As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said
Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry
(“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” by Chicago)
I occasionally read science texts though I’m not a scientist. I appreciate the sense of discovering truth through science, and the recognition by science that the truth it proclaims today may be only an approximation of the universe as it really is. Future discoveries can show that what science at one time believed (even dogmatically!) to be true, can at a later date be shown to be incomplete or completely wrong. So as I just finished reading a couple of books about the nature of time (Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time), I realize how little I know about the world I live in.
as Hans Reichenbach suggests in one of the most lucid books on the nature of time, The Direction of Time, that it was in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us that Parmenides wanted to deny its existence, that Plato imagined a world of ideas that exist outside of it, and that Hegel speaks of the moment in which the Spirit transcends temporality and knows itself in its plenitude. It is in order to escape this anxiety that we have imagined the existence of “eternity,” a strange world outside of time that we would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls.* Our deeply emotional attitude toward time has contributed more to the construction of cathedrals of philosophy than has logic or reason. The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time—Heraclitus or Bergson—has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate layers of the mystery. It shows how the temporal structure of the world is different from our perception of it. It gives us the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions. But in our search for time, advancing increasingly away from ourselves, we have ended up by discovering something about ourselves, perhaps—just as Copernicus, by studying the movements of the heavens, ended up understanding how the Earth moved beneath his feet. Perhaps, ultimately, the emotional dimension of time is not the film of mist that prevents us from apprehending the nature of time objectively. (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 1746-1758)
Science moved us from a faith-based way of thinking to one which was based in evidence. Science replaced the older idea of philosophy that truth could be found purely through reason. Science showed that reason can be faulty because it might not have all the facts – there are many things hidden from our observational point of view – or the facts actually fit together in a way previously not imagined. But science has also discovered that observation alone can also be misleading as it too might not have the complete picture of what is going on. By observation people concluded that the earth was flat, the earth was not moving, or that the sun orbited the earth, or that the sun was the center of the universe (Copernicus proposed a heliocentric universe as versus an earth centered one, but his model was also not a correct description of the universe). All these observations turned out to be wrong as we gained new information about our world and the universe.
During the great period of German idealism, Schelling could think that man represented the summit of nature, the highest point where reality becomes conscious of itself. Today, from the point of view provided by our current knowledge of the natural world, this idea raises a smile. If we are special, we are only special in the way that everyone feels themselves to be, like every mother is for her child. Certainly not for the rest of nature. Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amid the infinite arabesques of forms that constitute reality, we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 562-567)
Mathematics kept showing our version of reality just didn’t add up. We still have the signs of these old beliefs in our language – for example, the sun rises and sets whereas now we now it is as the earth turns on its axis that we experience dawn and dusk.
Science thus keeps challenging the truths it proclaims. Truth in science is not absolute but only as good as the data we collect and what we can observe. Science recognizes there may be aspects of reality which we cannot know – some might say yet, but quantum physics has shown there are things we cannot know ever.
First, the danger of relating a “scientific truth” with one’s faith is that, while the tenets of faith are unchanging, the scientific theory of today might be replaced by another tomorrow. The scientific community is continually challenging its theories and trying to perfect them. Reality about the universe is not always the same as current scientific explanations about that reality. There is a saying: “The religion that marries the science of today will be a widow tomorrow.”
Hart calls science and religion “neighbors” in terms of truth, and one has to admit that as neighbors they don’t always share the same grounds for establishing truth. There are property boundaries which neighbors have to respect and realize the limits of their properties. On the other hand, Hart holds some hope that maybe with the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics that maybe Trinitarian theology will be able to give science some insight into a theory of everything.
Not sure I share his optimism on this, but I appreciated his article and would recommend it to any person of faith who wonders what the relationship of science is to Christianity. Hart writes as a Christian iconographer. At the same time that I read Hart’s article, I also finished reading two books by physicist Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time. Both books are accessible to people not trained in science but who find science fascinating. Speaking about the Theory of Relativity, Rovelli says:
The world described by the theory is thus further distanced from the one with which we are familiar. There is no longer space that “contains” the world, and there is no longer time “in which” events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another. The illusion of space and time that continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes… (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 374-377)
We are like an only child who in growing up realizes that the world does not revolve only around himself, as he thought when little. He must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 560-562)
Rovelli manages to show that time and space in the new physics are not quite what we commonly think about when we use those words. Relativity has shown us that even something like time which we commonly experience is relative, and known only in relationships with other things. Time is not a constant throughout the universe but experienced differently throughout the vast universe relative to where one is and what one is doing.
… an extraordinary idea occurred to him [Einstein], a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity. Newton’s “space,” through which things move, and the “gravitational field” are one and the same thing. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 92-95)
space and gravitational field are the same thing. And of a simple equation that I cannot resist giving here, even though you will almost certainly not be able to decipher it. Perhaps anyone reading this will still be able to appreciate its wonderful simplicity: Rab – ½ R gab = Tab That’s it. (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 131-135)
The truth about the universe summed up in one formula! Who would have guessed the universe could be so readily described or reduced to a formula?