A Theory of Everything

I watched “The Theory of Everything” today.  (I know, it’s been out for awhile, but we’re cheap and I don’t usually see things until they’re out on DVD).  In the opening scene Stephen Hawking is shown introducing himself to his future wife as a cosmologist, which he explains is sort of religion for intelligent atheists.  In this well-made film, Hawking is presented as the intellectually gifted individual I believe him in actuality to be.  Brilliant.  Born with an intelligence most of us would give half our earthly possessions to acquire.  And explaining early on that “a physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a belief in a supernatural creator.”  We see him developing a theory as well as mathematical equations designed to lead back to the very first moment in space and time, and we all, scientists and theologians, cheer him on as we watch, because we all share the same fascination with that very first moment of existence.  “In the beginning…”  something happened, and we are all utterly drawn to understanding what that was, because we all want to understand just exactly how it came to be that we are here.  And in understanding how it came to be, to understand something of what it means for us to be here.

Of course the movie is about more than Stephen Hawking’s quest for answers.  It’s about his quest for life in the face of a crippling disease that was expected to end his life within two years of his initial diagnosis.  Spoiler alert: it didn’t.  He’s still alive at this writing, so the movie isn’t much of a cliffhanger in this regard, but it does pull you into the unimaginable struggle he must have faced.  And in the midst of that, his quest to prove with one mathematical equation that time had a beginning, and “with one eloquent equation, to explain everything.”  That’s all.  To live in the face of death, to find a way to communicate in the face of his body’s utter collapse… and to explain everything.

Unfortunately, and I know it’s just a movie, the story-line highlights the biases and assumptions that are a part of the picture, simply because all scientists are in fact also humans.  His Ph.D. thesis explained there was a beginning to the universe.  His continued work was to disprove it.  “God must die,” and “physics is back in business” are the successive quotes at this point in the film, not because he had somehow proven the absence of God, but because he believed he had to set aside the idea of God in order to pursue his science.   So there’s the question.  Does God have to die for scientific pursuit to continue?  If science is truly an objective method of following the evidence in search of truth, then the answer is obviously no.  In fact, for any premise to be excluded up front would mean that science isn’t science at all – it’s what would more accurately be termed a religion.  On the other hand, does science have to die for us to believe in God?  Sometimes we act like it.  At times the scientific community has railed against the idea of God.  At times it’s sought to disprove His existence.  But for the most part, it’s sought answers.  For the religious community to mistrust the motives of some scientists and scientific authors is understandable.  On the other hand, to reject actual science rather than to seek to be part of its quest for understanding is essentially to fear that what we believe may not be true and that someday this will be proven to be the case.  Whatever the truth is, we should face it head on.  With both sides simply assuming the other is wrong and not examining the evidence, it’s hard to see how we move any closer to a clear understanding.

Who is telling you what to believe?

Bear with me for a moment.  This may change your life.  If you can truly take hold of how much this one point affects you and those around you in your life, it will open up your ability to think about all the most important questions in your life in a new way.  We all believe we make up our own minds on most things, from the smallest likes and dislikes to the deeper beliefs about science and religion.  But let’s be honest. Mullets.  Bell bottoms.  Parachute pants.  Disco.  There are choices you just can’t explain without recognizing how influenced we are by the choices of those around us.  Okay, so you may be offended by one or more of my examples, but the fact is, fashion, music, even what we eat tends to go in trends.

Trends are when we all start doing something new at once.  When that happens with what kind of pants we wear or how we get our hair cut, it’s pretty harmless.  But unfortunately the research of social psychology has taught us over and over that we are influenced in deeper ways than that.   A person who doesn’t know they’re in an experiment will do what they believe is inflicting pain on another person when those around them are doing it and don’t seem to question the commands they’re given. This is not just true for bad people.  It’s true for people who would never have believed themselves capable of cruelty to another person.  From tragic real-life events we know that a crowd of people will stand by and watch a horrible act of violence without doing anything to help, even when one person who saw the same thing would rush to call 911.  In one study and real-life situation after another we have discovered the terrifying truth that we are very reluctant to accept about ourselves; we are deeply reluctant to risk the disapproval of the world around us, and we are much more willing than we want to think to change the way we act and even what we believe if we think it’s what the world around us does or believes.

