A Week of God and the New Physics

This unpublished article was submitted to the Guardian newspaper in November 1996.

1,100 words

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Between the dates of 29th October and 4th November 1996 I attended three events, all relating religion and the New Physics, and all in London. The first and last were given to launch new books by Keith Ward and Fritjof Capra respectively, while the intervening event was in fact the Seventh Annual Mind / Brain Symposium with presentations from eight leading authorities in a variety of fields. The audiences in each case were similar: largely middle-class, educated and mature; in a previous age we would have labelled them 'genteel'. This group represents the lovely British tradition of open-minded inquiry, showing willingness to adopt ideas seemingly alien to mainstream culture, yet remaining firmly within it. These were no street-wise angry twenty-somethings (there were surely a liberal sprinkling of octogenarians in each audience), yet the subject matter of the talks was quite revolutionary: that science is itself a route to God.

This revolution has in fact been building throughout the twentieth century, and has its roots in the 'new' physics of quantum theory and relativity. One of its prophets, not represented at any of these particular meetings, though active on this circuit, is the British-born physicist, Paul Davies. He has written a string of books on this subject, for which he has been awarded the prestigious million-dollar Templeton prize for the advancement of religion. His view, expressed in his book God and the New Physics is that 'science offers a surer path than religion in the search for God', and many of those speakers and listeners in these recent presentations would agree with this.

Keith Ward's lecture was a summary of his new book God, Chance, and Necessity, itself largely motivated by a need to respond to the attacks made on religion by Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. Ward is in fact Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and has chosen to counter Dawkins through the new physics, pointing out that the old-fashioned 'materialist' view is untenable in the light of advancements in science itself. Dawkins has called theologians 'know-nothings' and 'no-contest', and it seems that an ancient battle between science and religion is being fought out amongst the dreaming spires, a contest which places the new physics at its heart. The first shot of this contemporary version of the old debate was brought to the hearing of a general public by Fritjof Capra, whose Tao of Physics appeared in 1975 and has sold a million world-wide. Capra's appearance at St James's Church, Piccadilly, to launch his latest book, The Web of Life, was in marked contrast to Ward's: Capra is a scientist, and has a measured sober delivery compared to Ward's almost boyish enthusiasm. While Capra practically created the bandwagon that Ward and Davies have clambered aboard, his own journey has taken him into the social and ecological implications of the new science: he regards our greatest challenge to be that of creating sustainable communities.

Between the Ward and Capra lectures I listened to the speakers at the Mind / Brain Symposium: this was held at the Institute of Psychiatry in Denmark Hill, and drew speakers from all over the UK, and one from the US (who coincidentally appeared on Channel Four's Equinox programme the following night). This speaker, Paul Devereux, was perhaps the most remarkable in that he presented us with his deliberations on an LSD experience some thirty years ago. It had not been a hallucinatory 'addition' to his ordinary sense-experience, but a stripping away, leaving sounds for example suspended in silence (in his words) 'like bees in amber'; he felt that the 'grime of time' was washed away; in short it was a transcendent experience similar to that described by many of the mystics. It was beyond words, he pointed out, though after thirty years he is now writing about it, summing up the almost impossible task in his wry comment: 'I only wish I could remember what I was when I wasn't.' The organisers of the Symposium, the Scientific and Medical Network, had provided a balanced list of speakers however, and there was a token sceptic, a behaviourist philosopher called Ullin Place. Although listened to politely, it was clear that the audience of several hundred thought that the new physics supported a more credible view of religious experience.

But what is the God of the new physics? Keith Ward made the interesting comment that in fact it was the God of Aristotle, a God that has come to us via Thomas Aquinas with his key attributes of God as necessity and perfection. Aristotle's God comes of course from Plato, and his ideas come in turn from Socrates. So far so good: this represents an intellectual tradition of God, which is easily paralleled in the Buddhist tradition, and is clearly at home with the new physics. Terminology is a problem here, because we tend to understand 'intellectual' as an emasculated and emotionless term in connection with religion. Paradoxically we have even more difficulty with its opposite (in a religious sense): devotion. In the Hindu religious language we find the terms jnani and bhakti used to sum up these polar approaches, both of which are found intertwined in Hindu tradition. If Socrates is jnani, and so too Eckhart, Aquinas, and indeed the mindset of the average educated modern Westerner, then bursting rudely into this scene is Jesus as bhakti, the bringer of divine love. And this brings me to the heart of my problem with God and the new physics: yes, it is wonderful that there is a fruitful dialogue between science and religion, after the long schism engendered by Galileo and his Pope, but where is the love? By its very nature science has to remain silent about love, only scientists can speak of it, and they by and large do not. If the theologians, such as Ward, are only going to speak in terms of the language of science, and hence jnani, what happens to bhakti? God (or whatever you prefer to use instead of this word, such as the divine, or the ultimate) is surely both together, and nothing without either one.

And yet ... I spoke to a woman after the Capra lecture who introduced herself as a housewife who had recently taken an Open University degree in mathematics. She told me that the mathematical view of the universe was her route to the divine, unintentionally echoing the views of Paul Davies. Perhaps we have got it right: jnani in public, a discourse based in the humility of a science that looks at what is, instead of what we imagine, and in private, the bhakti, the love.