God and String Theory; or, Why Simple Faith Is Sometimes the Best Bet

Warped_Passages_-_bookcover

Sometimes, I read popular books on modern physics by the likes of Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and Lee Smolin. This is not a good idea, I know, since I am almost pathologically bad at math and rarely understand any of the underlying concepts; but I try. Several years ago I read a book called Warped Passages by a brilliant theoretical physicist named Lisa Randall. The thesis of the book is that there are multiple extra spatial dimensions hidden in plain sight all throughout the universe. And this can be proved (or at least confidently theorized about) with math.

Let me try to explain how profoundly this impacted my understanding of God.

It’s not that I think that God lives in these extra dimensions, or that the soul is a quantum particle, or that contemporary physics explains anything about God or humankind’s spiritual nature. People who make this kinds of arguments end up forcing God into the gaps of the most current models of the universe, only to have to evict Him once again when our collective understanding advances. My point is much more prosaic: understanding how much I don’t understand about physics helped me realize how much I don’t understand about God.

You see, as hard as I tried, and as good a writer as Randall is (and she is a very good writer), I can’t wrap my mind around the main point of her book. I simply can’t imagine how an extra five or six spatial dimensions might look. I can’t even understand how a fourth one would look. My mind and my imagination are completely constrained by the three dimensions that I have always experienced. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here; human beings evolved in three-dimensional space—all of our sensory and cognitive mechanisms have been designed to perceive such space. Very few people can imagine wandering through a backyard with eleven dimensions.

Whenever I hear somebody talking about God’s attributes and opinions as through these were easy things to understand, I start thinking about string theory–and realize that God is even harder to understand than Lisa Randall. I haven’t always thought so. At different points in my life, I have imagined that I understood a staggering number of things about God, Jesus, the afterlife, angels, eternal families, the Celestial Kingdom, sexuality and gender identity, the necessity of baptism, and the reasons that all kinds of things happen on earth.

I am now certain that I don’t understand anything about these issues, and I struggle to be charitable to those who think that they do. If there is a God, then He and/or She is something beyond our experience in the same way that extra dimensions are beyond our experience. This does not mean that we cannot have a relationship with God, or that we cannot try to make our lives conform to a divine direction. But it does mean that we need to stop being so cockamamie sure that we understand God’s perspective on stuff—especially stuff that deeply impacts other people’s ability to live full and meaningful lives.

When God appears in a whirlwind at the end of Job, He asks a series of cosmological questions designed to show Job that he cannot understand the divine perspective. All he can do is trust that God is competent, that God is good, and that the universe is governed by purposes that mortals cannot understand. These, too, have become the anchors of my own faith.

  • I believe that God is good, that He loves me the way that my father loves me and that I love my children—absolutely, unconditionally, and perfectly. I do not know what it means for a timeless and omnipotent being to love, but I accept that He does, and I trust the power of that love. And I believe that he loves everybody else who has ever lived in exactly the same way.
  • I believe that God is competent, that He knows how stuff works, and that He can navigate all of the dimensions, dark mater, Higgs boson particles, and quantum irregularities in the universe. I don’t have much of an opinion on whether God is omnipotent, or merely almost omnipotent, or just really clever. But I believe that He knows how to get important stuff done.

And, really, that’s about it. I don’t understand much about God, how He works, how He thinks, or why He does things. I am pretty sure that, even if he told me all of these things in plain English, I wouldn’t understand them any better than I understand string theory. Furthermore, I am perfectly aware that the beliefs that I do have come as much from hope as they do from anything that counts as evidence. And I also know that I could be wrong. But the very act of believing these things gives me hope and makes the universe feel like a better place to be—however many dimensions it ends up having.

Comments

  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    “I simply can’t imagine how an extra five or six spatial dimensions might look.”

    This is where “good Mormons” are at a disadvantage as we have not experimented with any good mind-altering drugs.”

    :-)

  2. Pretty much.

  3. Love the article. I squirm a little everytime I hear “God’s Plan….” or any of those other phrases that indicate we or the speaker or even the prophet have a line on the mind and thoughts of God. Feels so presumptuous.

  4. If it helps any at all, NO ONE understand string theory for any one of a number of different reasons. The most important of which, and this gets lost in popular science writing, is that it is most likely FLATLY WRONG.

    Long story short, simply because a smart person (And Lisa Randall is described by her advisor Howard Georgi as being one of the best) writes a book about a theory, it doesn’t mean it’s on the right track, and it certainly doesn’t mean anyone has bothered to test it.

    Which puts everyone else in the uncomfortable position of having to trust authorities to get it right. Which in turn sounds strangely familiar.

