Friday, September 19, 2008

St. Augustine, Meet the LHC

"But how did Spirit get there?"
"It didn't get there, it was always there," said Dawn. "It had to wait, that's all." (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 30)

If you've been won over by the new Story of Everything, you've got to be watching the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, which promises to reveal the secrets of Matter. You're watching it because of Matter's new place. It comes first in the story, "in the beginning," before there's even a thought of Spirit. In the leadoff spot there are daunting responsibilities. Sooner or later, Matter has to bring about consciousness, souls, our innermost being.

One way tellers of the New Story anticipate what's coming is by making Spirit inherent in Matter, even the original Matter:

If "dead" matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing, if not dreadful powers. (Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey)

There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could produce the human molecule. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, A Sketch of a Personalistic Universe)

We might say that the simplest atomic structure, the hydrogen atom, already expresses a radiant intelligibility, a psychic as well as a physical aspect of reality. (Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts)
In this point of view, Spirit is destined to arise out of Matter. It comes after Life, so you'd be correct in calling it Matter's "third stage."

But Matter had to wait--a long, long time--to reach that stage. Which brings to mind the Christian saint Augustine, who lived from 354-430 CE. A teller of the Old Story, but far from a literal interpreter of Genesis, Augustine suggested that living things did not exist when God's creation was complete. Only their seeds were present, including the seed of the human body. In order to germinate, the seeds had to wait for the conditions of earth and water to be just right.

One thing was not seeded in the beginning, however: the human soul. In recognition of the tremendous leap that inner life represents, Augustine required a second creative act on God's part. In their own way, contemporary thinkers honor that same leap. Ken Wilber does when he says that "pure consciousness is not an emergent." And in a backhanded way Stephen Jay Gould does as well. Life, he says, was chemically destined to arise from Matter, but human intelligence was a random fluke. Play the tape of evolution a second time, you wouldn't get us at the end.

Seeds wait. Because Augustine's metaphor is so congenial to the fact of cosmic evolution, I have a suggestion for him. Why not come to Geneva and bring your commentary on Genesis? Shake hands with the folks at the LHC. Show 'em your book. Maybe they'd keep an eye out for your metaphorical seeds while they're picking up those pieces of proton. Maybe they'd shoot the breeze about the potential for Life. Maybe--it would knock your sandals off--they'd even bring up a potential for Spirit.




Greg said...

Much of Christendom has taken for certain the admirable Genesis myths, but in each believer's individual understanding. Augustine traced all humanity's shared guilt to an Original Sin, fresh alive in each new human life. A creative stroke for those
authors. In either case, it was a search for the Why? of mankind's universal propensity for evil "in hoc lachrimarum valle." Today, thanks to the light of evolution and the tools of science, it is possible to surmount ancient and medieval "theologies" and dogmas and look to the origin of our species for the missing rational. We are what we are through nature's naturing. It is our opportunity for realism in
in an otherwise "theological" tangle over the raison d'etre of the problem of evil. It also opens up considerations for the meanings of the words "evil" and "good." Such an avenue of inquiry is not highly likely in a distressingly Bible-whipped culture. We may be the children of our culture as much
as of our parents.

John Kotre said...

Greg, you raise an interesting point in the context of Augustine. I would bring Augustine's own caution regarding literal interpretation to his concept of Original Sin. I would consider it "night language" and then, as you hint, I would check out the evolutionary history of our brain (or brains)for a "day language" correlate. I wrote a bit about this in my blog of July 18, 2008. For more, you can go to the Michael Dowd book that is referenced there.

Dan L said...

Ten years ago a physics major had told me that my knowledge of theoretical physics was dated: I'd studied that in the late eighties. So I re-entered that world and discovered the marvel of String Theory. It has answered
almost all of the fundamental problems that had baffled Quantum Physics and General Relativity. I was most pleased to learn about it.
Yet the articles that you sent made no mention of String Theory.
Nonetheless they did open the discussion to the integration of spirit-matter. Teilhard's vision is being confirmed by experimental physics.

John Kotre said...

For myself, I'm waiting for some evidence, or even the possibility of evidence, regarding String Theory. That goes for multiple universes too. I'm an outsider to physics, and from that perspective these theories appear to be mathematical angels dancing on the head of a pin. With regard to a Story of Everything, I'm a doubting Thomas: I don't want to change it until I know for sure.

Dan L said...

John, there are very many like you who want experimental confirmation of String Theory. Yet the mathematicians have demonstrated that the great simplicity of String Theory resolves the up-til-now insoluble problems of physics. I had been very suspicious of the endless number
of discrete sub-atomic particles that had been discovered. I am
convinced that nature is very simple and thus that the numberless
particles challenged us to discover a simpler hypothesis for the foundations of nature. String Theory appears to be that hypothesis, though it does remain a hypothesis. Nonetheless I rely upon it.

Dick B said...

I was at the lecture given today by Prof Homer Neal regarding the LHC. It was one of the best lectures I’ve heard so far. A lot of his talk dealt with the LHC related work being done by U of M. I got such a better idea of the whole LHC, physical plant wise and organizations (and countries) who are involved. His wide range of knowledge and involvement was impressive. And he seemed so much able to deal with the innards of protons. I wish I had more time to just ask him some questions but I did get one in when I went up afterwards. The question was: “Where do they get the protons to shoot around the accelerator?”. He said oh, you superheat hydrogen and strip the electrons off leaving just the protons which then get squirted out in to the accelerators.

I tried hard to think, while listening to him, of how this would relate to the question of spirit and consciousness. And also the method used of bashing protons together to see what the parts would look like seems to me like a limited way to dissect the particles. Like slamming one rock at another really hard and then checking out the pieces left. Rather uncontrolled. But then it would seem that the chaos of the collisions is so like the chaos of the early universe as it was expanding.

While I was waiting to talk with him a woman ahead of me asked him about any understanding he had about how the small parts which make up the protons may be able to do that because it was compelled to do it as part of life. I’m not sure if that was exactly what she said but he didn’t say much about the life reference but did speak easily about his understanding of how the particles really do work together in such a wonderful way. When I was leaving I got to thinking of what the lady had said so I approached her as we were leaving the building and asked about what she had meant. She said she is a retired English teacher and is driven to find out what is below all of this. She tapped her right foot on the floor as she said that. I think she made some kind of use of the word emptiness. I didn’t learn much more because she was eager to get over to the rest room in the next building. One thing she told me is that she is writing a book called “Hawks”. The big birds. She said the name was something like “Curves in the Sky”. It struck me how those sweeping, swooping, curving flight lines are so utterly determined by the instinct of the Hawks for their survival. It is so like the quantum world.