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Physical Science


Knowledge of the Unseen: A New Vision for Science and Religion Dialogue

Hyung S. Choi*
Canyon Institute for Advanced Studies
Grand Canyon University
3300 W. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85017

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 53.2 (June 2001): 96-101.

While contemporary physics and cosmology take seriously the knowledge of invisible realities, the discussion of the unseen in religion has been largely neglected in the recent science-and-religion discussion. Neglecting the issue in theology is ultimately self- defeating since God is considered the Unseen. In light of contemporary understanding of the unseen in science, we contend that that there are significant parallels between scientific and theological claims concerning the unseen. The epistemic distinction between the seen and the unseen does not necessarily imply the ontological demarcation between the natural and the supernatural. New heuristic frameworks such as a multi- dimensional model are suggested for more holistic and dynamical understanding of reality that includes both the seen and the unseen.

Science, in the last century, has found strange aspects of the physical world that seem quite different from what classical physics has taught us.1

In hindsight, it is an irony that while modernity in its positivistic spirit started out with the notion that the reality perceived by our senses is the only knowable reality there is, we now end up with the idea that the true nature of physical reality is quite different from what we experience through our senses. The legend of the tangibility of matter, or what may be called "the matter myth," which served as the basis for the certainty of knowledge, was lost.2

Here, within science, were raised the problem of reality (an ontological problem), issues of the limits of human knowledge (an epistemological problem), and the problem of testability (a methodological problem). Relativity and quantum physics, which serve as the pillars of contemporary science, and more recently chaos theory, are now presenting us with a radically new physical view of the world in which positivistic, deterministic, and materialistic philosophies no longer have secure places. They present us with deeper, greater, and more mysterious aspects of nature.

Scientists now proceed to the area that traditionally belonged to metaphysics, discussing the possibility of the ultimate reality of the universe, the origin and finality of the cosmos, the problem of consciousness, and the like. The natural sciences, as they touch upon the edge of objectivity and empirical testability, raise many questions about the world to which science itself cannot provide definite answers within its limited framework. In these frontiers of science, our metaphors are running out and our common sense often breaks down. We have to wrestle with the limits of our knowledge, logic, and rationality. Here in science the fundamental epistemic problems are naturally raised, as they were in religion and theology in earlier centuries.

We now start to take seriously, especially in fundamental physics and cosmology, the things that are not seen. As recent developments in theoretical physics and cosmology witness, as speculative as they may be, some theories quite beyond what can be directly measured by physical apparatus are possible and are indeed commonplace. It not only raises a possibility for the epistemology of the unseen in general, but also makes its ontological discussion feasible.

The Unseen in Science-and-Theology Discussion

An important area that has been largely neglected in the recent science-and-religion discussion is the issue of the unseen. Exploring the knowledge of the possible rich texture of the unseen--the "physical" or otherwise--should be a part of our endeavor to restore what we have lost from the treasury of human ideas. Science can benefit from this creative imagination, and theology will be able to address again a fuller view of the world.

There is a significant epistemological and methodological parallel between scientific and theological claims concerning the unseen. The claims of the unseen in both disciplines are often inferred from the seen. Of course, the inferential nature of science has been known since the time of Aristotle. However, during the last few centuries, the discussion of the unseen in religion has been severely limited because of the positivistic epistemology which suspects anything that does not fit in the grand narrative of the matter myth.

A partial justification of the discussion of the unseen in science-and-theology comes from various limit theorems that we have discovered in science during the last century. These include Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, event horizons, and possible singularities of the universe. In mathematics, we have found equally fundamental limits, such as Gdel's Incompleteness Theorem, Turing's Incomputability Theorem, Chatin's theorem for unprovability of algorithmic randomness, and the unpredictability in deterministic chaos systems.

At first, it looks as if these theorems impose permanent barriers to human knowledge. However, careful examination tells us that many of these theorems and principles have to do with the limits of our epistemic ability as we investigate things from within specific systems. This means that if we view these theorems and principles in a different way, then they can be seen as the windows that open up our minds for the things that are beyond the confinements of the system. For example, Heisenberg's principle has led us to a new vision of microscopic realities beyond the visible and tangible macroscopic apparatus. D'Espagnat thus aptly described quantum mechanics as a "window to the unseen.3"

The limit of the speed of light also leads us to the recognition that there are regions of the universe hidden from our observation. Gdel and Turing's results may imply that there are more things that the human mind can do than what perfect machines can execute.4

This may point to a possibility that the human mind might possess a power to reflect on something beyond what is a mechanical process of nature. The study of chaos system illustrates the fact that there may be certain orders in this world beyond our predictive power. In some sense, the limit principles and theorems free us from the bondage of small mental frameworks as they point to greater systems that lie beyond themselves.