  5. As a creature that lives in 10 dimensions, some of them very small and curled up, I declare this post a success. Very well said. I love Lisa Randell (have you seen her new book on dark matter and destruction of the dinosaurs?).

  6. Yes. My 50-cent version is “epistemological humility.” I do like to think there’s a third anchor (or maybe it’s a subcategory) that God in some sense comprehends or encompasses all of creation, all life in all of its variety and complexity.

  7. @lehcarjt
    “I squirm a little everytime I hear “God’s Plan….” or any of those other phrases that indicate we or the speaker or even the prophet have a line on the mind and thoughts of God. Feels so presumptuous.”

    Isn’t this what the restoration is all about? I agree with you and the author that we know little, but surely God has revealed something about himself and his plan, otherwise what is our faith based on? What is any faith based on? This seems to be what Paul criticized the Greeks about…their unknown god. Is the plan of salvation so far fetched that you cannot believe?

    I get it, I do, the plan probably isn’t the way most of us think, but it is probably a decent framework. Let’s not deconstruct the words of the prophet to make them and their experiences no different than the average person. Then you’re left with nothing, what’s the point of that?

    If belief is a choice, and I think it is, I guess that is somewhat presumptuous. Maybe God hopes we’ll be presumptuous enough to believe and act.

  8. Turns out the universe and Deity may very well be significantly simpler than string theory, which has been and continues to be a convoluted mess. Those dimensions? Started at 26, then down to 10, back up to 11. And they need supersymmetry. Which no one is finding. So….. kind of a problem. It’s an hour and a half of your life and it just might save you the hassle of spending years learning that no one thinks in that many dimensions, they just work with projections kinda like those poor philosophers chained to their chairs watching shadows in Plato’s cave.

    http://pirsa.org/15100070/

    So says this two dollar bill I’m willing to bet where such activity is legal.

  9. “We human beings are, above all, visual creatures. Our sense of vision, of course, and in a host of less obvious ways our deepest modes of thought, are conditioned by our interaction with light. Each of us, for example, is born to become an accomplished, if unconscious, practitioner of projective geometry. That ability IS HARD WIRED INTO OUR BRAIN. It is what allows us to interpret the two dimensional images that arrives on our retinas as representing a world of objects in three dimensional space.”

    “Our brains contain specialized modules that allow us to construct, very quickly and without conscious effort, a dynamic worldview based on three dimensional objects located in three dimensional space. We do this beginning from two two-dimensional images on the retinas of our eyes (which in turn are the product of light rays emitted or reflected from the surfaces of external objects, which propagate to us in straight lines). To work back from the images we receive to the objects that cause them is a tricky problem in inverse projective geometry. In fact, as stated, it is an IMPOSSIBLE problem, because there’s not nearly enough information in the projections to do an unambiguous reconstruction. A basic problem is that even to get started we need to separated objects from their background (or foreground). We exploit all kinds of tricks based on typical properties of objects we encounter, such as their color or texture contrast and distinctive boundaries, to do that job. But even after that step is accomplished, we are left with a difficult geometrical problem, for which Nature has helpfully provided us, in our visual cortex, an excellent specialized processor”. (A Beautiful Question, Frank Wilczek page 12)

    Sorry, not buying it. You’re ALREADY a world glass geometer, maybe no one told you.

  10. Nothing wrong slumming around with Greene, Kaku, Randall, or Smolin. But have you found any prose like this?

    “Happy is the man who can recognize in the work of to-day a connected portion of the work of life and an embodiment of the work of Eternity. The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been a partaker of Infinity. He strenuously works out his daily enterprises because the present is given him for a possession.”

    “Thus ought man to be an impersonation of the divine process of nature, and to show forth the union of the infinite with the finite, not slighting his temporal existence, remembering that in it only is individual action possible, nor yet shutting out from his view that which is eternal, knowing that Time is a mystery which man cannot endure to contemplate until eternal Truth enlighten it.”

    – James Clerk Maxwell at age 23 (same source, page 164)

  11. “Isn’t this what the restoration is all about? I agree with you and the author that we know little, but surely God has revealed something about himself and his plan, otherwise what is our faith based on? What is any faith based on?”

    No. The message of the restoration is emphatically not that we understand God., at least not beyond a few key points. The fantastic diversity of thought about the nature of God from early Joseph Smith to later Joseph Smith to Brigham Young to the Pratt brothers to on up to Bruce R. McConkie and on to current orthodoxy should be a sufficient illustration that we don’t.

    There message of the restoration is the message of repentance and remission of sins. Everything else is secondary.

