Connecting The Quantum Dots (Final Edition)

thanks to my brother for sending me this

(This is the third and final post covering Chapter 2 of Rob Bell‘s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.  Please read part 1 and part 2 first.)

We have looked at the vastness of the external universe and marveled. We then turned our attention to the sub-atomic universe and were amazed at the complexity and otherness contained therein.  It’s almost enough to make me wonder if Finn is correct in the video above!

Energy. Involvement. Surprise.  Interesting choice of words to sum up all of the science from the last two posts.  Let us dig even deeper and see where we end up.

ENERGY

“And atoms, it turns out, are 99.9 percent empty space.  If all of the empty space was taken out of all of the atoms in the universe, the universe would fit in a sugar cube.

An atom, in the end, is a thing.  But a thing that is made up mostly of empty space, which is commonly believed to not be a thing….a chair – a tangible, material physical object – is made up of particles in motion, bouncing off each other, crashing into each other, coming in and out of existence billions of times in billionths of a second, existing in ghost states and then choosing particular paths for no particular, predictable reason.  Your chair appears to be solid, but that solidity is a bit of an illusion.

…your chair is ultimately a relationship of energy – atoms bonded to each other in a particular way that allows you to sit on that chair and be supported.  Things like chairs and tables and parking lots and planets may appear to be solid, but they are at their core endless frenetic movements of energy.” (location 522-531)

Bell follows this up by reminding us we were all taught in high school science class that our world is a hard and stable and tangible world that can by studied and analyzed.  We can prove that in a science lab.

Quantum physics came along and turned all of our previous knowledge on its head.  Now “there is no clear distinction between the material world and the immaterial world, between the physical world and the spiritual world.” (location 542)  As a skeptic who believes science is the best way to describe our universe, I have to say I find Bell’s words poetic.  What if the “spiritual” world is just a higher ordered natural world?  I like bringing that element to metaphysical naturalism, keeping my scientific integrity intact.

Bell does admit

“Now obviously there are scientists who would bristle at any suggestion that is field of study has anything do to with the spiritual, pointing out that it’s not mystical at all but very straightforward science, but for others, brushing up against the spiritual is a great way to put it because the primary essence of reality is energy flow.  Things, no matter how great their mass is or how hard or solid or apparent their thingness is, are ultimately relationships of living energy.” (location 552)

I personally have no problem equating this energy, this vitality of the universe with the spiritual.  I’m sure some Christians on the other side of the debate would argue otherwise.  Could this be a preternatural explanation of existence versus a supernatural one?

INVOLVEMENT

Think back to your middle school or high school science classes. Remember watching the movies of the scientists in their white robes, staying detached behind walls of glass as they performed their experiments?  They were proud of their independence and objectiveness so as not to sway the results of their research.

“At the quantum level, to observe the atom is to affect it.  The particle is a cloud of possibilities until it’s observed, and then it chooses a particular path.  The question you ask light determines whether it will answer as a wave or a particle.

In the view many have been taught, the world is out there, stationery and unmoved, unaffected by us. But in the quantum world, observing changes things….our interactions with energy alter reality because we’re involved, our world an interconnected web of relationships with nothing isolated, alone or unaffected.

We are enmeshed in the world around us, not outside looking in, but inside looking…inside.  It’s all energy and we’re all involved.” (location 562-583)

I’ll admit that I do not know how our observation of quantum phenomena directly affects our everyday life.  As Bell puts it, “but at the most basic level, we don’t know.” (location 588)  And I think it is this lack of knowledge that directly leads to the third point.

SURPRISE

Here is where the fun stuff happens.

“And you, you are fascinating.  You lose fifty to a hundred and fifty strands of hair a day, you shed ten billion flakes of skin a day, every twenty-eight days you get completely new skin, and every nine years your entire body is renewed….

…And yet your body, in the midst of this relentless shedding and dying and changing and renewing, continues to remember to be you, strand by strand, flake by flake, atom by atom.

You are an exotic combination of matter and memory, with a fine line in between.  Millions of cells, drifting through the universe, assembled and configured and finely tuned as this second to be you, but inevitably moving on in the next seconds to be other things and other people.” (location 609-620)

The debate about the origins of human consciousness is still raging.  There are no clear cut answers, other than the grey matter in our head is needed for it.  It is like the age old Chicken and Egg question…which comes first?  If you are interested in finding out more about this question, I highly recommend the Closer To Truth website and watch the videos that are available there.

