Part 2, The Language of Physics, Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers
By Andy Walsh
We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh. Today is Chapter 5: A Conspiracy of Chronometers. Walsh begins the chapter with a summary of Ender’s Game. Ender’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed. His tactical genius is realizing the Earth-bound framework or coordinates are no longer relevant in space with no gravity plane to orient along, like that of surface of the ocean. Walsh says:
By providing this new frame of reference, Ender acknowledges two realities. The first is that he and his classmates were being held back by rules that made sense on Earth but were incoherent in space. The second and more subtle one is that casting aside those rules for complete freedom wouldn’t be an improvement. In order for his squad to work together, they would still need a framework in which to operate. When they found the old framework didn’t match the new context, they didn’t ditch the rules altogether; they found ones that fit the new context.
Walsh notes a similar paradigm shift occurred in physics as a result of studying the world on the scale of the solar system and the galaxy. By conducting experiments looking for the “aether”, the supposed medium through which light moved, we discovered there was no evidence for the aether and there was no evidence that the speed of light depended on relative motion the way other speeds do. Ultimately, the observation that the speed of light is both finite and fixed led to a new framework for understanding space, time, and motion called special relativity. It was originally proposed by Albert Einstein in a paper published in 1905.
In some Christian circles the theory of special (and general) relativity is misconstrued. Broadening one’s horizons and changing one’s perspective often seems to have a negative association. Some seem to have a concern that one can go broadly into a pluralistic experience as to wind up in pure relativism, which, according to some Christians is a bad thing. And since special and general relativity have “relativity” in their names and have spread in popular awareness around the same time as post-modernism, these topics in physics make some Christians uneasy, especially when applying them via analogy. However, while special relativity predicts that the outcome of certain measurements will depend on the context of the measuring, it is also a theory with absolutes. We are not giving up a more absolute model for a more relative one, we are simply changing which quantities are absolute and which are relative. And we are doing so because the model better reflects the reality in which we live, which provides an absolute point of reference of a different sort. Walsh says:
Here’s where I think special relativity comes in. As I mentioned earlier, in prior theories, space and time were absolute and only infinite speeds were measured the same from all frames of reference. In special relativity, we trade absolute space and time for an invariant and finite speed of light. I think these properties and their consequences are useful for understanding the role that Jesus plays in the biblical notion of morality.
Walsh notes that throughout his adult life, as recorded in all four Gospels, various religious and political factions attempt to find something they can use to accuse Jesus. They ask him all sorts of questions that they think are no-win, Kobayashi Maru scenarios. Every time Jesus navigates through the rhetorical traps and leaves his accusers with nothing to use against him.
An example is the pericope from Mark 12 where Jesus is asked whether Jews ought to pay the tribute tax. The expectation was that if he said “yes”, they could paint him as a Roman sympathizer, costing him credibility with his Jewish followers, and if he said “no” then he would be in trouble with Roman authorities. Jesus asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Walsh notes:
There’s a lot of common sense there that’s hard to argue with; in fact it borders on tautology. And yet he doesn’t explicitly affirm the legality of Roman taxes nor endorse a boycott of them; there is also a lot of room for discussion about what actually belongs to either party. Jesus handles all of these verbal confrontations in a similar manner, thwarting attempts to find substantial grounds to condemn him.
Even in the process of putting him on trial and ultimately putting him to death, his accusers have a hard time finding charges that will stick; their manufactured witnesses can’t keep their stories straight. Pilate famously washes his hands of the whole business, reportedly because he wants nothing to do with execution of an innocent man. The impression from the Gospel accounts is that Jesus was condemned without clearly established guilt. Walsh says:
The explanation for this inability to find fault with him, according to the Bible, is that Jesus did in fact live a sinless life, and was the only person to do so. For the sake of argument, let’s say that is true. Is there anything analogous about light? It turns out that yes, there is—light has no mass. That is why it can travel at the speed of light. Anything with mass cannot reach that speed; it’s not just really hard, it’s impossible. So what happens if we think of being sinful (having committed one or more sins) as having mass and being sinless as equivalent to being massless?
So to continue the metaphor, our “speed” is our righteousness and all the qualities we are trying to maximize as followers of Jesus. Our “mass” is the sins we have committed. Our “momentum” is our resistance to change our behavior, a function of both our righteousness and our sin, for after all when we are behaving morally it is easier to continue to do so, and when we behave sinfully it is easier to persist in our sin. “Energy” is the capacity to do good works.
