“Do any physical theories allow room for God to influence human actions and events? And… is there any concrete evidence of God’s hand at work in the physical world?” These were the two main questions discussed by both scientists and theologians at a series of meetings was held in 2010 at Oxford University to honor the 80th birthday of John Polkinghorne, the theoretical physicist and Anglican priest. Polkinghorne himself believed strongly that God does act in the world. He tried also to explain God’s actions in a way consistent with science and went on a quest for what “Discover” Magazine (in its eponymous article in March 2011) called the “physics of the divine”. Bob Russell, another physicist-priest like Polkinghorne, contends (like a number of other thinkers) that the best place to find scientific support for God was in quantum mechanics. One of the cornerstones of quantum theory is the uncertainty principle which says that it is not possible to know with complete accuracy both the position and momentum of a particle. In more general terms, you can never predict the outcome of an experiment at a subatomic level with certainty: you can only estimate the probability of an event occurring. Russell points out that “as the known laws of physics appear to allow a choice of outcomes at the quantum levels, perhaps God makes that choice.”

Other scientists think that we would be better off seeking God in another quantum phenomenon, quantum entanglement, in which the state of one particle is dependent on that of another to which it is apparently twinned. While most physicists accept quantum entanglement as one more counter-intuitive reality of quantum physics, there are others who think these quantum effects are caused by “influences that originate from outside of space-time.” (Quantum physicist Antoine Suarez as quoted in “Discover” Magazine).

There are also other scientists such as Heinz Pagels who contend that the natural instinct of most people is to seek security in determinism, and to find “reasons” for why things happen, “no matter how far-fetched the reason may be.” (In “The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics and the Language of Nature”.) Because probability distributions have some kind of objectivity, we are lulled into thinking that they have an existence independent of the events and even “cause” the event to fall into a pattern (not unlike Maradona’s hand of God). Pagels calls this apparent error in perception as “secular fatalism” – the belief that probability distributions influence the outcome of single events.

Is it however wholly correct to so facilely dismiss the hand of God behind such events simply because of an apparent lack of an empirical nexus between the cause and effect? Is it possible – perhaps – that (a) it may be a long time – even a very long time – before some phenomena could be empirically verified or (b) it may not even be possible to verify such an hypothesis at all but it may be taken to be valid thanks to other circumstantial evidence that point conclusively to its influence. An example of (a) perhaps is the discovery of the neutrino, a neutral subatomic particle with a very small mass that travels very close to the speed of light and hardly ever interacts with matter. (“The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead: Dispatches from the Front Line of Science”, Chown, 186). Although Wolfgang Pauli famously predicted the existence of the neutrino back in 1930, it took nearly thirty years (ie: in 1956) to identify its existence definitively. (Oxford Book of Science). (What is more interesting is that we have no chance of actually seeing one or feeling its presence because neutrinos rarely if ever interact with matter. A 100 million solar neutrinos are in fact said to pass through every square centimeters of our bodies every second, completely unhindered by the atoms in our body. (“We Need to Talk about Kelvin”, Marcus Chown, p: 64).)

An illustration of case (b) is the existence (or otherwise) of multiverses. Theorists like Alan Guth and Andrei Linde believe that what we have all along as the universe is in fact an infinitesimal fragment of a much larger and more elaborate system – what Paul Davies calls “an ensemble of universes” (“The Goldilocks Enigma”, p: 172). If we imagined that these universes differed in some property which is important for life, then life would arise only in those universes or cosmic regions where conditions that support life. Although the existence of multiverses can never be proved, for certain obvious reasons, a growing lobby of scientists support this theory in some version or the other. As Davies points out one of the major reasons for this support is the fact that it “provides a natural and easy explanation of why the universe is so uncannily fine-tuned for life”. Davies also highlights the fact that the “multiverse does not provide a complete account of the existence, because it still requires a lot of unexplained and very ‘convenient’ physics to make it work.” (“The Goldilocks Enigma”, p: 298). As the physicist-turned-Buddhist monk, Alan Wallace observes, ““science also requires a type of faith. Whereas religions normally make a clear statement of their articles of faith, science introduces its underlying assumptions more surreptitiously.” (“Choosing Reality”, p: 12).

This is perhaps the reason why a great thinker like Albert Einstein was rather more equivocal or measured in his thinking about God and religion. While he did not profess a belief in a ‘personal God”, Einstein nonetheless advocated strongly what he called “a cosmic religious feeling”. It is difficult to explain this feeling to one without it, as “there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it…. The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which no knows dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it.” (In “Ideas and Opinions”, p: 42).

Max Planck said that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we are part of the mystery that we are trying to resolve.” (Max Planck, “Constants of Nature”, p: 23.)

It appears that Einstein, like Max Planck, was also well aware of the limitations of science in explaining the human condition. In a similar vein, Einstein also wrote that “it is… clear that knowledge of what it does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source.”

By Venkat Ramanan