The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Creation as much mystery as machine

Basic physics ushers us into the elegance and intricacies of divine wisdom

The universe isn't simply a machine. Realizing that, we can begin to see that there's less tension between science and our faith than many think. But first we need to get beyond some dated physics.

In the 17th century, scientists began modern physics by discovering important laws that describe what goes on in the natural world. Isaac Newton found that if he knew the forces that acted on bodies like the moon, planets or a ball in flight, he could predict the ways they would move with a few basic mathematical laws.

Some of Newton's successors naturally began to think that the universe could be thought of as a well-regulated machine. The universe looked completely predictable. If we could know the exact positions and velocities of all bodies in the world at a given time, as well as all the forces that act on them, Newton's laws would allow the world's whole future course to be calculated. No one thought that such a prediction was possible in practice. But in principle everything that would take place in the future could be known once the mechanism was started. Everything was determined.

This mechanical picture of the world was unpleasant for those who believed that people had some free will to choose their actions. But it suggested even more disturbing ideas about God.

God could be pictured as a clock-maker: In the beginning, God made the universe, wound it up and set it going. This would mean that any real divine action happened years in the past. If you wanted to think of God working through natural processes, God seemed to be imprisoned by the regularities of the machine. It made no sense to pray. Tomorrow's events--from the weather to what happens in your town or family--were determined centuries ago.

Many have trouble believing that God makes any difference in daily life because they hold some version of this view. But physicists have offered us a markedly different picture of the world during the past century. Scientific investigations show that the universe is much more subtle and flexible.

It began with the relativity theory of Albert Einstein, who showed that the universe isn't just a big machine repeating the same motions. Ours is a universe of change. Observations of distant galaxies, for example, indicate that the universe began in a cosmic explosion, the big bang, some 15 billion years ago and has been evolving ever since. The cosmos has a beginning and a history. We have a sense that it is going someplace

Breaking Newton's clock

When physicists investigated what went on inside atoms, they really began to see the problem with a mechanical picture of things. It was natural to think that atoms were like tiny pieces of clockwork. But Newton's laws of motion couldn't explain the structure of atoms. A new and radically different theory, quantum mechanics, was developed for this purpose.

Werner Heisenberg cut down Newton's determinism at its roots with his uncertainty principle. Newton's laws suggested that we can calculate how a particle will behave if we know its position and velocity and the forces acting upon it. But Heisenberg showed that we can know either the position or velocity exactly, not both. This doesn't mean that we don't know how to find these quantities, but it's the nature of things that they can't be known precisely.

The theory seems to be correct. It has done an excellent job describing the behavior of atoms, light, the atomic nucleus and many other phenomena. It doesn't describe them in terms of particles moving on definite paths, like the way the moon orbits the earth.

Most importantly, quantum mechanics tells us that an event isn't completely determined by its past. It gives probabilities for particles to be in certain places, moving in certain ways.

Chaos theory

Quantum theory describes what happens to very tiny particles. But we also have to consider recent discoveries in the realm of large, complex phenomena that have led to "chaos theory."

One practical problem is weather forecasting. We could try to do this as Newton did--find the atmosphere's precise state (wind speed, temperature, etc.) at a given instant and then apply equations that describe the atmosphere's motions. Our knowledge of the initial state can only be approximate, and often this is good enough.

But future weather is sensitive to slight changes. A missing detail or tiny error in our knowledge can mean our prediction will be wildly incorrect. This is sometimes described as the "butterfly effect"--a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia can change the weather in New York a few weeks later. And since we can't account for every butterfly, predicting all details of the weather isn't possible.

This doesn't mean that the weather is lawless. Both subatomic particles and the atmosphere obey mathematical laws. But linkages between events aren't as rigid as they seemed to be in the older physics. These linkages have some flexibility or "play." 

How God works

We can still see God working through natural processes. But there are more possibilities than the machine model allowed. God can work in accord with the laws describing those processes--and thus in ways we can describe scientifically--without being limited to a single course of action.

Christians believe in God as the Creator. We can see natural processes as means God uses to accomplish divine purposes. God voluntarily limits his actions, working within the processes he has made. This is an expression of grace. God made a world in which we can live as intelligent citizens. A world of continual miracles would be a nightmare--nothing would be predictable. We wouldn't know from day to day what we could eat or where the sun would rise.

The flexibility built into the universe means God has some freedom in acting in the world. If people pray for rain during a drought, the world's initial conditions don't lock God into continuing the drought. We can even to some extent understand what we call miracles, not as "violations" of the laws of nature but as rare processes God also creates and rules.

Science allows us to understand natural processes but can't show us God working through them. It is faith, not scientific knowledge, that sees this hidden God acting in the world. This shouldn't surprise us. To normal ways of looking at the world, God is completely absent at Jesus' crucifixion. But the gospel claims that the cross is God's work of salvation. And the God who acted in Jesus' passion is the same one who is active each moment in the universe.

The human race is by no means at the end of its search for understanding the processes of nature and frontiers of the cosmos. Each discovery introduces us to new phenomena that raise more questions. Belief that the universe makes sense, which is connected with belief in God as the Creator, encourages us to continue searching.

This worldview means that scientists, whether they realize it or not, are studying the subtle ways God works throughout creation. Their work helps us admire the intricacies of divine wisdom.


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