Fire in the Equations

How oddly natural – as well as pervasively unreal – to be writing about God in Memphis, Tennessee. Here, two large theological seminaries, the Christian Brothers university and 350 churches representing all shades of belief from high Catholic dogma to the Unitarian notion that any belief is belief enough – with many varieties of old-fashioned white, black and newer Afro-American forms of Christianity in between – make God into a way of life; a circumstance that tends to turn any talk about Him, whether dismissive, critical, or even murderous, into just another celebration. The zone of engagement is widely diffused: bumper stickers, billboards, marquees and lamppost graffiti urge the power of prayer, the dangers of sin and the infinite mercy of Jesus. Christian muscularity here is literal: bulging T-shirts flash messages such as “I love God so much…it hurts” (picture of nail through hand) and, at the more combative end, “God is dead – Nietzsche: Nietzsche is dead – God”. In all this, well-worn labels such as Western monotheism, or even the term “Christianity”, faced with the balkanization of the one true God into 350 deeply held and wilfully separated versions, start to lose their edge. And one can be forgiven (a loaded word here) for thinking that general discussions of science and its relation to God – real or apparent, Huxleyan or Nietzschean – are a kind of abstract irrelevance having little to say either to true believers or to unbelievers.

Yet there is a plethora of such books, half a dozen in the past year alone. One of the most interesting of these, The Mind of God by Paul Davies (1992), was a mediation on a notion of Stephen Hawking’s: the idea that once physics finally revels the How of the universe we can come to the Why of it and so know the “mind of God”. Ian Stewart’s Does God Play Dice? Delved into non-linear dynamics and the over-turning of Laplacean determinism in chaos theory; The God Particle by Leon Lederman described the search for the one, all-embracing monad-thing from which the whole universe will – at last – be constructed; and my own Ad Infinitum…(with Taking God out of mathematics in its subtitle) sought God inside the mathematical infinite.

The God in these books is a familiar mixture. He is the believer’s God of Judaeo-Christianity – the God of Abraham and Jesus, as Kitty Ferguson puts it in The Fire in the Equations – inflected and layered by Neoplatonic ideality: in other words, the extraordinary amalgam posited by Western monotheism of ultimate lawgiver, final cause, grand designer of the cosmos, watcher of Man, remote presence existing before time, intervener in history, and so on. Even Einstein’s God, the Old One who doesn’t play dice, though mysterious and subtle beyond description, is committed to a rationally apprehensible and deterministic causality. But this kind of causality is something that few contemporary physicists – believers or not – are prepared to accept. For Davies, the question is why – in James Jean’s phrase – is God a mathematician? A question that goes back to Pythagoras’ deity and Plato’s installation of him within the eternal heaven of mathematical forms, and arrives, through Galileo’s God who wrote the divine book of the universe in mathematics, within contemporary cosmology.

Ferguson does not really explore these philosophical or historical aspects of the God-science link. What interests her is rather the conflict between science and religion, the clash between reason and faith. Her book repeats a series of agnostic questions. Are science and religion like two armies ignorantly engaging each other? Is each the other’s nemesis? Can belief in God and rational skepticism ever be reconciled? Will science one day – soon perhaps – prove the non-existence of God? Or, conversely, will it ultimately verify His existence? Can science and religion meet on common ground or do they shoot past each other, looking at the world differently, with different ends, different means, different standards of evidence, conviction and meaning? And so on. With such questions there are no answers, and indeed no conclusions other than one’s starting-point. The summary at the end of her quest could equally have been its introduction:

No depth of human need, no radiant faith, no convincing argument or intellectual exercise can create a real God, if there is no God. No honest agnosticism, no stark atheism, no brilliantly successful scientific explanations, no inconsistency between science and belief can cause God not to exist, if there is a God.

And that is more or less that. It’s as if, despite her interest in Hawking and contemporary physics (the topic of her previous book), The Fire in the Equations has stymied itself. By framing its inquiry through such opposites and being so concerned to save faith from the juggernaut of science, her account feels trapped in a time-warp, in the pre-modernism of muscular Christians and the fiery debates of Thomas Huxley rather than late twentieth-century scientific post-modernity.

There’s a reason why this might be so. The single most frequently discussed aspect of the development of science has been the relation between science and religion; and the picture of the two battling it out, the picture of blind faith and superstition versus reason and evidence, which they call the “conflict model”, is a late nineteenth-century invention. It ignores the deep and ineradicable commonality and complicity operating between the two; the collusion behind the search of the single, objective and final truth by science and the one, true and eternal God of Western monotheism who waits, at the end of time, for his believers.  Far from being in conflict with the Judaico-Christian creation myth, the Big Bang serves merely as its long-sought-for confirmation and rational justification.

In fact, the complicity, in the form of a shared metaphysics, can be seen to go a lot deeper than this. A single – but crucial – example: the very mathematics physics uses to tell its story of the universe, drenched as it is in infinity, is already ineradicably deistic; where the God in question is the disembodied agency outside time and space needed by classical mathematics to legitimate its notion of endless counting. Here, too, the late nineteenth century is the point of departure. The resulting journey and its ultimate destination however, are far removed from the conventional stand-off of faith and reason. What is at stake is surely not the attempt to resolve a historiographically fabricated conflict between the Judaico-Christian maker and rational science, were such a thing possible, but rather the dissolution of the very terms of this conflict marked by Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God – the event that he saw as “already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe”. This issue is about absent spirits: in the wake of such a death is not counting without end, and a fortiori the whole infinite apparatus of mathematics, forced to give up the ghost?

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