The Clockwork Universe
In 1687, Isaac Newton published The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, now referred to simply as Principia, which many scholars say is the greatest work of science ever produced. Newtonian mechanics provided the means for predicting the motion of every body in the universe with what appears to be unlimited precision. All you need to know is the mass of the body, its initial position and momentum, and the net force acting on it, and the laws of motion allow you to calculate the position and velocity of the body at any time.
Newton insisted that he was demonstrating the work of divine providence in nature. However, his discoveries conflicted profoundly with traditional Christian teaching. If the motion of every body in the universe is fully determined by Newton’s laws of motion and force, then there is nothing for God to do beyond the creation—no reason to step in to perform miracles or answer prayers. Even before Newton, philosophers had begun to view the universe as a vast machine. With Newton, that picture seemed to be confirmed. We all live in a clockwork universe with everything predetermined.
As a consequence, a new concept of God arose, a new theology called “deism,” in which a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful God created the universe and its laws, then left it alone to carry on by itself. Whatever purpose God had in creating the universe, that purpose is built-in and inevitable, since every event is already predetermined. Indeed, only if God were imperfect would he need to intervene to change the course of events.
This period in Western history, when science and rational thinking began to challenge superstition and appeals to religious authority, is called the Age of the Enlightenment. The central tenet of the Enlightenment was Newtonian determinism. Many of America’s Founding Fathers—including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Paine—were deists. Some European thinkers saw no need even for a deist God, and for the first time in the history of Christendom, atheism became a respectable alternative.
The main objection to the clockwork universe is its implication that humans do not possess free will. This means that we are not responsible for our actions and possess no power of choice. Not only does this contradict the central religious doctrines of sin and atonement, it poses real problems for secular society. If a person is not responsible for his acts, what basis is there for punishing or rewarding those acts? Besides, most people have the innate conviction that they possess the freedom to act self-consciously no matter what scientists or philosophers may say.
In Emile, ou l’education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s fictional Vicar of Savoyard chastises philosophers to recognize that something may be true even if they cannot understand it. Such is the case, the vicar says, for the free-acting immaterial mind, which is a fact immediately perceived in his “inner light.” Rousseau led the way out of Enlightenment deism and atheism by teaching a theology in which everything natural is good and evil is humanity’s doing (although the notion of the “noble savage” was not Rousseau’s doing).
The Enlightenment did not bring about the demise of Christianity. Rather, Christianity began to adapt to its own brand of deism, using the metaphor of mechanism and the wonders of science to extol the glory and power of God while assuming the existence of a parallel world of mind or spirit that was not constrained by Newton’s laws. Furthermore, nature itself ostensibly offered proof of God’s existence.
William Paley eloquently articulated this view in his 1802 book Natural Theology, in which he introduced the famous watchmaker analogy for God. Paley tells of walking on the heath and finding a stone and a watch. While the stone is easily viewed as an object formed by natural forces, the same is not true of the watch, which is clearly an artifact. Paley then compares the watch with biological structures such as the human eye and argues that the eye cannot possibly be the product of any purely natural process. It calls out for a designer, and that designer, of course, is God.
Charles Darwin, who was assigned the same rooms at Cambridge that Paley occupied a generation earlier, was very impressed by Paley’s argument. But ultimately he was unconvinced and in 1859 published On the Origin of Species, laying out the evidence that living organisms evolve by a process of random mutations and natural selection (a process that Alfred Russel Wallace had independently also discovered).
Even today, Christians are told by their preachers to look at the beauty and complexity of the world about them, smell the flowers, peer through telescopes into the heavens, and bear witness to God’s creative artifacts in nature. The argument from design remains the most common scientific argument theists give for their beliefs, despite the fact that evolution by natural selection is now solidly confirmed as the mechanism by which complex living organisms develop from simpler forms.
