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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

God throws a double six!

Albert Einstein once quipped that "God does not play with dice." He was profoundly disturbed by a new science that he himself had played a part in developing. The physics of chance or technically, quantum mechanics, is a now a well established theory that denies our ability to measure anything with perfect exactitude. We may, therefore, talk of the probability of a particle being at such and such a position and having this or the other momentum but more than this eludes us. The strangeness of quantum theory is revealed in the realm of the very small but has implications also for the inflation of such larger scales structures as galactic clusters after the Big Bang creation.

Hitherto science had been accustomed to allow for chaotic behaviours in such complex arenas as global weather systems and species population trends. Here, uncertainty and randomness affecting the ability to predict remained a problem within classical physics and was addressed by chaos theory. With the advent of quantum theory, however, indeterminacy was revealed to be part and parcel of reality itself. Theorists might still argue whether this concerned our ability to speak of nature rather than nature itself but the practical result was the same. We had to get used to a “fuzzy world”, predictably fuzzy in the maths, but practically speaking a landscape shrouded in shifting mists and ill-defined shapes.

For centuries, science and philosophy ... and religion as well for that matter, had worked on a deterministic understanding of the Cosmos. Laplace famously said (and I paraphrase) that were we able to know and measure every physical component of the Cosmos we could perfectly describe its past and reliably predict its future. If he had allowed for chaotic behaviours in his tidied system of inputs and outputs his confidence might have been well placed. So long as this view prevailed, it was thought that "God was in His heaven and all was right with the world." Now, however, in quantum theory, chance had struck at the very heart of reality itself. Einstein recoiled from such a prospect, declaiming that “the Lord God does not play dice.” Doubtless he believed, as had all the determinist philosophers and scientists before him that God had ordered all things in a uniform and predictable manner. The deity’s table manners were impeccable. But then came a new set of diners who did not obey the usual rules of etiquette. There was bound to be trouble.

The first dent in the deterministic account of creation was made by Max Planck who in 1900 realised that radiation came in little packets or quanta and not in a continuous stream. It was some 26 years later that Werner Heisenberg worked out the implications of this for measurement. Measurement means interacting with a system or object measured, but to do that one has to impart energy to that which is measured and this changes it from its initial state. A sensor fitted to a car engine to measure its fuel efficiency will given an erroneous reading if only because it has itself changed the mass of the car. The uncertainties inherent in measurement really show up in the realm of the very small. Shorter wavelengths are required for finer measurements but these come with higher energies that change that which is being measured. Heisenberg called this the “Uncertainty Principle” and it makes the exact state of the Universe in all its parts elusive NOT because our measuring instruments are inadequate but simply because no act of measurement could ever in principle achieve what it attempts. We may only speak of probabilities.

Schrödinger and Dirac then went on to describe all the uncertain aspects of a particles position and momentum in terms of a probability wave, a dynamic map of possibilities for a particle. Worse than this from an intuitive point of view, the particle is the probability wave itself. So, in this fuzzy description of matter and energy one can only talk of the probability that a particle will be at such and such a place when measured. The act of measuring itself collapses the wave function and one then has something which is classically “there.” How such observation achieves this is still a mystery. Look in the box and Schrodinger’s cat is famously dead rather than alive or alive rather than dead, but before then this thought experiment declares that it is neither dead nor alive but in a superposition of both states. If you are not disturbed by that; you are not listening!

There are other tasty morsels in this Danish quantum pastry. Particles may interact, separate and forever remain entangled such that each particle’s state changes instantaneously with that of its partner, no matter how distantly separated. Practical experiments have confirmed this effect over a few kilometres. Although the so-called “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum mechanics remains controversial in some aspects, the fact is that the theory simply works. It describes the real world perfectly in all its delightful fuzziness. Without it we wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to build lasers, computers and a whole raft of contemporary electronic equipment. So give thanks for uncertainty and distressed felines and Einstein’s when you are next at the supermarket checkout!

Nothing of course is ever so simple so a qualification must be made at this point. The collapse of the wave function is but one interpretation of the transition to classical reality and this, as we have seen, involves observation or, more strictly, an act of measurement. There are other interpretations of quantum theory where the wave function does not collapse. Some of these involve the universe branching out into unnumbered imperfectly cloned copies of itself corresponding to differing outcomes in a classical sense. This supposed infinite number of unobservable parallel universes where all possible states can be manifested, has been criticised on the grounds that it is both inelegant and untestable. The idea that there exists an infinite number of “you’s” reading this article identical in all respects except the precise colour of the spots on your tie (or at least that particular infinite set of “you’s” wearing spotted ties rather than striped ties) stretches credulity somewhat no matter what explanatory power it might have to account for this world as we observe it. The implications of such gross redundancy in creation might comfort those who shrink from thinking of this Cosmos as in any way special but it seems to me that this raises far more issues for science and theology than it apparently solves. If anything can happen and, given enough time, actually does, (Tegmark), then the Multiverse loses all interest as a place where anything happening anywhere is actually significant. Science, in word, disinvents itself by the removal of deselection. Why observe reality when you can imagine reality however you like it? I cannot help but think that this is an explanatory dead end, so let us move on.