Why does all of this matter so much?  Because the world of science and religion is made up of human beings who are just as susceptible to trends in thinking as anyone else.  The problem is that scientists believe they are objective and uninfluenced by the thinking of their time, and that trends occur in the religious world in the same way that they do everywhere else.  We’ll come back to this reality over and over.  It’s not just important – it’s truly of life and death importance that we examine the questions of existence and meaning for ourselves and at least attempt to get outside of the “group think” of our time.  So what perception is posited right now that makes this so important to consider?

As we’ve discussed, something has always existed.  Before there was anything else. Before the universe as we know it.  Before time as understand it.  Before everything, there was either eternal matter, with no beginning, or there was an eternal God, with no beginning.  It’s the absolute foundation of my faith.  Of course, you may have heard that Stephen Hawking, so often heralded as one of the smartest people in the modern world, has another theory; that the universe is fully capable of launching itself into existence.  Spontaneous existence from nothing, which Stephen Hawking acknowledges goes against all the laws of science in all other circumstances, but claims can happen in the case of an entire universe.  The idea he explains in “The Grand Design” is that he does not believe in a personal God who created the universe, but he does believe in a law of science that somehow led to the spontaneous creation from nothing of a universe that would from that point on preclude spontaneous creation.  Here’s the thing though, in addition to the general absurdity of the idea itself; what Hawking is essentially saying is that it was the existence of the law of science that led to the spontaneous creation of the universe.  He cannot bring himself to consider that a God could always have existed and that this God could have created the universe, but he can bring himself to believe that, independent of any matter existing, an eternal law of science existed and acted independently to create a universe.  In the artificial “science versus God” argument, one that has done little to move the discussion forward, Hawking has managed to propose a theory that would be considered laughable if brought up by any other person or at any other point in time.  But today, in our current trend of thought, while not necessarily accepted, it’s not being universally rejected either.  It’s our mullet.  Our parachute pants.

Stephen Hawking does not need my admiration, but in general, I will tell you that he has it.  He is a passionately committed seeker of truth.  He is squarely in the midst of the quest for answers, for truth, and for understanding of our existence.  But I would also say he is blinded by his commitment to the idea not only that science must answer all questions, but that it must at all costs do so without considering the possibility of God.  It’s the current worldview, and it’s hard not to be caught up in it, no matter who you are.  It’s hard not to see what everyone else sees.  But what is true?  What makes sense?  What fits the evidence?  Step-by-step, let’s stay the course and simply look at things for ourselves.

…and we can all be afraid to ask.

Have you ever had something make you nervous enough that you just didn’t want to think about it?  A test in school?  A project at work?  A conversation you needed to have with someone close to you?  Have you noticed how important everything else becomes when there’s something you don’t want to think about or work on?  Your desk needs organized.  Your kitchen needs cleaned.  Home projects you’ve put off for years become pressing.  You may even exercise (or at least map out the mother of all exercise plans).  Anything but facing the thing you actually need to be spending time on.  Not necessarily because you can’t do what you’re avoiding, but because of how thinking about it makes you feel.

No one likes to feel stressed.  We’ll do whatever it takes to avoid it.  The bigger the stressor, the more we’re likely to avoid it.  The bigger and more important the question, the more we may avoid doing what it takes to find the answer.  So we’re scared to take that pregnancy test for fear the results will be negative and we’ll be disappointed again.  We put off that medical test that might explain symptoms that could be nothing, but that in the back of our mind we’re worried might be cancer.

But what about the questions everything else depends on?  What if we avoid the questions that would help us understand the purpose and meaning of our very lives?  What if our fears keep us from pursuing the answers that would change the lives of everyone we know and love?  What if we let ourselves face the evidence and it turns out there is no God?  Or what if it turns out there is, and our whole lives are based on the wrong things?  What if we know we’d have to change everything if God turned out to be real?  Why don’t most of us spend our whole lives seeking the answer to this one question?  Could there actually be anything more important?  Anything that could affect our lives more?

