New Physics = New Religion?
Richard H. Bube
Professor Emeritus Materials Science and
Stanford, California 94305
David Bohm's World: New Physics and New
Religion by Kevin J. Sharpe. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University
Press, 1993. 168 pages, notes, references, index. Hardcover; $32.50.
From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 46 (December 1994): 260-265.
It seems that the talk about the influence of science on theology, and of theology on science, reaches a greater volume with each passing day. Some of the most creative minds have become involved in this task; it promises to be the focus of intellectually- respectable reflections on science and theology. It is especially important that the members of the ASA be informed and cautious about statements that are currently being made. Several years ago, I wrote,
The ASA will be walking a philosophical tightrope between these various pitfalls of pseudoscience, pseudotheology, and their mystic synthesis in the years ahead. At the same time the ASA is committed to maintaining the fundamental truths of the biblical revelation. It will be easy to be misled, to be drawn into visionary expectations without realizing that one is cutting out the ground from under one's feet. We must exercise great love, patience, care and discernment if we are to be true to our fundamental charter of upholding authentic science and authentic biblical theology.1
A great deal of confusion can be avoided if we are careful about the definition of the terms that are used in such a discussion. What are we to think of phrases that are constantly being tossed around like "scientific reformulations of theology," or "putting God into science"? Do the authors really mean that the essentials of theology derived from biblical interpretation should be changed because of scientific input, or do they mean only that religious attempts to describe the workings of the natural world need to be reformulated? Do they really mean that "God" should be thought of as a mechanism in scientific theory, or do they simply mean that the search for complete scientific descriptions may fail when no authentic scientific description is adequate? Do they really believe that a scientific description that is complete on its own level, without leaving gaps for the nonscientific intervention of God, actually rules out the existence and activity of God? Do they adequately discriminate between testable scientific hypotheses and metaphysical speculations that may arise from someone's involvement in science, but which do not have the testability demanded by authentic science? Is the whole affair a battle of words, or is there some really basic substance? The unwary individual entering this area is well advised to be cautious and not to assume that what seems to him or her to be the meaning of terms and ideas is actually what is intended by the various participants in the discussion.
Can our theology affect our science? Yes and no. The answer is yes, if by this question we mean, "Can theology give us inspiration, motivation, and guidance in carrying out scientific research and in choosing the problems for such research? Can theology make us cautious about conclusions for which the support of science is claimed when they contradict theological insights?" But the answer is no, if by this question we mean, "Can theology provide us with scientific mechanisms that we can know are valid and can accept as givens in our science?"
On the other hand, can our science affect our theology? Yes and no. The answer is yes, if by this question we mean, "Can science inform us about the mechanisms of God's activity in the universe and thus enable us to avoid inappropriate conclusions about such mechanisms? Can science provide us with a physical framework within which to relate the spiritual insights given to us through theology?" But the answer is no, if by the question we mean, "Can science provide us with theologically valid insights into the character of God and his relationships with human beings...insights that are either unknown to us through God's revelation, or that contradict that revelation?"
The most important recognition implicit in these statements is that all charges that these answers result in a separation, a compartmentalization of science and theology, are misguided. When properly expressed, we understand that science can provide us with valid insights into what reality is like, and that theology can also provide us with valid insights into what reality is like. Both science and theology provide us with descriptions of what reality is like, not explanations of what reality is. Our task is not to keep these insights separate, but to integrate them! This integration needs to be carried out in such a way that neither the valid insights of science nor of theology are lost. This is the most authentic simple formulation of a set of "complementary" descriptions.
For several years the acceptability of Christian theology was damaged because it was viewed as being antithetical to a growing scientific view of the universe. It became part of the post-Christian subconscious to believe that science had done away with the need for God and with the intellectual respectability of believing in God. We may have passed into a post-scientific day, in at least the simplistic sense of this understanding of science, as the only revealer of truth. But the authority of science maintains strong public appeal, and today we frequently see this authority still exalted, now not to directly discredit Christianity, but to provide insights into "a new and fuller understanding" of Christianity than could ever be known from the biblical revelation.
