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What Physics Can and Can't Say About God

One of the things that has been going on in contemporary physics for the last really 15 or 20 years is that physicists seem to be in some sense trying to present an alternative to God.  We all know Stephen Hawking’s famous line from the end of A Brief History of Time that when we know this theory of everything, when we find this cosmic blueprint, we will know the mind of God.  

Now I think this is a bit problematic myself and I think it relates to a misunderstanding about what the function of God is. In the Judeo-Christian conception of God, at least, God has two functions.  One was to be the creator of the universe and one was to be the redeemer of man. As creator of the universe God has to construct the universe somehow. The philosophy behind modern mathematical physics is that God in some sense created the world according to mathematical equations. So when we find this ultimate set of equations we will in some sense be knowing the mind of God, reading the mind of God, seeing how God did it.

Well that may possibly be so, but the problem that you have is what about the redemptive function of God?  For most Christians anyway, God’s real and important function was not to bring the universe into being, but to be there as the redeemer of our souls at the end of time. So physics has nothing to say about the redemptive function of God.

So I think it’s actually in some sense wrong to claim that physics can ever lead us to God.  It can lead us to a conception of how the universe potentially came into being, but it’s never going to say anything about what is important to most Christians about their faith and about their relationship with God, which is they want to know about how at the end of time they will, as it were, be united with God as a thinking, emoting, moral being. On that subject physics really cannot offer us any insight.

So I've argued in quite a number of places, including my book Pythagoras' Trousers that we shouldn’t be talking about physics in these quasi-religious terms.  I think that it gives a misleading picture of what physics can do and I think that to a certain extent using God has been as it were a bit of a PR campaign to try to get people into the project of hugely expensive machines like the Superconducting Super Collider that cost vast amounts of money.

I think part of the reason that physicists have used God, the word God so much is to try to as it were make this quest to understand the theory of everything seem so important that we have to spend tens of billions of dollars. My view is that if it’s worth spending tens of billions of dollars on we need to have the discussion openly as a society and not as it were illicitly use God as our mascot.  I don’t think God can or should be the mascot for physics, but with that said, I think physics is a valuable and wonderful project and we should talk about, as a society, how we want to pursue it. 

In Their Own Words is recorded by experts in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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