    My two cents, anyway.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    I do like to think there’s a third anchor (or maybe it’s a subcategory) that God in some sense comprehends or encompasses all of creation, all life in all of its variety and complexity.

    Yep, just as implied by D&C 88:41 and 67.

    Also, philosophical quotes from JCM in a BCC thread? Excellent!

  13. “it does mean that we need to stop being so cockamamie sure that we understand God’s perspective on stuff—especially stuff that deeply impacts other people’s ability to live full and meaningful lives.”

    Excellent point. I assume you are referring to judgements we feel we must heap on homosexuals because they contradict idea of a gendered, flesh and bone God of traditional family. If God is this, He must be more than this.

  14. Whenever someone else says something about God, I just remind myself that nobody understands god and his plan and that they are just being arrogant. Whenever I say something about God its because I’m saying something deep, profound and obviously true.

  15. Love this post. In my high school calculus class we were assigned to do a short 5 minute presentation on a mathematical concept at a higher than calculus level. I can’t for the life of me remember what my presentation was, but I will always remember the short presentation on topology and multiple dimensions given by a girl in the class. She did a visual example with a scene drawn on a piece of paper and showed how as three dimensional beings, we could interact with the 2 dimensional world in ways that 2 dimensional beings would not be able to do. She then discussed that maybe somewhere there are 4 dimensional beings who could interact with us in ways that we cannot act and do not understand. She did not mean this in any religious sense, but it was that moment that made me realize that we cannot understand God. This realization has been supported multiple times, the most notable of which was learning about quantum physics (especially experiments where the observation of a particle affected its location). This completely changed my perspective on God knowing the future while still maintaining free will. Until that point I had always seen those two things as mutually exclusive. Now I see them as possibly existing together in a way that I don’t understand, but is still possible.

  16. It’s A Series of Tubes:

    Tubes, Tubes everywhere and some are sinks. There are Eyring Tubes (page 5) and Celestial Tubes criss crossing the celestial highway.

    http://arxiv.org/pdf/physics/0505085.pdf

    It’s Tubes all the way down

  17. Brother Sky says:

    I think there’s an interesting tension in Mormonism between the sort of missionary rhetoric that says we can know God, know His plan for us, understand His character, etc. and the rhetoric of Joseph Smith and others that points to a much larger, much more complex (and perhaps all-encompassing and multi-dimensional) and just plain enigmatic God. After thirty years in this church, I can say with absolute certainty that I don’t know a thing about the nature of God and I’m rather suspicious of people who say they do. I know I like Jesus a lot and I dig some of what he says. That’s about it. I also think, though, that our limited understanding of things should never be an excuse to stay in whatever box we’ve constructed for ourselves regarding the nature of God or anything else pertaining to the gospel. I’ve always thought our faith exists to help make life more complex, more deep and hence more joyful rather than making life more simple and therefore, in some mysterious way, more good.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Sky, even within physics knowledge is vague and is somewhat indexed to what we can measure. But for instance if you ask about the nature of an electron in a certain sense it’s enigmatic even though we can talk about it in terms of terms like energy, mass, momentum, charge and so forth. But when you look close you realize even all those terms are enigmatic in a certain way. Does that mean we don’t know anything? Not at all. It just means our knowledge is vague in a certain way.

    A useful pragmatic way of thinking about this is to say that the meaning of the terms we use is tied up with how we’d verify they apply to some object. So to ask if God has a body for instance the meaning of body is tied up with all the ways we’d verify (if only in theory) if God has a body. It doesn’t mean we understand everything about bodies. But it certainly clarifies what the meaning is of the terms we claim to know.

  19. Back in the 19th century C.H. Hinton developed exercises, using various imagined objects, for teaching the mind to visualize a 4th spatial dimension beyond the familiar three. The one thing I remember from his book–and this relates to EBK’s post about topology–is that if a 2-dimensional being saw a series of circles passing through the plane of her existence, with the circles starting small, getting large, and then small again, she could infer and visualize a 3-dimensional sphere. Hinton’s exercises were aimed at helping humans, in an analogous way, develop the capacity to visualize hyper-spheres and other such objects. I never stuck with the exercises so I can’t vouch for them, but Hinton claimed that with enough effort they would work.

  20. Dave Frandin says:

    But I *strongly* suspect (and have faith that) we’ll begin to learn all there is to know about the universe after we complete our time on Earth..

  21. Deep Think says:

    Brilliant. You speak my truth.

  22. This article expresses exactly (of course better than me if I wrote it) how I feel. With this perspective, I have a hard time supporting people who proclaim they monopolize communication with God and thus sell God’s words to the rest of the world with a very high price.