Physics and Meaning

Mark Vernon writes the following in an article at BQO:

The conclusion would seem to be that quantum spiritualities represent an à la carte approach to the science. It’s not the science that’s driving the spirituality. Rather, the science is being mined and filleted for metaphors and analogies that fit a pre-existing sense of things.

In fact, it ever was thus. When Isaac Newton published his theory of gravity, it was not just astronomers that grew excited. Astrologers did too. The theory of gravity said that bodies act upon one another over vast distances. Isn’t this precisely what astrology had long taught — that the alignment of the planets and stars at your birth had a profound and subtle effect upon the body of the newborn? Newton was saying no such thing, of course. But that did not stop quacks running away with his ideas.

So, I don’t think there is such a thing as quantum spirituality. Instead, there’s quantum physics and then there’s the human quest for meaning. They are distinct enterprises. We gain from both. But throwing them together in a spiritual mash-up creates a spiritual mess. Spirituality is not only about the search for rich metaphors. It’s also about the struggle for fine discernment. The bizarre world of quantum physics teaches us that, too: it is extraordinarily hard to interpret the cosmos aright.

On the issue of ransacking science for spiritual meaning, especially when it confirms existing notions, I agree. Consider Social Darwinism, or on a far less malevolent scale, these folks, who came to give a lecture at Vandy a few years back:

(From the Introduction). In the last chapter we explore how thinking cosmically might help us experience what it means to be the human part of the universe. Though people tend to focus on their differences – classifying others into us and them – when we humans confront the universe all differences among us become trivial: we vary no more than pearls on a string compared to what’s out there. And we pearls may be far more cosmically rare and precious than most people realize. It’s only because humans are all bunched together on one planet that we fail to see how extraordinary we are. Science is allowing us to start sketching the outlines of what it takes for a planet to produce intelligent life, and this is beginning to tell us what aliens can be like. In this way we can begin to situate ourselves among all intelligent life and see ourselves as others might see us. Intelligent life is neither incidental nor insignificant but has a place in the universe so special it could not even have been imagined before the invention of modern cosmological concepts. By understanding the universe, we begin to understand ourselves.

Traditional religious stories can still arouse a sense of contact with something greater than we are – but that “something” is nothing like what is really out there. We don’t have to pretend to live in some traditional picture of the universe just to reap the benefit of the mythic language popularly associated with that traditional picture. People around the world should be able to portray our universe with all the power and majesty that earlier peoples evoked in expressing their own cosmologies. Mythic language is not the possession of any specific religion but is a human tool, and we need it today to talk about the meaning of our universe. Big changes are happening on our planet, and shepherding ourselves through them successfully is going to require tremendous creativity. An essential ingredient may be a cosmic perspective, and such a perspective is just becoming available. Not a moment too soon.

Make no mistake: this is the seed of a new religion.  The universe is our god (or are we the universe’s god?), and when we finally build a big enough telescope, we can tell ourselves what our meaning is.  Yet the pesky thing about mythic symbols and language is that, despite our oh-so-enlightened, pass-the-hors-d’ouvres, did-you-hear-Fresh-Air-last-night detachment from them, sometimes people actually BELIEVE in them.  Indeed, that’s the whole reason they’re so powerful, and why they’re perceived as necessary.  It’s also why, as Vernon says, we need “fine discernment” when considering them.

Reading the above, one wonders why the relatively intelligent life hasn’t landed here yet so those mean dictators around the world will finally realize that it’s incongruous with our cosmic destiny to starve their citizens. Or, so that developing nations will realize that the universe could think about itself a lot better if we quit making so much CO2. Or, so that those fundamentalist wackos will realize the obvious implications from our spatial/temporal/cognitive place in the universe that (insert pet project here)…  This is like the Star Trek claim: once we made contact with the Vulcans, starvation, poverty, sexual prohibitions, and ignorance magically disappeared.

And yet.  It is imperative as human beings that we find meaning in our existence, or otherwise face the madness of nihilism.  Is it possible that the universe can point us in the right direction?  The bible seems to say so:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)

As Father Stephen recently pointed out, everyone agrees that the universe is an incredible place. Some see God in the things he has made, and some do not. It would be easy for me to dismiss those who do not as having “darkened hearts,” following after the passage in Romans, above, were it not for the darkness that continues to fester in my own heart. There but for the grace of God go I. And if those in former times were without excuse, how much more so I, having in addition to their signs, the revelation of Jesus Christ, the light of the world?

O Gladsome Light of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father,
Heavenly, Holy, Blessed Jesus Christ!

Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening,
we praise God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For meet it is at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise,
O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world doth glorify Thee.