightier than they: the White Rider." – Aragorn
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be King.”
“The hands of the King are the hands of a healer...Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.”
“Even now my heart desires to test my will upon it, to see if I could not wrench it from him and turn it where I would – to look across the wide seas of water and of time to Tirion the Fair, and perceive the unimaginable hand and mind of Fëanor at their work, while both the White Tree and the Golden were in flower!” – Gandalf
“Tall ships and tall kings, three times three,
What brought they from the foundered land, over the flowing sea?
Seven stars and seven stones And one white tree.”
“The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.” - Treebeard
“My name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story." - Treebeard
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
Quotes from The Silmarillion:
“The song of Lúthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that ever the world shall hear.”
“Farewell sweet earth and northern sky,
for ever blest, since here did lie
and here with lissom limbs did run
beneath the Moon, beneath the Sun,
more fair than mortal tongue can tell.
Though all to ruin fell the world
and were dissolved and backward hurled
unmade into the old abyss,
yet were its making good, for this-
the dusk, the dawn, the earth, the sea-
that Lúthien for a time should be.”
“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more beautiful, which he himself hath not imagined.” – Eru (God)
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 11:34 PM
Thursday, March 8, 2012
God may be, like our universe, “physical.” Not in the sense of having a body or of being in a particular location in space, or of experiencing reality in a sensory way like we do. I do not mean "physical" in that sense, which is more directly tied to our experience. What does it mean for the world to be physical, apart from human experience? - say, when earth was still forming and no life existed. Perhaps the key element is mathematics: the presence of underlying mathematical structure (of the laws of physics) governing how the world works. (Our sensory human experience of the world as "physical" can be described in this way.) This mathematical structure is tightly constrained and cannot simply be modified in any old way. It is probably best to think of the laws of physics, then, as being comparable to mathematical truths on a fundamental level: necessary truths, inherent to God's very nature. (The laws of our particular world - general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics - do not appear to be necessary in this way, but is likely some deeper structure that is.) And it is difficult to conceive of any world or any reality at all without some mathematical description applying. This deep link between (physical) reality and mathematics leads us towards the idea that God himself is "physical" in a similar sense. Over and against an amorphous, fuzzy entity that summoned into existence a creation based on something (mathematics) wholly other than itself, and over and against the idea of an inventor God mechanically designing physical/mathematical laws for our world that have nothing much to do with His own nature, we should think of God as "giving birth" to a creation made deeply in His own image, on both "fundamental" and "emergent" levels.
To probe further, whereas our complex universe is generated from simple laws of nature, which we know in part, God in his fullness may be “generated” by deep and simple laws of the divine nature. That may sound provocative or even heretical to some, so let me explain.
Physicists are working hard to understand the fundamental physics which describes our world; we know that very simple equations and mathematical structures perfectly describe the world we live in. In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking gives a toy example: “the game of life,” in which 4 simple rules generate a complex “universe.” In this case the “universe” is a flat, two-dimensional, discrete grid of squares evolving in time in discrete steps - obviously very different from our universe. But they share the same pattern: simple mathematical laws/structure - a “seed” - can generate infinitely complex structure - a “tree.”
Now, what do we mean when we say our world is “physical”? It is a word best defined by experience: when we experience the world with our five senses, we experience “physical” reality. When scientists test out theories to see if they match what happens in the lab, they study the “physical” world. This “physical” universe is precisely the complex “tree” that emerges from, or is generated by, simple laws of nature. Physicists have uncovered parts of those laws, but much is unknown. Whatever this unknown “seed” of our universe is, it is real in the sense that the world we experience, which emerges from it, is real. As far as we know, what we experience as the “physical” world is what is generated from this seed, and it may be that any possible “physical” reality would be marked by the same pattern.
God may be “physical” in a similar sense. If God exists, mathematical truth is certainly part of his divine nature, simply because mathematics is the language and structure of all reality, both God and creation. In mathematics we always find complexity emerging from simplicity, and so it may be within God. A simple mathematical “seed” may generate God in his fullness (in Christianity, this means the Trinity), just as simple laws have generated our universe, in which there are sentient beings. (I first explored this idea here, reacting to Dawkins’ argument for atheism in The God Delusion.) And if this pattern is shared, then what we experience as “physical” may also be quality shared by God.
Now, when I say “generate” or “emerge,” I do not mean that God was “born” from or created by the physical/mathematical seed. That is, I do not mean that the seed was simply there in the beginning, self-existent in itself, and that God came from it. If that were so, we would call the seed “God” and call God something else. On the contrary, the whole of God - the tree, the underlying seed, and the emergence of the tree from the seed - is self-existent, simply there in the beginning. The “process” of emergence does not “occur” in time or out of time, but is an eternal aspect of God’s nature. We should not speak of one part of God depending on another part of God. God is One. The fullness of God is inseparable from the seed: the tree is hidden within it, in a sense.
