Sunday, February 20, 2011

Impermeable Matter and Subatomic Space

To us, the physical universe appears “solid” — that is, most physical objects appear impermeable. If you strike a nail with a hammer, the nail head does not pass through the head of the hammer. If it did, the hammer would be useless as a tool for driving nails. Fluids or gases, of course, behave differently. We can pour one liquid into another, such as two-cycle oil into gasoline for our line trimmer or snow thrower. The fluids mix in such a way that we can’t immediately grasp the oil and pull it bodily out of the gasoline. But the two fluids remain what they were, and if left undisturbed the oil may eventually separate from the gasoline. Unless a chemical reaction results in the recombination of the molecules into some new compound, the molecules of each fluid or gas in the mixture remain “impermeable” — that is, they retain the properties of the original substances.

What makes the impermeability of “solid” substances, such as steel, wood or even human flesh, a puzzling phenomenon is that no object we encounter in the normal course of events is really solid. All substances and objects are made up of atoms which, in turn, consist of subatomic particles — protons, neutrons, electrons, with the first two being further subdivided into “quarks.” (This is an oversimplification of a more complicated picture, which I am equipped neither to fully understand nor to describe.) The distances between the components of an atomic nucleus, and between the nucleus and its orbiting electrons, are comparable in terms of scale to the astronomical distances between the bodies of our solar system. This means that “solid” substances are not solid at all; in fact, the space they occupy is mostly just that — space. It has been suggested that if the space between all subatomic particles of the universe could be removed, the entire universe would shrink to the size of something like a grapefruit, or even a golf ball. Physical objects are not “solid” at all, but consist mostly of space between the subatomic particles that make up their molecules.

Within four-dimensional Newtonian space, material objects and substances — despite their not being “solid” at all — are held together by some kind of organizing force. Their molecular structure is sustained by what is called “nuclear binding energy,” or some similar term. Several nuclear, electro-magnetic and gravitational forces operate to both bind and keep apart the subatomic particles of matter. Reading discussions of this topic, one gets the feeling that physicists do not really understand how these forces and energy particles operate but are simply giving technical names to phenomena thought to occur, as though naming them would explain why they behave as they do. This is like saying that people gather together because they are gregarious, when being gregarious is just another way of saying that people like to be sociable. Exactly how and why an object or substance is able to hold its “shape,” given the fact that it consists mostly of space, is probably as puzzling a question now as it ever was.

What would happen if, from within four-dimensional Newtonian space, we could observe the effect of introducing additional dimensions into consideration — dimensions of which we cannot conceive given the limitations of a four-dimensional world of distance, volume and time? Would some kind of “nuclear binding energy” allow an object to retain its shape while ceasing to be impermeable? There is plenty of space between the subatomic particles of physical objects to allow them to “pass through” each other, if particular forms of binding energy allowed each object to retain its integrity while doing so.

Is this what happened at the resurrection of Jesus Christ? “Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:26). A four-dimensional universe could not have come into existence unless its Creator was operative in dimensions beyond the four that we normally experience. Could Jesus’s resurrection, and what He is able to do as the risen Lord, be the result of God’s continued multi-dimensional activity? Perhaps the universe is kept from collapsing into a tiny “golf ball” of spaceless matter through Jesus Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scientific Knowledge and Faith

For most people of contemporary Western culture the arbiter of reality, or truth, is probably the enterprise we know as “science.” We understand truth to be that which can be scientifically verified. The word science comes from the Latin scio, “I know,” and science represents for us that which we can know for certainty. But our confidence in science as the uniform guarantor of knowledge might be misplaced.

A typical image of the progress of science pictures succeeding generations of scientists building upon the achievements of their predecessors, verifying their conclusions and correcting their errors. Few people are aware that science, as we understand it today, has not developed in this manner, but instead has evolved through a series of “revolutions” in which the underlying assumptions of the previous era have been called into question. Science has moved forward not by the steady accumulation of data, but by the replacement of old paradigms of understanding with new insights — insights which came not from newly discovered data but from a different way of structuring and interpreting the data already available.

For example, ancient and medieval astronomers operated with Ptolemy’s system in which the earth was the center of the universe. The Polish astronomer Copernicus, however, developed a different paradigm in which the sun, not the earth, was the center. In this heliocentric model, which he published in 1543, the observed movements of stars and planets in the night sky were no longer understood as their movements with respect to the earth, but as resulting from the earth’s revolution about the sun.

At the time there was no real “proof” of Copernicus’s theory, since the observations of astronomers could still be forced into Ptolemy’s geocentric system of epicycles. Copernicus’s system was thought to be an interesting possible alternative to Ptolemy’s, but was no more “scientifically” challenging; thus it failed to generate much controversy when first proposed. A century later, when Galileo invented the telescope, more accurate observations of the night sky provided the data needed to completely call into question Ptolemy’s earth-centered model. It was only then that Copernicus’s system became controversial. This was largely due to a failure, on the part of church leaders, to separate biblical teaching and Christian doctrine from philosophical assumptions on which the old science was based. Eventually, of course, even Copernicus’s heliocentric model had to be abandoned once vastly more powerful instruments revealed the enormous, multi-galactic scope of the universe.

The example of the “Copernican revolution” shows that science evolves not by accumulation of new facts but by the insight of individuals who are willing to question the unproven assumptions of a previous scientific establishment. The history of science is filled with breakthroughs of this sort, such as Isaac Newton’s “laws” of gravitation, or Einstein’s theory of general relativity which modified and replaced them. Einstein’s theory, which suggests that gravity is an effect of the “curvature” of space, is not self-evident to an observer working within the Newtonian four-dimensional structure, which has no place for “curved” space. Scientific advance, then, does not depend on accumulating observations or measurements or copious experimentation within the established paradigm; it depends on the insight of an individual who is able to break out of that paradigm and think about the phenomena of the universe according to a different model. (The classic discussion of this issue is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962.)

The early nineteenth-century French mathematician Laplace developed a theory of causal determinism: if we could know the precise present state of every atom in the universe, we could determine the exact course of past and future cosmic events. A popular view of science might agree with Laplace — would not the knowledge of everything be the key to the solution of all problems, through science? But this “thought experiment” destroys science itself by removing the element of human insight by which scientific knowledge actually moves forward. Therefore, Laplace’s hypothesis is sometimes called “Laplace’s demon.”

The point of this discussion is that science is not a mere objective body of knowledge requiring no personal involvement. Science is simply what scientists do, based on their unproven and unprovable philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality and how it can be known. The scientific enterprise is an exercise in personal commitment, and scientific knowledge is personal knowledge (see Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 1962). It is, therefore, akin to religious knowledge; like religious knowledge, it depends upon the exercise of faith.

Can the faith of the scientist be correlated with the faith of the Christian believer? If the universe is God’s creation, and if Jesus Christ is “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3), then the faith of the Christian and the faith of the scientist must become one. We will explore that thought in future entries.