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Archives: physics

The Church of the Holy Allegory

Tracey Ullman’s “A Christian’s Job Interview” is a brilliant piece of writing. A likeable and impeccably qualified woman is about to get the job. The interview panel think she is wonderful. Right at the end, it emerges that she is a Christian. The mood shifts. The candidate gently points out that for the previous 1500 years the British have been Christian. She is ushered out quickly, and once the door is closed, she is now described as weird.
This appears to be the factory setting of nearly everyone under fifty, maybe even sixty. I find it deeply depressing, indeed as I tell my kids, almost treasonable! But I have to acknowledge that it’s happened. At University, my youngest is friendly, but no more than that, with some ‘Christians’ as he calls them, who are ‘nice people’. By Christian, he means members of the Christian Union. They are evangelical and believe in the literal truth of the Bible which they study earnestly, passage by passage. As such, they then believe that their narrow group is ‘saved’ by their faith in Jesus Christ, with the clear inference that all others are damned. That view clearly will cause resentment, as does their use as a rule book of the very rare temporally-conditioned comments in the Bible on matters sexual. To me, this does no justice at all to the gentlest and least triumphalist of faiths, one that believes in victory only through defeat and which has developed the sublime doctrine of the Trinity in an attempt to understand how creator and creation meet.
The most descriptive passage in the Bible on the nature of faith is Hebrews 11.The first verse is: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The rest of the chapter is a description of many Old Testament figures who “…died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off…”, words from verse 13. These people could believe in what a Christ, maybe the Christ in themselves, could do, without seeing him. That sounds like a biblical challenge to exclusivity claims. It to me also suggests that the Christian message can be reached allegorically.
Christianity is not in the Western zeitgeist. The Holy Dove, the still, small voice of calm, is having trouble being heard. Despite Christian imagery abounding in the arts, with those two giants Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s work suffused with it, today’s young give the last word to the scientists, usually life scientists. I’m a physicist by first degree, so naturally find amusing Ernest Rutherford’s comment that all science is either Physics or stamp collecting. It’s true that life science subject matter starts some five billion years after the Big Bang, but I do think they are entitled to see what happened before than as analogous to evolution. What differentiates physics from biology is in the use of Mathematics. And not only does the maths make uncertainty fundamental, but Gödel has shown that no mathematical system can contain its own solution unless it is infinite. Infinities are notoriously difficult to deal with in Maths and he thus suggested that the infinite is outside the system. I make a simple statement. If you could sit outside the system, would it not be rational to view the creation of the conscious human, and animal, world that exists today to be some kind of result? Of course it has resulted from evolution; creationists do the religious cause no favours. Whether consciousness produces any agency can perhaps never be tested. If so it is best to assume that it doesn’t, even if the odd incident suggests otherwise.
What can be said from any introspection is that the mental lives we live are who we really are, rather than the bodies necessary to have them. It’s the mental consequences of the physical world that religion tries to give a meaning to. Maybe there is no meaning. I would dispute that but would accept that it may be only a meaning we give to it ourselves. It is by faith that I believe in a God.
If that God is outside the system, then what use is it to postulate him? I think that’s where religion needs a mystery that sits uneasily both with the bible class mob who try to make salvation a logical matter explicable in words, and the determinist scientists who see everything as physical. The doctrine of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be culturally conditioned and flawed, but speaks to the way we see our mental lives. Not only do we need to be provided, pardoned and guided, but we can think outside the system, as if Gods.
I suspect that during the 1500 years of Christianity in Britain, there have been many whose faith has been mental. It’s highly likely that previous generations had a better ability to understand literary genres than today’s does. Truth comes to us in waves, physical and mental. They didn’t need to separate. The truth in Christianity is a marriage of history and rich theology, with a resulting transcendental imagery. If you can believe in the physical resurrection, which I can, then come worship at the Church of the Holy Cross. If not, come anyway to worship at the Church of the Holy Allegory. You may be the truest of believers.

Howard Marks


Howard Marks has died. I was up at Oxford the same three years as he was, 1964 to 1967, both of us reading Physics. Howard would walk late into the Clarendon Laboratory as the coolest guy in town, carrying his guitar case rumoured to contain the meaning of life inside. As the least hip kid imaginable, I’d carry on measuring the wavelengths of the Sodium D lines or whatever.
I read Mr Nice years later and realised that he was one of the good guys. Journalist Lynn Barber has written about him as a lover at that time. She described how all the northern grammar schoolboys at Oxford were virginal in their innocence back then. That was very true, but not for the want of trying. We didn’t have the savoir to have the faire checked out. I’ve never quite understood how Howard was so savvy so young, perhaps not a trait he always managed to carry with him through life.