Of course, most fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept evolution because it conflicts with the Bible. These dedicated faithful represent a strong political force in the United States, but they have so far failed in their efforts to remake science so that Christian principles take precedence over established scientific methodology.
The Premise Keepers
The antiscientists do not concern me in this essay. I am far more interested in and respectful of those theologians who accept the results of science and do not dispute the power of its meticulous procedures but make an honest attempt to reconcile it with God. In an earlier essay, which mainly focused on evolution theology, I referred to them as the “premise keepers.” They include, among others, the particle physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, the biochemist and Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke, the biologist Kenneth Miller, the physicist and theologian Ian Barbour, the cosmologist and Quaker George Ellis, the physicist and theologian Willem Drees, and theologians John Haught and Nancey Murphy. Since many of the proposals I will discuss have appeared in the writings of several of these thinkers, I will generally not single out the views of individuals but rather seek out their common thread.
The problem of locating God’s action has been the subject of a multiyear collaborative project between the Vatican Observatory and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, located in Berkeley. Five volumes of proceedings edited by Center director (and premise keeper) Robert John Russell have been produced. A whole issue of Zygon, the Journal of Religion and Science was recently devoted to the question. A number of books of varying scholarly quality have also been published.
The premise keepers, who are almost all Christians, recognize that the deist God, even in the dual model of matter and mind, is not the Christian God. So they seek ways for a God to act that is both consistent with Christian tradition and does not violate natural laws. These acts might be in response to earnest prayers or the need to fix some sequence of events that has gone off course just because of the large amount of random, unpremeditated chance that evidently exists in our universe.
Note that the premise keepers do not allow for miracles if these violate laws of nature. As Polkinghorne put it, if God worked against the laws of nature it would be God acting against God, the presumed author of those laws. So it is not simply a matter of saying “God is God, he can do anything he wants to do.” Whatever actions the premise
keepers propose for God to take in the current world beyond his actions at creation should be consistent with the laws of nature—at least as we perceive them on the human scale. This is not a restriction on God; it is a restriction on the possible theories of God that theologians can consider while being consistent with science and avoiding the need for God to act against his own creation. What may appear as a miracle is just an unusual event, not a violation of natural law.
Another restriction on theologians is that their God theory must allow for human free will, which is fundamental to Christian belief. This means that God’s actions can, in principle, be thwarted by human actions. Somehow theologians have to arrange it so that God’s actions are beyond the reach of the human capability to undo.
As with the clockwork universe, theologians must grope for a place for God to act in the course of evolution. Since we still do not understand how life originally came about on Earth, anyone is free to propose that God initiated the process. However, even if God did create life, he could not simply then turn it over to natural selection the way the deist God turned over physics to Newtonian determinism. Consider the matter of the development of the human race. Evolution tells us that we are the result of an enormous number of random mutations that have occurred since life began on Earth four billion years ago. If, as Christianity and other religions teach, God created the universe with a special place and plan for humanity, then he would have had to intervine countless times along the way—every time there was a mutation on the path to Homo sapiens—to make sure that we evolved. Such actions may be indistinguishable from evolution but would constitute a form of intelligent design inconsistent with the more parsimonious evolutionary principle that random mutations are sufficient to provide the genetic changes needed for natural selection to operate.
Several premise keepers have proposed that God did not care whether humans evolved or not. For his own reasons, he set things up the way he did, with many paths to some final end that need not include humanity. That’s possible, but such a God must then be reconciled with the traditional Christian teaching and widespread human belief that we are special and central to God’s plan for the universe.
Nevertheless, evolution by natural selection did theologians a great favor. By including chance in the development of life well before the twentieth century, when chance became a major player in physics and cosmology, evolution blew a big hole in the clockwork universe and relegated the Enlightenment deist God to history. Living organisms are not predetermined after all. They are a consequence of random chance and natural selection.
