“In the history of science, ever since the famous trial of Galileo, it has repeatedly been claimed that scientific truth cannot be reconciled with the religious interpretation of the world. Although I am now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on, Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of though, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.”
― Werner Heisenberg
I have, recently, been thinking about Werner Heisenberg, the ‘father’ of quantum mechanics, and his revelations for a bit, and I noted that as he informed the world about the very basics of how the universe was created (and how it might end) he remained a committed Lutheran. As he said, he balanced his beliefs in two domains.
For most of my adult life I was associated with radio-communications ~ radios, cell phones, radars, satellites and microwave systems, and so on, and I got used to looking at any radio signal in either, often both, of two different domains: I could see it in the time domain or in the frequency domain and, sometimes I could use physical or mathematical tools to look at both domains together …
… but I always knew that those two domains were just two sides of the same coin, they were just different representations of the same thing, but each was exactly the same. What Werner Heisenberg balanced were two entirely different explanations of (perhaps, some people say, only very roughly) the same thing.
Now, Heisenberg was born in 1901, into a solid, middle class German family, he was about as Victorian and then Edwardian as it was possible to be without being English, but so were most (Western) people in the world from Wuhan through Washington to Winchester and Würzburg, It is likely, I think, that he believed, as Kipling said, in a familiar “God of our fathers, known of old,” I think that religion, especially older, more traditional, and especially familiar versions of our religions provide a great deal of what we might call social comfort. The late Victorian and Edwardian churches were the centres of many communities and religious rituals provided, still provide, for many, a sense of continuity and, perhaps, of purpose, too.
On the one hand we have Heisenberg’s own scientific explanations of the very nature of the universe … let’s call that the rational domain. I am not a physicist but I think I understand some, maybe just enough of what Heisenberg and Einstein, Hawking and Penrose and all the others are saying in that domain … enough to believe it. On the other hand we have the religious explanation, and let’s call that the irrational domain … and let’s use those two words in a quasi-mathematical sense. In mathematics an irrational number is one that cannot be expressed in a certain way: √2 and π are very real expressions that many of us use, for very practical purposes, every day, but they are irrational numbers … real, useful, comprehensible but not able to be expressed in certain ways. Similarly, it seems to me, that certain irrational beliefs cannot be expressed in the language of rational science. That doesn’t make them wrong; just difficult to explain, exactly.
The rational domain, the world of Heisenberg, Einstein, Hawking and all the others, can be calculated and tested and for many people it is entirely sufficient: it explains enough about everything so that many, many reasonable people can say that there is no need for any “higher power” to explain anything at all. The irrational domain, however, says that even when one accepts all the facts and theories there is still something missing … let’s suppose that the universe was created by the interactions (in some state where neither time nor space nor matter could exist) of some fundamental forces (four, when I went to school (the strong and weak nuclear forces, the force of gravity and the electromagnetic force), maybe more, now); that’s fine, says those in the irrational domain, most of can accept all that, but it begs the question: What (perhaps even who?) is responsible for that state and those forces? Who or what created them?
Now, Heisenberg was a pretty conventional Christian, a Lutheran, a member of that huge family of people who believe some variant of the story that the god of the Jews created the heavens and the earth and put a man and woman on it to … well to worship god, amongst other things. That’s not the only great religion, there are many hundreds of millions, more likely a billion, Hindus who worship a pantheon of gods and have their own creation stories. And there are, for example, Taoists (or Daoists, take your pick), some of whom worship the notion of the three pure ones who caused the universe and the world and all life to have been created, and some others of whom are, for all practical purposes, agnostics. So it appear to be logically possible to be in the irrational domain without adhering to any established religion. It appears, to me, equally possible to understand that the universe was created by the interaction of fundamental forces and will end in a very cold, dark, lonely way until, once again, time and space effectively cease to exist (that’s (grossly oversimplified) what I think Sir Roger Penrose might mean in Cycles of Time (2010)). Penrose claims to be an atheist but also says that “I think I would say that the universe has a purpose, it’s not somehow just there by chance … some people, I think, take the view that the universe is just there and it runs along – it’s a bit like it just sort of computes, and we happen somehow by accident to find ourselves in this thing. But I don’t think that’s a very fruitful or helpful way of looking at the universe, I think that there is something much deeper about it.” I think that’s what I think, too.
It seems to me that the “reality” that Werner Heisenberg saw in “religious thinking” is a way of describing the “purpose” that Sir Roger Penrose sees in the universe … and if the universe has “purpose” and if there is “reality” to be found in religious thought then there must be some creative force at work. Without even for a µsecond agreeing that it might have a long beard and/or Asiatic faces, I like the idea of (a) “pure” force(s) that set everything in train and guided the creation of the universe(s) (there may be many of them in some theories) and set it on the course it now follows, with some purpose.
Einstein, rather famously, said that “God does not play dice,” but Stephen Hawking, and others, were and are less deterministic. I’m in the middle: I think (perhaps just hope?) that these is a grand design (I am, therefore, just in case there was any doubt, in the irrational domain) but I’m inclined to the view that it is far more complex and difficult to comprehend than even Einstein, Heisenberg and Penrose believe.
Do I go to church? No. Do I pray to any god, even to that Taoist god of good soldiers Guan Yu? No. But I do think that religion, broadly and generally, is a good thing in society and despite my own, personal, political differences with the so called religious right, I think that most religious people are trying their best to do what right for the societies in which they live … I don’t even doubt the sincerity of the Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, but I doubt that any of the organized religions have the answers to the really big questions that matter. I wish that was not so, it would be nice to think that there is some god(s) that will give me my daily bread, forgive my trespasses and preserve my son from the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy, as the Navy’s prayer asks, but I doubt that happens. Instead, I think that, whether or not it is clear to us, the universe continues to unfold, as it should, but in ways that Einstein, Heisenberg, Hawking, Pentose and Murray Gell-Mann try to help some of us to understand but which, most often, elude me, still.
Of course, as I have said many times, despite my belief that most religious people are well intentioned, I do, quite strongly, disagree with anyone who tries to impose their personal moral views on others, no matter how sincerely they may hold those views.
I believe that the real, practical answers are in the rational domain, but that hope and moral guidance lie in the irrational one and I believe that the Rig Veda, the Torah, the Tao te ching and the Christian Bible all have things to teach us that rational science cannot describe. The rational domain says 1707/500, but that’s not always a terribly useful answer; the irrational domain says π, which is, most often, much more helpful; sometimes the irrational domain has the answers that are more useful in both the big and small questions.