This is Part 8 of my series on Doubt. You can access the whole series here.
So far in this series, we've talked about why people doubt, and the dangers that can come with telling your community about those doubts. We've imagined life with and without God. We've tackled the idea that belief in God is delusional (it's not), as well as the idea that religion does more harm than good in the world (it doesn't). We've talked about the limits of human knowledge, and the assumptions people make to believe anything. Most recently, we talked about how some people (like me) believe that the conflict between science and faith is unnecessary.
All of that has been a long introduction for this next couple of posts. Let's talk about God, and if God exists or not.
Everything in this series rests on God. Without God, the Bible is just a collection of ancient mythologies and amped-up historical accounts. Without God, Jesus is just a guy who probably lived and had some interesting ideas attributed to him. The entire Christian experience hinges on the existence of God.
Is God real? We can't answer that without asking another question: Which God?
When people talk about chairs, all parties pretty much agree on the criteria of what makes a chair a chair. There is no global conversation about what is and is not a chair. That's not true when people talk about God. A lot of time is spent either using different meanings interchangeably, or debating about which definition is the correct one.
There are atheists who lack belief in any God or gods.
There are Atheists who assert that there is no God.
There are antitheists who assert belief in God is harmful.
There are nontheists who are atheists, but don't like the baggage of Atheism.
There are agnostics who say they don't know who God is.
There are Agnostics who say that they don't know if God is real, but don't think anyone else can know either.
There are ignostics who say everyone makes too many assumptions about God.
There are pantheists who say that the Universe is God.
There are panentheists who say that the Universe is God plus more.
There are Deists who say God is what made the Universe, but that God does not intervene in the Universe anymore.
There are Nontheists who say that God is real, but beyond any human understanding or definition.
There are theists who say that God is a being with specific will, agency, and a plan for humanity.
Among theists, there are many opposing ideas about God. The world's three largest religions all point toward the God of Abraham, but they disagree wildly on God's character, and what His (or Her) plan for humanity is. All the world's theistic religions are subdivided into countless sects that disagree about God.
We can't forget polytheists who believe that there are many gods out there.
"Which God," turns out to be a very big question. Let's start the same place the Bible does: the origin of everything.
As far as we can tell, there was a time when the word “before” had no meaning. Whatever there was before there was a before is completely beyond our understanding today. We have a word for what happens when the math of how we understand reality breaks down: singularity. The singularity state is deeply strange. We don’t think there is any time in singularity, although some scientists disagree. There is no light, matter, gravity, or any of the other things we are familiar with. Our current understanding is that all the forces in physics were just one unified force. Matter, energy, and whatever makes up matter and energy, it seems all was one.
When you are in a singularity state, big is small and small is big. Space is compressed so tightly that the forces that usually govern the behavior of the tiny particles that make up atoms and forces have an effect on a cosmic scale. This is very fortunate–without it we probably would not be here today.
“Formless and void” is as good a phrase as any to describe what was before there was.
Scientists have all kinds of hypotheses about what caused this state. First, there’s an idea that nothing is so unstable that it automatically creates something, and that this something is so energetic that it inflates forever. Sometimes little pockets of this something slow down enough to make a Universe, sort of like a bubble in a pot of boiling water.
Another idea is there are infinite Universes stacked atop each other like membranes of film, which sounds funny because how can things that are infinite in 3 directions stack at all? These Universes can stack because the stacking happens in additional dimensions that are curled on top of themselves. Sometimes these membrane Universes touch each other and you get a Big Bang in each of them.
If that gives you a headache, you are perfectly normal. On the other hand, consider a career in theoretical physics if the idea comes naturally to you.
Science may seem contradictory that you can have two different ideas about the same event, but that’s how it works. These ideas are just hypotheses–ideas put forward by someone on an educated hunch. Science works because no one will accept a hypothesis unless it is verified by an experiment or observation in the real world. The results of this observation have to be recorded, and you have to tell people how they can make this observation on their own. You publish all that and then other scientists review it, and confirm or reject it with other experiments, which are also reviewed. Most hypotheses don’t survive this scrutiny.
Occasionally, a hypothesis is tested so thoroughly that it is proven, and you get a Law. Other times, it becomes part of a large body of work that helps us understand the world better. These larger understandings are called Theories, and they change the world. The Theory of Gravity, The Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory are all so well supported by evidence that you can base further work on them. Theories are so well supported with data that you can trust them, and whatever problems they have describing reality are widely known in the scientific community.
