Monday, March 30, 2009

Particles, Waves, and Theology

I'm reading Janna Levin's How the Universe Got Its Spots. I first became interested in this author when I heard her on NPR's Speaking of Faith, and her ideas intrigued me so much that I blogged about her (go here for the blog post, which has links to the radio show).

I was reading her discussion of particles and waves, and the trouble that a lot of people have with the concept that matter and energy can be both particles and waves. She claims that no one can really understand this concept (page 63).

Now, I don't claim to be a cosmologist or physicist, but I think I have less problem than many people with the idea that something can be two or more things at once, even if they would seem to be contradictory things. Even though I can't say it clearly, my brain doesn't ache at the idea of it, as the brains of many do.

I wonder why this is? Is it because I'm a poet? As a poet, I'm always on the lookout for images to string together, images that you, the reader, wouldn't expect to see in the same poem, with the overall effect of making you see the world in a way you never have before. And a poem that can do that is my favorite kind of poem, both to read and to write.

Or maybe it's because I grew up as a Lutheran, in a church tradition that didn't coat everything with sugar so that we'd all swallow it. Yes, there were contradictions and ideas that were difficult to get our brains around. Some of it, I'm still not sure I can explain, even though I don't have trouble with it on a theoretical level. I was never one of those children who couldn't understand the concept of the Trinity. Yup, made perfect sense to me. Viewed one way, the Divine would look like this, while viewed another way, we'd perceive this, and a third way would reveal that. My child brain only inquired, "Why did God stop at three?" I never did get a satisfactory answer for that.

I find it interesting that many atheists are willing to believe in things that their senses can't perceive (at least not without a lot of help), like atoms, but they criticize believers for their spiritual beliefs. When people ask me, "How can you believe in God? You can't prove the existence of God." Or they say, "If there's a God, then please explain to me why there is evil in the world."

Rather than try to make a proof, I simply answer, "I believe in all sorts of things I don't fully understand: the internal combustion engine, electricity, neutrinos . . . If I got rid of everything I couldn't prove or explain, I wouldn't be left with much." I do often make a futile attempt to explain the idea of free will and how that leads to evil, but I've found that people who ask these kinds of questions aren't really looking for an intellectual conversation. They're just being sneerily dismissive.

Janna Levin seems to say that even free will is an illusion. She hasn't talked about it much, and I'm only halfway through the book, so I'm hoping she returns to the concept. On page 25, she says, ". . . if every atom in our bodies merely follows a mechanical trajectory precisely determined by the laws of physics then we have no volition. Our choices are predetermined and we merely play out the inevitable effect of all those earlier causes." On page 26 she continues, "A deterministic universe is like a movie where the end is already recorded. We don't know the ending, so we have the impression that it's unfolding in real time and a sense of spontaneity, bu the end is already written, already determined. Maybe nature has restricted our perception in this way to protect us from the completely bleak state of affairs of knowing the ending, but it's an illusion all the same."

How interesting that my brain has trouble with that concept--not in understanding it, but in believing it--but I can willingly accept the idea of the Trinity.

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