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The Big Question

Will science eventually explain everything?

By Janet Silman

Some physicists think science has already explained everything. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow stirred up the religion-versus-science debate in their 2010 book The Grand Design when they invoked “M-theory” to state that science makes God unnecessary for explaining the origins of the universe. For them, quantum mechanics plus Einstein’s theory of relativity are enough to show how universes can be created from nothing. And “universes” — plural — is the operative word; M-theory postulates that there are multiple universes, of which ours is only one.

Before you dismiss this as science fiction, I assure you that M-theory is accepted by many eminent physicists of our time. You and I may still live in the 18th-century world of Isaac Newton, seeing the universe in a predictable, machine-like fashion, but physics is light years and a quantum leap beyond that fixed perspective.

For example, the subatomic quarks detected in the 1960s defied mechanistic expectations. Quarks are best described as “patterns of energy interrelating.” Beneath the seemingly solid world of atoms is a shimmering dance of subatomic creative energy.

It doesn’t stop there. String theory takes us into an even more infinitesimal realm and has led to M-theory. In fact, the hypothetical string is about a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimetre.

While a string is way too small to be detected by even the most powerful technology, string theory explains how the universe formed out of nothing and evolved as it has.

If string theory is true, the four dimensions we experience — three-dimensional space plus time — are not the only ones; there are actually 11. Does this make your head spin?

M-theory combines several string theories into one and is thought to underlie them. The theory has its skeptics and will inevitably be superseded at some point by another “theory of everything.” Still, it does raise the question, Will science eventually explain everything?

First off, let’s put the battle of religion versus science behind us. It’s a specious debate because religion addresses the “why” question and science the “how.” Unless you take the creation stories in Genesis literally, there is no problem with accepting evolution and the birth of our universe 13 billion years ago in the Big Bang.

As for God, how do we envision the Divine Mystery? If my God is the old man in the sky with a white beard, maybe it’s time I questioned that image. Historically, it comes from the Canaanite high god El over 3,000 years ago. If mine is the patriarchal god who controls everything, maybe it is an idolatrous image better set aside. Are some Christian images of God outdated, in need of revision?

Hawking stirred up controversy by arguing that God is not needed to explain creation. When challenged, he admitted that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. His superfluous God is One who is outside of and predates creation. Yet we can envision the Holy One as the life force that infuses the universe with energy — in Christian terms, the Spirit that blows where it will, and you know not whence it comes or where it goes. We can see the Great Mystery as the Love that attracts together subatomic particles, that bonds people, that swings planets around stars.

As people of faith, we can ask the scientist, “Who or what created the laws of physics?” A little humility wouldn’t hurt. Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, stated, “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And it is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.” Remembering God’s challenge to poor Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” we do well to answer, “We are your grateful, awe-filled creatures, happy to dance to the music of your spheres, infinitesimal and astronomical.”

Rev. Janet Silman is a minister and writer in Sidney, B.C.

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