Keith Ward has worked as an academic all his working life, teaching philosophy, theology, and religious studies. He became a priest of the Church of England in 1972 but has an interest in the many diverse ways in which humans have sought spiritual truth, and in trying to understand what these various paths may have to teach. “I think the main task for religious believers today is to ensure that their beliefs are conducive to human flourishing and, so far as is possible, to the flourishing of all sentient beings; to relate ancient religious beliefs to the modern scientific world view; and to see their own faith in a truly global context. … I see religions as very ambiguous but probably necessary ways of giving humans some awareness of this Supreme Mind.” Keith Ward’s website
‘Although I had not explicitly asserted, in either The Emperor’s New Mind or Shadows of the Mind, the need for mentality to be ontologically fundamental in the universe, I think that something of this nature is indeed necessary’ (The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind, CUP, p. 175). These words of the Nobel Laureate and Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose, herald a new and exciting view of what mathematical physics and quantum theory have to say about the nature of our universe.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, physics was often seen as establishing a view of the cosmos as a vast mechanism which was without purpose or meaning, proceeding according to impersonal laws which determined everything that happened, and that ignored questions of mind, value, and purpose entirely. There are still those, like Richard Dawkins, who hold such a view. Sometimes they even say that selves (souls) are an illusion, and that consciousness is nothing but the firing of neurons in the brain, without any significance in the history of this vast, but mostly empty, cosmos.
But there is a significant body of feeling among contemporary scientists who work in the field of quantum phenomena or of cosmology (the very small and the very large) that such views are obsolete, and that the world is much more complex and unknown than used to be thought. It is no longer clear just what ‘matter’ is. If it consists of wavelengths and fields of force in eleven dimensions (just one modern proposal) it is clearly very different from anything we can imagine, let alone see or touch. The world of solid coloured three-dimensional objects collapses into a hazy world where particles are also waves, where electrons have no simultaneous position and momentum, and where sub-atomic particles appear to interact simultaneously at vast distances ( the principle of non-locality), thus seeming to be in conflict with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The old view that atoms or something smaller are little lumps of matter with extension, position, and mass has been decisively overturned. A good example is Higg’s Boson, recently confirmed by experiment in CERN, Geneva, which sounds like a particle (a small object), but is described by one physicist as ‘the signature particle of an infinite field of force which gives mass to objects that pass through it’. It is difficult for a non-mathematician to make sense of such talk. But it certainly means that matter is not a collection of tiny objects in three dimensional space. Matter is a form of energy. But most of the energy in our universe is apparently ‘dark matter’, of which almost nothing is known. The universe is a much more mysterious and complex place than most of us had thought.
Belief in God is most basically a belief that the whole of our spacetime depends upon an eternal and uncaused reality beyond it. That there is such a reality is now a widely accepted axiom of mathematical physics. It is sometimes called the ‘quantum vacuum’, but it is not just ‘nothing’. It is a realm of an interplay of vast energies, preceding the existence of our spacetime, operating according to quantum laws, from which our cosmos emerges. This is not often thought of, in physics, as conscious or personal, and so is not often called God. But where do these quantum laws exist? They are obviously not just descriptions of what happens in our universe, since they exist ‘before’ the universe. And they seem to be mathematically ordered and beautiful, not just random accidents. They do seem suspiciously like what theologians have called ideas in the mind of a supremely rational God.
Even more significant, for religious believers, is the fact that conscious observation seems to have an important role in the very existence of matter, that matter as we know it could not even exist with consciousness. This is what Professor Penrose was referring to in the quotation with which this essay began. The ‘delayed choice double slit experiment’ has established that observing a sub-atomic process actually changes its nature. Photons (what light is made of), or electrons or even atoms, are shot through a metal plate with two slits in it, and hit a screen. If both slits are open, you get an interference pattern, a wave-like pattern, on the screen, showing that light is made up of waves. But if only one slit is open, you get a scatter-gun pattern on the screen, showing that light is made up of particles (quanta). Then comes the interesting bit. If two slits are open, but a detector records which slit photons go through, you get a scatter-gun pattern. But if no observations are made, you get a wave-pattern. Observation actually changes the nature of what exists. Observation ‘collapses the wave-function’. It changes waves into particles, and so it seems to bring matter into being from something not very like solid material stuff at all. This experiment can get even more complicated, but it does suggest to many physicists that observation is essential to having the sort of physical world we think we live in. In other word, minds are essential if we are going to have matter as we know it. Perhaps the mind of God is essential if there is going to be a material world at all. If this is true, old-fashioned materialism is dead.