However nothing became something, our tiny Universe was filled with immense levels of energy. It was unimaginably hot, enough to annihilate anything that exists in the Universe today at a fundamental level. When the Universe started to grow, it grew at an incredible rate–a process called Cosmic Inflation. The singularity expanded faster than the speed of light. We've found the first direct evidence for Inflation this week in the form of gravity waves. Gravity waves were first proposed by Einstein, and we finally imaged them in 2014.
Those of you who know a bit about science will cry, “foul,” at all this inflation talk. Nothing can travel faster than light in our Universe. That’s true, but we’re talking about space itself–the fabric of the Universe. Even as a singularity, the Universe was still infinite in all directions, it’s just that space itself was compressed. When space is compressed in this way, conventional matter and energy can’t exist. Mere moments after the singularity started to rapidly expand, our Universe was made of something called quark-gluon plasma, and we built the Large Hadron Collider specifically to reproduce those conditions on a very small scale.
Quark-gluon plasma is strange. Little bits of matter and energy appear and are annihilated really quickly. The things we associate with reality aren’t possible. There are no atoms, molecules or other large scale matter. Even light is absorbed or annihilated. Our Universe was hot and chaotic for its first 380,000 years, but after that something remarkable happened. Space had spread out enough for the Universe to cool and for the first time our Universe was transparent to light.
I love how this bit of physics echoes a more ancient creation account: "Let there be light."
The first light was very bright. Everything in all directions was much brighter than any star today. This event, more than any other, allows us to determine the age of the Universe. We took a picture of it. No seriously, we did. I get asked a lot how we could take a picture of something that happened before galaxies, stars and planets existed. The answer is simple: the sky is a time machine.
Light is really fast, but 186,000 miles per second doesn’t cover much ground on a cosmic scale. Things in space are really far away, so it takes quite a while for light to reach us from other objects in the Universe. When you look at the moon, you see the moon as it was 1.3 seconds ago. The Sun is about 8 light-minutes away, so when you look at it, you are looking 8 minutes into the past.
When I look at the rings of Saturn in my telescope, I’m looking about 80 minutes into the past.
The Voyager I probe is 17.5 light hours away. If aliens appeared in front of it, we wouldn’t know for 17.5 hours, and if we immediately sent a signal back they wouldn’t hear from us until 35 hours after they appeared by Voyager.
When I look at Proxima Centauri, one of the stars nearest to our own, I roll the calendar back 4.2 years.
If I turn my look at Orion’s belt, I see its stars as they were 736, 1,340, and 915 years ago. The light I see in the sky left those stars long before America was a nation.
Andromeda is the closest major galaxy to our Milky Way, and looking at it takes you back 2.5 million years–long before humans appeared on Earth.
The deeper you look into the sky, the farther back in time you go. And now you see how we can take a picture of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago. The oldest thing we can see is Cosmic Background Radiation, the echo from the moment our Universe was transparent to light for the first time. Two scientists measured it on accident while building a radio telescope–they thought it was an equipment malfunction.
Their accidental success lead to more intentional efforts (and a Nobel Prize). Our next attempts to sample our origins were done with ground based telescopes and balloons. These efforts were exciting, but they couldn’t give us a 360º, high resolution image. It’s tough to look at space from Earth as the atmosphere and the planet itself are constantly getting in the way.
In 2001, we launched a probe called WMAP. It was aimed for an orbit on the far side of the moon at something called Lagrange 2, which is a spot in space where the Sun’s gravity and Earth’s gravity cancel out. From this vantage point, WMAP had a clear view of the whole sky, and took a remarkable image: a baby picture of the whole Universe.
If you take anything from all this, please note that there is tremendous evidence to support an old Universe that started as a singularity. WMAP and later missions show us images of the Universe when it was less than 400,000 years old. Gravity waves take us back even further: to the first moments our Universe started to expand. This is what makes Young Earth Creationism and other literal interpretations of Genesis dangerous to belief–people who become science literate are forced to choose between evidence and God.
Physicists and astronomers tell us the Universe transformed from something singular and unfathomable into what we see today over immense time scales. When we talk about singularities, we start to bump up against the limits of human insight. For all our impressive accomplishments, any single human brain holds only a small, limited model of reality–of which that brain's consciousness is given just enough to operate in the world.
