Karen Armstrong, the new physics, and religion

Karen ArmstrongKaren Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists.  Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person. 

Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.*  She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should.  The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes.  The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains.  We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.

The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)

The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience.  “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke.  The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying.  But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence.  Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not.  Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.

What role science?

Armstrong understands that Max Planck had the right idea in the early days of the new physics (early 20th century).  Science deals with the objective, material world, and religion with values and ethics.  That puts it too narrowly, but it upholds the claim that conflict between science and religion is based “on a confusion of the images and parables of religion with scientific statement.” (Planck, pp 82-83)

Wittgenstein made much the same point while grasping what makes religion so fascinatingly complex is that it creates the reality it discovers.  Religious language is essentially symbolic.  It was “disgusting” if interpreted literally, but symbolically it had the power to reveal a transcendent reality in the same way as the short stories of Tolstoy. Works of art do not argue their case or produce evidence but call into being the reality they evoke.  However, because this transcendent reality is ineffable (“wonderful beyond words” is how Wittgenstein described it) we would never come to know God merely by talking about him. We have to change our behavior, “try to be helpful to other people,” and abandon our   egotism (Drury, pp 101, 129; Armstrong, p 279).  If, Wittgenstein said, he was capable of making his entire nature bow down “in humble resignation to the dust,” then God might come to him (Monk, p 410).

True enough, but in her conclusion, Armstrong grants more to science than it deserves.  Specifically, that a less determinate physics might inspire a less determinate religion. 

Today, when science itself is becoming less determinate, it is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing. Here, perhaps, dialogue with the more thoughtful Socratic forms of atheism can help to dismantle ideas that have become idolatrous. (p 326)

By idolatrous, Armstrong refers to any view that thinks we can say something true about God.  Here she follows Paul Tillich.  “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (Tillich, p 205)  The truth about God is silence.  Perhaps, but even Wittgenstein found in myth a way to speak about “things that cannot be put into words.”  But Wittgenstein was not inspired by the new physics. 

Science has no more to do with a new, more imaginative way of thinking about religion than does the sublime experience of a sunrise, or a hawk riding the thermals outside my apartment window.  Experiences like this are inspiring, but humans are fearful creatures.  Whether or not we reflect upon its rituals and where they come from, religion provides a tincture for our agony that science has little to do with.  Theologians may find inspiration in the new physics, but it’s only a metaphor.  That counts for something, but for billions of people belief reinforced by shared ritual counts for so much more.   

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* Quantum indeterminacy refers to a number of different phenomena in quantum physics (the physics that studies the subatomic level) where the physical facts themselves seem to be indeterminate.  Newtonian physics is deterministic: if we knew all of the initial conditions of some system, we could predict everything that would happen in that system.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the most well-known instance of quantum indeterminacy, says that it is not possible to know both the position and the velocity of subatomic particles (such as electrons).  This uncertainty stems not from the limits of our ability to measure accurately, but is built into nature itself. Nature contains a inherent randomness, albeit within limits.  Electrons don’t go jumping anywhere.  See https://pressbooks.online.ucf.edu/introductiontophilosophy/chapter/free-will-supplement-quantum-indeterminacy-and-the-libet-experiments/). 

References

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.  Knopf, 2009.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien.  Vintage Books, 1955.   

Maurice Drury, “Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees.  Rowman and Littlefield, 1981. 

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.  Penguin (reprint), 1991.

Max Planck, quoted in Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations. Harper and Row, 1972, pp 82-83. 

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies.  London: Hogarth Press, 1931, first elegy. 

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1.  University of Chicago Press, 1951.

10 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong, the new physics, and religion”

  1. I have read all of her books I think and I found them very very valuable. I think where she goes wrong is … Give us the emphasis to a small part of what she has written and not realising that it’s a very small part of the whole book. I agree this is it’s disturbing that someone so intelligent can make a mistake like that but unfortunately quantum mechanics has become something that all sorts of loonies have used to try to prove their mystical theories. The uncertainty principle is probably the one they like the best. It reminds me of some parts of mathematics all the foundations of mathematics which have the same effect on people.
    Interestingly even the people who invented quantum mechanics said they didn’t understand it and nob9dy understood the infinitesimals in the calculus but it seemed to work so they just did it anyway. And then students are worried because they can’t understand it.

    1. This was a difficult book to write about. The title is misleading; it’s more like the story of God. All in all I’d say it’s a worthwhile book. She tells the story as well as can be told in 400 plus pages. But quantum physics is just not a useful metaphor (and that’s all it is) for a better more open way of thinking about God, primarily because people tend to think of it as more than metaphor. Even Armstrong. I thought about how I might present the whole book in summary, and never figured out how to do it. So I focused on a weak point. I like Armstrong. See my post on this blog on her biography, The Spiral Staircase. An impressive woman. Fred

      1. Yes thank you very much for that Fred. I think that certain bits of quantum mechanics have been over used by people writing about mysticism and they completely miss understand it in the way, Mike mentions.

  2. I’m sorry Fred I meant where you go wrong is getting too much emphasis to to what you think she is doing wrong
    . Because it’s a large book and most of it is good

  3. As a physicist myself I always point out that physics is about what things do and not about what they are. Everything in physics is defined by its interactions. Physics is completely different from religious belief although it widens our horizons and reminds us that individual places are not ‘special’

  4. I don’t know Karen Armstrong and haven’t read much of her writings but what I have seen, I didn’t like much. She seems to be trying to make god more palatable.

    Thousands of others have been doing the same for millennia but, before all of them, the writer of the Book of Job concluded that is is impossible. The ancient Hebrews had the great insight of a god that is singular, indivisible, and essentially un-knowable. That ‘unknowability’ did not, however, mean that we should not try to create a better society.

    We are immersed within a reality that contains unimaginable violence with an underlying timeless stability, which somehow holds everything together. Therein lies a model for us follow. The ‘Mystics’ writers realised that the individual can adopt the criterion they called “purification of the motive” as a tool for determining whether one is on the right track or not. With that internal guidance and through our observations of the natural world, we have all the tools needed to build a fair and just society – what some have termed ‘the kingdom of heaven’.

    Others have reached similar conclusions by other names, such as nirvana. In the first millennium, many great Islamic scholars developed their understanding of that same principle through their studies of science and mathematics. Unfortunately their efforts were overwhelmed by the unfounded dogmatic assertions that are the bane of all religions.

    Simply put, Armstrong has fallen into the trap of “all cows eat grass, all sheep eat grass, therefore all sheep are cows” false logic, The inspirational and wonderful aspects of modern science don’t tell us anything about the attributes of god.

  5. I have read almost all her books and I admire her work greatly. She wrote a very good book about Islam. I don’t accept that she is trying to do what’s always other people have done. The bit that Fred picked on is it a very small part of the book and I’ve tried to express that before but I’m not well at the moment and I think it’s affecting my brain because when I read my own comments I was not impressed. I know the Tablet the Catholic periodical criticised it but then she is no longer a Christian. I do feel that it’s it is is the wrong choice that Fred made to put that as an example of how people use modern physics because I did find a lot of value in her writing and I still do

    .

  6. Yes thank you very much for that Fred. I think that certain bits of quantum mechanics have been over used by people writing about mysticism and they completely miss understand it in the way, Mike mentions.

  7. Thinking about the unreasonable silence of the world as Camus described it it will be even more of a shock if the world spoke.
    Maybe it speaks but we don’t know how to understand the language

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