That is why Penrose thought that the real world is a sort of Platonic reality, and the world we see and feel and walk around in is just a shadow of that non-material reality. The Platonic reality is like a world of mathematical objects, held in some vast consciousness, and that does sound very like God.
The point is that a lot of state-of-the-art science is now thinking that there is a rational, mind-like, reality beyond our space-time which gives rise to and orders our universe. Where there is mind and reason, you can begin to talk about events happening for a reason, that is, in order to bring about some purpose. Considering the billion-year life of our universe, it looks as if that purpose is actually the existence of conscious intelligent beings like us. If you imagine this process continuing, you might not know just what to expect, but it would probably be the emergence of super-intelligent conscious beings. But we haven’t got there yet. So far, scientists who specialise in cosmology often tell us that the fundamental laws of nature are exactly what would be needed to produce beings like us, perhaps on many planets, but certainly on ours (this is the ‘weak anthropic principle’, and is accepted by most cosmologists in this form). We might think that any rational mind would bring about things that are intrinsically valuable and worth-while, that are beautiful and that produce happiness, if it could. This, of course, would be creation by God.
Physics does not, of course, talk about God. It is, after all, a ‘natural’ science, concerned with purely physical events in spacetime. But it has become very friendly to the idea of something like God, to the idea of a rational consciousness beyond our spacetime which produces the cosmos for a good reason. There is no ‘war’ between this state-of-the-art science and belief in God. In fact it looks as if science is pointing to some sort of intelligent rational conscious source of the cosmos. And if there is such a being, we might expect that it would reveal its nature, and its purpose, to the emerging intelligences on our planet. In this way, modern physics, without being religious, is religion-friendly.
At first sight, modern biology does not seem so religion-friendly. Biologists see all the blind alleys and unfortunate mutations in organic life, and are often opposed to any idea of a good purpose in evolution. But if we look more closely, evolution does not seem so blind and purposeless. It has, in a quite amazing way, managed to produce more and more organised and complex structures, from atoms to molecules to DNA to nervous systems to brains, to produce out of unconscious and unstructured points or fields of energy all the forms of conscious living forms that think and feel and act purposefully in our world today. The process has involved suffering and death as well as happiness and life, and any religious view must take account of that. But to say that the whole process has been an immense series of accidents ignores completely the fact, which physicists know, that there are no accidents in the fundamental structures of nature. So-called ‘random mutations’ are actually governed by rigorous laws of physics.
A fundamental dogma of science is that everything is governed by laws of cause and effect. Nothing happens without a cause. If it did, science would be impossible. In quantum physics, most physicists think that these causes are probabilistic rather than deterministic. That is, at any point there are alternative futures, and which of them occurs is not exactly predictable (this is often called Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy). But these alternatives are far from random. Quantum laws define exactly what they are, and the probabilities of specific events occurring. In other words, there is room in nature for freedom, for creative choice, and for innovation. That is part of the explanation for why things sometimes go wrong in evolution. To make creative freedom possible, God does not determine everything that happens, but sets the possibilities between which created things ‘choose’. The general direction and the limits of such freedom are set with such precision that they can eventually give rise to beings like us, who are creatively free and yet live in a structure of rational laws that allow us to act and exist in ways that are not just random, yet are not wholly determined. The Cambridge Professor of Mathematical Physics and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne called this a ‘free process’ creation.
Many biologists are Christian – Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project in the USA, is a Christian who works to show how evolution is a process that is far from being random or accidental. It is amazing how the intricate structures that work together to support organic life forms have come about in the course of evolution. Chance or accident is not an appropriate word for what we observe in evolution; and the fact is that a precisely controlled degree of indeterminism, that is, of freedom, is necessary in the laws of nature if intelligent and morally free beings are ever to exist and develop the ability to use those laws to accomplish their purposes.
Modern science began with the idea that there was a rational God who would have created intelligible laws of nature, which could be discovered by human thought. For some scientists there was then a stage when God seemed an unnecessary appendage to those laws, which just somehow existed on their own. Now, however, there is a new humility in science, admitting that natural science does not explain everything about the universe, and that the existence of mind, value, and purpose suggest that there is something mind-like about the ultimate nature of things. God is back on the agenda.