As we think further on the issues of the unseen in science-religion discussions, it is useful to examine some analogous issues we have in theoretical physics. We have many theories that deal either with the things that are partially unobservable or with the things that are, even in principle, unobservable. Among the examples are the ideas of David Bohm's "hidden variables," the theory of "beables" by J. S. Bell, various interpretations of quantum physics, quantum cosmological models near the Planck scale, and higher-dimensional theories presented by superstring theory and M-theory. There has also been a spectrum of the unseen with different degrees, from those which have closer connections to the observable, to those which have more remote connections, and finally to those which seem to have no testable connection. Of course, direct application of these ideas to the unseen in religious discourse is not likely, since there exists a considerable linguistic and characteristic gulf between them. However, these examples in physics provide us with very useful metaphors and analogies as well as important cautions against nave conclusions and extrapolations in science-and-theology discussions.

Contemporary physics clearly has shown how counterintuitive nature can be as we step out from the scale of ordinary experiences. This posits a clear caution against a premature and dogmatic talk about God in terms of our ordinary logic and rationality. Von Neumann's impossibility proof for hidden variable theories is a good example for mistakes of this type. As J. S. Bell later found out, von Neumann used a well-established theorem in statistics to categorically refute hidden variable theories. This theorem, which was completely valid in classical statistics, turned out to be inapplicable to Bohm's counterintuitive nonlocal theory.

Our epistemic limits provide the freedom for metaphysical construction but at the same time ... theories beyond the observable may be constrained by the structures of the observable.

Bell's theorem on a local hidden variable theory teaches us another important lesson in our discussions of the unseen. Until the publication of Bell's theorem, physicists had taken freedom in imagining the ontological status of the quantum world and thought that one's choice between local hidden variable theories and the Copenhagen interpretation would be just a matter of personal taste. However, it turned out that in certain cases, one's choice in this "metaphysics" made a difference in physics by resulting in different experimental outcomes. Thus, the alleged "metaphysics" of yesterday has become the "physics" of today. Certainly this illustrates vividly that our epistemic limits provide the freedom for metaphysical construction but at the same time that theories beyond the observable may be constrained by the structures of the observable.

In hindsight, the epistemic limits that we have encountered in physics and mathematics in the twentieth century should not have been so surprising. They came as surprises because we wrongly believed that, in the spirit of scientism, science may be extended indefinitely and that our logic and mathematics were certain. At the dawn of quantum physics, Heisenberg clearly saw the problem inherent in all scientific investigations. He understood that "what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.5

We have limits due to our methodology, predetermined scopes, sensory-perceptive assumption, logic and rational ability, mathematical languages and metaphors, and our limited experimental tools, among other things.6

Most of these limits stem from the fact that we are not the wholly other in our relationship with the things that we want to investigate. All investigations of a subject matter from within are inherently limited.

These limits exhibit two important characteristics. First, they are epistemological, not ontological. In other words, definite knowledge is not available, not because there is nothing to learn but because our ability is limited. Hence, there is no reason to suppose that any ontological discontinuity exists at these epistemic limits. Second, these epistemic limits are usually limits, incompleteness, and uncertainties, not epistemic impossibilities. Our knowledge beyond these limits may be partially available, either because partial investigations are possible or because these limits usually do not come all at the same time. In our science-and-religion discussion, the epistemic limits on our side naturally allow for the possibility of one-directional knowledge transfer--that is, there exists the possibility of divine revelation from the other side even though we do not have much control over how the information may be transferred to us.

The "Natural" and the "Supernatural"

Across these limits in fundamental investigations of the world, no inherent ontological distinction exists between the seen and the unseen, and between the "speakable and unspeakable" as J. S. Bell put it.7

In light of this epistemology of the unseen in science, we must rethink terms such as "natural" and "supernatural." We can no longer identify what we can observe as natural things nor can we equate what we cannot observe with supernatural ones. What then is the criterion for this ontological demarcation? Is it not just an imaginative mental category that we inherited from the prejudice of modernity? When we talk about "nature," are we talking about the totality of things that exist? The affirmative answer to this question requires a radical revision of our conceptual categories for there is no way of distinguishing the "natural" and the "supernatural."

There is a further issue--nature, as we know it, contains phenomenon of consciousness as its part. Given that the most immediate human experience is our conscious experience and that nature at its most fundamental level is neither tangible nor separable--as quantum mechanics tells us--can we then define nature as material existence? What then is "material"? For the distinction between the natural and the supernatural to be meaningful at all, there must be a way to distinguish them. Historically, Thomas Aquinas coined the term "supernatural" as he tried to reconcile Aristotelian naturalistic philosophy with Christian theism. Later in the seventeenth century, as mechanical philosophy became very popular among scientists and philosophers, the idea of nature acquired a different sense. Mechanical philosophy had sought to explain all natural phenomena in terms of matter and motion. The natural then effectively became mechanical. As pursuit of certain knowledge continued through the Enlightenment period, whatever was not "natural" became unqualified as an object of knowledge, and subsequently acquired a sense of being unreal.

