The nature of reality, part 1: God

This is the first in a planned series of posts about the nature of reality.

Several months ago when creationism vs. evolution was in the news a lot, I got into an e-mail debate with a creationist. For this first post in the series I will reproduce part of a message I wrote in that debate.

Why can’t you accept the fact that there was an Intelligent Designer of the Earth, since it is so so very intricate and works so so very well?

[Because] we can explain most of the observable world without invoking God. Those things that we can’t presently explain seem no different in kind from other mysteries that science manages to solve sooner or later.

When I say we don’t need God to explain the observable world, I’m talking about the kind of God that I think most westerners conceive of: an omnipotent, anthropomorphic superbeing guiding the growth of every flower and the design of every perfect snowflake. Well, I understand water crystallization and plant metabolism well enough that I believe they can run perfectly well on “automatic.”

It is at the extreme lower end of our understanding of reality — the level of quarks, leptons, and bosons — that I begin to admit the possibility of a creator. Here’s why.

Once upon a time, humans knew about many, many substances. Eventually they learned that that multitude of substances arises from a somewhat smaller multitude of molecules. Then it was discovered that the many, many molecules that exist can all be explained by a mere few dozen different atoms. Why a few dozen? Turns out it’s all due to just three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — combining in a few dozen ways. Simplicity giving rise to complexity.

Go deeper than that and the picture gets more complicated again. Quarks, mesons, photons, gluons, etc., etc., and their many crazy interactions. It’s a huge mess — complexity giving rise to simplicity giving rise to complexity? — but it’s still all very mechanistic, requiring no divine intervention to operate.

Sure there are parts we still don’t understand, which technically does leave room for the Hand of God to be at work, but eventually I think we’ll explain everything we can observe, and I think we’ll again see great simplicity as the basis of the design of the universe. My money is on the ideas in Loop Quantum Gravity: that all of reality — space, time, matter, energy, and the laws that govern them — arises out of pure geometry. Topological loops and tangles on the sub-Planck scale. That’s nothing more than a guess on my part.

But whether or not LQG is right, or string theory is, or some other theory that comes along, it still seems that there can never be a “bottom” to the explanation of reality. If spacetime is nothing but mathematical foam, or minuscule vibrating strings, or turtles all the way down — in short, if we can answer “what is the universe” — then there will still be the question “why is the universe?” Sooner or later we’ll tame the particle zoo of the standard model of physics, I’m sure, but it seems unlikely we can ever uncover the root cause of reality. When we finally have in our hands the mathematical equations describing it all, we still won’t know: why did those equations manifest into something we can experience?

It’s as if I decided to write an elaborate computer program to simulate a universe, complete with its own laws of nature and its own intelligent life. In time those beings might figure out all the rules of their universe, but what chance would they ever have of guessing what I’m like, or the nature of the computing hardware in which they are abstractions? The copper and silicon and tiny electrical charges of which they’re really composed would appear nowhere at all inside the simulation. The rules by which their universe operates would bear no resemblance to the rules of the programming language in which I expressed them.

Yes, I know I’m starting to sound stoned. Maybe I’m way past “starting.” My point is this: I do not think science can answer the big “why.” Philosophy — or, if you prefer, theology (at this level they’re both the same) — can, perhaps. There is room for God here, and it’s not the “God of the gaps,” the one who’s required to explain mysterious phenomena (lightning, flowers, snowflakes) temporarily until we understand them better, and who’s constantly getting demoted by science. It’s not the human-centric God who sculpts a landscape or cares whether I watch my neighbor undress or obliterates entire villages by fiat because of some unknowable plan. The God I have in mind may have designed the very topology of cosmic spin-foam (or whatever), setting in motion an entire automatic universe, not a mere flower. This God really is unknowable, not to mention impossibly remote, completely abstract, irrelevant to ordinary human affairs — but also vastly more grand in a cosmic sense than the great-and-terrible-Oz version of God.

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