Friday, March 28, 2008

Tricks of the Theological Trade

Ario's migraine -- or rather the scholarly trigger of his ailment -- reminded me of something I had started to write a while ago but somehow never got around to posting. The comrade over at Altering Labyrinth was distraught by the following statement by the mathematician Detlev Dürr (who teaches at LMU Munich):
"[...] while everything is deterministic, the universe evolves in such way that the appearance of randomness emerges, and precisely as described by the quantum formalism."
Now, although my own reaction to this quote was slightly less ... vehement ... the statement affirmed the general suspicion that I have regarding all things quantum, especially when they are being applied to fields outside of the natural sciences. Some literary scholars love quantum theory because they think it fits their deconstructionist bill. Chaos theory was all the rage amongst English scholars in the 1990s (as was the habit amongst Shakespeare specialists to change the names of their cats from Cressida to Schrödinger). But like me, most English scholars don' t really know what they're talking about when they take physics on board (and when they do, results tend to be far from convincing).

The thing is: people in the humanities don't need to think on the subatomic level. The cultural artefacts that we're dealing with are one hundred percent middle world. Anything above and below is not relevant to our work. Stick with the here and now, people!

About a year ago I learnt that theologians, too, like to fiddle with the subatomic for their own purposes. This disturbing epiphany occured in a lecture by a professor of "Fundamentaltheologie" at a nearby university , entitled "Astrophysics and Creation" -- a bold notion, I thought, and went to attend.

This theologian was a very nice man indeed – as nice as all deeply defensive people tend to be who are somehow aware that their message may be disturbing to many. They tend to hide this awareness behind a hefty layer of charm, though in this case it resembled the grating charm cultivated by the forever youthful hosts of the folklore and umpah shows that haunt public television in this part of the world.

Granted, superficially our speaker was impressively competent: the polysyllabic idiom of the natural sciences passed his lips with a similar ease and fluidity as his copious quotes from the Bible did. In the end, however, all this amounted to the kind of scientific sell-out that you would expect from someone investigating the fundamentals of theology for a living.

The charming man began with a brief jeremiad about the deepening incommunicado between science and theology. What a shame, he said, that science has left the comfort zone of big bang theory -- whose fundamentally ontological nature allowed it to be appropriated easily as an alternative version of the Genesis story -- to pursue its relentless search for a mathematical theory of everything. It seems as though the idea that the universe is meaningless, coincidental and purely material has triumphed for good. Wouldn’t it be nice to return a dash of the divine spirit to it?

Well, actually, I though, no -- but kept silent.

Instead of supporting the comforting notion of a divine pyromaniac in the sky, quantum cosmological killjoys like Hawkins present us with the terrible concept of a timeless, infinite space that may eventually be captured with a formula but a formula that leaves no room for a creator. As a result, human feel lost in a universe whose coordinates they will probably never fathom.

By way of a segue into the heart of the matter the charming man dropped an old argumentative chestnut: science might explain how things function, it doesn’t explain why they function in this way at all (Yawn). Here, he claimed, creation theology may provide a “reasonable alternative explanation” to those offered by the natural sciences.

Poor atheistic self that I am, and quite happy to lead a life with no purpose in a universe that simply is, I remained undisturbed by this epiphanic promise and instead focused on the how of his argumentation. And I sat there increasingly aghast as I listened to this charming man perverting the insights of rational science in order to conclude on a note of religious triumph by turning science (or parts thereof) against itself.

First of all, our charming speaker said, the reason why we should feel the need to explain the creation of the universe is given by science itself. Taking his cue from such fringe theories as string theory (only one of the more esoteric branches of contemporary physics, championed, it seems, by Trekkies hooked on the good old “Beam me up Scotty” fantasy), he emphasised that life, really, is far more complex than a silly little theory of everything would suggest.

Didn’t Gödel himself (yes, the Gödel who suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, was hospitalised several times for his mental imbalance and spent his later years trying to come up with an ontological proof of God’s existence based on formal logic) challenge the ideal of the world formula? And doesn't string theory reveal to us a world of such disturbing complexity that one single formula could never do it justice? We are multiple! (This is the point where Deleuze and Guattari ought to have made an appearance, but didn't. Maybe next time.).

Even “mere matter” (like, uh, me and you and all other living organisms on this planet – among many other things) possesses such a complicated structure, urging us to challenge the supposition that everything that exists in the universe is coincidental -- a term which he rather glibly equated with the trivial during the talk. But isn’t the coincidental nature of this planet and all life forms on it what makes it so awe-inspiring?

The fact that despite this complexity this world makes sense, he proceeded, suggests that this might be a trace of a divine signature in this mathematically readable universe. At this point he pulled out a lovely fifteenth-century book illustration of God in the act of creating the world in an elegant gesture of benevolent authority and absolute freedom, while an equally benevolent posse of angels smiled on him. And this world, he suggested, is beautiful in the near-mathematical perfection that its forms and operations take.

To prove the wild speculations supported by this uncommented conflation of a late medieval literalist image and mathematical graphs illustrating the time-space relation, the charming man shifted from the as yet unexplained singular to the plural. In addition to being free to create one world, God of course is perfectly capable of creating other worlds, he reminded us – worlds to which our cherished world formula might not apply (however, why this argument should counter the validity of a formula for this world – which we are stuck with whether we like it or not– is beyond me).

This plurality, according to our hero, can be discovered in contemporary quantum cosmology, which, he emphasised with a discernible note of triumph, has long ceased to believe in only one universe. Instead, the inflationary view of the universe proposed by physicists since the 1980s, which entails the possibility that our solar system is merely one tiny pocket in a huge accumulation of universes, can illustrate the idea of God’s freedom. "His" eternal omnipresence reveals itself in the ability to create multiple universes – an ability documented in odd religious tracts and texts throughout church history (for instance by Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake for his blasphemous Renaissance scepticism, and to this day unrehabilitated by the Catholic Church) …

… and, of course, in the natural sciences. Because really, the charming man said (on whose uncannily smiling lips I hung by this time like a rabbit mesmerised by a black mamba): doesn’t all this support the findings of contemporary physicists? Christianity was right all along – and really, the scientific model of the multiverse was an appropriate alternative model to theological conceptions of creation.

I repeat: the model of the multiverse is an appropriate alternative to theological conceptions of creation.

Not the other way round.

At this point it dawned on me that the slur in his otherwise clear elocution whenever he said “creation theology” – making it sound a bit like “creation theory” – might have been more intentional than I'd initially thought. I declined the invitation by the speaker to join him and the rest of the audience to talk things over over a glass of local wine, and instead stumbled out of the room in a state of cosmic bewilderment. Had all this really happened or had I briefly slipped through the membrane into an alternative universe?

Have I already mentioned that this was a public lecture at a state-funded university?

2 comments:

Jura Watchmaker said...

But he was charming, yes?

Ario said...

Now, although my own reaction to this quote was slightly less ... vehement ...

Cheeky minx.

I happened to be fine again after a couple of glasses of wine, though :)

(In case you're interested and/or don't have access to the actual article, I've emailed it to your husband.)