The Newtonian clockwork universe has never been a problem for the vast majority of believers to whom the name Newton is more likely to bring up an association with a tasty fig cookie than laws of motion. Nevertheless, prior to the twentieth century, theologians still had to grapple with the problem of finding a place for God to act within the framework of the clockwork universe. Natural theology just swept this under the rug. Since there is no compelling evidence that God acts anywhere, the simplest conclusion is that he does not exist. However, theologians would soon lose their jobs if there were no God theories to speculate about. And here is where modern quantum mechanics provides a playing field for speculation.
Perhaps the most important innovation in quantum mechanics is the uncertainty principle, introduced in 1927 by Werner Heisenberg, which says that the momentum and position of a body cannot be simultaneously measured with unlimited precision. (Except at speeds near the speed of light, momentum can usually be approximated as the product of the mass and velocity of a body.)
We saw above that Newton’s laws of motion provide a means for predicting the motion of a body when we know the initial position and velocity of the body and forces acting on it. This was the basis of the clockwork universe in which everything that happens is predetermined. The uncertainty principle seems to rescue us from determinism. For example, there is no way for a physicist to predict with any reasonable accuracy the motion of a free electron initially confined within a volume the size of an atom. The uncertainty in the electron’s velocity by virtue of its position being so well known is one million meters per second with random direction! Six seconds later, the electron can be anywhere within a volume the size of Earth. By contrast, the uncertainty in the velocity of a body of mass equal to one gram confined to a cubic centimeter is 5×10-30 meters per second, and the motion of such a particle can be predicted with great accuracy.
Of course, the fact that a physicist cannot predict something does not necessarily mean it is not predetermined. But let us assume this is an ontological, not just an epistemological, fact so that we are not back to the Enlightenment deistic God.
Does this open up a place for God to act, poking his finger in so that the electron goes where he wants rather than, as implied by quantum mechanics, almost any place at random? Many premise keepers have suggested so. In the case of the electron confined to a tiny region of space, God could direct the motion of that electron to where he wants it within the limits of the uncertainty principle. But note that to do so, he would in fact be violating the uncertainty principle, just as he violated evolution in the example discussed above. Of course, being God, he can do that. But so long as God limited himself to placing the electron at a precise location within a volume the size of Earth in six seconds, humans would not be able to detect it, just as poking his finger into evolution would be indistinguishable from randomness. All this appears possible—God could be behaving in this way—and the only argument against it is once again parsimony.
Every gram of matter contains a trillion trillion electrons, protons, and neutrons. This means that a deity would have to somehow maintain control over countless events taking place at the submicroscopic level over extended periods of time. The prospect of God micromanaging all these particles throughout the universe has not appealed to many theologians. The premise keepers are looking for ways for God to act on the everyday scale of human experience, where that action is meaningful to humanity. If God is to use quantum mechanics to act in the universe, those actions must be amplified by some mechanism, and, furthermore, they must involve large-scale phenomena that are otherwise not predetermined.
Butterflies and Chaos
Some premise keepers have proposed that the amplification mechanism might be found in the so-called butterfly effect, discovered in 1960 by meteorologist Edward Lorenz. Running a model of the atmosphere on one of the primitive computers of the day, Lorenz found that the model was very sensitive to tiny changes in the input data, such as when he entered a number that had been rounded off in printing from the actual number inside the computer. It was as if a butterfly flapping its wings could change the weather days ahead.
Since then, this phenomenon, dubbed “chaos,” has been studied extensively with experiments and computer simulations. We have seen that Newtonian mechanics allows the prediction of the motion of a body with unlimited accuracy, at least for large-scale phenomena. It can do this as well for a system of two bodies. But when you move to three bodies, it becomes impossible because of the mathematical complexity required to describe all possibilities and the apparent impossibility of an exact solution. Approximation techniques, such as perturbation theory, enable physicists to make useful calculations for systems of
a few bodies that interact with one another weakly, for example, the planets and other bodies in the solar system. But even this fails when the bodies strongly interact.