My contention is that the distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" should now be discarded as an unjustified and unfruitful category that stems from modern prejudice.

In light of our contemporary understanding of the world, the sharp demarcation between "natural" and "supernatural" is not tenable since we can no longer subscribe to the hard naturalism that is based on the mechanical notion of matter. One can still subscribe to soft naturalism which allows for the possibility of reality beyond what is material. However, we then need to redefine what we mean by nature and naturalism. My contention is that the distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" should now be discarded as an unjustified and unfruitful category that stems from modern prejudice. The only valid demarcation may be the distinction between the seen (observable) and the unseen (unobservable) as they can readily be distinguished by our epistemic limits.

We now see science as our active mental and physical engagement with nature. Even as we strive to be as "objective" as possible using various objectification processes in science, quantum mechanics clearly demonstrates that there is no purely objective way of knowing nature. All fundamental knowing processes are neither totally objective nor totally subjective, but are interactive. Here, both in science and religion, we see epistemological parallels such as our active participation, epistemic limitations, possible ontological continuity, and communal discernment. Depending upon what should be considered as data for religious or theological knowledge, we can have some methodological parallels between science and theology as well.8

This presents an interesting possibility for the unity of knowledge of the seen and the unseen on a deeper level. Abner Shimony, a philosopher of science and a quantum physicist, for example, suggested the possibility of constructing an integrated epistemology based on his naturalistic metaphysics. One of his points of departure is the idea that science and metaphysics should mesh and complement each other unless convincing reasons are given why it should fail.9

Willem Drees' Religion, Science and Naturalism offers a naturalistic approach to theology with the premise that "the natural order is the whole of reality that we know of and interact with; no supernatural or spiritual realm distinct from the natural world shows up within our natural world, not even in the mental life of humans." Drees leaves room for religion in that "we have a sense of gratitude and wonder with respect to the reality to which we belong.10"

As one can see from Drees' case, ontological presuppositions often preclude the possibility of certain types of knowledge since ontology informs epistemology. Ideas concerning "how the world is" tell us something about "what can be known about the world." It seems inconsistent that Drees precludes the unseen, while physics, which he regards as the best description of fundamental aspects of nature, takes the unseen seriously.

Since ontology informs epistemology and vice versa, it is important to discuss some models for ontology which include the realm of the unseen. The case of David Bohm serves as a great example for this.11

Bohm explicitly constructed a model for the unobservable or "hidden" physical reality. But he did not stop at nonlocal hidden variable theories for quantum physics. He went on to construct a metaphysical system consistent with his own hidden variable theory.12

His discussion on the "implicate" and "explicate" orders provides us with a concrete example of how one might bridge the gulf between theories of the unseen in physics and theories of the unseen in traditional metaphysics. In his metaphysics, the "explicate" order in which we experience the world is the enfolding or manifestation of what is actually lying in a deeper dimension, which he called the "implicate" order. There is no discontinuity between these two, though we can only experience what has been enfolded unto us. Bohm's metaphysics was not presented just as an analogy or metaphor; it was meant to be a description of the single seamless reality that would encompass both the visible and the invisible.

Another promising possibility for the description of the unseen that goes beyond physical experience is using the concept of higher-dimension. Ever since Plato's famous allegory of the cave, people have thought about the possibility that there may be a radically new way of looking at the true nature of the world. In science, this new vision of the world was introduced by Riemann in the nineteenth century and again by Einstein in the early twentieth century. It has revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. Some leading theologians and philosophers such as Karl Heim, Paul Tillich, and Huston Smith have alluded to this new way of thinking about the world and have pointed out that this "dimensional" metaphor or model can be very useful in dealing with many religious enigmas and problems.13

Though Kant has persuaded the modern mind that human thoughts are categorically limited within three-dimensional space and one- dimensional time, the theoretical physics community today talks about the possibility that we may be living in a real higher dimensional spacetime, containing perhaps ten or eleven dimensions. Currently we do not know whether these theories can ever be put to the test, but physicists are working hard to come up with some predictable results in a low energy limit.

This dimensional framework immensely expands our imaginative horizons. The model can provide a heuristic framework in which we can talk about immanence and transcendence at the same time since it is possible for different dimensions to possess different properties. For example, a spatial dimension possesses entirely different characteristics than that of the time dimension but they can be seamlessly combined to form a unity. For Tillich, human spirituality signifies "openness" to the greater reality beyond the physical one, and this spiritual dimension of humanity is what makes humans distinctive. Karl Rahner also contends that the human being essentially experiences themselves as a transcendental being, as spirit beyond the realm of the ordinary space and time. Karl Heim suggested that this dimensional metaphor would preserve both distinction and unity between the spiritual and the physical.