We don't understand anything completely, and you can observe this because our models fail. Anyone who's bounced a ball only to have it jump in an unexpected direction has seen the limits of their model of "ball" and "floor." When something surprises you, that's a difference in observed reality and your mental model. We don't have complete knowledge of our friends, parents, spouses, or children. We're even surprised by our own actions–there are mysteries in our own minds and bodies.
Our intuition is remarkable at dealing at the scale of things larger than a grain of sand and smaller than a mountain, but it breaks down when dealing with very small and very large things. Our language reflects the limitations of human awareness. Ask a science teacher to explain electrons. Now ask a University professor. Next, talk to a physicist who specializes in quantum mechanics. They'll all explain electrons using analogies, and those analogies will reflect different understandings. Our knowledge of electrons has changed over time: they've been particles orbiting a nucleus, they've been clouds, they've been wave-functions that exist probabilistically. If you talk to someone who understands the mathematics of electrons really well, you'll probably see frustration in their face as they try to put into words what only math can adequately express.
There are no words for electrons. We have to use equations to explain them fully. The fidelity of language is too low to talk about our current understanding of electrons. Math has much greater precision to describe reality than any human language when describing the physical world. And that's just electrons.
We don't have any working knowledge of how gravity works on a quantum level. All the proposed mathematical models and theories have failed to find validation in the world's particle accelerators. We'll probably crack the gravity mystery in time, but for know the fundamentals of gravity are unknown to our species.
Singularity is a whole new league of unknown. Language breaks down describing scales that are subatomic and cosmic, but math itself breaks down when you get to singularity. All sorts of variables start to approach and reach infinity–a bad sign when using math to describe the Universe. We don't have even a theoretical basis for observing anything beyond our observable Universe–spatially or temporally.
What does this all have to do with God? Almost all the world's religions call God, "The Creator". Most religions also say God is beyond our comprehension language–right before they use language to describe God. Most Christians would say that God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent being. But think of "In the beginning," from Genesis and the Singularity of The Big Bang Theory. What do terms like "being," "will," or "knowing" mean against that backdrop? Do you have will without time? Even the word "being" is linked to a particular state, and seems very limited compared to the tiny glimpse we see of our origins in the Singularity. When trying to explain God, I feel great affinity with the mystics who refuse to describe divinity with words. The Unchanging God makes more sense in physics that in Creationism!
Our models of reality (which is to say, our understandings about life) are provisional. We change the meaning of electrons as we learn more about them–and we haven't known about them very long. So, when I define God, I start by saying "at least." Physicists start any explanation of gravity with a disclaimer that our knowledge is incomplete, and so I do the same with God. My understanding of God is just that–my understanding, harvested from my limited knowledge of the world.
The other thing about my definition of God is I stick to things that I can prove and validate scientifically. Anything we take on faith is subject to erosion by doubt, and when I define God I need to start with something that will not be eroded by my own skepticism. If God is our creator, what can we prove about what created us? If God sustains us, what keeps the Universe together? This is the first definition I had for God after I returned to faith:
God is at least the set of natural forces that created and sustain the Universe.
As understandings of God go, this one is pretty easy to defend. If anyone complains that this definition of God is too limited, "at least" is an invitation for them to make a case to expand it. Others scoff and say that God must encompass the supernatural, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary comes to the rescue by offering this definition for God: a person or thing of supreme value.
I would argue that the "cause" for our Universe to exist and continue existing is a thing of supreme value. I can't think of anything of higher value. Everything important to us needs a universe to exist within.
I've been asked, "Why define God at all?" Some people want to follow God, but all the dominant understandings in our culture are either too ancient, and therefore against the findings of modern sciecne, or too numinous to be comprehensible. This has given rise to a part of our society that wants to know and experience God and spiritual community, but feels like they have to compromise their basic understanding of reality to do so. My definition of God, or axiom, is for people like that. Modern people who believe science is right when it describes reality, but also have some life experience that connects them to something more trancedent as well.
There's a reason that theistic religions outnumber deistic ones. Humans also experience God, and in ways that are more powerful and intimate than simple existing in the Universe. What does science have to say about those experiences? Where do they come from?
To grow our understanding of God, we'll have to study mystical experiences, and the human brain. For me, that started with Rob Bell serving the Eucharist.
This post generated a lot of questions and comments. I address the most common ones here.