At this point, the analogy between God and the universe breaks down somewhat. A common view among physicists is that the laws of Nature are just there; they generate the universe, and so the universe is just there, but only insofar as Nature was there to generate it. But if we maintain that God is just there, we must maintain that the reason why there is something instead of nothing cannot be found in the physical/mathematical seed, or in any part, but only in the whole of God. God is more than the product of the “core” of his divine nature. Again, God is One.
If this picture of God is on the right track towards the truth (of course, it may be wrong), there are many implications. For example,
- If God Himself is physical, how vast and endless might physical reality be? Our universe may just be a single seed dropped from the Great Tree that is God. That Tree may be infinitely fruitful: there may be worlds without end, each completely unique, and maybe each wildly different from our universe. We must use our imagination!
- If God may be described as “physical” in a way at all like the physical universe we know, then our physical, sensory experience of reality may reflect, in small degree, God’s infinitely greater divine life and experience.
- God is no less infinite and beautiful and glorious if the word “physical” describes God; rather, it is the greatest possible affirmation or exaltation of “physicality.” It is the ultimate defeater of the view that our material existence is trivial or unimportant, and that what really matters is our spiritual capacity, or immaterial souls. We ought never to say “mere matter” if the depth and height and beauty and meaning of the spiritual realm is rooted in the material seed, and especially if this pattern is in God himself.
- If the Incarnation of God as a human being in Jesus affirms the goodness of our physical bodies and gives new meaning to our bearing “the image of God,” then how much more if “the physical” reflects something inherent to God’s very nature. We may bear “the image of God” in ways we never imagined.
- The physical/mathematical laws that may characterize God would be extremely different than those of our universe. They would be perfect, supremely beautiful, holy, whereas as the laws of our universe would be, in comparison, lowly and imperfect. They would be the laws of a beautiful but broken world, in need of healing, whereas the laws of the divine Nature would be those of an unspeakably and infinitely glorious Being.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 1:13 PM
Monday, January 30, 2012
Who is God, really? How should we think of God? We can begin by recognizing that we cannot know God. He is infinite, we are finite. He is the uncreated One, we are created. We can never fully cross this chasm by ourselves; it is like staring at the Sun, or climbing an infinite mountain. There are mysteries we will never grasp, depths we will never plumb, heights too high even for the Seraphim. Is this cause for discouragement? No indeed. This realization brings from C. S. Lewis the greatest outburst of praise, culminating what is perhaps the most beautiful chapter in all his writing. In Perelandra he speaks of “the Abyss of the Father, into which if a creature drop down his thoughts for ever he shall hear no echo return to him. Blessed, blessed, blessed be He!" No matter how much we take in in ages and worlds to come, there will always be abundantly more of God to discover. We will always be able to drop our thoughts down so deep that no echo ever returns. No echo!
Only after realizing this can we appreciate the truth that God has crossed this great chasm. The Incarnation is the fall of God, the descent of the Creator into creation. Before God became a man, the world was, though fallen, still reflecting His light: We may see God’s beauty in the stars, or in great music, or in human relationships, and exclaim with Lewis “what must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” But now in Jesus, God has given us a face, an “image” as Paul says. In this man’s deep love and humility, set side by side with his bold authority, and in his great courage at the end - in all this the greatest light breaks through. We see in small measure the personality of God, the character of a Person.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 2:21 PM
Friday, December 16, 2011
On the subject of mathematical beauty, something I've mentioned before (eg. here and here), I couldn't resist pointing to this post about roots of polynomials from John Baez's blog...fascinating stuff. The basic idea: if you plot the complex roots of degree-24 polynomials, with coefficients 1 or -1, in the complex plane, you get the beautiful pattern below. Complexity emerges from simplicity, or if you prefer, within complexity, simplicity is hidden.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 5:01 PM
Monday, December 12, 2011
For those interested in the history and future of our universe, here is a link to a paper I wrote for my cosmology class. It's a summary of various attempts to identify what is causing the accelerated expansion of the universe (this year's Nobel prize in physics was awarded to the discoverers of this fact). Whatever it is, it's been given the name "dark energy."
Dark energy might turn out to be the cosmological constant, a parameter in Einstein's field equations, which relate matter to the curvature of spacetime. If so, we are faced with the question of why it is so small (there could be much much more dark energy). One potential explanation, advocated by Steven Weinberg, is that the cosmological constant varies over vast regions of space (or in different "universes" that comprise a "multiverse"), and life can only exist where the cosmological constant has a very small value. Thus, wherever life is in the universe, it will have to observe a small value of the cosmological constant. (For a more detailed explanation, see the paper.)
Some Christian apologists have viewed this explanation as a philosophically motivated attempt to escape the implication that God "finely tuned" the cosmological constant so that life could exist. The problem with this view is that it jumps the gun and fills the "gap" that science has not yet explained by appealing to God. But the value of the cosmological constant / dark energy is a scientific question, and theoretical physicists may very well yet be able to give a well-grounded explanation. Time and again, apparent appearances of "design" have found a scientific explanation, and scientific "God of the gaps" arguments have failed.
