The physical universe is governed by laws, but describing those laws has proven a challenging task. Isaac Newton distilled the largest part of our knowledge of the physical realm down to a hand full of simple rules and principles. Three laws of motion. One equation for all forces. One law of gravity. It is a neat and tidy bundle for the physics student to explore and (this is the best part) understand.
The universe makes sense. Huzzah!
However, the Newtonian system had a few loose ends. For over a century, it was believed that these loose ends would be tidied up as neatly as all the others. Such was not to be the case, at least not as planned. First, Einstein dealt with the big stuff. His rules of Relativity showed how the universe’s largest and fastest objects behave. He discussed reality on the grand scale. What are the shape and consistency of the universe itself? He believed that the universe was composed of space-time, a smooth, stretched fabric ultimately shaped and compressed by gravity, Newton’s best friend. Better still, the rules of Relativity had the added bonus of harmonious agreement with Newtonian physics when they are considered on a more “normal” scale. Humans and even smallish planets like Earth still follow Newton’s laws.
The universe makes sense again. Huzzah!
But the story does not end with Einstein. While he had adequately explained the behavior of enormous objects, the behavior of the universe’s smallest denizens was still left unchecked. Subatomic bits of matter did not follow Newtonian physics or even Einstein’s description of a universe made of space-time. Niels Bohr (and a host of others) advanced a plausible solution to this problem. The rules of quantum mechanics, while utterly unintelligible to most, seem to explain the array of subatomic particles and their behavior. Better still, the complex rules of quantum theory when applied to “normal” sized objects like humans or planets simplifies down into a system of rules very compatible with Newtonian physics.
The universe makes sense again. Huzzah!
Now, the story is due its final turn. The quantum worldview that Bohr and company advanced accounted for these small bits, but in so doing proposed a different picture of the universe itself. Space is made up of a “quantum foam,” an inconsistent brew of bits, or maybe bundled strings vibrating in eleven dimensions (told you it was unintelligible). While Einstein’s relativity and Bohr’s quantum theory both agree with Newton on the “normal” scale, they are completely incompatible with each other. They do not agree on the fundamental question, “What is the universe like?” In the last century, the two theories have taken turns struggling for supremacy. On the home stretch, quantum theory seemed to be pulling ahead. The universe is foamy. At least that was the opinion until someone actually found some data.
In 2012, researchers reported the unexpected finding of three tiny photons.1 These photons traveled across the universe at the speed of light, having been emitted at a very high energy level (gamma ray). They were produced by the rare implosion of a star that is approximately 7 billion light-years away from us. They reached the earth – and this is the surprise – at essentially the same time. If the universe were “foamy,” undulating and inconsistent, then these three, tiny photons should have been dispersed like light passing through a prism. Instead, they arrived at their destination at almost precisely the same time, despite travelling an enormous distance – as if they had traveled across a smooth fabric.
The universe does not make sense. Alas!
NASA puts a sunny spin on this discovery in the video below, noting that the elimination of essentially all the best solutions to this problem “brings us one step closer” to getting it right. The glass is always half full at NASA.
So what will we do? Does this mean that Einstein was right and that Bohr was wrong? Not likely. The quantum model is usually right about really small things and the relativistic model is usually right about really big things. For that matter, the Newtonian model is right about a lot of ordinary things in between. While science will continue to try to force these two incompatible models together or perhaps replace them both, I would like to reflect for a moment on the possibility that this is the way it is. Perhaps the universe is incomprehensible. Could it be that these two models represent the best that the mortal mind can do to approximate the true nature of the universe, at least for now?
If that were to be the case, it would actually be in fair agreement with what we know about God. Bad theology tends to want to make God out to be one thing or the other. Some say He is all love, all the time (as in Love Wins by Rob Bell).2 Some say that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God.3 The Bible says that both are true to some extent.
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. (Deuteronomy 7:7-10)
Another example of this tension can be seen in another debate. John Calvin wanted a God that controls all things all the time. Jacobus Arminius wanted a God that allowed for free will and personal freedom. While I lean pretty strongly toward the free will end of the spectrum, the Bible does present God as holding universal sway over His creation, taking responsibility for all the consequences of that fact, AND expecting man to make free choices and take responsibility for his actions.
I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things. (Isaiah 45:7, JPS)
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
Better theology admits that God is simply more than “one thing,” and that it is possible that the mortal mind does not have the capacity to sort out the finer points of that nature. As the prophet explains, we are fish trying to understand birds, earth trying to understand the sky.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
The good news is that while the finer points may elude us, the basic ideas on the “normal” scale work pretty well. God does in fact hate sin. God does in fact love me. How God can do both at the same time might be a challenge, but the practical results, like Newton’s apple falling from a tree, are often both predictable and consistent. The incomprehensible universe may reflect in smaller proportions the incomprehensible God, but what God wants for my life is not a mystery.
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29)
Our God is not always comprehensible, but He reveals enough for me to make sense of my life.
Huzzah? No, Hallelujah!