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Science

The Words of Religion and the Words of Physics

Vahid Houston Ranjbar | Feb 18, 2018

PART 1 IN SERIES The Semantics of Religion and Science

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Vahid Houston Ranjbar | Feb 18, 2018

PART 1 IN SERIES The Semantics of Religion and Science

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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.

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Comments

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  • Jan Bijak-Weissbein
    Jan 21, 2019
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    I dont think physics can explain spiritual reality, and a field doesnt seem to have much to do with a soul beyond being invisible etc- the soul is not supposed to be an object to laws of physics or belong to this world anyway -AbdulBaha says "It is entirely out of the order of the physical creation"
    • Jan 22, 2019
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      I also don't think that physics can explain the spiritual reality. However Abd'u'l-Baha does say in the Tablet of the Universe, “For physical things are signs and imprints of spiritual things;” So one can gain a greater appreciation of spiritual truths by investigating the physical reality. As for the question of the spirit. In the Tablet of Wisdom Baha'u'llah describes a reality underlying matter :"He (Socrates) it is who perceived a unique, a tempered, and a pervasive nature in things, bearing the closest likeness to the human spirit". This leads me to wonder if by studying this "pervasive nature" of ...things that one could gain a better understanding of the human spirit since it bears "the closest likeness to it"?
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  • Greg Billington
    Jan 19, 2019
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    "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." um...no. I hear and read many people say this, but it is not true. Since each formation is independent of the others, all formations could merely repeat forever around the most likely formation. Events in the tails of the probability function may never occur. Nothing. least of all random chance, compels their existence, even over infinite time. Possible cannot mean certain. The P(A|B) is ...the P(A) for independent events. Since the P(formation_A) is remote in the extreme for each iteration of the creative process, formation_A need never arise.
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    • Jan 22, 2019
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      Perhaps I should use the word "almost surely" instead of guaranteed ? A probability distribution defines the chance of a thing occurring. If a thing cannot occur over an infinite number of states then it's probability is zero by definition. If it can then it is non-zero. Hence any tail in a distribution "almost surely" will occur over infinite number of trials, otherwise it should be properly defined as has being zero. Notice I didn't say that it has too occur but "almost surely". This is because it is possible (though unlikely) that the events in the tails never ...occur. Just as it is possible that I could flip tails and infinite number of times (though highly unlikely).
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  • Arindam Ghosh
    Apr 12, 2018
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    But at the end it comes down to in the Bhagabat Gita to sarbadharmam parityajjo mamekam saranam braja. Renouncing all other paths surrender to Me alone. When all intelleactual curiosities are satisfied our spiritual growth occurs through love devotion and prayers. So pray and fix it is not as crude as it may sound (-:
  • George Costas
    Mar 11, 2018
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    All existence is transitory and takes up many forms. But each one is singular and unique. Every snowflake, grain of sand, every wave on the ocean, every photon that winds its way through the universe attracted by the law gravity, by every object it passes... Each one in its own way declares "There is no God but God, The All Powerful
  • Feb 21, 2018
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    Are not different fields equivalent to different spirits? For example, the kingdoms of spirit described by 'Abdu'l-Baha so often: mineral, plant, animal, human, and the Manifestation and others? Levels within levels, connected by the Word as you point out so well? And science describes them well also in the language of mathematics, again as you point out. Thank you for this.
    • Feb 21, 2018
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      This is an interesting question. Perhaps these fields might be related to what Abdu'l-Baha described as the mineral spirit...or that maybe even of a higher order which science hasn't apprehended yet? In the Tablet of Wisdom Baha'u'llah says that "He (Socrates) it is who perceived a unique, a tempered, and a pervasive nature in things, bearing the closest likeness to the human spirit,". I have wondered if this might be an oblique reference to these fields.
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Feb 19, 2018
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    Okay, I am hanging out to read the next post on this subject...very well written and understood by me a non scientist :) Thank you.
  • Michelle Yunxiao Zhai
    Feb 19, 2018
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    Hey!!! I don't know if the author will actually read my comment, but I just got really excited because I also work on data from RHIC at BNL as my PhD study. ? I was also just explaining about what field is to a friend.
    • Feb 19, 2018
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      Definitely! What years are the data from? I was run coordinator for many of the RHIC polarized proton runs since that is my speciality.
  • Steph Greis
    Feb 19, 2018
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    As a fellow physicist (with a background in QFT), my understanding has become that religious concepts such as spirit, soul, God etc are not meant to be taken literally, but as abstract ideas to help us think about Life (the Universe and Everything). Sadly, this view has also led to some challenges (e.g. I really struggle with to me seemingly literal interpretations many fellow Bahais have about things like "pray and God will fix it" or about how to contemplate the afterlife)... and has at times made it seem like my interpretations as a physicst arent compatible with (or welcome ...in) some parts of the Bahai community. There often seems to be a danger that ppl then think QM *is* God/soul, as opposed to an analogy...
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    • Feb 19, 2018
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      Since you are a physicist, I wrote another article which this one is based on. It goes into a bit more depth on some issue https://medium.com/@vahidhoustonranjbar/semantics-in-religion-and-science-be362c219643 My current point of view is that much of modern physics especially QM, fits very well into ancient Platonic and Pythagorean ideas and these can form an effective link to traditional religion but better understanding some of the words we are using.
    • Feb 19, 2018
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      I think people approach this revelation at different levels and we can't say which is better for their growth and which is worse. There is the very traditional way of viewing religion/spirituality which is fine for people for whom it works. There are also people I think like you and I count myself as one who view the world through a very rational scientific lens. Part of the reason I wrote this article was my desire to help bring people like us to build a sort of bridge between these two views. Now I am not the first to attempt ...this and I agree with the point I think you are making that people have take the QM analogy too far especially in the cottage industry of pseudo science.
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  • Feb 18, 2018
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    I notice that some scientists who deny God, like Richard Dawkins, have not looked into the concept of God very deeply at all.
    • Feb 18, 2018
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      I guess to be more generous. I think they are taking aim at the anthropomorphic ideas of God and aspects of religious thinking which have done real damage to the human race.
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