Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,
“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.”
So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are.
So a Jewish carpenter gets stranded on a desert island for 20 years. He is finally rescued, but before he’s taken off the island, he insists on taking the captain on a tour of his handiwork. He’s built a whole town by hand, you see: homes, a butcher, a baker, a tailor. The captain is amazed, and then he sees two magnificent structures on the hill overlooking the town,
“What are those two buildings?” he asks .
“Oh, those?” the carpenter says dismissively. “They’re two synagogues.”
“Two synagogues?” asks the captain in amazement. “Why’d you build two synagogues?”
“See the one on the right? That’s the one I won’t go to.”
Does science invoke God?
If you’ve ever been a member of a congregation that is about to split over irreconcilable differences of theological opinion, you know how true the joke feels. But I tell it to mock the division between two faiths, science and religion. As the rift between the two has calcified, it’s looking more ridiculous and dispensable, like two old enemies who need to conjure each other in order to keep some militant vitality alive in their feud, Big Endians and Little Endians.
If we wouldn’t get excommunicated either from the Church of Science or the Academy of Belief, would we ask, “Is science a proper way to worship God?” If we wouldn’t be declared a heretic, would our church permit us to grant truth to all of science’s glory?
In the twenty-first century, an alert and dispassionate science should be able to admit that physics requires a metaphysical assumption about the way the universe works. Logic is a faith in its own, and believing in a universe that can be completely explained by logic requires a spiritual leap and even a certain blindness, especially after Kurt Gödel proved the limits of logic. On the other side of the limitations of reason lies the inexplicably unreasonable efficacy of mathematics in explaining the world (as Eugene Wigner noted in 1960), the crazy serendipity of, for instance, Planck’s Constant.
At the same time, to just say science explains what it can and let God be responsible for the rest – let God take the hindmost – is a losing gambit. It protects apparently shrinking territory.
I propose here that God has positive explanatory power in both science and religion. Quantum mechanics as we increasingly understand it almost demands the invention of some God-like Consciousness. And a vital faith, especially an organized and systematic monotheistic faith in God, should embrace our evolving, unfolding, scientific knowledge of the universe as Divine.
Muslims and Jews further possess mystical customs — Islamic Sufism and Jewish Kabbalah — that are so close to one another that the presumption of mutual influence is inescapable. Yet the transmission of these spiritual doctrines and practices between them is still historically mysterious.
The moral of the story is that anyone who is tempted to see support for theological constructions of the universe in quantum physics should tread carefully. That hasn’t stopped speculations by amateur physicists but professional mystics, and professional physicists but amateur theologians, to leap to the hope that quantum cosmology proves there is a God. Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (1984), Atoms, Snowflakes and God: The Convergence of Science and Religion(J.L. Hitchcock, 1982), The Science of God (G. Schroeder, 1998) are just three of many. There’s even an ideological rant with the title Quantum Theology (Diarmuid O’Murchu, 1987).
The God I mean isn’t a Christian God. He isn’t a Newtonian God. He isn’t a Cartesian God. He’s not the Great Clockmaker in the sky. The cartoon Western concept of God as static, perfectly rational, immutable, unitary, immortally consistent and knowable is inherited from overly-idealistic Greeks, from Plato and before him Pythagoras. They had a brilliant fetish for order and a gift for making sense. This Platonic ideal has had its splendid multi-millenial run. It gave us mathematics in all its elegance and the beautiful, aspirational dream of a rational universe that was smooth and simple and explicable and could be reduced to a Unified Answer.
Postmodern science, by contrast, calls for the non-Sense God of the Hebrews that Moses saw in the Non-burning Bush, the Dynamic Essence, forever unknowable, sometimes contradictory, receding, transcendental, yet mutable. Not One and Done, but always Becoming, involved in every aspect of the universe all the time. The grand project of our minds, the systematic quest for truth, is an expression of Divinity. A God needing interpretation as best we can by sixty-three volumes and centuries of commentary in the Talmud and the billions of words He has invited in the 1500 years since. The God that can be worshiped through science is an inconceivable God of Infinite Complexity, Abstraction, and Attentiveness Whom we can only strive to but never quite comprehend fully. This is the God who gave us the primitive alphabet for language in all its untranslatable ambiguity, not a reductive idolatrous god who gave us algebra and geometry and golden triangles and code as if the dazzling universe could be disambiguated in a cubicle. This God left clues as to the inter-connected nature of everything in everything waiting for us to enliven them with our gaze and imagination. In short, this is the God of Language, of a Holy Tongue, not Binary Code, an Author, not a programmer.
