Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Beware the Theory of Everything

As I might have a mentioned just a few times before...I really love physics. One of the biggest things going on in physics today is the search for the ToE--the "Theory of Everything."

First a bit about physics. The physics you studied in high school is called Classical physics. Classical physics describes how things move and interact in the world around us, and does a really good job of describing the majority of what we can see and experience. The heroes of Classical physics are Newton and Galileo and Copernicus and Kepler, and from them we can explain almost everything we can see around us.

But in the past 100-150 years, our technology has gotten far more advanced that what these classical heroes had avaialble to them--both at the very large and very small scales of the universe. In a vast oversimplification, I'm going to say that this leads to the two modern branches of physics: quantum mechanics and relativity.

Quantum mechanics is the study of the physics of really tiny things. It tells us how particles interact at microscopic scales, and has been extremely successful at making predictions, and indeed many things we now observe cannot be explained through classical physics, only through quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics plays a significant role when it comes to semiconductors, microchips, lasers, and the like.

On the other end of the scale we have Einstein's Relativity, which explains the curvature of space and time. Groundbreaking when he came up with them, Einstein's two theories of relativity explain the motion of planets and the nature of time better than anything else we have seen. If you have ever used GPS, you have seen some of the practical results of special relativity, and we have demonstrated it many times as well.

It's probably safe to say that no other discipline of science can trot out as much clear experimental evidence as physicsts can in favor or quantum mechanics and relativity.

There's only one problem...the two don't play nice together. To this point, no one has been able to mathematically resolve both quantum mechanics and general relativity together.

Thus, many physicists search for the "Theory of Everything"--a larger, overarching theory which will explain all three main branches of physics (quantum, classical, relativitistic) in a single, elegant theory. Superstring theory is the current popular approach.

I was thrilled last month to read this article about Harvard physicist Lisa Randall--who does not seek a theory of everything. She says:

"I don't think about a theory of everything when I do my research. And even if we knew the ultimate underlying theory, how are you going to explain the fact that we're sitting here? Solving string theory won't tell us how humanity was born."

The article goes on to point out the uselessness of trying to reduce everything to a single explanation:

The husband asks, "Why were my car keys left in the car?" "Because the big bang happened." The daughter asks, "Why don't the boys at school ever ask me out?" "Because the big bang happened." A neighbor asks in tears, "I don't understand why, no matter how much I do for them, my kids don't respect me." Our scientist responds, "It's easy to understand. It's part of our theory of everything: the big bang happened."



We live in a society which frequently attempts to explain everything in terms of a reducible theory of everything. We want a single explanation which can sum up all available evidence. The problem being that such is usually impossible without becoming so broad and vague as to be useless.

What does this have to do with Rebooting Christianity? I'm glad you asked.

I find that most theologians are the same way. We wish to come up with a single Theory of Everything which explains what God did. Some are covenant theologians. Some are dispensationalists. Some are Calvinists. Others are Arminians.

In all cases, what we are trying to do is reduce all of God's wonder, complexity, and beauty into a single theory which explains everything. We must explain every action God made in history through our systematic explanation.

I hate this approach for the same reason that I hate it in science...it is not at all proven that all the mysteries of the universe can be explainable in some single overarching theory, and even if it could be it is presumptuous to believe that humans can figure it out, and even if we could it is hilariously arrogant to claim that you happen to be one of the ones who has done so.

If our God is real, then He is greater than the entirety of space-time, greater than anything we can see or imagine. You will not be able to fully define Him into your theologies.

If you feel your systematic theology fully well describes God...then you are not worshipping YHWH but a reductionist, make-believe God who can fit inside your human mind.

Avoid theories of everything--whether in your science or your philosophy. Learn to embrace the mystery of God and of life.

1 comment:

  1. From time to time, I've thought of Calvinism as the "theory of relativity" of Christianity... It's an overreach of proactively theorizing God's plan, and then decidedly decreeing it as Law. Getting so caught up with the "if-then" thoughts that the extrapolated thoughts are entirely presumptive and self-suiting to one's own need to "see the whole picture" for themselves. It would be like delving into the various Earth-Age theories, and (once you had made up your own mind on it) tagging it on to your Creed page or throwing it in there with how to be saved. Sure, it's something the geekier of us like to consider, but the instant you package it and export it out of your passing thoughts and into your own nice little Theory of Everything you start treading DEEP waters.

    ReplyDelete