Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 12, 2019

Cosmology & Theology for Dummies Like Me

Cosmology & Theology for Dummies Like Me

“Abstract threads”. Image: Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

I’m passing along below –and discussing– a great summary article about surprising discoveries in astrophysics over the past decade. I think I’ll be mulling them over for awhile to come. 

The full astronomy article is at Vice, but it’s far higher quality than the usual clickbait. It can be found here, under the pedantic but useful title “There’s Growing Evidence That the Universe Is Connected by Giant Structures“.

The gist of it, for me, is that it’s sort of cocky–but also aspirational and cool–for each generation of scientists (or humans, for that matter) to imply certainty that we’ve figured out how the universe works. 

What’s all that got to do with God, or theology? Pretty simple, really. Some famous writer, maybe the poet Robert Browning, once said: “I could never believe in a God I can completely understand.”

I’ve taken that principle as one of my main mantras in life. And the more I see quantum physicists occasionally baffled on the micro level, and astrophysicists on the macro level (as in the article), the more that my above quote about knowing God (or Reality) holds true.

Here are a few random, illustrative quotes from the article, starting with its opening subtitle or summation:

Scientists are finding that galaxies can move with each other across huge distances, and against the predictions of basic cosmological models. The reason why could change everything we think we know about the universe.”

Maybe that’s enough all by itself, for non-scientists. But if not, the author Becky Ferreira offers plenty more for amateur scientists and philosophers to chew on:

These discoveries hint at the enigmatic influence of so-called ‘large-scale structures’ which, as the name suggests, are the biggest known objects in the universe. These dim structures are made of hydrogen gas and dark matter and take the form of filaments, sheets, and knots that link galaxies in a vast network called the cosmic web.”

Two takeaways: first, the apparent fact of synchronous behavior due to unseen causes, and contradicting prior models. They’ve just barely measured it, but it could be a game-changer. 

Second, a statement of what those filaments or causes are called, namely “large scale structures”. Yes, it’s very general, vague, even boring, as names go. Scientists aren’t known for their “branding” acumen. But the name gets the job done. It may even be better than older science-y names like the Bernoulli Principle, because at least these three words are clear and basically descriptive of what’s going on. We’re talking about the barely seen skeleton or muscular structure, of the largest thing we know of: the universe. Large scale structures exist alongside, but sometimes in opposition to, the other great causative force we understand better: gravity.

In a different, earlier study of quasars, and the proposed origins of the universe, we get a look at how these connections (the large scale structures) stretch across billions of light years, not just between certain neighboring galaxies:

The secret of these synchronized galaxies may pose a threat to the cosmological principle, one of the basic assumptions about the universe. This principle states that the universe is basically uniform and homogenous at extremely large scales. But the ‘existence of correlations in quasar axes over such extreme scales would constitute a serious anomaly for the cosmological principle,’ as Hutsemékers and his colleagues note in their study.”

Translation: “We thought we knew the system. Now we ain’t so sure.”

Which is fine by me. I’m more comfortable with Mystery than with certainty anyway. With Mystery (or mythos), there’s more room for God, and me with all my hang-ups, and music, and possible life in the seas of Jupiter’s moons, and chocolate, and all of that maybe being connected somehow.

Lastly, here’s a Vice article quote just for my own amusement:

Sometimes, one galaxy even eats another, an event known as galactic cannibalism.”

The image of galaxies “eating” each other was oddly poetic to me, like some cosmic joke. Plus I wanted to save it so I could build a punk rock or heavy metal band name around it: Galactic Cannibal.

As I sought to attribute the above possible Browning quote about understanding God, I came upon another which is relevant. It’s difficult, dense theology from Karl Barth. But we –-especially but not only Christians–will be rewarded for doing the work, if we understand him:

It is in full unity with Himself that He is also – and especially and above all – in Christ, that he becomes a creature, man, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human – far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by Him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about Him within the framework of a false idea about God. It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to constitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ. We cannot make them the standard by which to measure what God can or cannot do, or the basis of the judgement that in doing this He brings Himself into self-contradiction. By doing this God proves to us that He can do it, that to do it is within His nature. And He Himself to be more great and rich and sovereign than we had ever imagined. And our ideas of His nature must be guided by this, and not vice versa.” 

-Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics [bold added by me]

Our imagination, in concert with good science, can and must be expanded in any serious inquiry about either the nature of the universe, or the nature of God. And even then, our human mind will forever have its limits, far beyond which lies the comprehensive truth about Reality. That’s why I capitalize Reality. Its awesomeness, and my humility, must both cause me to treat it as holy.

Since we’re looking at Old Man Barth from about 1932, perhaps quoting from Wikipedia about Albert Einstein–one of the earliest and best combiners of modern physics and theology discussions–will also be helpful here:

Einstein used many labels to describe his religious views, including “agnostic”, “religious nonbeliever” and a “pantheistic” believer in “Spinoza’s God”. Einstein believed the problem of God was the “most difficult in the world”—a question that could not be answered “simply with yes or no.” He conceded that, “the problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.

So I’ll try to let Albert have the last word, and leave it at that. 

Nevertheless, the point is: don’t let anyone–on either side–ever tell you that the practice of science and healthy talk of God are at odds with each other. They are not. Instead, they go hand-in-hand, and they always have. Usually it’s only a fearful, afraid of change, far too proud scientist (or a lazy pastor, or a religious person more concerned with tonight’s supper than with the “whole truth”) who would ever say otherwise.

And here, brothers and sisters, is why the astronomers and physicists must keep working, must, for example, keep revealing the beautiful relationship between light and Light:

Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”  –ROBERT BROWNING, The Inn Album

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