Our entire physical body is newly restored every nine years. But we remain who we are at the core of what we are.  How does that even work?!  I’ll admit I’m surprised at the beauty of this statement and I love the mystery of it all.

What comes next is what brought me around to theistic thinking again.  In my initial introductory blog post, I called it Strong Emergence.  Bell calls it holism, but they are one in the same idea.  Read it slowly and read it carefully.

“These trillions of atoms form molecules, those molecules form cells, those cells form systems – nervous, immune, limbic, circulatory, digestive, muscular, respiratory, skeletal, to name a few – and those systems eventually form a far larger, more complicated system which we know to be you.

This arrangement that makes you YOU results from something called hierarchy in which each component is joined to other similar components to form together something new that is more complex.

There are more atoms than molecules, but a molecule is more complex than an atom.  There are more molecules than cells, but a cell is more complex than a molecule.  And so on up the hierarchy it goes, with increasingly complex levels of organization at each higher level.

Each higher level, then, is smaller in number, but greater in complexity.  Smaller in breadth, but greater in depth.  From trillions of atoms to one you.” (locations 691-702)

I can’t tell you why THIS particular idea lead me back around to theism or an Ultimate Cause for the universe and me, but it struck a deep chord in my heart.  I am literally more than the sum of my parts.  Does that equal the soul or spirit?  What does this purely scientific fact of my biology and humanness mean?  I still can’t grasp it fully, but to me, it has the whiff of divine on it.

The hierarchy doesn’t stop with me.  Add my wife and children and we become a family, strong and supportive.  Our family is part of a community that is healthy and vibrant when all participate….and so on and so on.  It makes me wonder if the idea of panentheism is the ultimate expression of this hierarchy and emergence.

Bell continues his thoughts on holism by saying this:

“….there are dimensions to you that transcend the actual parts and pieces that you refer to as your body –  qualities and characteristics that emerge only at a larger, collective level, when all those parts are assembled to form you.  Holism is the reality that emerges only when all the parts are put back together but can’t be individually located, labeled, or identified at smaller, component, parts level.

Holism is when two plus two equals infinity.  Holism is your awareness that you cannot hold soul in your hand.  Holism is the living, breathing truth that you-the-whole are more than the sum of your parts.  Holism is the mystery at the heart of your existence – the fact that whatever it is that makes you most uniquely you cannot be measured or assessed or even found in any conventional, rational, scientific way.” (location 714-733)

This was the missing piece for me!  I can read those lines over and over and over and still have my breath taken away.  Science can tell me the how of my existence, but never tell me the why. Strict naturalism maintains that there is no why at all.  But it does not add holism into the equation.

Science is a beautiful thing and I am so grateful to the many scientists who have made outstanding breakthroughs over the past 450 years.  It can try to tell me the emotion I hear when I listen to a song or read a poem or look into the eyes of my wife is just the product of evolutionary psychology.  And they are correct up to a point.  Bell makes this final observation “because sometimes you need a biologist, and sometimes you need a poet.  Sometimes you need a scientist, and sometimes you need a song.” (location 927)

If I can be completely honest, sometimes it feels like I am trapped in the middle of my friends who are pure skeptics and think an argument from religious experience is absurd and my friends who hold onto their faith at all costs and think an argument from science is an attack on their personal beliefs.

I have been careful to not overuse the term God.  I think those 3 letters of the English language are so packed with preconceived ideas and baggage that it might be better to change the word altogether.  I like the idea of Ignosticism which states that every theological position assumes too much about the concept of God and other theological concepts.  At this stage of my personal journey, I’m comfortable with calling myself a Christian.  I can relate to the symbols and ideas used in this belief system.  But if you dug deeper into my personal theology, most of today’s Christians would be uncomfortable with me using the term.  I am hoping that writing all my thoughts and experiences here will help me flesh out my spiritual beliefs.  The great thing about being a skeptic AND a Christian is that I don’t feel the burden of being locked into a particular idea and I have the freedom to explore the deeper mysteries how science and faith interact together.

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