Fumbling after the mind of God: Scientific quests for the divine mind
Photo by Bobby Johnson via Unsplash

Stephen Hawking wrote that if we can answer the question of why we and the universe exist, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.”1 Others at the frontiers of physics have used such language.

Paul Davies titled a book The Mind of God, Paul Dirac suggested that God is “a mathematician of a very high order,” and Albert Einstein wondered whether God had any choice in creating the world.2 At the beginnings of modern science, Kepler said he had found the laws of planetary motion by “merely thinking God’s thoughts after him.”3

But there’s a difference between tracing what are believed to be God’s thoughts in giving the world certain features and knowing the mind — the totality of the thoughts — of God. “Mind of God” talk usually envisions no personal relationship with God, so complete knowledge of the divine mind would seem to make God superfluous, a deus otiosus. Maybe God exists off in some metaphysical retirement community, but such an entity can be safely ignored.

Talk like that may be natural at limits of science that call for revolutionary ideas, as relativity and quantum mechanics were a century ago. Today that means cosmology and the basic structure of matter. Exciting discoveries come in areas like condensed matter physics, plasmas, or quantum optics, and physicists working in them could echo Kepler’s language. But their research won’t revolutionize the way we see the world.

Successes and Failures

There have certainly been important discoveries in cosmology and particle physics in recent years. The basic big bang model of the universe has been firmly established by observations. Gravitational waves were first detected in 2015 and the Higgs boson, the capstone of the standard model of particle physics, was found in 2012.

But the theories that explained predicted those discoveries weren’t new. George Gamow and his coworkers developed the big bang model in the late 1940s, Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves 1917, and the Higgs boson was theorized by Higgs and others in 1964. The theories explaining those phenomena, general relativity and quantum field theory, are established parts of physics.

But there are also recent discoveries that established theories haven’t explained. We understand only about 4% of the material content of the universe. The other 96% is the “dark matter” whose gravitational attraction holds galaxies and clusters together and the “dark energy” that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. We’re in the dark (pun intended) about what those things are.

And we don’t know everything about ordinary matter. In the standard model of particle physics there is complete symmetry between ordinary matter and antimatter. Had those been present in equal amounts in the very early universe, they would have annihilated one another completely, leaving only photons. But there must have been a slight imbalance, on the order of a part in a billion, in favor of matter. That’s why the universe today, including life on earth, is as it is. There must be some yet unexplained matter-antimatter asymmetry.

There are other puzzles. Why are the masses of fundamental particles and the strengths of their interactions the way they are? What drove the inflation with which our universe seems to have begun? Did anything precede it? Did inflation lead just to our universe or a multitude of them? How can gravitation described by Einstein’s theory be combined consistently with quantum theory?

Theorists have been trying to meet these challenges. Many of them work on string theory, whose basic entities are minute strings in a space of nine dimensions plus one of time. (Six dimensions have to be “compactified” to result in the space-time we observe.) Supersymmetry and a multiverse are natural developments of “superstring theory.” Toward the end of his life, Hawking thought that a development within string theory called M-theory was the key to the long-awaited theory of everything.4

The simplicity of string theory’s basic idea and its elegant mathematics have convinced many theorists that it must be true. The problem is that there is no observational evidence for it. No experiments are best explained in terms of tiny strings or reveal rolled up additional dimensions. Partners of known particles that supersymmetry requires haven’t been found. And the effect of gravitational waves from the very early universe that might point to a multiverse hasn’t been seen.5

The failure of recent theoretical work to explain otherwise puzzling observations or to predict new phenomena that were then confirmed is discouraging. The willingness of some theorists to abandon the requirement that observational evidence has the last word in science has led some to see a real crisis in physics. Einstein placed heavy emphasis on theory, even to the extent of saying, “In a certain sense … pure thought can grasp reality.” But he preceded that with, “Experience remains, of course, the sole criterion of the utility of a mathematical construction.”6

Some scientists have expressed concerns about the present state of fundamental physics research in books referred to here. The titles and subtitles will give some idea of what they focus on.7

Theological Reflections

Talk about trying to know the mind of God by through science may, of course, just be a figure of speech. If it’s considered in a Christian context, it comes under the heading of “natural theology,” an attempt to learn about God from our experience of the world. That is to be distinguished from theology developed by considering God’s historical revelation which culminates in Jesus Christ.

In Romans 1:19-23, Paul says that people should be able to know God from the creation. But the knowledge that there is a God only means that “they are without excuse,” because they misuse that knowledge and worship their own ideas and images of God. The problem Paul speaks to here at the beginning of a discussion of the basic problem of sin is not atheism but idolatry.

