I’m no scientist, but I’ve been reading a lot of science lately.
My reasons are threefold: I’m writing a science fiction manuscript that is in no small part influenced by the little I understand about cosmology + time + quantum physics; I now work in research communications for a state university, so it’s my job to be science-literate (a wonderful excuse!); and I’m just utterly transfixed by all the levels on which our reality operates—at least, the levels we’ve been able to observe so far. Every time I manage to wrap my head around some new-to-me factoid about gravitational waves or subatomic particles, I’m struck by the same feeling great literature gives me: the sense that countless new connections have just formed in my brain and heart between once-disparate things. Some of those connections are immediately crystal clear, while others emerge hopelessly tangled; I might not be able to tell exactly how they’ve rewired me until years down the road.
But three core facts about the universe have embedded themselves so deeply into my paradigm lately that they now essentially function as lightning rods in my spiritual life. If you strip away absolutely everything else that’s foundational about my worldview, these three facts—and the rabbit holes they’ve taken me down—would remain.
1. Reality emerges not from particles themselves, but from the interactions between them.
Where are these quanta of space? Nowhere. They are not in space because they are themselves the space. Space is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity. Once again, the world seems to be less about objects than about interactive relationships.
Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Matter is not composed of basic building blocks but rather comprises complicated webs of relations in which the observer constitutes the final link in the chain of observational processes. The properties of an atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer.
Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being
Atoms are 99.9% empty space. What holds them together? The dance between protons, neutrons, and electrons. What holds protons and neutrons together? Quarks. What holds quarks together? Gluons. You get the picture: Nothing exists in isolation. All particles rely on a never-ending energy exchange with other particles just to be. If this energy exchange ever stopped, reality itself would unravel.
Phrased another way: The universe appears to exist only through relationship—the cosmic dance of open systems. This perpetual, dynamic give-take correspondence (self-emptying and receiving in equal measure) echoes a very orthodox idea about the nature of God: the Trinity, the concept of a community at the heart of the Creator. Ever since I learned the word perichoresis—an ancient term for the Trinity that means “the divine dance”—the inner workings of an atom haven’t looked the same to me.
Then there’s the quantum world’s reliance on consciousness for any rational quantification of reality; a haunting notion, to say the least. How about the concept of entanglement? “Correlated [entangled] atoms and ions exhibit exotic behaviors and accomplish tasks that are impossible for noninteracting particles.” Does that sound one step shy of a humanitarian mission statement to anybody else? Together we can achieve the impossible! Just me?
But there’s a dark side to all this talk of relationship being the bedrock of existence. If systems are isolated—if they fail to exchange energy at the rate necessary for survival—entropy happens: deterioration, degeneration, collapse. Human beings, each unfathomably elaborate systems unto themselves, are no exception to this rule. The second law of thermodynamics holds true for us, too: In an isolated system, entropy can only increase.
Entropy is a warning.* It’s not because “God says so” that we must learn to live with others; it’s because community is how reality is designed to function. It doesn’t actually work any other way.
*Note: Since reading Rovelli’s The Order of Time, I understand entropy quite a bit differently—see: Time is Ignorance.
2. The universe produces increasingly complex autonomous systems while maintaining unity among those systems.
At the minute scale of the grains of space, the dance of nature does not take place to the rhythm of the baton of a single orchestral conductor, at a single tempo: every process dances independently with its neighbors, to its own rhythm.
Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
There is a wholeness in nature that the term ‘mechanism’ obscures and the term ‘process’ captures. Nature is not a series of little mechanisms but more of a waltz or flowing movement. Whether on the level of the infinitely large or the infinitely small, there is an inestimable wholeness that continues to unfold or evolve in nature.
Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being
For one reason or another—I have my suspicions—the universe wasn’t content to remain an unformed mass of scattered particles after the Big Bang. Through gravity and other forces we still don’t entirely understand (something else I’ve learned from reading science is that naming things doesn’t mean we understand them), particles are drawn to each other, forming increasingly complex bodies, objects, organisms, beings. The universe produces individuals with incredible diversity, whether we’re talking creatures on Earth or planets, stars, and celestial objects. These individual things and beings are each complex systems made of simpler systems made of still simpler systems. The deeper and broader the web of relationships, the more multi-faceted and capable the being.
And yet! The unity among these systems doesn’t override or subsume each object (or being)’s individual nature. A tree, a deer, and a wolf all share the same basic substance and existence while remaining wholly different from each other.
In short (ha, I know): Whatever force animates the universe and pulls it forward—and I’d argue that it’s not too large of a leap, even for the agnostic, to assume the world might be undergoing some kind of guided evolution—enjoys creating individual things in awe-inspiring diversity. Individuality seems to matter a great deal, but union among those individuals is also an inherent feature of the cosmos. By default, all are parts of a greater whole without which the parts cannot function. And if systems can’t sustain themselves without remaining open, then the mysterious Maker of these systems must care about both agency (choice) and harmony among wills (unity, alignment). Stealing a metaphor from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: We have been given the structure and form of a sonnet; it is our choice what to write, what to express within that structure. We have been given a voice and the invitation to use it to contribute to the pattern of a greater work.
The ever-wonderful George MacDonald puts it this way:
There can be no unity, no delight of love, no harmony, no good in being, where there is but one. Two at least are needed for oneness; and the greater the number of individuals, the greater, the lovelier, the richer, the diviner is the possible unity.
3. Life comes after death.
This is something I don’t think I need to pull quotes from a book to support. I’m curious to know how anyone can reach the opposite conclusion after an eyes-wide-open assessment of how the known universe operates. From the cycle of the seasons (spring following winter) to the cycle of organic life (dead matter feeding the ground to produce new organisms), death never seems to be the final word in our cosmos. In fact, it’s essential to the overall life of ecosystems—just take a look at the host of problems that occur when predators are removed from natural environments and/or forests grow too dense… the list goes on.
And how about the cycle of the cosmos? Thousands of new stars form out of the vast clouds of dust and gas left in the wake of a dead star. (In fact, nebulae are only visible to us once new stars begin to form and light up the cloud—another gorgeous truth to contemplate.) No death occurs in the cosmos that doesn’t pave the way for new life in abundance. Matter and energy are constantly being recycled and re-used. Neither can be destroyed, only transmuted. It appears that God wastes nothing.
Fr. Richard Rohr has this to say about way resurrection is built into the natural world—and the implications that fact should have for Christians:
Jesus’ resurrection is a potent, focused, and compelling statement about what God is still and forever doing with the universe and with humanity. Science strongly confirms this statement today with different metaphors and symbols: condensation, evaporation, hibernation, sublimation, the four seasons, and the life cycles of everything from salmon to stars—constantly dying and being reborn in different forms. God appears to be resurrecting everything all the time and everywhere. It is not something to “believe in” as much as it is something to observe and be taught by.
It’s that last line that convicts me. Observing is one thing; letting myself be taught by these observations is another. If there’s one thing I can say for certain about the past year or two, it’s that God has been taking me to task for living too much in the realm of the abstract and not enough in the present—the only place life is currently available to me, and the only place where change can be effected, in myself and in the world.
So right now, here’s what these beautiful delineations from scientific literature are teaching me on a practical level:
- I can trust that God is fundamentally good because relationship—love and community—appears to be the very nature of reality.
- I can trust that my choices fundamentally matter because the world is designed to encourage agency, not to limit it.
- I can trust that death is not the end because God has written resurrection into every function, pattern, and element that I see around me.
Good News, from where I’m standing.