Returning now to our review of quantum theory let us examine some of its cosmological applications.

The Universe only becomes classically predictable at large scales where probabilistic effects either collapse or are too insignificant to impact on the system as a whole. Even in classical systems simulations only ever approximate to their corresponding realities when chaotic elements are recognised. In extreme macrocosmic conditions, such as those connected with a black hole, uncertainty prevails yet again but on a very different and larger scale.

Others had theorised about black holes long before Einstein developed his geometrical theory of gravity in his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, most notably a clergyman and scientist, John Michell in 1784. Too dense even to allow light to escape and warping space time round its event horizon, a black hole is a cosmic censor where information can leave our Universe for good. In a truly deterministic Universe you should be able in principle at least to track and measure every natural phenomenon. Black holes dismiss that confidence. It would be trying to calculate the volume of water in a tank that had sprung an inaccessible and unpredictable leak.

A black hole is also an object that shows how empty space is not so empty at all. Quantum theory predicts and both particle accelerators and black holes show that the vacuum of space is in truth a seething mass of virtual particles and antiparticles dividing and violently recombining so as to account for the presence of radiation and gravity. Near a black hole event horizon, one virtual particle partner may fall into the black hole never to be seen again, the other might escape by staying this side of the horizon and becoming a real particle in the process. Stephen Hawking predicted this behaviour which would show a black hole to be not exactly black but a radiator of energy. These effects have been seen. They are not fancies. Eventually over a very, very long time, even a large black hole will evaporate away completely in this fashion.

So what happens to all that information in the form of humans, stars, fridges, and other associated junk that fell into the black hole in the first place? Well it has gone and gone forever. The Universe has suffered a massive information loss. One simply cannot get from the Universe’s initial phase to its final condition simply by the application of classical laws to a deterministic system. Not only is there colossal information loss on the way but also huge areas of uncertainty systemic to the Universe’s behaviour itself. Goodbye Universe as Machine, hello Universe as the Missing Sock Drawer. Some things you just NEVER will be able to find, no matter how hard you try!

We live in a Universe where anything could happen, and, more controversially according to some, given enough time, probably will. We live in a Universe where only probable outcomes are truly predictive. What sense then does God make of all of this and in all of this? In what sense now could He be said to be in control, to know perfectly the outcomes of different possible trajectories of chance and choice? Of course, God can always be projected onto the back cloth of eternity, surveying with perfect wisdom and serenity the outcome of all this chaos, randomness, indeterminacy and freedom. In that sense he would be the Perfect Observer although it is difficult to see how God could interact with His Creation as that Observer without submitting himself to the Uncertainty Principle precisely in his intervention. Must omniscience simply be a matter of knowing everything beforehand? I think not if that comes at the price of compromising human and cosmic freedom. God is smarter than that.

I want to suggest a different and I believe more fruitful model of omniscience, not based on the polarities of foreknowledge and ignorance but rather upon His personal knowledge of the principle co-players (the Cosmos and Life) and His own predictive abilities. Moreover this model suggests that God is more like an Internet Author with an evolving script incorporating the input of other artists rather than a solitary master car engineer where we all have to do is "read the manual." Frankly I believe that this is a more creative view of God ... a more noble one and in greater conformity with Scripture and Tradition than that boring old predictable deity of Blake who must either leave well alone (in deist mode) or be forever tinkering with the machine (the 'bĂȘte noire' of Richard Dawkins).

We need to articulate a new theology of creation that takes seriously the New Physics and that interactive model of divine-human cooperation that we see in the biblical covenants. I suppose when the Universe was seen as a Machine theologians fell to describing that covenant in terms of law, transgression and repair. This, however impoverished the notion of covenant by emphasising predictability, cause and effect at the expense of relationality and subjectivity. It was a mechanical juridical view; elements of which are present in Scripture but hardly emphasised to this extent. The New Physics however encourages to take the more rounded view of Scripture itself more seriously. How does it do that?

