Last week, I watched a lecture on "God and the Multiverse" which promised to faithfully bring together theology and physics. Needless to say, I was excited. Unfortunately, I found myself deeply disappointed as the presenter [an accomplished physicist and Christian thought leader] poorly presented both the theology and the physics in a context of higher learning where this material is normally addressed with sophistication and ecumenism. Nevertheless, the lecture got me thinking about the science-and-faith conversation and I've decided to try my own hand at the task.
My underlying assumption in this discussion is that all meaning is constructed and, therefore, all meaning-making schema stand on equal footing, are equal in value and must be handled faithfully in order for there to be constructive dialogue (i.e. no academic discipline, worldview or epistemology is privileged above any other). It also means that when bringing together two-or-more fields of inquiry we avoid subjugating any field's contributions to the interpretive matrix or worldview of another. Instead, findings from each field are held alongside one another as they get weighed in light of the overall project and the unique contributions of their field.
How Science v. Religion should be.
Theology & Physics
Our task begins with recognizing the tools of each discipline. Theology, as the study of what humans think about the divine pursuant to understanding themselves in light of the divine, is a field of inquiry into human experience that investigates the language and constructs we make of the divine.1 Out of this, consensus emerges that is as much the product of lived experience as it is of the cultures in which that experience occurred. Dialogue and interpretation are fundamental to the theological endeavour and one need not look far to find this in a number of major world religions.
Meanwhile, physics inquires into the nature of reality (movement, energy, force, matter, etc.) as it seeks to understand humanity in light of whatever it learns about reality. Like theology, physics relies on consensus of interpretation, with the exception that scientific data comes from physical and mathematical experiments using the scientific method (another kind of lived experience). Both theology and physics advance via faithful, humble, peer-reviewed dialogue. Interpretation is fundamental, understanding is constructed over time and sometimes gets overturned when new data is discovered.
Remember, all meaning is constructed.
Now, having established this context it's time to talk about the "multiverse" part of our "God and the Multiverse" discussion. So we will return to theology in a moment, but first we need to understand a little bit about what the multiverse is, and what it does for us.
Multiverse (Many Worlds Interpretation)
First, there are many multiverse theories available for exploration and all of them are complex.2 That said, all multiverse theories share the quality of being descriptive in that they attempt to explain confirmed-but-mysterious aspects of reality for which our best understanding does not account. So far, no experiment has proven or disproven the existence of a multiverse and so it remains in the realm of scientific theory in the weaker sense of the term. Unfortunately, a blog post isn't a good place to address quantum mechanics at length, so if you're new to the "Many Worlds Interpretation" (WMI), here's an excellent review from PBS:
So, the WMI was developed to solve the problem of "superposition" - that mysterious wave of possible outcomes that's neither physically real nor not real - and its implications. According to its proponents, the WMI is more faithful to the math even if it introduces more complex problems and remains untestable (so far). Meanwhile, the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI) posits some unsettling challenges to the nature of reality as we understand it.3 So, who's right?
Remember when I said that all meaning is constructed and warned about subjugation? Well, here we see it plain as day: researchers on the spectrum of materialism vs. idealism wrestling with theories they feel best alleviate the problems they identify and a collection of theoretical solutions to match. Generally speaking, physicists leaning toward materialism/realism are more likely to adopt the WMI because it solves the problem of quantum indeterminacy and alleviates anxieties regarding the nature of matter (other theoretical solutions to these problems notwithstanding). Meanwhile, those leaning toward idealism tend to be more comfortable with the CI and its implications (again, there are other solutions here as well). Realists accuse idealists of deviating from the math and idealists accuse realists of violating Occam's Razor and introducing untestable theories.
And so here we have scientists doing the same kind of peer-engaged interpretive work we find in theology.4 So... what about theology? How do we understand God and the multiverse when even the science is screwy? Well, perhaps scientists aren't the only ones on the materialism-idealism spectrum. Perhaps also, we come to many of our conclusions not by objective reason, but by which constructs most alleviate our epistemic anxieties in lieu of hard evidence.
[Your] God and the Multiverse
So take a moment to reflect on which you find more threatening: does the notion of a personal, loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God comfort you? How do you feel at the suggestion that God might exist only as diffuse cosmic consciousness instead? What if God didn't exist at all? Perhaps, as an atheist you find any notion of divine existence so irrational that it gets your blood pumping.