David Bohm is a brilliant physicist, who started his career in the 1950s and grew up in a Jewish household. His name has been linked in science with the attempt to develop a theoretical perspective to replace traditional quantum theory. He has been successful in providing a variety of stimulating perspectives different from those of the traditional theory, which when put into theoretical form, are able to predict the same experimental results as those predicted by the usually accepted quantum theory. To date, however, no uniquely testable situation has been devised that is able to discriminate between Bohm's theory and traditional quantum theory, and his ideas remain speculative and generally unaccepted.
The motivation for this book, however, is the examination of the claim that Bohm's ideas are based upon his metaphysical and religious convictions, that, as stated on the cover jacket, he takes "the theories and concepts of religion as hypotheses for physics," and that his "religious convictions provide the motivation to pursue the physical theories and hypotheses." A basic question is, "Can one develop Bohm's metaphysics into a theology?" And...just what would this mean?
The author of this analysis is Kevin J. Sharpe, professor in the Graduate School of the Union Institute, Cincinnati, where his specialty is in science and religion. He has served as Executive Officer of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, and is also the founding editor of Science & Religion News. He provides a detailed analysis of many aspects of Bohm's thought and of the analysis that has been made of them, developing 19 pages of notes, and providing 45 pages of references. In the comments that follow, the quotations are from Sharpe's writing in this book unless specifically indicated otherwise.
Sharpe's comments about Bohm's ideas in the Preface are promising. He says that "Bohm's writings move from physics to history, education to philosophy of science, biology to religion, art to linguistics." What characterizes Bohm's thought is his opposition to thinking about the world as a machine, which takes form in his "organismic" approach. Sharpe quotes Ian Barbour's characterization of an organismic approach: "(1) the organism is a whole, an integral whole, (2) a hierarchy of levels makes up the organism, and (3) the organism influences its parts." The essence of the perspective can be summed up in, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Once one realizes that this use of the word "organism" does not necessarily imply a living entity, this description seems sound and has been widely accepted by many. There is absolutely nothing in it that necessitates "a scientific reformulation of theology." Sharpe points out that many with a mystical or Eastern religious perspective have embraced Bohm's views, but his critique is that "excessive and uncritical enthusiasm typifies this interest."
Bohm's principle initial attack was directed against the accepted probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics. He attempted to replace such an interpretation with a deterministic description involving "hidden variables," which would remove the appearances of probability if they were known. "So far there is no conclusive experimental support for the superiority of Bohm's approach over the usual one. Subsequently, Bohm and others have attempted to develop forms of this theory further and with different emphases, while retaining the initial goals. The hidden variables theory then took on the `quantum potential' name by members of the Birkbeck School. (Birkbeck College in the University of London is where Bohm and many of his coworkers have held positions)." The quantum potential is an additional term, added to the basic classical equation, which gives a clear picture of events at the quantum level. The quantum potential emphasizes quantum wholeness, need not vanish for particles far apart, and depends on the whole system. Bohm believes "everything connects to everything else, that one of the world's basic properties is its wholeness." Still, "members of the Birkbeck School acknowledge that the existence of the quantum potential is an assumption with no solid foundation." Although it is very much alive today, and gives the same predictions as the usual quantum physics, "the Birkbeck theory leads to no new experimental results and has no experimental support to help it lever out the usual theory."
Why then, all of the talk about "new physics and new religion"? In further elaborations of his theory, Bohm "expresses his philosophical or metaphysical ideas, one of whose themes is the unending depth of nature.... Such continuing thrusts into controversial physics may appear as a guiding light for many philosophical, religious, or spiritual people. Like the hidden variables theories, however, the world of physics does not thoroughly support them." Sharpe is very fair in his comments, balancing each set of positive or supporting arguments with corresponding negative or non-supporting arguments. In this case he points out that Bohm himself gives the warning. "We may want to think of everything connected to everything else regardless of their separations in time and space. The evidence, however, does not support doing this." And...we might ask at this point...even if the world of physics did support them, would there be any necessary profound significance or relevance for theology?
