Sunday, May 20, 2012

Can we understand Theism scientifically?

Many people think that science and religion are completely separate activities, as Galileo did when he exclaimed , “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go!” Steven Jay Gould more recently took science and religion to be "Non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). That is one way for accommodating religion to science.

Religions, however, should (and most do) make claims about what exists (God, spirituality, etc.), and how what exists  influences our life. Let us call theism the knowledge of the claims about the reality of God as made by religion, or presupposed by religion. I want to concentrate here on the core claims that are central to religion, and to focus on monotheism.  And I want to elucidate those claims in a rational manner. This is to take theism just like a scientific theory, and spell out & explain its basic principles as clearly as possible.

That there is a God, and that God is One, are the primary assumptions of a rational monotheism:
Postulate 1  God exists.
Postulate 2  God is One.
These are the postulates needed for further constructive work in theistic research. Not everyone may be willing to make such assumptions. The a-theist, for example, assumes that God does not exist. He or she is free to do that, to make that hypothesis, to see what further ideas follow, and to see what explanations may be produced. In our investigation, however, we begin with the theistic postulates above. May the best explanation win.
Such a pair of postulates is not enough to generate deductions and is hence nowhere near enough to produce all the explanations that we seek. We need to combine it with further postulates to be described later. 
Discussions with friends have shown me that there are many differences and uncertainties concerning theism. Even within theology the question of the powers of natural objects has been commonly divorced from the question of how God sustains those objects in existence. Because I understand that the behavior of objects does depend on the details of theism and on how they are sustained in existence, I will now present expositions to elucidate the needed principles of theism. The primary function of these posts is to outline the core principles that will be needed as foundations for the later scientific theorizing. The postulates listed are not arbitrary but were carefully chosen from what I think of as ‘vanilla theism’. These are the core beliefs of the main theistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Those are the three religions or peoples of the Book’. Those religions often make further additional assumptions that are not shared by all. Sometimes I may append brief mentions of the content of those additional ideas, but I do not have the space in this book to explore all their separate consequences.
The core beliefs of philosophical theism are typically that God is eternal, infinite, necessary, one, immutable, impassible, transcendent and immanent. Then, for religious purposes at least, we add that God is good, loving, a divine person, worthy of worship, worthy of praise, righteous, just, awe-inspiring, and always merciful and forgiving. However, it is not entirely clear how these last attributes are related together or even how they follow from the first (philosophical) group of attributes. A difficulty for many people is that the philosophical attributes above hardly allow that God be living. That is because it is doubtful that an ‘immutable, impassible One’ can be loving and merciful. God may well be both, we believe, but the rational understanding of the connection is weak.
The coming postulates are chosen, therefore, to emphasize the life and loving nature of God. They assert that God is eternal, infinite and transcendent, but insist, in addition, that God is living and that God is loving. These postulates about life and love are certainly not known a priori. The philosophical proofs of the existence of God never conclude by proving those particular hypotheses about the living nature of God. Nevertheless, they are core and central beliefs of religious theism. I strongly believe that they come come from revelations from God. I believe that God’s input into the religious books over the last several thousand years has lead to a general awareness that God is living and loving. He is living and loving in his Divine way, a way that we forever struggle to understand.
I am not going to discuss particular revelations or particular books because I believe that the core claims to be made can be distilled from religious thought. Let us therefore continue with introducing the core theistic postulates to see what can thereby be derived as a basis for the principles of our world.
Adapted from chapter 7 of Starting Science From God.


  1. I am on my third read of 'Starting Science From God' (I have had to go back and review QP and QFT) and there is an area you do not give but a passing reference to and that is 'quantum fields' or what you might call 'propensity fields' at the 'Planck scale'. Since it is here at some degree where we still find unified forces and likely the creation of space-time, can we propose through Scientific Theism that time and space do not exist as a natural phenomenon and once initially created must be recreated from instant to instant at an infinite number of points throughout the universe within an infinite number of 'Planck scale' 'propensity fields'? Further that these fields are themselves dispositional derivatives of an even more fundamental cause, the primal cause, the influx of Divine Love and Wisdom?