The Unseen and Divine Action

This dimensional model can represent a dynamical relationship between the seen and the unseen. The Greek fathers, such as St. Basil, talked about God's logos operating in the creation of divine energia or "energy" which flows toward all creation. This divine "energy" represents manifesting grace in contrast to the unknowable divine essence.14

This echoes Paul's assertion that invisible qualities of God have been made visible in creation. In this model, such religious concepts as revelation may be treated in a natural way since it is possible to consider one-directional information flow from a higher dimension to a lower one. A lower dimension does not have access to a higher dimension (which therefore imposes epistemological limits), but together they form a continuum of reality (which therefore preserves ontological continuity). The dimensional model can also explain well the problem of God's action in nature. In this new vision, we do not even need to look for openness in the "physical" order to avoid the problem of suspension or violation of natural laws. Divine action can be understood simply as higher order laws working seamlessly with lower order laws.

In this new vision ... divine action can be understood simply as higher order laws working seamlessly with lower order laws.

Even in the naturalistic framework, the openness of natural order is quite obvious from the fact that all our scientific laws are constructed a posteriori. No law, deterministic or not, closes the possibility of the existence of other laws--just as the perfectly deterministic Newtonian laws of mechanics do not exclude the possibility of the other perfectly deterministic laws of electromagnetism prescribed by Maxwell's equations. If electromagnetism had not been known to humanity, the lifting of a massive object by a magnetic field without mechanical support would have been considered a "violation" of the natural order. However, for those who have known the laws of electromagnetism, the lifting event never violated nor suspended the Newtonian laws. Newtonian laws were working perfectly as well all along. The idea that deterministic laws necessarily imply the causally closed universe is simply misguided.

On the road of science, we have experienced many turns and surprises. Today theoretical physicists are considering the possibility that these Newtonian and Maxwellian laws, along with other laws of physics, may be just different manifestations of a single law on a deeper level for which we might not have a tool for direct investigation. Usually deeper or more general laws tender surprising phenomena, as we have experienced in twentieth century physics. Phenomena such as lasers, superconductivity, Bose-Einstein condensation, and Einstein-Podolsky- Rosen effects were completely foreign and impossible in classical physics.

I am not promoting "anything goes" in nature. On the contrary, in the spirit of true science, I am suggesting a serious consideration of the unseen-- that our current limited vision should not blind us to the possibility of the greater reality that we have not yet seen or known.

This dimensional model can represent a dynamical relationship between the seen and the unseen ... [and] can be a fruitful ground for theological reflections.

This new heuristic framework, which radically departs from the framework of modernity, can be a fruitful ground for theological reflections. Of course, I have no reason to suppose that any model, which has been developed in science or mathematics, is sufficiently adequate in describing the reality that may lie beyond the accessible empirical or rational order. However, as our experience and knowledge of the world increases, we happily admit that all we can do in science and theology is to try to find a better and ever more adequate language that may enable us to describe in some limited way the things that may ultimately be indescribable. As we expand our minds' horizons, we also expand our understanding of God, for we know God is the ultimate reality--far greater than any human imagination of the unseen.



1 The development is well described in John Wheeler, At Home in the Universe (American Institute of Physics, 1994). See the collection of works by American Physical Society, More Things in Heaven and Earth: A Celebration of Physics at the Millennium, ed. by Benjamin Bederson (1999). For more philosophical discussions, see J. Hilgevoord, ed. Physics and Our View of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

2See, e.g., Paul Davies and John Gribbin, The Matter Myth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

3Bernard D' Espagnat, Reality and the Physicist: Knowledge, Duration and the Quantum World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

4Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

5"Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1958).

6John D. Barrow, Impossibility: The limits of Science and the Science of Limits (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

7J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

8See the works in Russell, Stoeger and Coyne, eds., Physics and Philosophy and Theology (Vatican Observatory, 1988) and Mark Richardson and Wesley Wildman, eds. Religion & Science: History, Method, Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 1996).

9Abner Shimony, Search for a Naturalistic Worldview vol. I: Scientific Method and Epistemology; and vol. II: Natural Science and Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

10Willem Drees, Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

11Alfred N.Whitehead also rigorously integrated his scientific theory with metaphysics. However, since many theological works were done already on his metaphysics, I will not deal with it here.

12David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980); D. Bohm and B. J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe (London: Routledge, 1993).

13See Karl Heim, God Transcendent (London: Nisbet and Co., 1935); Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963); Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: Primordial Tradition (1976).

14Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986).