Metaphysics of the church of physics
Woody Allen said, “Love may be the answer. But while you’re waiting for the answer, sex poses some pretty good questions.” A Grand Unified Theory of Everything may be the answer, but while we’re waiting, quantum physics poses some pretty good questions, theological questions about the origin of life, the nature of mind, and the possibility that the universe collapses into this reality because Someone Impossibly Infinite to Imagine is observing every quantum event in the universe. The alternative is an equally inconceivable explanation: that every time a quantum probability wave collapses into reality, another universe is created, the so-called Multiverse Hypothesis.
There is now a serious discussion about the way quantum mechanics may be implicated with the biology of consciousness as well with the fabric of the universe. For instance, in an otherwise brilliant and lucid book, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (2014) Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalidi show that quantum physics drives the biochemistry of photosynthesis, genetics, enzymes, smell, and perhaps even consciousness. This is transcendence, requiring the collapse of epistemological boundaries between macroscopic biology and sub-atomic quantum events. Yet, when the authors consider the possible role of quantum biology in how the mind arises from the brain or life from inorganic matter, they are quick to protest their orthodoxy by bracketing out any whiff of theology:
Can our new understanding of life [as having its source in quantum mechanics] replace the soul with a quantum vital spark? Many will regard the very posing of this question as suspect, pushing the bounds of conventional science beyond respectability and into the realms of pseudoscience and spirituality. That is not what we’re proposing here. Instead, we want to offer what we hope is an idea that might replace mystical and metaphyscial speculations with at least the grain of a scientific theory.” (p. 310)
It never occurs to these authors to consider the middle they have excluded, that the very “grain of a scientific theory” they are exploring in quantum biology is the essence of the mysticism they loathe. Of course, they can’t. They’d be excommunicated. Or at least, denied tenure. But let’s linger on this excluded middle. At the slippery, frothing interface between mind and matter, serious physicists who are quick to disavow any theology in their science end up sounding defensive, but not convincing. If we wouldn’t get kicked out of Church of Science, would we pose that pretty good theological question: Is life, the soul, a quantum process?
(1) Philip Clayton writes, “In this brief sketch of the history of Western metaphysics, we have seen that the problem of matter remains an unsolved conundrum. Although the problem was continually reformulated and redefined, every attempt to understand matter ends up focusing on the active principle of the intellect– that which makes understanding possible – rather than what was supposed to be understood, which was matter as qua [exactly that which is] non-mental. Again it is as if matter continually recedes from our grasp. One even wonders: could it be that matter is in essence that which cannot be understood, that which inevitably recedes from us as we approach it? Here one thinks of the notion of the transcendental signified” in the work of the influential French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. [1995b, 1998]. If the parallel indeed holds, matter is another name for what Derrida called la differánce, that which is always different from our formulations and which is always deferred into the future whenever we seek to understand it.” P. Clayton,”Unsolved Dilemmas,” in Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. ed by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregerson (Cambridge UP, 2010: pp. 50-51).
Of course, I believe that Derrida was an anti-theological Jewish mystic and prophet, who erected an entire philosophical system, preserved Jewish ways of knowing and discoursing, and even in part Jewish ethics, by substituting a very Jewish understanding of God with the idea of differánce, but that is another long story.
(2) Thomas Pynchon, that great epistemological jokester, quipped, “…excluded middles, they’re bad shit.” (The Crying of Lot 49). Oedipa Maas is hung up between the poles of deterministic logic and transcendence: “She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.”
At its most basic, a pun is a way of using the sound of words to make a connection between meanings that don’t exist otherwise. The husband confuses impotent for important. Of course, the major point of the joke is the ridiculous spectacle the man makes of himself because of his mistake. A minor point is the slim connection between his biological impotence and his impotence in language, although you can laugh at the pun without explicitly making that connection.
“No one sleeps in this room without
the dream of a common language.
– Adrienne Rich, “The Origins and History of Consciousness”
My granddaughter Siona is 23 months old, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?). But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, koh, bay, ekk, choo,sniff with nose [flowers], cluck with tongue [horsey]. She has a couple dozen signs that are fairly conventional in baby sign language: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”… Until she learned to articulate the word “yes” clearly and firmly this week, she had a funny way of nodding her head, tightening her whole chest and saying “Unnhh!” for affirmation. We all imitated it and laughed. Now she says, “Yes,” with a tiny trace of her former sign, and it’s disappearing fast.