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The Theology of Physics

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 8, 2011 08:04 AM

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Throughout human history, cosmology and theology have gone together: A sense of how the universe works as a physical system has suggested ideas about the meaning of life. Unfortunately, for most of that time, our ideas about cosmology have been extraordinarily wrong. If we used modern science as the basis for a theology, what would that theology look like? That's the question asked by Brian Swimme, a cosmologist, and Mary Tucker, a religious historian, in Journey of the Universe, a documentary film with a companion book out from Yale University Press.

We used to believe, for example, that the Earth was at the center of the universe; unfortunately, that was untrue. That belief was supplanted by a sense that the universe has no center. But now, Swimme and Tucker argue, modern cosmology has given us a more nuanced picture: It turns out that, because of the way that space itself is expanding, we actually live in a multi-centered universe, in which each cluster of galaxies is at the center of a pool of expanding space. To understand the universe as it really is, we have to get our heads around the idea of a single system with multiple, actual centers. Maybe, Swimme and Tucker suggest, this physical fact about the universe could be metaphorically or even morally useful. It might be a good way to think about life here on Earth, a source of meaning for us as we think about our everyday lives.

Similarly, they write, modern science is giving us a better understanding of the relationship between living and non-living matter. Evolutionary history and physics have shown that our evolutionary history depends on the creativity of the non-living world -- on "the creative self-organizing dynamism of matter":

[C]hemicals organize[d] themselves into complex patterns requiring the coordination of trillions of molecules. And they did this with no instructions. No human organized them. Nor did they have a genetic blueprint that guided their actions. Their own intrinsic self-organizing dynamics directed these complex interactions.... The deep truth about matter, which neither Descartes nor Newton realized, is that, over the course of four billion years, molten rocks transformed themselves into monarch butterflies, blue herons, and the exalted music of Mozart.

This scientific story, the authors argue, should make us rethink our own relationship to the environment, and call into question our tendency to see the non-living world as inanimate. In fact, physics shows us that the non-living world is incredibly dynamic, surprising, and creative -- it's just that the creativity happens over very long scales of time. It's an important fact, they write, that the universe is itself 'set up' for creativity. The universe, they argue, isn't anarchic, meaningless, absurd, or pointless; it's creative in its essence. This should make a difference in the way we think about the meaning of our own lives: By being creative and creating novelty, we're participating in a universe-sized process.

The book is simply written and easy to read -- more like Kipling's Just So Stories than Being and Time -- and you may or may not be convinced by Swimme and Tucker's interpretations of modern cosmology and evolutionary history. But it's a fascinating game to play. More theology of physics, please!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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