Plausible contemporary pantheism?

I’m going to assume that if some kind of contemporary pantheism is plausible, then it has to have more going for it than merely intellectual or emotional support. What I mean is this. If the only reason you have for being a pantheist is that you can’t think of reality except as a single unified thing (intellectual support), or you can’t help feeling that everything is interconnected (emotional support), or both, then you really haven’t got much of a reason. Reality often confounds our intellect and breaks our heart. (That’s what “reality” means.)

In particular, you need some evidentiary or scientific support for your pantheism, probably coming from the direction of physics. And that does not appear to be implausible, at least at first glance.

For some time, physicists have been saying that a Theory of Everything is just around the corner. The latest candidate is string theory, a theory which claims that all the subatomic particles are teeny bands of “string” vibrating in distinctive ways in the quantum foam. If the theory is right, it would explain why the various mathematical constants in the universe have to be exactly as they are, and why there are only so many kinds of quarks and leptons and so on. It would explain everything. (Interesting TED talk about it here.) There are some possible tests that would help confirm the theory, and they are sure to be among the first conducted at the Large Hadron Collider currently being built at CERN.

OK, suppose that all checks out and string theory is strongly corroborated. Now consider three possible postscripts to the confirmation of string theory. They all share the same beginning, and then continue in different ways:

“String theory has been confirmed, and we can write a single equation capable of explaining (in principle) everything we can experience in the universe. And it is a beautiful equation: it is elegant, harmonious, and simple….”

A. “Furthermore, any physicist who contemplates it experiences an intellectual joy equal to anything the greatest art can produce. Indeed, we have done brain scans of musicians listening to the Jupiter Symphony, artists viewing Van Gogh’s sunflowers, monks in meditation, and physicists contemplating the equation, and it seems that the same sort of neurological state accompanies all four experiences.”

B. “Furthermore, any physicist who contemplates it immediately becomes a pantheist. This is because the single equation has an aspect to it that can only be called divine in its simplicity and necessity. The equation is without question a ‘thumbprint’ of a divine creative agency — not necessarily the handiwork of Jehovah, but of something like Spinoza’s one substance or the unity Einstein believed nature to have.”

C. “Furthermore, monks meditating in the temple of Bunchabull are able to intuit the single equation when they meditate upon the divine nature. It seems that the resources of the human soul are in deep unity with the forces animating the physical universe.”

I can’t see anything especially surprising about variant A. Nor would I find variant A any reason to be a pantheist, let alone a theist. It simply means that human brains find a certain range of phenomena super duper cool, even worthy of rapturous poetry. But so what? Monkeys would probably write rapturous poems about the magical mystery of pinwheels if they could.

Variants B and C are both very surprising, but I can’t think of any other sort of variant that would really compel anyone to be a pantheist on the basis of what we discover about the universe. In B, a godlike force needs to be pulled into our understanding of nature; there’s no way to get the physics right without bringing in something divine. In fact, I think Spinoza thought this was true; Einstein, probably not. But while I have assembled the words describing variant B, I can’t really imagine it happening. It sounds a bit like some Far Side cartoon, where the tertagrammaton suddenly pops out of F=ma or something.

In C, we have some real confirmation of the power of meditation, since it can’t be just dumb luck that these monks have hit upon the right equation. They really have a special connection to a special something. Unlike B, C can be distinctly imagined, though it would surprise the hell out of me. Literally. If C happened, I’d be a believer.

Where does that leave us? Barring scenarios B and C, it leaves us with the confession that human beings can find nature’s symmetries and harmonies really, really groovy, and that some human beings are prone to take this grooviness as a divine sign. I can’t see that there is anything more to pantheism than that, whether it’s Spinoza’s or Einstein’s or anyone’s: it’s just a pompous way of saying “I find this so cool I’m calling it ‘God’.”

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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3 Responses to Plausible contemporary pantheism?

  1. ganselmi says:

    At the risk of sounding like a jackass since I have no formal training in physics or cosmology and have only encountered string theory through popularizers a la Brian Green, et al and their increasingly vocal opponents in the “string skeptic” camp – haven’t string theorists failed to provide any empirical proof of their theory after decades of hype?

    Also – and again this is based on encounters with a few popularizers – today’s string theory seems to resemble not an elegant symphony as Green would like to have it, but a cacophony with its 9, 11, or, alternatively, 26 dimensions wrapped around each other into mind-boggling shapes, the possibility of multiple, simultaneously existing universes, and a yet-to-be-completed-but-infinitely-complex-set-of-equations, etc. etc.

    If the collider at CERN were to eventually prove the string theorists correct, then the philosophical implication is less likely to be an affirmation of pantheism than the realization either the universe is even more random and indifferent than we had previously imagined…


  2. Huenemann says:

    Yeah, I agree that string theory seems like a clunky, ad hoc thing. I read Greene’s book a while ago, and concluded that science has gotten to a point where there really isn’t a way to get the key idea across to the intelligent layperson. You could do it with Einstein and Newton, go a good distance with Planck, but not with string theory. Multidimensional spacetime is a kill joy. If there’s elegance in the theory, it seems you need the math to appreciate it.

    It could be that the decades of hype are due simply to the extreme machinery required for a decent test of the theory.


  3. I dunno, explainations that only certain individuals with specific training can understand? Huge constructs housing complicated equipment that only the specially trained can operate? Sounds oddly familiar, like “we’ve been down this path before….”


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