Let’s consider, for a moment, the words many religions have used to describe the human spirit throughout the ages—and compare them to the new language of modern physics.
Religion has used words and phrases like “spirit,” “eternal soul,” and “the Word of God.” Many people—especially scientists like me—tend to categorize such types of semantics as well outside the pale of scientific thought.
For example the word “spirit” is commonly looked on at worst as a product of old superstitious thought, or at best a vague expression of emotion or feeling. Yet if we look beyond the historical baggage of this word, we can find words in contemporary physics which basically appear to carry the same essential meaning.
In physics we have the idea of the “field,” which originally was imagined to have a physical basis. For example, we originally conceived magnetic and electrical fields as arising from a physical medium called ether. The gravitational field was an odd one, which when it was first described by Newton, required an action at a distance, which Newton believed was profoundly flawed. It was only with Einstein that the modern view of a gravitational field, described as a product of curved space-time, began to emerge.
With the advent of quantum mechanics, the concept of a field transcended the need for a “physical” medium. Mind you, a medium still exists—but science understood it as explicitly non-physical, an abstract mathematical, probabilistic function that permeated all space.
For many years now physicists have lived with this new idea of a non-material field. Yet if we’re honest, this idea doesn’t seem so different from the ancient religious idea of a non-material spirit. We may not like the word due to the connotations it carries, but at its basic level the ideas are exactly the same. A field is a non-physical thing which permeates space—exactly the definition of a spirit.
The connection goes further. Many religions posit that the basis of true reality is the spirit. For a physicist, the field is stuff from which physical things are born. It is the primary substrate of existence. That substrate is a non-physical mathematical abstraction. In fact there is a line of thought which claims that everything is ultimately, in its clearest form, mathematical.
Similarly, the Abrahamic religious traditions proclaim the idea of the “Word of God,” which represents the creative and causative force behind the universe. For example, the New Testament says, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Quran says, “God said, ‘Be and it is.’” In the Baha’i teachings Baha’u’llah elaborates on this idea:
… (the) Word of God which is the Cause of the entire creation, while all else besides His Word are but the creatures and the effects thereof. Verily thy Lord is the Expounder, the All-Wise. Know thou, moreover, that the Word of God — exalted be His glory — is higher and far superior to that which the senses can perceive, for it is sanctified from any property or substance. It transcendeth the limitations of known elements and is exalted above all the essential and recognized substances. It became manifest without any syllable or sound and is none but the Command of God which pervadeth all created things. It hath never been withheld from the world of being. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 140.
If we parse this concept a bit, at its simplest level a word represents a container for information. That information can itself give rise to physical order or creation is fairly obvious, especially when considering modern information technology or the relationship between life and the data embedded in our genetic code. What is still unclear and being actively studied are the details of how this connection occurs from a pure physics point of view.
When one considers the origin of order in the universe, or the primal creative act, two modes of thinking exist. The first considers the proper universe or cosmos (by this I mean everything including any idea of a multi-verse) as having a beginning point and thus a prime cause in the classical creationist sense. The second considers the cosmos to have no beginning, to exist eternally.
In this second view, order might be the natural result of probabilistic physics operating over enormous time scales. So while the formation of spontaneous order in the universe has a vanishingly low probability, over eternal time scales it is guaranteed to occur an infinite number of times.
Either of these viewpoints require the operation of “creative” information that might be considered definitional for the term “Word of God.” In physics, and in religion, this information exists potentially and eternally, just as the geometry of a circle exists.