As a Christian, I myself believe that God is a necessary explanation for the world we experience. But we need to make sure we believe in God for the right reasons. Incorrect reasoning, even if it points towards the right conclusion, can still distort one's worldview. In particular, the wrong reasons may lead us to wrong ideas of God and the world he has made.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 11:22 PM
Sunday, November 6, 2011
A famous physicist said that truth can be recognized by its beauty, a principle which (when carefully qualified) applies not only in physics but to truth in general. The story of Christ's death and resurrection has this kind of of compelling, evidential beauty.
We find ourselves in a world full of good and evil, light and darkness, beauty and suffering. Reality is a beautiful portrait, yet scarred and torn. Why should it be this way? We live and love, suffer and die, and our bodies rot. Why? Death is not the final word, for humanity or for the universe. Hope points us towards something greater. We hear the great Music, we feel the truth that our story ends in joy. No evil can quench this spirit.
The suffering of humanity is so deep, and yet our hope so strong and sure, that God alone can answer to it.
Christianity tells us the story of our world: God himself suffered, bearing the greatest burden. He walked among us, and showed us love. He loved us till the end, giving himself unto death. No flower blooms unless a seed dies, and neither can creation be born unless it passes through the darkness first. But in Christ, it is God himself who leads us through this night. This emptying, suffering, even death of God in Christ is the greatest mystery, for through it all is healed and redeemed. Mystery and paradox surround the cross, where death overturns itself. A seed of resurrection is planted: the world is changed forever.
In the Great Battle, good overcomes evil. Joy is born from suffering. Death is swallowed up in victory. Love is the last word.
We see now as through a glass darkly, but we will see face to face.
Where God is, there is the center, and he is in all things: in the cosmos and the quantum, in the primes, in the stars and trees and wind, in music, in our pain, within us. Each beauty is his Name, each ray of light is from this bright Star, even all creation is the river from this source and fountain, the One in whom all things are brought together.
He is Risen.
Let us sing.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 11:17 AM
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
There is a spiritual depth to physical reality, and by spiritual I do not mean “supernatural.” I mean something very real, “objective” if you will, something we perceive in a beautiful piece of music, for example, or in the physical laws of the world themselves: a beauty or depth that we cannot quite pin down. We cannot say for sure what it is or where it comes from, but I think we perceive something real.
The world is, so far as we know, quantum fields interacting with spacetime. When we hear music, these fields are singing to us. When we see the stars, the trees, the sea, we see the dance of these fields. The music arises naturally from them - in a sense it is hidden within them. The laws of nature are planted like a seed, and from them grows the tree of reality that we see.
The laws of nature, then, are also “spiritual” - as the seed, they contain within them the blueprint for the beautiful (and terrible) emergent world that we experience. The most basic laws, the unfolding of the early universe, the first elements, the first stars, our planet, life itself - all this is deeply spiritual. It means something.
If this sounds pantheistic, I don’t mean it that way. I simply mean that we should be in awe of reality, and that we are right to ask where it comes from, and what it means, because it does seem to mean something.
We should ask “what then is this universe? these fields from which everything unfolds?” or perhaps we may feel compelled to ask “who then is this, who speaks? who is this, of whom the laws of our world are but a seed falling from an outer branch?” There may be something deeper still, and greater, of which these fields, these laws of nature, and all that emerges from them, are but one part. Reality is likely much bigger than the universe we know.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 3:18 PM
Friday, October 28, 2011
What is Christianity?
It is a story, a tapestry, a song, a dance: a way of looking at reality.
A puzzle, a chess match, a tale of two trees,
of Eden and Gethsemane,
of mystery and victory.
A great legend of the battle between good and evil,
of evil turned against itself,
of despair turned to sudden, unexpected joy.
A romance of the love that overcame death, the life that redeemed death
It perceives the fall of man, our sorrow and sin, our darkness within.
It finds heaven on earth, God among men.
It remembers forever the courage of one man to fight on, to go where no one else could go, to overcome.
It sings of a life poured out unto death, an empty cup that yet overflows.
It tells of an unquenchable light burning in the darkness,
of a seed that fell from heaven, planting eternity in our world,
of a shoot growing from barren ground,
of joy born from suffering, the fruit of the cross,
of death destroyed by the death of God.
It defies evil, and sees that the night cannot conquer forever.
It perceives that good will overcome,
that all will be healed, redeemed,
all suffering put to an end,
all hopes and desires vindicated.
It tells of all things made new, of a new world born: the tree of which this is the seed.
It finds in death the secret passage, the beginning, the door to reality.
It points us towards that place sought by hope, from which all beauty comes, the stars, the trees, the wind, the sea.
Towards the time when we will see face to face.
Towards the center and fountain of reality, the One whose name is Love,
The Author of the story, He who suffered and rose victorious.
It is a paradox: it cannot be, and yet it is.
What is Christianity? It is the truth.
Posted by Elliot Nelson at 12:57 AM