Of course, it is hopeless to calculate the detailed motion of the trillion trillion molecules in a gram of familiar matter. Instead, physicists use statistical techniques to calculate the average behavior of such systems. With the highly developed theory of statistical mechanics, many of the gross properties of the gases, liquids, and solids of normal and laboratory experience can be computed, but these systems must be in thermal equilibrium (constant temperature throughout) or not too far from it. This stratagem fails for many multibody systems that are far from equilibrium, for example, Earth’s atmosphere with its turbulence and strong interactions with land and sea.
Computer simulations have shown that the butterfly effect and other unexpected phenomena are associated with systems that have three basic characteristics:
- Nonlinearity. A linear system is one whose output response to a stimulus is proportional to the stimulus. For nonlinear systems this is not the case.
- Energy dissipation. The system must have a means of losing energy, such as friction.
- External driving force. An outside force must act on the system.
A simple example of a system that meets these characteristics is the damped, driven pendulum. A pendulum will respond linearly to a slight push, but its response becomes nonlinear as the push gets harder. Add damping, and the pendulum behaves chaotically.
Chaotic systems appear to behave unpredictably. At least there is no known mathematical technique that enables one to go from the initial conditions to the final results. However, for a system on the everyday human scale, individual bodies such as air molecules inside the system obey Newtonian mechanics. The apparent unpredictability of a chaotic system is the result of our own limited knowledge of the initial conditions. When we do computer simulations on chaotic systems, we can predict the outcome even if we can’t calculate it by traditional mathematical means. All we need to do is run the simulation once and see where the system ends up. Then, as long as we run it again from the same initial point (taking care to avoid rounding errors), we will end up at the same final point. For these reasons, we refer to the chaos associated with nonlinear systems as “deterministic chaos.” Indeed, quantum systems, which are not deterministic in most interpretations, are linear and so do not exhibit this variety of chaos. Attempts to develop a nonlinear version of quantum mechanics have so far failed. In fact, linearity lies behind many quantum effects, such as “entanglement.”
The primary characteristic of chaotic systems is their sensitivity to initial conditions. The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics could in principle result in a large-scale, otherwise deterministic, chaotic system such as a pendulum or an unpredictable atmosphere because of our inability to set the initial conditions accurately.
Several theologians have proposed chaos as the means for amplifying God’s action from the quantum level to the macroscopic level. Working within the uncertainty principle so that he breaks no laws of physics, God would have to change the initial conditions of a chaotic system to affect the outcome.
This means that God, knowing how to do Newtonian mechanics better than we do and presumably having the best computer in heaven at his disposal, can thus obtain his desired outcome. He simply chooses the initial conditions that lead deterministically to the desired result.
Christian schoolmaster Timothy Sansbury has pointed to three problems with this scenario for God’s action. First, a significant time delay is involved in the kinds of chaotic amplification systems we might consider; for example, it might take several days for the butterfly effect to change the weather. Second, it is not clear that dramatic changes can be effected, such as bringing rain in response to farmers’ prayers. It certainly would not move fast enough to change the course of a tornado heading straight for your house or end a storm endangering a ship at sea.
Third, during the time that a chaotic system is working its way from initial conditions to final outcome, something might happen to change that course. This may not be a butterfly flapping its wings, but since we are assuming God gave humans free will, some human might take an action that God did not anticipate when he made his adjustment to the initial conditions. For example, that human might decide at the last moment to get into his carbon monoxide-emitting SUV and drive to Las Vegas, changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere just enough to thwart God’s plan.
In short, it does not seem that quantum mechanics, even with chaotic amplification, provides a place for God to act that avoids violating laws of nature or human free will.
A God Who Plays Dice
We have seen that the Enlightenment’s deistic God who created the universe with everything predetermined is not viable if we accept the view of most physicists and philosophers that quantum mechanics implies only a statistical determinism. This is certainly the way quantum mechanics is currently applied. The same equations of motion that appear in classical Newtonian mechanics can be used to predict the average motion of an ensemble of particles but not that of individual particles. This is not to say that the motions of particles are random. Somehow their motions are constrained to yield the calculated average. Indeed, the exact statistical distribution giving the range of deviations from average motion can also be calculated.
