God And Physics In The Time Of The Virus
We’ve long since abandoned the belief that natural disasters are divinely initiated punishments. And yet, as the virus ravages the land, who amongst us couldn’t be forgiven a slight twinge of something like guilt — a vague sting of what could be called “karmic justice?” Is this divine retribution for our accumulated predations against nature? Is nature itself rebelling?
Experts tell us it’s not God punishing us, but that the pandemic is, indeed, a reaction to human activity. “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses,” David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, recently wrote in the New York Times. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Accordingly, then, not only is the virus not a mystery, its spread was to be expected. It doesn’t make the situation any less scary, but finding a reasonable, science-based explanation can be somewhat comforting; it is the first step to a solution. Throughout history we have managed to provide scientific explanations to mysteries that once were terrifying. Ancient cultures may have believed that thunder and lightning were caused by quarrelsome sky gods, but now we know all about atmospheric electrical discharges. We’ve gone from believing in divine creation to an understanding of how all living things descend from a single common ancestor through a blind trial and error process called natural selection. The list of things-we-can-now-explain is endless. And, in every explanation, science has elbowed out God’s agency — so much so that God doesn’t appear to “do” much of anything that affects us on a quotidian level, least of all punish or reward. In fact, God appears to be indifferent to human concerns.
By succeeding at providing explanations, science has steadily annexed what once were God’s domains. Science, has largely replaced various anthropomorphic concepts of God: A kindly old man who lives in heaven, perhaps, or a god of many limbs and fearsome visage; a meddlesome God who interferes in the arc of human lives; a transactional god who responds to prayers and entreaties; a jealous god who demands fealty and devotion, dispensing rewards and punishments; a god who is appeased by religious rituals.
Here’s a scientist’s perspective: “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.”
And, yet, Albert Einstein (the author of the quote, above) was a religious man. “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds,’ he said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher, was precise in his definition of God: “All things, I say, are in God, and everything which takes place takes place by the laws alone of the infinite nature of God and follows from the necessity of His essence.” Spinoza in his Ethics calls “God, or nature” the one Individual who makes up the entire universe, “whose parts … vary in infinite ways, without any change of the whole Individual.” Spinoza’s God — Einstein’s too — was nature and its laws.
(This also means that though they may appear to be destructive of nature, human actions are themselves expressions of nature, which argues that nature — God — in her infinite wisdom appears to be indifferent to what havoc we may wreak.)
Einstein was determined to bring this God — a God indifferent to the human condition — into the fold of science. Einstein’s great, but unfulfilled, quest was for a comprehensive theory that would show that all nature’s laws derived from a common source. He called it the Unified Field Theory, an attempt to unify his general theory of relativity with electromagnetism. Modern unified field theory goes further in trying to corral the four fundamental forces of nature — electromagnetism, gravity and the two subatomic forces, the weak force and the strong force — under a single framework. Such a theory would reconcile the two major, incompatible theories of physics: General relativity, which operates at cosmological scale, and quantum mechanics, which holds sway at the subatomic scale. Such a unified theory, if it could be mathematically formulated and experimentally proven, would indeed be a “theory that explains everything,” indistinguishable, for all practical purposes, from a universal creator — Spinoza’s God.
But, almost a century later, a theory of everything remains a fantasy. Scientists — physicists have been at the vanguard of this effort — may be loath to admit defeat, but to a casually informed observer it seems that even as we’ve doubled and redoubled our efforts the true nature of reality remains elusive. Theories have sprouted like weeds, some of them quite bizarre to the uninitiated (stringy particles vibrating in ten dimensions, parallel universes that pop into existence with every act of observation, etc.), large amounts of money have been expended, but progress has nearly come to a standstill.
The most promising of theories for unification is “supersymmetry,” which is a framework that builds upon the Standard Model of particle physics to create a more comprehensive picture of our world. The Standard Model describes three of the four known fundamental forces (the electromagnetic, weak and strong) as well as classifying all known elementary particles.
But first, if we’re for creating a definitive picture of our world, we should note where we stand: Everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter, adds up to less than 5% of the universe. It turns out that almost 68% of the universe is something called “dark energy.” Something else, called “dark matter,” makes up another 27%. The adjective, “dark,” obviously refers to the fact that we know nothing about these things. The Dark universe cannot be directly observed, but its effects can be sensed.