Three terms describing Bohm's concepts are unbroken wholeness, implicate order, and holomovement. "The holomovement model for reality comes from the properties of a holographic image of an object.... any portion of a hologram contains information on the whole object imaged." The major contribution to the hologram involves movement; thus the term holomovement emphasizes the dynamic nature of interactions. "The holomovement is the basis for reality and is an unbroken and undivided whole. All forms of it merge; we cannot separate them." Reality needs to be described as an implicate order, meaning that "everything folds into everything...any portion of implicate reality involves every other portion and contains the total structure of the universe, the whole." The implicate order unfolds into what we recognize as the explicate order. At this point, half way through the book, enters the first use of the word God, "In most contexts the implicate order does not fully become an explicate order ... This contrasts with the Cartesian view where some all-including intelligence (God) can in principle embrace everything at any moment."
The author continues with a discussion of the five major ingredients in Bohm's metaphysics: reality has an endless depth; parts of reality relate to each other; reality is constantly in movement; the movement of reality is creative; and reality divides into levels that are in systems of hierarchies.
To these may then be added Bohm's religious ideas, influenced at least to some extent by an interest in Eastern mysticism: consciousness is a material process in the implicate order; the consciousness of humanity is one; the holomovement is the life energy; consciousness is affected by fragmentation that is the source of human self-deception; and the significance of "the beyond."
Beyond the explicate and the implicate, beyond the holomovement, there is something about which we can say nothing except that it is. We cannot in any way approach, measure, or know it. It eludes the grasp of thought, but is the source for all. For Bohm, the beyond is the domain of the sacred, the spirit, the holy, God. Compassion, intelligence, love, insight, he believes, comes from this beyond.
We are limited in how much we can know and understand, but insight can come from the beyond to change brain matter.
For Bohm insight is the supreme intelligence. To move toward relieving the chaos of fragmentation in our world requires insight to reorder people's minds. In particular, several close insightful people need to set up a single mind from their collective individual minds.
Finally, we come to the bottom line.
To perceive what is beyond the implicate and explicate orders and therefore beyond thought, Bohm states that thought must go.... To do this is the first step of religion; it is the aim of meditation. Meditation transforms our minds and moves them beyond the implicate order. According to Bohm, consciousness can break free of its constraints by leaving thought behind to become something quite new.
Sharpe considers whether process philosophy might be an adequate way to describe Bohm's ideas, but concludes that it probably is not. He considers Capra's attempts to relate quantum theory with Eastern mysticism2 and decides that it is a case of Capra's religious belief influencing his science. Finally he argues that Bohm is using his religious ideas in physics. This is especially true of his idea of "undivided wholeness," which "has its roots in religion or mysticism, and it may or may not be useful in physics." Stephen Hawking has been especially critical of such an approach, and Sharpe quotes Hawking as saying, "(it) is absolute rubbish ... The universe of Eastern mysticism is an illusion.... A physicist who (tries) to link it with his (or her) own work has abandoned physics."3
Sharpe's comments at this point are perceptive:
Bohm proposes it as a physical theory, but it is still subject to the testing ground of physics. Religion can make a second contribution: it can strengthen believers' dedication, enthusiasm, and tenacity to try to have their ideas accepted as physical theory.... Many religions, including Christianity, have much to say about the nature and direction of the physical world. They should not be afraid of bringing these ideas in appropriate forms, to the sciences. As hypotheses they are still, of course, in need of factual support.
Whether or not Christianity has anything to say about the nature of the physical world can certainly be debated. But note that all of these comments have to do with the use of religious ideas to guide scientific theory. They do not become accepted science because of their religious appeal. They are valid only if they result in science that can be experimentally tested. Nor do they deal with the issue of science leading to changes in theology.
Before proceeding to this latter topic, Sharpe takes a break to consider the relationship between science and theology in general. He points out three common categories into which most such relationships can be placed: conflict, compartmentalization, and complementarity.