    At what demarcation point does Swedenborg imply that the boundary of time and space is enjoined by that Divine influx? Are you planning to present a theistic discussion of the creation focusing on this area consistent with Swedenborg (theological and pre-theological writings)? I would really love to see that and if you have any works that you could direct me to, that would be great too. I am deeply grateful for the important work you have done and I believe there is an even greater impact you can have on a very large number of people but I will leave it for another time.

    Ron Horvath
    Coral Springs, Fl

    1. I am pleased to hear, Ron, of your interest in this book and its ideas!

      I agree that Section 24.5 has only a preliminary discussion on the way in which space and time are produced from spiritual things. This is the section which is supposed to deal with 'physics at the Planck scale'.

      In a sense, then, "time and space do not exist as a natural phenomenon". However, this can be read in a wrong way and a right way. It is still true that time and space are natural properties of things, but (as I suspect you want to say) time and space are not caused entirely by natural causes but also by spiritual causes.

      I am not sure I agree that "once initially created [time and space] must be recreated from instant to instant at an infinite number of points throughout the universe." That is because time and space have some permanence of their own. It is in time and space that there occur (and remain occurred) the ultimate and physical acts of all the spiritual and mental degrees. This means that time and space cannot be all recreated from instant to instant. There must be something permanent about space and time. Past events, for example, are forever fixed and cannot be redone.

      The way I see it is that time and space describe the possibilities for events. For successive events in time, and for simultaneous events in space. But these events have to be related by some metric, which describes the possibilities for relations between events. This is known in Einstein's General Relativity. What the spiritual influx does first, I suggest, is to fix the details of the metric. Spiritual influx determines what events are near each to other, and what events are far away and so less likely to interact. We call this gravity. There is something similar in the spiritual world: proximities and distances are determined by spiritual influx of love.

      So spiritual influx into the physical world helps settle the relations between parts of space and time (space-time). This 'settling process' is of course strongly constrained by what has already happened (those past events). But not completely constrained: it does some effects in the physical world. This is one way (among several) in which the spiritual influences the natural.

      Swedenborg does not explain these things in great detail, but does give us many important pieces of the whole picture. I believe that his pre-theological works were also attempting to answer these same questions, but were missing a fully-fledged account of the nature of spiritual and mental things, and so collapsed together many things which should be kept distinct.

  2. I find myself as I read your thoughts, hungry. . almost starving for a course that parallels something like a QFT course but highly integrated with rational theistic considerations. A course with ample time for questions and answers. I recall watching one of Leonard Susskind's lectures on QFT where he was asked about how masses came to be generated in quantum fields. His answer was very telling. He looked out at the questioner for awhile somewhat whimsically and after what appeared to be an unusual amount of time, shrugged his shoulder and just said, "I don't know' and then went on with his lecture. What an enlightening moment that was. . .with no attempt to expalin. Here was the great Stanford Physicist in effect acknowledging the limits of what we can know even with the sophisticated help from the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian when restricted from theistic considerations.

    But more to your response to my comments. You are correct and I did mean to imply that time and space does not exist absent a spiritual cause. Regarding my point on the "recreation of time and space", your response was quite helpful. Would I have been more accurate in stating that at the 'Planck scale' we may be observing the 'sustaining' of space-time or is the past self sustaining? I mean something of significance is occurring in regions of those fields that initially appears to be a 'vacuous state'. Theistically speaking, is this the space-time boundry (natural/spiritual boundry) or is there some other interface.

    I also take your point that the causal disposition for space-time is always present even as the action of sustaining it is in process. Do you see any reason for the creation of the time dimension other than as a framework for moral choices and spiritual elevation? I mean how can man choose good if he has no perception of cause and effect which he cannot have without sequential events?

    Regarding your point on 'spiritual gravity' if I can call it that. That is an interesting correspondence when comparing the planets' relative distances from the the natural Sun. The more receptive and open spiritually we are, the more we feel the spiritual warmth just as the Earth does on the natural plane relatve to Pluto because of the greater pull it feels from the natural Sun.