A God that throws dice takes seriously the Universe’s own story. He grants creation contingent freedom to develop without external or internal constraint. This is a Universe that IS predictable once a certain course is set but that setting could just as well be chaotic and accidental as measured and purposeful. Richard Dawkins takes this undetermined and chaotic aspect to be evidence against the sightedness of the Watchmaker, against any purpose or teleology in the raw data of life’s trajectory. However it seems to me that this is merely a matter of scale, (aside from the fact that he is still seeing God as Machine-Maker). It may indeed be that the accidental demise of the dinosaurs and the fortuitous mutation in key hominid genes contributed to the rise of homo sapiens but it by no means follows that the openness of causation is a design flaw. Rather on the scale of the history of the Universe itself, such chaotic processes are a necessary aspect of fecundity itself. If laws tightly constrained genetic mutation, if wandering asteroids had “life protection protocols” built into them why not halt hominid development and save the dinosaurs? If, however, branching possibilities and destruction are given aspects of diversity and creation itself (as they clearly are in the earth’s biosphere) then God must allow his creation a truly radical and comprehensive freedom.

Many believers do not find this an entirely comforting or comfortable prospect. If humans are made in the divine image and likeness then how might we contemplate that the Universe might one day swat us out of existence as summarily as a folded newspaper crushes the back of a fly? If for example, a gamma ray burst happened within a few hundred light years of earth, immediately the radiation cone hit, half the world’s life would be erased star-side. It might be comforting to think of God personally managing such unstable stars so that they behave themselves in our vicinity but I cannot go along with that or any other version of cosmic censorship. It makes the Universe an irrational plaything of Olympean deities and that is neither my faith nor my science. Must the Universe therefore reveal itself to be an even more merciless and amoral entity than we ever allowed for when we thought it was a Machine with some operational malfunctioning? In a word, I believe, yes.

As a species, we do indeed live in a very risky and precarious situation on any reasonable long term view. Interestingly we might significantly reduce that risk by moving off world to colonise the galaxy. That way humans would always survive, somewhere at least. However there is another aspect of this risk assessment and it has to do with voluntary sacrifice. If survival is not the be all and end all of existence then submitting to great personal risk for a consequent creative and life giving potentiality is a more integrated approach to life. Moreover it most readily applies to the Christian idea of the God who lays down his life for the World. If God is an Artist rather than a Machine Maker then this truth is even clearer to see.

If God is a Creative Artist and Lover He must work with his own created materials ... you and I. He seeks to make his canvas and pigments responsive to His touch. He labours over His creation risking all as any Great Artist must to perfect His creation. He is acquainted with sacrifice. If part of his creation is lost he enters into that loss, that place of abandonment and gives it a new fecundity and possibility of regeneration. This is precisely what happened of course in the death and the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-25) even makes a connection between the redemption of human tragedy, corruption and death and the regeneration of creation itself. In this humans are a microcosm of universal possibilities where death is not seen as an end but as a beginning.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.

This can be the only possible credible faith response to a creation that does not follow the rigid and unbending dictates of determinism, a creation that has the freedom to fall into bondage and corruption, a creation where God has so valued the creative potential of making “mistakes” as to provide the means by He himself may enter those mistakes and in his own flesh make them good. A dice throwing God is no stranger to Orthodox Christian theology, no matter how uncomfortable that might at first appear.

(Transcript of a lecture given by Fr. Gregory to students at Manchester University, St. Anselm's Hall of Residence, courtesy of St. Peter's Chaplaincy, Tuesday 16th October 2007, (c) Fr. Gregory Hallam)

What do you seek?

What do we say when people come looking for God in Orthodoxy? Do we hurry them into our "all singing, all dancing" catechumenates with their shiny Powerpoints © and inspirational testimonies from those who swam the Bosphorus / Orontes / Moskva before them, (delete as appropriate). Or, better, do we sit them down, or rather stand them up and invite them to "come and see." There are huge transitions to negotiate in becoming Orthodox but the first and most important is to learn how to encounter the Living God in this Church and having met Him, to repent.

I was wondering just now why so some people I have chrismated over the last 12 years haven't stayed the course. Most have but many haven't. I think that there is a tendency buried deep in the fascination with Orthodoxy to discover spiritually "the lost treasure of the Incas." This glittering prize has been dreamt of and lives spoilt in its pursuit over many generations. "The pearl of great price" .... "The best kept secret in (X)" ... "Orthodoxy - the Real Thing!" ... you know what I mean. Expectations are raised that becoming Orthodox will deliver on this great treasure. I will find my goal, my marriage will get sorted out, I will discover true peace; all this and more. Well, maybe.

Actually, becoming Orthodox is much more pedestrian than being on a treasure hunt and disillusionment lies not far behind any pedestal worship. Orthodoxy is simply being a Christian and in the most personally profound and challenging way. If you are not prepared then to change on becoming Orthodox and every day for the rest of your life then you will not find what you are looking for with us. If also you are looking for a sinless Church without any blemish then look not toward us but rather to yourself and learn first from your own heart.

Take time then to assess what you really want when you approach the Orthodox Church. There will always be a welcome for you but please, don't fool yourself. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, (Hebrews 10:31) and that's what happens when you knock on that door. You don't want to be anywhere else though believe me. The smell of sulphur is too strong. Take your medicine. Glory shines from the cross.

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