So, let that sink in: 95% of the universe is a huge mystery; all our theories are based on observing only 5% of the universe.
One reason that supersymmetry theory could be considered as the great unifier is that it posits a new fundamental particle that could be a building block for dark matter. In theory. There’s no proof that such a thing as the dark matter particle actually exists. That’s why physicists were excited by the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. The LHC is a Very Big Machine that smashes particles together at unbelievably high speeds so that new particles are formed by those collisions. It was expected to create dark matter particles and in so doing to prove the supersymmetry hypothesis. But it didn’t happen. No dark matter particles were created. Physicists the world over were greatly disappointed that the LHC was unable to prove supersymmetry.
All science starts with a hunch (a theory) proceeds to mathematical models (equations) and then to empirical evidence. If a theory cannot be tested, it’s not science any longer. To physicists, supersymmetry seemed so intuitive, so “elegant,” and beautiful in its mathematical form, that it came as a shock to find that it couldn’t be experimentally verified. The burning question then becomes: After an unbroken string of successes in explaining natural phenomena without invoking divine agency, has physics finally run its course?
In her recent book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder writes of how the field that she believes represents our best hope of understanding reality went wrong; how she realized that subjective factors, such as an obsession with mathematical beauty, have infected physics, leading to increasingly weird postulates like strings, inflation, multiverses and, of course, supersymmetry, none of which is likely to be experimentally verified.
Our obsession with mathematical aesthetics has obscured a most important fact: Physics can, at best, only hope to describe “how” the universe works. It does not attempt an explanation of the most important question of all: “Why?” Specifically, “Why does the universe exist, in the first place, in this form?”
In A Brief History of Time, the great physicist, Stephen Hawking, writes, “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
Hawking’s observation from a scientist’s perspective echoes the philosophical perspective of the mid 20th century Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Tractatus, Wittgenstein, says, “It’s not how things are in the world that is mystical, it’s that the world exists”
With the failure of supersymmetry, have we reached the point where physicists must conclude that they cannot complete their quest? Must they admit that the mystery of existence of the universe is unsolvable?
Or, does physics need yet another reset, as has happened in the past? Over time, as our observation skills grew more acute, we’ve had to rethink some of the assumptions of physics to explain newly observed phenomena. Each time, this rethinking changed the way physics sees the world: Newton’s classical mechanics reigned until relativity — observer dependence — came along; and while relativity retained a deterministic perspective, quantum mechanics introduced a probabilistic view of the world. That is how science has progressed.
But even if reset again in a fundamental way, physics — though it does paint a very beautiful and intricate, but incomplete, picture of the how the observable part of the universe works — is not likely to shed any more light on the ultimate nature of existence because of a very simple reason: It’s impossible to comprehend the entirety of the universe from the perspective of being inside the universe. An observer needs to be separate from the observed, not part of it. Physics, being “inside” the universe, cannot explain the entirety and purpose of the universe, though it can explain discrete phenomena — subsystems of the universe — within it. All the theories of physics we have, in one way or another, apply only to subsystems of the universe.
Wittgenstein again (from his diaries):
“I know that this world exists,
That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field,
That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning,
That this meaning does not lie in it but outside it.”
Unequivocally, in Tractatus, Wittgenstein claims, “The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. It is certainly not the solution of any problems of natural science that is required.”
But if the universe is all there is, how can there be an outside? The key words in Wittgenstein’s quote are “outside space and time.” The universe, by definition, exists within space and time (or, spacetime, if you prefer). To be outside space and time, is to be outside the universe. Is there, then, or can we conceive of, an entity — a field, or energy, or matter — outside of observable spacetime, that holds the key to the mystery of the universe’s existence? It would be an entity underlying our experience of the phenomenological world. If there is such a “that,” it would not be accessible to our sense organs, nor to our minds because we’re trapped inside space and time.
Indescribable, inscrutable, indifferent, timeless, without beginning or end, and yet an architect of worldly experience. Would you take that as a definition of God?