An Inbetween Universe

Posted on 2012/01/22


Feature Image - An Inbetween Universe

What the Universe Is Like

My first full-time physics teaching job was at a Church of England School in Wigan. The arrangement was mutually appealing for employer and employee: I had just taken some time off to work my second job as a piano player, after having completed a training year in some very (as I was taught to say) ’challenging‘ schools.

I hadn’t considered that teaching physics in a CoE faith school would be troublesome.

Shortly after my arrival, a new headmaster was appointed (with, as far as I know, no causal link). A few weeks into this new regime, the form group I was responsible for were informed of their compulsory attendance at the first speech to be made by the new leader. Schools in Britain call these sorts of events ‘assemblies’.

The theme of the talk: the incomprehensible nature of nature and how this is to be embraced as proof of an all powerful God. I forget his exact words, but this was the synopsis.

On the journey back, some of the students asked for my view – or review – of their most recent lesson. For these types of questions, it has become fashionable for teachers to ‘remain impartial’, and not give an opinion. These teachers often claim to notice that students have impressionable minds, prone to believing any idea spoken by an admired authority figure. And so, they say, it would be wrong to answer a student’s questions in matters of opinion. ‘What do you think?’ is the standard reply in situations such as these, I have been told. Especially so for questions concerning the activities of senior teaching colleagues.

However, I often noticed that the teachers holding these lofty moral considerations were also the ones who generally had very little to say, even concerning their own academic subject. Teachers who follow this tactic ensure they don’t need to have opinions, relieving themselves of much thought. This could be a happy accident, or (as I suspect) a position of necessity.

So, as you might expect, I decided to reply.

Fortunately, I was in possession of some words purpose built for this scenario, arranged in a manner more eloquent than I could achieve. I quoted Einstein – not as an argument from authority (as is often the case), but for his beautiful construction of the sentiment.

After reading Abraham Pais’ intellectual biography of Einstein, I couldn’t help but remember the title, ‘Subtle is the Lord…’, and the full quotation found inside the front cover:

[Einstein's] realism and optimism are illuminated by his remark: ‘Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not’. When asked by a colleague what he meant by that, he replied: ‘Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse’.[1]

In this form, I was able to succinctly communicate everything I wanted to say, while appeasing any Christian bystanders with the word ‘Lord’.

Back home a few hours later, L’esprit de l’escalier was in full flow, despite living in a flat at the time. I remembered Carl Sagan’s comments about the boundaries within which scientific inquiry is possible:

If we lived on a planet where nothing ever changed, there wouldn’t be much to do. There would be nothing to figure out. There would be no impetus for science. And if we lived in an unpredictable world where things changed in random or very complex ways, we wouldn’t be able to figure things out, and again there would be no such thing as science. But we live in an inbetween universe where things change alright, but according to patterns, rules, or as we call them, laws of nature. If I throw a stick up in the air, it always falls down. If the sun sets in the west, it always rises again the next morning in the east. And so it’s possible to figure things out. We can do science and with it we can improve our lives.[2]

What We Are Like

If we consider an evolutionary perspective, the same question can be asked with ourselves as the variable, rather than the Universe.

What is it about humans that gives us the drive to solve problems?

Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, thought it was a consequence of our evolutionary origins:

I assert that every animal is born with expectations or anticipations, which could be framed as hypotheses; a kind of hypothetical knowledge. And I assert that we have, in this sense, some degree of inborn knowledge from which we may begin, even though it may be quite unreliable. This inborn knowledge, these inborn expectations, will, if disappointed, create our first problems; and the ensuing growth of our knowledge may therefore be described as consisting throughout of corrections and modifications of previous knowledge.[3]

All this may be expressed by saying that the growth of our knowledge is the result of a process closely resembling what Dawin called ‘natural selection; that is, the natural selection of hypotheses: … What is peculiar to scientific knowledge is this: that the struggle for existence is made harder by the conscious and systematic criticism of our theories. Thus, while animal knowledge and pre-scientific knowledge grow mainly through the elimination of those holding the unfit hypotheses, scientific criticism often makes our theories perish in our stead, eliminating our mistake beliefs before such beliefs lead to our own elimination.[4]

What Religion Is Like

The rightly-ridiculed dictum ’God moves in a mysterious ways’ originates from the title of a work by the English hymnodist William Cowper. The hymn proceeds to say:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.[5]

Not only is this fatalist in nature, but tries to assert that, despite the seemingly moral indifference of the natural world, God’s creation and interventions are all designed for our well-being. There are many Biblical passages that aim to revel in this mystery:

Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.[6]

This is often judged to be a confession of ignorance. Yet, to assert that you are certain that particular phenomena are beyond comprehension sounds to me like a rather arrogant thing to say. The same type of thinking lies at the heart of any claim to a miracle.

And this sort of thinking is antithetical to scientific inquiry. Considered in this way, it is clear that both the religious and scientific positions are moral positions as well as knowledge claims. Improving our lives with the systematic criticism of our best solutions is at the heart of all our scientific investigation, and should be at the heart of all moral inquiry. For a religionist to deny the comprehension of the world is to reject the possibility of our betterment.

Moral and the scientific questions are inexorably intertwined.


[1] Pais, Abraham (1982) ‘Subtle Is The Lord…’ OUP (inside cover)

[2] Sagan, Carl (1980) ‘Cosmos: A Personal Voyage – Episode 3: Harmonies of the World’ (transcript of the episode is available here)

[3] Popper, Karl (1972) ‘Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach’ OUP [Chapter 7: Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge] pp 258-259

[4] Ibid. p 261

[5] Cowper, William ‘God Moves In A Mysterious Way’ [found in 'Relief Society Song Book' (1919) no. 83]

[6] John 13:7 (King James Version)