Sharpe is uneasy about complementarity and complains, "Writers often use complementarity carelessly. They seldom ask the key question: 'Does this model for the science-theology relation picture them as necessary and also as relevant for each other?'" He is anxious that science and theology not be pushed further apart, and argues, "To avoid this means emphasizing the relevance of science and theology for each other and actively exploring their points of contact. Conflicts need resolving, but not in ways that make them more irrelevant for each other" Most advocates of complementarity would agree with him, expressing their concern by their insistence on the need to integrate the two kinds of descriptions.
Sharpe next finds several problems with MacKay's model4 for complementarity, concluding that his model is confusing. He is mistaken, in my opinion, when he says of MacKay that "complementarity for the science-theology relation also suggests they are completely different and mutually irrelevant," or that MacKay's "hierarchical complementarity stops theology from giving a science data, direction toward worthwhile areas of study, or criteria for accepting or rejecting a physical theory." Sharpe states that he does "not want to undermine the importance of MacKay's ideas," but concludes with the curious complaint, "MacKay also assumes theology and science have the same subject matter, namely, the world we experience. His removal of the other-world from the subject matter of theology is an example of the evangelical movement's adoption of secular thinking."
Passing from MacKay's complementarity with the parting remark that it does not make science and theology relevant for each other, Sharpe proceeds to the complementarity picture of Reich.5 Here again some dubious critiques are offered, e.g., "Using a scientific explanation for a situation virtually rules out a theological one. The same holds in reverse." Perhaps a misuse of "explanation" at this point, instead of the more appropriate "description," leads to this mistaken conclusion, but it does not adequately describe complementary scientific and theological descriptions. When Sharpe says, "In general, I seek to understand the relevance of science and theology for each other, and their integration," I would agree completely. But then I can't imagine why he also says, "An evangelist's insistence that God stopped a hurricane hitting an area may conflict with a meteorologist's explanation."
As an alterative to complementarity, Sharpe proposes "a ladder model." "Science and theology are the two vertical poles of the ladder... The rungs depict what science and theology have in common in their knowledge and assumptions." Sharpe feels that Bohm's integration of his physics and religious beliefs "typify the ladder model." It is interesting that he then concludes by saying,
My hope is that the ladder model upholds the intentions of the complementarity model. First, science and theology have the real world as a common reference. The challenge is to admit this and to investigate the extent of their similarities. Second, they are different because their definitions and the way they use concepts are not the same. These points are probably what MacKay intended with his model.
I would simply say that MacKay not only intended this, but actually achieved it.
In the final chapter of the book, Sharpe indicates that he intends to discuss several "questions raised by Bohm's physics and metaphysics for Christian theology." In an amazing illustration of the language mysticism with which this review started, Sharpe turns to quote from Barbour and Russell,6 saying that Bohm's work
...is ripe for theological interpretation, because concepts such as cosmos, wholeness, fragmentation, and implicate order are extended as integrating metaphors to all of experience. Through it can come new language for God and human nature, for estrangement and community, for religious experience in contemporary culture.
What are these striking advances that come to us through Bohm's metaphysics? Sharpe names three: (1) Bohm's theology assumes there is a beyond completely inaccessible to us; (2) is the holomovement a product of the creator God, or is it the same as the creator God; (3) is there a purpose or development in the movement of the holomovement? He says that Bohm's perspective encourages interdisciplinary studies because it says no one perspective can provide the complete understanding, and each depends on the others.
Next Sharpe gives a summary of Russell's 7 evaluation of Bohm's perspective, which is too extended to be summarized here. When Russell proposes that Bohm's ideas could provide a new way of understanding a divine purpose in the world, Sharpe replies, "I am not as optimistic about this as is Russell because no strong picture of a purpose for the universe shines out of Bohm's writings." After giving Russell's interpretation of God's activity in nature, Sharpe comments,
Unfortunately, Russell does not make it clear how God acts in or on the world, be it within the implicate order or otherwise. Neither is it clear what God does in these assumed actions. Further, suppose God's actions occur in otherwise unused levels in Bohm's infinity of levels. It would then be difficult to avoid a situation in which God is irrelevant for explanations.