Of course, it’s possible to tell ourselves we’re looking, but still not be open to finding answers that aren’t the ones we’re looking for.  In John 5:39, Jesus told Jewish leaders that even though they searched the scriptures constantly, in fact the very scriptures that testified about him, they still had not found him.  Jesus was not the answer they were looking for.  They had too much invested in a different answer; a different kind of savior.

We may smile our knowing superior smile, because they didn’t see what was right in front of them.  But what factors may blind us to the truths in front of us?  What may keep us from looking at the evidence?  What social pressures may prevent us from expressing the answers we do begin to find, particularly if those around us would no approve?

I mentioned in my last post that everything comes back to beginnings.  For me, that’s the foundation of my faith.  The starting point for everything else.  The simple truth that we exist, that anything exists.  And that things that exist have a source.  Who, or what, is that source?  Where does the evidence take us?  Do we have the courage for the search?  And if the evidence does point to an answer, are we willing to accept it?

We all want answers to the same questions…

If you’re a religious parent, English evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins sees you as a threat to your children.  He is calling for schools to protect your kids from your science denying, oh-so-dangerous religious indoctrination.   You know what your problem is, right?  Some, Mr. Dawkins most likely included, would explain the problem is that you clearly checked your brain at the church door when you decided to become a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a member of whatever faith you joined because you just didn’t know any better.

Of course, for those of you who do believe in the conclusions modern science has reached, it’s assumed you can’t possibly believe in the possibility of any God being behind the workings of the universe.  This, some would say, would clearly be due to the fact that you’re a God-hating person whose eyes and heart have been blinded by evil and a profound modern arrogance.

Two sides.  Two at times equally “religious” sides, seeing themselves as the only followers of truth and the exclusive holders of it, and seeing any questioning of their perspective as either dim-witted or evil.  You may think Richard Dawkins is an arrogant, condescending and narrow-minded tool of Satan.  He may think you’re too stupid to understand that science has all the answers and that all you have are a bunch of stories.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  It all depends on where you’re coming from.

Of course, none of this is entirely true.  There are countless brilliant scientists who believe in God, just as there are countless religious men and women who believe in the importance of scientific research and discovery.  What matters is not what we think about the opposition or what they think about us.  What matters is that we stop pretending that other people with differing points of view are the opposition.  We are all trying to figure out the same thing:  How did we get here?  And does the answer to that question give us any indication of what our lives are all about?

I have read articles and books from every perspective I could find.  I have sought science and religion’s answers for the one thing I know for sure.  That the world around us, the universe that contains it, and we ourselves… exist.  Matter is here.  A fact.  The fact that all other theories and scientific pursuit are based upon.  And the one for which science has no answers, because nothing in scientific discovery supports the idea of matter coming from nothing – in fact science has repeatedly made a point of proving that this simply cannot happen.  No matter what may have happened since, the first elements of matter still had to come from somewhere.

If we put aside for one moment the unspoken fears of real and open discussion, the fact is that every pursuit of the question of existence comes back to beginnings.  If you believe God created the universe, you have to believe in a God who existed eternally, with no beginning.  If you believe the big bang theory is a better explanation of the universe, and don’t hold to the idea that God may have originated it, then you have to believe that some form of matter was in existence in order for there to be a big band, and that matter has to have existed eternally with no beginning.

Eternal matter with no source or origin, or eternal God with no source or origin.  Wherever else the exploration takes us, this is the choice to be considered.  It’s one of beginnings.  And to some degree, let’s acknowledge that either way, it’s one of faith.  In this regard too, we’re all in this most important of all scientific and spiritual pursuits together.  Richard Dawkins is not the enemy.  Religious zealots are not the enemy.  The only enemy is an unwillingness to ask our most burning questions, for fear that we may not find the answers, or that we may not like them when we do.