‘Happy Accidents’: How Physics Helped Theology
By Neil Earle
More often than not some of the most impressive scientific advances across time have been the result of what are called “happy accidents.”
Whether Newton’s apple and Watt’s steam kettle are folk tales or not they live on for an important reason, one Professor Tom Torrance saw as at work in the era of Einstein and Bohr. A principle of science is that to solve complex bewildering problems, higher levels of intelligibility from other fields need to be introduced to resolve bottlenecks.
Quite often in the history of science investigations get stuck and need inputs from another field or from outside to make progress. Sometimes the process can be quite accidental. We’ve all heard of Archimedes lying in his bath when the displacement quality of water hit him and he uttered the famous”Eureka!” Biologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin accidentally in 1928 when leaving a mould in a petri dish while on vacation. It took two pathologists to turn the process into antibiotics in 1939. Einstein’s insistence that gravity bends light was finally corroborated by an Astronomy Royal expedition to observe an eclipse of the sun in 1919.
As Torrance reminds us in Space, Time and Resurrection, that which we hastily call natural laws – a hallmark of Classical Physics – are actually deductions formally stated from already observable processes (page 78).
This is important for Christian theology. In the 1700s skeptic David Hume saw Biblical miracles as infringements of natural law and thus impossible in the Clockwork Universe that held sway for so long. Torrance counters that such laws are often “read into Nature” in the first place. Can 60,000 tons of steel float? Not normally, unless different knowledge is applied from other fields. Somewhat ironically, it took the obscure monk Gregory Mendel’s cataloguing of plant genetics, for example, to offer the proponents of Natural Selection a mechanism to help support their theory. Higher knowledge applied from another field! Torrance applies this analogy to such “impossible” events as the Resurrection of Jesus. Both he and theologian N.T. Wright argue that the doubters on Mount Olivet at the Ascension (Matthew 28:17) were suffering from overmuch Reality, not a lack of evidence.
Staying Properly Humble
As Torrance went on to argue, humility is a pre-condition of the scientific process. There is simply too much of what he called “contingency” (things are not as settled as they seem) at work in the cosmos. In quantum physics investigators can alter the position or direction of a particle by simply investigating, Kip Thorne reminds us in discussing what he calls Einstein’s “outrageous legacy.” In Divine and Contingent Order, Torrance offered a very important meditation on the “combination of unpredictability and lawfulness found in nature.” His theme of new possibilities along with rationality makes our universe “an open dynamic system in which nature is capable of a variety of possible developments.” This, he argues may be seen as “the signature of the Creator,” that is, “nature’s capacity spontaneously to generate richer forms of order in the constantly expanding universe” (DCO, 73).
This is crucial to Torrance’s Scientific Theology. It is one of many points he adduces which could conceivably outflank the sweeping determinism at work in Darwinian theory (DCO, 55), an intellectual box canyon which many Darwinians themselves have identified. Stated simply in our dynamic universe, things can go backwards as well as forward. In fact, this basic Torrance assertion offers a critique of Darwinism from a higher level than much popular apologetics has been able to offer.
Torrance further hints at a challenge to Darwinist one-off thinking (“natural selection explains it all”) from the conditions more and more being reported at the very boundaries of orderliness. This is shorthand for the many new realities that often baffle our physicists – things such as dark matter, dark energy, antimatter, quarks and the like. “The frontiers of science are filled with uncertainty and confusion,” admits Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman of the University of Pennsylvania. ”Every step forward is accompanied by new mysteries. Science lives with its uncertainties.”
The New PhysicsAs a student Max Planck’s teacher told him physics was a dead end street. Almost all theories had been established. The universe was unfolding as it should. Yet in investigating the nature of heat energy Planck discovered that energy is emitted not in a constant flow but in detached packages he called “quanta.” Quantum theory was thus born in 1900, an idea Einstein pushed to explain the action of light itself. The only constant was the speed of light and in approaching that limit time slows down and objects shorten in the direction of motion.
In 1911 Rutherford sketched the atomic nucleus and two years later Niels Bohr showed how light energy is produced by an electron falling from one orbit to another (the quantum leap) and the New Physics was off and running.
This made waves among the intelligentsia. In 1920 a French novelist wrote a friend about “this great universe that has died so suddenly.” To the question “what universe?” the author replied “Why, yesterday’s universe, Newton’s universe. Hitherto the various cosmic systems have fitted inside our skulls. This new one refuses to do so.”
Revolutions are not always noticed at the time. But we have been passing through a fundamental revision of an older cosmology, a movement which most theologians have not noticed for the light it sheds on the Gospel. In the scientific theology of Tom Torrance the startling revision is much more congenial to Christian teaching.