The Copenhagen Interpretation that observation creates matter may not be tenable for a Christian theist who upholds God as creator of matter independent of human agency (let's call this "realist theism"). If this is you, then the Many Worlds Interpretation (multiverse) alleviates a whole suite of troubling theologies: pantheism, panentheism, Open Theism, Process Theology, etc. It addresses our squeamishness surrounding quantum indeterminacy and provides scientific justification for divine foreknowledge by proposing that God has already determined all possible histories and we simply find ourselves in one of them. It also allows for both God's active sustaining of creation and active participation via miracles without violating natural laws. Pretty Sweet, eh?
It also comes with fries.
The WMI's dual properties of determinism and infinite cascading growth may be incompatible with this kind of theism because theological integration is forced to acknowledge that there must be universes where evil exists by virtue of the quantum interactions that gave rise to it (like ours). In other words, by creating a multiverse evil is pre-determined, necessary, self-propagating and God-ordained. Scale this out and WMI realistic theists must account for infinite evil across the spectrum of universes. Moreover, accommodations for redemption in each universe are precluded because for every cruciform universe (like ours) there are even more without a redeemer. In the end, a theological realist multiverse descends into stalemate as the numbers of cruciform and non-cruciform universes grow exponentially into infinity.
Well, physicists aren't out to solve religious theological problems and so they may not have a lot to offer. We could explore other multiverse theories, but that would turn this post into a research paper. Also, recent attempts at theological integration by Christian thinkers have neglected to include a sufficient array of modern findings (this is hard in the context of numerous options), they have interpreted theoretical findings in light of their theology (subjugation is an easy mistake) and they've presented simplistic solutions in an attempt to make things accessible.5 On the other hand, adherents to the CI side of things have done similar work, but with fewer theological constructs to uphold in the non-dual spectrum of metaphysics (think "cosmic" or "Christ consciousness" as emergent in matter and the basis of a "True Self") some very serious work has gone into addressing the problems with the CI and its neighbouring theories (Ensemble Interpretation and Consistent Histories).6 Frankly, in today's context of competing theoretical solutions to the findings of quantum physics, simply navigating the spectrum of theories is daunting - let alone the ways in which this complicates the project of science-faith integration.
And so, I'm left without anything conclusive to show you and I would be misrepresenting and oversimplifying more than I already am if I tried! This is, after all, just a blog post!
Quantum mechanics is an enormous academic field of inquiry that will continue to posit theories in its unending quest for answers until technology advances to the point where physical experiments provide confirmation one way or another. Moreover, as all our deliberations occur in relationship regardless of whether you're a Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist or otherwise, those of us engaged in the science-faith dialogue must lead with an air of humility and ecumenism in allowing equal representation from all sides - including the potential weaknesses of our own integrative technique.
Finally, since all meaning is constructed, it is okay to explore competing worldviews and emerge from the work changed. This is, after all, the goal of all transformative education. I admit, sometimes we're presented with information so fundamentally challenging that it's tempting to ignore it and move on in ignorance; but take my word for it, the reward that comes with reflective work is disproportionately positive for the effort. So trust me... Be encouraged. DO THE WORK. Research, learn and come back to take me on.
P.S. Also, this one is hilarious!
Typically, theology is said to engage with scripture, tradition and experience (or reason). However, a closer look at each of these reveals that they all come from human experience. In the same way that tradition is fundamentally about human experience, no sacred texts come to us apart from it. Therefore, it is not inappropriate to suggest that theology is the study of how humans construct an understanding of the divine from experience. ↩
WMI and CI are just two of many interpretations in a field of inquiry so complex that no blog post could ever do justice. Recognizing this, I hope physics-literate readers can forgive me for "flattening out" some of these concepts and employing some generalizations for the purpose of a publicly accessible discussion. My goal is not to cherry-pick or misrepresent theories, but to leverage examples to illustrate the challenges associated with science-theology integration. ↩
Note: this does not mean that science is a religion - it means that scientists are just as human as the rest of us when they emotionally navigate interpretive ambiguities in lieu of hard data. The reason we trust scientists' judgements isn't because they're cold, calculating machines, but because we trust that they've been shaped by their work sufficient to lead us into truth. The same goes for any academic discipline. ↩
Two examples: (1) Alvin Plantinga neglects to address the problem of conscious observation in his article "Why Can't God Intervene"" and (2) while Robert John Russell's treatment in "Miracles and Science: A Third Way" is more robust, he adopts quantum determinacy to support his argument but ignores the issues associated with the WMI on which determinacy rests. ↩
A heady read, but oh-so-totally worth it: Fundamental awareness: A framework for integrating science, philosophy and metaphysics ↩