    Is there any chance, Ian, that you might consider offering some online video course work that people could register for that integrates science and theism? It could even be organised around your recent book. As wonderful as that would be, there is even a greater mission that calls.

    An explanation of the creation from first cause to man. It cannot be on the level of a discussion between theoretical physicist. No, it must be understandible by a reasonably educated person and appeal to those who are uncomfortable with the literal word and the seven days of creation. It must be concise, condensed (no more than 2 to 3 pages or less than a 10 minute Youtube video with powerful explanatory graphics). In addition to this there can be two additional levels of explanations, one that goes into greater detail and points to Swedengborg's Writings and a final one whose path leads through Quantum Physics.

    This explanation doesn't have to be perfect and can allow for some interpretation although not in any fundamental way. I am convinced that the final product will be as rational and sound or maybe even more so than anything else in theoretical physics today and it will have the strength of a unified theory of cause and effect from beginning to end.

    I believe there are potentially millions of rational inquiring minds, that if there were only provided a more rational (believable) explanation for a creator, they would give Christianity a serious second look. It is not a small matter and the task is great. I will do it if no one else will though it may take me 10 years, or someone else far more advanced down this path than I could remove this burden from me. Your thoughts, Ian.


  3. You ask (1) "Would I have been more accurate in stating that at the 'Planck scale' we may be observing the 'sustaining' of space-time or is the past self sustaining?".

    I would say that at the Planck scale we see the various possibilities for future interactions becoming more definite. In more traditional physics words, the metric is becoming fixed, and less like a superposition of incompatible spacetime patterns. The metric in the past regions of spacetime is already definite, but that in the future is somewhat vague (shall we say). In the middle, it becomes definite. The fact that metrics in the past are definite is equivalent to your "The past [is] self-sustaining."

    What I'm doing here in producing this description is not a deduction from physics, but a drawing of conclusions for what very likely must be the case within the overall multilevel theistic framework. Spiritual influx influences (among other things) the manner in which metrics become definite, and hence influences what the final metric becomes.

    You ask (2) "Do you see any reason for the creation of the time dimension other than as a framework for moral choices and spiritual elevation?"

    I agree that time provides a framework for moral choices and spiritual elevation. In my section 16.1, I argue that time provides for a more basic need: that we appear to live as if of ourselves. Without time to manifest a sequence of loves, decisions, actions and delights, all these things would appear simultaneously. In that case we would never see one as causing the other, and (in particular) would not attribute the delight to ourselves. There would be no point in living, I should think then.

    Maybe you already see this when you then ask "I mean how can man choose good if he has no perception of cause and effect which he cannot have without sequential events?"

  4. You ask "might consider offering some online video course work that people could register for that integrates science and theism? It could even be organised around your recent book."

    What I would do first, is to select some central content of the theism, and make a powerpoint series of slides for giving a talk. Then I can practice giving just that talk, and so I could record the audio to go with the slides. Later on I could work out how to record video of me talking, along with the slides (like a little TED lecture). I have not recorded video like this before, so I would be an adventure.

    Making a more general presentation, as you describe, would be yet more of a challenge. I am not yet sure how to organise this. I tried in 1999 to give at talk to the Swedenborg Society in London: called Discrete Degrees: A Top-Down Presentation. In that case I could rely on some principles from Swedenborg. It would be more of challenge to make it more self-contained.

  5. Any presentation to an average audience would likely require something of an animated graphics presentation. The goal is to present a highly plausible if not highly likely explanation of the creation that the average person could watch and come away with the seed in their mind, is that how all this really happened? and not quite able to get the sense of what they just saw out of their mind. If done right and well, it could go viral. I know of nothing else relating to the Writings that could have that impact

    Thank you so much for that link. I will study it at some considerable length. I will also restudy chapter 24 in your book and I very much appreciate you taking the time to reply to my questions. Thank you.

    1. In that 1999 talk I probably went into a bit much detail!

  6. That's ok. I'll take all the detail I can get. If you think it would be better for you, I can provide you my email address or I can continue the communications here which ever you prefer, Ian.

    Thanks again.