(See Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence; Andrew Robinson, Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity; Thomas Torrance, Theological and Natural Science; Kip Thorne, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy.)
The Respect for Mystery
Thus, even on this popular level one can see the New Physics of Planck, Bohr and Einstein offering a radical revision of three centuries of fixation on Natural Law. Poet Alexander Pope satirized the early dedication to natural law as the be-all and end-all in the line “God said, Let Newton be/And all was Light.” The conventional wisdom of David Hume’s time needs balancing out by the awareness of how factors such as intuition, hunches and inspired guesswork often drive the scientific enterprise forward. Newton’s apple and Watt’s steam kettle echo what Einstein saw as the indispensible element in true science: the respect for mystery, a religious awe in the face of the incomprehensible Intelligence of what Einstein called the Old One (CISE, 9). Einstein often admitted to “the mysterious comprehensibility of the universe which is yet finally beyond [man's] grasp” (quoted by Torrance in Theological and Natural Science, page 31).
The humility with which true scientists advance their theories – consider Einstein waiting four years for his theory of gravity bending light to be demonstrated – this fierce fidelity to truth offers a lesson for Christian theology. In this spirit Torrance calls for a “fluid dogmatics” – physics has something to teach theologians. Theologians often come to their fields not always aware of their own prejudices. Christian theology, writes Torrance, “ventures to say something about evil…But it does so only with a prayer for forgiveness for blindness and error in the realization that our thought is characterized by certain brokenness” (DCO, 115).
Torrance challenges his fellow theologians to commit themselves anew to an investigation of original Creation in light of the new realities introduced into nature by God becoming man in Jesus Christ. He argues that correlations between the New Physics and a theology accepting the implications of a Trinitarian relationship inside the Godhead could avoid doctrinal blind alleys:
“Now since God has endowed his creation with a rationality and beauty of its own in correspondence to his transcendent rationality and beauty, the more the created universe unfolds its marvelous symmetries and harmonies to our scientific inquiries, the more it is bound to fulfill its role as a theatre which reflects the glory of the cosmos and resounds to his praise” (RET, 10-11).
“The Reconciling of Opposites”
It is a rational cosmos. It is predictable enough to fly astronauts to the moon. But it is also uncannily unpredictable in many areas. The universe as “a theatre of God’s glory” forms an elegant backgrounder to Torrance’s call for theologians to study creation afresh.
These insights can help Christian witness to our scientific age. Torrance urges us to trace out the implications of a created universe endowed with such an independence from its Creator that frustration and purposelessness are almost bewildering side-effects (see Romans 8:20 – “futility”). Evil things are a residue, like the sawdust in a master craftsman’s shed. The God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ chose to establish a created order of supreme freedom, free enough for bad things to happen but also for him to enter as Creator/Redeemer through the Incarnation summarizes theologian John McKenna.
The God whom Einstein called “the Old One” has purposes deeply embedded in the nature of things and ultimately accessed by a profound respect for newness and mystery. Einstein – who has been called a “deeply religious unbeliever” – called this the religious impulse. Greek notions of inescapable Fate and a pagan Necessity is radically undercut by the freedom of Israel’s God to constantly do new things (Isaiah 42:9; 43:19). As Torrance writes, the often unpredictable universe to which we humans belong is “the creaturely medium through which he makes himself known to mankind” (RET, 11).
One implication of all this is that the ultimate peaceful reconciliation of the Cosmos is already effected in part by that Man “through whom and for whom the whole universe has been created” (RET, 11). “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the last,” the resurrected glorified Christ told John in Revelation 1:17-18. “I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for evermore.” Jesus has spanned Nature and supra-Nature. Here is the anchor for life experienced on an altogether different level, a future the Gospels constantly affirm (John 7:38; 10:10).
Thus, in Torrance’s overarching apologetic, the Cosmos – to use Carl Sagan’s richly evocative term – is free, it is both turned towards and away from God. But it cannot explain itself. Here is where a realist theology comes in. The reconciliation of opposites is inherent in the Christian teaching of Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension of the Son of God. The universe, the “theatre of God’s glory,” is the stage set for the drama of salvation working through those very dynamics which theology has developed the vocabulary to explain. The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus were cosmic events. The universe is demonstrated by the New Physics to be an open system, open enough for the Creator to step into it and be subject to its contingencies and contradictions and yet triumph over them.
Hence Torrance’s crucial contribution. This openness to the New is the scientists’ opportunity…and burden. “After quarks,” said one scientist, “the Virgin Birth is a piece of cake.” Science has created a congenial dialogue partner for theology if the opening is exploited. Torrance’s challenge to engage still beckons to both sides.