Trying to develop any natural theology thus seems misguided — unless we first have been brought to know God from God’s historical revelation. In that case we may get a deeper understanding of God and God’s purposes by putting our knowledge of the world gained through science in the context of God’s self-revelation.8

The heart of that revelation is the crucified and risen Christ, as Luther argued in support of his theses for a disputation in Heidelberg. It is a bad theologian, he said, indeed no theologian at all, who thinks that God can be clearly known from observation of the world. Instead, “True theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.”9 In support of that claim he cited Isaiah 45:15 – “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.”

Georges Lemaître, the Catholic priest and mathematical physicist, used Einstein’s equations to develop a forerunner of the big bang model. Some people assumed that Lemaître did this to support belief in creation. But Lemaître denied this, saying that his view “was consonant with the wording of Isaiah’s speaking of the ‘Hidden God’ hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”10

Belief that God is hidden in the world implies that we can’t discover the mind of God by observing the world. St. Paul tells Christians, however, that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:17b). That doesn’t mean, e.g., we can get our science from the Bible. But, believing that the world studied by science is God’s creation, we may view scientific results differently than those who don’t share that faith, and perhaps offer some very modest suggestions for the considerations of scientists.

Both physicists and Christians (who may be the same people!) have faith in the basic rationality of the world. From a theological standpoint, that can be related to the belief that the agent of creation is the divine Logos, the Reason or Word of God (John 1:3). The Christian tradition has also generally held that God was free to create differently — that the universe is both rational and contingent.11

That might be used as an argument for the multiverse, supported theologically by a “principle of plentitude.” All possible rational universes would be instantiated. If their basic laws were radically different, however, it would be hard to see how they would all emerge from the same inflationary process — if that’s how universes do emerge.

The contingency of the world has implications for reliance on mathematical beauty that Hossenfelder thinks physicists have been “blinded” by. Perhaps “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare”,12 but the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries revealed other beauties. János Bolyai, one of the discoverers of a new geometry, wrote in a letter to his father, that “Out of nothing I have created a new and another world.”13 These new geometries developed into the mathematical structure that Einstein used in constructing general relativity.

But after all, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” By ordinary standards there is nothing attractive about a man dying on a cross — “There is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Belief that the creator is revealed in that way may help in thinking about a process of creation of life through the death and extinction involved in biological evolution, and ought to caution physicists about undue reliance on obvious ideas of elegance as a criterion for theories.

One of the things that seems inelegant about the present state of physics is that there are about twenty constants, masses of particles and strengths of basic interactions, that we can measure experimentally. But why do they have those values? They can’t be derived from the standard model of particle physics or general relativity, and just have to be put into the equations “by hand.”

One approach appeals to the fact that relationships among some of these constants have to be pretty much as we find them to be in order for intelligent life to develop. Such “anthropic arguments” are controversial. Some Christians have used them as design arguments for a creator of the universe. Others have rejected such claims, appealing to the idea of a multiverse. According to them, it’s axiomatic that we would find ourselves in one of the universes in which our kind of life could exist.

Without entering directly into that debate, we can note a basic theological point. If it is true, as Ephesians 1:10 says, that God’s “plan for the fullness of time [is] to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth,” then God’s purpose in creation requires development of “flesh” so that the Word could be made flesh. That is not just an “anthropic” argument but a “theanthropic” argument,14 suggesting that the structure of the universe is determined by God’s desire for incarnation.

George Murphy

Theological Editor

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.   He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary.  Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations.  His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

  1. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988), p.175.
  2. Paul Davies, The Mind of God (Simon & Schuster, 1992);  https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-evolution-of-the-physicists-picture-of-nature/; https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/millennium/m1/overbye.html?source=post_page
  3. https://faith-seeking-understanding.org/tag/thinking-gods-thoughts-after-him/
  4. http://theconversation.com/stephen-hawking-had-pinned-his-hopes-on-m-theory-to-fully-explain-the-universe-heres-what-it-is-93440
  5. I refer here to the BICEP 2 project, for which see Brian Keating, Losing the Nobel Prize (W.W. Norton, 2018).
  6. Albert Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” in Essays in Science (Philosophical Library, 1934), p.18.
  7. Lee Smolin,Trouble with Physics:  The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next  (Houghton Mifflin, 2006);  Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (Basic, 2006); Jim Baggott, Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth (Pegasus, 2013); Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (Basic, 2018).
  8. I have discussed this in greater detail in George L. Murphy,  The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross (Trinity Press International, 2003), especially Chapters 2 & 3, and
    “Reading God’s Two Books” (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 58, 65, 2006)
  9. Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation” in Luther’s Works (Fortress, 1957), pp.52-53.
  10. Helge Kragh, Cosmology and Controversy (Princeton University, 1996), p.60.
  11. Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford, 1981), especially Chapter 1.
  12. Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Harp Weaver (London, 1924), p.80.
  13. D. M. Y. Sommerville, The Elements of Non-Euclidean Geometry (Dover, 1958), p.23.
  14. George L. Murphy, “The Incarnation as a Theanthropic Principle”, Word & World XIII, 1993, 256.
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