One of the greatest yet-unsolved mysteries in the scientific realm is known as the ‘Grand Unified Theory‘—the unification of a number of major theories about the basic structure of our universe. It is an important step on the way to a fully inclusive ‘Theory of Everything.’ We aren’t there yet, but we are inching closer all the time. As interesting as the topic may be, I’m here to discuss a very different kind of grand unification. Though you might not be aware of it, we are quite possibly on the verge of a grand unification of science and faith.
The common presumption these days seems to be that science and faith are somehow intrinsically incompatible with one another. Science rests on empirical evidence, experimentation, and proof. Faith rests on unverifiable (but very real) human intuitions, emotions, and natural law. But I have long argued that they are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. They can, and very often do, coexist peacefully. Those who deny this may want to engage in conversation with any of the the two-thirds of scientists who believe in God. As I have always said, these two disciplines are asking and answering different questions in different ways. We shouldn’t blindly discount either one. Both lead us to greater knowledge and deeper understanding of ourselves and the universe in-which we live.
But while many theists who worship God (in one form or another) and atheists who worship science have been busy condemning each other in the public square, yelling and screaming about how terribly misguided the other must be, a surprising thing has been happening. Much like how the various lines of scientific research into the cosmos are converging, slowly but surely, toward a Grand Unified Theory, we have likewise seen a similar convergence between some of the core doctrines of modern science and modern faith. Today, the leading edge of theoretical physics is looking more and more like what theists of various stripes have been saying all along. Once more we find that honest truth-seekers—even when they approach things in very different ways—tend to end up in nearly the same place.
Consider the basic theistic argument about creation: God [in some form] created the universe. The logical question that the skeptic often asks in response is, ‘Well, then where did God come from?’ This will stump your average theist who, after some thought, might argue from some variation of the ancient Christian doctrine that God always has been, and always will be. He just exists. He is transcendent of the boundaries of our universe (and our comprehension). It is an answer that many atheists, quite understandably, find unconvincing.
But, unconvincing as it may be, skeptics and atheists have been trying to posit an alternative hypothesis for centuries without success. The best and most widely-accepted argument yet put forth is that proposed by leading physicists like the brilliant Stephen Hawking: the very laws of our universe, particularly that of gravity, demand a spontaneous creation from nothing. According to Hawking and fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow, writing in their recent book The Grand Design, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. . . . It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Of course, the thinking theist might then respond with their own obvious question . . . one that sounds very much like the question the atheists have been asking us for so long: ‘Well, then where did gravity come from?’ The answer, again sounding suspiciously familiar, is that gravity always has been, and always will be. It just exists. It is transcendent of the boundaries of our universe. And, like the theistic argument fails to convince the atheist, this atheistic one fails to convince the theist for the very same reason.
Hawking and his allies concede that we are unlikely to be able to observe what existed before or outside of our universe. We will likely never be able to explain creation with the kind of empirical evidence that science usually demands, and as-such we can only make our best, educated guesses based on the things we can observe. But this hypothesis on creation, not unlike my own, expects that there is an invisible force that set everything in motion, holds it all together, and governs it through observable physical laws. Hawking calls it gravity. I call it God. Perhaps we are using two different words to describe the exact same thing.
It is no coincidence that the most ardent theists and the most ardent atheists are now essentially in agreement that there is a force that exists outside of our universe, transcendent of it, and yet leads-to and sustains our existence. It is no accident that we now agree that there was something, however you define it, that existed before all time, and will continue to exist after the end of it. We have been seeking the truth from two diametrically-opposed starting points, using two largely-unrelated techniques and world-views, and yet it would appear that we have all arrived at the same basic conclusion anyway. Only by mutual refusal to use the other side’s phraseology have we been able to continue pretending the other side is ‘wrong.’
The growing parallels between modern faith and modern science don’t end there, if you are willing to look for them and are willing to step beyond your anti-science or anti-religious biases.
Leading physicists and cosmologists now believe that ‘dark matter‘ makes up as much as eighty-three percent of the matter and twenty-three percent of the mass-energy in our universe, and yet it is unobserved (and possibly unobservable). We don’t know what it is, or why it is, but we increasingly believe that it is an essential part of the makeup of our universe. We know of it only through indirect observation—gravitational lensing and complex equations far beyond my meager understanding. Albert Einstein called its sum value the ‘cosmological constant’ and later condemned it as his biggest blunder . . . but it now appears that he was basically correct.
Meanwhile, the cutting-edge of theoretical physics is all tied up in something called M-theory. The yet-unfinished theory, which is a candidate for the aforementioned ‘Theory of Everything,’ posits that our universe is made up of eleven dimensions, although we can only observe four of them: length, width, height, and time. The one-dimensional ‘strings’ that make up the universe vibrate in one or more dimensions to form all of the matter, light, gravity, and energy we see. This theory posits that our universe contains seven ‘invisible’ dimensions. Newer incarnations of the theory also posit a multiverse: the hypothesis that not only is our universe multidimensional, but our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes with an infinite array of structures and laws.
So a quite surprising scientific consensus has emerged: there is almost certainly much more to the universe than what we are able to directly see and observe. There are mysteries to our existence that lie solidly beyond human perception. Where have I heard that before?
Once again, the theists and atheists are saying the same things with different words. I can’t help but laugh when I am condemned for believing in Heaven, Hell, and an invisible God by people who believe in invisible matter and hidden dimensions. We’re saying almost the same thing. We have the exact same amount of [wholly-circumstantial] supporting evidence. If we could stop getting distracted by our different phraseology, we’d find that we’re basically on the same page. Maybe the ‘dark matter’ is God, or some manifestation of God. Maybe the hidden dimensions are where we’ll find Heaven and Hell.
And this is just in the physical sciences. The parallels are just as strong, possibly stronger, in the ‘soft’ sciences. Study after study in the medical and sociological fields find that people who live by the basic natural laws written on our hearts—people who have strong religious beliefs, people who are traditionally and monogamously married, people who embrace rather than repress their fertility—are healthier and happier than those who choose instead to live out-of-sync with natural law. The things of the world don’t make us happy; the transcendent things of faith and morality do.
Again and again and again, we find that universal truth is . . . true. Whether you prefer to base your understanding of it on faith, science, or both, as long as you aren’t letting your biases guide you, sooner or later you will end up in the same place.