Now, it remains possible that the motions of particles are predetermined, and we simply have not yet discovered the underlying principles. This was the suggestion made in the 1950s by David Bohm—that there are “hidden variables” governing the behavior of individual particles. The pursuit of these hidden variables has led to some interesting developments that have been given mystical interpretations, which I covered in my 1995 book, The Unconscious Quantum. For our present purposes, let me just note that no evidence for hidden variables has been uncovered, and the world of quantum mechanics continues to appear indeterministic. And, if Bohm turns out to be correct and everything is predetermined after all, we are back to the very non-Christian “God” of Enlightenment deism.
We are rapidly narrowing the list of possible gods consistent with science. We can with some confidence eliminate the Enlightenment’s deist God. A personal God who acts within quantum uncertainty, possibly amplified by chaos, to change the outcome of events in the natural world remains possible but unnecessary. This would seem to leave open only the possibility of the God to which Einstein strongly objected, the God who “plays dice.”
As mentioned, several premise keepers have proposed such a god. This is a different kind of deist God who creates the universe and its laws and leaves it alone to run itself according to those laws, but allows for an extra ingredient of chance that he does not control. Rather, his purposes are served regardless of the particular path the universe and life take among the countless possible paths available to them. This, of course, leaves ample room for human free will and a great amount of possible creativity, given the way simple systems are able to evolve into more complex forms naturally and without outside help.
Now, while Christian apologists can find ways to fit the chaos deity into their always-flexible interpretations of scripture and religious doctrines, this God is not one to pray to and is hardly worth anyone’s time to worship.
Furthermore, modern physics and cosmology make even the chaos deity, and indeed any creator, unlikely. This follows from the following observations:
- No laws of physics were violated when the universe came into existence.
- Several detailed theoretical papers have been published by reputable scientists in reputable journals that provide various scenarios by which our universe could have arisen spontaneously from nothing but the quantum characteristics of a vacuum, in a way consistent with all existing knowledge.
- Something is more natural than nothing. A state of nothing will tend to undergo a phase transformation to a state of something. The universe appears to be an evolving state of “frozen nothing.”
- The laws of physics are those that would be expected to exist if the universe arose from nothing. By “nothing” I refer to a state of complete disorder—no matter, no energy, no structure and, most significantly, no information.
- The structure of the universe could have evolved from simpler systems, mostly by chance.
- The universe at its beginning was in a state of total disorder and zero information. Order and information evolved later.
Thus the universe retains no memory of a creator—or of that creator’s intentions.
In short, a creator who plays dice may have existed. But that universe is evolving by itself without any divine purpose or plan provided by that creator.
- Clayton, Philip. Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Haught, John F. God After Darwin. Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 2000.
- Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for a Common Ground Between God and Evolution. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
- O’Murchu, Diarmuid. Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
- Peters, Ted, and Nathan Hallanger, eds. God’s Action in Nature’s World: Essays in Honour of Robert John Russell. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006.
- Polkinghorne, John. “The Metaphysics of Divine Action,” in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by R.J. Russell, N. Murphy, and A. Peacocke. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 1995.
- ———. Belief in God in the Age of Science. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.
- ———. Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.
- Sansbury, Timothy. “The False Promise of Quantum Mechanics,” Zygon 42, no. 1 (March 2007).
- Stenger, Victor J. The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995.
- ———. “The Premise Keepers,” Free Inquiry 23, no. 3 (Summer 2003).
- ———. Has Science Found God? Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003.
- ———. The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2006.
- ———. God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Victor J. Stenger’s New York Times best-seller, God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, is now out in paperback with a foreword by Christopher Hitchens and a new postscript by the author.