Over the years, through the diligent encouragement of friends, I have acquired something of a taste for science fiction. Admittedly, I am still lost much of the time, bewildered by a world of gadgets and gizmos, (sometimes literally) angular characters, and events that defy normal canons of cause and effect. It’s a world that most of the time has little connection with the events and people I prefer to read about in Jane Austen, Graham Greene, and Iris Murdoch.
Yet this newly found appreciation for science fiction was, I think, one of the reasons I decided to read Lee Smolin’s recent The Life of the Cosmos. According to a London Times review, Smolin’s book develops his Darwinian/Einsteinian theory of cosmic natural selection in which generations of living universes are linked to one another by black holes, and that sounded like a book that could provide a smooth passage from science fiction to the real thing. I was tempted to charge the publishers and reviewer with false advertising when I discovered, after reading several chapters, that I was reading neither fiction nor science. Instead, I found myself back on home territory. I had picked up a book of theology.
And, considering that Smolin’s intellectual heroes are hardly the same as mine, it is interesting and provocative theology. To my surprise, I resonated with some of his beginning moves: his advocacy of a “relational” model of the universe, his claim that complexity is irreducible and necessary, his insistence that structure is as fundamental as matter, his belief that the laws of the universe are “made” and develop rather than being eternal (so that the laws are narratable, story-like), and his criticism that Newtonian physics assumes that the scientist (like the Cartesian philosopher) observes from a stance in “midair,” outside the universe he describes.
There are some strange lapses. Smolin says that “if the universe is eternal” then one possible explanation of its existence is that “God . . . made the laws of nature as he made the world” and that these laws thus reflect eternal principles in God. Come again? If the universe is eternal, then how could God have made it? Both Platonism and Deism posit a world “constructed” by an eternal something, but the fact that it’s constructed means that it’s not eternal, at least in the organized form we know it. Elsewhere, Smolin seems to suggest that the discovery of the youth of the universe comes as a challenge to traditional theology. Can he say “Archbishop Ussher”?
Some of the problems with Smolin’s book are more fundamental, but, strangely, I most strongly disagreed with him when I felt he was not pushing his initial insights with rigorous consistency. Smolin criticizes the “nostalgia for the absolute Newtonian universe” as “the desire to be able to see the universe from outside, as a disembodied observer.” I like that, but in my judgment Smolin’s vision is dimmed by the same mote.
It’s the old Kantian dilemma, as pointed out by Wittgenstein: how can Kant know the limits of pure reason without seeing beyond those limits? Kant must be standing in the borderland between the knowable and unknowable to know where the border is, but if that’s the case, then the limits of pure reason turn out not to be absolute limits after all. Smolin, similarly, wants to present a theory of the universe, but how can he know what the universe is, where its “boundaries” are, without somehow standing beyond the boundary? The “theorist of the whole” must assume either that he’s peeking over God’s shoulder or that God has confided some of His secrets, to the scientist if no one else. Every “theory of the whole universe” is necessarily theological, and even approaches some kind of doctrine of “revelation.”
Physicists have as much right to express theological conclusions as anyone, of course. The issue is, what kind of theology is Smolin constructing? We get a hint from his early citation of an idea he attributes to Leibniz: that properties of things are not absolutely fixed but “arise from the interactions and relationships among the things of the world.” That is a marvelous and fruitful insight. The “real me” is not some kernel of fixed essence buried beneath a thick crust of roles and relationships; on the contrary, those roles, relationships, and experiences contribute to the formation of my identity. Even my self-image is, to some degree, projected from others. Paul’s doctrine of justification implies that how I “judge myself” should conform, in faith, to Another’s gracious judgment of me. Inanimate objects too are what they are by interactions with other things and with human beings. When I carve a bowl out of a block of wood, it changes “ontologically,” becoming something other than what it was before. It is not a block of wood cleverly disguised as a bowl: it is a bowl.
So far, so good. But when Smolin moves to a cosmic level he says that the universe is in “relationship only to itself.” You can hear the gears grinding. If things have their characteristics because of their relationships, and the universe is in relation to nothing and no one, then it seems that the universe as a whole must be featureless. (Unless Smolin dodges the issue by saying that the universe is not a “thing.”) If the universe as a whole is featureless, how can Smolin arrive at a theory of everything that does not end in a blank nirvana? Besides, where do the features of individual things come from? If the universe is not itself in relation, and if, in Smolin’s view, the universe is all there is, then where, philosophically speaking, does relationship come from? At the macro-macro level, complexity, which Smolin has told us is irreducible and necessary, is swallowed up in simplicity of cosmic solipsism, of monologue, or better, of silence. But then whence the dialogue, the harmony, that Smolin can’t help but hear all around him?
A relational universe requires a relational cosmology. If things are what they are in relation, then it follows that the universe is what it is in relation to something other than itself. And if this something is the source of a relational universe, then it must be inherently relational. A relational cosmology demands a relational theology; that is to say, it requires a Trinitarian theology, which can serve as the ground of the relational conception of the universe to which Smolin’s science leads him. When I carve that block of wood into a bowl, I am not merely imaging and extending the original creative act; I am also echoing the Father’s eternal generation of the Word, who is the Son, Image, and “Art” of God. Smolin is a prophet of the vestigia Trinitatis, the “traces of the Trinity” that Augustine said are woven into the fabric of created, especially human, forms of existence.
So, to physicists everywhere, I offer this counsel: Your search for a “theory of everything” is centuries behind the times. The theory already exists, and you may already know it. If not, you can find it in any prayer book or hear it recited in countless languages each Sunday morning: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth . . . and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God . . . and in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life.”
Peter J. Leithart recently accepted a position teaching theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.