Life science certainty

I always watch Alice Roberts’ programmes on television. They are invariably well-made, and I found The Incredible Human Journey essential viewing. She upset me a bit recently when she tweeted: “I get really confused when churches ask me to give lectures because they’re looking for an ‘ecumenical’ approach. Perhaps they’re confused.” I don’t know if the double use of ‘confused’ is deliberate, but the remarks weren’t designed to be friendly to those who’d approached her. I’m not blaming her for not fancying an evening in a draughty church hall, even with a lukewarm glass of prosecco afterwards, but I don’t think that was her problem. She has no need for their hypothesis.
I’m not a life scientist. Prior to a long business career in the electricity industry I read Physics, and at the end of my career did a Divinity degree. I would readily admit to the usual physicist prejudice of thinking the life sciences to be a branch of librarianship. No doubt my medical friends would respond that physicists, along with theologians and businessmen, are neither use nor ornament, a charge I would find difficult to resist. Back in the sixties, when quantum mechanics was still hip, I can remember my delight in deriving uncertainty and exclusion principles with digitised quantum energy levels from continuum wave equations. I would never stand on firm ground again, but I am a cradle Anglican. Later I was to read how Gödel had effectively shown that no finite mathematical system could contain its entire explanation. Even Stephen Hawking now thinks that there will not be an ultimate theory of everything with a finite number of principles. Despite the ingenious ways that mathematicians find of dealing with infinities in their equations, I still think that the concept of a physical infinity is incoherent. Gödel agreed with this, preferring to take the infinite outside the system.
That’s not the same as postulating a loving, personal God. I do think that an intelligent being similarly standing outside the system could view the development of reflective beings that we humans have become as remarkable.(And our dogs too, I’m not being exclusive!) But does that imply purpose? There is no explanation that comes close to a justification to humankind for the sheer volume of sentient pain from natural and moral evil. If there’s a God he certainly doesn’t appear almighty. Yet without those tectonic plates shifting, would there have been the background for us humans to evolve in the Rift Valley?
I’m not a full dualist in the philosophical sense, as I feel the mental and physical worlds meet on edges, which I guess makes me a dual-aspect monist. I don’t give too much agency to the mental, accepting that I usually seem to do whatever’s convenient and then repent, but I don’t discount the possibility. As a physicist, it’s difficult not to see scientific explanations as reductionist, given our use of mathematics, even when the equations don’t reduce. Yet there is a world of virtues, perhaps also vices, which cannot be put into Maths. Life scientists do at least usually work in language, if not one readily available to the amateur. Perhaps they never feel that their discipline can’t contain its own answers.
There have been some strange coincidences in my life. My father was a keen amateur cricketer back in Lancashire. Just after the war, he clean bowled five batsmen in five balls to win the game. In 2011, on the thirteenth anniversary of his death, my youngest son George did just the same bowling for his Hertfordshire School Under Fifteens. My howl of disbelief and delight could have been heard back in Lancashire. Just coincidence, say some. But there’s no way they’ve assessed the probabilities, and no way I have the data to do so either. If they did, their statistics would look at the possibility of it happening to anyone, I’d look only at the possibility of it happening to me, thus probably shifting the odds against by millions. Others say it’s in the genes. Maybe, though I never bowled five straight in a row in my life and George had been all over the place until that final over. It’s like humour, if you ask why it’s funny, it no longer is.
My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has a set of events that come together at one critical juncture. It’s a happy outcome for one, an engineer, who then declares all equations to be maya, the truth but not the whole truth. OK, the story line was contrived by me, though I never quite felt I wrote it. The philosopher Charles Taylor sees our sense of self as the story we tell ourselves about our lives. That’s why I wrote a novel. I do need a hypothesis. Dylan reckons that the devil rules the world, and God is the judge. I’ve no better explanation. To mean more, our stories need a loving God. In mine, he’ll have everyone in his eternity, the devil included.
I’m happy to drink the prosecco. The Communion wine is even better.