In perhaps the strangest section of the book, Sharpe next considers "God in Bohm's Metaphysics." Using Russell once again as a reference, Sharpe says that Russell
also looks at defining God to be the implicate order or the holomovement ... God so defined, Russell notes, need not be personal... On balance, Russell concludes, Bohm is probably closest to a panentheistic image of God. God contains the universe.
Sharpe, however, is quick to point out,
Russell has an incorrect understanding of the divine in Bohm's metaphysics. Bohm does not believe God is the holomovement or that God contains the holomovement, but rather he thinks the divine is beyond the holomovement, beyond all implicate orders. God is beyond them in ways that defy our ideas. In Bohm's scheme, the holomovement is part of the created order.
Sharpe then introduces the thought of Peters,8 who felt that the "idea of a single reality probably attracts Bohm. Bohm would thereby deny two points: he would not make a distinction between God and the universe, and he would deny that the universe depends entirely on God." But again Sharpe disagrees. "Peters' interpretation of Bohm appears incorrect ... he errs in saying Bohm thinks there is only one reality ... Bohm's response to Peters makes this point quite clear: that the universe is not divine is especially important." Sharpe summarizes by stating that "Religious thinkers will and have equated the implicate order, the holomovement, with God, despite Bohm's intentions." To top it off he says, "Bohm might respond that the beyond is not a concept; it is a reality experienced through meditation and insight, in ways words cannot describe. I disagree."
The final section of the book is entitled, "A Holomovement Theology." At last we hope to find something positive that science is contributing to theology. Sharpe concludes the section by saying,
Although Bohm does not think God is the holomovement, I found this idea a useful starting point from which to begin a theology.
He considers the holomovement idea as a model for God.
There are two traditional ways of talking of God as creator. The first is that God created out of nothing at the beginning. The second is that God continually creates the world and all that is in it, moment by moment. Both forms of creative activity are present in the holomovement model of God.
Well and good. What has been shown at most is that the holomovement model may be considered in such a way as to be consistent with the traditional ways of talking about God as creator. What new insights has the science given us?
The holomovement model says how this mechanism works, thereby describing how God operates. Scientific laws are descriptions of the way God works. They do not have any power themselves, nor do they refer to Platonic-like powers that exist as part of or at another level from the world. They describe the action of God.
We can agree with this statement totally. We agreed with this statement on biblical grounds long before the holomovement model came along. What new insights has science given us?
Another attribute of the holomovement God is that God is personal ... we can move quite beyond Russell's conclusion that the holomovement God need not be personal .... God has to do with all personal traits. It also is possible to think of God as transcending personal attributes .... Thus God could relate to us personally. Whether this happens and, if it does, what form the relation takes, are subjects for theology to ponder.
Well and good. We believed this on the basis of the biblical revelation a long while ago. What new insights has science given us?
Now, science has given us new insights about many things that the biblical revelation did not do. It has informed us in many ways of how God acts in the world and of the ways in which God's actions are carried out, and it has helped us to understand some of the theological terms of the biblical revelation in physical terms that describe the outliving of those terms in the natural world. But science does not provide us with the basis for reformulating theology.
This is a valuable book to read or to share with someone else if they really believe that there are bright new days on the horizon when our biblical concepts of God and His relationship to us and the world will all be reworked in a scientific mode. Careful understanding of exactly what these revolutionary advances of science are should be a compelling antidote to non-biblical excesses.9
1R. H. Bube, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43, 273 (1991)
2F. Capra, The Tao of Physics, New York: Bantam Books (1977)
3J. Boslough, Stephen Hawking's Universe, New York: William Morrow & Co. (1985)
4D. M. MacKay, The Clockwork Image: A Christian Perspective on Science, London: Inter-Varsity Press (1974)
5K. H. Reich, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 25, 365 (1990)
6I. G. Barbour and R. J. Russell, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 20, 107 (1985)
7R. J. Russell, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 20, 135 (1985)
8T. Peters, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 20, 191 (1985)
9R.H. Bube, Putting It all Together: Seven Patterns for Relating Science and Christian Faith, Lanham, MD: University Press of America (1994)