In this model, the moral perfection of Jesus is the optimal point of righteousness we are supposed to be reaching, if we choose to follow Jesus. But this level is impossible to reach for anyone who has sinned, just as traveling at light speed is impossible for any object with mass. The diminishing returns aspect of trying to reach light speed resonates with biblical accounts of what it is like to in the presence of God and his sinless perfection. The closer we get, the more aware we are of our burden of sin. We cry out like Isaiah, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5).
Walsh then brings up the Higgs boson. The physics model explaining mass involves the Higgs boson and the Higgs field. The Higgs field exists everywhere in the universe, and when matter interacts with that field it acquires mass. The Higgs boson is a particular kind of matter predicted by the Higgs field description of mass. Walsh says:
What I find interesting about the Higgs story is that, if we extrapolate to our metaphor of sin, it resonates with the idea that sin is relational, arising out of our interactions. We might wish to think of God as the omnipresent Higgs field, and us as the individual bits of matter. This might suggest to you that sin only exists because of God, and in a sense I think that is an accurate representation of the biblical teaching. Sin is only sin with respect to our relationship with God, and by extension other people. It is not meaningful to talk about sin outside of the context of those relationships.
And that brings me back to Ender Wiggin, no longer floating in the Battle Room but now confronting the Formic beings he has trained his whole life to defeat. He recognizes that how he interacts with them has moral significance. And he also starts to appreciate an unintended consequence of the way he was trained. He was removed from an Earth-bound perspective in order to better understand how Formics see the world. That understanding is supposed to help him defeat them. Yet he observes, “When I truly understand my enemy… then in that moment I also love him”.
The Bible offers a similar observation. Although we chose to be enemies with God, he chose to know us and show us love. “And you were at one time strangers and enemies in your minds as expressed through your evil deeds, but now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death” (Colossians 1:21-22). If that is true, and I believe it is, then I think it only reasonable to get to know him in return.
I have to give credit to Andy Walsh for trying. His attempts to bring out truths of Christianity by analogy with science and physics, while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find worthy of contemplating. His analogy here of mass and energy to sin and works brings to mind the Orthodox notion of “Divine Energies”. Father Stephen Freeman in his post on “Providence and the Music of All Creation” said:
God’s being and actions are one. This is essentially the teaching of the Church on the topic of the Divine Energies. When I read discussions about this – it seems to get lost in the twists and turns of medieval metaphysics or passes into the territory of seeing the “Uncreated Light.” Both approaches are unhelpful for me, and both obscure something that should be far more transparent.
Some of the obscurity comes from the use of the word “energies.” It is the literal Greek term, but it conjures up some pretty problematic images in a post-Einstein world. When I first read about the Divine Energies, my mind wandered over to some vision of God sending out rays and beams of radiating light, etc. The focus on the Uncreated Light in the Transfiguration probably helped nurture that reading. It is also misleading.
Another simple term for “energies” is “actions” or “doings.” The root of the Greek word simply means “doing.” Indeed, it is most often translated as “deed” or “work.” “Workings” would be another accurate way of rendering “energies.” Understanding this points us towards the heart of the Church’s proclamation. Who God is, and what God does, are not two separate things. “God acting” is God. His actions are not a means of hiding Himself – they are the means of His self-revelation. Indeed, this is the heart of the Church’s teaching on the Energies. The Church says that God can be fully known in His energies but cannot be known in His essence.
We cannot pierce beneath the veil and see or comprehend the very essence (ousia) of God. He is God, “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” However, He can be known (and participated in) in His energies, His actions.
Father Freemen says in another post:
We are indeed saved by grace. However, the Protestant meme that interprets this as mere judicial kindness is an egregious error. Grace is the very life of God, the Divine energies, the fire by which we are transformed into the image of Christ. We do not earn it, but we can certainly shield ourselves from its action.
Maybe I’m not doing Walsh justice in my reviews. His meditations are hard to summarize in the few words of a blog post. But I’m finding his analogies thought-provoking and useful. His notions that shifts in the frames of reference bring a deeper and more realistic understanding of truths we thought we already knew is similar to what Chaplain Mike is trying to say about our understanding of the Bible. We are not abandoning the truths we know, we are deepening our understanding of them in our relationships to God and others.