I live with a three-year-old. And the thing about three-year-olds is their enormous capacity to ask questions – why, why, why? This is, in itself, wonderful; the trick is having the patience to keep answering them and not simply to dissolve into a, ‘Just because!’
In a recent interrogation, I was being tested on what stuff was made of – anything he could see: tables, cars, the sky, earth… Good, if a little annoying, as these questions are, they really are worth us grown-ups pondering because the nature of stuff, of matter, is at the very heart of the debates between science and religion.
These debates have a bad name. Most people only hear about the shouting matches between two extremes, the materialist atheists such as Richard Dawkins on the one side, and the religious fundamentalists who take a strict literalist view of the Bible on the other. And worse, people think they have to choose between them. But there are other ways to go about the science and religion debates, and choosing a path through these debates is vital for all Christians, not just those with an interest in science. Christians universally believe that God made the world (Genesis 1) and is continually involved in the world (for example, Psalm 104) and therefore what science is saying about the world should not simply be left to those who have access to microscopes and telescopes.
St. Augustine wrote in the third century:
“Even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the heavens, and the other element of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon…Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”
In Augustine’s day some people held that matter was evil, a distraction from the superior spiritual life; matter is something to be controlled and disposed of in favour of nobler pursuits. And there is still some of this attitude about in churches and Christian believers today. However, the Bible teaches that matter is neither divine nor evil, so it is okay for us not only to study it, but for it to be a part of how we learn about the divine.
Newtonian mechanics is real, big world physics that deals with apples falling out of trees and balls rolling down slopes. When Newton and his contemporaries, at the beginning of the scientific revolution, began to look at the universe as mathematical and predictable, they were at the start boom in knowledge. But as the universe was made increasingly predictable, God’s role in it seemed to diminish.
But science itself changed the direction of thinking about matter in the discovery of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics studies matter at the smallest possible level, and the interactions between the bits that make up atoms; it is based on the observation that it is not possible to have complete knowledge about any system at these scales. Unpredictability is a feature of matter, and quantum science deals in probability and it delivers uncertainty as part of its very structure. The majority of scientists today believe that uncertainty is a genuine part of the physical world, and not just the result of gaps in our knowledge.
It challenges objectivity as well as the control that we think we have. Quantum physics has changed how the physical world is thought about, and how we understand matter, free will and the nature of reality. It also clashes with traditional ideas about a sovereign God who might be in command of the universe. To enfold quantum science into a theology, we would need to admit that science is saying that the future of the cosmos is genuinely uncertain.
But if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, the creator of the universe, the consummation of all time, maker of all matter, can God really be in the dark about where creation is heading? Where in chance are the beloved divine attributes of providence and sovereignty? But, if you maintain that God really is in control of the material world, how then do we regard uncertainty and chance in physics?
Matter matters because how we understand it as Christians says a little about what we believe about God. Is God okay with uncertainty? Are you?